The following is a conversation with Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton
University and one of the great historians of our time, specializing in Russian and Soviet
He has written many books on Stalin and the Soviet Union, including the first two of a
three volume work on Stalin, and he is currently working on volume three.
You may have noticed that I’ve been speaking with not just computer scientists, but physicists,
engineers, historians, neuroscientists, and soon much more.
To me, artificial intelligence is much bigger than deep learning, bigger than computing.
It is our civilization’s journey into understanding the human mind and creating echoes of it in
To me, that journey must include a deep historical and psychological understanding of power.
Technology puts some of the greatest power in the history of our civilization into the
hands of engineers and computer scientists.
This power must not be abused.
And the best way to understand how such abuse can be avoided is to not be blind to the lessons
As Stephen Kotkin brilliantly articulates, Stalin was arguably one of the most powerful
humans in history.
I’ve read many books on Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin, and the wars of the 20th century.
I hope you understand the value of such knowledge to all of us, especially to engineers and
scientists who built the tools of power in the 21st century.
This is the Artificial Intelligence Podcast.
If you enjoy it, subscribe on YouTube, give it 5 stars on Apple Podcast, follow on Spotify,
support on Patreon, or simply connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman, spelled F R
I D M A N.
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And now, here’s my conversation with Stephen Kotkin.
Do all human beings crave power?
Human beings crave security.
They crave love.
They crave adventure.
They crave power, but not equally.
Some human beings nevertheless do crave power.
What words is that deeply in the psychology of people?
Is it something you’re born with?
Is it something you develop?
Some people crave a position of leadership or of standing out, of being recognized, and
that could be starting out in the school years on the schoolyard.
It could be within their own family, not just in their peer group.
Those kind of people we often see craving leadership positions from a young age often
end up in positions of power.
But they can be varied positions of power.
You can have power in an institution where your power is purposefully limited.
For example, there’s a board or a consultative body or a separation of powers.
Not everyone craves power whereby they’re the sole power or they’re their unconstrained
That’s a little bit less usual.
We may think that everybody does, but not everybody does.
Those people who do crave that kind of power, unconstrained, the ability to decide as much
as life or death of other people, those people are not everyday people.
They’re not the people you encounter in your daily life for the most part.
Those are extraordinary people.
Most of them don’t have the opportunity to live that dream.
Very few of them, in fact, end up with the opportunity to live that dream.
So percentage wise, in your sense, if we think of George Washington, for example, would most
people given the choice of absolute power over a country versus maybe the capped power
that the United States presidential role, at least at the founding of the country represented,
what do you think most people would choose?
Well, Washington was in a position to exercise far greater power than he did.
And in fact, he didn’t take that option.
He was more interested in seeing institutionalization, of seeing the country develop strong institutions
rather than an individual leader like himself have excess power.
So that’s very important.
So like I said, not everyone craves unconstrained power, even if they’re very ambitious.
And of course, Washington was very ambitious.
He was a successful general before he was a president.
So that clearly comes from the influences on your life, where you grow up, how you grow
up, how you raised, what kind of values are imparted to you along the way.
You can understand power as the ability to share, or you can understand or the ability
to advance something for the collective in a collective process, not an individual process.
So power comes in many different varieties.
And ambition doesn’t always equate to despotic power.
Right power is something different from ordinary institutional power that we see.
The president of MIT does not have unconstrained power.
The president of MIT rightly must consult with other members of the administration,
with the faculty members, to a certain extent with the student body and certainly with the
trustees of MIT.
Those constraints make the institution strong and enduring and make the decisions better
than they would be if he had unconstrained power.
But you can’t say that the president is not ambitious.
Of course, the president is ambitious.
We worry about unconstrained power.
We worry about executive authority that’s not limited.
That’s the definition of authoritarianism or tyranny.
Unlimited or barely limited executive authority.
Executive authority is necessary to carry out many functions.
We all understand that.
That’s why MIT has an executive, has a president.
But unlimited or largely unconstrained executive power is detrimental to even the person who
exercises that power.
So what do you think?
It’s an interesting notion.
We kind of take it for granted that constraints on executive power is a good thing.
But why is that necessarily true?
So what is it about absolute power that does something bad to the human mind?
So you know, the popular saying of absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Is that the case?
That the power in itself is the thing that corrupts the mind in some kind of way where
it leads to a bad leadership over time?
People make more mistakes when they’re not challenged.
When they don’t have to explain things and get others to vote and go along with it.
When they can make a decision without anybody being able to block their decision or to have
input necessarily on their decision.
You’re more prone to mistakes.
You’re more prone to extremism.
There’s a temptation there.
For example, we have separation of powers in the United States.
The Congress, right, has authority that the president doesn’t have.
As for example, in budgeting, the so called power of the purse.
This can be very frustrating.
People want to see things happen and they complain that there’s a do nothing Congress
or that the situation is stalemated.
But actually that’s potentially a good thing.
In fact, that’s how our system was designed.
Our system was designed to prevent things happening in government.
And there’s frustration with that, but ultimately that’s the strength of the institutions we
And so when you see unconstrained executive authority, there can be a lot of dynamism.
A lot of things can get done quickly.
But those things can be like, for example, what happened in China under Mao or what happened
in the Soviet Union under Stalin or what happened in Haiti under Papa Doc and then Baby Doc
or fill in the blank, right?
What happens sometimes in corporations where a corporate leader is not constrained by the
shareholders, by the board or by anything.
And they can seem to be a genius for a while, but eventually it catches up to them.
And so the idea of constraints on executive power is absolutely fundamental to the American
system, American way of thinking.
And not only America, obviously large other parts of the world that have a similar system,
not an identical system, but a similar system of checks and balances on executive power.
And so the case that I study, the only checks and balances on executive power are circumstantial.
So for example, distances in the country, it’s hard to do something over 5,000 miles
or the amount of time in a day, it’s hard for a leader to get to every single thing
the leader wants to get to because there are only 24 hours in a day.
Those are circumstantial constraints on executive power.
They’re not institutional constraints on executive power.
One of the constraints on executive power that United States has versus Russia, maybe
something you’ve implied and actually spoke directly to is there’s something in the Russian
people and the Soviet people that are attracted to authoritarian power, psychologically speaking,
or at least the kind of leaders that sought authoritarian power throughout its history.
And that desire for that kind of human is a lack of a constraint.
In America, it seems as people, we desire somebody not like Stalin, somebody more like
So that’s another constraint, the belief of the people, what they admire in a leader,
what they seek in a leader.
So maybe you can speak to, well, first of all, can you speak briefly to that psychology
of, is there a difference between the Russian people and the American people in terms of
just what we find attractive in a leader?
Not as great a difference as it might seem.
There are unfortunately many Americans who would be happy with an authoritarian leader
in the country.
It’s by no means a majority.
It’s not even a plurality, but nonetheless, it’s a real sentiment in the population.
Sometimes because they feel frustrated because things are not getting done.
Sometimes because they’re against something that’s happening in the political realm and
they feel it has to be corrected and corrected quickly.
