After Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, totalitarian rulers with purportedly opposing ideologies, signed their 1939 pact to divide up Eastern Europe, one English diplomat remarked that “all the isms have become wasms.” In the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein’s movie Alexander Nevsky, which showed war between Russians and Germans, was withdrawn from theaters, as were all other anti-German or anti-Nazi media. One memoirist recalls a friend lamenting, “Now I’ll never get to see Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator!”

The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental biography of Stalin focuses on three main events from the years 1929 to 1941: the collectivization of agriculture, the Great Terror, and the Hitler–Stalin pact.1 Kotkin devotes some three hundred pages to the diplomacy, negotiations, and ideological contortions leading up to and following the pact. The Nazis immediately invaded Poland from the West, thus initiating World War II, while the Russians took the rest of Poland from the East. Poor Poland! It is well known that Polish officers who fled to the Soviet Union were massacred on Stalin’s orders at Katyn, one of those place names that has become synonymous with treachery and horror. It is less well known that the Soviets arrested and deported to the Gulag one million of eastern Poland’s 13.5 million residents. Soviet interrogators called the truncheons with which they beat anyone arrested “the Polish constitution.”

As the Baltic states also fell under Soviet sway, the Red Army invaded Finland. The official version, believe it or not—and many Western leftists did believe it—was that Finland, with a population of four million, invaded the ussr, with a population of 170 million. The Soviets were armed to the teeth while the Finns didn’t even have an air force. A joke at the time told of the Finns asking the Swedes for tanks and the Swedes responding, “How many do you need? Just one, or all three?”

And yet, the Finns, mounting a defense on skis, managed for an astonishing time to hold off Soviet forces. They also showed great ingenuity—for instance, posting portraits of Stalin on targets so no Soviet soldier would dare shoot at it. Instead of losing their independence, the way the Baltic states did, the Finns just lost a large amount of territory, which the Russians still occupy. In the process they exposed, for all the world to see, the astonishing weakness of an apparently formidable military. Churchill took note. So did Hitler.

In about a year and a half, Stalin arrested some 22,700 officers, concentrating on the highest ranks.

And why was the Soviet army so weak? The reason was the “Great Terror” of 1936–38, to use the designation that Robert Conquest made famous with his classic study by that title. What happened was truly astonishing. In about a year and a half, Stalin arrested some 22,700 (of 144,000) officers, concentrating on the highest ranks: eight of nine admirals, three of five marshals, and thirteen of fifteen full generals.

“What great power has ever executed 90 percent of its top military officers?,” Kotkin asks. And this was happening while Stalin was anticipating a war with Germany, rapidly increasing the size of the army, and spending enormous amounts on military hardware! The accusations against the officers often didn’t even make sense: in one group of nine accused of being Gestapo agents, three were Jews.

The terror was not limited to the army. Industrial managers also suffered, as did Communist Party members. Stalin warned that a traitor with a party card is the most dangerous traitor of all. Almost all intelligence officers abroad were arrested, so that the Soviet spy network had to be rebuilt from scratch. Still more amazing, the million-man nkvd (secret police), which conducted the arrests, tortures, and executions, was itself being subject to the same treatment while it did so! People rushed to denounce each other so as not to be arrested themselves. As Kotkin observes, “this is what a slaughterhouse would sound like if the pigs, cows and sheep could talk.” Of the nkvd Director Genrikh Yagoda’s eighteen commissars of state security—the top ranks—seventeen would be shot. The eighteenth was poisoned. Yagoda himself became a victim, as did his successor Nikolai Yezhov.

The diminutive Yezhov, who was nicknamed the Bloody Dwarf and was a true sadist, had a curved leg and a limp, while suffering from “myasthenia and neurasthenia, anemia, angina, sciatica, psoriasis, and even malnutrition” and other ailments. During the Terror, his teeth began to fall out. He drank until he lost consciousness. One of his buddies (later arrested as a Polish spy) would bring him prostitutes, while another (whom Yezhov’s nkvd also arrested) joined him in farting competitions. In one report, Yezhov claimed to have discovered numerous interlocking conspiracies: one fascist plot in the nkvd, another in the Kremlin, a Polish espionage group, several Trotskyite groups—the list of plots goes on and on until Yezhov concluded: “I have enumerated only the most important.” But the specific charges really didn’t matter, since Stalin set quotas for arrests.

