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Monday, January 1, 2007

Stalin: A Biography

Harvard University Press • 2005 • 760 pages • $29.95 hardcover; $19.95 paperback

Robert Service is a well-known specialist in twentieth-century Russian history. His new biography of Stalin is an attempt to provide the reader with a comprehensive view of the man who influenced modern history more than almost anyone else. He still affects our lives today. His followers are numerous and fanatical; his shadow is behind the terrorist regimes of North Korea, Cuba, and Iran; he is still revered in communist China and Vietnam; and he is the role model for tyrants like Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chávez, Kim Jong Il, and Aleksandr Lukashenko. Together with Lenin, Stalin built the infamous Gulag in which tens of millions of people of almost all nationalities, religions, and social standing were tortured and murdered. Stalin initiated the spread of state totalitarianism.

Service provides us with a fuller assessment of Stalin not only as a serial political killer and a bureaucratic perfectionist, but also as a revolutionary, a well-read writer and editor, and as a family man and poet. He challenges the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated Georgian criminal and ruthless administrator transformed into a pathological killer. This biography reveals the complex and fascinating story behind the monster who dominated the twentieth century. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the best biography of the Soviet dictator to date.

Stalin created his own personality cult and was presented to the masses in the Soviet Union and abroad as a colossal father figure. The intensity of this cult can be compared only with Islamic fundamentalism. This development began in the 1930s, when Stalin consciously established himself in the line of great symbolic figures like Ivan the Terrible, whose image in the minds of the common people was that of a harsh but just protector.

This adulation for the man at the helm was so unconditional that even citizens persecuted and imprisoned by Stalin’s power apparatus mourned in their prison cells when they heard of his death in March 1953. The news of Stalin’s death came as a tremendous shock to the people of Russia. For almost 30 years he had been portrayed (and was widely seen) as the man on whom all their lives, as well as the whole world, depended. Accordingly, on his death the masses felt orphaned, bereft of all guidance, and lapsed into the most profound despondency.

The number of Soviet citizens thronging to attend the funeral ceremony exceeded all expectations, and in Moscow the KGB and militia were overtaxed. As a result, “thousands of individuals were trampled and badly injured, and the number of people who suffered fatal asphyxiation (which was withheld from newspapers) went into the hundreds. Even in his coffin the Leader had not lost his capacity to deal out death at random to his subjects,” Service writes.

In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers—such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev—found the Stalinist legacy almost impossible to dislodge. The people had become so habituated to servility and dependence on the state that even timid reforms were regarded by many with horror.

Russia is still laboring under the tragic effects of Stalin’s regime. In many regions the rural population lives under conditions that have seen no change since the time of the tsars. Furthermore, the gigantic enterprises of heavy industry built by Stalin and his successors are disintegrating all over the former Soviet Empire, leaving environmental disasters and hundreds of thousands of disgruntled and unemployed workers. Coercive collectivization and industrialization cost the country millions of lives. Despite all that, the adulation for Stalin in Russia (less common in other parts of the former USSR) is intriguing. Many Russians (65 percent according to a recent public-opinion poll) still regard him as one of the greatest personalities their country has ever produced.

Today, over 50 years after his death, committed Stalinists are a vocal group in Russia. Russian President Putin is known to be a closet Stalinist himself, raising toasts at Kremlin receptions to the memory of the Master. His own popularity is based on the cult of a strong man leading the country. The idea that society can only be managed by an autocrat with an iron fist still dominates the Russian mind, and Service’s book helps to explain how that sad state of affairs was brought about.

Stalin: A Biography is a serious contribution to our understanding of this most evil historical figure and should serve as a warning against rising autocratic regimes in Russia and elsewhere.

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