John Thornhill at the Financial Times:
That is not to say that Stalin’s story is anything but fantastical: how a Georgian cobbler’s son born in an outpost of the Tsarist empire could help shatter the shackles of a 300-year dynasty, emerge as the supreme leader of one-sixth of the world’s landmass, and reshape the destiny of millions. Nor is it to deny the irrationality of the entire Leninist project: that violence, murder and mass repression are permissible today to build a more peaceful and just tomorrow. As Kotkin puts it, Stalin “intensified the insanity inherent in Leninism” – but his actions were mostly sanctified by that ideology.
Soviet historians used to present their past as the onward march of vast, impersonal forces (albeit with some erroneous detours). But Kotkin, building on the recent western historiography of Russia, emphasises the role of accident in Stalin’s times and the primacy of human actors.