A Riposte to Stephen Kotkin’s ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941’

Feb. 1, 2018

By Raj Sahai

Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin is writing a monumental three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin’s is the latest in a large number of books on Stalin, starting with Isaac Deutscher in 1949. So, why yet another book on Stalin?

Kotkin says Stalin represents a “gold standard” in “personal dictatorship”, and more archival documents are now accessible, so now a definitive biography of Stalin can finally be written. He takes Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky as a model for his own work. Published in 2015, Kotkin’s first volume was titled ‘Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 – 1928’. Volume 2, published in November 2017, is titled ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929 – 1941’.

In this second volume Kotkin describes in great detail the three major developments in this crucial 12-year period: Collectivization of Agriculture 1929-1933; The Great Purge1936-1938; and diplomacy and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact signed in August 1939. Germany invaded U.S.S.R. on the early morning of June 22, 1941.

Imperialists Try to Smother the Socialist Baby

The U.S.S.R. was the first socialist country, emerging from the ruins of the  First World War. It was immediately plunged into a bitter civil war during which armies from fourteen countries occupied the former Russian Empire’s territory in support of the defeated Russian landlords and capitalists. A further humiliation to the fledgling Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty negotiated with Germany in March 1918, obliging it to pay Germany war reparations and to cede a million square miles of territory, with 55 million habitants, to Germany or its sphere of influence, including the breadbasket of Ukraine.

Anti-Communist Kotkin Theses

Unlike historian Isaac Deutscher, who also wrote a biography of Stalin published in 1949, Kotkin is an unabashed anti-communist, who thinks Marxism is “idealism”. So, while Marxism aims for a society free of exploitation and oppression, Kotkin argues, its theory and practices are so blind, that it always ends up in despotism, while “promising heaven on earth”. Kotkin admits that Stalin had a normal childhood, that he was a good student, and that he was a dedicated revolutionary communist and a faithful follower of Marx and Lenin. Kotkin admits Stalin gained power legitimately, because he was a dedicated communist and who worked very hard. Kotkin also admits Stalin led a historic project that greatly improved the material lives of the vast majority of people in the former Russian Empire, won the Second World War, and built an industrial economy. But he claims Stalin, while of iron will, was a paranoid idealist who murdered his fellow Party leaders just for a difference of opinion or not even any reason, killed dedicated innocent cadres, competent and loyal military officers and even loyal policemen – those in the NKVD; all in such large numbers, that he seriously weakened the state he headed – in short, he was a “sociopath”. Kotkin claims Stalin got away with it because the Russian working class too was paranoid.

Kotkin’s book on Stalin is being promoted by the most prominent of U.S. institutions which form the intellectual core of imperialism: the Hoover Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations , and several prestigious universities, where he has delivered many lectures, besides public libraries and book stores. Both of these two volumes have been reviewed by New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and the Guardian (UK), and the reviewers agree Stalin was a “murderous despot”. Kotkin is an engaging speaker – folksy, witty and charming.

The 1154-page second volume contains thousands of references. There are a lot of details and personal anecdotes in the book: what was served at banquets, the wines Stalin liked, which movies he liked and watched dozens of times, his favorite music, his singing and dancing, and his personal life: his relationship with his wife and children.

Stalin’s ghost haunts the U.S. ruling class today, as the specter of Communism did European rulers in 1848. Over the past three decades, the lives of the majority of workers in the US have become increasingly more precarious due to automation and export of industrial jobs to low-wage countries that have reduced industrial well-paid jobs and pushed the workforce towards low-wage, often temporary work. The Presidential election in 2016 showed a significant section of the U.S. population beginning to take a second look at socialism. The other developing trend is white-nationalism –a racist trend which could develop into fascism.

This essay examines Kotkin’s anti-communist theses and his conclusions on this crucial period of Soviet history.

Bourgeois Denial of Class

Kotkin claims Stalin the “dictator” “forced collectivization” on the 120 million peasants to bring the conservative peasant society to modernity. He ridicules the “idealism” of Marxism, in which the “six-cow-owning peasants” (kulaks) were considered capitalists while “three-cow-owning peasants” (mid-level, i.e., family farmers) did not! In doing so, Kotkin claims Stalin sent millions to gulags where he claims a lot of them perished. But Kotkin misses the main point: kulaks exploited landless peasants’ labor – and there were 5 million of them! This leads him into a false narrative, an ugly caricature of reality. But what then is the truth?

Capitalist Sabotage, Civil War and the New Economic Policy

Many Russian industrialists had severely sabotaged their own factories before escaping with their money to Western Europe and the U.S. after the confiscation of their properties following the 1917 revolution. Most well-paid managers and engineers also left the country along with the capitalists to settle in Western Europe and the United States. During the civil war “War Communism” of 1918-21, out of dire necessity, there was enforced collection of grain from the peasants, who were paid in the new Red Ruble, but with which they could not buy many factory products they needed – implements for their work and other consumer products because by 1921, industrial production had plummeted to barely 12 percent of what it was in the pre-World War-I year of 1913. The war with Germany and the civil war following the revolution had caused disruption of agricultural production as well, which further exacerbated the famines that were endemic for centuries throughout the Russian Empire. As a result of these conditions, the workers in the cities were literally starving, as portrayed in Boris Pasternak’s ‘Dr. Zhivago’.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), replacing war-communism was adopted in 1921 by the Bolshevik government to jumpstart the economy that was so severely disrupted by the revolution and the Civil War. It allowed the peasants to sell their surplus grain in the market for profit. The situation improved considerably with the NEP – agriculture and industrial production both revived by 1925. On the other hand, profits from the market trading of grain had enriched and also politically emboldened the Kulaks.