It’s a kind of impulse.
People can regret the impulse later on, that the impulse is motivated by reaction to their
In the Russian case, we have also people who crave, sometimes known as a strong hand, an
iron hand, an authoritarian leader, because they want things to be done and be done more
quickly that align with their desires.
But I’m not sure it’s a majority in the country today.
Certainly in Stalin’s time, this was a widespread sentiment and people had few alternatives
that they understood or could appeal to.
Nowadays in the globalized world, the citizens of Russia can see how other systems have constraints
on executive power and the life isn’t so bad there.
In fact, the life might even be better.
So the impatience, the impulsive quality, the frustration does sometimes in people reinforce
their craving for the unconstrained executive to quote, get things done or shake things
Yes, that’s true.
But in the Russian case, I’m not sure it’s cultural today.
I think it might be more having to do with the failures, the functional failures of the
kind of political system that they tried to institute after the Soviet collapse.
And so it may be frustration with the version of constraints on executive power they got
and how it didn’t work the way it was imagined, which has led to a sense in which nonconstrained
executive power could fix things.
But I’m not sure that that’s a majority sentiment in the Russian case, although it’s hard to
measure because under authoritarian regimes, a public opinion is shaped by the environment
in which people live, which is very constrained in terms of public opinion.
But on that point, why at least from a distance does there seem to nevertheless be support
for the current Russian president Vladimir Putin?
Is that have to do with the fact that measuring, getting good metrics and statistics on support
is difficult in authoritarian governments, or is there still something appealing to that
kind of power to the people?
I think we have to give credit to President Putin for understanding the psychology of
the Russians to whom he appeals.
Many of them were the losers in the transition from communism.
They were the ones whose pensions were destroyed by inflation or whose salaries didn’t go up
or whose regions were abandoned.
They were not the winners for the most part, and so I think there’s an understanding on
his part of their psychology.
Putin has grown in the position.
He was not a public politician when he first started out.
He was quite poor in public settings.
He didn’t have the kind of political instincts that he has now.
He didn’t have the appeal to traditional values and the Orthodox Church and some of the other
dimensions of his rule today.
So yes, we have to give some credit to Putin himself for this in addition to the frustrations
and the mass of the people.
But let’s think about it this way in addition, without taking away the fact that he’s become
a better retail politician over time and that sentiment has shifted because of the disappointments
with the transition with the population.
When I ask my kids, am I a good dad?
My kids don’t have any other dad to measure me against.
I’m the only dad they know, and I’m the only dad they can choose or not choose.
If they don’t choose me, they still get me as dad, right?
So with Putin today, he’s the only dad that the Russian people have.
Now, if my kids were introduced to alternative fathers, they might be better than me.
They might be more loving, more giving, funnier, richer, whatever it might be.
They might be more appealing.
There are some blood ties there for sure that I have with my kids, but they would at least
be able to choose alternatives and then I would have to win their favor in that constellation
If President Putin were up against real alternatives, if the population had real choice and that
choice could express itself and have resources and have media and everything else the way
he does, maybe he would be very popular and maybe his popularity would not be as great
as it currently is.
So the absence of alternatives is another factor that reinforces his authority and his
Having said that, there are many authoritarian leaders who deny any alternatives to the
population and are not very popular.
So denial of alternatives doesn’t guarantee you the popularity.
You still have to figure out the mass psychology and be able to appeal to it.
So in the Russian case, the winners from the transition live primarily in the big cities
and are self employed or entrepreneurial.
Even if they’re not self employed, they’re able to change careers.
They have tremendous skills and talent and education and knowledge as well as these entrepreneurial
or dynamic personalities.
Putin also appealed to them.
He did that with Medvedev and it was a very clever ruse.
He himself appealed to the losers from the transition, the small towns, the rural, the
people who were not well off and he had them for the most part.
We don’t want to generalize to say that he had every one of them because those people
have views of their own, sometimes in contradiction with the president of Russia.
And then he appealed to the opposite people, the successful urban base through the so called
reformer Medvedev, the new generation, the technically literate prime minister who for
a time was president.
And so that worked very successfully for Putin.
He was able to bridge a big divide in the society and gain a greater mass support than
he would otherwise have had by himself.
That ruse only worked through the time that Medvedev was temporarily president for a few
years because of the Constitution, Putin couldn’t do three consecutive terms and stepped aside
in what they call castling in chess.
When this was over, Putin had difficulty with his popularity.
There were mass protests in the urban areas, precisely that group of the population that
he had been able to win in part because of the Medvedev castling and now had had their
delusions exposed and were disillusioned, and there were these mass protests in the
urban areas, not just in the capital, by the way.
And Putin had to, as it were, come up with a new way to fix his popularity, which happened
to be the annexation of Crimea, from which he got a very significant bump.
However, the trend is back in the other direction.
It’s diminishing again, although it’s still high relative to other leaders around the
So I wouldn’t say that he’s unpopular with the mass in Russia.
There is some popularity there, there is some success, but I would say it’s tough for us
to gauge because of the lack of alternatives.
And Putin is unpopular inside the state administration.
At every level, the bureaucracy of the leadership.
Because those people are well informed, and they understand that the country is declining,
that the human capital is declining, the infrastructure is declining, the economy is not really growing,
it’s not really diversifying, Russia’s not investing in its future.
The state officials understand all of that, and then they see that the Putin clique is
stealing everything in sight.
So between the failure to invest in a future and the corruption of a narrow group around
the president, there’s disillusionment in the state apparatus because they see this
more clearly or more closely than the mass of the population.
They can’t necessarily yet oppose this in public because they’re people, they have families,
they have careers, they have children who want to go to school or want a job.
And so there are constraints on their ability to oppose the regime based upon what we might
call cowardice or other people might call realism.
I don’t know how courageous people can be when their family, children, career are on
So it’s very interesting dynamic to see the disillusionment inside the government with
the president, which is not yet fully public for the most part, but could become public.
And once again, if there’s an alternative, if an alternative appears, things could shift
And that alternative could come from inside the regime.
From inside the regime.
But the leadership, the party, the people that are now, as you’re saying, opposed to
Putin, nevertheless, maybe you can correct me, but it feels like there’s, structurally
is deeply corrupt.
So each of the people we’re talking about are, don’t feel like a George Washington.
Once again, the circumstances don’t permit them to act that way necessarily, right?
George Washington did great things, but in certain circumstances.
A lot of the state officials in Russia for certain are corrupt.
There’s no question.
Many of them, however, are patriotic and many of them feel badly about where the country
has been going.
They would prefer that the country was less corrupt.
They would prefer that there were greater investment in all sorts of areas of Russia.
They might even themselves steal less if they could be guaranteed that everybody else would
There’s a deep and abiding patriotism inside Russia, as well as inside the Russian regime.
So they understand that Putin in many ways rescued the Russian state from the chaos of
They understand that Russia was in very bad shape as an incoherent failing state almost
when Putin took over and that he did some important things for Russia’s stability and
There’s also some appreciation that Putin stood up to the West and stood up to more
powerful countries and regained a sense of pride and maneuverability for Russia in the
People appreciate that and it’s real.