Interrogation virtually always involved torture, followed either by execution or a sentence in the Gulag. Those who knew they were about to be arrested—like Politburo members—often committed suicide to avoid the interrogation. Despite the purges in the nkvd, by 1938 it grew to over a million men.

Of course, Yezhov himself was eventually arrested and replaced by the still more sadistic Lavrenty Beria. When Yezhov’s apartment was searched, it turned out he had preserved as souvenirs the bullet casings with which Zinoviev and Kamenev, two of the original Bolshevik leaders, had been shot. His one regret was that he hadn’t killed more people. He promised he would die with Stalin’s name on his lips.

One of Stalin’s decrees ordered the arrest of wives of traitors, just for being their wives, and in one famous toast he promised to destroy every enemy and also “all his kin, his family.” Other decrees made being late to work punishable by a term in the Gulag and the theft of even a minute amount of grain a capital crime. Any attempt to call such punishments excessive was denounced as “rotten liberalism.”

The tsars were famous as repressive rulers, and their secret police, the Okhrana, inspired fear, but no tsar ever thought of arresting family members. They regarded the Okhrana as a distasteful necessity. Kotkin points out that Alexander Gerasimov, the head of Nicholas II’s secret police, met with the tsar only once, while from January 1937 to August 1938—that is, during the Great Terror—Yezhov met with Stalin 288 times.

More surprising is Kotkin’s comparison of Stalin’s regime with Hitler’s. The two obviously had a lot in common, but their differences were also telling. In Germany, if you were not a Jew or a member of some other targeted group, you did not have to fear arbitrary arrest. There were no quotas to liquidate tens of thousands of people. Because the German economy was not nationalized, the regime did not control living arrangements, jobs, vacations, or daily life. Neither did the Nazi Party have cells in every organization.

Above all, Hitler did not target his loyal elite—in the Nazi Party, intelligence services, or the military—for mass arrests. Regarding Stalin’s purge of the military, Hitler wondered whether the Russian ruler was “diseased in the brain. Otherwise one cannot explain his bloody rule”—Hitler amazed at mass arrests!

“Could Hitler have decimated the Gestapo even while it was carrying out a mass bloodletting?” Kotkin asks. And would the German people have believed that almost everyone who had come to power with the Nazi revolution turned out to be a foreign agent? So many elites, as well as ordinary people, were killed that the Soviets, before the Nazis, used crematoria to handle the mountains of corpses—as if Beria’s article in Pravda, “Turn the Enemies of Socialism to Ashes!,” was taken literally. Believe it or not, more members of the pre-1933 German Communist politburo were killed in the Stalinist Terror than under Hitler.

For Kotkin, this aspect of the regime—its destruction of its own most loyal members—constitutes something unprecedented in world history, and he gropes for reasons. Even if Stalin was afraid of other officials challenging him, he could sack or transfer anyone at will. But not only did he murder them or send them to slave labor camps, but, “in a huge expenditure of state resources, had them tortured to confess . . . not to being corrupt or incompetent, but to plotting to assassinate him and restore capitalism on behalf of foreign powers.”

Kotkin rightly dismisses explanations based on Stalin’s childhood or Georgian upbringing. Stalin’s character surely made a difference, but his character was itself shaped by his experience as a revolutionary and a dictator. As Kotkin notes, absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, it also shapes absolutely. Above all, Bolshevik ideology was crucial. It taught the inevitability of maximal brutality in class warfare and treated anything less—such as refraining from torture—as an impermissible, liberal lapse. For a Bolshevik, there is no such thing as “human values,” only “class values.” Killing millions not only posed no moral dilemma for Stalin; “on the contrary, to pity class enemies would be to indulge sentiment over the laws of objective historical development.”

When Stalin issued arrest quotas, local nkvd directors requested still higher ones, requests that were always granted.

This attitude not only made it impossible for anyone to call for moderation but led to competition in cruelty as a proof of Bolshevik credentials. When Stalin issued arrest quotas, local nkvd directors requested still higher ones, requests that were always granted. A joke circulating among secret police described an agent who shot the wrong people but promised to “correct the mistake.”

The best proof that terror inhered in Bolshevism itself, Kotkin observes, “was the relative ease with which Stalin could foist the bloodbath upon the political police, army, party-state, cultural elites, and indeed the entire country.” He could count on the widespread acceptance of Marxist-Leninist ideology. “It was no accident . . . that a single leader had emerged atop a single-party system that, on the basis of class analysis, denied legitimacy to political opposition.”