Right and Left Wing Oppositions Failed to Grasp Economic Reality

The kulaks were supported in the press by the Right Opposition: Bukharin, Rykov and trade union leader, Tomskii. Bukharin in 1925 exhorted the peasants to “enrich yourselves”, but only the kulaks had the means to do so – by exploitation of hired labor. The “Left Opposition” (led by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), wanted rapid industrialization sooner and was opposed to NEP after Lenin’s death in 1924. But until there was enough capacity to produce tractors, NEP was a necessity, since heavy industrialization was impossible without imported machinery for which hard cash was needed. By 1927, kulaks began resisting the sale of their surplus grain at fixed prices to the state, which besides feeding the workers machinery damaged by sabotage and build new factories for tractors and other industrial products. However, until the first Five-Year plan was launched in 1928, even though industry was restored to its 1913 capacity, it was still mostly light (consumer) industry. Since credit was generally not available, a much greater agricultural surplus was needed to trade it with foreign countries to buy machinery to build heavy industry , so that the U.S.S.R. could become a modern industrial country like its major capitalist rivals, and escape the subjugation or overthrow of socialism by the imperialist countries.

A Limited Window of Time

Winston Churchill, the conservative later to become the British Prime Minister, aware that Britain had become a debtor nation in trying to contain the popular rebellions in its colonial empire, egged on the U.S. to do the “smothering of the socialist baby”. The U.S. today is a debtor, but in 1918 was a creditor country. But the half-starved workers in socialist Russia led by the Bolsheviks defeated all the occupiers and created a socialist union of Russia and former oppressed nations in 1922, the U.S.S.R., based on Stalin’s ably drafted constitution providing the former oppressed nations a collective veto power over Russia, so the Russian politicians and bureaucrats could not dominate them under socialism as they did under Czarism. The imperialist war had exhausted all of the European capitalist countries. Workers in these countries while too weak to overthrow capitalism, had a soft heart for the U.S.S.R. where workers like themselves were now the new ruling class. The capitalist countries’ workers were also highly organized, so their capitalist leaders were afraid to push them into a new war, fearing it could result in their own ouster as had happened in Russia recently. This window of time was limited so the Party was wise to use it to take advantage of it, but conditions would not allow it before 1929.

Collectivization of Agriculture a Necessity for Industrialization

The redistribution of agricultural land appropriated from the nobility, was a promise to the landless peasants by the Bolsheviks before the revolution, and it was carried out during the Civil War period. This created many more small farmers, reducing the number of landless peasants. But by 1927, the production in food grains was still only 90%[1] of what it was in pre-war year of 1913. Collectivization was the logical answer. In the U.S., collectivization had also taken place, but within a capitalist model: small family farms were decimated leading to the infamous Dust Bowl migration of small family farmers in 1930’s, unable to compete with large scale corporate farms.[2]

Stalin in 1927 argued that for the U.S.S.R. to achieve socialism, collectivization of farm land could be done only on a socialist basis, otherwise developing capitalist agriculture would undermine socialism. Further, socialist style collective agriculture could be carried out on a mass scale only when the modern farm machinery became available on large scale, which became possible by 1930. For Kotkin this collectivization of agricultural lands was unnecessary. He forgets what happened just 13 years earlier, and claims this “unnecessary collectivization mistake” led Stalin then to “murder” all of his opponents in the party in the 1930s, and many even of his strong supporters who could potentially challenge his “personal dictatorship”! Kotkin is absurdly wrong!

Defeat of “Left Opposition”

Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, leaders of the so called “Left Opposition”, prepared a separate platform in 1927, which argued for greater worker benefits. They criticized the Party platform as favoring the kulaks in continuing the NEP – but middle farmers had not fully recovered. Stalin citing Lenin argued that worker-peasant alliance was of strategic importance to building socialism in the U.S.S.R., so ending the NEP at this stage would break the alliance. The oppositionists claimed the workers were with them, not Stalin-led wing of the Party.

The Party responded by providing all party cells in the entire country with copies of the Party platform as well as opposition platform: to study, debate and then vote. Roughly three quarters cast their votes: Oppositionists received 4,000, the Party 724,000 votes. Although completely routed, the Oppositionists did not give up the struggle. They organized a counter-demonstration on the massively attended Tenth Anniversary celebration of revolution, drawing very few workers. This was the last straw in their repeated factionalism, in which they had indulged despite the ban on forming factions that was passed in the 10th Congress in 1921, moved by a frustrated Lenin himself. The oppositionists were thrown out of the Party by the 15th Party Congress in December 1927. Others renounced their “Left” oppositionist views and were readmitted, but Trotsky refused. Consequently, he was exiled first internally to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan and later from the U.S.S.R. to Turkey in 1929.

