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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: Stalin and Stalinism: 1924–1953

By David M. Durant

Stalin and Stalinism: 1924–1953

In 1922, what was Soviet Russia officially became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. During the course of the 1920s, the USSR was what historian Terry Martin has dubbed the “affirmative action empire” in his seminal 2001 monograph of that name. The Soviet Communist Party actively fostered and encouraged the development of indigenous culture, language, and national consciousness among its various non-Russian peoples. To the Soviet leadership in the 1920s, helping develop non-Russian nationalism was a necessary stage on the road to the communist utopia to come. Plus, it provided a useful weapon that could be wielded against imperialist adversaries such as Great Britain and hostile multinational neighbors such as Poland.

At the end of the 1920s, this “affirmative action” policy, known as korenizatsiia (indigenization), was substantially reversed, and national sentiments were increasingly denounced as “bourgeois nationalism.” By the late 1930s, Moscow saw non-Russian nationalism not as a weapon against others, but as a trojan horse directed at itself. Entire non-Russian ethnic groups, especially those living in border regions such as the Poles and Soviet Koreans, were subjected to mass arrests, executions, and/or deportations.

The man responsible for this change of policy toward non-Russian nationalism was himself a non-Russian. Born in Georgia in 1878 as Ioseb Jughashvili, he eventually became a Bolshevik and adopted the name Josef Stalin. After the Bolsheviks took power, he became head of the Communist Party’s administrative apparatus and, by the late 1920s, had become a virtually unassailable autocrat. Stalin, more than anyone else, made Russia what it is today. He transformed Russian society from being primarily rural to largely urban in nature and made the country a superpower. He did so at a terrible human cost and expanded the already brutal and dictatorial Soviet regime into one of the bloodiest and most repressive despotisms in history.

Few areas of scholarship have benefited as much from the opening of Soviet archives as have the history of Stalin and Stalinism. Among other things, these documents confirm that Stalin was very much a hands-on dictator, firmly in control of decision-making. For example, he personally approved execution lists containing the names of tens of thousands of victims, often adding marginal notes demanding measures be taken against their families. Stalin was also a voracious reader and a diligent editor. He had a large personal library at his disposal, frequently underlining and making notes in books as well as documents submitted for his review.

The essential starting point for any study of Stalin’s life must be Stephen Kotkin’s extensive two-volume biography, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 and Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941. The third volume is forthcoming. While recognizing Stalin’s ruthlessness and paranoia, Kotkin eschews facile psychoanalysis and looks instead at the importance of structural and geopolitical factors that shaped Stalin’s actions. As he summarizes this dynamic, “The problems of the revolution brought out the paranoia in Stalin, and Stalin brought out the paranoia inherent in the revolution” (Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, p. 597). Thus, for Kotkin, “a biography of Stalin … comes to approximate a history of the world.” In his view, the modern world was the result of “a vicious geopolitical competition” in which Russia, like its neighbors, had to modernize in order to keep its rivals from crushing it. In Kotkin’s estimation, this ruthless contest meant that two Germans in particular shaped twentieth-century Russian history. One was Karl Marx. The other was Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck.

As Stalin embarked on his “revolution from above” in 1928–33 and cemented his absolute authority over the party and society in the Great Terror of 1937–38, he was guided by a paranoid vision in which external geopolitical threats merged with domestic unrest and internal party opposition to his policies into a single, all-encompassing menace that had to be ruthlessly crushed. As Kotkin describes Stalin’s motives, “Perceived security imperatives and a need for absolute unity once again turned the quest in Russia to build a strong state into personal rule” (Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, p. 430).

As outlined by David Brandenberger in his work National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, at the same time that Stalin began to suppress forms of non-Russian identity, he also encouraged the rebirth of Russian patriotism and nationalism. Russian rulers and heroes were rehabilitated, and history textbooks revised to show pre-revolutionary Russia in a much more positive light. Stalin himself embraced the legacy of Tsars such as Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, considering himself their successor in terms of modernizing Russia and expanding Russian state power and borders.

At the same time, there were limits on the rebirth of Russian nationalism, and Stalin, based on what scholars have learned, clearly considered himself a faithful Marxist-Leninist. If Stalin preached patriotism, then he preached what scholar Erik van Ree in The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin calls “revolutionary patriotism,” rooted in a belief that communism represented the path to achieving Russia’s modernization and thus survival in a world of hostile capitalist nation-states.

Finally, there are two more books that are useful to anyone seeking to understand Stalin and Stalinism. For those looking for a brief one-volume examination of the Soviet dictator, Russian historian Oleg V. Khlevniuk has penned a superb overview of his life and rule, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator. Scholar Geoffrey Roberts has examined the archival records of Stalin’s book collection and produced a fascinating analysis of them in Stalin’s Library. Confirming the dictator as a committed autodidact, he notes Stalin’s keen interest in works of Marxist theory and analysis, among many other topics. Also included on Stalin’s reading list were the memoirs of Otto von Bismarck.

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