He would do it. Stalin would force the collectivization of Soviet villages and nomadic steppes inhabited by more than 100 million people between 1928 and 1933. At least five million people, many the country’s most productive farmers or herders, would be “dekulakized,” that is, herded into cattle cars and dumped at far-off wastelands, often in winter; some in that number would dekulakize themselves, rushing to sell or abandon their possessions to escape deportation. Those forced into the collectives would burn crops, slaughter animals, and assassinate officials. The regime’s urban shock troops would break peasant resistance, but the country’s number of horses would plummet from 35 million to 17 million, cattle from 70 million to 38 million, pigs from 26 million to 12 million, sheep and goats from 147 million to 50 million. In Kazakhstan, the losses would be still more staggering: cattle from 7.5 million to 1.6 million, sheep from 21.9 million to 1.7 million.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

Countrywide, nearly 40 million people would suffer severe hunger or starvation and between five and seven million people would die in the horrific famine, whose existence the regime denied. “All the dogs have been eaten,” one eyewitness would be told in a Ukrainian village.

We have eaten everything we could lay our hands on—cats, dogs, field mice, birds—when it’s light tomorrow, you will see that the trees have been stripped of bark, for that too has been eaten. And the horse manure has been eaten. Yes, the horse manure. We fight over it. Sometimes there are whole grains in it.

Scholars who argue that Stalin’s collectivization was necessary in order to force a peasant country into the modern era are dead wrong. The Soviet Union, like imperial Russia, faced an imperative to modernize in order to survive in the brutally unsentimental international order, but market systems have been shown to be fully compatible with fast-paced industrialization, including in peasant countries. Forced wholesale collectivization only seemed necessary within the straitjacket of Communist ideology and its repudiation of capitalism.

And economically, collectivization failed to deliver. Stalin assumed that it would increase both the state’s share of low-cost grain purchases and the overall size of the harvest, but although procurements doubled immediately, harvests shrank. Over the longer term, collective farming would not prove superior to large-scale capitalist farming or even to smaller-scale capitalist farming when the latter was provided with machinery, fertilizer, agronomy, and effective distribution. In the short term, collectivization would contribute nothing on net to Soviet industrial growth.

Nor was collectivization necessary to sustain a dictatorship. Private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible. In Fascist Italy, industrialists maintained tremendous autonomous power. Mussolini, like Stalin, supported efforts to attack inflation and a balance-of-payments deficit despite the negative impact on domestic employment, for he, too, viewed a “strong” currency as a point of regime prestige. But although for Mussolini, too, economics was subordinate to his political power, he was not a leftist ideologue wedded to theories of class struggle and the like. All he needed was industrialists’ recognition of his political supremacy.

He got that despite a December 21, 1927, upward revaluation of the lira that the industrialists had adamantly opposed—exports declined (and unemployment skyrocketed to at least 10 percent)—because Mussolini rejected demands by Fascism’s syndicalist wing to force production and consumption under the aegis of the state.

Instead, the Fascist regime lowered taxes and transport costs for domestic industry, increased the allowances for depreciation and amortization, prioritized domestic producers on government contracts, encouraged the concentration of industry to reduce competition in order to keep profit levels up, increased tariffs, and took on some of the exchange risk associated with debt contracted by Italian industry abroad.

The Italian dictatorship did not go about destroying the country’s economically successful people, who could, along with thousands of others, be imprisoned quickly if they became foolish enough to hint at political opposition. None of this is meant to uphold Italian Fascism in any way as a model, but merely to show that nothing prevented the Communist dictatorship from embracing private capital—nothing, that is, except idées fixes.


Subjects of biography often are portrayed as forming their personalities, including their views about authority and obedience—that is, about power—in childhood and especially in the family. But do we really need to locate the wellsprings of Stalin’s politics or even his troubled soul in beatings he allegedly received as a child in the Georgian town of Gori? The beatings likely never took place, certainly not to the extent they have usually been portrayed, but even if they had?

Similarly, were the oppressive surveillance, informing, and arbitrary governance at the Tiflis seminary the critical formative experiences of Stalin’s life? That training ground for priests was a nest of tyranny and stool pigeons, but so was the entirety of Russia under the autocracy, and many of the softest Georgian Mensheviks came out of the very same seminary as Stalin did. To be sure, his intense relationship with the daring Marxist Lado Ketskhoveli, and the latter’s early death at the hands of tsarist jailers, made a lasting impression on him, helping to solidify his lifelong Marxist convictions. And Stalin’s prolonged struggle as a Bolshevik and Lenin loyalist against the overwhelmingly Menshevik majority of Georgia’s Social Democrats made a lasting imprint, too, sowing or eliciting some of his inner demons.


In other words, Stalin’s marked personal traits, which colored his momentous political decisions, emerged as a result of politics. Moreover, to explain his personal behavior through politics amounts to more than expediency (in the absence of plentiful, reliable sources on his early life and inner mind). Even though he had directly inherited the possibility of a personal dictatorship from Lenin, Stalin went through significant psychological ordeals in the struggle to be acclaimed as his successor.

