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.
Even those—that’s for me the tragedy, and I’m saying this as still a radical leftist—even, for example, in films, films which appear to be ruthlessly critical of communism are, in a way, because of this approach too soft in some way. Let me repeat you an old story that I like to use, I hope all of you saw, it got Oscar as best foreign movie, you remember some ten years ago, Leben der Anderen, Life of Others, the guy’s fanatically, because he comes from East Prussian nobility, the director, so he wanted—this is his revenge against the German Democratic Republic. But you remember what’s the story, a well-known East German playwright has a beautiful wife, some obscure minister wants to have—wants to have his wife, so he puts all the Stasi apparatus on him and so on. But and then you have that the main hero is a half personally honest Stasi agent. But wait a minute! The movie is too soft on the regime. The point is to be brutal and say that that in a country like GDR, even if no minister wants to fuck your wife, you would have been under total observation and so on and so on. You know, as if to have this secret police investigation to be its object, there has to be some private vice. And I think this is way too soft.
In the sense you know what Steven Weinberg, the quantum cosmologist, said, I don’t totally agree with it, I feel great respect for Christianity, but there is an element of truth in it when he wrote somewhere that without religion good people would be doing good things and bad people bad things; you need something like religion to make good people do horrible things. That’s the true problem.
The true problem is easy to explain when you have an easy guy, blah blah, for example when I read and I wonder what you will say in your next volume. All those campaigns for collectivization, late twenties, early thirties, there were many let’s call them naively honest, sincere communists who went there and they were trained to disregard bourgeois compassion. That’s for me the true ethical tragedy. When you make a basically good decent guy do horrible things and for this you need I said as you said to focus on politics, as you beautifully said, politics focuses characters. It’s not this absurd psychoanalytic approach where let’s look for some personal trauma to explain it.
The second thing because of which I really enjoyed your book is I noticed how in the tradition of Western Marxism, although of course they are anti-Stalinists, but it always shocked me to what extent, look at all of Frankfurt School up to Habermas, any consistent theory of Stalinism is totally missing. But why? This was for me an enigma. Look, let’s make a mental experiment. You probably know Jürgen Habermas. Imagine your only source of information about post-World War II Germany would have been the work, the texts written by Habermas. Reading all his texts, I doubt that you would ever learn that there were two Germanys. But you learn a lot of fascism and so on. You know what’s the basic insight of Frankfurt School: dialectic of enlightenment, which means horrors of the twentieth century are not simply some remainder but are the product of the immanent antagonisms of modernity. But here Stalinism is much clearer example than fascism. And so why it is missing, so I think Stalinism still for me remains an enigma.
So now let me go to a part of the book which I really enjoyed. I will not ask you about too many details, because I’m an idiot, you know much more, so I would only display my stupidity. There are other ways to do it. What I really like and here I would like to challenge you if you could elaborate things a bit, bit more. In the conclusion, last pages of the book, you address this obvious big question: was the so-called Stalinist system, deeper I hate this terminology, orthodox Marxist, historical necessity with Stalin but if not Stalin then there had been another guy or was it and if to what extent it was something the Stalinist system we know that depended on the contingent fact that Stalin was the one who took over.
Now, on the one hand, I hope you would agree we cannot put everything on Stalin because if nothing else there must have been a certain structure of power so that it was possible for a guy like Stalin to take over in the first place but and then I always distrust this simplistic view shared by some Trotskyists and others that this is the dream at its purest. If only Lenin was to survive three, four years more, made the pact with Trotsky, all totally different. Maybe. But I basically agree with you a lot did depend on the contingency of Stalin’s personality. You describe this wonderfully but nonetheless where would you have set the limit?
I’m asking you what we philosophers call a counterfactual question, you know, like was it I think I’m more of a pessimist and I am the radical leftist here. I think in a way the whole project Bolshevik was at the deeper level doomed from the beginning. I don’t think there was a possibility of something, maybe it would have been a little bit better with Lenin at least in the last years. He was very resigned, you know, he even said, forget about constructing socialism, we should just bring a little bit of Western civilization to Russia and so on. So if I can ask you later some other questions so that I don’t like too much, how would you be more precise—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Maybe I could answer this one.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yes to this one.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Maybe I could answer this one. I don’t know if I can. But I’m going to try. We’ll see.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: And Central Committee, which speaks through me, will tell you if you succeeded or not.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yeah, brings back memories of writing the book.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: So this is a book about ideas. The revelation of the communist archives, the secret of the communist archives is that behind closed doors they spoke the same way to each other when nobody else was listening as they spoke in their public propaganda. They spoke about class warfare, kulaks, rich peasants, finance capital, bourgeois revolution, socialist revolution, privately that’s how they spoke. It turns out the secret archives have shown that the communists behind closed doors were communists. That’s the big revelation, and that turns out to matter. Because if your system is based on the Federalist papers or your system is based upon Marx and Lenin, you’re going to get different outcomes. Not exclusively based upon those things because many factors are at play here: state-to-state relations, geopolitics, the international system.
So Stalin had the idea that small countries that had used to been part of the Russian empire were not sovereign, they didn’t decide their own foreign policy, they were playthings or instruments for the great powers. Poland was independent as a result of the dissolution of the czarist empire. Finland was independent, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, but their independence was not real, because they would be used by the British or later by the Nazi Germans to invade the Soviet Union, to overthrow the Soviet system. So what they called the limitrofa or the near abroad or the borderlands were independent countries on the map but not in Stalin’s mind. And so therefore he sought to prevent those countries from becoming playthings in the hands of the Western powers. So he tried to do coups in those countries, overturn those systems, because that was his way of guaranteeing Soviet security. This is the 1920s already.
Now, if you noticed, President Putin regarding Crimea and Ukraine said that Ukraine is not a real country and the Ukrainian army is the foreign legion of NATO. This is the vocabulary out of the 1920s military intelligence files that were on Stalin’s desk and that he marked with his blue or red pencil. So that’s a big factor, and we can’t explain the Stalin phenomenon, we can’t explain Russia today without the geopolitics and then, of course, there was the fact that they were communists, which means that they were not trying to ameliorate the market, ameliorate capitalism, fix it on the edges, redistribute a little bit of income from the upper to the lower. They were not social democrats who accepted capitalism, private property, and the markets. They were communists. They were there to destroy, eradicate, and as Hegel said, transcend capitalism. It was aufheben, transcendence of capitalism. And they believed this.
It’s clear from the internal documents that yes, Stalin was concerned about power. Yes, his personal power was critically important, but not alone. He was a true believer, like Lenin and like the rest of them. Now, the path wasn’t always straight to the eradication of capitalism. They had to make concessions along the way. But there was no top Bolshevik ever in the 1920s who comes out and says “markets are good, private property is good, capitalism should endure in our system.” They fight about how to eradicate it and when to eradicate it but not about the principle of it. This is very, very important, because we sometimes confuse the communists with the social democrats, who in Germany, for example, who came to accept evolution instead of revolution and came to accept the market and private property, they continued to want to ameliorate the conditions that capitalism caused. But they accepted eventually what we would know as the Swedish social democratic model or the European social democratic model. This was not Lenin and this was not Stalin. They were playing for keeps and that mattered.