Collectivization Decision

The collectivization decision was debated vigorously and then voted on and adopted in open sessions of the 15th Party Congress held in December 1927. Right Opposition leaders Rykov, Bukharin and Tomskii then were still prominent party members – in fact, Politburo members in 1927. As such, they had an equal chance to persuade the Congress to vote against collectivization. They did but their arguments were rejected by the Congress. The reason the Party Congress adopted the program of collectivization was because of the validity of Stalin’s arguments, not because of he was a “dictator”.

Party Cadres Support Stalin’s Vision

Kotkin also believes, as did Trotsky and his followers to this day, that the party was filled with those for whom Stalin, “the bureaucrat” did favors as General Secretary, or because he controlled the police or other levers of power. This is not true; it was rather that Stalin was a visionary thinker; he understood that industrialization could not succeed on the scale needed to alleviate poverty, build a socialist society backed by a credible military force without building heavy industry infrastructure and for which, much a greater agricultural surplus was needed. Machine tools could be purchased only from advanced industrialized countries. Industrialization could not be achieved without sufficient number of peasants freed from the small labor -intensive farms to work in the new industry. The Bolshevik Party also knew from Russian history and from experience that failure to rapidly industrialize would result in the defeat of socialism and return to the rule of domestic and foreign landlords and capitalists. Kotkin, blind to real nature of imperialism, can’t see this harsh reality.

Kulaks Political Isolation Prepares the Ground for Collectivization

Bolshevik Party history states “in answer to the kulaks’ refusal to sell their grain surplus to the state at the fixed prices, the Party and the Government adopted a number of emergency measures against the kulaks in 1928. They applied Article 107 of the Criminal Code empowering the courts to confiscate grain surplus from kulaks and NEP profiteers in case they refused to sell them to the state at the fixed prices, and granted the poor peasants a number of privileges, under which 25 per cent of the confiscated kulak grain was placed at their disposal. These emergency measures had their effect: the poorer and middle peasants joined in the resolute fight against the kulaks; the kulaks were isolated, and the resistance of the kulaks and the profiteers was broken.”[3] Collectivization could now begin. Kotkin ignores real history, instead invents one of his own.

Heavy Industrialization and Collectivization Advance

Heavy industry infrastructure construction began in 1928, which began drawing workers from the countryside. Within five years, a new country was emerging on the basis of socialist industrialization and collectivized farming. Workers were enthusiastically building their own future in a country they owned. Industrial workers in the U.S.S.R. were closely connected to the villages from where they came and to which they maintained connection, so their enthusiasm at the success of building the modern industrial plants could not but infect the poor peasants in the countryside with it. One example of this was the giant Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Plant in Chelyabinsk located east of the Ural Mountains, which started construction in 1929 and began producing steel by 1933[4].

In the countryside, poor peasants began to join collective farms voluntarily, which were supplied tractors, money, and counsel by the workers state, improving their working conditions and making their efforts more productive. This reality, easily comprehended by poor Russian peasants who wanted the change in their lives from that of drudgery, poverty, sickness and premature death to that of food security, health care and dignity in a collective effort to achieve it – is beyond comprehension by our bourgeois professor.

During the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930’s, in which the socialist Soviet economy was an exception, there was a retail store cooperative movement in the U.S. The U.S. workers did not own the state, or the economy. What drove U.S. workers to the cooperative movement was the failure of capitalism. Capitalism in the U.S.S.R. had only used the poor peasants to supply food and war conscripts, which had devastated peasant life. Little surprise, then, that they would welcome socialist cooperative agriculture. In 1928 the total crop area of the collective farms in the U.S.S.R. was 1.4 million hectares. By 1929 it grew to 4.3 million hectares, while in 1930 it reached 15 million hectares.[5] This was the beginning of the mass collective movement in Soviet farming, generally all-voluntary, encouraged and supported by the workers state. At this point the Communist Party took the next logical step.

Next Step – Elimination of Kulaks as a Class

At the end of 1929, with the growth of both the collective farms and state farms, the Soviet Government turned sharply from a policy of restricting the kulaks (capping the extent of their wealth, land holdings, labor hiring, etc.) to a policy of eliminating the kulak as a class. It repealed laws on the renting of land and the hiring of labor, thus depriving the kulaks of land and of hired laborers. It lifted the ban on the expropriation of the kulaks. It permitted the poor peasants’ committees to confiscate cattle, farm machinery and other farm property from the kulaks for the benefit of the collective farms.

In 1929, the kulaks comprised less than five percent of the peasant population of the U.S.S.R., but owned a third of the farm animals. Middle peasants (self-employed farmers, owning several farm animals) comprised about twenty percent. The remaining seventy five percent of the peasant population were either the poor peasants (up to one farm animal), unable to survive on their lands’ yields, so performed part-time labor for others, or were landless peasants who worked full-time on the kulak farms.

