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Population Politics, Power and the Problem of Modernity in Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 April 2014

The City University of New York: History Department, The City College of New York, 160 Convent Avenue, New York, NY 10031, USA;


Did population policy under Stalin differ, in any fundamental respect, from those of inter-war France or other Western countries? In a radical rethinking of the Soviet experience, Stephen Kotkin said no. Magnetic Mountain moved the field of Soviet history past an increasingly sterile cold war standoff between the so-called new social history and the totalitarian school. With the social history generation, Kotkin insisted on seeing the Soviet project from the perspective of ordinary people, subject to the same kind of forces that applied throughout Europe. He had no truck with ideas like oriental despotism or Russian exceptionalism, but, with the totalitarian school, he took ideology seriously, presenting everyday life and high politics within a single analytical frame. To do so, he drew eclectically on a range of theoretical perspectives, above all on the work of the late Michel Foucault. Foucault often implied that Auschwitz and the Gulag were the logical outcome of the Enlightenment project, but his primary goal was to illuminate the corrosive, coercive nature of liberal reform efforts in Western Europe, to puncture their claims to universality. The vast bulk of his corpus avoided the twentieth century. Kotkin, by contrast, used Foucault's perspective directly on the Soviet system itself.

Forum: Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain (1995)
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1 Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994)Google Scholar. Future references will be cited in parenthesis in the text.

2 Rosenberg, Clifford, Policing Paris: The Origins of Modern Immigration Controls Between the Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

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11 Moine gives some indication in ‘Le Système des passeports’, 152–4. For police efforts elsewhere, Becker, Peter, Verderbnis und Entartung: Eine Geschichte der Kriminologie des 19. Jahrhunderts als Diskurs und Praxis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2002)Google Scholar; Becker, , ‘Vom “Haltlosen” zur “Bestie”: Das polizeiliche Bild des “Verbrechers” im 19. Jahrhundert’, in ‘Sicherheit’ und ‘Wohlfahrt’: Polizei, Gesellschaft und Herrschaft im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Lüdke, Alf (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1992), 97131Google Scholar, esp. 126–31; and Ilsen About, ‘Naissance d’une science policière de l’identification en Italie (1902–1922)’, in the special issue, ‘Police et identification: Enjeux, pratiques, techniques’, ed. Pierre Piazza, Les cahiers de la sécurité, no. 56 (2005), 167–200.

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19 Ticktin, Miriam, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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24 Shearer, David R., Policing Stalin's Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, chs 6–8.

25 Figures from Shearer, Policing Stalin's Socialism, 14–15. See also Hagenloh, Paul M., Stalin's Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926–1941 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

26 Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

27 See, e.g. Kotsonis, Yanni and Hoffmann, David L., eds, Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000)Google Scholar; Holquist, Peter, ‘“Information is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work”: Bolshevik Surveillance in its Pan-European Perspective’, Journal of Modern History, 69, 3 (1997): 415–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hirsch, Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Weiner, Amir, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and Martin, Terry, ‘The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing’, Journal of Modern History, 70, 4 (1998): 813–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Cooper, ‘Modernity’; and Mazower, Mark, ‘Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century’, American Historical Review, 107, 4 (2002): 1158–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here at 1159–60.

29 On the exceptional nature of political violence in the USSR, ibid. 1167–70.

30 Mazower, , ‘Foucault, Agamben’, 25 n. 4, quotes Michel Foucault, Power, ed. Faubion, James D., tr. Hurley, Robert (New York: New Press, 2000)Google Scholar, 293. I have provided a fuller version of Foucault's quote and altered the Hurley translation. The original, from a 1978 interview (published in 1980), appears in Michel Foucault, DE, doc. 281, 2:910.

31 Foucault, ‘Pouvoirs et stratégies’, a 1977 interview with Jacques Rancière, in DE, doc. 218, 2:418, 420.

32 Mazower, ‘Foucault, Agamben’, 24; Miller, James, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 3840Google Scholar; and the interviews quoted above, Foucault, DE, esp. 2:422 and 2:867–70.

33 See, e.g. Foucault, ‘Le Sujet et le pouvoir’ (1982), in DE, doc. 306, 2:1043: ‘One of the many reasons they are so troubling is that despite their historical singularity, they are not altogether original. Fascism and Stalinism used and extended mechanisms already present in most other societies. Not only that, but, despite their internal madness, they relied to a considerable degree on the ideas and procedures of our political rationality.’ See also Foucault, ‘La Philosophie analytique de la politique’, lecture delivered in Tokyo, 27 April 1978, in DE, doc. 232, 2:534–51, esp. at 2:535–36.

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