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Stalin: the emerging monster

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 - the first volume of a magnificent new biography of the man who made himself dictator of Russia, rebuilt the lost empire, sent tens of millions to their deaths, and launched a half-war that lasted fifty years. See the book at Amazon.com

Stephen Kotkin gives us what is actually a twin biography -- of the man who became Joseph Stalin, and of the country that became the Soviet Union. Stalin wasn't a significant factor in the Bolshevik Revolution, and he was well into his forties when it took place, so the book's opening chapters are less about him than the country he would come to rule. Here are my notes from the Kindle edition:

[The years leading up to 1917:] But this long stretch of time, in which Stalin did little or nothing, was colossally significant for Russia, and indeed the world. [Loc 3088]

Across Europe in 1914, with few exceptions ... politicians, military men, and particularly rulers hankered after territory and standing and believed (or hoped) that war would solve all manner of their international and domestic problems, reinvigorating their rule, at what each believed was, for them, a favorable moment. [Loc 3333]

Of the 3.6 million men under arms in 1914 in democratic France--the only republic among the great powers--fewer than 1 million remained by 1917. Some 2.7 million had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or gone missing. [Loc 3399]

Once the sense of siege set in that the Bolshevik coup had itself precipitated, however, Lenin ceased to uphold the [Paris] Commune as inspirational model, and that episode became solely a cautionary tale about decisively eliminating enemies. And there was no end to enemies. [Loc 5185]

Between November 1917 and January 1918, chunk after chunk of imperial Russia broke off like an iceberg collapsing into the sea--Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. [Loc 5300]

All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, known by its Russian acronym as the Cheka, [Loc 5371]

[Treaty of Brest-Litovsk:] Russia was compelled to renounce 1.3 million square miles of territory--lands more than twice the size of Germany, and lands imperial Russia had spilled blood and treasure to conquer over centuries from Sweden, Poland, the Ottoman empire, and others. The amputation removed a quarter of Russia's population (some 50 million people), a third of its industry, and more than a third of its grain fields. [Loc 5757]

the Czechoslovak Legion seized Chelyabinsk and then one town after another: Penza (May 29), Omsk (June 7), Samara (June 8), Ufa (July 5), Simbirsk (July 22), and so on, until they held the entire Trans-Siberian Railway as well as much of the Volga valley, more than two thirds of the former Russian empire. They conquered more territory than anyone else in the Great War. [Loc 6009]

But the Left SRs lacked something critical: will. Lenin was fanatically committed to seizing and holding power, and his will had proved decisive in the Bolshevik coup, just as its absence now proved decisive in the Left SR non-coup. [Loc 6216]

True believers mixed with opportunists, revolutionary ascetics with swindlers, and together, in the name of social justice and a new world of abudance, they drove ineptitude, corruption, and bluster to heights scarcely known even in tsarist Russia. [Loc 6505]

"These people," Alexander Verkhovsky, tsarist general and Provisional Government war minister, presciently wrote of the Bolsheviks immediately after the October coup, "while promising everything, will give nothing--instead of peace, civil war; instead of bread, famine; instead of freedom, robbery, anarchy and murder." But Verkhovsky soon joined the Red Army. [Loc 6517]

[After 1917,] A single Russia ceased to exist, replaced by a proliferation of states, in which would-be governments rose and fell (Kiev changed hands nineteen times). What knit together the fractured space were the reconstitution of state authority, deep legacies of Russification, ideas, and accompanying intrigues and personal networks. Here we shall see Stalin emerging as the dominant force in the regime, second only to Lenin. [Loc 6558]

The Only War We've Got

Russia's civil war produced a surge of people, institutions, relationships, and radicalism. Inside the whirlwind could be discerned the possibilities of Stalin's future personal dictatorship. [Loc 6563]

[Lazar] Kaganovich, an early admirer of Trotsky, would soon become one of Stalin's most important lieutenants. [Loc 7164]

Lenin hailed the Hungarian revolution, and, on May Day 1919, the Bolsheviks promised that "before the year is out the whole of Europe will be Soviet." [Loc 7241]

Suddenly, "bureaucrats" were everywhere: boorish, spiteful, prevaricating, embezzling, obsessed with crushing rivals and self-aggrandizing. [Loc 7553]

[Marshal Tuchachevsky on the Russian invasion of Poland:] "Capitalist Europe was shaken to its foundations, and but for our strategic errors and our defeat in the field, the Polish War might have become the link between the October Revolution of 1917 and the revolution in Western Europe." [Loc 8431]

As Lenin's health further deteriorated, he spent more and more time at the estate [at Gorki, outside Moscow]: all told, about two-and-a-half of the next five years after his initial visit. Gorki acquired a staff, including the worker-cook Spiridon Putin (grandfather of Vladimir Putin), a large library, and a direct telephone line to Moscow. [Loc 9240]

[The collectivization of Russian agriculture, 1928-30:] What stands out in Stalin's action is not just his desire to launch a socialist transformation of the countryside, which all Bolsheviks expected to see eventually, but the fact that when the gamble met mass resistance and caused unfathomable ruin, Stalin saw it through to completion. No one else in or near the Bolshevik leadership, Trotsky included, could have stayed the course on such a bloody social-engineering escapade on such a scale. The personal dictatorship that Stalin painstakingly built, he would, beginning in January 1928, use to enact a vision of anti-capitalist socialism, utterly transforming and shattering Eurasia. [Loc 9413]

Entente hostility toward Soviet Russia, in other words, no more caused Bolshevik Western antagonism than Entente accommodation would have caused a friendly, hands-off Bolshevik disposition. [Loc 9919]

In fact, ties between the Red Army and the [German] Reichswehr were already intimate and on August 11, 1922, the two countries signed a secret formal agreement on military cooperation. [Loc 9973]

Obviating Versailles restrictions, the German army would obtain secret training facilities for its air and tank forces inside the Soviet Union, in exchange for Soviet access to German military industrial technology, in plants that were to be built on Soviet soil and supply each country's armed forces. [Loc 9974]

Trotsky proved to be less the obstacle to than the instrument of Stalin's aggrandizement. Just as the Bolshevik regime needed the civil war to form a state, so Stalin needed "opposition" to consolidate his personal dictatorship--and he found it. [Loc 11816]

Stalin walked into a golden opportunity to become the orthodox Leninist as well as a household name by battling, and besting, the world-renowned Trotsky. [Loc 11825]

Versailles had imposed severe restrictions on the German military's size, training, weapons production, and even the ability to send military attachés abroad, but the Soviets offered to allow Germany to violate these restrictions. Major German manufacturers (Blohm & Voss, Krupp, Albatrosswerke) were able to build submarines, aircraft, and artillery on Soviet territory, and the Reichswehr obtained secret training facilities. [Loc 12459]

An agreement to open an aviation school was signed April 15, 1925, and ground broken in the Soviet city of Lipetsk (it would go into full operation within two years).215 In August 1925, Reichswehr officers observed Red Army maneuvers for the first time (they arrived disguised as German worker Communists). A group of Red Army officers, disguised as Bulgarians, reciprocated, going to Germany to observe fall maneuvers. [Loc 12489]

delegation to Berlin in spring 1926 seeking a vast expansion of joint German-Soviet production on Soviet territory: tanks, heavy artillery, machine guns, precision optics, field telephones, radios. [Loc 13060]

a compromise emerged: the German-Soviet Neutrality and Non-Aggression Pact of April 24, 1926, also known as the Treaty of Berlin, which affirmed the earlier Rapallo agreement: the two states pledged neutrality in the event one was subject to an unprovoked attack [Loc 13071]

Now Comes Theodora

[Felix] Dzierzynski feared that his criticisms might "play into the hands of those who would take the country to the abyss--Trotsky, Zinoviev, Pyatakov.... If we do not find the correct line and pace of development our opposition will grow and the country will get its dictator, the grave digger of the revolution irrespective of the beautiful feathers on his costume. [Loc 13355]