Poor Peasant Committees, formed in the revolution, now moved to confiscate kulak lands and animals for collectivization, but it was not without a fight put up by the kulaks, who had guns, goons and money on their side. The better off sections of the middle peasants also joined the kulaks, so it was a class-war between the 18 – 20 percent upper crust of the peasantry pitted against the lower around 80 -82 percent. This upper crust of peasants owned more than half of all farm animals, and since they could not sell them, they chose to slaughter their animals and burn their seeds in storage sheds rather than give it to collective farms. For these crimes, 400,000 kulaks and their families, not all of the kulaks, were forcibly moved to work camps, “gulags”, where they suffered in the primitive conditions, and many died. But these were work-camps, not concentration camps, in which the Nazis killed people deliberately.

For the kulak families, Kotkin has a lot of sympathy, but the suffering and early deaths of the half-starved poor peasants prior to the collectivization was something “natural”, so it goes unnoticed by him. For Kotkin, the capture of the state by the Russian workers was not a revolution but a “coup”. Little surprise then that he sees the collectivization as “enslavement” of the entire peasantry, while in reality it was the liberation of over 80% of the peasants from hunger, deprivation, back-breaking dawn-to-dusk work; and a chance to advance themselves to literacy, education and thus to civilization.

Collectivization Ended Famines and Facilitated Industrialization

Finally, according to Kotkin, collectivization of agriculture did not significantly advance productivity. That claim also is false. Although the disruptions to agriculture caused by the Second Civil War that collectivization generated, as the kulaks resisted expropriation, food production did suffer, yet on the whole and in any case within 4 years, it was more than made up and it went on to create significant grain surpluses. In Ukraine and in part of Belarus, the famine of 1932 was largely, if not entirely, the result of climate conditions.[6] The government took active steps to alleviate it. By 1934, the situation had returned to normal and after that no famines occurred except in 1946, which was a result of the war destruction.

How else can anyone explain the huge amounts of grains sold to Germany in the mid-1930s up until the first half of 1941, in trade for large purchases of machinery that Kotkin himself records in his book? Kotkin writes that even up to the day of attack, June 22, 1941, “A little after midnight, a train carrying Soviet oil, manganese, and grain crossed the frontier into Greater Germany, its passage observed by waiting German divisions[7]. In fact, the Nazi invaders’ humiliating defeat was due to the rapid industrialization of the U.S.S.R., which in turn was made possible by the collectivized agriculture.

In the plenary meeting of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission of the Party, held in January 1933, Stalin reviewed the results of the First Five-Year Plan. The report stated, that the collective farm system had put an end to poverty and want in the countryside, and tens of millions of poor peasants had risen to a level of material security.[8] By June 1941, when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R., the USSR had become a predominantly industrial economy and famines had become history. Kotkin attempts to make this great achievement of socialism into its opposite.

The Great Purge

According to Kotkin, the great purge of 1936-38 originates in the “paranoia” of the new workers state, which had destroyed and displaced capitalism and democracy in Russia. “The first casualty of this paranoia was OGPU spy Yakov Blyumkin for meeting exiled Trotsky in Turkey, his former patron, who revealed that he had managed to carry out secret documents, which he intended to publish to expose Stalin, and predicted the regime’s downfall, averring that “the underground “Bolshevik-Leninists” needed to strengthen their opposition”[9]. This confirms Trotsky remained an enemy of the new state.

Resolute Determination

It was in fact not paranoia, but rather the resolute determination of the new state of workers that it would harshly punish anyone who conspired to overthrow it. History’s second worker state was not yet strong enough to sustain such opposition without running the risk of being overthrown. Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the history of the first workers state, the Paris Commune of 1871, which was mercilessly crushed, and thousands of workers slaughtered by the propertied classes, because the Communards failed to act resolutely against their enemy.

And could Russian workers forget that their new-born state was attacked by armies of the former landlords in the Civil War, backed by 14 powerful capitalist countries, who invaded and occupied Soviet Russia right after the October 1917 revolution? It is why workers trusted Stalin – he personified their resolve. They were ready to make all the necessary sacrifices, as they in fact did in the Civil War and later in World War II.

Marxism Fights Capitalist Exploitation  and Imperialist Domination

For Kotkin, the terms ‘exploitation’, ‘class struggle’, ‘capitalism’, ‘imperialism’ are all ridiculous, a figment of imagination conceived by Marx and Lenin to create what he mockingly calls a “paradise on earth”. He subscribes to the “end of history” thesis, by which capitalism and bourgeois democracy, manipulated by the mass media owned by the capitalist class, expresses the “highest” and “best” development of human civilization, and “best governance”. So, for him and his bourgeois readers, the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ can only mean dictatorship by an individual, but in fact, here it is Stalin only as representative of the iron will of the vast majority, not as a “despot”. Stalin himself would have suffered the same fate, had he deviated from the path of socialism, such was the stage of the revolution in 1930s, as in fact happened to some other prominent leaders. Blinded by his own ideology, Kotkin proceeds to give Stalin a “promotion”: from a “dictator” to a “despot” as the repressions of 1936-38 period unfolded. But what are the facts?

