Stephen Kotkin on Solzhenitsyn
Jan 14 2019

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974crop.jpg Historian and author Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the historical significance of the life and work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn's birth.

Kevin McKenna on Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union, and In the First Circle
Russian Literature Professor Kevin McKenna of the University of Vermont talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the life and times of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This is the opening episode of the EconTalk Book Club for Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece In the First...
Paul Gregory on Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin
Paul Gregory of the University of Houston and a Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Nikolai Bukharin's power struggle with Stalin and Bukharin's romance with Anna Larina, who was 26 years younger...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jan 14 2019 at 9:57am

Stephen Kotkin: [Solzhenitsyn] believed in a different moral universe, opposed to the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian Nationalist. And the Soviet regime was supposed to be above nationalism, and incorporating a so-called brotherhood of peoples. Solzhenitsyn was a conservative. Not on the left. He hated Marxism, Leninism, and revolution. Solzhenitsyn was also a Christian. And the Soviet regime was, of course, officially atheist and attempted to suppress Christianity and destroyed thousands of churches, also attacking mosques, synagogues.

Kotkin masterfully illuminates the significance of both Solzhenitsyn and Stalin as individuals who changed history.  Much more importantly, he points out that their significance isn’t merely for those who study the past.  For better and for worse, understanding both figures is still relevant to understanding the ongoing issues for humanity.

This year is still very young, but I would consider this episode already in the running for the especially significant episodes of 2019.  While it’s always interesting to learn from the latest expert about their take on current trends and contemporary concerns in the news, there are some themes and insights reverberate through the centuries.  This episode touches on those latter themes that retain significance long after pivotal individuals have left the scene.

Malcolm C. Harris, Sr.
Jan 16 2019 at 11:14am

May I comment on your and Professor Kotkin’s discussion of the very justly famous passage in “The First Circle” and “In The First Circle,” depicting Stalin’s apparatchiks groveling before the Great Leader? This passage which was reproduced in National Review in the 1960s, reeks of that Slavic irony which is so evident everywhere in “In The First Circle.” You portray it as a portrayal of Stalin. This misses the full impact of the passage. What an ironic portrayal we get of these knee knocking apparatchiks, these powerful heads of the secret police, crawling into the bunker and so afraid that this may be the last time they leave alive. Here we see how the whole system of terror works. The higher up one is, the greater the peril. Then when they beg for the death penalty, the irony could not be more poignant!

Jan 17 2019 at 8:43am

This was an excellent episode, and it will be one of my candidates for the best episodes of 2019.

Russ Roberts mentioned that we don’t have gulags anymore. This is not true. There are brutal prison camps in North Korea. Also, China has re-education and labour camps especially targeted at Uyghurs.

There is one thing I don’t understand. How comes that Solzhenitsyn is part of the school curricula in Russia? How comes that Putin attended the inauguration of the Solzhenitsyn’s monument in 2018? I understand that they both like the Russian nationalism, but still the differences between them are too fundamental. Putin is moving Russia towards dictatorship, while the works of Solzhenitsyn show the horrors of a totalitarian regime. People reading Solzhenitsyn could feel some parallels with the current Russia just like reading Orwell’s fiction gives deep insights into the working of any totalitarian regime.

Putin and Solzhenitsyn have opposite views of Stalin. Putin likes the strong leaders who held Russia together (Stalin, tsars) and dislikes those who destroyed it (Lenin, Gorbachev). While Solzhenitsyn’s work is about preserving the memory of gulags, Putin’s Russia has seen an increasing tendency to delete the memory of gulags and to present Stalin in a positive light. Russia destroys the gulag records. The Solovki prison camp (the mother of all gulags) is closed and traces of former prison camp are being removed. Perm-36 (another museum) is closed and replaced by another museum delivering state propaganda, activists and historians documenting the gulag history are harassed. If Solzhenistyn were alive, what would he say about this? Would he still support Putin?

Vincent Passanisi
Jan 17 2019 at 5:31pm

Excellent podcast–learned a great deal. To the recommended EconTalk episodes related to this segment, I would suggest a link to Russ’s excellent 2009 interview with Christopher Hitchens. A classic that came to mind many times while listening this week.

Alexis Klimoff
Jan 20 2019 at 4:27pm

A truly outstanding interview, very intelligently steered by Russ Roberts and featuring wonderfully cogent responses and comments by Stephen Kotkin. Professor Kotkin’s suggestion that Solzhenitsyn’s impact on history is the second-greatest after Stalin’s is a strikingly memorable way of affirming the scale of the writer’s importance right at the start of this program. Other courageous witnesses to the Soviet experience are given their due, but Stephen Kotkin is persuasive in arguing that it was Solzhenitsyn’s unique combination of personality traits and his genius as a writer that allowed him to sway history in the way that he did.

The issue of the writer’s relationship with Putin was not raised in the interview, but clearly troubles some commentators to this podcast. In this connection I would like to submit only that the common demonization of Putin in main-line Western sources is greatly overdone and does not reflect the genuine views of most Russians. Referring to Putin as a dictator and Stalin admirer is unsupported by the facts.

John Thurow
Jan 25 2019 at 12:51pm

What a great episode.  Prof Kotkin is very articulate.  Thanks!