It had taken Stalin years of angling and stress to rid himself of Trotsky, a bitter rivalry that had begun already in 1917, intensified during the civil war into near obsession, and dominated the inner life of the Party after the onset of Lenin’s fatal illness. The struggle with Trotsky had deeply influenced Stalin’s character. No less profound an impact came in Stalin’s struggle with Lenin’s allegedly dictated testament, in which he supposedly said:

Stalin is too coarse and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealing among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead.

From May–June 1923 on, Stalin was embroiled in several years of infighting during which Lenin’s purported Testament appeared suddenly and kept reappearing, refusing to go away. With his manifold instruments of personal power, Stalin was mercilessly hounding all those who expressed differences of opinion with him, but he was always the victim. Whether this entailed some sort of long-standing persecution complex or one of more recent vintage cannot be established given the extant sources. But we can say for certain that the internecine political warfare with the opposition—not just with Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, but also with the Testament—brought this behavior out.

When all is said and done, the “succession struggle” was with a piece of paper—a few typed lines, no signature, no identifying initials. Stalin triumphed over its recommendation, but the Testament continued to broadcast an irrepressible echo: Stalin’s personality is dangerous; find a way to remove Stalin. He resigned, again and again. He cut a deal for a truce with them, and they published the Testament in The New York Times. He could trust no one. All the while, he was responsible for everything. It was all on his back. But did they appreciate this? Let them try to do better. They again affirmed his leadership. But it was never sufficient.

Closed and gregarious, vindictive and solicitous, Stalin shatters any attempt to contain him within such binary categories. He was by inclination a despot who, when he wanted to be, was utterly charming. He was an ideologue who was flexibly pragmatic. He fastened obsessively on slights yet he was a precocious geostrategic thinker—unique among Bolsheviks—who was, however, prone to egregious strategic blunders. Stalin was as a ruler both astute and blinkered, diligent and self-defeating, cynical and true-believing, considerate and vicious. The cold calculation and the flights of absurd delusion were products of a single mind. He was shrewd enough to see right through people, but not enough to escape a litany of nonsensical beliefs. Above all, he became in the 1920s ever more steeped in conspiracies. But Stalin’s increasing hyper-suspiciousness bordering on paranoia was fundamentally political—and it closely mirrored the Bolshevik Revolution’s in-built structural paranoia, the predicament of a Communist regime in an overwhelmingly capitalist world, surrounded by, penetrated by enemies.

The Russian Revolution—against the tyranny, corruption, and, not least, incompetence of tsarism—sparked soaring hopes for a new world of abundance, social justice, and peace. But all that was precluded by the Bolsheviks, who unwittingly yet relentlessly reproduced the pathologies and predations of the old regime state in new forms (even more than had their French Revolution forerunners, as Alexis de Tocqueville demonstrated for France). The reason was not circumstance but intentional political monopoly as well as Communist ideology, which deepened the debilitating circumstances cited to justify ever more statization and violence.

To be sure, socioeconomic class was (and remains) undeniable. But the construction of political order on the basis of class, rather than common humanity and individual liberty, was (and always will be) ruinous. In the Soviet case, for anyone not hopelessly sunk in the ideological soup, events provided ample opportunity for rethinking the prevailing ideology—for recognition of the dire need to exit the Leninist cul-de-sac: abandon the self-defeating class war approach, accept the market as not inherently evil, encourage prospering farmers to continue, and help lift up the others. But such admissions, for almost every Bolshevik of consequence, proved too great.


Still, even within the encumbering Leninist frame, a Soviet leader could have gone out of his way to reduce the paranoia built into the regime’s relations with the outside world and its domestic situation. A Soviet leader could have paid the price of partial accommodation, grasping that capitalism was not, in fact, dying out globally and that the capitalist powers were not, in fact, hell-bent on overturning the revolutionary regime at all costs.

But Stalin was not such a leader. Of course, all authoritarian regimes, in order to suppress dissent and stir up the masses, cynically require profuse “enemies.” On top of that, though, Stalin intensified the insanity inherent in Leninism from conviction and through his personal characteristics, ensuring that the permanent state of war with the whole world led to a state of war with the country’s majority population, and carrying the Leninist program to its full end goal of anticapitalism.

Stalin had not liked the introduction of a controlled market system in the New Economic Policy (NEP) any more than Trotsky had, although like Lenin, and because of Lenin, Stalin appreciated the recourse to pragmatism for the greater cause. But by 1928, immediately upon Trotsky’s deportation to Kazakhstan, Stalin acted upon his long-standing leftist core convictions because, like Lenin in 1921, when the NEP had been introduced, he felt the survival of the revolution was at stake and that he had the political room to act.

