Hoover at Stanford’s Stephen Kotkin on Stalin’s Tyranny, WWII, & the Cold War

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The Learning Curve Hoover at Stanford’s Stephen Kotkin on Stalin’s Tyranny, WWII,

& the Cold War

Albert: [00:00:00] Well, hello, everybody. I hope you’re doing well. I want to wish you a warm welcome to this week’s episode of the Learning Curve podcast. I am one of your co-hosts this week, Albert Chang from the University of Arkansas. And co-hosting with me today is Mariam Memarsadeghi. Hey, Mariam. Good to see you again.

Mariam: Hi, Albert. Great to be with you again.

Albert: Yeah, glad to have you on the show again and I hope you’re doing well. Yes, looking forward to this one, especially. Yeah, that’s right. And so yeah, you’re right. Coming after the break, we’re going to have Stephen Kotkin talk to us about Joseph Stalin. [00:01:00] So I’m looking forward to that.

Before we get to that, though let’s talk some news. I wanted to bring up an article that I saw in the Wall Street Journal recently. The title is kind of provocative. India’s broken education system threatens its superpower dreams. And the sub-headline there is creating a competent manufacturing workforce is the country’s biggest challenge.

And, you know, the article, I’ll point listeners to it. And it’s worth some consideration. So apparently India. Wants to pivot to an economy that emphasizes manufacturing kind of like what China did maybe earlier. And, I think listeners here might know that certainly since the early 2000s, at least according to the article India really pivoted to information technology.

You know, software. I know we, you know, a lot of these tech companies and actually a lot of companies outsource a lot of their labor in India. And so India is really done [00:02:00] well and training students for software engineering of those kinds of fields. And now they want to pivot and this article is actually skeptical that India might be able to pull this off. I think what strikes me about this is I think there’s, there’s a lesson to be learned here, which is the dangers of reducing education to mere career preparation. I get it, you know, we need to make sure students have the proper human capital to contribute to the economy. But that’s not all, you know, education ought to be so much more. And, certainly, I think this is why we do the kinds of things we do on this podcast, right? And instead of doing things that might be temporal or things that might pass in a few years, like the labor market and the kinds of skills we need you know, I think I’d like to see education talk more about the enduring.

The human condition, the enduring questions make us human and have kids ask those kinds of [00:03:00] questions so that they might live good, morally worthy lives. So, think this article is, something to consider you know, lest we go too hard down the vocational track you know, we ought to go down that a little bit, but this is a balance I think that’s necessary.

Mariam: Yes, yes. And you just don’t know who’s going to be what. I mean, part of the, reason education is important is to provide young people with enough opportunities so that, they figure themselves out over time and through the opportunities. And schools don’t always get it right.

Certainly, governments can’t get it right to just say, okay, from age X or Y. we’re going to put these people into this type of work and these people into that type of work. And it’s one of the reasons America is as, empowered and successful as it is. It’s a very open education system, even compared to some other democracies around the world.

Albert: Yeah.

Mariam: Well, I’ve been kind of absorbed with this story, given what, my background is. Just for the audience, [00:04:00] reminder, I was born in Iran and came to the United States during the Cold War. The 79 revolution when I was seven years old and then really devoted my career to civic education for people living inside Iran as well as human rights advocacy and writing about these issues as well.

And so what’s happening at Columbia University? And really other universities in the United States are very upsetting to me because you know, I really see the fingerprints of Iran’s regime in what looks like student protests and they are, but they’re just of a fundamentally different character.

And so let me explain. I think that these kinds of anti-Semitic. Protests that we’re seeing on college campuses are completely different types of phenomenon than the protests on college campuses in the sixties and seventies for women’s [00:05:00] equality, anti-Vietnam war, racial equality, just entirely different.

I mean, these people right now, And maybe they are victims in some ways of bad education, poor education at the universities and their professors, but what they’re protesting is terror. they’re not protesting against war. They are. Not all of them, obviously, but when you are chanting for Hamas, you’re chanting for a terrorist organization.

And Iran’s regime yesterday and today and in its state media. Is celebrating the slogans and the dance circles and things of the protesters at Columbia. I mean, for, clear reasons, almost everything, almost all their slogans are the Iranian regime slogans. And, one article I noticed was put out by CNN and real clear.

Real clear politics, the real clear education section, that [00:06:00] website. And it’s about the rabbi on campus. Who’s, you know, asking students or encouraging them to stay home.

Mariam: Very disconcerting yesterday. I was following tweets by Debbie Die. Professor at Columbia, who has been very outspoken since the October 7th attack and how, you know, he was not permitted in the parts of campus where the protesters are.

And even his, ID was deactivated. And so, he’s been tweeting and one of his tweets yesterday, basically, you know, said this is 1938 what’s happened. So to see this on American college campuses and to see Iran’s regime celebrating it and to, it’s a long time coming because these are the fruits of a lot of investment in soft power by Islamists.

Iran’s regime, let me just really quickly plug that I wrote an article [00:07:00] about at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution about how Iran’s regime has really invested in the American university system. we hear a lot about this from the Chinese communists, but Iran’s regime has been slowly, but surely quietly working at this.

And I think we’re seeing the results now on campus. It’s just, it’s, honestly very infuriating to me.

Albert: Yeah, yeah, it’s a sad thing, sad development and very sobering maybe we’ll throw in a bonus news article. Actually, there’s a nice article at City Journal talking about Boston University’s situation when South African Apartheid was, going on, there were protests there and John Silber, who was president of Boston University in the 1980s, took a totally different response, and stood up to that and really navigated, I think, his, the, the institution well, through that and didn’t tolerate any of this kind of behavior.

So, to be a lot to learn through history and certainly, uh, speaking of [00:08:00] history stick with us after this break because uh, we’re gonna talk to Dr. Stephen Kotkin about Joseph Stalin. So, I’m looking forward to what we might learn from that and how that might cast some light on making sense of today.

