Stephen Kotkin


In 1989 a twenty-seven-year-old Stephen Kotkin joined the faculty of the Princeton history department. Over the next thirty-three years, until his transition to emeritus status on September 1, 2022, Kotkin would write half-a-dozen books, train a cadre of graduate students, and teach hundreds of undergraduates. No less important, Kotkin, the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs, would serve as a model of a historian and intellectual for colleagues in Princeton and abroad.

In 1995 Kotkin published a revised version of his University of California-Berkeley, dissertation written under the supervision of Martin Malia and Reginald Zelnik, as Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. The book, whose narrative of 366 pages is accompanied by 230 pages of documentation and commentary in endnotes, recast the history of the Soviet Union, through the history of a town, Magnitogorsk, a center of industrial production in the Ural mountains, where Kotkin had lived as a graduate student in 1987. Kotkin drew on the methods of the Annales historians to reconstruct the total history of a single place; equally as important as the influence of Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel was another French figure to whom the book was dedicated: Michel Foucault. In a series of seminars at Berkeley in the early 1980s, a young Kotkin had learned from this historian and philosopher of the systems of thought how to go about writing the history of power. The result in Magnetic Mountain was a book that united the methods of the Annales historians with the late Foucault while dispensing with the politics of both. The subtitle “Stalinism as a Civilization” made an implicit argument that the book, both in the vigorous narrative and in the copious and witheringly discursive notes, brought to the fore: structure provided as critical an historical explanation as personal agency for the enduring power of authoritarian regimes.

Concurrent with the research and writing of Magnetic Mountain, Kotkin wrote a study of the political economy of Magnitogorsk in the throes of perestroika that he published in 1991 as Steeltown, USSR. This was the first in a trio of books in which Kotkin would engage in the arduous and elusive task of writing contemporary history. Two later books, Armageddon Averted and Uncivil Society, the latter with a contribution on Poland by Jan Gross, recounted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the satellite states it held under its sway. Both books advanced a counter-intuitive argument that has endured admirably well: namely, that the collapse of Soviet communism and of communism in Eastern Europe happened as a result of the elites within these communist societies rather than as a result of policies adopted by Western powers or bottom-up pressures of their citizens. These exercises in contemporary history — concise, bracing, empirical — coincided with Kotkin’s crossing of Washington Road, where he joined the faculty of what was then the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (before the honorific name was removed). To his undergraduate lecture course on the Soviet Empire and graduate seminars on Eastern European, Eurasian, and Russian history, Kotkin added a new dimension to his teaching portfolio that culminated in his founding of the still flourishing Program in the History of War and Diplomacy. Concurrent with his writing and teaching, for which he was awarded a Graduate Mentoring Award in 2010, Kotkin emerged as a collaborator and facilitator on campus and in the field. Along with a series of Princeton colleagues, he authored a major textbook, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, that brought rigor and precision to the often amorphous field of global history. Moreover, he helped engineer a series of brilliant appointments in the history department and across the university that brought Jan Gross, Linda Colley, Ekaterina Pravilova, and Anne Jarvis to Princeton. He transformed the Program in Russian Studies into a Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies and served as the Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies for many years.

Nearly two decades after Magnetic Mountain, a book that had forced historians to rethink the relationship between structure and agency on a monumental scale, Kotkin returned to the grand canvas of narrative history with two massive volumes in rapid succession, Stalin: The Paradoxes of Power and Stalin: Waiting for Hitler. In two thousand pages of riveting prose, which mixed mordant wit with ironic pessimism, Kotkin used the figure of Stalin to write a new history of the twentieth century. In the first volume, Kotkin recounted Stalin’s profoundly contingent rise to power. Moreover, he drew upon ample documentary evidence to demonstrate that Stalin was both an intellectual and a Marxist. Here again, Kotkin was demolishing the pieties of Western historians and biographers who had interpreted Stalin’s policies simply as a cynical ploy to maintain power, a crueler and paler shadow of Lenin. If volume one traced Stalin’s rise against the backdrop of Bolshevik party politics, volume two recounted the tumultuous and catastrophic decade of the 1930s from the perspective of Stalin’s office. Kotkin drew the reader into the profound claustrophobia of the dictator’s desk as the paradoxes of power that he had evoked throughout volume one became fully apparent. And like all great writers, he left his readers wanting more, ending volume two on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Published with Penguin Press, Kotkin’s Stalin managed to do what most historians can only dream about: deliver his readers a work of narrative history while providing his colleagues with consummate scholarship amply demonstrated in the copious endnotes printed in a considerably smaller font.

When he joined the faculty, Princeton’s history department was medium-sized, celebrated for its cultural historians, and focused largely on pre-nineteenth century European history; when he retired, Dickinson Hall housed a much larger faculty that pursued global history and is firmly focused on the modern period. In his more than three decades at Princeton, Stephen Kotkin performed at least three different roles with consummate skill: he was a teacher of undergraduates and graduate students of extraordinary dedication, delivering legendary lectures and conducting a seminar of terrifying rigor; he was a commentator on contemporary politics and economics of profound depth; and, above all, he was an archival historian of extraordinary imagination.

Written by members of the Department of History faculty.