The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster – Adam Higginbotham
In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, began the process of conducting a test of Reactor No. 4. Unwilling to postpone the test another year, engineers pushed forward under questionable circumstances that proved to have deadly consequences. Within minutes, disaster struck as a thunderous roar and cataclysmic explosion were felt and heard throughout the facility. The eruption of the reactor resulted in a complete implosion and the propulsion of a radioactive dust cloud into the atmosphere. Instantly, Soviet officials set in motion an official coverup of the disaster in an attempt to keep the news of the reactor’s meltdown from reaching western news outlets. On the surface, the Politburo maintained the image of business as usual, but behind the scenes it was pandemonium. In the days and weeks that followed, the people of Pripyat looked death in the face as the reality of the nuclear fallout become terrifyingly clear. Within days, cross-winds moving across Europe carried the dust cloud across several countries, setting off alarm bells as radiation dosimeters showed readings that were literally off the charts. Before long, it became clear that a nuclear disaster had occurred and the most likely source was somewhere in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops in denying anything was amiss but the truth began to leak out and forced Moscow to make troubling admissions. These events an those that followed have become known as the Chernobyl disaster and that story is told here again by author Adam Higginbotham who tells what is perhaps, the full story behind the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
More than thirty years have passed since the tragedy at Chernobyl and the names of those who responded to the emergency have faded over time. Some of them are still alive but many others are no longer here, having joined the long list of victims who lost their lives from exposure to radiation in the wake of the meltdown. Their stories are told here, showing the many sides of a tragedy that shocked the world. And by the end of the book, their names will become seared into the reader’s memory as the key figures that are forever tied to the legacy of Chernobyl. The author has done a great service in keeping their memories alive and in the process ensures that they are never forgotten as time passes and the world continues to move forward.
The amount of research that went into this book is staggering and Higginbotham was able to personally interview several individuals including the former director of Chernobyl, Viktor Brukhanov, who has publicly stated that officials covered-up the disaster for twenty years. Brukhanov was not there the night of the test but his position as director resulted in his conviction for negligence and a ten-year prison sentence of which he served five. His conviction was one of several obtained by officials as scapegoats became the focus of Moscow. The reality is that the meltdown was the result of a series of events that Higginbotham explores in detail leading up to that fateful night. And the true story is simply astounding.
Undoubtedly, the disaster itself is the focus of the story but the book is also a step back into the closed-door mindset of the USSR and its iron grip over the Soviet Republics. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were put to the test as old-school hardliners battled younger party members who saw the world through a different lens. Communism, the Cold War, deception and gross negligence all play a role in the story and will cause readers to stare in disbelief. Those of us who are old enough to remember the events as they played out will recall the events that transpired as news of the meltdown trickled out of the USSR. But as Higginbotham shows, the information that became known to western nations was only part of the story. And even former International Atomic Energy Agency director Hans Blix, did not know the full extent of the damage. Figures put forward by Moscow were often intentionally skewed in an effort to downplay the severity of the reactor’s destruction. The Politburo was determined to restrict as much information as possible and the fierce battles between party members highlights the system of dysfunction that existed, partly based on the belief in Soviet superiority over its U.S. counterpart.
From start to finish, I found myself glued to the book as the story continued to unfold. And although I vividly remember the story as it broke in 1986, I learned a significant amount of new information in the book. To help the reader, Higginbotham provides detailed explanations regarding radiation exposure which are crucial to understanding the severity of the recovery effort and the physical deterioration of those who directly participated in saving the plant. None of the workers and responders were able to completely recover and struggled in later years with failing health and painfully slow deaths. Thousands of men, women and children were exposed to radiation but the full number is probably far higher than Soviet officials were ever willing to admit. Incredibly, officials resisted calls to evacuate Pripyat, believing such an act would be an admission that the situation was grave. But as the truth became clear, officials were left with no choice and forced to evacuate the city which remains abandoned to this day.
Chernobyl has become the poster child for disasters involving nuclear disasters with its Ferris wheel and main building become bone-chilling landmarks from the city that is uninhabitable. Pripyat has become so embedded in pop culture that it served as the setting for one of the chapters in the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Today, there are those who visit Pripyat as explorers curious to see the fallout of a nuclear disaster in person. And while the fourth reactor has been encased since 1986 in a protective shell to contain radiation, the surrounding areas still contains various amounts of contamination. Images and videos from visitors, show the dark and desolate landscape of a once thriving city. The sadness with which residents left Pripyat is captured by the author showing the multiple effects of the fallout, even to those who had not been exposed to lethal dosages of radiation.
Engineers have made significant advancements in safety procedures used to secure nuclear facilities. Nuclear power, when used correctly, is considered a clean technology. It emits no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but a meltdown as shown here, would have devastating consequences. The average person has little reason to think about nuclear power, but less than forty years ago, the horror of a nuclear meltdown became frighteningly real and forced every nation that uses nuclear power to rethink its course going forward. The danger of another Chernobyl has not left us and a meltdown could once again happen at some point in the future. But I believe that if we remember the story of Chernobyl, re-told beautifully in this excellent compendium by Higginbotham, then we do have a high chance of preventing another Chernobyl before it has a chance to happen.