So, stick with us after this break.

Albert: Stephen Kotkin is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Kleinheinz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also the Birkeland Professor in History and International Affairs Emeritus at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, where he taught for 33 years.

Dr. Kotkin’s books include Stalin, Waiting for Hitler, [00:09:00] 1929 to 1941, published in 2017, and Stalin. Paradoxes of Power, 1878 to 1928, published in 2014. Part of a planned three-volume history of Stalin’s power in Russia and the world. He has also authored Magnetic Mountain, Stalinism as a Civilization, published in 1995, and a trilogy analyzing Communism’s demise, of which two volumes have appeared thus far.

Armageddon Averted, Soviet collapsed, 1970 to 2000. Published initially in 2001 with a revised edition in 2008 Uncivil Society 1989, and the implosion of the Communist Establishment published in 2009. Dr. Kin’s writing appears in foreign affairs, the Times Literary Supplements, and the Wall Street Journal among other venues.

He earned his B. A. in English from the University of Rochester and his M. A. and Ph. D. in history at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Kotkin, welcome to the show. It’s a [00:10:00] pleasure to have you on. Well, thank you for the honor. Let’s start with a term you’ve used to describe Joseph Stalin.

He calls him the Gold standard of dictators. So I’m curious about that. Could you share with our listeners why Stalin is perhaps the most influential figure of both the World War II and Cold War eras as well as some of the other larger themes you think are relevant for our listeners about this person you’ve studied for, quite some time now.

Stephen: Yes, Albert. So why do we study or read biographies? And the answer is, is because we’re looking for exemplary people. We’re looking for lives that can teach us How to live our own lives, people who live according to values that we might uphold or want to introduce into our lives, people who made difficult decisions and how they made them and why they made them and what consequences.

So you could think of the founding fathers, you could think of Harriet Tubman, [00:11:00] you could think of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, you could think of a lot of examples. of people you’d want to study. A Stalin is not someone you study for an exemplary positive life, let’s say. You study Stalin as an exemplar.

His biography is an exemplar of something else. evil, and the effects of evil, where it comes from, and what type of consequences it can have on millions and millions of lives. Stalin was in power for more than 30 years. He built a military-industrial complex on a vast scale. He presided over the deaths of probably around 20 million people, not including World War II, which was of course an attack by Nazi Germany on the Soviet Union.

And he built the greatest dictatorship, really despotism of [00:12:00] all time. Hitler is in the same category as Stalin, but he lasted many fewer years. Hitler’s regime was over in 12 years when he committed suicide in the bunker in April 1945. Mao’s life also can be put in the same category as Hitler’s and Stalin’s, but Mao did not have a military-industrial complex.

He did not create a superpower in his lifetime. And so even though Mao ruled for a really long time, like Stalin, nonetheless, Stalin stands out. So if you’re interested in power uh, how to accumulate power, how to exercise power and what happens, what are the consequences when someone exercises power, Stalin is therefore the gold standard.

So an exemplary life. in a cautionary sense and the gold standard when it comes to power, especially authoritarian, dictatorial, despotic power. So it’s an irresistible [00:13:00] subject.

Albert: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And certainly this, you know, something we, we emphasize on this podcast the things we can learn from history about the human condition.

So very much appreciate your answer there. let’s get into his life. Let’s start with volume one really of it’s a two-volume series or three two volumes published so far, one volume to come. Ah, great. Well, the first volume, just to remind our listeners, is Stalin, Paradoxes of Power, 1878 to 1928.

So, in that volume, you, describe his background, quote, a poor cobbler’s son, a seminarian from an oppressed outer province of the Russian Empire, a top leader in a band of revolutionary zealots. So, talk about that era the First World War, and how did it create the wider political conditions for Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution set the stage here to help us understand Stalin.

Stephen: So he’s born in December of 1878 on the periphery of the Russian Empire in the [00:14:00] region known as Georgia. A separate language, a separate culture, and also Eastern Orthodox religion, but really not the same as Russia per se, Georgia’s inside the Russian Empire now for a a while when he’s born. He’s a very insignificant figure, and during the time of his birth, you would not have paid any attention to him.

And had it not been for World War I destroying the Russian Empire and enabling a ragtag group of far-left violent armed revolutionaries to seize and hold power in the capital Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg, and again, St. Petersburg today. We wouldn’t know anything about him. So how do you write a biography of a person who’s born on the periphery of an empire and has lived for a really long time?

For the first years of his life. He’s got no job, [00:15:00] no profession, no source of income. He’s in and out of Siberian exile, czarist prisons. He’s persecuted by the secret police. for being a revolutionary, which is to say, having no profession to speak of. And as I said, no source of income. So it’s a story you have to tell not solely or predominantly from the point of view of the person who was born in 1878, but instead from the world in which he’s born.

So the book begins with Bismarck’s unification of Germany in the same decade of Stalin’s birth, the Meiji restoration of Japan. Just a little bit before the decade of Stalin’s birth, the late 1860s, and then these two episodes, the unification of Germany on the continent and Japan’s Meiji restoration, you have the birth of two new great powers on either side of the Russian Empire flanking.

The Russian Empire and [00:16:00] the rise of German power on the continent and the rise of Japanese power in East Asia will be two of the great problems that leaders of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union will have to deal with. Russia loses to Germany in the First World War. It loses to Japan in a war in 1904 05.

And so these are the challenges and this is where the book launches and Stalin has to be placed into that context in order to understand the changes he wrought on the world, you have to understand the world into which he was born.

Albert: Fascinating. I mean, you certainly are whetting my appetite to dig into that era.

So why don’t we press into this era a little bit more? And so I think some of our listeners will be interested. Very familiar with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and so he’s got a multi-volume historical novel entitled The Red Wheel, which on events in Russia between 1914, August 1914 specifically, and April [00:17:00] 1917, and that’s when the demise of Tsarist Russia happened and the Soviet well.