However many lives it claimed, the Great Terror was by no means the bloodiest event of Stalin’s rule. That honor belongs to a sequence of events extending from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s, sometimes called “the war on the countryside.” After the revolution, peasants had seized land, become independent, and, in some cases, highly productive. Such a petty-bourgeois state of affairs ran directly contrary to Marxism-Leninism. Like Lenin, Stalin accepted “the vileness of class enemies, the inevitability of violence in revolution, and the value of . . . firmness of will. He was Leninist to the core.”

One can distinguish three phases of the war on the countryside. Dekulakization and collectivization came first, and were followed by a terror-famine. The first paragraph of Robert Conquest’s classic study Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, a 411-page book, explains the difficulty of conveying what happened: “We may perhaps put this [difficulty] in perspective by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter in this book.”

A kulak was supposedly a richer peasant, who was therefore a class enemy and had to be eliminated. In 1929 Stalin proclaimed: “we have gone over from a policy of limiting the exploiting tendencies of the kulak to a policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class,” that is, killing or imprisoning them all. Note how odd this approach is from a Western perspective: a country trying to enrich itself economically decides to destroy all of its most productive agricultural workers! Solzhenitsyn argued that the Soviets practiced natural selection in reverse.

But who precisely, Kotkin asks, was a kulak? The quotas set were so large they inevitably included “poor” and “middle” peasants. In any case, people settled old scores by denouncing each other as kulaks. Peasants who did not want to join the collective farms automatically became kulaks, no matter how poor, as did a peasant showing leadership ability. The designation “kulak henchman” could be applied to anyone. In all, some five million people were “dekulakized.” Some were executed, others deported. Deportation meant first being crowded into cattle cars in conditions leading to countless deaths and then being dropped somewhere in the taiga, where the kulak families had to survive the winter in tents or under the open sky. Most didn’t make it, especially children.

Collectivization, which tied peasants to a collective farm they could not leave and governed every aspect of their life, meant something worse than the serfdom existing in Russia until 1861. As Kotkin explains, collectivization enslaved about one hundred million people. In Kazakhstan, collectivization entailed denomadization—changing a people’s entire way of life—and the result was the death of at least one-fifth of the population, including 35 percent of ethnic Kazakhs. Does that qualify as genocide?

The kulaks turned out to be the lucky ones. The last phase of the war on the countryside, the famine, was engineered after the kulaks had been removed and the peasants were already collectivized. Well-fed, and well-armed, Bolshevik officials—often including idealistic youth from the cities—enforced grain quotas so large that literally nothing was left to feed the peasants or for next year’s seeding. When the peasants could not meet the preposterous quotas, they were accused of hoarding, and so a thorough search was conducted until nothing edible was left. During the winter of 1932–33, millions starved. Famine and famine-caused epidemics took between five and seven million lives, and affected another ten million who “nearly starved to death.” Parents killed one child to feed others, and there were cannibal bands targeting orphans.

Collectivization meant something worse than the serfdom existing in Russia until 1861.

I am utterly dumbfounded by the conclusion Kotkin draws from all this: “The famine was not intentional. It resulted from Stalin’s policies of collectivization-dekulakization.” How could it be unintentional? The mass starvation was well known, the Bolshevik officials enforcing the famine were well-fed, private charity was forbidden, and fishing in the river was not allowed. Piles of grain rotted in front of starving peasants who were prevented from touching the food. Whole villages were blockaded, and peasants were prevented from leaving Ukraine. If they managed to do so and returned with bread, it was seized by border guards. What else is needed to qualify as intent?

Perhaps, I reasoned, Kotkin has not thought through the concept of “intention.” Does he mean that since the purpose of the famine was not to kill peasants but to break their will and make them utterly subservient to the regime, the deaths were just the means to another goal, and so not themselves the intention? By that reasoning, if I torture someone to find out where his valuables are hidden, and then kill him to keep him quiet, the death was not “intentional,” because it was just a means to robbery.