But the final point, to answer your question. After you take into account the geopolitics and after you take into account the communist ideas which were real for them, you’re still left with the fact that how did he do this? How did he manage to enslave a hundred million peasants, collectivize agriculture? How did he manage to eradicate markets and private property? The others in the regime didn’t think he could do it and they thought it would be a catastrophe if he tried. And it was a catastrophe, they were correct. The critics of Stalin before he launched collectivization, which is were Volume I ends, predicted disaster and their predictions came true. In fact it was worse than their predictions.
But the thing about Stalin that differentiated him from the others, what made Stalin different was that he did it. He went all the way to the end. Famine, five to seven million dead from starvation. Forty million at least starved but survived. Cannibalism. The regime itself was destabilized. His personal dictatorship was destabilized. He kept going until collectivization was a hundred percent, until capitalism had been eradicated in the countryside. And so this is unusual. I don’t think there was another person inside the regime sharing Stalin’s views on foreign policy, sharing Stalin’s views on communism, I don’t think somebody else could have done this.
And so in a way, Stalin was—it’s never necessary to kill tens of millions of people. It’s never necessary, that’s a criminal act, and progress doesn’t come from murder, especially on the scale that Stalin engaged in. But from the communist point of view, there was no other way to eliminate capitalism, markets, and private property in the countryside. You see, because voluntary collectivization, as of 1928, the year Stalin made his decision, was 1 percent of the arable land. It was only the peasants who couldn’t farm at all who joined the collectives, and they were sixteen households, seventeen households on average, 1 percent of the arable land. There was no voluntary collectivization. There was only coercive collectivization.
But if you believe that capitalism is imperialist war, if you believe that capitalism is wage slavery, if you believe that capitalism is injustice and alienation and all the things that they believed in, you try to overcome, transcend, aufheben of the capitalism. It turned out that the answer was worse than the phenomenon that they were critiquing, Stalinism was worse than the capitalist exploitation, but nonetheless he was able to pull this off, and that’s very unusual. That’s his contribution. His contribution was the willpower inside this system to enact this full-scale state-ization, elimination of markets and private property, which didn’t happen in very many places, and nobody thought it was going to happen here, and Stalin unfortunately saw it through, so in that sense his contribution is colossal.
He couldn’t have done it without the Communist Party, he couldn’t have done it without the ideology, he couldn’t have done it without the state of siege, so-called capitalist encirclement, he couldn’t have done it without millions of young people who wanted to participate in the building of a new world. Many factors played into his ability to do this but I don’t think anybody else in the regime could have managed to go it all the way he did.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Can I do a counterquestion? Now I basically see what you want to say but I’m a little bit perplexed. In what sense? The way you describe it now is just that we have this background of communist ideology shared by all, and Stalin was just going to the end in will and so on. Okay, so let’s play this counterfactual game. Without Stalin or let’s say in ’24 Stalin has a car accident or whatever. What do you think would have happened? Just the same system, maybe a little bit more moderate, not even that? Because—sorry, let me finish.
Another thing that I admire in your book when you describe all those factional struggles, Trotskyists, I’m sorry if there are some Trotskyites here to offend you, is the sheer stupidity of Trotsky. How, you know, how to call it, the ground beneath him was Stalin taking over and Trotsky just arrogantly waiting for the—he really believed in himself, he thought, “let that small stupid Georgian bureaucrat do his job, with one big speech I’m the hero of civil war.” So again what would have happened without Stalin? I know it’s a stupid question, but it has a certain weight I think.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: I don’t think it’s a stupid question at all. I think it’s exactly the right question.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: So what’s your right answer?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yes, not to put me on the spot, but I appreciate that.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I mean, let’s say Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev take over in ’25. Okay, they were on opposite sides, I know.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: So Trotsky is a very talented individual. He’s a great speaker and he is extraordinary, dynamic, charismatic personality. However this was not a speaking job. This was a job for different talent, which was behind-the-scenes intrigue, backstabbing, coalition-building, gaining others to your side, reducing your enemies by dividing them, many talents that he proved not to have in the struggle with Stalin. I’ll also say that Stalin was a better Leninist than Trotsky.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Define Leninism here.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Stalin had flexibility. Lenin was very extreme in his principles. He would not compromise his principles except when he needed to compromise his principles to realize his principles. He was the ultimate pragmatist, flexible in pursuit of the goals that he would never yield on. Trotsky lacked that type of pragmatism and flexibility. Stalin learned it from Lenin. He was Lenin’s pupil, not just in self-styling but actual, in fact. Moreover, Trotsky constantly tried to make himself Lenin’s equal or even Lenin’s better. And so Lenin was the father of the revolution, everybody saw Lenin as on a different plane, but Trotsky would write pamphlets after 1917, after the seizure of power, recalling how he had corrected Lenin when they had had arguments.
And Stalin would write pamphlets instead about how he was Lenin’s pupil, Lenin’s heir, and would faithfully execute everything that Lenin had taught him and taught us all, and this positioning as Lenin’s pupil as opposed to Lenin’s equal or Lenin’s better and this ability to retreat, tactically retreat or go sideways when the frontal path was closed. Stalin learned as I said this kind of tactics from Lenin and therefore, in a way, Stalin was a better Leninist than Trotsky was.
But what would have happened had Stalin died or had there been no Stalin? So the regime as it was in the 1920s was a single-party dictatorship. Industry was owned by the state and in the countryside, where the vast majority of people lived and where the wealth was, the size of the harvest was the main factor in GDP, was a private capitalist system more or less.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: After NEP.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Quasi market, so-called New Economic Policy. From the early 1920s through the late 1920s. There was no New Economic Policy in industry, it was state-owned, so-called commanding heights, only about 10 percent of GDP that was manufacturing was artisan, artisanal production. And there was no political New Economic Policy, because there was a single-party dictatorship and censorship, but there was a quasi market in the countryside, where as I said more than 80 percent of the people lived and where the wealth was produced.
And so there were actually two revolutions—the urban, Bolshevik, communist single-party dictatorship with censorship based upon a vision of an industrial future, and the peasant revolution, which was separate, independent, and too strong for the Bolsheviks, too strong for the communists, that’s why they conceded the New Economic Policy. And all throughout the twenties they were wringing their hands, all right, banging their heads against the wall. What are we going to do about this capitalist-like peasant revolution in the countryside? Are we going to confront it or not? And if we’re going to confront it, how is that even possible, because we have almost no communists in the countryside. The countryside was out of their control. The red flags, the red banners, the slogans, they disappeared right after you left the big cities, they vanished.