It’s not imagined that Putin accomplished that.
The problem is the methods that he accomplished it with.
He used the kind of methods, that is to say, taking other people’s property, putting other
people in jail for political reasons.
He used the kind of methods that are not conducive to long term growth and stability.
So he fixed the problem, but he fixed the problem and then created even bigger long
term problems potentially.
And moreover, all authoritarian regimes that use those methods are tempted to keep using
them and using them and using them until they’re the only ones who are the beneficiaries and
the group narrows and narrows.
The elite gets smaller and narrower.
The interest groups get excluded from power and their ability to continue enjoying the
fruits of the system and the resentment grows.
And so that’s the situation we have in Russia is a place that is stuck.
It was to a certain extent rescued.
It was rescued with methods that were not conducive to long term success and stability.
The rescue you’re referring to is the sort of the economic growth when Putin first took
Yes, they had 10 years.
They had a full decade of an average of 7% growth a year, which was phenomenal and is
not attributable predominantly to oil prices.
During President Putin’s first term as president, the average price of oil was $35 a barrel.
During his second term as president, the average price was $70 a barrel.
So during those two terms, when Russia was growing at about 7% a year, oil prices were
averaging somewhere around $50 a barrel, which is fine, but is not the reason because later
on when oil prices were over $100 a barrel, Russia stagnated.
So the initial growth, do you think Putin deserves some credit for that?
Yes, he does because he introduced some important liberalizing measures.
He lowered taxes.
He allowed land to be bought and sold.
He deregulated many areas of the economy.
And so there was a kind of entrepreneurial burst that was partly attributable, partly
attributable to government policy during his first term.
But also he was consolidating political power.
And as I said, the methods he used overall for the long term were not able to continue
sustain that success.
In addition, we have to remember that China played a really big role in the success of
Russia in the first two terms of Putin’s presidency because China’s phenomenal growth created
insatiable demand for just about everything that the Soviet Union used to produce.
So fertilizers, cement, fill in the blank, chemicals, metals, China had insatiable demand
for everything the Soviet Union once produced.
And so China’s raising of global demand overall brought Soviet era industry back from the
And so there was something that happened.
Soviet era industry fell off a cliff in the 1990s.
There was a decline in manufacturing and industrial production greater than in the Great Depression
in the US.
But a lot of that came back online in the 2000s.
And that had to do with China’s phenomenal growth.
The trade between China and Russia was not always direct.
So this was an indirect effect.
But raising global prices for the commodities and the products, the kind of lower end, lower
value products in manufacturing, not high end stuff, but lower end stuff like steel
or iron or cement or fertilizer, where the value added is not spectacular, but nonetheless,
which had been destroyed by the 1990s and after the Soviet collapse, this was brought
back to life.
Now, you can do that once.
You can bring Soviet era industry back to life once.
And that happened during Putin’s first two terms, in addition to the liberalizing policies,
which spurred entrepreneurialism in some small and medium business.
The crash of the ruble in 1998, which made Russian products much cheaper abroad and made
imports much more expensive, also facilitated the resuscitation, the revival of domestic
So all of this came together for that spectacular 10 year, 7% on average economic growth.
And moreover, people’s wages after inflation, their disposable income grew more even than
So disposable income after inflation, that is real income, was growing greater than 7%.
In some cases, 10% a year.
So there was a boom, and the Russian people felt it, and it happened during Putin’s first
two terms, and people were grateful, rightly so, for that.
And those who don’t want to give Putin credit, give oil prices all the credit.
But I don’t think that oil prices can explain this.
Having said that, that doesn’t mean that this was sustainable over the long term.
So you’ve briefly mentioned, sort of implying the possibility, you know, Stalin held power
for, let’s say, 30 years.
You briefly mentioned that as a question, will Putin be able to beat that record, to
So can you talk about your sense of, is it possible that Putin holds power for that kind
Let’s hope not.
Let’s hope not for Russia’s sake.
The primary victims of President Putin’s power are Russians.
They’re not Ukrainians, although to a certain extent, Ukraine has suffered because of Putin’s
And they’re not Americans, they’re Russians.
Moreover, Russia has lost a great deal of human talent.
Tens of millions of people have left Russia since 1991 overall.
Somewhere between five and 10 million people have left the country and are beyond the borders
of the former Soviet Union.
So they left the Soviet space entirely.
Moreover, the people who left are not the poor people.
They’re not the uneducated.
They’re not the losers.
The people who’ve left are the more dynamic parts of the population.
The better educated, the more entrepreneurial.
So that human capital loss that Russia has suffered is phenomenal.
And in fact, right here where we’re sitting at MIT, we have examples of people who are
qualified good enough for MIT and have left Russia to come to MIT.
You’re looking at one of them.
And the other aspect, just to quickly comment, is those same people like me, I’m not welcome
No, you’re not under the current regime.
It was a big loss for Russia if you’re patriotic, but not from the point of view of the Putin
That has to do, also factors into popularity.
If the people who don’t like you leave, they’re not there to complain, to protest, to vote
And so your opposition declines when you let them leave.
However, it’s very costly in human capital terms.
Hemorrhaging that much human capital is damaging, it’s self damaging.
And we’ve seen it accelerate.
It was already high, but we’ve seen it accelerate in the last seven to eight years of President
And those people are not going back of their own volition.
But even if they wanted to go back, as you just said, they’d be unwelcome.
That’s a big cost to pay for this regime.
And so whatever benefits this regime might or might not have given to the country, the
disadvantages, the downside, the costs are also really high.
So we don’t want Putin lasting in power as long as Stalin.
It would be better if Russia were able to choose among options, to choose a new leader
Many people speculate that President Putin will name a successor the way Yeltsin named
Putin as his successor, President Boris Yeltsin.
And then Putin will leave the stage and allow the successor to take over.
That might seem like a good solution, but once again, we don’t need a system where you
hang on for as long as possible and then nominate who’s going to take over.
We need a system that has the kind of corrective mechanisms that democracies and markets have
along with rule of law.
A corrective mechanism is really important because all leaders make mistakes.
But when you can’t correct for the mistakes, then the mistakes get compounded.
Putin could well, he seems to be healthy, he could well last as many years as Stalin.
It’s hard to predict because events intercede sometimes and create circumstances that are
unforeseen and leaders get overthrown or have a heart attack or whatever.
There’s a palace insurrection where ambitious leaders on the inside for both personal power
and patriotic reasons try to push aside an aging leader.
There are many scenarios in which Putin could not last that long, but unfortunately, right
now, you could also imagine potentially him lasting that long, which as I said, is not
an outcome if you’re patriotic about Russia, it’s not an outcome you would wish out to
It’s, I guess, a very difficult question, but what practically do you feel is a way
out of the Putin regime, is a way out of the corruption that’s deeply underlies the state?
Is a, if you look from a history perspective, is a revolution required?
Is violence required?