Against the charge of genocide, Kotkin claims that “these actions do not indicate that [Stalin] was trying to exterminate peasants or ethnic Ukrainians” or Kazakhs. The Kazakh deaths happened “not because the regime targeted Kazakhs by ethnicity, but because regime policy there consisted of forced denomadization. Similarly, there was no ‘Ukrainian’ famine; the famine was Soviet.” But if a policy is based on destroying nomads, and a people are almost all nomads, the resulting deaths do seem to be “targeted” at that people.

Contrary to Kotkin, Conquest argues that this was indeed a war against Ukrainians as such. He points out that, at the same time as the famine, Ukrainian peasant bards, the traditional singers of popular ballads, were invited to a congress; when they arrived they were arrested, mostly to be shot. Among the many attacks on Ukrainian cultural figures and institutions, history professors and writers were arrested, as were philologists specializing in the Ukrainian language. The Commissar of Education was denounced as a counter-revolutionary because of his stubborn attempts to prevent the Russification of the Ukrainian language. One charge against him given special emphasis, Conquest notes, was that he “had helped to introduce a soft ‘L’ and a new symbol for hard ‘G’ into Ukrainian orthography,” reforms first criticized as bourgeois and then deemed counter-revolutionary. This all sounds to me as if it was not just coincidence that so many victims of the famine were Ukrainian. If one considers the Kazakh denomadization and the Ukrainian famine together, it appears that the point may have been to destroy whatever gave a particular people its identity or way of life, by killing many and turning the rest into an amorphous Soviet mass.

The event that was used as an excuse for the Great Terror was the assassination of a popular party figure, Sergei Kirov, who was shot by one Leonid Nikolaev. Mysteriously, the guards had been withdrawn from each floor of the building where Kirov worked and his personal bodyguard was absent. Even stranger, Nikolaev had already been caught trying to sneak into the building with a revolver, and had been released! Over the years, one story after another was promulgated, each involving an ever-growing network of spies. Especially in 1937–38, literally millions of people were accused of belonging to branches of a vast conspiracy whose main purpose was killing Kirov. Conquest’s classic book on the topic, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, cautiously concludes that circumstantial evidence points to Stalin as the instigator of Kirov’s killing.

Kotkin, however, states categorically that “there is no evidence whatsoever that Stalin killed Kirov.” Given the amount of circumstantial evidence Conquest assembles, this is simply absurd. “No conclusive evidence” does not mean “no evidence.” Perhaps Kotkin has good reasons for disputing Conquest, but the text omits them. Kotkin simply proclaims his conclusion as an incontestable fact, when, even if correct, it is obviously not incontestable.

This volume of Kotkin’s biography is less readable than the first (Stalin: Volume I, Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, reviewed in these pages in May 2016), in part because the author apparently aims for absolutely strict chronological order. Consequently, readers must constantly switch from one story line to others and back again without losing the threads. We are fascinated by the riveting details and the meticulous, unprecedented use of sources, but even specialists may find the book difficult to read through. In the first volume, Kotkin balanced a wealth of details with explanations of their significance, but here we lose the forest not for the trees, nor even for the branches, but for the twigs (or buds). These flaws notwithstanding, the Kotkin biography is a triumph, necessary reading for anyone hoping to make sense of Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Too often, Western scholars have dismissed Soviet ideology as a smokescreen and sought explanations in terms of the same sort of power dynamics prevalent everywhere. It is an approach that by its very nature cannot come to terms with the radical differences between Soviet and Western politics. Supposedly hard-nosed, it betrays a failure to grasp that other people can think differently from Western scholars. Kotkin does not make this error. Quite the contrary, he stresses the role of ideology. He recognizes that there can be no freedom without markets. And he sees how particular features of Bolshevism—its stress on conspiracy, its division of the world into friends and enemies, its denial of legitimate opposition or any standard of morality apart from the party—made the rise of Stalin anything but accidental. He is correct. If anything, Kotkin could have strengthened his case by mentioning that Marxist-Leninist ideology led to similar results in China, Cambodia, North Korea, and other countries. Whenever I hear Marxist colleagues say that the Soviet Union is an aberration, and that the next Marxist regime will be different, I want to ask why the results have been the same so many times.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many surmised that we had entered a post-ideological age, but today ideology is making a comeback. On campuses, in the press, and in some organizations, the division of people into good or irredeemable is commonplace. Could it be that wasms are again becoming isms?

1Stalin, Volume II: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, by Stephen Kotkin; Penguin, 1,184 pages, $40.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 11
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