Kirov Assassination Conspiracy Launches Repressions

On December 1, 1934, Sergei Mironovich Kirov, First Secretary of the Communist Party in Leningrad Province was assassinated by a Party member and unemployed worker, Leonid Nikolaev. Arrested on the scene, Nikolaev at first claimed that he killed Kirov in order to ‘shake up’ the party from its insensitivity towards workers like himself. However, within one week, he admitted he did not act alone, but rather was part of a conspiracy of a clandestine group of Party members opposed to Stalin and favoring Zinoviev.

Why? Zinoviev had been replaced by Kirov as Leningrad Party leader in 1926. Kotkin, believes Nicolaev killed Kirov for personal reasons. Kotkin further claims Stalin set up Nikolaev in order to destroy his opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev and that Stalin later used Kirov’s murder to unleash terror in 1936 that led to the deaths of many other Party leaders and state officials, so that he could become an absolute dictator, i.e., a “despot”. Kotkin ignores the fact that because of lack of concrete evidence available to the prosecutor, Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were tried for being leaders of the conspiracy that led to Kirov’s death, were not convicted of the conspiracy to commit the murder, but on a lesser charge of ‘moral responsibility’ for creating anti-party moods in the workers.

Zinoviev’s ‘Left Opposition’ in 1926-27 had claimed that Stalin- led party was not doing enough for the workers, instead was letting kulaks get rich. Following Hitler becoming the Chancellor in Germany in January 1933, workers in the U.S.S.R. worked longer hours and were required to invest part of their earnings in state defense bonds, which lowered their living standard. Nicolaev and his co-conspirators were among workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow, who believed that the government was misdirecting funds for unnecessary defense rather than improve workers living standards. Convicted on moral responsibility for creating anti-party moods, Zinoviev and Kamenev were sentenced to 5-year prison terms. Iagoda (Yagoda), who was the NKVD (State Security Bureau) head in 1934 was replaced by Yezhov in 1936 for his neglect in providing adequate protection to Kirov. He was later arrested and in the Third Moscow Trial (1938) of the Right Oppositionists, where he was a defendant. Iagoda testified that he knew of Nicolaev’s intent to assassinate Kirov but did not take steps to prevent it because he was part of the Right Oppositionists who also wanted Stalin overthrown[10]. Kirov’s assassination was just the first revelation of a great conspiracy which began in 1932.

Moscow Trials

For Kotkin, as for all other anti-communist scholars, the three Moscow trials of prominent Communist Party members were “staged”, the testimonies of scores of defendants “scripted” by the NKVD, and the defendants all “innocent”, “framed” in “show trials”. But anyone who has read the verbatim trial transcripts as I have, could never honestly agree to these characterizations. Nor could any honest reader of the trial transcripts come away believing that the defendants were innocent but forced to incriminate themselves in capital crimes.

Instead, one finds in the transcripts that there is actually an over-abundance of evidence: numerous witnesses providing extensive details that fit the puzzle of the complex crime picture, revealing interconnections between actions of various defendants, further corroborated by independent material evidence, both within and outside the borders of the USSR that establishes the validity of the trials[11].

US Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., Joseph E. Davies, a former Pennsylvania State Prosecutor who attended the 1937 and 1938 Moscow Trial sessions himself, sent confidential reports to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, concluded[12] that the trials established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants in the three Moscow Trials were indeed guilty of the crimes for which the state had indicted them. He correctly concluded that the Soviet State eliminated the Fifth Column just in time before the war. It was not until Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” that the impetus was given to change this history and promote the myth that the Moscow trials were ‘kangaroo court’ affairs.[13]

Numbers of Innocent Victims

Finally, on the issue of repressions, most readers accept fantastic numbers when it comes to Stalin-era history which declares that everyone who either died or suffered in the Gulags were innocent victims. Kotkin claims 1.1 million were sent to Gulags and additional 634,000 executed in the Great Purge of 1937-38. Mario Sousa estimates the number of people executed in the period of 1936-38 to be around 100,000.[14] The source for Kotkin’s numbers is the KGB of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, not the Soviet KGB of the pre-1953 era. The numbers are suspicious, and the KGB was not free from politics on either side of 1953.

But even if 634,000 executions are in fact true, were they all innocent? Not likely. It is more likely that more than half of them were guilty of general categories of serious crimes, such as murder, violent rape (violent rape was punishable in many countries by death in the early 20th century, not just in the USSR), etc. Of the rest who were executed for political crimes, many were guilty of economic sabotage, and in fact, as evidence presented showed, were working with high party and state officials who were in league with the exiled Trotsky as confirmed by two U.S. engineers, John D. Littlepage[15] and Carroll G. Holmes[16], who worked in Soviet industries in the 1930s.

A third group was of totally innocent persons who were killed in the proceedings of the emergency NKVD troikas [three-person commissions] in which the troika judges themselves were part of the conspiracy. These hasty and unjust troika decisions were motivated by a desire to cover their own tracks, showing themselves to be a vigilant party members. Unbeknownst to Stalin and the Politburo until the autumn of 1938, they attempted to create dissatisfaction in the general public against the Party headed by Stalin. And finally, many innocents also perished in this situation because of plain incompetence and mistakes of the NKVD. This was a class war that began in 1917 and it was not over until 1940.