Is from violence within or external to the country?
Do you see, or is a powerful, is a inspiring leader enough to step in and bring democracy
and kind of the free world to Russia?
So Russia is not a failed country.
It’s a middle income country with tremendous potential and has proven many times in the
past that when it gets in a bad way, it can reverse its trajectory.
Moreover, violence is rarely ever a solution.
Violence rarely, it may break an existing trend, but it’s rare that violence produces
a nonviolent, sustainable, positive outcome.
It happens, but it doesn’t happen frequently.
Mental upheaval is not a way always to institutionalize a better path forward because you need institutions.
People can protest as they did throughout the Middle East, and the protests didn’t necessarily
lead to better systems because the step from protest to new, strong, consolidated institutions
is a colossal leap, not a small step.
What we need and what we see from history and situations like this is a group within
the power structures, which is a patriotic that sees things going down.
That is to say that sees things not being developing relative to neighbors, relative
to richer countries, relative to more successful countries, and they want to change the trajectory
And if they can, in a coalition fashion, unseat the current regime for a new power sharing
arrangement, which once again can be frustrating because you can’t do changes immediately,
you can’t do things overnight, but that’s the point.
Constraints on your ability to change everything immediately and to force change overnight
is what leads to long term success potentially.
That’s the sustainability of change.
So Russia needs stronger institutions.
It needs court system as well as democratic institutions.
It needs functioning, open, dynamic markets rather than monopolies.
It needs meritocracy and banks to award loans on the basis of business plans, not on the
basis of political criteria or corrupt bribery or whatever it might be.
So Russia needs those kind of functioning institutions that take time, are sometimes
slow, don’t lead to a revolutionary transformation, but lead to potentially long term sustainable
growth without upheaval, without violence, without getting into a situation where all
of a sudden you need a miracle again.
Every time Russia seems to need a miracle, and that’s the problem, the solution would
be not needing a miracle.
Now having said that, the potential is there.
The civilization that we call Russia is amazingly impressive.
It has delivered world class culture, world class science.
It’s a great power.
It’s not a great power with a strong base right now, but nonetheless it is a great power
as it acts in the world.
So I wouldn’t underestimate Russia’s abilities here and I wouldn’t write off Russia.
I don’t see it under the current regime, a renewal of the country.
But if we can have from within the regime an evolution rather than a revolution in a
positive direction, and maybe get a George Washington figure who is strong enough to
push through institutionalization rather than personalism.
So if I could ask about one particular individual, it’d be just interesting to get your comment,
but also as a representative of potential leaders, I just on this podcast talked to
Gary Kasparov, who I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his, his ongoings.
So besides being a world class chess player, he’s also a very outspoken activist, sort
of seeing Putin, truly seeing Putin as an enemy of the free world of democracy, of balanced
government in Russia.
What do you think of people like him specifically, or just people like him trying as leaders
to step in, to run for president, to symbolize a new chapter in Russia’s future?
So we don’t need individuals.
Some individuals are very impressive and they have courage and they protest and they criticize
and they organize.
We need institutions.
We need a Duma or a parliament that functions.
We need a court system that functions.
That is to say where there are a separation of powers, impartial professional civil service,
impartial professional judiciary.
Those are the things Russia needs.
It’s rare that you get that from an individual, no matter how impressive, right?
We had Andrei Sakharov, who was an extraordinary individual, who developed the hydrogen bomb
under a Soviet regime, was a world class physicist, was then upset about how his scientific knowledge
and scientific achievements were being put to use and rebelled to try to put limits,
constraints, civilizing humane limits and constraints on some of the implications of
his extraordinary science.
But Sakharov, even if he had become the leader of the country, which he did not become, he
was more of a moral or spiritual leader, it still wouldn’t have given you a judiciary.
It still wouldn’t have given you a civil service.
It still wouldn’t have given you a Duma or functioning parliament.
You need a leader in coalition with other leaders.
You need a bunch of leaders, a whole group, and they have to be divided a little bit so
that not one of them can destroy all the others.
And they have to be interested in creating institutions, not solely or predominantly
in their personal power.
And so I have no objection to outstanding individuals and to the work that they do.
But I think in institutional terms, and they need to think that way too in order to be
So if we go back to the echoes of that after the Russian Revolution with Stalin, with Lenin
and Stalin, maybe you can correct me, but there was a group of people there in that
same kind of way looking to establish institutions that were beautifully built around an ideology
that they believed is good for the world.
So sort of echoing that idea of what we’re talking about, what Russia needs now, can
you, first of all, you’ve described a fascinating thought, which is Stalin is having amassed
arguably more power than any man in history, which is an interesting thing to think about.
But can you tell about his journey to getting that power after the Russian Revolution?
How does that perhaps echo to our current discussion about institutions and so on?
And just in general, the story I think is fascinating of how one man is able to get
more power than any other man in history.
It is a great story, not necessarily from a moral point of view, but if you’re interested
in power, for sure it’s an incredible story.
So we have to remember that Stalin is also a product of circumstances, not solely his
own individual drive, which is very strong.
For example, World War I breaks the czarist regime, the czarist order, imperial Russian
Stalin has no participation whatsoever in World War I.
He spends World War I in exile in Siberia.
Until the downfall of the czarist autocracy in February 1917, Stalin is in Eastern Siberian
He’s only able to leave Eastern Siberia when that regime falls.
He never fights in the war.
He’s called up briefly towards the end of the war and is disqualified on physical grounds
because of physical deformities from being drafted.
The war continues after the czarist regime has been toppled in the capital and there’s
been a revolution.
The war continues and that war is very radicalizing.
The peasants begin to seize the land after the czar falls, essentially destroying much
of the gentry class.
Stalin has nothing to do with that.
The peasants have their own revolution, seizing the land, not in law, but in fact, de facto
not de jure land ownership.
So there are these really large processes underway that Stalin is alive during, but
not a driver of.
The most improbable thing happens, which is a very small group of people around the figure
of Vladimir Lenin announces that it has seized power.
Now by this time in October 1917, the government that has replaced the czar, the so called
provisional government, has failed.
And so there’s not so much power to seize from the provisional government.
What Lenin does is he does a coup on the left.
That is to say, Soviets or councils, as we would call them in English, which represent
people’s power or the masses participating in politics, a kind of radical grassroots
democracy are extremely popular all over the country and not dominated by any one group,
but predominantly socialist or predominantly leftist.
Russia has an election during the war, a free and fair election for the most part, despite
the war at the end of 1917, in December 1917, and three quarters plus of the country votes
socialist in some form or another.
So the battle was over the definition of socialism and who had the right to participate in defining
socialism, not only what it would be, but who had the right to decide.
So there’s a coup by Lenin’s group known as the Bolsheviks against all the other socialists.
And so Lenin declares a seizure of power whereby the old government has failed, people’s power,
the councils known as the Soviets are going to take their place, and Lenin seizes power
in the name of the Soviets.
So it’s a coup against the left, against the rest of the left, not against the provisional
government that has replaced the czar, which has already failed.