And so this problem of the regime’s fate, the revolution’s fate in the 1920s was clear to them all. Now, Stalin built a personal dictatorship within the dictatorship. This was an act of unbelievable skill that the book devotes a great deal of attention to. Now, Stalin was no genius, he made many mistakes. He had no understanding of fascism, for example, which was a big thing to get wrong. So we don’t want to make him out to be better than he was, he was very blinkered. But when it came to building a communist—building a personal dictatorship inside the communist dictatorship, he was very good at that. And that’s what he did, so he had the authority to make decisions that others couldn’t participate in, even, let alone make. So he was controlling the situation with his personal dictatorship, but he didn’t have control over the country, that’s very important.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Through the twenties, throughout the twenties.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Correct. Correct. And so you can imagine without him who’s talented enough to keep the dictatorship together? And you look—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Do you see any potential candidates?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You look inside the Bolshevik regime and you don’t see such talented people at the top. Now of course some people come out of nowhere, right? All of a sudden. They are, I don’t know, in the senate for a day or two and then they are president—right? That happens. So it could be that somebody else could have come up from somewhere in the regime that we underestimate now because they didn’t have that opportunity. But if you look at the actual goings-on in the regime at the time you’d be pessimistic about a figure with that skill level on the inside of the regime. Moreover, the regime couldn’t manage the quasi market. It kept ruining its own New Economic Policy such that the peasants didn’t deliver the grain anymore. And so—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: This is the crisis of when—’28?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: It’s already ’26, ’27, ’28, it wasn’t working anymore.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: And they lost nerves, they tried violent—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: The communist regime in a capitalist world, a capitalist-dominated world, and with a capitalist-like countryside, was a minoritarian regime and it was in trouble. And it looks to me like—of course we’ll never know, but it looks to me like the regime would have collapsed. It looks to me like they would have softened the one-party dictatorship.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: They would have to, they would be forced.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: They would not have been able to hold it together and we would have ended up with either a new crisis that spawned violence and another kind, maybe a military dictatorship, a right-wing dictatorship or a different version of the left, or we would have had themselves conceding and evolving towards a recognition that the capitalist-like countryside was here to stay, and we would have a mixed economy and therefore we would have a mixed polity also. Now the interesting comparison here is contemporary China, Deng Xiaoping.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: That’s what I was going to say, could Bukharin have been a Russian Deng Xiaoping?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Deng Xiaoping conceded the market in the economy but of course held the communist monopoly, which is retained to this day. And so this lesson of retaining central control somehow, but giving up the ideology in the economy is an example that the Chinese have now taught us. Whether this was possible in the 1920s conditions is unclear. The international situation is a factor here, the ability to get loans and international banks or other forms of financing to participate in the world economy was under threat because they had repudiated the czarist loans. The infrastructure was quite poor. There were many factors here including that there was no Deng Xiaoping in the 1920s regime, which is no minor factor.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: You think Bukharin was not strong enough.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Nikolai Bukharin unfortunately was not a significant politician and did not have the skill set necessary to be a leader. Alexei Rykov, who was the number-two person in the regime, he had Lenin’s position. Remember, Lenin was the head of the government, effectively the prime minister, and Rykov inherited that position after Lenin died in January 1924. He was a very powerful, effective manager and a smart politician, and Stalin relied on him to run the economy all throughout the twenties and Rykov was not removed even though Bukharin was removed, Stalin still had to rely on Rykov.
Rykov chaired the Politburo meetings because the head of the government by tradition from Lenin chaired the Politburo meetings. Stalin was the head of the Party but not the head of the government like Rykov was. So Rykov was the number-two person in the regime and he’s the most significant person after Stalin. So I looked very closely at Rykov and his biography, you know, reexamining the original materials on Rykov. And he’s an impressive figure but he’s also a communist. We have the impression because Rykov opposed Stalin’s forced collectivization that maybe he was a little bit pro market, or pro quasi market.
It turns out that Rykov had no special love for the peasants and no special love for capitalism, private property, and the markets. His argument was that it would be catastrophic if we tried to overturn it and so we can’t do that at this time, but at some point we will have to go after the markets, go after private property, and get to socialism, socialism being a stage to communism, right? Feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism. Socialism was not the end point, it’s the intermediate stage. And so unfortunately Rykov was not a person like Deng Xiaoping who accepted the permanent existence of markets and private property. The guy who came closest, and he’s a semihero in the book, was named Girsh Brilliant, Diamond, Girsh Brilliant, and his name is Sokolnikov, remember nobody has their real names, and this is the Russian Revolution, right, Stalin’s name was Dzhugashvili, and Sokolnikov, who was the finance minister, came the closest to accepting the market as a permanent institution, almost on the edge of social democracy, and in fact Sokolnikov came at a Party congress and asked Stalin to resign his post as general secretary.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: When?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: In 1925. December 1925. It was a bold, very courageous speech, it was a speech on principle that no person should have this much power and that there should be democracy inside the Party, not democracy for multiparties, but democracy inside the Party. That was a step at least.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: And when did Sokolnikov disappear in Gulag?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: And Sokolnikov was removed. Stalin removed him reluctantly—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Immediately?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: In January 1926 from finance commissar, but he kept him in the Central Committee, that’s how important Sokolnikov. Sokolnikov invented the currency, he’s the one who made the new economic policy function, relying on the bankers and economists left over from the czarist regime but smart enough to take their advice. Anyway so there were some figures, Bukharin wouldn’t have been one of them, but Rykov and Sokolnikov.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: That’s interesting, yes.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Were the ones that I singled out towards the end, through the book but especially toward the end if Stalin had died. So one could imagine people like that avoiding collapse by reluctantly, grudgingly coming around to accepting the market the way Deng Xiaoping reluctantly grudgingly came around to accepting the market in the late seventies and early eighties, but there’s little evidence that they were prepared to do that in the twenties.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: And even did they have a strong enough base, by base I mean not in people, who cares about that, but in nomenclatura, bureaucracy?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: If Stalin had died, Rykov would have been strong enough to take power, yes, there’s no question, but unfortunately Stalin didn’t die.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Can I go on? I have so many provocative questions. First, one this is where I totally agree with you, it’s extremely important what you said at the beginning. I think that you know you always think they speak jargon. No, fuck it, you go in the back, privately, it’s exactly the same language, it’s totally wrong this vision they were dirty manipulators, it’s something—no, it’s the same.
It reminds me of there is another, I forgot which one sorry, a Spike Lee movie where you have people you know how in the twenties even white performers painted their faces black like Al Jolson and so on, and what happens there is that you have performers painting their faces black. After the end of their performance, they go to their room and wipe the color off and you see the same black face. I like this, this is crucial. Let me go on. Nonetheless I have other things to ask you. Okay, what you said about social democracy and so on. I think just a general remark, I’m sorry, it’s out of order but I cannot resist making it. What is social democracy? How times are changing. Today in Greece we have Syriza, which is in European media decried as leftist lunatics, but if you look closely I know him, he’s my friend Tsipras, what he demands from Europe, it’s something that forty, fifty years ago would not have been even extreme but extremely moderate social democracy. In what sad times do we live that what fifty years, forty ago was an extremely moderate social democracy, now you have to be radical left, if you—sad times, but that’s another point.
Now I go to a little bit defense not really of Bolshevism, I just want to provoke you when you said communism, nations, and so on—but whatever you say about Lenin, that’s my impression, you can correct me, at one point he was sincere in his hatred of big Russian nationalism. He even had I think Lenin a debate with Rosa Luxembourg, I simplify the debate but you can correct me, if I am remembering correctly it went like this, all these small nations, precisely the ones you mentioned, from Poland to Baltic states, they should be given a real choice, if they want to go their own way, full independence, they get it. Now Rosa Luxemburg tried to play a little bit communist trick, she said, “No, no, let’s specify it only if the right guys are in power there, no?” And Lenin correctly said no, whoever is in power there, and he did this, Lenin.
