Triumph of the Will
Dangerous but indispensable: Stalin (left) and Lenin in 1919
Stephen Kotkin, Professor of History of Princeton University, has been working for ten years on a new three-volume life of Stalin, using material now available from Soviet military intelligence files and the archives of the Soviet secret police. His researches bring into striking contrast the personalities of Stalin himself and the other members of the Soviet elite in his time.
At the end of this volume Professor Kotkin asks the question: What if Stalin had died in 1928 before he launched the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture? What difference would it have made? The scale of this gigantic act of social engineering, 1928-1933, unique in world history, affected more than 100 million people living in villages and on the nomadic steppes. About five million of them, many of them highly productive, were forcibly "dekulakised", enclosed in cattle trucks and exiled in far-off regions of Siberia and elsewhere in the remote Russian countryside. Millions of others, to escape removal, sold or abandoned their properties. In many cases, those forced into collective farms burned their crops, slaughtered their flocks and did their best to kill the officials and troops who dragooned them.
The losses were quite unprecedented. In the hunger that followed — the longest, by far, man-made famine in history — between five and seven million died, and 40 million more came close to starvation. The number of sheep fell from nearly 22 million to under two million, cattle from 70 million to 28 million, horses from 35 million to 17 million and pigs from 26 million to 12 million.
The whole colossal exercise was without any rational justification. Tsarist Russia was an inefficient country but, under the impact of rapidly expanding capitalism, was becoming less so with impressive speed. Agriculture was modernising itself without undue suffering. All this was taking place without any interference from the state. Collectivisation halted and reversed the process of improvement, and the losses were not made good for half a century, indeed in some cases never. To collectivise was a specifically political decision, without any economic, demographic, cultural or humanitarian reasoning. It was an absolutist piece of theorising, undertaken without preparation or practical planning, in the arrogant belief that this form of socialism was right.
To take such a decision, and to carry it through, year after year, against all the evidence that it did not work, and was wasting life and property in vast quantities, required a sustained act of will of an unusual kind — one is tempted to say a unique kind. Stalin was capable of such an extraordinary act of will and, in Professor Kotkin's opinion, that set him apart from others at the summit of Soviet power at the time. He goes through all the available alternatives. Nikolai Bukharin was hopelessly muddled, especially on agriculture, and believed that the Soviet Union would somehow "grow into socialism" through the New Economic Policy (NEP). In addition, he lacked political skills and an organisational power base. Alexei Rykov, who had been behind the NEP, chaired Politburo meetings, and had been the key figure at the 15th party congress, was a skillful politician but did not believe in collectivisation — he predicted its dire consequences but had no alternative to offer if NEP failed, as it was beginning to do by 1928. Grigory Sokolnikov, the deputy chairmain of the State Planning commission, who had a doctorate from the Sorbonne and spoke excellent French, was a financial expert who defended Soviet policy skilfully at international conferences. But he was a mere individual, with no faction behind him, and no following in the military or the secret police. No one else was in a position to take over Stalin's vote.