Oleg V. Klevniuk. Stalin: New Biography of A Dictator. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, May 19th, 2015. 408 pp.
This is a well done biography of Josef Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union from 1929 to his death in 1953. Both in the beginning of the book and towards the end the author mentioned how some have recasted Stalin’s legacy for political purposes in Russia and one of the reason why the author wrote this book is to portray Stalin for who he really is historically. He acknowledges that this will go against the grain for Stalin apologists and those propagating political myths about Stalin and the old USSR. The author has written and edited works on Stalin before but here he writes for us a one volume book length treatment of Stalin instead of his earlier multiple volumes of translated archived correspondences between Stalin and others. This new biography is rich with insights from recently opened Soviet archives. The book is written with meticulous scholarship. For instance in the first few pages of the first chapter we see the author’s familiarity with the primary sources on Stalin coming to play when he discusses when Stalin was born. Official Soviet sources states that Stalin was born in 1879 but the book noted how earlier sources such as church birth register and his graduation certificate indicates Stalin was born a year before in 1878. The author’s critical historian instincts also comes to play when weighing the accounts of witnesses’ memoirs in light of other sources.
I learned a lot about Stalin from this book. I have always heard about how Stalin became radicalized when he was a young man in seminary and this book certainly gives more details of the radical political ideology that was spreading among his classmates during that time. I always wondered if it was true that Stalin shook his fist at God or the heaven when he died and the book does mention Stalin’s own daughter’s account thus showing it’s not just Christian urban legend against atheists.
The biggest thing I got from reading this book is the incredible insight the book provides into the ways and mind of a terrible dictator. How does one stay in power for so long when they are so bad to one’s own people? It was not easy to read about Stalin’s unwise economic plan to industrialize the USSR at the expense of the peasants which resulted in massive famines. The book does not sanitize history but shares with the readers the archives in which Stalin knew about the famine and was not willing to stop his agenda of getting rid of private property, forced labors of peasants with no pay and killing and incarcerating peasants to keep them in line. The author pointed out that a regime like Stalin’s didn’t need to have clock like precision in their centralization in order for it to “work” but it needed to make sure that a constant state of crisis is needed to mobilize his forces to the point of bypassing typical legal methods in order to get results. Stalin often got his policies implemented with the myth of secret capitalists spies within the USSR that one need to battle which is useful to divert people’s attention from where the actual source of problem is coming from (usually the government and Stalin himself). Then Stalin would use his secret police as a valuable weapon for his policies to search for these fifth column traitors which conviently got rid of those who pose a threat to Stalin’s reign (peers and rising proteges) and other scapegoats. It was sad to read about how many people were exiled, shot and imprisoned during Stalin’s reign. It was also ironic to read of how those in the secret police apparatus that did the dirty work would also themselves end up facing the same thing when Stalin changed the security servies’ leadership or formed another competing agency. Stalin was a mad and evil man.
I think reading this book is relevant for us today as we still see dictators around the world. It gives us a window as to how they think and methods used. Certainly an insightful work in terms of history and concerning man’s ugly nature and condition.
NOTE: This book was provided to me free by Yale University Press and Net Galley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.