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Service provides yet another chilling account of Stalin’s maneuvers and policies from the early 1920s through the end of the 1930s; although familiar, it never fails to horrify. The man-made famines that cost millions of lives; the cold-blooded policies that targeted entire classes of human beings for extermination; the monumental cruelty that condemned millions of innocent people for imaginary crimes are all laid out. Service struggles to find a language appropriate to describe the man who orchestrated this horror show: “an extremely sensitive bully,” a man of “gargantuan hypocrisy,” a gangster who surrounded himself with thugs and deviants, a “village sorcerer who held his subjects in his dark thrall.” Stalin was, he concludes, a “deeply disordered personality,” “as wicked a man as has ever lived,” and a “pockmarked little psychopath.”
Stalin delighted in inflicting small and large indignities on others. He enjoyed demeaning his guests, frightening them, and getting them drunk to see what they would blurt out. At his all-male drinking parties, he humiliated subordinates. He took pleasure in forcing people to grovel and conform to his own idiosyncrasies. He did not eat dinner until at least 9 p.m., after which he would work into the early morning. Terrified ministers and aides had to be available if he decided to call their offices during his workday. He frequently shuffled their positions and responsibilities and played them off against each other.
Old ties and loyalties meant little to him. His second wife, suffering from mental and emotional illness, committed suicide. He had a number of her relatives killed, even though they had been among his closest associates in the years before the revolution. Vyacheslav Molotov, longtime Foreign Minister, was among his most devoted and craven supporters. After World War II, Stalin demoted him. In 1949, Stalin arrested Molotov’s wife and sent her to the Gulag. When her arrest came to a vote in the Politburo, Molotov abstained but soon had second thoughts and apologized to Stalin at a subsequent Central Committee meeting for his lapse in revolutionary commitment. Only Stalin’s death probably saved him from a purge. The wives of several other high-ranking officials were arrested. Fearing the popularity of the greatest Soviet general of World War II, Marshall Zhukov, Stalin had the war hero sacked on charges of looting German goods, which could have been brought against virtually any high-ranking officer.
UNLIKE HITLER WHO MURDERED PEOPLE because of their membership in some group or class, Stalin was far more unpredictable. While kulaks (wealthy peasants) were targeted, along with other class enemies, Stalin also destroyed imaginary enemies within his own party. Once started, the Soviet purges swallowed up millions of people on the most spurious of grounds. Local NKVD offices had quotas to fulfill, and being arrested, even shot, was often just the (bad) luck of the draw. Those with connections to foreigners, members of minority ethnic groups, those with politically suspect pasts, cultural figures, and anyone unfortunate enough to have known Stalin in the old days were particularly at risk.
Although Service has little doubt that Stalin was a moral monster, he also notes that the only way the Bolsheviks could have taken power or survived in power was to employ brutal and dictatorial means. The regime was never popular, had enemies all around, and could not afford to loosen its grip without losing its hold on authority. Driven by an ideology that sanctioned the use of terror and repression in the name of the utopian goals of socialism, Stalin was not troubled at all by the casualties he exacted. One particularly chilling pronouncement he made at a Kremlin reception is a stark reminder:
And we will annihilate every such enemy, even if he were to be an Old Bolshevik! We will annihilate his entire clan, his family! We will mercilessly annihilate everyone who by his actions and thoughts (yes, thoughts, too) assails the unity of the socialist state. For the total annihilation of all enemies, both themselves and their clan!
Stalin’s own errors and miscalculations added to the toll. Although Service strains to make a plausible argument about why Stalin might reasonably have failed to anticipate Hitler’s decision to abrogate the Nazi-Soviet pact and attack in 1941, Stalin’s blunders came close to costing the regime its life. The collectivization campaign consolidated Soviet power in the countryside but dealt agriculture a blow from which it never recovered. The industrial facade built at such a great cost concealed the “theft, corruption, nepotism, informal patronage, misreporting and general disorder” that left the USSR a hollow shell nearly 50 years after the dictator’s death.
Not all of Service’s judgments or conclusions are equally plausible. He underestimates Stalin’s anti-Semitism, attributing many of his attacks on Jews and Judaism to political expediency or to the rigidity of the Marxist lenses through which he viewed the world, rather than to hatred of Jews per se (although he does admit that the Doctors’ Plot, the attack on “rootless cosmopolitans,” and the plan to deport Soviet Jews to Siberia in the last years of Stalin’s life make the case for anti-Semitism “plausible”). Service suggests that the Cold War was started by the Marshall Plan, “a dagger pointed at Moscow,” rather than by Soviet decisions to test Western resolve and Stalin’s own Marxist-Leninist mind-set, which anticipated inevitable and continuing conflict with capitalist nations.
Service reports that three notes were found in Stalin’s desk after his death in 1953. One was an angry letter from Lenin demanding Stalin apologize for treating Krupskaya with disrespect. The second was Bukharin’s last letter, written from prison to his old friend, plaintively asking, “Koba, why is my death necessary for you?’ The third was a letter from Marshall Tito saying that five assassins sent by the NKVD to assassinate him had been caught and warning that he would reciprocate. Together they capture the life and times of Joseph Stalin, a gangster, a killer, a Marxist-Leninist.p> Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University. This review appeared in the June issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here . br> /p>
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