Friday, 11 October 2013

A nice guy or what?

Stalin, a Biography. Robert Service. Published by Harvard University Press.

This review was written on October 20th 2011

I began to read the book during a cycling holiday on the Ile de Ré in September 2011. The Kindle was a convenient means of travel without having to carry a heavy book but lack of familiarity with this new means of reading made it difficult for me to write a meaningful review. However, I can make some generalisations which might be of help to others who may wish to know more about Stalin.

This was the first book I read on my Amazon Kindle. It is a long biography measuring more than 700 pages in text, of which about one third includes the evolution of the Russian empire during the first half of the 20th century.

The book was tedious reading for a number of reasons but it was nevertheless compelling enough and I followed it to its end, with a little skipping of the many pages which provide the author’s views of Stalin’s personality and his behaviour as dictator of Russia for 30 years. The author conveys a rather grim impression of Russia as it was dominated by him and the Bolsheviks.  If the author had any prejudices about Stalin and his career, it was critical rather than approving.  Stalin emerges as an ambitious and paranoid figure and merciless in his treatment of his subjects. Even his closest associates and extended family suffered at his hands. Wholesale executions and political murder were a constant feature of his time, with exacerbations of his lust during the first Five Year Plan in the 1920s and during 1938, just before the 1939-1945 War, when he disposed of many of his earlier Bolshevik colleagues. His final public crime and splurge of paranoia was the rounding up and execution of the Jewish doctors in Moscow who, he believed, were planning to kill him.   His closest colleagues were in constant fear of him and could not be sure of how he might react to a remark, decision or action which would lead them to the Gulag or the firing squad. The author thinks that Stalin delighted in keeping his colleagues in fear of his lust.

Stalin was born in 1877. He started his life as a student in the spiritual academy of his home country of Georgia. He was entered for the priesthood but he was clearly an unwilling candidate for the religious life and was soon to be deemed unsuitable for ordination. Georgia was then part of Nicholas II’s Russian Empire. His parents were separated and his only intimate parent was his mother who lived her entire life in Georgia but with whom he maintained some contact during her lifetime. His political involvement was with the early Bolsheviks and he was greatly influenced by Lenin who was in exile in the early part of the century but who had an immense influence on the Bolshevik movement in Russia and elsewhere.

He is still admired in Georgia and is commemorated by sculptures and other public artefacts. This cannot be said about other countries and particularly about the countries which were part of the Russian hegemony after the 1939-1945 war. There is still a small residue of Russians who think warmly of him and who still yearn for the Communist regime which he dominated.

For the average reader who is not too familiar with Russia and the Russian people there are some difficulties in dealing with this large biography. The many personal and family Russian names need constant reference to the glossary, not easy when reading the Kindle for the first time. The author devotes large and repeated sections of the text in analysing Stalin’s character, personality, motives and reaction to the different circumstances during his thirty years as dictator of Russia and the Russian Empire. For me the lasting effect in reading about Stalin was being reminded of the cruelty of the man and his times, and his apparent indifference to the fear he created among his close colleagues and personal and family acquaintances, and the apparent indifference he had to their fate. While he clearly  held all the strings of power, he appears to have remained aloof of the various organisations, secret police, political councils and parts of government who carried out his  instructions in conducting the trails which led to so many executions and to the Gulag.  During his despotic power he was noted for his approval of the systematic killing of people on a massive scale and many of his prominent colleagues were eventually disposed of to the Gulag or the firing squad, for personal or political reasons and strongly related to his increasing paranoia.

The author states in his introduction that Stalin had many sides and this is the view of his niece Kira Allilueva, who was imprisoned by him and who spoke freely to the author. That he was ambitious, energetic and dynamic is evident from his response to Hitler’s invasion and his commitment to defeat the Nazis at all costs irrespective of the sacrifice of men, whether of his own men or his enemies. In battle soldiers were to move forward however strong or impregnable the opposition. Those who turned back were shot. During his 30 year reign he was responsible for the industrialisation of Russia and for the highly traumatic and controversial collectivisation of agricultural land leading to the impoverishing and deaths of millions of agricultural workers and farmers.

The author concludes that he left the Soviet Union as a world power and an industrial colossus and with a literate society. He died with continued institutions of terror and indoctrination with few rivals to contend with. The history of the USSR after his death was largely a series of attempts to conserve, modify, disparage or discredit his regime. He was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev who according to the author shoved Stalin off the pedestal of Communism and its concept of equality for all.  It was Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 who initiated the campaign against Stalin and all his works.

Since the opening up of the Archives in Moscow through the influence of Boris Yeltsin there is now a massive academic interest in and curiosity about Stalin and his times. Already we have a huge amount of literature aimed at interpreting Stalin and his regime. These archives can only add further to the attention of biographers and historians. They will contribute further to our knowledge of Stalin and the cult of Communism but I suspect that different attitudes and different prejudices will add rather than resolve the confusion of opinions about Stalin which is already evident among historians.

After the World War he sustained a tyranny which denied any vestige of freedom for the Russian people. Brutality continued to be institutionalised for his country. He had a monstrous record as a tyrant and his tyranny spread to some extent through Russian influence in the other Eastern Communist countries until the falling of the ‘’Wall’’  

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