Jan 29 2019 at 11:33am

Hello! As always, spectacular guests on Econ-talk. I would very much like to hear a return episode to listen to this guests commentary after he has read Solzhenitsyns’ most banned work entitled “200 Years Together” which only very recently (within the last two years) was voluntarily crowd translated into English. I presume Mr. Kotkin doesn’t read Russian so he never had the chance. This compulsory Solzhenitsyn read sheds important light onto a tumultuous time in history and is available download for free in PDF format from various places on the internet.

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: December 10, 2018.]

Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guest, I want to encourage listeners to go to, and in the upper left-hand corner you'll find the link to our annual survey where you can vote for your favorite episodes of the year, tell us about yourself and your listening experience.


Russ Roberts: And now, for today's guest, historian and author Stephen Kotkin.... Our topic for today is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We're taping this on December 10th, the day before Solzhenitsyn's 100th birthday, if he were alive. And, we did two episodes earlier this year with Kevin McKenna of the U. of Vermont on In the First Circle. Today's conversation is based loosely on an essay you wrote for the Times Literary Supplement on a number of recent books by and about Solzhenitsyn. I want to begin with his impact. As an historian who has written on Stalin among many others, I know you've thought and written about the role of individuals in history versus larger forces. It's a common issue in thinking about history generally. How would you describe Solzhenitsyn's impact on history?

Stephen Kotkin: Second most important after Stalin himself. Solzhenitsyn was able, as a single human being, to blacken the image of the Soviet Union globally, even though he was prohibited from publishing most of his works inside the Soviet Union, they nonetheless appeared and spread--usually underground, sometimes through denunciations of him. So, he had a massive impact at home as well as abroad, and this impact was devastating for the Soviet system. Many people believe the Soviet system had redeeming features. For example, Hitler--Nazism--was absolutely beyond redemption. The Holocaust and what Hitler did made it seem that if you said anything nice about the Nazi system, you were apologizing for it. In the case of the Soviet Union, people imagined that there was a better revolution inside the Stalin regime, somehow. That 1917 was a purer, better form of Socialism that had been usurped or degraded by Stalin's rule. Solzhenitsyn proved the contrary. Not only did he prove the contrary, but he did it in a way that tens of millions of people were interested to read. So, that's an incredible accomplishment now on his centenary.

Russ Roberts: And when you think about his impact: obviously, we see it through his work and the reaction that he engendered, as you say, in the public as well as with the Soviet leadership. But it would be an interesting thought experiment to think about, had he not had the courage to do what he did, or had his work not survived--not gotten outside the camp, not been dispersed through various underground networks and then made its way to the way to the West--do you think Soviet history would have been different? And if so, how?

Stephen Kotkin: Yes. The debate we had about the Soviet Union, it's much muted now. It's hard for us to appreciate the Soviet Union has been gone for more than a quarter century. However, which the Soviet Union still existed, the debate about its reformability, its redeemability, and why we should have a détente with the Soviet Union, and why maybe even the Soviet and American systems were evolving in the same direction, in what was called 'convergence theory'--those debates were really important debates. And confusing. Solzhenitsyn entered into those debates with the searing moral authority of having suffered, long suffered, under that system. And he brought the voices of all who suffered under that system to the fore in his work. This achievement, it was not paralleled by anybody else. Yes, there were many other courageous people. Yes, there were people right there at the Hoover Institution like Robert Conquest who wrote magnificent books covering the truth of the Soviet Union. However, Solzhenitsyn did something more. What he did was to show the Soviet Union was evil not just a political point of view but from a moral point of view. And he did it in a way that was persuasive.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I find it fascinating--of course, in the 1920s, there were a lot of apologists who believed or hoped that the Soviet system was creating a new man, a new human being, a new system, a better system. There are people who lied on its behalf, who covered it up, who trusted the propaganda that was pumped out by that system and the lies that were told when people visited there. I can't help but think of Walter Duranty as a shameful piece of that story. And a lot of Western intellectuals, of course, fell prey to that. They were eager to believe that something new and better was going on. And then there came a time--you'll correct me if I'm wrong--but there became an awareness somewhere between, I would say, 1935 and 1955; you'll be more precise--that something was very rotten there. That there was an incredibly repressive regime. That it abused its citizens in terrible ways. And although a handful of people, intellectuals, continued to apologize for the system, or for Stalin, most Westerners turned against Stalin's vision. Why did it take--so, what's the independent contribution of, say, Solzhenitsyn's first-hand accounts in the Gulag Archipelago that he collected, his own story and that of dozens and dozens of other zeks--other political prisoners? What was the extra impact of that literary achievement, above and beyond what was somewhat well known?