Well, Could you put that work together with, your work? The first volume, Stalin Paradoxes of Power 1870 to 1920. What do these two works teach us about the ideological origins of Soviet totalitarianism and really Stalin’s central role in shaping the fundamental character of the Soviet regime?

Stephen: I hesitate to put myself in the same category conversation with the great writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Stephen: I apologize if I put you in that tough spot. That was what I understand now, but Solzhenitsyn was the second most important person. of the Soviet epoch. And so he’s a giant and his Gulag archipelago forever stamped that regime as both a metaphor and an analysis of what totalitarianism, just as you called it, was like and where it came [00:18:00] from.

Solzhenitsyn showed that Stalin was not a deviation from Lenin. But a fulfillment of Lenin’s vision and just in general, Solzhenitsyn’s work over decades has had an immortal, eternal impact. His One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of the great little novellas, which was published during his lifetime in the Soviet Union, unlike most of the rest of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

So the Red Wheel is an epic about the revolutionary process. You have to understand that it’s really unusual for a bunch of far-left radicals. to hold power, to sustain themselves in power, not to seize power. This happened in the Paris Commune during France’s defeat to Germany in the period 1870 to 71.

A ragtag group of individuals seized power in the capital Paris, not in the rest of the country, and held it for a brief period of time before they [00:19:00] were put down by the forces of order. It happened in a few neighborhoods and towns in northern Italy. In the aftermath of World War One, it was again put down, and this is where fascism comes from, many of the early fascists were the shock troops who destroyed the seizures of power in the northern Italian towns by the leftists.

You had it in Hungary with Bellacombe, you had it in Bavaria, that is to say, in Munich, right after World War I, but every single time, the leftists were thrown out of power, usually by a peasant army, usually by what we would call the forces of order. In this particular case, not only did they seize power in the chaos, the anarchy of World War I, to which they greatly contributed. Not only did they seize power, but they held it and they built the state, they built the regime, which lasted All the way, as you know, through 1991. So that’s a big story and a story is not [00:20:00] limited just to 1917. What happened? The seizure of power in October 1917, amid the anarchy and chaos, it’s about building this state, building a dictatorship, and it’s about Stalin building a personal dictatorship inside the Leninist or Bolshevik dictatorship, and that’s a process that the book examines at great length.

And you have to say again that evil, as Stalin was, and he was very evil, it’s pretty remarkable that he was able to build a state of that scale and power, and then take on German power in World War II, and take on Japanese power in World War II, and effectively defeat them. Of course, in a coalition with the US and the UK.

With Roosevelt and Churchill, but nonetheless, that story was not something foreseeable in the chaos of 1917 and 18 that Solzhenitsyn writes about so eloquently in the [00:21:00] Red Wheel. It’s a really big story, somewhat of a mystery, or at least an enigma. To try to unfold that, and that’s what we try to do in Paradoxes of Power.

Albert: Yeah, well, let’s talk about some of the figures Trotsky in, particular. And so, certainly, we know that one of the founding fathers, you know, Lenin of the Soviet Union died in 1924. And so within a one-party socialist state governed by the Communist Party, you had Trotsky and Stalin vying for control.

Yeah, talk about these two men and what the dynamics between them were like, really, how did Stalin ultimately defeat Trotsky?

Stephen: Trotsky’s the kind of figure you would have seen. in a cafe in Paris or in a cafe in Vienna in the period before the First World War, reading newspapers, arguing amid all the cigarette smoke that fill the cafes.

Trotsky was a very, let’s say vivid person, but he [00:22:00] never was a figure who vied for power with Stalin. This is a mythology that Trotsky and his followers created in the aftermath of Trotsky. losing out to Stalin in a power struggle that was never really a struggle. So think about it this way. The revolution as we call it sometimes, but really the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 installs a Bolshevik monopoly, which changes its name from Bolshevism to Communist Party.

They’re communists because they’re building communism in the Marxist stages of history. It’s feudalism, succeeded by capitalism, succeeded by socialism, and eventually communism. So the Communist Party needed to build socialism first before it could build communism, changed its name as I said in 1918, and Stalin built this dictatorship inside the dictatorship.

So in April 1922, [00:23:00] Lenin created a new position. called the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He’s looking for someone who’s going to be his right hand, who’s going to manage all of the bureaucracy, including personnel appointments, while Lenin is in charge of the state. Lenin’s the equivalent of a prime minister.

He’s the guy running the government, the head of the cabinet-style monopoly Bolshevik regime. But he created this position for Stalin because He thought Stalin could do this. And in fact, next to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party in Lenin’s own hand, we have Stalin’s name. So this was done in April 1922.

In May 1922, about six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke. It’s the first of several really debilitating strokes. Lenin had a series of illnesses. He would die in January 1924. But already from May 1922, Lenin was [00:24:00] partly incapacitated. So Stalin was appointed to this newly created position of general secretary which controls access to the secret police and access to the army and the party-state and all the party personnel appointments and the ideology and it is the nerve center of the regime and it’s supposed to serve Lenin but Lenin’s incapacitated.

So as of May 1922, Stalin is in power. Trotsky is nominally the Commissar of War. That is to say what we would call the Secretary of Defense today in the U. S. But in fact, Stalin is controlling the Red Army by virtue of being the General Secretary of the Party. So there never was a succession struggle because Stalin was already in power.

For someone else to take power, they would have had to evict Stalin from power, which is where Lenin put him. Now, of course, Stalin could have said, Oh, well, you know, Lenin didn’t create this [00:25:00] position for me to take over. He expected to live. And so it’s not right that I have all this power that I can control the secret police and the military and the party machine and the ideology.

I should share this with other people. Well, as you know, Stalin was not that kind of person. On the contrary, once he saw the position he was in, he began to, as I said, build that dictatorship, that personal dictatorship within and Trotsky was rather easily marginalized. In a situation where Stalin was at the center and Stalin was capable of building and running a dictatorship, which all the other figures in the regime recognized, Stalin resigned six times in the 1920s, three times in writing and three times orally.

