Robert Service - Stalin: A Biography

Few people are more intriguing to read about than Joseph Stalin. I knew very little about him before reading this book. Now I feel like I know lots, but it wasn't always easy going. Since the book is long, you can forgive a typo or two, but there are many more typos and grammar errors than one or two so it makes for rough reading at times.

There are few Stalin fans these days, but I'd still prefer a biographer that remains somewhat neutral when it comes to his personal opinions. There are numerous instances in which Service goes too far in his "analysis." For example, on page 538, he calls Stalin a "pockmarked little psychopath." Is that really necessary?

Other word choice issues were also not to my liking. For instance, the word hegemony was not used for hundreds of pages, but then once used it is used constantly (many times per page) for a while. Other words are used inconsistently or confusingly. I think Bolshevik and Communist are synonymous, but Service never explicitly says so and flips back and forth between the two.

I prefer biographies to be chronological in order. This book is written as if the chapters are based on themes as much as they are based on a timeline. So you may be taken to, say, 1935 by the end of a chapter, but then the next chapter begins back a few years. This is sometimes confusing or disruptive to a smooth reading. Other times it just leads to redundancy in the information presented. I like to be "surprised" in biographies by reading events as if they were happening now for the first time. Service alludes to the Great Terror, Stalin's death, and other events long before they actually happen later in the book which reduces the impact once we eventually get to that part of the story.

Service is not always clear. As a non-Russian speaker and non-Russian history expert, making this book easy for me to comprehend would be a tall task for just about any author, but Service could have done better. I didn't find the glossary in the back of the book until I had already read several hundred pages. The glossary helped, but it should be longer, pointed to at the beginning of the book, and include a people and place glossary also. There are just too many Russian words for someone who doesn't speak Russian to keep straight. Names that have only been introduced in a limited way hundreds of pages before are tossed out again as if the reader can remember who they were. On the other hand, some easy to remember items (such as Stalin tricking others to drink more than him) were needlessly repeated many times.

I was surprised at the treatment given to the Japanese front in WW II. Service makes it seem as if the USSR had very little contact or conflict with the Japanese. This was a very different picture than that painted in Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.

I only checked Service's facts/interpretations with respect to one issue and was not happy with what I found. On pages 452 and 453, Service discusses how Stalin was twice Time magazine's Man of the Year. He makes it sound as if Time said nothing but glowing things about Stalin, using words such as "adulation," "commendation," "brightly," "praised," "clever," "pragmatic," "straightforwardness," "steadfastness," "hailed," etc. Nowhere does he indicate that Western descriptions also included the negative. On the contrary, Service states that "the cult at home acquired its affiliate shrines in the lands of capitalism -- and it was just as vague and misleading in the West as it was in its homeland." I decided to check these facts by reading from the Time issue itself. Service neglected to quote these kinds of opinions from the article:

By the one stroke of sanctioning a Nazi war and by the later strokes of becoming a partner of Adolf Hitler in aggression, Joseph Stalin threw out of the window Soviet Russia's meticulously fostered reputation of a peace-loving, treaty-abiding nation. By the ruthless attack on Finland, he not only sacrificed the good will of thousands of people the world over sympathetic to the ideals of Socialism, he matched himself with Adolf Hitler as the world's most hated man...

To be sure, the collectivization program in the Ukraine resulted in a famine which cost not less than 3,000,000 lives in 1932. It was a Stalin-made famine. The number of wrecks and industrial accidents became prodigious. Soviet officials laid it to sabotage. More likely they were due more to too rapid industrialization. Millions in penal colonies were forced into slave labor.

Moreover, Russian officialdom began to experience a terror which continues to this day. For the murder of Stalin's "Dear Friend," Sergei M. Kirov, head of the Leningrad Soviet, who had once called Comrade Stalin the "greatest leader of all times and all nations," 117 persons were known to have been put to death. That started the fiercest empire-wide purge of modern times. Thousands were executed with only a ghost of a trial. Secret police reigned as ruthlessly over Russia as in Tsarist times.

The above hardly sounds like the Western press thought Stalin to be as saintly as Service contends. Time doesn't pick people because they are "good" necessarily. Their person of the year is based on impact--not lack of sins. Other choices have been Hitler, Mohammed Mossadegh, and Ayatullah Khomeini. If Service was misleading on this issue, how many other topics was I also given the wrong impression about?

Service makes it seem as if many of the imprisonments, tortures, and deaths were purely arbitrary in nature to keep the rest of the faithful in line. But with all of the wiretapping going on, isn't it possible that (some of) the judgments weren't purely arbitrary even if the punishments were far in excess of the person's "crime." I'm certainly not saying that Stalin was just in the way he banished or killed people, but it may not have been as willy-nilly as presented in Stalin at times.

With all of the above critiques, it may sound as if I hated this book. I did not. I learned much from it and enjoyed most of my readings (especially in the second half of the book). An issue near the end that is raised, but not discussed in detail, I found particularly stimulating. What would have happened in WW II if there never was a Stalin? The German Nazis had run over other countries with ease and likely would have done the same to the countries that made up the USSR had Stalin not mobilized and industrialized it prior to the war. Could Britain, and eventually the U.S., have withstood the Nazis if they had such vast resources at their disposal and without an ally in the USSR?

The end picture is that even though Stalin did many, many horrible things the world may in fact be a better place today because of him. I guess we'll never know. But it is still fun to read and think about.

from the publisher:
Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years.

Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for Lenin, Stalin was a prominent activist long before the Russian Revolution. Equally compelling is the depiction of Stalin as Soviet leader. Service recasts the image of Stalin as unimpeded despot; his control was not limitless. And his conviction that enemies surrounded him was not entirely unfounded.

Stalin was not just a vengeful dictator but also a man fascinated by ideas and a voracious reader of Marxist doctrine and Russian and Georgian literature as well as an internationalist committed to seeing Russia assume a powerful role on the world stage. In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers--such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev--found the Stalinist legacy surprisingly hard to dislodge.

Rather than diminishing the horrors of Stalinism, this is an account all the more disturbing for presenting a believable human portrait. Service's lifetime engagement with Soviet Russia has resulted in the most comprehensive and compelling portrayal of Stalin to date.