And so Stalin is able to come to power along with Lenin in this crazy seizure of power
on the left against the rest of the left in October 1917, which we know is the October
Revolution, and I call the October coup as many other historians call.
The October Revolution happened after the seizure of power.
What’s interesting about this episode is that the leftists who seize power in the name of
the Soviets, in the name of the masses, in the name of people’s power, they retain their
Many times in history, there’s a seizure of power by the left, and they fail.
They’re cleaned out by an army or what we call forces of order, by counter revolutionary
Lenin’s revolution, Lenin’s coup is successful.
It is able to hold power, not just seize power.
They win a civil war, and they’re entrenched in the heart of the country already by 1921.
Stalin is part of that group.
Lenin needs somebody to run.
This new regime in the kind of nitty gritty way, Lenin is the leader, the undisputed leader
in the Bolshevik party, which changes their name to communists in 1918.
He makes Stalin the general secretary of the communist party.
He creates a new position, which hadn’t existed before, a kind of day to day political manager,
a right hand man.
Not because Lenin is looking to replace himself.
He’s looking to institutionalize a helpmate, a right hand man.
He does this in the spring of 1922.
Stalin is named to this position, which Lenin has created expressly for Stalin.
So there has been a coup on the left whereby the Bolsheviks who become communists have
seized power against the rest of the socialists and anarchists and the entire left.
And then there’s an institutionalization of a position known as general secretary of the
communist party, right hand man of Lenin.
Less than six weeks after Lenin has created this position and installed Stalin, Lenin
has a stroke, a major stroke, and never really returns as a full actor to power before he
dies of a fourth stroke in January 1924.
So a position is created for Stalin to run things on Lenin’s behalf.
And then Lenin has a stroke.
And so Stalin now has this new position general secretary, but he’s the right hand of a person
who’s no longer exercising day to day control over affairs.
Stalin then uses this new position to create a personal dictatorship inside the Bolshevik
dictatorship, which is the remarkable story I tried to tell.
So is there anything nefarious about any of what you just described?
So it seems conveniently that the position is created just for Stalin.
There was a few other brilliant people, arguably more brilliant than Stalin in the vicinity
Why was Stalin chosen?
Why did Lenin all of a sudden fall ill?
It’s perhaps a conspiratorial question, but is there anything nefarious about any of this
historical trajectory to power that Stalin took in creating the personal dictatorship?
So history is full of contingency and surprise.
After something happens, we all think it’s inevitable.
It had to happen that way.
Everything was leading up to it.
So Hitler seizes power in Germany in 1933, and the Nazi regime gets institutionalized
by several of his moves after being named chancellor.
And so all German history becomes a story of the Nazi rise to power, Hitler’s rise to
Every trend tendency is bent into that outcome.
Things which don’t seem related to that outcome all of a sudden get bent in that direction.
And other trends that were going on are no longer examined because they didn’t lead to
But Hitler’s becoming chancellor of Germany in 1933 was not inevitable.
It was contingent.
He was offered the position by the traditional conservatives.
He’s part of the radical right and the traditional right named him chancellor.
The Nazi party never outright won an election that was free and fair before Hitler came
And in fact, its votes on the eve of Hitler becoming chancellor declined relative to the
So there’s contingency in history, and so Lenin’s illness, his stroke, the neurological
and blood problems that he had were not a structure in history.
In other words, if Lenin had been a healthier figure, Stalin might never have become the
Stalin that we know.
That’s not to say that all history is accidental, just that we need to relate the structural,
the larger structural factors to the contingent factors.
Why did Lenin pick Stalin?
Well, Stalin was a very effective organizer, and the position was an organizational position.
Stalin could get things done.
He would carry out assignments no matter how difficult.
He wouldn’t complain that it was hard work or too much work.
He wouldn’t go off womanizing and drinking and ignore his responsibilities.
Lenin chose Stalin among other options because he thought Stalin was the better option.
Once again, he wasn’t choosing his successor because he didn’t know he was going to have
Lenin had some serious illnesses, but he had never had a major stroke before.
So the choice was made based upon Stalin’s organizational skills and promise against
the others who were in the regime.
Now, they can seem more brilliant than Stalin, but he was more effective, and I’m not sure
they were very brilliant.
Well, he was exceptionally competent actually at the tasks for running a government, the
executive branch, right, of a dictator.
He turned out to be very adept at being a dictator.
And so if he had been chosen by Lenin and had not been very good, he would have been
pushed aside by others.
You can get a position by accident.
You can be named because you’re someone’s friend or someone’s relative, but to hold
that position, to hold that position in difficult circumstances, and then to build effectively
a superpower on all that bloodshed, right, you have to be skilled in some way.
It can’t be just the accident that brings you to power because if accident brings you
to power, it won’t last.
Just like we discovered with Putin, he had some qualities that we didn’t foresee at the
beginning, and he’s been able to hold power, not just be named.
Now, Putin and Stalin are very different people.
These are very different regimes.
I wouldn’t put them in the same sentence.
My point is not that one resembles the other.
My point is that when people come to power for contingent reasons, they don’t stay in
power unless they’re able to manage it.
And Stalin was able to build a personal dictatorship inside that dictatorship.
He was cunning, he was ruthless, and he was a workaholic.
He was very diligent.
He had a phenomenal memory, and so he could remember people’s names and faces and events.
And this was very advantageous for him as he built the machine that became the Soviet
state and bureaucracy.
One of the things, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, what you’ve made me realize
is this wasn’t some kind of manipulative personality trying to gain more power solely, like kind
of an evil picture of a person, but he truly believed in communism.
As far as I can understand, again, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but he wanted to
build a better world by infusing communism into the country, perhaps into the whole world.
So maybe my question is what role does communism as an idea, as an ideology play in all of
What was the power in the people of the time, in the Russian people, actually just the whole
Stalin was a true believer, and this is very important.
He was also hungry for power and for personal power, but just as you said, not for power’s
sake, not only for power.
He was interested in enacting communism in reality and also in building a powerful state.
He was a statist, a traditional Russian statist in the imperial sense, and this won him a
lot of followers.
The fact that they knew he was a hardcore true believing communist won him a lot of
followers among the communists, and the fact that he was a hardcore defender of Russian
state interests now in the Soviet guise also won him a lot of followers.
Sometimes those groups overlapped, the communists and the Russian patriots, and sometimes they
were completely different groups, but both of them shared an admiration for Stalin’s
dedication to those goals and his abilities to enact them.
And so it’s very important to understand that however thirsty he was for power, and he was
very thirsty for power, that he was also driven by ideals.
Now I don’t necessarily think that everyone around Stalin shared those ideals.
We have to be careful not to make everybody into a communist true believer, not to make
everybody into a great statist Russian patriot, but they were widespread and powerful attractions
for a lot of people.
And so Stalin’s ability to communicate to people that he was dedicated to those pursuits
and his ability to drive towards them were part of his appeal.
Where he also resorted to manipulation, he also resorted to violence, he lied, he spoke
out of all sides of his mouth, he slandered other people, he sabotaged potential rivals.