Second thing with Ukraine, now I will say something horrible but from what I know it’s true, you can correct me again if I’m wrong. Isn’t it that under czarist regime Ukraine was not recognized as a nation and so on? There was no—the golden era of Ukraine, golden era not for freedom but in the simple sense of establishing their autonomous, you know, like culture, lexicons, how you call them, grammar and so on. It was the twenties, it was the twenties. So Stalin’s countercoup against Ukrainians, it was basically taking away from them not what they always possessed, even in czarist regime, but what they gained in the twenties. So don’t you think that at least at this point the original Bolsheviks were half sincere, because as you know better than me, even Lenin, his first conflict with some guys from Georgia was precisely how far to go in allowing, don’t you think that there at least Lenin was serious?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Okay, so—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Did I say too much? Hit back.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Lenin was very serious. He played for keeps, he was for real. Unfortunately, Lenin was a very large personality.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: What do you mean by this? Like not Mahatma Gandhi large soul but—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: I don’t think we would have had October seizure of power, Bolshevik coup without Lenin and I don’t think we would have Stalin without Lenin either.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Unfortunately I have to agree with the second part.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: So, you know, on the nationality question. So the revolution happens in Eurasia, it happens in the former Russian empire. So this, of course, is a tremendously difficult proposition. What to do about this? You have a revolution based upon a class principle. The proletariat is the universal class, but then you have all these nations and the proletariat speaks all these languages. So what are you going to do? It turns out that Lenin didn’t really know much about these questions. Lenin was not an expert on nationalities nor on Russia. Lenin didn’t travel much. He never was in Georgia, he didn’t go through Ukraine. Lenin knew Zurich very well. The Dada Café was a few doors down the street from Lenin’s residence in Zurich. He knew Finland a tiny bit and of course he knew—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: London, a tiny little bit.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: He knew Central Russia a little where he was born, and he knew Kazan where he failed to complete his law degree. But Lenin was not a person of Russian Eurasia the way Stalin was. Stalin had significantly deeper knowledge about Russian Eurasia because he was from the periphery of the empire. And he traveled much more widely through the empire than Lenin ever did. Stalin was an exile in Russia and Lenin was an exile in Europe. And many people hold this against Stalin, that he didn’t know Europe, that he was not as smart as Lenin, that he was ignorant, but actually it turned out to be an advantage when they were having a revolution in Russian Eurasia. It was one of the things I hope the book shows, that was an advantage for Stalin in the power struggle.
Now, it’s a very complicated story of how they got the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, what Lenin’s ideas were, what Stalin’s ideas were, whether they differed or not on these questions. These have been very fraught in the literature and they certainly wanted to bring a better Lenin, a more flexible Lenin on this. You compared him to Rosa Luxemburg and she was certainly in complete denial of the importance of nations, in complete denial. Luxemburgism was the extreme on the left, and Lenin was much more flexible, willing to allow, once again, tactical retreats, willing to allow a certain amount of concession to nationalism in pursuit of the larger goal, which of course is world revolution.
Stalin was a little bit more practical than Lenin and they had a fight. Stalin wanted to form a single state. He wanted to fold—what happened was when the Russian empire collapsed in World War I, the revolution, and civil war, these new states or statelets formed. Ukraine, Belorussia, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, they had not existed in the czarist empire. They had been only provinces in the czarist empire. There was no Ukraine in the czarist empire. But the circumstances of the dissolution because of World War I and the revolution produced these states on the map. They were not stable, they were fragile, but they existed.
Stalin’s idea was to fold them all back into Russia and create a unitary state. They would have autonomy, as he called it, in many policies, but they would be part of Soviet Russia, part of Russia once again. Lenin initially agreed to this view, and then Lenin changed his mind and demanded that instead of folding into Russia they would be joined in a union of republics, and Russia and Ukraine and Belorussia and the Caucuses would be equal members of this union. And Stalin said, “That’s unfair. What about the Tatars. Tatarstan is inside Russia already. How come they don’t have the same status as Ukraine, which would become a union republic equal to Russia in the Union of Soviet Socialist—” And they fought, but Lenin was Lenin and so Stalin conceded Lenin’s point, and he formed—Lenin was sick already—Stalin formed the USSR. He did it and it was Lenin’s version of how to deal with revolution in Russian Eurasia.
Well, what happens? 1991 comes along. The Soviet Union dissolves and it dissolves into these Leninist constituent republics. The parts that were folded into Russia are still in Russia, and so this is one of the reasons that Stalin is in good standing these days compared to Lenin, because Lenin was much more responsible than Stalin for the possibility that the Soviet Union could be dissolved into its constituent members because it was made up of constituent members. As the final analyst of the KGB, Nikolai Leonov, has said, the KGB obviously ended formally in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. He said the Soviet Union was like a chocolate bar, like one of those Hershey bars which has the creases in it, and you see the little blocks, and they’re all tied together but you see where the creases are and you break it off and you give some to this person—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Did the KGB analyst use the example of Hershey bar?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yes, this was his metaphor.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Hershey bar, not just chocolate?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Actually, just chocolate bar.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Just chocolate! Too nice to be true. Sorry. Sorry.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You really don’t like to disappoint, but, you know, facts are very stubborn. Sometimes the stories could get better if you were a novelist at the Cullman Center as opposed to a historian.
But anyway so these pieces got broken off and Kazakhstan got a piece of the chocolate bar and Ukraine got a piece of the chocolate bar and you ended up with these union republics being the successor states to the USSR, whereas Tatarstan, as we said, was still—and many others like Tatarstan were inside Russia and remain inside Russia. So in the end the answer to your question is, you know, Lenin had tactical flexibility on the national question but not a difference in principle and his form and Stalin’s form were different and Stalin had to concede or felt he had to concede to Lenin’s form. If you examine the others, Zinoviev was a complete nincompoop on this question—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Complete—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Complete idiot on this question. Kominev followed Stalin, but then when Lenin came out with his view, Kominev and Stalin—So, you know, Lenin he was for real on communist revolution and that meant that if you had to concede something to the ethnic, to the nationalities, to the ethnicities now because later you could overcome that some way, you should do it.
Now let’s remember it was Lenin in 1919, 1920 who forced the invasion of Poland to try to bring Poland back into the fold, to try to retake Poland, reconquer Poland with the Red Army, and Stalin said, you know, “I’m not sure we can do this, it may not work.” And it failed and Poland defeated the Red Army and remained an independent state unfortunately up to the Hitler/Stalin pact, August 1939, September 1939 Hitler invaded one side, Stalin the other. But until that point Poland had won its independence and Stalin was the skeptic. He believed nationalism was for real. It was Stalin in the 1920s who got up at the tenth Party Congress in 1921 and said, “Ukraine is a real nation.” It was Stalin who said that. This is one of the chapters in the book. You know, so history is crazy that way. It turns out that Lenin’s tactical flexibility was a little bit too flexible for those who are ruling Russia today.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Okay, let me provoke you with another friendly aggressive—Nonetheless, you know, Poles like to emphasize this yes, Red Army wanted to crush us in in—but wait a minute, Poles themselves are not so innocent here. Remember that a year before Polish army occupied practically all of Ukraine. What were they doing there?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: They were occupying Ukraine, like you said.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah, that’s what you know.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You’re right.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: So it’s not just innocent Poland oh and then you know.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Interwar Poland was a nasty regime, a very nasty regime, an extremely nasty regime.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: That’s what I wanted to bring out of you, yeah.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Polish history portrays—often portrays Poland solely as a victim. Poland was victimized but they were also perpetrators, there’s no question. I wouldn’t put them on the same plane necessarily with Stalin in this regard. But I would not have wanted to live under the Piłsudski regime in interwar Poland, absolutely not, that was not a friendly, nice regime.
