STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

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STALINTrotsky lived on his armor-plated train, which had been thrown together in August 1918… It required two engines and was stocked with weapons, uniforms, felt boots, and rewards for valiant soldiers. The train acquired a printing press (whose equipment occupied two carriages), telegraph station, radio station, electric power station, library, team of agitators, garage with trucks, cars, and petrol tank, track repair unit, bathhouse and secretariat. It also had a twelve-person body-guard detail… Trotsky’s living quarters… had previously belonged to the imperial railroad minister. Conferences were held in the dining car. The men were clad in black leather, head to toe. Trotsky then with jet black hair to go with his blue eyes, wore a collarless military style tunic… While on board, he would issue more than 12,000 orders and write countless articles, many for the train’s newspaper (En Route)… Trotsky’s train would log 65,000 miles, mobilizing, imposing discipline, and boosting morale. It also evolved into an independent military unit (taking part in combat thirteen times) and took on mythic status.

The above chunk of text is taken from Stephen Kotkin’s recently published biography of Stalin. I have quoted it because I am gobsmacked that I have lived to this point in time having never heard tell of Trotsky’s battle train.  His own bloody battle train!

Why a Hollywood style CGI extravaganza directed by Micheal Bay hasn’t been made about Trotsky’s locomotive exploits, is beyond me.

STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER is part one in a three-part biography of Stalin, the original “man of steel”. It seeks to situate Stalin and his apparently inexorable rise from Georgian peasant to Soviet dictator in its proper context.

On completion, the trilogy’s trajectory will span the collapse of Czarist Russia through to the end of World War Two. One certainly can’t fault Mr.Kotkin on the scale of his ambition.

PARADOXES OF POWER covers Stalin’s youth and rise to pre-eminence. In it, Kotkin gives us a portrait of the dictator as a young man. We are told about his childhood, his education in a Tiflis seminary and his gradual emergence as a Bolshevik big shot.

Rather than presenting Stalin’s rise to power as a pre-determined inevitability, as is often the problem in biographies, the author gives us a pan global picture of the broad historical forces at play.

As Kotkin notes, “For a Georgian from small-town Gori… to rise anywhere near the summit of power, and seek to implement Marxist ideas, the whole world had to be brought crashing down. And it was.”

Throughout the book Kotkin efficiently uses information to illustrate global realities; “New production processes boosted world steel production from half a million tons in 1870 to twenty-eight million by 1900. But the United States accounted for ten million; Germany, eight; and Britain, five.”

Telling facts such as the above are lucidly deployed to illustrate the global state of play and provide context to the broader world which Stalin inhabited. Kotkin comprehensively explains the inherent flaws and failing of the Czarist autocratic system which preceded the Bolsheviks rise to power.

Due to its broad perspective the book is useful to those who are new to the subject of Stalin and the emergence of the Soviet Union.

For veterans of the subject, Kotkin’s incisive debunking of some long-held myths will be of interest. A particular bug bear of the author is the notion that Stalin somehow usurped Lenin’s revolution, a claim which he thoroughly refutes.  Kotkin tells  us Beyond the fact that Stalin’s ascendancy inside the regime owed a great deal to Lenin’s actions, the Communist regime had come into being as a result of a coup,and, while claiming to rule in the name of the proletariat, executed those who dared to question the party’s self-assigned monopoly. It was the party that had usurped power.”

Readers who enjoy a spot of historical rubber necking will also be engaged by the parade of eccentrics who appear throughout the book, each worthy of biographies in their own right.

When Rasputin is one the more restrained personalities present you know you’re about to meet some interesting characters.

Take the Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. Descended from German aristocracy who included crusaders in their lineage, and raised on imperial Russia’s Baltic littoral, the baron also held a Manchurian title due to his marriage to a Manchu princess. He boasted that he would one day become emperor of China.

The Baron was “A staunch monarchist and hater of Bolshevism’s sacrileges.” He was also a sadistic opium fiend who commanded a “so-called savage Division of East Siberian Cossacks”.

Using his Cossacks alongside Mongol and Tibetan troops, Sternberg liberated Mongolia from the Chinese and reinstated the Bogd Gegen, “a Living Buddha, third after the Dalai Lama… and the Panchen Lama in the Lamaist Buddhist hierarchy” as Khan of Mongolia.

Hunted by the Red Army, who used his exploits as a pretext to invade Mongolia, Sternberg cut a singular figure, as described  by an eyewitness of his final march,”  The baron, with his head dropped to his chest, silently rode in front of his troops. He had lost his hat and most of his clothes. On his naked chest numerous Mongolian talismans and charms were hanging on a bright yellow cord. He looked like a reincarnation of a prehistoric ape-man”.

On his capture by the Red Army he was tried and pronounced guilty of “working in the interests of the Japanese to create a Central Asian state, trying to restore the Romanovs, torture, anti-Semitism, and atrocities. He denied only the connection with Japanese.”

I have to confess to having become rather obsessed with the monstrous grandiosity of the eccentric baron, a Baltic colonel Kurtz. It seems a definitive biography of him is yet to be written so if any passing biographers stumble upon my blog I beg them to take a moment to consider the Baron as a subject.

The scope of STALIN, PARADOXES OF POWER is breath-taking. The work is evidently a labour of love. I found it to be a exemplary piece of  panoramic scholarship and eagerly await part two.