Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, with Stephen Kotkin (podcast)

[Video version available here.]

Books by

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library Chronicles)

Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

STEPHEN KOTKIN: I think there are a lot of people out there, but I can’t see anyone. Which is fortunate. I get stage fright. I have to thank Jean Strouse again for the year at the Cullman Center. There are many pages of this book that would not be in there had it not been for the New York Public Library’s collection, and I am very grateful. In fact, we were just on a tour of some of the holdings upstairs. Despite working here for thirty years, the curator upstairs, Thomas Lannon, was showing me things I hadn’t ever seen before. The riches here are beyond belief.

I thank Paul Holdengräber, of course. He told me, he let slip many months ago that there was a really big event here, Slavoj Žižek was going to be at the library, and I said, “Gee, it’s going to sell out. Can you get me in?” And Paul kept his word. I am in.

I was asked to say a few words before we started the conversation and so I think I’ll do that. This guy who was very guilty on his deathbed with his wife there wanted to tell her that he had cheated on her. He—the guilt was so great that he just blurted it out. “I don’t know how to tell you this. But while I told you I was late at work . . .” And she said, “Duh. Why do you think I poisoned you?” You know how many middle-aged men go out for milk and never come back? Not enough. Not enough. Do we have time for questions?

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yes. Is your wife here? When you told the milk story?

STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yes, yes, she is. Yes she is here. Or as Joan Rivers liked to say, “You know a man can do what he wants and have as many affairs but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes, she’s a tramp. It’s very unfair. Very unfair.”

Anyway, yes I wrote this book, and I have to thank Scott Moyers, of Penguin Press, because I wrote a book that was almost a book and because of Scott it became an actual book, and I’m extremely grateful for that. Ideal editor. So maybe a couple of words about what I tried to do and then the questions.

So it’s kind of silly to write yet another book about Stalin. Don’t we already know the story? Don’t we already have as many Stalin books as we need? After all, I understand from Tony Marx that there are limits to the storage under Bryant Park and some of us should cease and desist. So there are three ways, I think, that I tried to do something different and whether I succeeded or not we’ll find out. One way was to widen the lens a little bit, to open up to the full sweep of history, Russian history and global history. So this is not a book about Stalin in history, this is actually a book about history or about Russian power in the world and then Stalin’s power in Russia. So for example there’s a full chapter on World War I, but Stalin didn’t do anything in World War I, but without World War I, he could have never gotten anywhere near the seat of power. And so I believe, maybe I’m mistaken, but I believe that the wider view, the big sweep of history, enables us to understand him better.

The second thing I did was to put the politics at the center of the story, so instead of a weird demonic personality that formed maybe in childhood or some other way and that then had an influence on politics, I demonstrate, I hope, that the politics is what formed Stalin’s personality and it was the experience of building a personal dictatorship and exercising power that made him the kind of person he became. And therefore there’s a lot of stuff about him at Party congresses, about him behind the scenes, about him preparing for speeches, about the intrigues he’s engaged in and the ways in which, as I say, this shaped him as a person.

And I think the third thing that I did, or at least I tried to do, was to be very comprehensive and scrupulous in the sources, meaning, take nothing for granted and go back and read everything including the avalanche of new materials that have come out in the last fifteen years. So there are three or four thousand endnotes in Volume I to the primary source original materials, Stalin’s personal archive, KGB archive, military archive, foreign policy archive, et cetera. Many people are working on these materials, I’m not alone obviously in doing this, but I tried to synthesize all the new stuff that’s come out and be very comprehensive, as I said.

So the sort of Russian power in the world story, the politics at the center of Stalin’s life creating the person he became, and then the deep immersion in the primary source materials, I think those are some of the perhaps the distinguishing characteristics of the book. So I could talk further about what I think is in the book, but I think at this point maybe my friend Slavoj Žižek might launch the conversation.

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Thanks very much. First, thanks to all the organizers, Paul and others. Second point, I’m really honored to be here with you because that’s the type of book I think we who are all fascinated by Stalin were waiting. First I would like to begin if I may improvise a little bit with the feature you mentioned at the end, how, yes, we should avoid this I will now use a horrible Marxist term, this bourgeois liberal way of looking for a private secret, some vice, whatever, which explains the political horror. You adopted the right road.

Tell us what you think...