You know but in the long sweep of things, right, you have a problem. Here you have a book that ends in 1928, the decision to collectivize agriculture. And it makes sense. The guy is not psychopathic in his tendencies and behavior yet. They’re arguing about ideas. He’s exercising a lot of power, et cetera, but you can feel like you understand this person. There’s a human being in there. And there are all sorts of complicated questions that would have been complicated for anybody who was ruling Russia at the time. The foreign policy would not have been simple for any kind of regime and the peasant countryside stuff would have been difficult even if you accepted the markets because there were many peculiar aspects to the Russian countryside even under a market economy.
But then, you see, I get into volume II, which covers the period 1929 to 1941 and it’s much harder, you see, because he crashed the plane. The plane was flying fine. There were no mechanical difficulties. All the people on the plane were loyal and he drove it into the Alps just like happened the other day and he smashed it and how do you explain that? How do you explain that Stalin who has so much power already, so much power, he’s already collectivized agriculture, he’s eradicated capitalism. He declares socialism is built in its foundations in 1936.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: By crashing the plane you mean great purges, concerning the Party itself.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: And then everybody starts to be murdered. All the people who were loyal, his closest friends and advisers, people who are the heads of all the factories, the heads of all the collective farms, his diplomats, his foreign intelligence officers, his Red Army officer corps. A hundred and fifty out of 180 division commanders are executed as spies for foreign countries. None of these guys had done anything. They commanded 12,000, 15,000, 20,000 troops. They didn’t cross the border with their troops and betray the country by fleeing. They didn’t march on the capital to try to do a coup. They were loyal and he murdered them. And he murdered not just a few.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I know.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: He murdered big numbers. So we’re talking about the 1920s and it makes so much sense to me, and then I’m thinking, you know, he crashed the plane and where did that come from. Where did that demonic? Where did those demons inside him, those snakes in his head, where did that come from.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Now I will give you a Varoufakis. You know in what sense. I agree with you but here you should also speak to your wonderful principle it’s politics. Don’t bring me in a too simple way personality now. I think this is still in a crazy way that I don’t understand but my gut feeling is the horror of the 1930s it’s still a political process. It’s not simply then demonic personality entered and so on.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: So Hitler doesn’t murder his officer corps. When Hitler wants to remove the highest level officers in the Wehrmacht, he retires them, and he retires them with honors, and he does it in 1938, the year Stalin is cutting through like a scythe his officer corps. And Hitler doesn’t murder his diplomats, and he doesn’t murder his foreign intelligence agents, and he doesn’t murder the Gauleiter or the provincial Nazi officials, and he doesn’t murder the factory bosses. There’s the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Yeah, but that’s the beginning.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Fewer than a hundred people are killed in the Night of the Long Knives. There are execution lists that Stalin signed that have thousands of names on them, with his signature, recognized signature on them, for a single night. And so this becomes a more difficult proposition. How you get from the Stalin who is managing to build a personal dictatorship to the Stalin who’s going to crash the plane onto the side of the mountain when it’s fully functional?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Do you know the book—I like it, I want now from you as the one who knows to tell me am I right or not. Naumov, Getty, The Road to Terror.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yes of course we know that book.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Does it have its weaknesses, or what is your opinion of that book? Because maybe I’m wrong but for me it’s the best book that I know of.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: People are trying to explain the terror as a rational response to conditions that were there that Stalin was trying to overcome. So there was resistance to his directives on the part of local officials and therefore they all were killed. And so I haven’t seen a dictatorship in which there wasn’t resistance, a circumvention, ignoring of decrees from the center. All dictatorships are like that. But not all dictatorships murder their loyal elites. So I’m not sure the Getty/Naumov book really explains what we’ve got here.
Now, having said that, I do agree with you that there’s something about having that kind of power, having life-or-death power over two hundred million people, because that’s what Stalin has by the 1930s. Very few people have ever had power like that before or since, just a tiny handful, and that, of course, is going to affect his personality. But still he’s murdering them and receiving reports that he’s unhinged the economy. There are 138 days in 1937 and ’38 where he gets no foreign intelligence reports. He’s been getting several every day for years and they have his pencil marks on them. A hundred and thirty-eight days blind. No foreign intelligence. He had the best foreign intelligence network the world has ever seen. And after 138 days he doesn’t stop murdering them. This is really perplexing, I gotta tell you. It’s not easy to figure this out.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: No, I totally agree.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: And where this comes from and how this is possible. You know? This is the problem in the Stalin biographies and the Stalin literature. Once you get to this point then you have to find the answer somewhere before, and so you begin to look for things he did when he was younger and blow them up and connect them to this later behavior. “Aha, when he put the cat in the microwave, I knew, I knew right then, that he was going to murder us all.” Aha. And so we have this retrospective finding of these behaviors which weren’t considered that crazy, abnormal, demented, or psychopathic at the time. And I’m very close in following what people said not thirty, forty, fifty years later but at the time.
And so not to go too far with this, but in analyzing evil, in trying to describe evil, and in humanizing evil, because evil is much worse when it’s humanized, then you can really understand it. Historians need explanation. Shakespeare can have Iago and nobody’s there on the dais, “Jeez, you know, Shakespeare, how did he get evil, what was it?” He’s just evil. Evil is just evil, that’s it. That’s just how Iago behaves. And nobody’s asking him questions. Can you please explain this? Can you relate this to his relationship with his mother or, you know, what, did a teacher humiliate Iago in school? What was it? But in history people are expecting explanation for this type of behavior and if the explanation is rooted in politics it could be, but I gotta tell you it didn’t happen in other cases when dictatorial politics were similar so I don’t know how much we can exclude the demonic personality from the explanation. Although we’ll see, I mean Volume II, I’m still putting the final touches on this thing.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: You got it how my friend Stephen did, he began with the book ends perplexed, his answer was you want the answer to the mystery of book one, buy volume two, no? That was the complete story. That was evil. I wanted to tell you a much more serious question now.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You know, I thought I was being subtle. But I wasn’t. I gotta do better.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: More seriously I liked very much what you said about comparing Stalinism and fascism. And I say this again as a radical leftist. It always when people just throw them together into the same category of totalitarianism, I agree there are good reasons for it, but the whole functioning of the system was different. Let’s take the most extreme example of Stalinism, the purges. Why this compulsion to have people, victims accused, publicly admit, confess, you know, Bukharin and so on, confess their sins? You cannot imagine the same thing in Nazi Germany. It would have been meaningless within the Nazi universe to organize a big trial against the Jews where the Jewish leader would confess to their plot against Germany, it’s not a part of their universe.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: What would be the comparison would be Himmler and Heydrich and Goering confessing to being Soviet spies in public and then being executed for that. That would be the equivalent of what happened in Stalin’s—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: But again as you said, that doesn’t happen there.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: It’s unimaginable.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Another thing. I read in Anne Applebaum’s gulag book, even in the darkest terror period up to early fifties when Stalin was still alive, she writes about this, I hope it’s true, I don’t have any other means to check it up, once a year on Stalin’s birthday all the prisoners were collected and had to sign collectively a telegram—gulag prisoners to Stalin, wishing him. You cannot imagine Nazi collecting all the Jews in Auschwitz to send a telegram to Hitler.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: I’ll give you that. You’ve got something there.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Now, my explanation is a very sad one. That’s the perverted remainder of enlightenment. In Stalinism you can be the lowest trash, vermin, shit, but at the same time part of you participates in universal reason, and of course it’s all staged, I know that, but you know the universe of Stalinism is still a crazy universe of again universal enlightenment where even the lowest roadside trash can be forced to participate in this universal true freedom. Nazism is a different universe, but now the last question and then maybe we should admit the fact which I will never admit within myself is that we not alone, that there are other people here.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: That’s big of you.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Do you also agree with me that and again I’m sympathizing still radical leftist but that to understand really Stalinism one has to demystify stop with this especially in cultural circles it’s popular this idolatry of the twenties. Golden era, formalists, futurists, relative freedom, everything. It’s not as simple as that. Especially, you know, some very strange things were going on, which are in their ideological potentials maybe in a way even more ominous than Stalinism. I’ve written about this in my books. You know, the so-called I cannot call it otherwise gnostic Bolshevism. There was a strong movement, Trotsky even subscribed to it. I have quotes where he says, “the next big task of Soviet power is to construct a new man,” and he means it quite literally biologically. A new man who would be much more rational. Ultimately, there was a very strong school in the twenties which even said, claimed, sex is a bourgeois invention, basically. You know, this kind of—
So what I’m saying is that twenties is a period to be rediscovered. We have to stop with this simple idolatry. Only in this way we can understand, strange as this may sound, maybe we’ll agree, the even relative popularity, relative because of his manipulation, of you know when Stalin introduced socialist realism. People were glad finally we will literature with normal suffering, crying people, enough of those stupid formalist experiments, and so on and so on. So I think would you agree a new look is needed upon these glorified twenties?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You know, there was a revolution, and it was real. The revolution was widespread, mass participatory. It was the biggest revolution in world history to date. The Chinese revolution would happen later, obviously. And the belief, the hopes, the utopia, the building of a new world, the idea that the injustice and czarist oppression was severe, the czarist regime was unjust. The revolution was because of very good reasons, and thank God they overthrew the czarist regime. The revolution was fantastic, and it spawned a tremendous amount of dynamism and energy and craziness.
