The first volume of a massive biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953).
Authoritative and rigorous in his far-flung research and fresh assertions, Kotkin (History and International Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, 2009, etc.) fashions a life of Stalin against the enormous political upheaval in czarist Russia at the turn of the century, which gave rise to the revolutionary socialist movement fomented in Germany. The author sketches Stalin’s early development as a poor cobbler’s son in the Caucasus town of Gori: Iosif “Soso” Jughashvili evolved into a diligent young man despite parental hostilities, attending seminary in Tiflis and becoming radicalized against the prevailing imperial rot. As the old order exploded in bombs around him, he became a Bolshevik pundit, V.I. Lenin acolyte, Trotsky nemesis and disputed successor. In January 1928, Stalin’s fateful trip to Siberia to begin consolidating his land collectivization scheme would transform—disastrously, it turned out—Soviet Eurasia. Kotkin has no patience with psychological explanations for Stalin’s obsessiveness, thuggery and paranoia—e.g., being beaten as a child or his later humiliation as a rustic “Asiatic” Georgian amid the Russian elite. What Stalin did have was the devotion of his mother and a drive to better himself, despite ill health and accidents that left him with a withered arm and limping gait. Steeped in Marxism thanks to his revolutionary mentor at seminary, “Lado” Ketskhoveli, Stalin quit school, went underground and became a self-styled “enlightener” to the workers, his political ideas solidified by the oppression of the collapsing czarist regime, frequent jailings or internal exile, and adherence to Lenin’s inexorable class war. Stalin’s elevation as Lenin’s “general secretary” in 1922 both spurred Stalin’s own personal dictatorship and aroused alarm—e.g., in Lenin’s disputed deathbed “Testament” urging Stalin’s removal.
Staggeringly wide in scope (note the 100-page bibliography), this work meticulously examines the structural forces that brought down one autocratic regime and put in place another.