Stephen Kotkin: Well known, maybe, Russ. We have to remember that the French Communist Party was Stalinist during the whole period of Stalin's rule. And even after Stalin died and was denounced. We also have to remember that many people downplayed the evil nature of the regime. That is to say, they would acknowledge, 'Yes, there were famines. Yes, millions of people died. But these were not intentional; these were mistakes. These were not core to the system. The Gulag where the labor camp--otherwise known as the Labor Camps--where millions of people were incarcerated often for so-called political crimes--these were not so big. The numbers were exaggerated. Yes, there were excesses, but nonetheless, even Stalinism was not beyond the pale.' Let us also remember that in this confusing debate where some people defended Stalinism: Once again, Russ, just about nobody got away with defending the Hitler regime. In this confusing debate where some people--including prominent people--defended Stalinism, we also had a large number of people who saw a better revolution inside this Soviet regime, which maybe could be recuperated once Stalin died. So, Khrushchev's "Secret Speech," which denounced Stalin for his crimes, was actually an attempt to rehabilitate the Soviet system. It harkened back to a purer version of the Revolution, supposedly associated with Lenin. And with Leninism. So that Stalin became a cult of the personality, in Khrushchev's term, a degradation of the Revolution. And therefore, there would be a second wind. A socialism with a human face. Or Communist reform. Many people were newly attracted to the Soviet phenomenon upon Stalin's death. In fact, there was a split on the left between those who denounced Stalin and those who continued to praise Stalin. What both sides shared was a belief in either the Stalin version of the Revolution or an original Lenin version of the Revolution, as being historically necessary and correct. We forget those debates, because now, of course, very few people will defend that history in the same way. But that's the context in which Solzhenitsyn arrived. And he started out trying to figure how he could capture, describe this reality. And he wrote a couple of really important novels on the Labor Camps from firsthand experience. And, they stood the test of time. In fact, in 1970, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for these novels. And we know them as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; we know them as In the First Circle; and of course Cancer Ward. So, he won the Nobel by tackling these themes. But, that wasn't the big impact yet. The big impact came from the Gulag Archipelago, which would be published not in the Soviet Union but abroad beginning in the early 1970s--1973--after he had won the Nobel. And that book was one of the main ways in which many people, not just intellectuals but the mass readership, the public, the kind of people who are core to any country's democratic order--those people began to see that the regime was rotten in its roots. That there was no better revolution inside the Stalin regime. That Stalin's years of the 1920s through 1953 were no worse than Lenin's 1917 coup d'état in October 1917. And so, this achievement of Solzhenitsyn, 1800 pages, much longer than War and Peace, longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined, and yet readable--a page-turner in many ways--this incredible achievement which was well-documented despite him having zero access to the secret archives--of course, today people like myself and other scholars, we can read those archives. But Solzhenitsyn had no access to those whatsoever. He read published sources. Soviet newspapers and other periodicals. Soviet books. And, of course, his own life experience and the life experience of 226 other political prisoners whom he interviewed and whose stories are related in that magnificent, 3-volume Gulag Archipelago, the first volume of which as I said appeared in 1973. This is a singular achievement. There was nothing else like it. And so, all those people who are making these fine distinctions between Leninism and Stalinism, between the original Revolution and the supposed degradation[?], now had to contend with what Solzhenitsyn showed: which was the Gulag started years before Stalin, and his despotism. Before Stalin was the sole ruler, the system was in place. And it was in place from the beginning.

Russ Roberts: And it feels--you know, as a non-specialist in the area, it feels like--it's even more than just the historical fact that there was oppression before Stalin. It's also the intellectual corruption and impossibility of the ideals of the Soviet system just shines through over and over again in his work.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Russ Roberts: I used to tell--I think I've told listeners before, but when I used to teach undergrads, on the last class I would recommend a series of books I didn't think they might think of reading that I would recommend, encourage them to read. And for years, over a decade, certainly in the 1980s and a lot of the 1990s, I would recommend that they read the Gulag Archipelago--just out of tribute to his courage in writing that book. I felt like, morally he deserved people to read that book. I also would recommend Anne Applebaum's book, the Gulag, which is a very nice shorter version of the history. And of course there's now a one-volume version of the Gulag Archipelago that, as you write in your essay, that Solzhenitsyn approved of--do I have that right?

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.


Russ Roberts: So, you mentioned some of his interactions with the regime in passing. I want you to talk about the roller coaster of his relationship with the Soviet leaders. It begins in some sense with his imprisonment after returning as a veteran from WWII. So, he suffers at Stalin's hands. He's then somewhat rehabilitated by Khrushchev. Then he's on the outs again. So he has this incredible up-and-down relationship with authority, and at the same time, it seems like much of the time the authorities don't know what to do with him. And have unleashed him with effects that they didn't anticipate. So, I get the feeling--and tell me if I'm wrong--that Khrushchev thought he was using Solzhenitsyn to advance his own political aspirations in putting down Stalin; but eventually he just lost control of that.

