Stephen Kotkin is a historian who has written several outstanding books on Russian history and is now in the process of distilling his lifetime work into a monumental three part biography of Stalin. Volume 1 dealt with Stalin’s early life and his progress from relatively peripheral disciple of Lenin in 1917 to Lenin’s handpicked general secretary of communist party in 1922, to undisputed (though not yet completely all-powerful) boss and ruler of the Soviet Union by 1928. By the end of that volume, Stalin was firmly ensconced in this position, having successfully seen off the challenge from Trotsky, who lost out partly because almost nobody around him liked him, but mostly because he was neither as hardworking, nor as competent, iron-willed or crafty as Stalin. It is true that Trotsky imagined himself as the real “Marxist intellectual” in this fight, but the autodidact Stalin was no intellectual slouch, and Trotsky’s low opinion of him in this arena is also a (small) part of why he lost this fight; he underestimated his opponent. Of course, both of them believed fully in the Marxist-Leninist picture of history and society, complete with the necessity of class war, the central role of the proletariat and the idiocy of the peasants, so it is easy to dismiss the intellectual output of both parties as equally delusional, but that is not how it looked in the 1920s, so we should leave such retrospective wisdom out of the discussion. In any case, by 1928, Stalin had kicked Trotsky out of the Soviet Union, and had defanged or sidelined all his other rivals within the Bolshevik leadership.
Yuri Slezkine is a Russian-American historian (he is also technically Portuguese-American, since he first emigrated from Russia to Portugal and then came to the US with a Portuguese passport) who has written a number of interesting books, and “The House of Government; a Saga of the Russian Revolution” is his latest and greatest offering. At over 1000 pages, it is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically. What he does is follow the lives of a large number of Bolshevik revolutionaries, from their origins as young rebels (they were almost all very young; very few were over 40 when they took over the largest country in the world) to the heady days of the Bolshevik revolution, to the civil war that followed, the first compromise (the NEP), the second and more serious attempt at “true communism” (the five year plan), the terrible violence and suffering of collectivization, the victory of communism under Stalin, the insane purge and auto-annihilation that followed that victory, the second world war, the desiccation and death of revolutionary ideology, and, perhaps most strikingly, the coming of age of the next generation without any sincere transfer of the purported official ideology, leading to the final, inevitable collapse of the entire experiment.
Ian Johnson in the NYRB asks the question: Who killed more? and does it matter?
The people on the list are Mao, Stalin and Hitler. Obviously Pol Pot does not make it because there were not enough Cambodians to qualify. Some Indians will complain that Churchill is missing, though I personally think that while he was involved, at times peripherally, in some really bad affairs (Bengal famine is the one most mentioned), he honestly does not belong in this particular list. But that is easier said than proven; which is the point of this post; that this question turns out to be more difficult the more you think about it.. Continue reading “Ranking Mass Murder..”