Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton historian and author of a new biography of Joseph Stalin, sees similarities in the former Soviet dictator’s leadership style and that of Russia’s incumbent strongman, Vladimir Putin.
Speaking at the Open Society Foundations in New York on January 15, Kotkin acknowledged some of the parallels between Stalin and Putin that have been pointed out by reviewers of his recently released book. “We are not talking about a figure on the scale of Stalin,” Kotkin stressed, referring to Putin. But “there’s an uncanny resonance in some of the history.” [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF].
Stalin’s image has enjoyed a revival in recent years in Russia. During the January 15 discussion, Kotkin listed four factors that made Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship possible: geopolitics, institutions, ideas, and personality. He then noted modern-day parallels in two of those areas – institutional structure and ideology.
“You have a country [Russia] that has a special role in history. At the very least, it needs to play a leading role in the world … and that makes it very difficult for them to integrate with other countries,” Kotkin said. “The second piece that’s uncanny is they [Russians] are constantly struggling for a strong state, and they end up building a personalized regime.”
According to Kotkin, two ideological tenets provide a foundation for Russian exceptionalism today -- anti-Americanism and social conservativism. “Conservative nationalism is a full package of ideas,” one that is eagerly reinforced through textbooks and media, Kotkin said.
Asked whether the international community should engage with Russia, despite the Kremlin’s aggressive stance on Ukraine, Kotkin stated emphatically, “I don’t agree with the analysis that Russia being a pariah is a path to stabilization.”
Kotkin’s new book, titled Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, published by Penguin Press, is the first installment of a planned three-volume biography. Weighing in at 1,000 pages, the first volume details Stalin’s rise to power and culminates with the launch of the collectivization campaign in the early Soviet era.
Kotkin said he is in negotiations for a Russian translation of the biography, adding that he is looking forward to finding out how his interpretation of Stalin’s life is received in Russia. “They are de-communizing the Communist past, if you will. It’s no longer about Communist ideology, it’s about … a great power, a transition from peasant country to nuclear superpower. This is not that story,” he said.