Stephen Kotkin: You're right, Russ. Solzhenitsyn was somebody who served in the Soviet Army in World War II. He was part of that invasion force that swept into Poland, and then Prussia, on its way to Berlin. In the midst of that, he was arrested for some indiscreet comments about Stalin, which normally would be considered harmless but in such a regime as the Stalin regime were considered a political crime. And so he was sentenced. Sent to the Gulag--the labor camps. By the way: We should acknowledge that it was Solzhenitsyn who made that word 'Gulag' widespread in multiple languages, including English. Of course, he was released eventually. And Khrushchev, like you said, did see him as an instrument in this de-Stalinization. Khrushchev was denouncing Stalin's crimes and excesses. Not denouncing, for example, collectivization of agriculture, where millions of peasants died and survivors were enslaved. He was not denouncing the state-owned and so-called state-led planned economy. He was not denouncing the Communist Party's monopoly on power and the censorship on the public sphere[?]. He was denouncing that, as Khrushchev was denouncing, Stalin's arrests and execution, executions of loyal Communist cadre. And so, it was a kind of: Keep the system but get rid of the excesses. And for that, the denunciation of the Camps that one could see in Solzhenitsyn's novels looked like an important instrument that Khrushchev produced. So, in fact, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was approved by Khrushchev for publication in the Soviet Union. And it's a story about one of the Labor Camps, loosely based on Solzhenitsyn's first-hand experience. However, Solzhenitsyn, soon enough, as you alluded to, ran afoul of the authorities. Because, Solzhenitsyn was something that the regime didn't count on. First of all, he was very determined and resolved. He was resolute. Unlike a lot of intellectual class, who wanted, let's say, favors, apartments, awards, a better life, recognition, a mass audience. Solzhenitsyn wasn't against those aspects of a literary life. But he was after much more. He was after the truth. He was writing not because he needed to become famous, but because he believed in a different moral universe, opposed to the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian Nationalist. And the Soviet regime was supposed to be above nationalism, and incorporating a so-called brotherhood of peoples. Solzhenitsyn was a conservative. Not on the left. He hated Marxism, Leninism, and revolution. Solzhenitsyn was also a Christian. And the Soviet regime was, of course, officially atheist and attempted to suppress Christianity and destroyed thousands of churches, also attacking mosques, synagogues. So, Solzhenitsyn came from a different moral universe with a different set of beliefs. And, he was not as susceptible to the blandishments that many people in the intelligentsia, who complained about the regime, that many people were susceptible to. So he was very difficult to handle for the Soviet regime. Moreover, we now have the Secret Documents--KGB [Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, Soviet Union state security agency] documents and Politburo documents about Solzhenitsyn, which were published a number of years ago as the Solzhenitsyn files--which show, exactly as you suggested that the regime did know how to handle him. You see, for example, Dmitry Ustinov, who was Leonid Brezhnev's Minister of Defense. Brezhnev was the head of the Soviet Union following Khrushchev for 18 years, during the, from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. His Ministry of Defense--Dmitry Ustinov, at a Politburo meeting, said that, 'If we try to organize a denunciation of Solzhenitsyn in our organizations--meaning in all the Party Cells across the country--it might not turn out the way we hope. Or the way we want.' In other words, they were afraid that Solzhenitsyn and his belief system and his written works could spark not a pro-Soviet consolidation, but in fact critiques of the Soviet Union from a Russian nationalist and a Christian conservative point of view. And so, yeah: He was trouble for them. Trouble in a big way. They had a lot of issues. Don't get me wrong. Solzhenitsyn wasn't the only one. They had economic issues, Russ. Which of course you understand well. They had Eastern Europe, which was in revolt. Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe which were supposed to be a security belt that they acquired in World War II. But instead had become a source of vulnerability. Like, in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968--the so-called Prague Spring. They had multiple vulnerabilities. But somebody like Solzhenitsyn, they had no answer for. And he was only a single individual. And yet they feared him and didn't know what to do. Finally, they bundled him onto a plane and deported him, to the West, where he lived the next 20 years of his life. Beginning in the early 1970s. And so, this life in the West, however--which is also an important subject--we must remember that Solzhenitsyn wrote in Russian, for the audience back home. He not only wrote open letters to the Soviet leadership: All his novels, all his political tracts and interviews and speeches--they were directed at his homeland. He was trying to effect change at home, even when he lived those 20 years in exile in the West.


Russ Roberts: Do you think--do you find it surprising that they didn't kill him? Obviously--Stalin would have killed him if he'd known what he would become. He killed people for far less than that. Do you find it--do we know anything about those internal debates, about whether that was talked about, considered?

Stephen Kotkin: The regime changed. When Stalin died in 1953, it was still the same regime, obviously. And it was still the same people in power. Just Stalin was gone. But the ability to enact mass violence on their own people had diminished. It had diminished in part because of external changes in the world, but also because of internal changes. Yes, they could still execute some people. Yes, they could still organize, for example, accidents, fake car accidents to get rid of people. But, they didn't have the same wherewithal, either ideologically or even their own determination to just wipe people out. And so what they began to do instead was a combination of internal exile, which had always been practiced but now was practiced more in lieu of executions, and what was called prophylaxis, which was to try to preempt people like Solzhenitsyn by either intimidating them or seducing them with offers of goodies. So that change in tactics by the KGB marks a change in Soviet society from uneducated, third- or fourth-grade education on average to completion of high school education, completion of college education, and plus, as we said, external changes in the world. So, there was no longer Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy and Hirohito's regime in Japan. And so the ability to just kill people in large numbers because they were dissidents, they disagreed with you, they criticized you was sort of lost by the regime. And so, they did to Solzhenitsyn what they did to many other people--Bukovsky, Vladimir Bukovsky, for example; Andrei Sakharov, for example--they tried to banish them internally and cut them off from the public. It worked, in many cases. It didn't work in the case of Bukovsky. It didn't work in the case of Sakharov. And obviously it didn't work in the case of Solzhenitsyn. But they were exceptions. Many other people were broken--as we would be, probably, in such circumstances. They made their peace with the regime; or, they simply were trying to survive. They had families; they had livelihoods. Not everyone could be Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, or Bukovsky. And so the regime's new policy of internal deportation, silencing and/or prophylaxis/pre-emption worked, to a very great degree against the dissident movement. It just didn't work against somebody like Solzhenitsyn.


