When the first volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin appeared in 2014, it was clear that the author had undertaken a gigantic intellectual effort to put Joseph Stalin’s personality in the wider context of the Russian and world history of his time and that he would maintain this ambitious perspective in the volumes that followed. The second volume wholly lives up to such a promise, even in the face of the even more serious challenge posed by covering the years between 1929 and 1941. As Kotkin remarks, whereas in the first volume Stalin was often “offstage for long stretches as global developments unfolded around him,” here he is present “on nearly every page” (xii). By no means was Stalin perceived as a crucial personality in global affairs even in the late 1920s, but he achieved world-wide celebrity in the 1930s through the ‘revolution from above,’ program. His fame reached its peak with the fatal choice of the Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. While Leon Trotsky was his antagonist in the struggle to become Vladimir Lenin’s heir, the crossing of paths with Adolf Hitler now occupied center stage for Stalin in the increasingly dangerous context of world politics.

Continue reading