Between 1923 and 1927 28 and each time [00:26:00] the other comrades in the hierarchy of the Communist Party ruled alongside Stalin, each time they begged him to stay, and so it was clear to them that Stalin was tremendously capable and carrying this regime on his back. What they didn’t perceive in real time was that Stalin would go on within a decade to murder them all.

And if they had seen that Stalin already in the 1920s, they would have latched on to his requests. To resign, and they would have pushed them out. But instead, they brushed aside those requests and begged him to stay. And so one of the arguments of the book is that Stalin was not born Stalin. He became Stalin, the one we know in the process of building that dictatorship of acquiring power and exercising power.

So it’s a story about Russian power in the world, which has relevance today, [00:27:00] as well as a story about Stalin. The purse.

Albert: Wow. Yeah. Fascinating. I mean, is fascinating to hear and, you know, get to know this, figure. last question before I turn you over Mariam you know, speaking of consolidating power another aspect of this is his force peasant collectivization.

And so this is I mean, you mentioned earlier how he forgot the verb you used, but he kind of oversaw the death of millions of folks. So, yeah, talk about peasant collectivization these kinds of mass murdering events that happened as a consequence of Soviet communism, and his relation to how Stalin used that to consolidate his power.

Stephen: One of the most important things to understand about the far left, the anti-capitalist left, the left that thinks capitalism is evil and must be eradicated. One of the most important things to understand about them is that they have no electoral path to power. Their only path to power is force. People will not give up [00:28:00] voluntarily their private property and their freedom.

If you want to take away their private property, if you want to destroy private property, if you want to eliminate markets, if you want to eliminate the ability of people to build their own businesses, you can only use force to do that. You’re not going to have a voluntary relinquishing of either person’s property.

For their freedoms. And so in 1928, 1 percent of the arable land in the gigantic Soviet Union had been voluntarily collectivized by the farmers. 1%. And that 1 percent reflected largely people who were unable to farm and tried to make up for their incapacities by joining with others who were similarly not very good.

And so what you get, therefore, is a party that’s dedicated to the destruction of capitalism, to the elimination of [00:29:00] markets and private property, as well as what they call bourgeois parliaments. That is to say representative government. They’re dedicated to its destruction because they think it’s evil.

They think it causes alienation as Marx wrote. They think it causes war and so they want to eliminate it and the rest of the ones around Stalin are afraid. They’re afraid to go for broke and eliminate it. You see, because the peasants had their own revolution in 1917 18. They had de facto control over the property.

They didn’t have legal control over the property. In the cities, you had the Communist Party monopoly. And in the countryside, you had the peasants with their de facto, not de jure, but de facto control over the land. So this was the clash. The Marxist regime believed Capitalism was evil, and it also believed that the base, the economic base, determined the politics or the superstructure.

So therefore, a [00:30:00] communist party politics, a communist party monopoly, a communist party superstructure, no matter how many party members, no matter how much force and secret police, could not last if the base The underlying base, the economy, the socioeconomic base was capitalist. And so Stalin decided to destroy capitalism across 11 time zones, a sixth of the Earth.

It was a remarkable decision he took in early 1928. And even more remarkable than the decision, which shocked everybody, was that he did it. He carried it out. He went all the way. And so he destroyed capitalism and produced a despotism. The gulag, that is to say, the labor camps, the ration tickets, that is to say, the shortages in the rationing, the unfreedom, the wasteful state, completely [00:31:00] state-owned and state-run economy.

He produced all of that by eliminating capitalism. And people would say, Oh, you know, this was a perversion. That’s not what Marx wrote. Marx wrote that if you eliminate capitalism, private property markets in bourgeois parliament, and representative government, you’ll get freedom, but you don’t get freedom. You get complete statization.

And so this leftist seizure of power. And then leaving this destruction of capitalism is a lesson because it happened again and again. Mao saw what happened, and how many people died when Stalin did this. Mao had the Soviet example to go on and he just did it again, knowing. the kinds of severe repression necessary and the consequences of millions and millions of people dying.

And so Stalin’s story of [00:32:00] enslavement of the peasantry, collectivization of agriculture, is one that’s emblematic of all those who think That capitalism is evil and must be eliminated.

Mariam: Fascinating. Professor Kotkin. I’m just listening to every word partly because I’m focused on Iran. I’m originally from Iran and Stalin has influenced me. Iranian history in the sense that it was a driving force of some of the revolutionaries and then Khamenei, the supreme leader is a student of that whole history and the NKGB tactics.

And then I personally, right now, I’m really listening to you. thinking about a future government for Iran, how do we avoid, and prevent a new kind of authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism, because I think the lesson from your work is that it can happen. and it can happen even by a [00:33:00] person who is really disempowered from the fringes of society.

Like a kind of a loser, a loser can even make it up there and kill many millions of people. So, in volume two, Stalin waiting for Hitler 1929 to 41 you begin by saying Stalin was a human being. He collected watches. He loved gardening. He wore semi-military tunics. He liked colored pencils. He smoked a pipe. Could you talk about the Man of Steel as a person, his character traits, family, and how his daily schedule and decisions as dictator extended across the Soviet regime, including the tens of millions who perished in his forced labor gulags between the 30s and early 50s?

Stephen: Yeah, Miriam, thank you for that question as well. Evil is more understandable, and more believable when it’s human. There’s no need to caricature, there’s no need to [00:34:00] paint in a way with such a broad brush that everything an evil person did was always evil, that they were evil from the moment they were born, that they never had anything but evil thoughts.

Just as our heroes. Have many warts, many blemishes, and to understand their heroism. It’s necessary to understand all aspects of their character, all their limitations, as well as their greatness. So it is with evil people. It’s necessary to understand them as people. And so Stalin was a person who. Worked hard in school as a young boy.