He used every underhanded method, and then some, in order to build his personal dictatorship.
Now he justified this, as you said, by appeals to communism and to Soviet power.
To himself as well too.
To himself and to others.
And so he justified it in his own mind and to others, but certainly any means, right,
were acceptable to him to achieve these ends.
And he identified his personal power with communism and with Russian glory in the world.
So he felt that he was the only one who could be trusted, who could be relied upon to build
Now, we put ourselves back in that time period.
The Great Depression was a very difficult time for the capitalist system.
There was mass unemployment, a lot of hardship, fascism, Nazism, Imperial Japan.
There were a lot of associations that were negative with the kind of capitalist system
that was not a hundred percent, not a monolith, but had a lot of authoritarian incarnations.
There was imperialism, colonies that even the democratic rule of law capitalist states
had non democratic, non rule of law colonies under their rule.
So the image and reality of capitalism during that time period between World War I and World
War II was very different from how it would become later.
And so in that time period, in that interwar conjuncture after World War I, before World
War II, communism held some appeal inside the Soviet Union for sure, but even outside
the Soviet Union because the image and reality of capitalism disappointed many people.
Now, in the end, communism was significantly worse.
Many more victims and the system of course would eventually implode.
But nonetheless, there were real problems that communism tried to address.
It didn’t solve those problems.
It was not a solution, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.
It came out of the context of that interwar period.
And so Stalin’s rule, some people saw it as potentially a better option than imperialism,
fascism and Great Depression.
Having said that, they were wrong.
It turned out that Stalin wasn’t a better alternative to markets and private property
and rule of law and democracy.
However, that didn’t become clearer to people until after World War II, after Nazism had
been defeated, Imperial Japan had been defeated, a fascist Italy had been defeated and decolonization
had happened around the world, and there was a middle class economic boom in the period
from the late 40s through the 70s that created a kind of mass middle class in many societies.
So capitalism rose from the ashes as it were, and this changed the game for Stalin and communism.
Capitalism is about an alternative to capitalism, and if that alternative is not superior, there’s
no reason for communism to exist.
But if capitalism is in foul odor, if people have a bad opinion, a strong critique of capitalism,
there can be appeal to alternatives, and that’s kind of what happened with Stalin’s rule.
But after World War II, the context changed a lot, capitalism was very different, much
more successful, nonviolent compared to what it was in the interwar period.
And the Soviet Union had a tough time competing against that new context.
Now today we see similarly that the image and reality of capitalism is on the question
again, which leads some people to find an answer in socialism as an alternative.
So you just kind of painted a beautiful picture of comparison.
This is the way we think about ideologies because we, is what’s working better.
Do you separate in your mind the ideals of communism to the Stalinist implementation
of communism, and again, capitalism and American implementation of capitalism?
And as we look at now the 21st century where, yes, this idea of socialism being a potential
political system that we would, or economic system we would operate under in the United
States rising up again as an idea.
So how do we think about that again in the 21st century, about these ideas, fundamental
deep ideas of communism and capitalism?
Yeah, so in the Marxist schema, there was something called feudalism, which was supposedly
destroyed by the bourgeoisie who created capitalism.
And then the working class was supposed to destroy capitalism and create socialism.
But socialism wasn’t the end stage.
The end stage was going to be communism.
So that’s why the communist party in the Soviet Union first built socialism transcending capitalism.
The next stage was socialism and the end game, the final stage was communism.
So their version of socialism was derived from Marx.
And Marx argued that the problem was capitalism had been very beneficial for a while.
It had produced greater wealth and greater opportunity than feudalism had.
But then it had come to serve only the narrow interests of the so called bourgeoisie or
the capitalists themselves.
And so for humanity’s sake, the universal class, the working class needed to overthrow
capitalism in order for greater productivity, greater wealth to be produced for all of humanity
to flourish and on a higher level.
So you couldn’t have socialism unless you destroyed capitalism.
So that meant no markets, no private property, no so called parliaments or bourgeois parliaments
as they were called.
So you got socialism in Marx’s schema by transcending, by eliminating capitalism.
Now Marx also called for freedom.
He said that this elimination of markets and private property and bourgeois parliaments
would produce greater freedom in addition to greater abundance.
However, everywhere this was tried, it produced tyranny and mass violence, death and shortages.
Everywhere it was tried.
There’s no exception in historical terms.
And so it’s very interesting.
Marx insisted that capitalism had to be eliminated.
You couldn’t have markets.
Markets were chaos.
You needed planning.
You couldn’t have hiring of wage labor.
That was wage slavery.
You couldn’t have private property because that was a form of theft.
So in the Marxist scheme, somehow you were going to eliminate capitalism and get to freedom.
It turned out you didn’t get to freedom.
So then people said, well, you can’t blame Marx because he said we needed freedom.
He was pro freedom.
So it’s kind of like dropping a nuclear bomb.
You say you’re going to drop a nuclear bomb, but you want to minimize civilian casualties.
So the dropping of the nuclear bomb is the elimination of markets, private property and
But you’re going to bring freedom or you’re going to minimize civilian casualties.
So you drop the nuclear bomb, you eliminate the capitalism and you get famine, deportation,
no constraints on executive power and not abundance, but shortages.
And people say, well, that’s not what Mark said.
That’s not what I said.
I said, I wanted to minimize civilian casualties.
The nuclear bomb goes off and there’s mass civilian casualties.
And you keep saying, but I said, drop the bomb, but minimize civilian casualties.
So that’s where we are.
That’s history, not philosophy.
I’m speaking about historical examples, all the cases that we have.
Marx was not a theorist of inequality.
Marx was a theorist of alienation, of dehumanization, of fundamental constraints or what he called
fetters on productivity and on wealth, which he all attributed to capitalism.
Marx wasn’t bothered by inequality.
He was bothered by something deeper, something worse, right?
Those socialists who figured this out, who understood that if you drop the nuclear bomb,
there was no way to minimize civilian casualties.
All socialists who came to understand that if you eliminated capitalism, markets, private
property and parliaments, if you eliminated that, you wouldn’t get freedom.
Those Marxists, those socialists became what we would call social Democrats or people who
would use the state to regulate the market, not to eliminate the market.
They would use the state to redistribute income, not to destroy private property and markets.
And so this in the Marxist schema was apostasy because they were accepting markets and private
They were accepting alienation and wage slavery.
They were accepting capitalism in principle, but they wanted to fix it.
They wanted to ameliorate.
They wanted to regulate.
And so they became what was denounced as revisionists, not true Marxists, not real revolutionaries,
but parliamentary road, parliamentarians.
We know this as normal politics, normal social democratic politics from the European case
or from the American case, but they are not asking to eliminate capitalism, blaming capitalism,
blaming markets and private property.
So this rift among the socialists, the ones who are for elimination of capitalism, transcending
capitalism, otherwise you could never, ever get to abundance and freedom in the Marxist
schema versus those who accept capitalism, but want to regulate and redistribute.