Unfortunately what happens in a revolution is the brilliant ideas don’t take over. What takes over are the institutions. The shards of the old regime become the building blocks of the new regime. Protest movements, massing in the streets, forming communes, chiliastic songs, this doesn’t get you a parliament, an independent judiciary, an impartial civil service, a free and open media space. These have to be built. Institutions have to be built, and instead of building free and open institutions during the 1920s, they build this dictatorship. And it’s on purpose; it’s not an accident. It’s not something circumstances caused. It was something that Lenin wanted. And it was something that Lenin and Stalin and the rest of them were able to implant.
Now, you could argue that they were doing it because they were trying to create a new world, they were trying to overcome the injustices of the old world, and that’s correct, that was their motivation. They were not cynics, they were not just out for personal power. They were not just killing people for the sake of killing people in some type of sadistic orgy. This was a revolution to bring about a new world. The institutions to bring about the new world were in conflict with the goals. The methods and the core ideas of the reigning communists could never bring the freedom and the abundance and the happiness that the revolution had been about.
This is a very tragic story. And the 1920s are very tragic, and Russian history unfortunately is a tragic story. Time and again, you know, they try to build something which is better, and unfortunately they haven’t made it yet but the attempts were sincere although misguided in my view. Now so when you talk about the 1920s the reason the 1920s look like a great period of pluralism and relative freedom is because the 1930s came after that, and if you were alive in the twenties, you weren’t alive in the thirties, and so the twenties was a kind of golden era, so I understand that psychologically. But your point, your point about the 1920s being some open, free society that was going somewhere nice, that’s obviously not true, you’re absolutely correct that that was not the case.
You know, on the gulag question, and we could talk for a long time about this, the forced labor camps or so-called gulag, it’s very interesting because not only did they write the letters to Stalin on his birthday. Actually, most of them didn’t write the letters because somebody was there writing it for them in communist style but they had a New Year’s Eve masquerade, and they would have dancers and they would have theater directors and you know half the Bolshoi troupe was there in the gulag dancing for the fat-fingered, thick-necked gulag commandant and his wife who were in some Arctic Circle but had assembled the talent, and the photographer who took pictures of the evening and then sent it, whether it was the New Year’s Eve masquerade ball or it was the May Day parade or the revolution parade, there were gulag photo albums by the hundreds of these events where the cultural intelligentsia was in the gulag. But there were no orchestras.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: The difference from Auschwitz, where they get orchestra.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You could go to any Nazi camp and you could get an orchestra that would put to shame anything we’ve got here in New York, but you couldn’t do that in the gulag because Stalin loved music too much and he didn’t allow the musicians, especially the vocalists, to be arrested. Instead he wanted them to perform for them.
And so these are the kind—I mean, the personality actually begins to have a stamp on history that is just so large. You go to the gulag archive, which is in a gigantic Corbusier building in Moscow. You go to the secret floor, the formerly secret floor, you go to the back wall where they have the folios and the quartos, because the stuff is too big to put on a regular shelf, and it’s gulag photo albums. You know, “Vorkuta, New Year’s Eve, 1949, prima ballerina,” et cetera, and that’s what the camps looked like. If you’ve got your cultural elite in a labor camp, the revolution didn’t work out. Right? The chiliastic build a new world 1917 revolution, something has gone amiss, right, if this is where you’ve ended up.
Maybe some of these people weren’t that talented, maybe their talent was overrated. Maybe some of the people who served the regime, their talent was underrated. I agree with you on that. Some of the socialist realist paintings are well done. They are. Some of the orchestral music that’s produced is better than the music that was produced in the 1920s or before. And you could go on. Some of the architecture is stirring, effective. You know, so we have to be careful about wonderful culture, evil culture, the dichotomy that you’ve got going on. But the overall trajectory is deeply tragic, fundamentally tragic.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: And I like the term “tragic” here in the sense that—sorry here now my last remainders of communism will come out. I would like to insist on the term “tragic.” As you beautifully said, it was whatever you say, a revolution against czarism a tremendous explosion of hope and it went terribly wrong. This is why, this is another difference between Nazism and Stalinism. You have many dissidents who claim Stalin betrayed communism. I don’t think you have many Nazis who claim Hitler betrayed authentic Nazism or whatever, it’s a different logic.
But to conclude before I hope we give over to them I want to play the last Stalinist trick on you and what? You know, one of the stylistic characteristics of Stalin’s writings—you must know it better than me is that he likes to ask a question and then answer it himself. Like, What are comrades the problems of economy today? Comrades, the problems of economy today are—” So to give you the last chance is there a question that modeling upon the greatest genius of humanity, Stalin, you would like to ask yourself and then answer? Do you have a question like that? Are you ready to live up to Comrade Stalin? Quite seriously. What this means in more normal terms is do you think, do you feel that we missed any crucial point that has to be made?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You know, the question I’d like to ask myself is how did I get on this stage?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: How to get off the stage?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: How did I get here? I was a decent, normal kid.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Off the stage. How to get off the stage? Very simple, nominate me minister of the interior, you are in gulag next day.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: I grew up a regular, lower middle-class, working-class household, and, you know I should have had that kind of life. You know, I came home—
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: But you have that kind of life. You are a professor writing books. You have that kind of life, don’t you?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Yeah, you know, I’m not sure it’s the same kind of life.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: This doubt is part of lower middle class.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Let’s think about this. I came home, it was like first or second grade. And I told my mom that, you know, there was this play and I had a part.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Which play?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: It was a school play, first or second grade, who knows what it was? And I told my mom and she was, “Oh, you’re going to be in a play at school?” And she was just melting with emotion about this and then it dawns on her to ask like what’s the part I’m going to play? And I said, “I’m the Jewish husband,” and she says, “Damn it. I was hoping you were going to get a speaking part.”
