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Regular version of the site

Another Book About Stalin – But This One’s Different

On January 15, HSE welcomed Stephen Kotkin, Professor of History at Princeton University and Associated Senior Research Fellow at HSE’s International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences. Professor Kotkin spoke about his new book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1919-1941 (New York, 2017) to an audience of students, staff, fellow researchers and members of the general public.

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1919-1941, the second book in a series by Professor Kotkin, sets itself apart from the usual Stalin publications. ‘It’s not Stalin and Culture, Stalin Domestically, or Stalin and Foreign Policy. We have quite a lot of books like that already’, he explains. Instead, Professor Kotkin’s book is the history of the world from the point of view of Stalin’s office – it’s everything rolled into one.

Understanding Stalin

The Professor’s approach to understanding both Stalin’s criminality, and his talent, is to understand him as a person. This is something that sets his book apart from so many others. ‘The big problem with Stalin is that he’s evil. Usually, evil figures are belittled by critics, painted to be intellectual mediocrities. But Stalin wasn’t a mediocrity. He wasn’t a genius, but he wasn’t a mediocrity. Unfortunately, Stalin was a very talented person: to get into power and remain in power for three decades doesn’t have anything to do with luck.’

So, who was Stalin? ‘He was very neat. He would unroll cigarettes and stuff the tobacco into his pipe. If some spilled, he would sweep it up himself. He loved colored pencils, and he collected watches – if he saw your watch and liked it, well, that was it – you handed it over, no questions asked. He liked to sleep on the stove, peasant-style. He was a successful student who loved reading.’ His favourite author was Chekhov. According to Professor Kotkin, that was ‘because the villains in Chekov were believable’. All the more reason to understand Stalin as a person – in order to make him believable. ‘I’m not the only author analyzing Stalin as a person’, Kotkin is quick to add. ‘But I don’t use sources that are dubious. If only one person remembered something, I don’t use it. Many anecdotes about Stalin come from only one person.’

Access to information 

Professor Kotkin uses both party and state archives to source his information. The former KGB archives, which he would love to be able to work in, are only open to a very small number of researchers, most of whom are Russian. However, while it’s difficult to access some archives physically, many documents have been declassified and documents continue to be published. Furthermore, they can now be scanned and therefore much more easily accessed than in the past. The professor also sources material from German, British and Japanese archives, which tend to be open to researchers.

However, the biggest challenge, it seems, is not accessing the material, but looking at it all. ‘There’s too much of it,' says Professor Kotkin. ‘There are mountains and mountains of documents that take a long time, if you’re conscientious, to get through.’

Collaboration with HSE

Impressed by the quality of research and teaching at HSE, Professor Kotkin attends as many conferences here as his schedule allows. In the future, he hopes to work more closely with HSE students on their projects and is also keen to host students in the US. ‘HSE is a spectacular place that brings in a lot of young talent. The quality of the professors I interact with is on the absolute highest level, by any world standards.’

This high praise for HSE was returned in equal measures by members of yesterday’s audience. Jessica Werneke, from University of Texas at Austin, has been a research fellow at the World War II Centre since 2016 and attended the seminar. ‘It was great to see such a good turn-out of Russian and international students, professors, and journalists at Professor Kotkin's seminar,’ she said. ‘His participation demonstrates how HSE and the Centre continue to draw the interest of top ranking international scholars. In his lecture, he provided valuable, and often overlooked, insights into how historians should pursue their craft - particularly for biographical projects about infamous historical figures.’

Jessica’s collaboration with the World War II Centre is a perfect example of the Centre’s ability to attract international expertise. Professor Kotkin spoke about how he personally benefits from his own collaboration with the Centre, thanks to this reach. Not only is it able to attract researchers and experts internationally and from the big cities, but it also accesses expertise in the Russian provinces, contributing to the diversity of conferences and publications.

Interest in Russian and Soviet Studies

Ironically, according to Professor Kotkin, interest in Russian and Soviet history declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Access became greater, of course, but the Cold War was over and so people “moved on”. Interest nowadays is still significant, but it’s not at the extremely high level that it was at prior to 1991, when the drop-off began. As an explanation as to why interest in Russian studies has plateaued, the professor says, ‘Interest in China is growing the most in the US. This is a normal consequence of China’s rising importance in the world – it has economic and other dimensions for young people to get enthused about.’  

Certainly, Professor Kotkin is confident that interest in Russian studies in the USA will continue. His plans for future collaboration between HSE World War II Centre and Princeton University are evidence of this.

Stalinism as a Civilization

Professor Kotkin coined the term with his book entitled, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, published in 1995. According to him, Stalinism is still present in modern Russia.

’Stalin is both a cause, and an effect, of history,’ he says. ‘We’re still living with Stalin.’ He goes on to explain that, over the course of history, there have been trends that have changed, but from which certain patterns can still be discerned. Even though there are differences between the Tsarist era, the Soviet era and the Post-Soviet era, there are similarities concerning Russian national identity, Russian international behavior and Russian political organization. These patterns were deepened by Stalin, and eventually became his legacies – both economic and political - many of which have remained.

And herein lies the challenge for the author: where to end Stalin’s biography? Most biographies end when the person dies, but in Stalin’s case, does it make sense to stop in 1953? He has remained incredibly influential after death, namely because of these legacies. Professor Kotkin assures us that a third volume is underway but that it might be a while away.

See also:

Communisation of Death

Mass graves became a reality of the first decades of Soviet Russia: victims of the revolution, famine, epidemics, political repression, the Civil War and World War II were often buried in common rather than individual graves. Over the centuries, Russians had regarded such practice as unusual and rarely acceptable. Soviet power needed to change popular mentality and give a new meaning to mass burials for both ideological and political reasons. Svetlana Malysheva studied this phenomenon.

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