That rift on the left has been with us almost from the beginning.
It’s a kind of civil war on the left between the Leninists and the social democrats or
the revisionists as they’re known pejoratively by the Leninists.
We have the same confusion today in the world today where people also cite Marx saying capitalism
is a dead end and we need to drop that nuclear bomb and get freedom, get no civilian casualties
versus those who say, yes, there are inequities.
There’s a lack of equality of opportunity.
There are many other issues that we need to deal with and we can fix those issues.
We can regulate, we can redistribute.
I’m not advocating this as a political position.
I’m not taking a political position myself.
I’m just saying that there’s a confusion on the left between those who accept capitalism
and want to regulate it versus those who think capitalism is inherently evil and if we eliminate
it we’ll get to a better world when in fact history shows that if you eliminate capitalism
you get to a worse world.
The problems might be real, but the solutions are worse.
From history’s lessons, now we have deep painful lessons, but there’s not that many of them.
You know, our history is relatively short as a human species.
Do we have a good answer on the left of Leninist, Marxist versus Social Democrat versus capitalism
versus any anarchy?
Do we have sufficient samples from history to make better decisions about the future
of our politics and economics?
We have the American Revolution, which was a revolution not about class, not about workers,
not about a so called universal class of the working class, elimination of capitalism markets
and the bourgeoisie, but was about the category citizen.
It was about universal humanity where everyone in theory could be part of it as a citizen.
The revolution fell short of its own ideals.
Not everyone was a citizen.
For example, if you didn’t own property, you were a male but didn’t own property.
You didn’t have full rights of a citizen.
If you were a female, whether you own property or not, you weren’t a full citizen.
If you were imported from Africa against your will, you were a slave and not a citizen.
And so not everyone was afforded the rights in actuality that were declared in principle.
However, over time, the category citizen could expand and slaves could be emancipated and
they could get the right to vote.
They could become citizens.
Nonproperty owning males could get the right to vote and become full citizens.
Females could get the right to vote and become full citizens.
In fact, eventually my mother was able to get a credit card in her own name in the 1970s
without my father having to co sign the paperwork.
It took a long time.
But nonetheless, the category citizen can expand and it can become a universal category.
So we have that, the citizen universal humanity model of the American Revolution, which was
deeply flawed at the time it was introduced, but fixable over time.
We also had that separation of powers and constraint on executive power that we began
this conversation with.
That was also institutionalized in the American Revolution because they were afraid of tyranny.
They were afraid of unconstrained executive power.
So they built a system that would contain that, constrain it institutionally, not circumstantially.
So that’s a great gift.
Within that universal category of citizen, which has over time come closer to fulfilling
its original promise.
And within those institutional constraints, that separation of powers, constraint on executive
power, within that we’ve developed what we might call normal politics, left right politics.
People can be in favor of redistribution, and government action and people can be in
favor of small government, hands off government, no redistribution or less redistribution.
That’s the normal left right political spectrum, where you respect the institutions and separation
And you respect the universal category of citizenship and equality before the law and
I don’t see any problems with that whatsoever.
I see that as a great gift, not just to this country, but around the world and other places
besides the United States have developed this.
The problems arise at the extremes, the far left and the far right that don’t recognize
the legitimacy either of capitalism or of democratic rule of law institutions.
And they want to eliminate constraints on executive power.
They want to control the public sphere or diminish the independence of the media.
They want to take away markets or private property and redistribution becomes something
bigger than just redistribution.
It becomes actually that original Marxist idea of transcending capitalism.
So I’m not bothered by the left or the right.
I think they’re normal and we should have that debate.
We’re a gigantic, diverse country of many different political points of view.
I’m troubled only by the extremes that are against the system qua system that want to
get rid of it and supposedly that will be the bright path to the future.
History tells us that the far left and the far right are wrong about that.
But once again, this doesn’t mean that you have to be a social democrat.
You could be a libertarian.
You could be a conservative.
You could be a centrist.
You could be conservative on some issues and liberal on other issues.
All of that comes under what I would presume to be normal politics.
And I see that as the important corrective mechanism.
Normal politics and market economies, non monopolistic, open, free and dynamic market
I don’t like concentrations of power politically and I don’t like concentrations of power economically.
I like competition in the political realm.
I like competition in the economic realm.
This is not perfect.
It’s constantly needs to be protected and reinvented and there are flaws that are fundamental
and need to be adjusted and addressed and everything else, especially equality of opportunity.
Equality of outcome is unreachable and is a mistake because it produces perverse and
Equality of outcome attempts, attempts to make people equal on the outcome side, but
attempts to make them more equal on the front end, on the opportunity side.
That’s really, really important for a healthy society.
That’s where we’ve fallen down.
Our schools are not providing equality of opportunity for the majority of people in
all of our school systems.
And so I see problems there.
I see a need to invest in ourselves, invest in infrastructure, invest in human capital,
create greater equality of opportunity, but also to make sure that we have good governance
because governance is the variable that enables you to do all these other things.
I’ve watched quite a bit, returning back to Putin, I’ve watched quite a few interviews
with Putin and conversations, especially because I speak Russian fluently, I can understand
often the translations lose a lot.
I find the man putting morality aside very deep and interesting.
And I found almost no interview with him to get at that depth.
I was very hopeful for the Oliver Stone documentary and with him, and to me, because I deeply
respect Oliver Stone as a filmmaker in general, but it was a complete failure in my eyes,
The lack of, I mean, I suppose you could toss it up to a language barrier, but a complete
lack of diving deep into the person is what I saw.
My question is a strange one, but if you were to sit down with Putin and have a conversation,
or perhaps if you were to sit down with Stalin and have a conversation, what kind of questions
would you ask?
This wouldn’t be televised unless you want it to be.
So this is only you, so you’re allowed to ask about some of the questions that are sort
of not socially acceptable, meaning putting morality aside, getting into depth of the
What would you ask?
So once again, they’re very different personalities and very different time periods and very different
So what I would talk to Stalin about and Putin about are not in the same category necessarily.
So let’s take Putin.
So I would ask him where he thinks this is going, where he thinks Russia is going to
be in 25 years or 50 years.
What’s the long term vision?
What does he anticipate the current trends are going to produce?
Is he under the illusion that Russia is on the upswing, that things are actually going
pretty well, that in 25 years Russia is going to still be a great power with a tremendous
dynamic economy and a lot of high tech and a lot of human capital and wonderful infrastructure
and a very high standard of living and a secure borders and sense of security at home.
Does he think the current path is leading in that direction and if not, if he understands
that the current trajectory does not provide for those kinds of circumstances, does it
Does he worry about that?
Does he care about the future 25 or 50 years from now?
Deep down, what do you think his answer is?
The honest answer?
He thinks he’s on that trajectory already or he doesn’t care about that long term trajectory.
So that’s the mystery for me with him.
He has tremendous sources of information.
He has great experience now as a world leader having served for effectively longer than
Leonid Brezhnev’s long 18 year reign.
And so Putin has accumulated a great deal of experience at the highest level compared
to where he started.