Towards the end of the book, the author also shows how the effects of Chernobyl played a role in the disintegration of the USSR as the Soviet Republics moved for independence. Ukraine’s struggle is well-known and to this day, Russia has continually tried to exert its influence over its smaller-sized neighbor. Chernobyl revealed a significant crack in the official facade of Soviet invincibility and changed the way the world viewed nuclear power. Those who want to know what really happened on the night of April 25, 1986, and in the months that followed, will find the answers they seek and more here in this well-written and highly informative account of an event that should never be forgotten.
In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.
When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology. Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933. In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended. The death count stands at a minimum of three million people. The true number may never be known. But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed. But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine. It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation. Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R. The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution. The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life. Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.
What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes. Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling. Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme. Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.
Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction. The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule. The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal. Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.
Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda. But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II. The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light. His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives. The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines. This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Between August 5 and August 9, 1945, the United States Air Force changed the course of history when the B-29 pilots dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, more than seventy years later, the debate regarding whether President Harry Truman (1884-1972) was right to give the final order to drop the bombs rages on. The images taken in Japan following the bombings are still shocking even today and upsetting for many viewers. And for many others, the concern remains that the world could once again see a nuclear weapon used in warfare. It is commonly believed that August, 1945, was the only time atomic weapons had been used in combat. But what actually constitutes “use”? That is a question Daniel Ellsberg addresses in this chilling and eye-opening account his time as a nuclear war planner. Some readers may be familiar with Ellsberg’s name due to his surrender, trial and the dismissal of all charges related to the Pentagon Papers which revealed the mistakes and poor judgment that allowed the United States to go to war against North Vietnam. In fact, Ellsberg’s papers were the target of the crew of burglars that would go on to be discovered at the Watergate Complex. Their arrest and the cover-up by Washington helped lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Incredibly, Ellsberg has outlived many of the major figures from that era and what he has accomplished, learned and ultimately disclosed are facts that should concern and be known to every American.
You might be wondering, what on earth is the doomsday machine? It is quite frankly, the system of devices that are interconnected allowing for a nuclear attack or counterattack that would result in nearly this entire planet being obliterated in minutes. Knowing what we do today about war, we could rightly say that the next world war could very well be the last world war mankind engages in. The nuclear weapons of today are more power and in more abundance than what was used to force the Japanese to surrender. And should there be an attack today, the fallout could be unlike anything we have ever imagined. But how did we get here? To answer that question, we must go back in time with Ellsberg retrace the history of the development of atomic weapons.
The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) and the project at Los Alamos is one that has been told more than once and it well-known to students of history and aficionados of World War II. But what may not be known is the instigation of the Cold War from the west and the role that nuclear weapons played in the decisions and actions in Washington. As Ellsberg reveals, the key to understanding the severity of nuclear warfare is the Cold war and the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP). This very document served as the crux of the U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union and any nation found to be its ally. What Ellsberg reveals about that plan and the approval it received from the White House will send chills down the spine of even the most hardened readers. As an employee of the Rand Corporation and a member of high clearance personnel at the Pentagon, Ellsberg found himself in an intimate position to access even the most secretive of documents that were deemed too important to national security to be revealed publicly. Among these documents was annex c to the JSCP, the Single Integrated Operational Plan(SIOP). Just as frightening as the JSCP, this plan was another document that Ellsberg introduces to us so that we can digest its meaning and how dangerously close the Unites States came to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And as the late Robert McNamara (1916-2009) said in the 2003 Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War “Cold war? Hell it was a hot war.”
There is far more information included in this book than I could ever review here. But there are a few questions the reader can ask before starting the book for the answers are contained inside: Was Hitler really building a bomb? How many nuclear weapons did the Soviet Union have following World War II? Is the president really the only person to authorize an attack? Was it truly necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan? Just how many presidents threatened to use nuclear weapons to end subsequent conflicts? What are the chances of a false flag due to a random error? And what can we do to reduce the risk of nuclear warfare?
I vividly recall my father telling me about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how he was required to participate in air raid drills in October, 1962 as a student in grade school. He very frankly said those thirteen days were the scariest he can recall and everyone was filled with the fear that nuclear war would erupt with the Soviet Union at any moment. The conflict was eventually resolved but sadly Kennedy was assassinated the following year and Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964. Their determination to avoid conflict removed the world from the brink of a nuclear war that might have had very few survivors if any. And that threat still exist. Error in judgment, egos and thirst for power could combine to form a deadly nexus producing another missile crisis. If we are to prevent a nuclear holocaust, it is our duty to study the past, heed these words by Ellsberg and actively work towards dismantling the doomsday machine.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin