This review appeared in the June issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.p> Stalin: A Biography br> by Robert Service br> (Harvard University Press, br> 715 pages, $29.95) /p>
COMMUNIST MONSTERS have fared far better among historians than have Nazis. The collapse and military destruction of Germany virtually wiped out any lingering affection among Germans for the Third Reich and its murderous leaders. Small bands of Hitler admirers have never been able to generate much popular support in the last 60 years. Joseph Stalin’s legacy has been far more complicated. Millions of Russians remain nostalgic about his reign. Many others profess admiration for his accomplishments, which are alleged to include the industrialization of the Soviet Union, the disciplining of a fractious nation, the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the transformation of the USSR into one of the world’s superpowers. Western academics have engaged in heated debates about the extent of Stalin’s responsibilities for Soviet repression and credited him with prodigious feats of nation-building, albeit at a terrible cost.
Stalin has always been an enigmatic human being. The Soviet Union carefully restricted access to all of its official papers, as well as to personal materials on its leadership. Moreover, Stalin killed many of the people who knew him best before the Bolsheviks seized power, and during his lifetime he deliberately concealed details about his life, infrequently granted interviews, or engaged in unscripted meetings with foreigners. His published writings rarely strayed from turgid political or ideological treatises. The most informative material about him frequently came from Russian exiles, former opponents lucky or shrewd enough to escape his clutches. After Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s leadership, some exposes appeared from Russian sources, and his daughter, Svetlana Allilueva, contributed some insights after her flight to the West.
The collapse of the USSR and the decision of Russian President Boris Yeltsin to open its archives resulted in an outpouring of new material on Stalin. New insight into the decision-making process within the regime has emerged from his correspondence with other Soviet officials, while previously closed archives and previously restricted documents have been opened to scholars. Several books on Stalin have appeared in English, the best of which is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf, 2004), which provides a riveting account of the fate of Stalin’s circle of friends from the early 1930s, when he launched his purges.
The newest and most comprehensive biography of Stalin is by Robert Service, a British academic who has also written an acclaimed biography of Lenin. Well-written, insightful, and often witty, it still is not an easy or enjoyable book to read and lacks the dramatic panache of Montefiore. It is not just that after more than 600 pages, the reader longs to escape the nightmare world the dictator created and his unspeakable acts of cruelty. At times, the book becomes as much a political history of Russia in the 20th century as a biography, an understandable outcome when writing about someone who so dominated a regime, but a problem when the person slips from view because of the felt need to recount the history of the nation he dominated for so long.
SERVICE PUNCTURES SEVERAL rumors and myths about Stalin. While his formal education was narrow, Stalin was by no means the uneducated boor so often depicted by his enemies. His childhood was harsh with a drunken cobbler father, who beat both mother and son. It is possible that Stalin’s mother prostituted herself to support the family, and Joseph’s biological father may have been the local police chief. Bullied as a child, Stalin grew up to be a bully himself, but he was a good student at a religious high school and then at a seminary in Tbilisi, where he studied secular as well as religious subjects. He wrote passable romantic Georgian poems good enough to get published. As dictator, he carefully monitored a variety of cultural fields. He was a competent writer and editor, an “obsessive intellectual dilettante.”
His revolutionary activities began shortly after he dropped out of the seminary in 1899, just prior to completing his studies. First arrested three years later, he quickly became both a leader and a disruptive figure in the Georgian Marxist movement, joining Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Contrary to later claims by his enemies that he was an obscure provincial in the Party, Stalin was prominent enough to serve as a delegate to Party conferences in Finland, Sweden, and London in the next few years. He was also a man of action, supervising armed robberies through which the Bolsheviks financed their organization. Despite the loss of faith that had led him to leave the seminary, he married his first wife in a Georgian Orthodox ceremony in 1906 (she died two years later). Service also recounts that in 1921 Stalin made a rare visit to his mother, and in response to her question about whether he had the Tsar’s blood on his hands, he “made the sign of the cross and swore that he had had no part in it.”
For nearly two decades Stalin was a dedicated Bolshevik militant, in and out of prison and often living on the run. Service places no credence in persistent rumors that he was actually an agent of the tsarist secret police — he spent too much time in jail — but believes it plausible that Stalin might have informed on some of his factional opponents to get them out of the way. He had few scruples, either political or moral. Fellow prisoners in Siberia found him self-indulgent, heedless of others, uncouth, and determined to be the center of attention. During one period of Siberian exile, he impregnated a 14-year-old.
Stalin often felt undervalued. He bitterly resented the condescension with which other Bolsheviks treated him. Neither a riveting speaker nor an intellectual, he cultivated an image as a hard apparatchik. After the revolution, he directed a harsh campaign of terror in the Northern Caucuses and Volgograd, earning a reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty Bolsheviks. Despite his lack of military training, he was supremely self-confident, behaving “as though he had a monopoly on military judgment and that those who opposed him were either fools or knaves.” Likewise, his lack of experience as a worker or farmer did not inhibit him from pronouncing judgment on all sorts of technical questions and issues. He lived most of his life after rising to power insulated within the Kremlin; he never traveled to visit factories or collective farms and rarely met with delegations of workers or farmers. Within the Communist Party he deferred only to Lenin, and only the latter’s illness and death in the early 1920s saved Stalin, who had insulted Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife. In his last testament, Lenin urged Stalin’s removal from his Party position, but Stalin persuaded his colleagues to suppress the document and then picked them off, one by one, over the next decade.
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