Russ Roberts: So, you get the idea, certainly from reading In the First Circle--and I would say it just screams out from the man--that, first of all, there's the moral courage that you alluded to earlier. But there's also another advantage he had, I think, in standing up to the regime's threats and blandishments, which was: He appeared to believe very deeply in the redemptive nature of suffering. And I'm curious if in his youth or his upbringing or his personal experiences before he entered the camps--other than the fact that I know he was a big fan of Dostoevsky, who also I think believed in the redemptive power of suffering--I'm curious if we have any hints as to what made him so distinctive, so strong, so powerful in not being broken.

Stephen Kotkin: There's a determination there which has to be attributed in part to personality. This goes back to your earlier question, Russ, about: had there been no Solzhenitsyn, maybe things would have turned out the same. Maybe somebody else would have stepped up and played this role in history, as, for example, 'History selects people for certain roles; and this was a role that needed to be played, and if it hadn't been for Solzhenitsyn, someone else would have been found.' Well, I have to say that, writing about Stalin, I don't believe that. Stalin's personality was absolutely crucial. It took a person like Stalin to impose this system and stabilize it the way he did, at those colossal human costs. And I see very few, if any, people besides Stalin inside that regime--as horrible as those other people were, as low a view they took on human life as they did--I see very few other people with that same combination of resolve and skill that brought to that immense task of building Socialism--as he called it--that is to say, imposing that system. Solzhenitsyn, in the opposite direction, is a similar, unique personality: that combination of moral values beyond corruption, as well as resolve and determination no matter how much he suffered. Solzhenitsyn discovered a lot of Russian philosophy and Russian authors--that is to say, literary figures--over the course of time. Partly it was in Soviet education to begin with. For example, figures like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were brought back into the curriculum under Stalin. Partly it was looking, as he did, for unorthodox figures that were not part of the official Soviet schooling. Many of them he discovered only when he got out to the West and he could read the emigration[?] in full. For example, when he worked at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives. Or, he worked through other émigré publications that were sent to him or preserved in different locations besides the Hoover one. And so, he discovered reinforcement of views that he had developed, partly on his own through growing up in that country and just partly because he was looking for a value system beyond the Soviet one, even while he was still there. And so, his education in the broadest sense--his upbringing, his intellectual trajectory--is a really big story. And we have some pretty good biographies which try to trace this. But even so, some mystery remains about the person, about this combination as I'm calling it--right?--of moral force and just in general stubbornness or political resolve as well as moral resolve. This is what's special about him, Russ. And so, we have to acknowledge that he's not alone. Other people shared this, including some who are not famous--who died in the camps alongside him. Or who survived the camps, but as invalids. Or who were not great writers and so couldn't transmit their stories the same way that he could. We all want to make him seem to be one person among 300 million. But, nonetheless, he speaks for those others who were less eloquent and even those courageous others, he stands out against that background.


Russ Roberts: In the novel In the First Circle, which we've talked about here in those episodes I mentioned earlier, I think there are four chapters that relate to Stalin. And, it's quite lengthy. Some editors would have cut them. They don't add a lot to the plot, directly. They are sort of a--they could be interpreted--I don't think this is correct, but they could easily be interpreted as an indulgence on the part of Solzhenitsyn to get it off his chest, to satirize and poke fun at Stalin. His portrait of Stalin is, I would say, Stalin as egotistical buffoon. As a petty child. As an insecure enfant terrible. And I was also struck watching the movie that came out recently, The Death of Stalin, which I watched with some unease, I have to say. I didn't find it funny. It's supposed to be a comedy. Sort of a comedy. It's the darkest kind of humor--that paints Beria and Khrushchev and the survivors of Stalin himself, as well, as sort of comic book Keystone Cops--inept, blundering this way and that. And--what are your thoughts on, first, Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Stalin? And on the movie, if you have any thoughts on it?

