On December 6, 2017, the New-York Historical Society hosted a lecture featuring distinguished historian Stephen Kotkin.
Stephen Kotkin, author of the book Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, 1929-1941, explored Joseph Stalin’s forced industrialization of the Soviet Union and assessed his relationship with Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II.
When Kotkin took the stage, he opened with a joke that had the audience roaring with laughter. With the relaxed atmosphere settling throughout the Robert H. Smith Auditorium, Kotkin dove into the lecture, which was divided into two parts. First, he spoke about the great famine that happened in the 1930s. The famine took place because Stalin wanted to impose communism in the countryside.
“The peasants in the countryside had a revolution in 1917; they evicted the landowners and became owners of the land,” Kotkin explained to the audience. The peasants began to engage in capitalism. Stalin referred to these farms as Kulak farms. Kulak means tight-fisted. They were called that to show how they were holding all of the wealth while other peasants were poor. Stalin made the Kulaks the common enemy of the people. He wanted to turn the country socialist so that it would later become communist. “The social base of production determines the political system,” Kotkin said, adding, “Communism will be undone because it shows that it doesn’t work.” The agricultural peasants not being communist showed the weakness present within communism. If the people in charge of production, who made up the majority of the population, didn’t follow communist ideals, then the country wouldn’t be communist.
Stalin’s critics did not believe he could change the beliefs of his country. “You don’t have the courage of your conviction. Either you believe in socialism and communism or you don’t,” Kotkin told of Stalin’s reaction to his critics. Stalin incited class warfare in the villages. Harvest, as a result, became worse, and it did not improve. The famine that began as a result of Stalin’s plans, lasted for about four years. “Stalin doesn’t flinch, he pushes forward,” said Kotkin. “By 1934, there was nearly 100 percent collectivization.”
After completing his explanation of the Great Famine, Kotkin began to humanize Stalin. “Evil is much more interesting when its human,” he noted. Kotkin explained Stalin’s affinity for colored pencils and reading. Stalin read up on Hitler before meeting with him. He studied Mein Kampf and other Hitler related works.
“It’s an old wives tale that Stalin trusted no one, but he trusted Hitler. So I go with, what if Stalin didn’t trust Hitler,” Kotkin explained how his book came about. The audience didn’t make a sound as Kotkin explained his book to them. He was lecturing the audience as if he were comfortably in his classroom. The audience members were eager students, awaiting the words of their professor.
With that transition, Kotkin explained the relationship between Stalin and Hitler. Stalin’s distrust of Hitler caused him to move with caution when interacting with him. Stalin would send a representative to make agreements. When Hitler was going to invade Poland, he sought to make a deal with Stalin. “Hitler didn’t want to fight a two-front war,” Kotkin explained. “The deal is Hitler gets most of Poland and they agree where the line is drawn in Poland.”
Then a week after negotiations, when Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin did nothing. The Germans, after capturing their portion of Poland, crossed over to the Soviet Union’s portion of Poland. Stalin found out he sent a messenger to the German office in Moscow, who saw an open map that showed the Germans crossing the agreed upon line.
The Germans tried to pass it off as a misunderstanding, but the portion of the land crossed contained Russian oil fields. The Red Army took back the land and began selling its oil in exchange for German weapons. This event led to Stalin’s distrust of Hitler. At the closing of the story Kotkin explained that he doesn’t wish to validate Stalin’s actions. He thought it important to humanize Stalin because it’s better to understand how a regime operated than impose our assumptions on him. With that Kutkin opened the floor for questions.
The questions asked by the audience focused around the relation between the present and Stalin and major events that could have been affected by communism. For example, the first question asked about the Great Depression affect on communism. “Capitalism was in a depression, socialism was on the rise. Despite the famines many people were looking at it thinking it was better,” Kotkin responded. The questions carried on in this manner until the program concluded one hour after it began.
The discussion on Stalin goes to show how far we’ve come from the creation of another Stalin. People have often made comparisons between Trump and famous dictators, but in Stalin’s category of leaders are Hitler and Mao. “Trump isn’t in that category,” Kotkin said.
Written by Cassandra Wilkins