The German military brass, on the very day that the Manchester Guardian had exposed clandestine German-Soviet cooperation, gave final approval to sign an agreement in Moscow to open a secret joint tank school in Kazan. [Loc 13784]

Unszlicht, in a pessimistic overview, outlined for Stalin all dimensions of the cooperation--the aviation school (Lipetsk), the Tomko (a code name) chemical warfare testing facility (Samara), the Dreise machine guns, the Bersol company's chemical devices, the Junkers airplane concession (Fili), and the tank school (Kazan) [Loc 13786]

"Every comrade, without exception, who has come here for maneuvers or to attend the academies has found the display of the technological innovations of the Germany army very useful," Krestinsky from Berlin argued to Litvinov on January 18, 1927. "What we are offering to the Germans does not cost us anything, because they pay for everything, while there is no problem finding in the depths of the USSR secret locations for their schools and other smaller military establishments." [Loc 13790]

Comintern policy compelled the Chinese Communists to become the junior partner in a coalition with the Guomindang, in order to strengthen the latter's role as a bulwark against "imperialism" (British influence). To that end, beyond creating two parallel, deadly rival parties in forced alliance, Soviet advisers also built a real, disciplined army in China. [Loc 13899]

The Soviets sent perhaps $100,000 annually, a substantial subsidy, to the Chinese Communist party, but more than 10,000,000 rubles annually in military aid to the Guomindang. [Loc 13905]

Stalin held that world revolution needed the supposedly "bourgeois" Guomindang to defeat the warlords and their imperialist paymasters, thereby uniting China, and that the Communists were to enter an alliance with the "revolutionary bourgeoisie," but prepare for eventual independent action at some point. For Stalin, therefore, the Chinese Communist alliance with the Guomindang presupposed betrayal: Communists were to win positions at the base of the joint movement, and then apply leverage, as in mechanics, from the bottom up. This would enable the Chinese Communists to capture the "revolution" from within. Soviet policy called the Communist alliance with the Guomindang a "bloc within." [Loc 13919]

for Stalin, the strong Guomindang army still seemed the best bet for the unification and stability in China. [Loc 13999]

After "mass operations" to confiscate some 20,000 rifles in Chechnya, a similar number in Ingushetia and Ossetia, and more than 12,000 in Karachaevo-Cherskesk and Balkaro-Kabarda, Yevdokimov had written to Yagoda that "the people are armed to the teeth and profoundly dark." The North Caucasus trained a generation of GPU operatives, as well as rank-and-file border guards, in hellacious counterinsurgency techniques against civilians. [Loc 15275]

Those forced into the collectives would burn crops, slaughter animals, and assassinate officials. [Loc 16057]

Countrywide, nearly 40 million people would suffer severe hunger or starvation and between 5 and 7 million people would die in the horrific famine, whose existence the regime denied. "All the dogs have been eaten," one eyewitness would be told in a Ukrainian village. [Loc 16061]

Rykov and others in the politburo had come to see not only a prickly, self-centered, often morose, vindictive person in Stalin, but also an indomitable Communist and leader of inner strength, utterly dedicated to Lenin's ideas, able to carry the entire apparatus, the country, and the cause of the world revolution on his back. [Loc 16201]

Stalin made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth. Right through mass rebellion, mass starvation, cannibalism, the destruction of the country's livestock, and unprecedented political destabilization, Stalin did not flinch. Feints in the form of tactical retreats notwithstanding, he would keep going even when told to his face by officials in the inner regime that a catastrophe was unfolding--full speed ahead to socialism. This required extraordinary maneuvering, browbeating, and violence on his part. It also required deep conviction that it had to be done. Stalin was uncommonly skillful in building an awesome personal dictatorship, but also a bungler, getting fascism wrong, stumbling in foreign policy. But he had will. [Loc 16377]

History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up. [Loc 16382]

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