Stephen Kotkin: It's tough. What do you do with a guy like Stalin, when the evil is so immense? Scale is just unfathomable. And you yourself suffered directly under him. Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Stalin is not really successful, except as an exercise in kind of psychological revenge. He diminishes Stalin. As you said. He makes Stalin out to be a nothing, a nobody. And, in some ways, it was Solzhenitsyn's criticism or joking about Stalin that put him in the Gulag in the first place. That launched all of what happened, including Solzhenitsyn's successful blackening of that regime at its roots. And so, in some ways In the First Circle returns to that 1945 episode. However, it isn't integral to the novel and it isn't a successful portrait, however understandable it is psychologically. Sometimes we forget that evil is also human. That Stalin was a human being. That Hitler was a human being. And that, the more we understand them as humans, the scarier their evil becomes. It doesn't mean we justify them. It doesn't mean we validate them, we make excuses for them. But it does enable us to reach a level of understanding. Solzhenitsyn was not interested, at all, in moral or political or biographical terms, of reaching an understanding of Stalin's character. He was just interested in countering Soviet propaganda and belittling this figure who had been inflated the way he had been. If you take Iannucci's movie, The Death of Stalin--Iannucci is a great film director, and many people find the film entertaining. And, of course, it is very clever. And there are moments that I found funny--not the whole movie, but many moments, which were, I thought, hilarious. At the same time--and also, I'm not afraid to engage in satire when it comes to something even as monstrous as the Stalin regime. Brooks [Mel Brooks] did it for the Hitler regime. Charlie Chaplain did it for Hitler. When it's done well, it can be very effective. However, one of the problems with Iannucci is that just like Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Stalin in In the First Circle: Now once again, it can make you feel good. But, to portray that regimes operatives--those around Stalin when he died--Beria, Malenkov, Molotov, Khrushchev, Kaganovich--to portray them as idiots, as venal, corrupt politicians like we would find, I don't know, in the urban political machine of any major city--right--graft and bribes and favors--to portray them as corrupt and venal in that way, and then as not very intelligent, is to miss, of course, how that system could have arisen in the first place. And how it could have functioned. If everyone was so stupid, and if everyone was merely corrupt, the Soviet regime never would have happened. The people who ran the Soviet regime were not geniuses. But they weren't buffoons. They were blinkered ideologically, but they were effective administrators in a dictatorial regime. In a dictatorial way. And so, the film, for me, falls short as a portrait of the reality there. I do recognize it, once again, as an entertainment. And it may be harsh to judge it in historical terms, rather than as a piece of entertainment. However, as a piece of entertainment, it falls short for me--precisely because, you can do satire well, of a regime that big; but it's a little one-dimensional, ultimately. Iannucci when he does this about a Democratic or Western political system--the U.S. system, the British system--it works much better. The stakes are lower because the political system doesn't matter as much. And also because they don't have that monstrosity, that evil, on a mass scale that these officials perpetrated. So, I wish Solzhenitsyn had done better with his Stalin; but I acknowledge that he probably derived some pleasure from being able to ridicule Stalin in print.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I would make a distinction between the two in the following way--between Solzhenitsyn's portrait of Stalin and the movie portrait in The Death of Stalin movie. And I don't know if this is accurate or not. But in the movie--I will not, there will be no spoilers here--but the opening scene, I found quite powerful and creepy. It's a concert scene. It did capture some of the--it tried to be humorous about it, but it did capture some of the other abject fear that people had of being on the wrong side of Stalin. And, it tried to be--it didn't work for me--aesthetically, but it tried to temper the buffoonery with periodic gunshots. People just being executed in the background of the film. Which is an interesting way to try to deal with what we are talking about. But, the reason I found Solzhenitsyn more affecting, and more effective, is that, while he did belittle the man, we had the rest of the book. And, the rest of the book is about the utter horror and human debasement that Stalin was perpetrating on his fellow citizens. And so, I thought that contrast was quite powerful. And I found it quite--I think it went it went along too long. But I didn't find--it wasn't just a psychological exercise, you know, a catharsis, in my view--

Stephen Kotkin: Hmmm--

Russ Roberts: But that's neither here nor there. Let's move--but I just wanted to get that in.

Stephen Kotkin: Hmmm--


Russ Roberts: Tell me: Why do you think there's a renewal of interest in Solzhenitsyn? As you point out, historically he's incredibly important. But at the same time, as you point out, the Soviet Union has been gone for over a quarter of a century. The historical lessons seem to be no longer relevant--I disagree, but many would argue that there's no threat of labor camps. As you say, there wasn't even the threat of mass imprisonment or execution after the death of Stalin--

Stephen Kotkin: Hmmm--

Russ Roberts: On the surface you could argue Solzhenitsyn's just an historical curiosity, and important figure, he struggled and shows the courage of one man. Yet, I think it's more than that. What are your thoughts?

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah--Solzhenitsyn's going to stay relevant, Russ. And the reason he's going to stay relevant is because it's not just the system that's gone. Not just the horrors that he described, which are now, hopefully, dead and buried the way Stalin is dead and buried, but because he tapped into something larger. He tapped into this, how to organize our politics when countries have different cultures. One of the things we've discovered about globalization and about integrating the world economically, is that countries still have their cultures and their identities; and that these matter. And that people often welcome economic integration, but not necessarily at the expense either of their own wellbeing economically or of what they value in cultural terms--in identity terms.

