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Service with a Smile

Everything you always wanted to know about Joseph Stalin -- and were too afraid to ask.

By 8.29.05

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This review appeared in the June issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

Stalin: A Biography
by Robert Service
(Harvard University Press,
715 pages, $29.95)

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.

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.

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.

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About the Author

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University.