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: So as a reaction you write now big fat books to—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: How did I get here? I fell out of the station wagon on the ride to school and bonked my head and now somehow I’m writing three volumes on Stalin, not to be a psychoanalyst. Do we go to audience questions at this point? What’s the protocol? Is there someone from the leadership? Paul? I think.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: The leadership is coming up. What you will do here is you will come up and ask a question, which will be about forty seconds long and which has to be good, so please come up.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: This is bourgeois liberalism. In Stalinist times, you know how you did this? You distribute the questions in advance among the—
STEPHEN KOTKIN: We’ll hear some of those too I hope. Yes, sir.
Q: Mr. Kotkin. You said you tried to write more about history and not just focus on Stalin alone. And so my question is in this vein. A few days ago I read a credo by Isaiah Berlin who tried in this credo to explain how he understands tragedy of twentieth century of all those totalitarian regimes and I wonder if you agree with his explanation. He says that it usually starts as somebody has an idea of how to bring paradise onto earth, then they try building it and it always fails. The cause is that people’s ideals are mutually in conflict. So what do you think about his?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Do you want to try that one, Isaiah Berlin?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: It was addressed to you.
Come on, that’s right up your alley, Isaiah Berlin.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You know, there is something about the twentieth century and these regimes that we hope we don’t see again and that there is a large number of phenomena that come together to produce them. But you know it’s too simple. You see, you have World War I and World War I destroys the old order. Moreover, the generals send millions to their deaths, knowing that they’re maybe going to get a couple of inches, move the trench a little bit farther over.
And this sacrifice of the flower of Europe for a little bit of movement, one trench over to the next trench, this is a lesson for Lenin. Lenin says, “You know, if the old regimes, if the generals are going to kill people for no good reason, at least we can sacrifice people to build a better world than the world that they have.” And so you can’t just pin it on bad people, you can’t just pin it on ideas, even, Lenin. You have a conjuncture. You have a conjuncture which is produced by World War I. A historical conjuncture. And this historical conjuncture makes possible use of violence on a mass scale in everyday politics and it produces Lenin, it produces Mussolini, it produces Hitler, and it produces World War II.
And so you’ve got to talk about the origins of World War I and what World War I does to civilization and political systems and then add in some of the things that Isaiah Berlin is talking about and then you’re kind of off to the races.
You know, Lenin was a hard man, a very hard man, but I’ve gotta tell you, Lenin was a product of imperial Russia. Lenin’s hard line, his deep hard line against freedom was the way he thought you had to battle the fact that there was no freedom, no politics, in imperial Russia. So imperial Russia has a lot to say for producing a guy like Lenin, just as World War I has a lot to say for producing these terrible regimes and these terrible tragedies, you know, so in that sense, the wider history or the context is something that’s laid out in my book and where I try to get to the larger explanation that you’re asking for.
Q: Are there any good worthwhile or illuminating fictional depictions of the Soviet system and if not why are there so few?
STEPHEN KOTKIN: That’s for you for sure.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I will make a provocation and I wonder if you would agree. I always like—you know, I don’t like westerns from the fifties which get psychological, you don’t know who is a good—I like westerns where you know who is good guy, who is bad guy. So I will give you two names to provoke you also, Solzhenitsyn versus Varlam Shalamov. I almost hate Solzhenitsyn for this verbosity, deep moralilzing. If you want to get the raw taste of what gulag is, read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. It think it’s endlessly superior to this endless moralizing of Solzhenitsyn and so on. Again, do Varlam Shalamov.
If you want to get at the roots, the twenties, the potentially, to use your terms, demonic side of the twenties read the one who is and it’s now more and more recognized among my Russian friends, the greatest Soviet Russian author of the twentieth century, Andrei Platonov, his Foundation Pit and so on, there you have. He saw before Stalinism he saw where there is some terrifying nihilistic dimension in it. So I would say these are two of my favorite names in fiction, pure fiction, Andrei Platonov, especially his great novels but also his short stories, there are some wonderful movies even made from them and Varlam Shalamov.
Q: How about Vasily Grossman?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I appreciate, I like him deeply but I’m sorry to tell you this, it will disappoint you. For me he’s way too soft humanist. In his very approach it’s something missing to grasp what you called the truly demonic side of Stalinism. You cannot do it—he was too kind a man. I want to say this in a way. This is not a criticism. You must have like Platonov a certain almost madness in yourself to get it, although again I have a great, almost infinite respectful feeling for Vasily Grossman, but the other more interesting point would have been.
So here I would agree with you, it’s not simply black and white image. Take someone like Sholokhov, yes, the official Soviet guy, but you know that he nonetheless in the early thirties he protested to Stalin against the horrors. He was almost—so you know you have almost official big writers who nonetheless had the minimum of honor so let me end with another provocation. Let’s face it, Quietly Flows the Don is a better novel than Dr. Zhivago. Dr. Zhivago is for me not such a great novel. Pasternak is a wonderful, great poet whatever you want.
You know, one should have the courage to distinguished even among great dissident figures. Like this is my personal taste and we will probably violently disagree, but for me Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva are infinitely superior to Anna Akhmatova, who is an endlessly pretentious bitch. She has this complex, I am the mother of all Russia, I speak for all Russia. Fuck you. Mandelstam is my hero. But that’s my opinion. You’re allowed, temporarily, the two of us we are in the twenties I’m not yet full Stalin, I allow you.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: I think we’ll let your judgment stand. I think we’ll leave it at that.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Does this mean like Lenin on nationality, for the time being strategic retreat?
Q: Hi. I’m actually Georgian.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Oh my God.
Q: Probably the only Georgian in this space.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Are you also—I met a Georgian friend who told me I’m a distant relative unfortunately not of Stalin but of Beria. You have no connection.
Q: Well, my name is [inaudible]. My great-grandfather was executed in 1937 so my connection to the events, but myself I am not much on the right from Luxembourg. My question is you know it was a very historicist discussion and to kind of bring it to a little bit of structuralist points. You elaborated a lot on Stalinism as being related to the kind of a perverted discourse and in this way and especially when you expand on his denial of negation of negation, and real and void, cut.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: You’re talking to me now.
Q: Yeah, yeah. History is beautifully written, it’s very funny to talk about history. You know to bring it Stalinism is maybe not dead, right, like they say fascism is not dead, maybe Stalinism is also not dead so how do you see with this denial of the real, denial of the cut and the void, do you see Stalinism kind of living on in this poststructuralist vitalist illusion BS that we live in in terms of left.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: You know there is a great irony at work in the fact that maybe Fukuyama has won, liberal democracy, but isn’t it the irony that those communists who are still in power but who are not like just lunatics like North Korea and so on and incidentally North Koreans don’t even call them now communists. People didn’t notice it. A couple of years ago North Korea changed their constitution, no mention of communism, just a patriotic military. But what I want to say those communists who are still in power, China, Vietnam, and so on, are more and more appearing as the most efficient managers of global capitalism, you know. Sometimes more efficient than in democracies, and that’s what really worries me, but that’s a topic not for today. Again as I always repeat it, the problem is that for me global capitalism is approaching a stage where maybe it less and less needs democracy. If it needs it, it’s more and more a kind of empty, purely ritualized democracy, so that’s all I can say now not to go into it.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Paul, can we take one more question and I can do some of the slides, I can talk about some of the slides if there’s interest in talking about the slides or no?