He got outstanding grades. He sang in the choir. He went to a church school and he sang in the church choir. He entered a seminary to become a priest, a priest, and monk, and was on track given his excellent grades in school to become that. [00:35:00] He wrote poetry, actually pretty good poetry as a teenager. In the Georgian language, which of course was his native language, he would switch to Russian in the seminary because most of the subjects at the seminary in Belize, the capital of the Georgian area, were in Russian.

But nonetheless, he had a life and that’s not a life where you can see the monster. coming later on. Instead, what you see is a guy who’s dedicated to social justice. He begins to read literature that’s banned by the czar’s censors. He begins to see all the injustice of imperial Russia around him, and there is tremendous injustice.

It wasn’t something he made up, and he dedicates his life to overthrowing this regime, and therefore he is sent, as I said, into exile in prison. And has a life without a profession, without an income [00:36:00] until he’s 39 years old. So his entire adult life from 17, to 18 years of age to 39 is spent on the run fighting for social justice against real injustice.

However, Stalin’s regime would produce far greater injustice in the Soviet Union than he had fought against in Imperial Russia. So intentions are not enough. And sometimes you can produce the opposite. You can have what we call perverse and unintended consequences. You can say we’re going to lead a revolution to overthrow injustice.

And you can instead, as happened in Iran, institute a worse form of injustice in the name of justice. And so this is a lesson that we have to relearn again and again and again. The road to hell is paved with the best intentions. Now having said that, this doesn’t [00:37:00] vitiate Stalin’s dedication to social justice.

It was real. That’s the person he was. Now, once he gets into power, any means as a Leninist, as a follower of Lenin, as someone close to Lenin, any means are considered necessary to attain the ends that they’re pursuing. The elimination of markets, and private property, that is capitalism and representative government.

And so you begin to see him using some of the same methods that the czarist regime used against him. But only he uses them even more vigorously and at an even greater scale and there are just infinite geometrically more victims as a result. So he is a real person and he does have an interesting life and we need to understand how he thought and how he could become the person he became.

Mariam: Well, I’m very interested to know this because [00:38:00] I’m always thinking about this when it comes to dictators. How aware do you think he was of his own evil?

Stephen: So for him, it wasn’t evil. Capitalism was evil. Markets and private property were evil. And so what he was doing was bringing about a new world of justice against evil, against the imperialist war, against mass unemployment, against capitalist alienation of the worker.

So his worldview, we don’t share his worldview, but his worldview needs to be taken seriously. The key discovery of going into the formerly secret communist party archives is that they were communists. Same thing we discover when we see the internal Nazi documents. They were Nazis. They had ideas.

The ideas are hateful. The ideas brought about suffering that’s hard to encompass, but [00:39:00] nonetheless, they were sincere. They were not merely cynical. you get to understand him and you get to fathom the way his mind worked. And so he would never admit that he was evil, quite the opposite. He thought that he was doing the communist version of God’s work.

Mariam: Even when it was about executions and starvation, there was no sense in anything you’ve studied that he had misgivings, doubts, worry.

Stephen: We don’t have a single recorded instance of him expressing significant doubts about what he was doing. We have one major apology that was public in World War II.

When he was speaking in May 1945 at a banquet in the Kremlin in a speech that would be published in Pravda the next day, and he admitted that, quote, our government, unquote, made mistakes that were his [00:40:00] one major admission of guilt or of mistakes, and it was referring to the early World War II catastrophes that befell the Red Army and the Soviet people under his leadership.

But otherwise, no. Doubts or guilt or expressions of apology are really unheard of with him.

Mariam: But this is not the case with, leaders of the Soviet Union in the end stage of, that regime, right?

Stephen: No, certainly when you get to the Gorbachev period, which was not intending to bring about the end of the Soviet Union, it was intending to bring about its revitalization.

And part of that was about admitting the mistakes, but the mistakes were attributed to Stalin personally, not to the system. The same thing Khrushchev did. Nikita Khrushchev didn’t say that the system was evil. He said that there was a cult of the [00:41:00] personality, that Stalin had become evil and Stalin had deformed the revolutionary process.

That was Khrushchev’s de Stalinization speech of 1956, which Gorbachev revived, blaming the problems not, as I said, on the system per se, but on mismanagement, on bad people, on bad leaders, rather than on the fact that when you eliminate capitalism, private property, You get poverty. And when you eliminate representative government and constraints on executive power, you get tyranny.

That’s not what they said when they admitted mistakes in either the Khrushchev or the Gorbachev.

Mariam: Okay. Okay, good. So again, the volume two Stalin waiting for Hitler. You focus on Stalin’s shrewd understanding of Soviet politics and culture, as well as his foreign policy. Would you tell us about Stalin’s view of geopolitics, and how it influenced his [00:42:00] relations with Hitler’s Germany, and other powers like Britain, France, and Japan during the years between the two world wars?

Stephen: So Stalin was a Marxist Leninist. He believed that there was something called imperialism and that imperialism caused war. That the capitalist powers in their drive for markets An ever-greater exploitation would inflict war on the world. And so Stalin’s goal was to avoid the capitalists ganging up on him.

It was to divide the capitalist coalition. It was to try to pit the capitalists against each other so that if there was an imperialist war, as he described it, it would be between the capitalists or among the capitalists and the Soviet Union could maybe sit it out. And then take advantage. of the distress self destruction of each other by the capitalists.

And so you see this in [00:43:00] his foreign policy in the 1930s, trying to peel away Nazi Germany from Britain and France. The United States is largely outside European geopolitics in the period after World War I before World War II, as you know. So for Stalin, it divides the potential. what he calls a capitalist anti-Soviet imperialist coalition.

And he was successful for a time because he signed a nonaggression pact in August 1939 with Hitler. in this pact, Hitler and Stalin divided Poland up between themselves. They both attacked Poland and then Hitler turns his attention to France and Britain in the West, so Stalin diverted the Nazi land army, the Wehrmacht, Hitler’s power.

