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Saturday 21 February 2015

Review: Stephen Kotkin - Stalin, Paradoxes of Power 1878 - 1928

Nowadays, I find the decision whether to buy a 949 hardback tome a weighty one: Will it be worth the effort of reading in a semi-reclining position which allows the two or three kilos to be propped up on my stomach? I can see that Kindle is not far off.

I bought it and read the 739 pages of text - the footnotes are in too small print for me. As a youth, I would have read them.

It's a good book. Very long history books can be very dull but Kotkin divides his into chapterettes and cleverly splices a history of Russia into his history of Stalin - of which this is the first of three volumes. Additionally, he is very selective and often chooses to foreground lesser-known episodes from the 1878 - 1928 period he is dealing with. So though I have read the other big books - Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, Sebastian Montefiore - I frequently had the sense of reading things I didn't already know.

A lot of the text is devoted to stories of the leading Bolsheviks fighting like ferrets in a sack which - as Stalin perhaps realised - is no way to run a country (or even a world revolution). Stalin actually emerges as no worse and sometimes better than some of the others, with a clear grasp of central strategic questions. Some lesser known figures, like Sokolnikov, also understood central issues. But there were many at the top who could not get beyond speechifying and plotting and Kotkin lets you see that.

Kotkin raises, in forensic detail,  interesting questions about the authenticity of Lenin's "Testament" which dogged the Bolsheviks after Lenin's death - maybe I had read all this somewhere else but I don't think so. The finger points to Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, putting together things Lenin may have said to her privately before he was incapacitated but which he certainly didn't dictate from his death bed.

What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which the Bolsheviks continued to look to Lenin, like some spiritual leader or Pope, even when he was too ill to lead and when he should have been ignored. They would have done better to look at the country they supposedly led.

The prose does not quite have the verve of Orlando Figes but it's decently written and my interest was sustained all the way through.

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