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: Is there any sex in the slides? No sex.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You can provide that.
Q: The question will be brief. Now that Stalin gets extreme popularity in the period of Soviet and Bolshevik tyranny and now for example he gathers such a pull that you personally I think wouldn’t be able to create without him. So does it mean that very soon, after the end of Putin’s tyranny, the soft tyranny, we’ll get the new wave of reopening twenties as you call it and the interest to Lenin. Like maybe Russia with human face.
SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK: I would love to see it but I doubt it. But I agree with you that wasn’t there a mega-opinion poll all academics in Russia a couple of years ago the greatest personality of all Russian history and I think Stalin ended third but not with a great distance after the first two. The first was Alexander Nevsky I think but nowhere in sight was Lenin.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: You look very much like Dmitry Bykov, the famous Russian writer.
Q: Thank you very much. I am a great fan of Lenin and I hate Stalin, that’s normal.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Okay. Paul could we have the slides and I could go through them if that would be okay briefly. Could you go a little bit faster so we can get to the start? I don’t know, I won’t do much because let’s see. You can comment also because I think we can see them. All right that one. Unretouched photograph, 1927. The Russo-Japanese war, that’s unfortunately the Russian navy going down. That’s the guy who caused the war in some ways but also got them out of it, Sergei Witte, the first prime minister of Russia. That’s the first parliament meeting. These are all from the glass-plate negatives, that’s Nicholas II on the throne. This guy saved the Russian regime in 1906, the interior minister, Pyotr Durnovo, That’s Stolypin in the white jacket, directly behind Nicholas II, he’s the great prime minister, that’s his dacha, he’s about to be assassinated, unfortunately.
That’s European royalty. That’s the queen. That’s the czarevich, a hemophiliac, they don’t let him down because if he bumps into a tree he’ll die of—that’s Stalin’s father, that’s Stalin’s mother, the other Georgians in the room. That’s Stalin’s birth hovel, before Beria built a gigantic monument over it. That’s the guy who paid for Stalin’s education, he owned the tavern and was the head wrestler in town. That’s the first photograph of Stalin, center middle, he’s about ten, twelve years old, you see the attitude. That’s Stalin in the seminary, second from the left on the top, beardless. That’s the seminary building, neoclassical, that’s where Stalin studied to be a priest. That’s the guy who taught Stalin Marxism, Lado Ketskhoveli, fellow Georgian, he died young. That’s Stalin’s only job, the observatory, he was a weatherman, he went out, took the weather, and went back in.
That’s Stalin’s prison cell, his first major prison cell, unfortunately they let him out. That’s his first wife, who died of disease and that’s Stalin in the corner there, that’s from the Georgian police archive. This is Stalin from the czarist police archive, 1910. This is Sarajevo, there’s the archduke, he’s about to turn and he’s about to be shot in the head, and this is the guy who’s about to shoot him, Princip, Gavrilo Princip, started World War I, helped bring Stalin to power. That’s Stalin’s Siberian—Three years in Siberia during World War I, eight houses, sixty-seven people on the Arctic Circle, that’s him in the back with the hat on in Siberia.
This is the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army who was the right-wing hope in 1917. That’s Aleksandr Kerensky, he blew it big-time. That guy we’ve referred to often, he played for keeps. You can see that. That’s Kshesinskaia, the ballerina, this was Bolshevik headquarters, they evicted her and ruined the furniture. That’s the outside of Kshesinskaia’s mansion across from the Winter Palace, this is where the revolution came from. This is the only photograph of the seizure of power. That’s Lenin at the podium saying that we’ve seized power. That’s Martov, the head of the Mensheviks, he had left the hall at this time already unfortunately. That’s the first Bolshevik government. There’s Lenin, and there’s Stalin with his hand on his face against the wall. Spiridonova, she had the Bolsheviks in July 1918 and let them go she could have murdered them all. This is from Stalin’s personal photo album, that’s his wife Nadya one year before he married her. This is Trotsky all in leather, the civil war hero, the rare photograph that was preserved of Trotsky. This is Sokolnikov, the finance minister that I was referring to in the book. That’s Lazar Kaganovich. This is the guy who took over Mongolia, Ungern-Sternberg and made it the first Soviet satellite.
That’s the civil war, this shows you that the revolution was for real, those bayonets. This is the famine 1921 to 1923 in Volgograd, which is going to be named Stalingrad a few years later. Stalin and Lenin, famous picture only never published because Stalin was looking too much like Napoleon and so they suppressed that photo. This is him in 1923. That’s Lenin you can see the dementia late in life that’s his doctor and his nurse. This is Lenin’s funeral, you can see Stalin in the hat, January 1924. This is the death mask, Lenin’s death mask, it ended up in Stalin’s office, that’s all you needed to know about the succession struggle. This is Stalin’s first book about Lenin, the famous book on Leninism, you can see the iconography of the twenties. That’s Stalin’s office, Old Square #4, the whole right-hand side, that’s the commissariat of foreign affairs, which Stalin controlled. That’s Trotsky’s office. That’s the commissariat of the military, the war commissariat of the navy, right here, the old Alexander Military School. That’s the original secret police building before it was refurbished.
That’s Stalin’s inner secretariat, the people who ran his dictatorship. It looks like a Berkeley commune. That’s the military guys and Stalin. You can see him right here, his left elbow doesn’t move. That’s Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the secret police, he was dying of tuberculosis for many years, that’s his funeral. This is Alexei Rykov, the guy I was talking about, the number two person in the regime. That’s Menjinsky, one of Stalin’s agents in the secret police, painted his fingernails red. Yagoda, another secret policeman, these are all Stalin’s minions inside the regime now. Artuzov the guy who hated Yagoda and Stalin used their animosity against them. This is the guy who faked the first major fake trial. This is Zinoviev, a caricature, how he’s playing with the kulak and the NEP man. This is Kirov, Stalin replaced Zinoviev with Kirov, his closest friends. This is the three musketeers, Mikoyan, Stalin, and Orjonikidze in the Caucuses on holiday retouched. This is Stalin’s apartment, seventeenth-century Boyar residence, the only seventeenth-century residence in the Kremlin, that’s where his wife shot herself. That’s Stalin’s dacha, that’s Stalin’s son, Vasily, and his son’s friend, Artyom. That’s Stalin’s wife, second wife Nadya and that’s little Svetlana. That’s Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first wife. That’s the woman who ran Stalin’s household, Carolina Till and that’s Svetlana’s nanny, Bychkova.
That’s Josef Pilsudski on a visit to Romania. That’s Chiang Kai-shek, he betrayed Stalin and got the better of him in the 1920s but Stalin stuck with him. That’s the Red Army on bicycles, Stalin had no tanks in 1927. That’s Stalin, you can see the charisma standing out in the crowd. This is the military attachés, all the enemies of the Soviet Union, they’re lined up on the May Day Parade. This is Stalin in Siberia when he goes to collectivize agriculture. That’s how he got to the meeting, he got to the meeting in this. He’s going to collectivize a hundred million peasants. That’s the fabricated Shakhty trial, 1928, the fabricated, that’s the announcement of the verdict and the foreign journalists about how these wreckers destroyed industry and that’s the kulak, the leather versus the Bass sandals. That’s Bukharin, caricature of Stalin. So anyway, those are the photos.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I think that just about wraps it up. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN KOTKIN: Okay. Thank you.
[Appeared in New York Public Library on March 31st 2015.]