Stalin. Vol. 1, Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928

In This Review

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
by Stephen Kotkin
The Penguin Press HC, 2014
976 pp. $40.00
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Kotkin’s biography of Joseph Stalin is already monumental—and this is just the first entry in a planned trilogy. Stalin emerges here as a more vivid and complete figure than he does in countless other biographies. And the history surrounding the Soviet leader, as Kotkin reconstructs it, has a texture and arresting detail lacking in prior studies. The period Kotkin covers spans from Stalin’s birth in 1878 to the eve of Soviet collectivization and Stalin’s consolidation of power, in 1928. Kotkin manages to capture how a figure as larger than life, influential, and twisted as Stalin came to be by expanding the book’s boundaries beyond Russia and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time to include other parts of the world and other historical eras. In so doing, Kotkin reveals how Stalin’s sense of geopolitical strategy and ability to seize opportunities shaped him, defined Russian and Soviet society, and determined international outcomes. Kotkin also shows how prior epochs and historical figures paved the way for the emergence of a person—or perhaps a phenomenon—as outsized as Stalin.