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Stephen Kotkin: And so, Solzhenitsyn was ahead of the curve in speaking to those issues. He was arguing, many years before the Soviet regime fell, that the West could not universalize itself. That the institutions which made the West what it is, and from which Solzhenitsyn benefited tremendously--living in freedom, owning private property, publishing without censorship. He understood those values. He appreciated those values. But he didn't think every country's history, tradition, and culture was amenable. Right? That combination, that package, was amenable to the same institutions. That, countries had national traditions, national institutions, which had to be taken into account. And so, the post-Soviet for him, which was, as I said, he was thinking about well before the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, was a matter not of Westernization per se. He wanted some measure of local rule. Local self-rule. Democracy at the local level. But he wanted to marry that with a strong, centralized power in Russia. Because he felt that that was part of the Russian tradition. He wanted a spiritual renewal in Russia. He wanted a country based on morality, not solely a predominantly based on the law. He wanted many things, which people in the West did not understand, and was one of the reasons behind his difficult reception, having been hailed as this great, courageous dissident who helped blacken the Soviet regime. He was then seen as a bizarre, 19th century reactionary figure who criticized the West in its values and institutions, and didn't understand the West. But, in fact, the kind of Liberal condescension--the attempt to impose a single world view or a single political system across the globe, which we've seen backfire in our lifetimes. That was something Solzhenitsyn worried about and he presaged. And so, he became a figure who fit in well with the post-1991--post 1990s, in fact--mood in Russia. And his works are assigned in high school in Russia today, by the official federal curriculum in Russia. And, in addition, he can be read in the West the same way that we read Holocaust literature. We of course hope that something like that never happens again, what happened to Jews under Nazi rule. But yet, we still read the Holocaust literature and it still speaks to us, because it's about who we are and what we value and the kinds of moral choices in difficult moments under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Solzhenitsyn speaks to that in the West, even as he speaks to a Russian version of modernity, a Russian version of national traditions, inside that country, too. Not everybody is going to share Solzhenitsyn's views inside Russia today. And we wouldn't expect that. Nor am I suggesting we accept them all uncritically. I'm merely suggesting that it's an important part of the conversation. And he's a major figure, even 10 years dead now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And he's a major figure for us. We don't live in Russia. We have different traditions here. But he's a major figure for us because we're struggling with this globalization, cultural divide, cultural identity, attempt to understand people who are left out, left behind, have a different point of view; get rid of the condescension toward them. Why was Brexit important? What did the Trump Presidency--his election and the electoral college--what did it reveal? It revealed that a large part of the country was unheard. That their voices weren't being heard. That's what Trump revealed. And that's what Brexit revealed. And that's, to an extent, what Solzhenitsyn foretold. Once again: We're not necessarily solving those issues that were revealed. The politics may be fake. But what I'm suggesting is the sentiments are real. And those sentiments are a worthy debate for us to have. And Solzhenitsyn fits into that debate here in the United States, just as he fits in in Russia.


Russ Roberts: I encourage listeners to go back to the, if you haven't heard it, the episode we did with Yoram Hazony and his book, The Virtue of Nationalism, which, you know, is kind of shocking. You kind of--it's easy as a Westerner, certainly as an American, to think that the trample[?], march of democracy and capitalism is going to sweep the world. And there are some signs that that is a long-term trend. But now there are some signs that maybe not so much. And, as you point out, Solzhenitsyn took a lot of criticism in the 1980s for being a reactionary. For being a Christian. For being a nationalist, in particular, which is what we are really talking about--this tension between nationalism and universalism, whether you call it globalization or universalism.

Stephen Kotkin: Hmmm.

Russ Roberts: And he's also been accused--I'm curious: Do you think he was an anti-Semite? I've heard that claim.

Stephen Kotkin: No. He was not. That's a really spurious charge. Solzhenitsyn believed that religion was the primary determinant of a civilization. Why did he think that Russia had a separate identity? Because of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He wrote a book about the Jews in Russia called 200 Years Together. And it was about how Jews and Russians were different civilizations, once again because of religion. Now, we can argue that he's wrong: that religion is not the primary determinant of a civilization. I'm not suggesting that we accept that argument. I'm only suggesting that that was the argument he made; and that was the reason he differentiated between Russians and Jews, even though they had lived 200 years together because Russians joined--uh, Jews joined the Empire, after or as a result of the partitions of Poland. When Poland was swallowed up at the end of the 18th century, that's when Russia--the Russian Empire, the Czarist Empire--acquired a large Jewish population. Which it did not have before the late 18th century. And so, the idea that they are separate civilizations because of religion does not constitute anti-Semitism.

Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with you, but, you know, when I say we are going to do a Book Club on In the First Circle some of my readers on Twitter, and listeners, knowing I'm Jewish, said, 'How can you do this? He's an anti-Semite.' My view is: I don't particularly think he is an anti-Semite. I'm glad to hear you agree. But I still could enjoy In the First Circle, just like I could enjoy The Brothers Karamazov as a magnificent book. I don't think Dostoevsky was so friendly to Jews. But that's not really the--I still can learn a lot from him. It's okay.


Russ Roberts: Let's turn toward--let's close with talking about Stalin, a little bit. It's my impression that his reputation on the streets of Moscow and elsewhere in Russia is on the rise. That's what we hear in the media. Is that true? Is he having something of a comeback, reputationally?

