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The Penguin Press



Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Edited by Scott Moyers

A magnificent new biography that revolutionizes our understanding of Stalin and his world.

It has the quality of myth: A poor cobbler’s son, a seminarian from an oppressed outer province of the Russian Empire, reinvents himself as a revolutionary and finds a leadership role within a small group of marginal zealots. When the old world is unexpectedly brought down in a total war, the band seizes control of the country, and the new regime it founds as the vanguard of a new world order is ruthlessly dominated from within by the former seminarian until he stands as the absolute ruler of a vast and terrible state apparatus, with dominion over Eurasia. We think we know the story well. Remarkably, Stephen Kotkin’s epic new biography shows us how much we still have to learn.

Volume One of Stalin begins and ends in January 1928 as Stalin boards a train bound for Siberia, about to embark upon the greatest gamble of his political life. He is now the ruler of the largest country in the world, but a poor and backward one, far behind the great capitalist countries in industrial and military power, encircled on all sides. In Siberia, Stalin conceives of the largest program of social reengineering ever attempted: the root-and-branch uprooting and collectivization of agriculture and industry across the entire Soviet Union. To stand up to the capitalists he will force into being an industrialized, militarized, collectivized great power in an act of will. Millions will die, and many more will suffer, but Stalin will push through to the end against all resistance and doubts. Where did such power come from?

The product of a decade of scrupulous and intrepid research, Stalin contains a host of astonishing revelations. Kotkin gives an intimate first-ever view of the Bolshevik regime’s inner geography, bringing to the fore materials from Soviet military intelligence and the secret police. He details Stalin’s invention of a fabricated trial and mass executions as early as 1918, the technique he would later impose across the whole country. The book places Stalin’s momentous decision for collectivization more deeply than ever in the tragic history of imperial Russia. Above all, Kotkin offers a convincing portrait and explanation of Stalin’s monstrous power and of Russian power in the world.

Stalin restores a sense of surprise to the way we think about the Soviet Union, revolution, dictatorship, the twentieth century, and indeed the art of history itself.



“Masterly…. Kotkin offers the sweeping context so often missing from all but the best biographies.  In his introductory chapter he makes the lofty assertion that a history if Stalin is akin to “a history of the world”… and he delivers not only a history of the late imperial Russia and of the revolution and early Soviet state, but also frequent commentary on the global geopolitics at play. [Stalin] presents a riveting tale, written with pace and aplombKotkin has given us a textured, gripping examination of the foundational years of the man most responsible for the construction of the Soviet state in all its brutal glory.  The first volume leaves the reader longing for the story still to come.”The New York Times Book Review

“Superb… Mr. Kotkin’s volume joins an impressive shelf of books on Stalin. Only Mr. Kotkin’s book approaches the highest standard of scholarly rigor and general-interest readability.” The Wall Street Journal

“This is a very serious biography that… is likely to well stand the test of time.” The New York Review of Books

“An exceptionally ambitious biography… Kotkin builds the case for quite a different interpretation of Stalin—and for quite a few other things, too. The book’s signature achievement… is its vast scope: Kotkin has set out to write not only the definitive life of Stalin but also the definitive history of the collapse of the Russian empire and the creation of the new Soviet empire in its place.” —Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic

“Magnificent and magisterial, Kotkin’s study sheds unexpected light on all sorts of thorny problems…. [T]he narrative is not only profound but thrilling.”  The American Scholar

“[Kotkin’s] viewpoint is godlike: all the world falls within his purview. He makes comparisons across decades and continents…. An exhilarating ride.”— The New Statesman (UK)

“A brilliant portrait of a man of contradictions… In the vast literature on the Soviet Union, there is no study to rival Stephen Kotkin’s massive first instalment of a planned three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. When it is complete, it will surely become the standard work, and I heartily recommend it.”—Robert Gellately, Times Higher Education (London)

“Monumental… It is a measure of Kotkin’s powers of research and explanation that Stalin’s decisions can almost always be understood within the framework of his ideology and the context of his times…. With a ferocious determination worthy of his subject, the author debunks many of the myths to have encrusted themselves around Stalin…. [A] magnificent biography. This reviewer, at least, is already impatient to read the next two volumes for their author’s mastery of detail and the swagger of his judgments.”—John Thornhill, Financial Times

“Required reading for serious Russia-watchers… As the product of years of work and careful thought, it is for me a reminder of what it takes to get close to the truth about important and controversial subjects. And the distance and time required to do so.”—David Johnson, Johnson’s Russia List

“Monumental… For Kotkin it was not Stalin’s personality that drove his politics but his politics that shaped his personality. His research, narrative and arguments are as convincing as they are exhaustive. The book is long but very readable and highly accessible to the general reader…. Magisterial.”—Geoffrey Roberts, Irish Examiner

