A Gangster Writ Larger Than All Others
I am immersed in the second volume of Stephen Kotkin's colossal three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin, which is called "Waiting for Hitler." (The third volume is in development.)
The picture that emerges has much in common with Tony Soprano - an utterly ruthless and ambitious man, but a complex one. The suicide of his wife and the assassination of his best friend Kirov seemed to affect him deeply. (The Kirov murder precipitated the great purges of 1936-38.) He was a genuinely committed Communist, but he feared that a purer form of Communism, inspired by Trotsky, would emerge out of Spain and sweep him away. (George Orwell was a victim of this high-stakes family squabble.) He had a very large personal library, and the books were not "for show."
If Russia had been the size of Latvia or Estonia, Stalin arguably would be remembered as a mere Tony Soprano. What distinguished him was the geographic scale of his playing field, from Finland to Vladivostok and the Black Sea. Seven hundred thousand Russian soldiers were lost just in the encirclement of Kiev early in WWII. Twenty thousand rail cars were needed to move Russian industrial capacity east of the Urals after Barbarossa. Millions of peasants died in the forced collectivization and "dekulakization" of the early 1930s. Millions more were shot by the NKVD, most often victims of paranoia or petty score settling. Paranoia and petty score settling trickled down from the top.
It is not as if Tony Soprano could have been handed the reins of such an enterprise and ridden the beast for as long, or as effectively, as Stalin did. Stalin had colossal energy and an iron will on the same scale, as well as, it seems, little or no remorse. Thus he became the greatest figure of the 20th century. When he died, his people descended into paroxysms of grief and even panic. Who could possibly step into his shoes?