Stephen Kotkin: Stalin will always be a major figure with positive, high positive, as well as negative views in Russia. The reason is pretty simple, Russ. He won the war. Stalin was in power during World War II, the greatest war in recorded history, against that Hitler regime; and he was on the winning side. You can argue that they won despite Stalin, not because of Stalin. You can argue that he contributed nearly to defeat, and that if it hadn't have been for Stalin maybe they wouldn't have had to fight the war in the first place, or certainly they wouldn't have suffered that level of casualties. You can make all sorts of arguments and qualifications about Stalin's role in that war. But you cannot take away the coincidence, the fact that he was in power during the war. And so therefore, being on the winning side of the greatest war in history will always make Stalin a figure to be at least partially admired in that culture. In addition, he's seen as someone who stood up to the West, who created a nuclear arms super power, who helped divide the world with Churchill and Roosevelt, and then with other leaders who succeeded Churchill, and Roosevelt in the United States. However, the same people who have this partial or more than partial admiration for Stalin, many of them know the crimes he committed, the monstrosity of his rule; and they still, nonetheless have these feelings of admiration for him. We shouldn't assume that it's because they are ignorant--that they don't know the truth, that if we could just tell them how many people perished in the famines, that they would back off of their positive views about Stalin. Stalin was, for better or for worse, a very major historical figure, perhaps the greatest historical figure in historical terms--not in moral terms--in that culture. And so it's impossible to do away with him. In fact, after Stalin died in 1953, he was still the most significant personality in that culture. And part of Khrushchev's failure upon attempting to succeed Stalin as the ruler of the Soviet Union, was that he couldn't. He couldn't fill Stalin's shoes. He couldn't be Stalin. Now, Khrushchev and Stalin were patron and client. Right? They were teacher and disciple. And so, we shouldn't expect that Khrushchev would be on that same level. But that's kind of the same point I'm making: Stalin was on a very--Stalin was on a level different from most politicians. For better or for worse. Now, there are many people who detest Stalin alive in Russia today. There are many people who cannot stand the name, who, when they see someone wearing a Stalin shirt or see Stalin memorabilia, it's revolting to them. Their stomach turns. I'm not suggesting that the whole culture there is enamored of Stalin. But I'm also not surprised that a significant plurality still find some reasons to admire him through all that bloodshed.

Russ Roberts: Now, you are writing a biography of Stalin that you've issued--you've published the first two volumes. Is that correct--two, to date?

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Russ Roberts: And they come to 2000 pages, although I'm sure that includes a lot of footnotes and references. Is there one more volume planned? Or, more than one? And, what's it like to spend that much time and that many pages with a person you view as a monster?

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah. I do have one more volume scheduled which I'm working on now, which covers the period of World War II, the Cold War, Stalin's death, and the aftermath. And I'm hoping that in the next several years I can bring that volume to conclusion, and therefore the whole series to conclusion. I've spent now, as you say, a lot of time with Stalin. And it is very troubling. You see the evil on the pages, on those documents you read with his pencil marks, his checkmarks in pencil, his underlinings. You see the orders to kill this person and that person. Deport this whole nation. It's hard to describe in words that experience. And, as you say, over a number of years it's cumulative. At the same time, Russ, if you are interested in power--interested in how power works, how it's accumulated, how it's exercised, and what the consequences of exercising power are--Stalin really is the gold standard. He's the gold standard of dictatorship. No dictator has amassed more power than Stalin, exercised it with greater consequence. Mao didn't have a military industrial complex. And, of course, the Hitler regime went up in flames after only 12--horrible, yes, but only 12 years, while Stalin lasted 3 decades. So, if you are interested in power, it's endlessly fascinating. But of course it is difficult on a day-to-day basis to continue to--I now am inside of his head in ways that I wasn't before I started this project. I understand him, his way of thinking. I see why he made decisions he made. And I see the consequences of those decisions in the lives of people. And it hurts to see that. And it hurts to understand that he didn't have to make those decisions. He could have been more magnanimous. He didn't have to kill the people he killed. His regime would have survived. It wasn't under threat. And so, my job, in a way, was to convey--from the inside, from the original documents, from a sense of deep empathy, not sympathy but deep empathy or understanding as we historians call it, empathy, of how that regime worked and why it happened the way it did. But, no: We're not writing this biography because we have an exemplary figure. We're not teaching courage, valor, perspicacity, magnanimity. We're not teaching those values for which biography was originally invented. We're teaching the opposite of those things with this biography. But, those are important lessons, too.


Russ Roberts: So, let's close with how you close your essay on Solzhenitsyn. You mention that many people complained about his personality, about Solzhenitsyn, the man. He was bitter, immature, arrogant, etc. And my reaction to that is: He was in the camps. He's entitled to all the bitterness and all the arrogance. You've got to cut him some slack. And, he wasn't just a prisoner who was good at writing. It wasn't that, 'Wasn't that lovely that he was able to use his prison experience to craft some novels and unique historical documentation in the Gulag.' He was a genius. He had an incredible vision. He pumped out an unimaginable number of words, under circumstances that human beings should not have to be in to start with. And they are unbelievably entertaining--like you said, he wrote a history of the Gulag that's a page-turner.

Stephen Kotkin: Hmmm.

Russ Roberts: So, I don't really care if he's even vaguely normal. I expect him to be a troubled and complicated person. What are your thoughts on that, and that sort of way of dismissing him, it seems to me?

Stephen Kotkin: The essay I wrote for the TLS [Times Literary Supplement,], to which you are referring which was published this week--um, my goal in that was, first of all, to make sure people understood that he was a great writer and that he will endure because he was a great writer. Not just because he had a political point of view or was a political figure or was caught up in battling the Soviet regime. He's a great writer. And that's very important to acknowledge. The second thing is that, our heroes, Russ, they are also complex people. And the complexities are fine. And we shouldn't be afraid of the complexities. And, as you say, they don't diminish the achievements. Just like I do with our anti-heroes--with Stalin--show the complexity. Show the multiple dimensions. Show that he had charm. Show that people loved him because he was a people-person and focused on their lives even as he was ordering the executions of others. That complexity is really important. And, for Solzhenitsyn, on the other side--a hero, not an anti-hero. We also owe him. We owe him the respect of showing him in his full complexity. And I think his achievement only grows when we do that.