And so I’m interested to understand how he sees this long term evolution or non evolution
of Russia and whether he believes he’s got them on the right trajectory or whether if
he doesn’t believe that he cares.
I have no idea because I’ve never spoken to him about this, but I would love to hear the
Sometimes you have to ask questions not directly like that, but you have to come a little bit
You can elicit answers from people by making them feel comfortable and coming sideways
And just a quick question.
So that’s talking about Russia, Putin’s role in Russia.
Do you think it’s interesting to ask, and you could say the same for Stalin, the more
personal question of how do you feel yourself about this whole thing?
About your life, about your legacy, looking at the person that’s one of the most powerful
and important people in the history of civilization, both Putin and Stalin, you could argue.
Once you experience power at that level, it becomes something that’s almost necessary
for you as a human being.
It’s a drug.
It’s an aphrodisiac.
It’s a feeling.
You know, you go to the gym to exercise and the endorphins, the chemicals get released.
And even if you’re tired or you’re sore, you get this massive chemical change, which has
very dynamic effects on how you feel and the kind of level of energy you have for the rest
of the day.
And if you do that for a long time and then you don’t do it for a while, you’re like a
drug addict not getting your fix.
You miss it.
Your body misses that release of endorphins to a certain extent.
That’s how power works for people like Putin.
That’s how power works for people who run universities or are secretaries of state or
run corporations, fill in the blank.
In whatever ways power is exercised, it becomes almost a drug for people.
It becomes something that’s difficult for them to give up.
It becomes a part of who they are.
It becomes necessary for their sense of self and well being.
The greatest people, the people I admire the most are the ones that can step away from
power, can give up the drug, can be satisfied, can be stronger even by walking away from
continued power when they had the option to continue.
So with a person like Putin, once again, I don’t know him personally, so I have no basis
to judge this.
This is a general statement observable with many people and in historical terms.
With a person like Putin who’s exercised this much power for this long, it’s something that
becomes a part of who you are and you have a hard time imagining yourself without it.
You begin to conflate your personal power with the well being of the nation.
You begin to think that the more power you have, the better off the country is this conflation.
You begin to be able to not imagine, you can no longer imagine what it would be like just
to be an ordinary citizen or an ordinary person running a company even, something much smaller
than a country.
So I anticipate that without knowing for sure that he would be in that category of person,
but you’d want to explore that with questions with him about, so what’s his day look like
from beginning to end?
Just take me through a typical day of yours.
What do you do on a day?
How does it start?
What are the ups?
What are the downs?
What are the parts of the day you look forward to the most?
What are the parts of the day you don’t look forward to that much?
What do you consider a good day?
What do you consider a bad day?
How do you know that what you’re doing is having the effects that you intend?
How do you follow up?
How do you gather the information, the reaction?
How do you get people to tell you to your face things that they know are uncomfortable
or that you might not want to hear?
Those kind of questions.
And through that window, through that kind of questioning, you get a window into a man
So let me ask about Stalin because you’ve done more research, there’s another amazing
interview you’ve had, the introduction was that you know more about Stalin than Stalin
You’ve done an incredible amount of research on Stalin.
So if you could talk to him, get sort of direct research, what question would you ask of Stalin?
I have so many questions, I don’t even know where I would begin.
The thing about studying a person like Stalin, who’s an immense creature, right?
He’s exercising the power of life and death over hundreds of millions of people.
He’s making decisions about novels and films and turbines and submarines and packs with
Hitler or deals with Churchill and Roosevelt and occupation of Mongolia or occupation of
He’s making phenomenally consequential decisions over all spheres of life, all areas of endeavor
and over much of the globe, much of the landmass of the earth.
And so what’s that like?
Does he sometimes reflect on the amount of power and responsibility he has that he can
Does he sometimes think about what it means that a single person has that kind of power?
And does it have an effect on his relations with others, his sense of self, the kinds
of things he values in life?
Does he sometimes think it’s a mistake that he’s accumulated this much power?
Does he sometimes wish he had a simpler life?
Or is he once again so drunk, so enamored, so caught up with chemically and spiritually
with exercising this kind of power that he couldn’t live without it?
And then what were you thinking, I would ask him, in certain decisions that he made?
What were you thinking on certain dates and certain circumstances where you made a decision
and could have made a different decision?
Can you recall your thought processes?
Can you bring the decision back?
Was it seat of the pants?
Was it something you’d been planning?
Did you just improvise or did you have a strategy?
What were you guided by?
Whose examples did you look to?
When you picked up these books that you read and you read the books and you made pencil
marks in them, is it because you absorbed the lesson there?
Or did it really not become a permanent lesson and it was just something that you checked
and it was like a reflex?
So I have many specific questions about many specific events and people and circumstances
that I have tried to figure out with the surviving source materials that we have in abundance.
But I would still like to delve into his mindset and reconstruct his mind.
The closer you get to Stalin, in some ways, the more elusive he can become.
And especially around World War II, you’ve already illuminated a lot of interesting aspects
about Stalin’s role in the war, but it would be interesting to ask even more questions
about how seat of the pants or deliberate some of the decisions have been.
If I could ask just one quick question, one last quick question, and you’re constrained
in time and answering it, do you think there will always be evil in the world?
Do you think there will always be war?
There are conflicting interests, conflicting goals that people have.
Most of the time, those conflicts can be resolved peacefully.
That’s why we build strong institutions to resolve different interests and conflicts
But the fact, the enduring fact of conflicting interests and conflicting desires, that can
never be changed.
So the job that we have for humanity’s sake is to make those conflicting interests, those
conflicting desires, to make them, to put them in a context where they can be resolved
peacefully, and not in a zero sum fashion.
So we can’t get there on the global scale.
So there’s always going to be the kind of conflict that sometimes gets violent.
What we don’t want is a conflict among the strongest powers.
Great power conflict is unbelievably bad.
There are no words to describe it.
At least 55 million people died in World War II.
If we have a World War III, a war between the United States and China, or whatever it
might be, who knows what the number could be?
155 million, 255 million, 555 million, I don’t even want to think about it.
And so it’s horrible when wars break out in the humanitarian catastrophes.
For example, Yemen and Syria and several other places I could name today.
It’s just horrible what you see there.
And the scale is colossal for those places.
But it’s not planetary scale.
And so avoiding planetary scale destruction is really important for us.
And so having those different interests be somehow managed in a way that they don’t,
that no one sees advantage in a violent resolution.
And a part of that is remembering history, so they should read your books.
Stephen, thank you so much.
It was a huge honor talking to you today.
I really enjoyed it.
Thank you for the opportunity.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Stephen Kotkin.
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And now let me leave you with words from Joseph Stalin, spoken shortly before the death of
Lenin and at the beginning of Stalin’s rise to power.
FIRST IN RUSSIAN
Я считаю, что совершенно неважно, кто и как будет в партии голосовать.
Но вот что чрезвычайно важно, это кто и как будет считать голоса.
I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote or how, but what is extraordinarily
important is who will count the votes and how.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.