Every biography of Stalin needs to answer several foundational questions:
1. Was Stalin a sincere believer in the cause of word revolution? Or was he an opportunist who used Marxism to get power?
2. Did he collaborate with the secret police of the tsarist regime?
3. What was his relationship with Lenin like? Did he hasten Lenin’s death?
4. Was Stalin stupid? Or was he bright?
5. How did Stalin manage to push much more brilliant revolutionaries out of power?
6. Was Stalin paranoid?
7. Was Stalin planning to attack Hitler’s Germany in 1941?
8. Was Stalin preparing World War III?
9. Did Stalin kill his wife?
10. Was Stalin an anti-Semite?
11. Was Stalin murdered?
I’m still reading Stalin’s biography by Kotkin, and there haven’t been any surprises so far. I’m somewhat of a Stalin’s biography buff, so it’s hard to tell me something crucially new. Kotkin’s is a good book but, to be honest, I’ve seen better. The greatest problem I’m seeing so far is Kotkin’s tendency to drown in trivia. He is incapable of letting go of any part of his research and makes a point of mentioning the name of every single person Stalin ever met and every single woman Stalin is rumored to have had sex with. I love long books but not when their message is too watered down. Kotkin provides a ton of historic context for Stalin’s life, which is great for readers who are not very familiar with the European history of the XIXth century. I have not encountered any bloopers in his coverage of the Russian Empire, except for the obnoxious tendency to refer to Ukrainians as “Little Russians (Ukrainians).” Obviously, this doesn’t make the book any shorter either.
Kotkin has read everything there is to read about Stalin. Sometimes, it works to his detriment, like in an episode where he retells, almost verbatim, Stalin’s account of his own life in Solzhenitsyn’s novel In the First Circle. The problem with this approach is that the novel is a work of fiction, and Stalin’s long indirect free style narrative in the novel serves artistic and not scholarly purposes. Solzhenitsyn wasn’t doing research. He was writing a novel. Of course, his narrative powers are such that it is hard not to allow the writer’s artistic genius to overshadow our impressions of the historic persona who shares his name with Solzhenitsyn’s character.
I will gradually provide Kotkin’s answers to the above-listed questions and offer both my own comments and the general consensus of Stalin’s biographers on these issues. If you have questions about Stalin that are not on the list, do leave them in the comments.