What caused Joseph Stalin to become one of history’s most notorious mass murders? Unlike Adolph Hitler, whose victims were anonymous Jews and other “undesirables” whom he did not know, Stalin’s victims included persons from his inner circle, fellow leaders of the Soviet Communist party.
Such is the grisly story related by Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton University professor, in the second volume of a planned trilogy on the Soviet tyrant. Even readers acquainted with Stalin’s blood-stained career will find sickening details that Mr. Kotkin gleaned from previously secret files. His academic work at times is more terrifying than a Stephen King novel.
“Confessions” that the innocent were forced to sign with their own blood. High officials of Stalin’s “inner circle” watching their wives hauled into captivity for non-existent “crimes against the state.” Stalin scrawling “execute” on a list of thousands of “traitors” which he would review (supposedly) in several hours.
Insecurity apparently ruled Stalin’s psyche. The crown of Vladimir Lenin, who brought communism to Russia, rested uneasily on Stalin’s head. Lenin left a written legacy proclaiming Stalin to be his successor, then waffled somewhat in a later oral statement
Thus Stalin spent his first years as dictator with a slippery grasp on power. His solution: destroy contemporaries (even those who were close friends) who might challenge his right to authority.
Once a few thousand murders established his rule, continuation of the terror was reflexive. As Mr. Kotkin writes, “Tyranny has a circular logic: once a dictator has achieved supreme power, he becomes keener still to hold it, driving him to weed his own ranks of even potential challengers.”
Of the 1.58 million persons arrested 1936-1938, 683,000 were victims of extrajudicial killings. To Stalin, “murder was an administrative tool,” Mr. Kotkin writes. He viewed close associates as comprising a “nest of spies.”
One example: Politburo member and longtime friend Nikolai Bukharin closed a note to Stalin, “I really love you, how dearly” Days later he was shot. Another close associate was beaten “until his back was a wound” and then killed.
Even persons responsible for protecting Stalin did not escape his brutality. The NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) begged for its arrest “quotas” to be raised, a demonstration of its loyalty. No matter. Some 20,000 officers were arrested; the 18 top commissars were shot, along with thousands of subordinates.
Next came the military. Of 767 top officers, between 530 and 600 were executed — 8 of 9 admirals; 13 of 17 generals; 3 of 5 marshals. These victims were falsely labeled as “spies” from a variety of nations — Britain, France, Germany, whatever struck Stalin’s fancy.
(At the same time, Stalin was permitting Germany to evade strictures on its military by permitting training and production of war materials in the USSR.)
A reader eventually can only blink at the statistics compiled by Stalin. Consider: in 1937-38 alone, the NKVD arrested 266,039 “spies,” 19,000 in tiny Latvia alone. How many case officers would be required to run so many operatives?
In a surviving document, an associate opines that “Stalin’s suspiciousness reached lunacy.”
Stalin saw the most danger in long-time rival Lev Trotsky, who maintained popularity despite being forced into exile. Hence any person who could be associated with Trotsky — however casual — was shot. (A Soviet assassin killed Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.)
The Stalin described by Mr. Kotkin also made a shambles of the Russian economy. Collective farms caused mass starvation. Industry floundered. Whatever meager chances communism had of succeeding fizzled under his leadership.
Stalin even failed as a spymaster, despite his heavy investment in a foreign intelligence service. Field officers — and they numbered a claimed 3,000 abroad — feared sending information to Moscow that they sensed would upset Stalin.
He ignored even what proved to be accurate intelligence — most strikingly, reports from Richard Sorge, working in the German embassy in Tokyo, of the specific date Hitler would invade Russia. Stalin scrawled an obscenity across one report.
Countless other warnings — even one originating in Washington — were shoved aside. “He labeled as ‘disinformation’ whatever he chose not to believe.”
An unexpectedly tough war with Finland revealed weakness in the Red Army due to Stalin’s decimation of senior officers. And the Germans came within an ace of defeating the USSR once total war erupted.
In a long and challenging read, Mr. Kotkin has produced a masterful work that displays an ability to explore the tortured mind of a madman. Highly recommended.
• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.
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STALIN: WAITING FOR HITLER 1929-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Penguin Press, $40, 1,154 pages