He’s diverted it westward and protected the Soviet Union, and in fact, Stalin is supporting Hitler’s regime [00:44:00] economically. The way the Chinese Communist regime today supports Russia in its aggression against Ukraine, Stalin is sending all manner of critical raw materials, especially grain and oil, to the Nazi war machine as it destroys France.

The problem with this brilliant idea of dividing the capitalists against each other and pushing Hitler westward is Hitler was a lot more successful than anticipated. And so instead of four years and four months or four years and three months, which is what you have in world war I, France falls in six weeks.

And so Nazi Germany is triumphant on the continent and can now turn its attention eastward and take on Hitler can take on Stalin and move all the troops that he needed to conquer France back to the east. Where he now has a common border with Stalin, thanks to the dividing up of [00:45:00] Poland. And so Stalin’s genius begins to look less like genius, now that he has overly supported the Nazis in their quest to destroy France.

Now Britain is defended by Stalin. By the channel, it’s off the continent. As you know, it’s an island country. It’s defended by the channel and also by the Royal Air Force. So Britain doesn’t capitulate under Churchill, but nonetheless, they can’t remove the Nazis from the continent. So Hitler is secure in the West in some ways and decides to turn against Stalin and Stalin doesn’t have an answer.

Now he’s bereft his grand strategy has hit a wall and soon enough Hitler will attack him in June 1941.

Mariam: So going back a couple of years 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact, secretly partitioned Central and [00:46:00] Eastern Europe between them. Could you talk to us about the context of that pact, and the wide implications of this agreement on the world’s opinion of Stalin’s USSR?

And the long-term implications the treaty had on the fate of Poland and helping start World War II.

Stephen: Yeah, those are really big and important questions and very complicated.

Mariam: It’s a lot of them.

Stephen: But most people will begin with Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Britain, and his so-called appeasement policy.

Appeasement originally was a positive term. It meant doing diplomacy. in order to avoid war. Now, you were supposed to also build up your deterrence, your military capabilities, so that when you went into the diplomacy, you had both deterrence and diplomacy. Both Chamberlain’s predecessor and Chamberlain had not done a sufficient job in building up the military in the [00:47:00] UK.

And it’s unclear whether Hitler could have been deterred in any case, some leaders are just not susceptible to deterrence. We hope that Xi Jinping today would be susceptible to deterrence, but Hitler proved not to be. And so Chamberlain tried to accommodate Hitler and give Hitler things to try to satiate Hitler’s appetite.

And this is the infamous Munich Pact. of the fall of 1938, when Chamberlain, along with the Prime Minister of France, traveled to Munich to negotiate handing over a part of Czechoslovakia, a sovereign state, to Hitler. In other words, without the Czechs agreement, Chamberlain handed over the so-called Sudetenland, an ethnically German region of Czechoslovakia, not Holy, but predominantly ethnic German region of Czechoslovakia [00:48:00] hands it over to Hitler in Munich 1938 in the hope that this appeasement, this deal, this bargain, this accommodation of Hitler will be the end, that Hitler will be satiated and not want more.

But of course, the appetite grows in the eating. Chamberlain misunderstood Hitler. But here’s the big thing that your listeners need to understand about the Munich Pact, which was disgraceful and cannot be defended. Chamberlain’s critics at the time said, well, why are you accommodating Hitler? How come you don’t go into a coalition with Stalin and fight a war against Hitler?

Now, Stalin had murdered. His own elites in the so-called terror. He had destroyed his upper officer core, and his diplomatic officials, calling them home from abroad and executing them in the cellars with a bullet in the back of the neck. It was not a regime you wanted to be in [00:49:00] alliance with. But that wasn’t only what Chamberlain said to his critics, he said to them, well, if I go into an alliance with Stalin and we fight Hitler and we win, how do I get the communists out of Central Europe?

In other words, a victory of the UK and the USSR against Nazi Germany meant that the USSR would likely be in occupation of Nazi Germany and Central Europe. And so Chamberlain, for all his mistakes and foibles and miscalculations understood in 1938 what we would eventually call the Cold War, which was that a coalition, eventually including the US as well as the UK, with the Soviet Union, with Stalin’s Soviet Union, would draw Stalin into the heart of Europe.

And so, as I like to say, in many ways Hitler was the one who started the Cold War that Chamberlain foresaw.

Mariam: [00:50:00] At the 1943 Tehran Conference, Stalin said that World War II would be won with British brains, American steel, and Soviet blood. The Soviets lost around 27 million people during the war, including 8. 7 million military and 19 million civilian deaths. Stalin ultimately secured from FDR and Churchill much of central and eastern Europe.

Would you discuss a few elements of Stalin as a war leader, his dynamics with his generals, and his relationship with the allied leaders?

Stephen: Yeah, another really big one, the Tehran Conference of 43. Stalin flew on an airplane for the first and last time he was afraid to fly leading to the Yalta Conference of February 45, and eventually Potsdam.

It’s a really big story, the Roosevelt Churchill Stalin meetings, negotiations, and the outcome of the war. [00:51:00] The main thing for your listeners to understand is that The United States is an expeditionary force. It’s the greatest military in the history of civilization. It can send significant numbers of troops and equipment at great distances anywhere across the globe, and it’s really quick, in short periods of time.

It’s just a marvel, the U. S. military, this gigantic expeditionary force. Big wars like the war against Nazi Germany or Japan and East Asia, they’re won by land arms, not by expeditionary forces. The casualties in war at sea or war in the air are a mere fraction of the casualties in land war. So you could argue that Roosevelt, the United States, the great expeditionary force, and his partner Churchill rented the Soviet land army to destroy the Nazi [00:52:00] land. And so the United States casualties in the war, about 400, 000 or so deaths don’t compare to the 11 million Red Army deaths in battle. Plus the 27 million overall Soviet deaths. We did something similar in the East Asian theater where we rented the Chinese army and the Chinese suffered at least 13 million casualties, probably more.

