Mark Edele reviews 'Stalin, Volume I' by Stephen Kotkin and 'Stalin' by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Mark Edele reviews 'Stalin, Volume I' by Stephen Kotkin and 'Stalin' by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Stalin, Volume I: paradoxes of power, 1878-1928

by Stephen Kotkin

Allen Lane, $59.99 hb, 963 pp, 9780713999440

Stalin: new biography of a dictator

by Oleg V. Khlevniuk and translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

Yale University Press (Footprint), $71 hb, 408 pp, 9780300163889

How dissimilar two books on the same topic can be: one expansive and apparently unconstrained by word limits, the other constrained and economical; one following a simple chronological narrative, the other an admirable adaptation of literary techniques of multi-layered story telling. Both are political books, but the politics are as different as the personalities of the authors. Stephen Kotkin is a professor at Princeton whose fame dates back to his study Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (1995), which argued that ideology needed to be taken more seriously by historians. It inspired an entire school of history writing. For those outside this school, Kotkin became notorious for his scoffing at the archival work of colleagues who had succumbed to the perversion of 'archival fetishism'. Old school leftists tut-tutted at his undisguised neo-liberalism, which saw Stalinism as a somewhat extreme version of the welfare state.

By contrast, Oleg Khlevniuk is a less divisive figure, at least in the West. He has no school, no chair at a prestigious university, no grand theory. A senior research fellow at the Russian State Archive and at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, he is the most accomplished historian of high politics under Stalin. Politically, he battles the rising neo-Stalinism in today's Russia, and he does so by disciplined presentation of evidence. Nobody knows the archives like this humble scholar who, despite his undisputed mastery of the sources, takes pains to acknowledge the work of those who came before him.

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Published in November 2015, no. 376
Mark Edele

Mark Edele

Mark Edele is the inaugural Hansen Chair in History at the University of Melbourne. An Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2015–19), he is the author of Soviet Veterans of the Second World War (2008), Stalinist Society (2011), and Stalin’s Defectors: How Red Army soldiers became Hitler’s collaborators (2017). Shelter from the Holocaust: Rethinking Jewish survival in the Soviet Union, edited with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Atina Grossmann, will be published later this year, and Red Empire: A Short History of the Soviet Union in 2018.

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