“An ambitious, massive, highly detailed work that offers fresh perspectives on the collapse of the czarist regime, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the seemingly unlikely rise of Stalin to total power over much of the Eurasian land mass….This is an outstanding beginning to what promises to be a definitive work on the Stalin era.” Booklist (starred)

“Authoritative and rigorous…. Staggeringly wide in scope, this work meticulously examines the structural forces that brought down one autocratic regime and put in place another.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“This is an epic, thoroughly researched account that presents a broad vision of Stalin, from his birth to his rise to absolute power.” Publishers Weekly

“Kotkin has been researching his magisterial biography of Stalin for a decade. Inescapably important reading.” Library Journal

“Staggeringly researched, exhaustively thorough… Kotkin has no patience for the idea that Stalin… was a madman or a monster. His personality and crimes, Kotkin thinks, are only explicable in the wider contexts of Russian imperial history and Marxist theory. So this is less a conventional biography than a colossal life and times…. Hugely impressive.”—The Sunday Times (London)

“Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight…. [Kotkin] is an engaging interlocutor with a sharp, irreverent wit… making the book a good read as well as an original and largely convincing interpretation of Stalin that should provoke lively arguments in the field.”—Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Guardian

“In its size, sweep, sensitivity, and surprises, Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is a monumental achievement: the early life of a man we thought we knew, set against the world—no less—that he inhabited. It’s biography on an epic scale. Only Tolstoy might have matched it.” —John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University; author of George F. Kennan: A Life, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

“Stalin has had more than his fair share of biographies. But Stephen Kotkin’s wonderfully broad-gauged work surpasses them all in both breadth and depth, showing brilliantly how the man, the time, the place, its history, and especially Russian/Soviet political culture, combined to produce one of history’s greatest evil geniuses.” —William Taubman, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Amherst College; author of Khrushchev: The Man and his Era, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

“Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is ambitious in conception and masterly in execution. It provides a brilliant account of Stalin’s formation as a political actor up to his fateful decision to collectivize agriculture by force. Kotkin combines biography with historical analysis in a way that brings out clearly Stalin’s great political talents as well as the ruthlessness with which he applied them and the impact his policies had on Russia and the world. This is a magisterial work on the grandest scale.” —David Halloway, Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, Stanford University; author of Stalin and the Bomb

“More than any of Stalin’s previous biographers, Stephen Kotkin humanizes one of the great monsters of history, thereby making the monstrosity more comprehensible than it has been before. He does so by sticking to the facts—many of them fresh, all of them marshalled into a gripping, fine-grained story.” —Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution

Author Q&A


Stalin boarded a heavily guarded train bound for Siberia. It was January 15, 1928. He rarely traveled, even domestically, other than to the Black Sea, where he sought relief in the sulfur baths from the terrible pain in his joints. Siberia, however, he knew well from before the 1917 revolution, having been deported there countless times by the czarist regime, most recently during the Great War. His 1928 trip would take him to Novosibirsk and the breadbasket of western Siberia, as well as to Krasnoyarsk in the east, where in early 1917 a czarist draft board had rejected him, owing to the webbed toes on his left foot and his suppurated left elbow that did not bend properly (either because he was hit by a phaeton as a boy—the version Stalin told—or because of a congenital condition). Just weeks after his rejection, a telegram arrived in Krasnoyarsk with word of the downfall of the czar and February Revolution, inducing Stalin to head for Russia’s imperial capital by rail, carrying everything he owned: one small suitcase and a typewriter.

Now, eleven years later, he was returning as the country’s ruler, the general secretary of the Communist party. In Novosibirsk, at gatherings with the local higher-ups, Stalin demanded coercive measures to overcome a state grain procurement crisis. He spoke, unexpectedly, about the inescapability of collectivizing agriculture. A few days later, he went to Barnaul, an administrative center of the richest Siberian grain-growing region, to meet with officials lower down. There were no cars in Barnaul; from the terminal Stalin was ferried to the meeting in a primitive wooden basket sled (koshëvka). His modest means of conveyance starkly indicated the enormity of what would be involved in remaking the villages across two continents, one of the great turning points in a thousand years of Russian history.

Modern Russian power, in its Soviet guise, too, rested upon wheat and rye. For all the dreams of modernity, by 1928 industry had barely regained 1913 czarist levels, even with the recuperation provided by the New Economic Policy (NEP). Russian agriculture was not advancing while, among the great powers, mechanization of agriculture was well under way. The NEP presupposed peasants’ willingness to sell their “surpluses”—the grain beyond what they consumed—to state agents at state-set prices, and yet the state’s harvest that year had fallen millions of tons short of the target, threatening Moscow and Leningrad, as well as the Red Army, with starvation in spring. Officials began seizing grain, all of it, from anyone who grew it.

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