That’s the lowest estimate. And the Japanese broke their teeth. Trying to garrison China even before the US entered the picture and began to fight Japan and that island-hopping campaign that we all know, and that the US came out victorious. So if you add up the 27 million Soviet deaths and the 13 million Chinese deaths, the minimum estimate, you get 40 million of the 55 million deaths in World War II.

Soviet and Chinese, 40 million of 55 million. So that’s [00:53:00] where the war was fought. That’s where the people died. That’s where the sacrifices were made. And that’s how the U. S. and the U. K. were able to come out victorious because someone else did the dying for them. This was well understood by Roosevelt. He understood that this would have enormous political implications for the post-war settlement.

Churchill didn’t want to understand this, he wanted to override this, when in fact Churchill was a bit player compared to Roosevelt, just because the U. S. production facilities on the home front and the U. S. fighting force was just so much larger and more decisive in the war, including Len Lee’s. So in the end, We got a settlement that Stalin imposed because there weren’t other choices.

Either the U. S. was going to suffer the 11 million casualties, which we’ve never suffered, [00:54:00] and God forbid we should ever have to suffer in a land war. Or, the U. S. was gonna outsource the land war to Stalin, and therefore, that was partly outsourcing also the post-war settlement. And so there’s a lot of hand-wringing over how Roosevelt bungled.

Tehran and how we bungled Yalta and he let Stalin take over Eastern Europe and impose Soviet clone regimes in Poland and Czechoslovakia and half of Germany and elsewhere. And the answer to that is. What were the actual alternatives? What would you have done differently given the circumstances?

Democracies cannot just throw people in a meat grinder and let them die. Send a million enslaved collective farmers to the front to die. And when they do die, go back to the [00:55:00] collective farms and get another million and send them to their deaths and do that again and again and again. That’s not how democracies work.

We see Ukraine facing some of the same challenges against Russia today, where Putin doesn’t care about casualties, but Zelensky must care about casualties and value life. in the flawed democracy that Ukraine is compared to Putin’s dictatorship. And so in the end, the bungling is, true. Roosevelt did bungle in some ways.

The alternative room for him to maneuver was highly constricted, and it’s not clear whether he could have done what his critics did. Said he should have done it before he himself died in April 1945. Stalin was a shrewd, conning person at the negotiating table, but just as importantly, he had the forces and he was willing for them to die in the millions.

You know, George Shultz, my former colleague, the former [00:56:00] secretary of state, the president Reagan at the Hoover institution who passed away after reaching his centenary, he was one of the great diplomats. In recent modern American history, he used to say, you have to do diplomacy. You have to negotiate.

It’s absolutely critical, but it helps a lot if the shadow of force is cast over the diplomatic table. That’s what Stalin did in World War II. Is

Mariam: it fair to say that Churchill and FDR didn’t really know how awful Stalin was domestically. In other words, do we know a lot more since the end of World War II about Stalin?

Stephen: Of course, we know more. The archives that were formally closed were opened. But you know, it wasn’t like the archives opened up and we discovered, oh, you know, we didn’t realize. This was actually a [00:57:00] parliamentary democracy, not a purity, we knew and they knew, we just didn’t know the details and we didn’t always know the scale precisely, but we knew the scale and orders of magnitude.

Roosevelt was no fool, and Churchill was a lifelong anti-communist for a reason. The question was, what could they do? They needed Stalin in alliance. The thing that Chamberlain wouldn’t do. Right. Form an alliance with Stalin against Hitler and pay the price for that.

That’s what they did. They formed the alliance and Churchill said it himself. He would form an alliance with the devil if it was necessary to save Britain. And that’s what he did. And so the consequences are not that shocking. These were not naive men. Roosevelt was one of the greatest politicians this country has ever seen in terms of pure politician, a real pole, as they say, he was shrewd.

He talked over all sides of his mouth. [00:58:00] He told everybody what they wanted to say. He kept things ambiguous. So they all thought he was supporting them rather than the other guy. But he wasn’t going to hoodwink Stalin. He wasn’t going to substitute the American army for the red army on the battlefield either.

Also he was sick and infirm and in fact, he died only 82 days into his fourth term, not long after the conference in Yalta, where he was very ill and Stalin noticed just how ill he was. And how little time Roosevelt had left. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t his sickness. It wasn’t his naivete.

The problem was there was a bargain to defeat Hitler and you had to get in bed with the devil and you then had to pay the consequences, the price for that, the price of the cold war. And that’s a lot better than hot war. And we won the cold war. So in the fullness of time, you could [00:59:00] argue that Roosevelt and especially Truman were right.

And Stalin lost the peace in the fullness of time. Yes, he was on the winning side in the war, but in today’s Russia, the Soviet Union is gone, and Russia is farther from Europe than Stalin. Since Peter the Great, with the small exception of Kaliningrad, that province they took from Germany where Immanuel Kant was born and Russia still controls, they’re very far from Europe.

And so in the fullness of time, without losing millions of people in a hot war against the Soviet Union, we won the Cold War, which Chamberlain foresaw would be a challenge. And George Kennan, my former colleague at Princeton University when I worked there, I have to say, also foresaw how this would work.

And so, deterrence and diplomacy, not necessarily sacrificing millions and millions and millions of young boys and [01:00:00] girls.

Mariam: Mm-hmm. We’ll have a million smaller questions related to that last question, but I will move on to our final question. The third volume of your magisterial biography, Stalin, Totalitarian Superpower, is reportedly due to be in 2024.

Could you give us a preview of your observations about Stalin’s Soviet Union during post-World War II and early years of the Cold War.

Stephen: I wish we were going to be out later this year, Miriam. I’m sorry to disappoint your listeners. I’m still working on it. I was working on it all morning before I got on the call with you.

It’s going to take a couple more years. Wow. The argument there is about how the Soviet Union was a superior totalitarianism to Nazi Germany. That may sound A little bit, I don’t know, paradoxical, but it was a superior [01:01:00] totalitarianism to Nazi Germany, but an inferior superpower to the United States. And so in the fullness of time, it was able, in coalition with the U.