Stalin could never admit that Trotsky and the Left Opposition, in their critique of the NEP, had been, in his own view, correct; but it was beyond Stalin’s character to be genuinely magnanimous, and it would have undermined his rationale for Trotsky’s internal exile, provoking calls for his reinstatement. But those who believe that Trotsky could have, and would have, done much the same thing as Stalin are mistaken. Trotsky was just not the leader people thought he was, or that Stalin turned out to be.

Without Lenin, Trotsky never again demonstrated the leadership that he had in 1917 and during the civil war under Lenin’s authority. On the very uneven playing field of the personal dictatorship that Stalin inherited by dint of his appointment as general secretary and Lenin’s stroke, Trotsky was still capable of brilliant polemics, but not of building an ever-wider faction, dividing his enemies, or subsuming his convictions to necessary tactical considerations. More than that, Trotsky had never been an indefatigable, nitty-gritty administrator or a strategist capable of ruthlessly opportunistic improvisation. Whatever the overlap between his and Stalin’s core beliefs, Stalin’s abilities and resolve were an order of magnitude greater.

But what if Stalin had died? He had come down with a serious case of appendicitis in 1921, requiring surgery. “It was difficult to guarantee the outcome,” Dr. V.N. Rozanov recalled. “Lenin in the morning and in the evening called me in the hospital. He not only inquired about Stalin’s health, but demanded the most thorough report.” Stalin had complained of pain, despite a local anesthetic, and Rozanov administered a heavy dose of chloroform, the kind of heavy dose he would administer to the Red Army Commander Mikhail Frunze in 1925, who died not long after his own operation. Stalin, who may have also suffered from ulcers (possibly derived from typhus), following his own operation had taken a rest cure—ordered by the Politburo—at Nalchik in the North Caucasus from May through August 1921. In December 1921, he was again incapacitated by illness.

Stalin also suffered tuberculosis prior to the revolution. His first wife, Kato, died of tuberculosis or typhus. Yakov Sverdlov, with whom Stalin bunked in a single room in Siberian exile, had tuberculosis, and Stalin moved out. Sverdlov appears to have died of TB in 1919. Tuberculosis might have killed off Stalin as well.

Stalin could have been assassinated. The archives record oblique instances when potential assassins had been able to approach him or position themselves at places he was likely to appear. At the theater one evening, for example, Dzierzynski noticed someone inside the entrance looking at the posted announcements; when Stalin exited, a different person was in the same place, doing the same thing. “If they are not ours,” he instructed in a note written that same night, “then, for sure, it is necessary to pay attention. Clarify and report.”

Mussolini by this time had been the target of four assassination attempts, most recently when a teenager in Bologna shot at him but narrowly missed. On July 6, 1928, during the Soviet party plenum, a bomb was hurled at the office for passes to the OGPU in Moscow. The perpetrators were terrorists connected with Russian émigrés. Nikolai Vlasik, the son of poor peasants in Belorussia, who worked in the department responsible for leadership security but was on holiday at the time, was summoned back to Moscow and included in a task force charged with reorganizing the security protection for the Cheka, the Kremlin, government dachas, and the movement of leaders between places.

According to Vlasik, who would become Stalin’s lifelong chief bodyguard, in 1928 the dictator had only his Lithuanian bodyguard Jüsis, who accompanied him on trips to his dachas at Zubalovo and Sochi and on the walks to and from Moscow’s Old Square. Stalin was within reach of a determined assassin, to say nothing of a regime insider.

In the summer of 1928 there were meetings of several of Stalin’s opponents about the possibility of removing him. In one of those meetings, Grigory Sokolnikov, a former finance commissar, citing Nikolai Bukharin, relayed that, while drunk, Mikhail Tomsky, leader of the Council of Trade Unions, had come up and whispered into Stalin’s ear: “Soon our workers will start shooting you.” This story exists in other versions, often as an incident at Stalin’s Sochi dacha where, on someone’s birthday, a group was drinking, eating kebabs, and singing Russian folk and revolutionary songs. Whatever the particulars, assassinating Stalin was not beyond contemplation in the Politburo.

If Stalin had died, the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization—the only kind—would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high. “More than almost any other great man in history,” wrote the historian E.H. Carr, “Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances.” Utterly, eternally wrong. Stalin made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth. Right through mass rebellion, mass starvation, cannibalism, the destruction of the country’s livestock, and unprecedented political destabilization, Stalin did not flinch. Feints in the form of tactical retreats notwithstanding, he would keep going even when told to his face by officials in the inner regime that a catastrophe was unfolding—full speed ahead to the forcible eradication of capitalism and private property.

This required extraordinary maneuvering, browbeating, and extraordinary violence on his part. It also required deep conviction that it had to be done. Stalin was uncommonly skillful in building an awesome personal dictatorship, though he was also a bungler, getting fascism wrong, stumbling in foreign policy. But he had will. He went to Siberia to launch forced collectivization in January 1928 and did not look back. History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up.