Oppositionists’ Lack of Faith on Building Socialism led to Conspiracy

The old political oppositionists within the Party lacked faith in the difficult project of building socialism. So, when the state and party faced a second civil war during collectivization, they concluded all was lost, and so they sought compromise with German leaders, because they were convinced the U.S.S.R. could not win a war with Germany. They thought they would ‘save’ the country by making some accommodations with the German enemy, and by the way, also avenge their political defeat, which had embittered them. It is in this period of turmoil, 1931-32, that Trotsky began rebuilding his network of former politically defeated oppositionists, who had since renounced their views and were working for Stalin government; with the express purpose of “removing” Stalin and his allies. These included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomskii at the top in a conspiracy with Tukhachevskii and others in the military high command[17]. Kirov’s assassination revealed the plot, which gave Yezhov the power he otherwise would not have had, but unbeknownst to Stalin and his loyal supporters, he too was enmeshed in the conspiracy, along with some of his top subordinates.

Excesses in the repressions certainly occurred, but not because Stalin wanted be a “despot”, as Kotkin alleges, but due to urgency of the moment, when the military plot was revealed in 1937. According to former foreign minister Molotov, “…But we could have suffered greater losses in the war – perhaps even defeat – if the leadership had flinched and had allowed internal disagreements, like cracks in a rock…”[18]. The question was not if, but when the USSR would be attacked.

Innocents also died in the U.S. Civil War. Can the burning of Atlanta, Georgia by General Sherman to break the Confederacy’s will to fight on before the November 1864 election be called anything other than deliberate killing of the civilian population and revolutionary terror? Yet Abraham Lincoln is not judged to be a brutal man and no one claims he killed innocents to impose his personal will in the service of capitalist ideology. Lincoln did not kill his own party members, it is true, but was assassinated himself instead. Irresolution has consequences. Compromise with the slave-owning South haunts U.S. democracy to this day in the form of the ‘Electoral College’. After the defeat of Reconstruction in 1876, the slave landlords retained their former property, to be exploited as sharecroppers not slaves.

Truth Begins to Filter Out

Arseny Roginsky founded ‘The Memorial Society’ in the U.S.S.R. in 1980s, an anti-communist organization funded by foreign NGOs. Roginsky and his father had served time in jail during the repressions, but here is what he himself said on March 25, 2012 before his death: “…according to my calculations, in the entire history of Soviet power, from 1918 to 1987 (the last arrests were in early 1987), according to the surviving documents, it turned out that 7.1 million people were arrested by security agencies across the country. At the same time, among them were arrested — and quite a lot — not only for political crimes. Yes, they were arrested by security agencies, but security agencies arrested people for banditry, smuggling, counterfeiting, and for many other “general-purpose” crimes.”[19]

That averages 100,000 arrests per year in a country of 170 million, with intense class struggles, building socialism and fighting a powerful foreign invader. How does this compare with the US? In 2010 alone, the number of arrests in the US for all crime categories was 13.1 million[20]. The average number of arrests per year 1990-2010 period was approximately 11 million. It is true that 634,000 executions do not have a parallel in the U.S. Civil War. However, the U.S. was not surrounded by powerful hostile countries preparing to invade and destroy it, as was the U.S.S.R. in 1917 and over most of its its 74-year existence.

The U.S. population in 2010 was approximately twice that of the U.S.S.R. in 1937. The arrest rate in the U.S. in 2010 was four percent, in a year of comparative peace and security in a wealthy capitalist country. In the U.S.S.R, during the worst year when several dangerous conspiracies were uncovered, and when Nazi Germany was preparing for attack, the rate of arrests was 1.7 million out of 170 million, i.e., 1%. What then explains this big difference? It is that under socialism, social stress was much less as people were living in a society where the basic needs of all citizens were generally met, and no one was filthy rich. But in the mind of anti-communist Kotkin, that issue does not come up.

Kotkin is at loss to understand the repressions in the party, the military and the NKVD, which enforced the repressions. He thinks it was a result of paranoia in Stalin’s mind, and thinks that Stalin had so completely made everyone subservient to him that he could savage the very people and institutions that he created and helped him retain power and fight off the external enemies, and yet himself remain untouched! So, how is it that Stalin could modernize the USSR, develop science, technology, culture, industry and agriculture in a backward country and arm it to fight a modern warfare and defeat a country which was at least 50 years ahead in the same indices and whose attacks no other country had been able to resist, except for Britain until then? Britain escaped only because Germany lacked the Navy to match that of Britain’s, so an invasion was not possible.

False Theses Leads to False Conclusions

If seen from a class-conscious point of view as a necessary if a harsh remedy against real conspiracies, in which some of the conspirator’s highest-level party members, and some in top positions of the very agency, the NKVD, that was supposed to be investigating those conspiracies, all this seeming irrationality disappears!

Kotkin does not even think this as a possible thesis. Kotkin writes: “Altogether, more than 100 of the highest-ranking Yezhovites were massacred— all of his deputies, almost all department heads in the center, almost all NKVD heads in Union republics and provinces.”[21] No, Professor Kotkin, they were not “massacred”, they suffered capital punishment because they were guilty of violation of the legitimate orders from above, a violation of socialist legality! Yezhov had employed his subordinates in the NKVD for his own illegal repressions, in cahoots with the Rightist conspirators as part of the Rightist plan along with Hitler’s plan to destabilize the Soviet government. The Rightists also had ties to foreign intelligence.[22] While Stalin did push Yezhov to find the “hidden enemies of the people”, neither Stalin or the Politburo directed him to kill or otherwise punish innocent people.

Moral Responsibility on Unjust Repressions

What Stalin and the politburo could be blamed for is mistakes and insufficient oversight of the security services[23]. But it is easy to say this now, when the danger of conspiracies and war have passed. Stalin should be held morally responsible for the excesses, the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents in the repressions, but only morally. Stalin could not be held responsible for ordering the killing of innocents as Kotkin says he did to become a “despot”. But if we are to hold Stalin morally responsible in this case, it should also be recognized that had Stalin acted less resolutely, dissension in the ranks may have allowed Hitler to succeed in destroying the USSR, and if not, at the very least, millions more people could have perished in war. Stalin’s alert and determined response to the dangers posed by the conspirators saved not only the Russian people, he saved Europe, if not the entire world by destroying the Nazi beast.

Diplomacy and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact

The U.S.S.R. faced enemies on both its far eastern and its western borders, with Japan in the East and Germany in the West. Both had rapidly developed their economies and modernized their militaries in the first forty years of the 20th century. The U.S.S.R. also faced enemies in the two biggest colonial powers of the time, Britain and France, who had lost investments in Russia when the Bolsheviks took power and whose colonial empires were threatened by the national liberation commitment of the first workers’ state. The U.S.S.R. was the leader of the workers of the world, and thus the Third Communist International (“Comintern”) was very much influenced by the U.S.S.R. The Comintern was founded in 1919 after the fall of the Second International when SPD, its largest member, supported war credits for Germany. For this betrayal Lenin had denounced Kautsky, leader of the SPD, who until then was the heir apparent to Karl Marx. Germany and Japan had also signed an anti-Comintern pact in 1936, which Mussolini’s Italy also signed a year later.

Stalin had offered France and Britain a mutual defense pact against Germany, but both demurred, hoping to direct Hitler eastward. The U.S.S.R. in 1936 or 1939 was not ready for war, which it barely was even in 1941. Stalin had told his party members in 1931: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.[24] Faced with two powerful enemies, Japan and Germany, with no allies, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact was signed in 1939, it was not an alliance that Kotkin falsely alleges, even when he is aware that Stalin had offered a joint defense against Hitler to both France and Germany and they paid it back by betrayal: they did not even ask Stalin to be part of the infamous Munich conference, part of Czechoslovakia was handed over to Hitler, while the Czech leaders had no voice in that decision!

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was Stalin’s counter-move in response to that British and French betrayal and it bought needed critical time for the U.S.S.R. to prepare for the war. It bound Germany and the U.S.S.R. to not attack each other and provided for smaller countries acting as buffers, so no surprise attack could be launched by one on the other. Faced with powerful enemies on the two fronts, what did anyone expect Stalin to do? Sacrifice the country?

Nor did it fool Stalin into believing the U.S.S.R. was safe after its signing, even though Kotkin and all previous bourgeois scholars want to portray him as a simpleton or as friend of Hitler. Meanwhile, war preparations in the U.S.S.R. went on furiously. Hitler violated this pact, and Operation Barbarossa was launched on the early morning of June 22, 1941, almost exactly 10 years later, just as Stalin had predicted. Kotkin includes Stalin’s 1931 quote in his book. However, his bias prevents him from seeing why the fast-paced heavy industrialization was launched in 1928, and for it to succeed, agriculture could not be left in the petit bourgeois mode of production – in small individual farmer’s hands. Stalin, the visionary Marxist, understood the harsh reality of foreign invasion was a given. Yet, Kotkin because of his ideological blindfold fails to see why Stalin was the only one who could lead the new socialist state through the highly perilous times that lay ahead for the U.S.S.R.

Why Hitler Fought a Two-Front War

What Kotkin does better is explaining what led Hitler to attack the U.S.S.R. before trying to destroy Britain, once he started the war against Poland, France and Britain. Hitler, lacking naval power, could not invade Britain, and Germany’s economy could ill afford a long war, and needed the resources of Ukraine (grain and industry) and Baku (oil) to develop the naval power to defeat Britain, allied as it would be with the other giant, the U.S. He correctly assessed that Britain will not open a front against Germany while Germany fought the U.S.S.R., even after France fell. Hitler allowed Britain to rescue its pinned forces at Dunkirk, which he could easily have destroyed. It was his attempt at silent bargain with Britain, not to attack it from the west, while Germany was fighting in the east. So far, his calculation like the chess player who thinks of combinations was tactically correct.

His grave strategic miscalculation was that he and his generals had convinced themselves that the U.S.S.R. could be defeated within four months by his superior mobile armed forces. But that miscalculation from the point of view of Berlin would not be obvious. The Great Purge had dried up Nazi intelligence operations in the USSR. Hitler’s Nazi Party had a mystical belief in the superiority of the German “pure Aryan” race and he lacked hard intelligence which could have alerted him to the extent of modernization that had taken place in the U.S.S.R. along with the extent of modern warfare capabilities. Hitler considered Russian mind as inferior. Hitler did not understand Marxism, nor does Kotkin.

Nor is Marxism is based on Hegelian idealist dialectics, as Kotkin believes, but a materialist one, and has the power to radically transform the entire society in one generation, uplifting it, for common good. Kotkin believes Stalin had weakened his military by the purges among its officer. However, in reality, Stalin had strengthened his military by getting rid of those who were ideologically not committed to socialism – and instead had conspired to overthrow the socialist government[25]. Zhukov, Vatutin, Konev, Chuikov, Rokossovsky, all were committed to the socialist cause. For Kotkin, what mattered was expertise and experience, but it is because he fails to see that this war front was as much ideological as physical.

Marxism Vanquished National Socialism

Hitler too had transformed Germany, but it was based on fascism’s inhumane racial supremacy ideology, not what Stalin had achieved in the U.S.S.R. Marxism, the new revolutionary social science, which Lenin had updated for the 20th century, was the constructive, humane ideology. It is why Germany lost, and Hitler had to commit suicide and Stalin became leader of half of the world by 1950.

Hegelian Dialectics and Marxism

Kotkin ridicules Marxism and its language of dialectics, while marveling at Hegel’s foresight: “When Hegel famously referred to history as a “slaughter bench,” he had no idea what he was talking about, and yet he was right. Partly that was because of the influence of Hegel’s hazardous ideas on the Marxists: the sophistry known as the dialectic, the idolatry of the state, the supposed historical “progress” through the “necessary” actions of great men”[26]. In Kotkin’s world, Hegel can be used where needed to discredit the communists, while denouncing his influence on Marxism.

But here is what Karl Marx wrote about Hegelian dialectics: “I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion…. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell…. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary…. The fact that the movement of capitalist society is full of contradictions impresses itself most strikingly on the practical bourgeois in the changes of the periodic cycle through which modern industry passes, the summit of which is the general crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet it is only in its preliminary stages, and by the universality of its field of action and the intensity of its impact it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the upstarts in charge of the new Holy Prussian-German Empire.”[27]

Judging from what followed, Marx was too optimistic. Those in charge of empires failed to learn.

Raj Sahai is a socialist and anti-war activist, and a member of Institute for the Critical Study of Society associated with the Niebyl-Proctor Library in Oakland, California 


[1] History of the Communist Party – Short Course Chapter 10-12 p.286
[2] documented by photographer Dorothea Lange, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothea_Lange
[3] History of the Communist Party – Short Course Chapter 10-12 p.292
[4] See Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnitogorsk_Iron_and_Steel_Works
[5] History of the Communist Party – Short Course Chapter 10-12 p.298
[6] Grover Furr: ‘Blood Lies’ page 134 quoting Mark Tauger in ‘The Harvest of 1932 and the Famine of 1933’.
[7] Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, p. 900
[8] The History of the Communist Party – Short Course Ch. 10-12 p. 319
[9] Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, Kotkin p.28
[10] Grover Furr ‘The Murder of Sergei Kirov’ pages 293-294
[11] Grover Furr, ‘Trotsky’s Amalgams, V.1
[12] Joseph E. Davies, ‘Mission to Moscow 1936-38’ p179-184
[13] See the books by Grover Furr, ‘Khrushchev Lied’ and ‘Trotsky’s Amalgams’
[14] Mario Sousa, ‘Lies Concerning the History of the Soviet Union’, p12.
[15] John D. Littlepage, ‘In Search of Soviet Gold’ p94-p115
[16] Grover Furr, Trotsky’s Amalgam, p194-196
[17] See Grover Furr, ‘Trotsky Amalgams’ Introduction
[18] Felix Chuev, Molotov Remembers, p256
[19] http://old.memo.ru/d/124360.html (In Russian)
[20] Howard S. Snyder, ‘Arrest in the United States, 1990-2010’
[21] Stephen Kotkin, ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler’, p610
[22] Grover Furr, ‘Yezhov vs. Stalin, p111-120, p147-p161
[23] Felix Chuev, ‘Molotov Remembers’, p256 -p258
[24] http://teacher.sduhsd.net/tpsocialsciences/world_history/totalitarianism_ww2/hardline.htm
[25] https://espressostalinist.com/2013/10/20/grover-furr-new-light-on-old-stories-about-marshal-tukhachevskii-some-documents-reconsidered/
[26] Stephen Kotkin, ‘Stalin: Waiting for Hitler’, p.302
[27] Karl Marx, ‘Capital, V.1’ Afterword to the Second German Edition