  1. and the U. K. to defeat them. Nazi Germany, but in the fullness of time, as I said, Stalin lost the peace. So by the 1990s, what now was Russia, was no longer the Soviet Union, since Stalin’s Soviet Union was gone, it dissolved in 1991. Russia removed its troops from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states along the same roads as Napoleon had, But only in the opposite direction and Stalin, even though dead, many decades had effectively lost the peace.

There’s a subplot in there about the Chinese revolution and Mao and how Mao would eclipse Stalin because Stalin was old and infirm and Mao was young and healthy and the future of the global communist movement and over time, China would eclipse Russia [01:02:00] and become the senior rather than the junior partner in Eurasia.

That subplot is inside the story. of the inferior superpower vis a vis the United States.

Mariam: Can’t thank you enough. I haven’t been this absorbed in by anything in, so, so long. Thank you so much, Professor Kotkin.

Stephen: My pleasure.

Mariam: Professor Kotkin, could you please read a passage from your book?

Stephen: Of course. Let’s take volume one, just the single paragraph, pages 387 and 388, setting the scene.

I mean, this is the 10th party Congress. In 1921, the regime’s been in power not quite four years, and they’ve won the Civil War, so there’s this tremendous relief and sense of victory that they have. And they’re putting together something called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a new version of the [01:03:00] state to replace the Tsarist Empire.

For Marxist Leninists, nationalism is like religion. It’s a false god, whereas class is supposedly the predominant way that the world is or should be organized. And so Stalin is speaking. He’s at the podium at the 10th Party Congress. He’s in charge of nationalities and here he is. Stalin got the last word and attacked an array of objections.

Quote, Here I have a written note to the effect that we, communists, supposedly artificially forced a Byelorussian nation. This is false because a Byelorussian nation exists, which has its own language different from Russian. and that the culture of the Belarusian nation can be raised only in its own language.

Such speeches were made five years ago about Ukraine [01:04:00] concerning the Ukrainian nation. Clearly, the Ukrainian nation exists and the development of its culture is a duty of communists. One cannot go against history, end quote. So that’s Joseph Stalin in 1921, telling his fellow communists that nationalism was not ephemeral, but that nationalism had to be taken into account, which was why they formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, like Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Byelorussia, rather than one single unitary imperial Russia.

But for your listeners, think about this. very much. Stalin is acknowledging Ukraine as a separate nation, as a real nation, something which Vladimir Putin today refuses to do. So, your listeners can quote Stalin against Putin in arguing for the existence of a real [01:05:00] Ukrainian nation. Amazing.

Mariam: Can’t thank you enough. I haven’t been this absorbed in by anything in, so, so long. Thank you so much, Professor Kotkin.

Stephen: My pleasure.

Albert: I really enjoyed that interview as well.

Mariam: Yes. It was fascinating.

Albert: Yeah, lots to learn, certainly whet my appetite dig in Stalin a little bit more. that brings us to the conclusion of our show this week, but before we close out I want to give the Tweet of the Week, which comes from Education Next.

It [01:06:00] reads, but fostering high quality learning requires high quality teaching. I can’t just lecture at my students. Rather, teaching complex matter requires a combination of dialogue, authentic engagement, and mentoring. You know, that’s a line from an article over at ednext entitled, There are no shortcuts to thinking.

Where uh, higher ed instructor reflects on the capacity, the potential of AI to offer what he said there in the tweet, dialogue, authentic engagement and mentoring I’ll direct listeners to check out that article. I think this is You know, the question a question on many folks minds.

What’s the role of AI and its capacity in education? Right now, personally, I’m a little bit more bullish. You know, I don’t know whether this is going to deliver. I suppose on the promises, but certainly this article, at least this individual who wrote the article more optimistic. And so I’ll.

Leave it there for listeners to consider and think through and come to their own [01:07:00] decision. Miriam thanks for co hosting with me. This week is always great to have you on. It’s always a pleasure. Thank you very much. And I hope you join us next week for our episode on the learning curve podcast.

We’re going to have. Colonel Peter Hayden, who is general counsel at United States Cyber Command. So that should be a fascinating conversation. I’m looking forward to speaking with him. So I hope you join us and have a good day and good week until then. Goodbye now.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts University of Arkansas Prof. Albert Cheng and Mariam Memarsadeghi interview Stanford University senior fellow and biographer of Joseph StalinDr. Stephen Kotkin. He explores Stalin’s origins, consolidation of power, and his Communist despotism. Kotkin delves into Stalin’s cunning political maneuvers, his complex relationships with other Soviet leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, and the devastating consequences of his regime, including the forced collectivization and mass starvation of millions. Additionally, Dr. Kotkin examines Stalin’s role as a wartime leader, his alliances with Western powers, and the far-reaching implications of the Nazi-Soviet pact. He shares a preview of the forthcoming third volume of his Stalin biography, offering insights into Stalin’s Soviet Union during the post-WWII era and the early years of the Cold War. In closing Dr. Kotkin reads a passage from his first volume, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928.

Stories of the Week: Albert addressed an article from The Wall Street Journal discussing troubles with India’s education system; Mariam shared an article from Real Clear Education on Columbia University’s Rabbi’s message to Jewish students.


Stephen Kotkin is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Kleinheinz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is also the Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs emeritus at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, where he taught for 33 years. Dr. Kotkin’s books include Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 (2017) and Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 (2014), part of a planned three-volume history of Stalin’s power in Russia and the world. He has also authored Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (1995); and a trilogy analyzing Communism’s demise, of which two volumes have appeared thus far: Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970–2000 (2001; rev. ed. 2008) and Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (2009). Dr. Kotkin’s writing appears in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Wall Street Journal, among other venues. He earned his B.A. in English from the University of Rochester and his M.A. and Ph.D. in History at the University of California-Berkeley.

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