Stalin continues to fascinate–the central mystery within the riddle inside the enigma that was the Soviet Union. If you Google “Stalin, biography,” 166,000 websites come up. Amazon offers more than 8,000 titles with his name in it, many of which qualify as biographies, whole or partial. The man who toward the end of his life was arguably the most powerful individual in the world had at various earlier times been seen as a “gray blur,” “the man who missed the revolution,” “a non-entity hooked by history,” “the marvelous Georgian,” “Generalissimo” and “History’s villain.” Why would anyone contemplate yet another biography? What is it that we need to know that is not already available? As someone engaged at the moment in writing a biography of the young Stalin (up to 1924, the year of Lenin’s death), doubts dissipate each time I return to Moscow or Tbilisi and enter the archives. A man like Stalin is not easily put aside by the dismissive phrase “of interest only to historians.” His latest biographers, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Roy and Zhores Medvedev, seem to think that even the most trivial material provides its own sensation of discovery, and in their archival diggings they have come up with new, though not always particularly important, tidbits, as well as gripping stories of people caught in deadly political games that stretched over decades.

The authors come from quite different backgrounds, though their approaches join them in a common enterprise. Montefiore is a talented journalist, the author of a well-regarded biography of Prince Grigorii Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s adviser and lover (those two positions often went hand in hand), as well as a novelist. A prodigious researcher, he mined Russian archives, traveled to Stalin’s birthplace, Georgia, to his various homes and hideaways as far away as war-torn Abkhazia, unearthed unpublished memoirs and carried out numerous interviews with anyone who knew Stalin and would talk to him (including most of his living descendants, with the notable exception of the reclusive Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter).

Twin brothers Roy and Zhores Medvedev have enjoyed long careers as chroniclers of Stalinism and its crimes. Roy is best known for his mammoth study, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, while Zhores, a biologist and science writer, wrote a chronicle of the tragic experience of Soviet geneticists, The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko. Expelled by the Soviet government in 1973, Zhores continued his critical opposition to Brezhnev’s USSR from London. Brother Roy, though not quite a full-fledged dissident, was a gadfly who criticized the regime from what can be described as a “Leninist humanist” position. The Medvedevs were members of the generation of shestidesniatniki, “sixties people,” among the first to raise their voices during the Khrushchev years to urge the regime to carry the denunciation of Stalin into a “return to Leninism,” by which they meant a more democratic socialism with genuine respect for “socialist legality.” After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the social democratic wing of the intelligentsia withered, eclipsed by Westernizing liberals like Andrei Sakharov from one side and, from the other, by Slavophilic conservatives and nationalists like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Medvedevs continued writing, but they were lonely witnesses, better known in the West and in Sovietological circles than among their own countrymen. Roy Medvedev enjoyed a brief political resurrection in the Gorbachev years when the general secretary flirted with socialist democracy, unsure to the end what that would entail, and in the process destroyed not only the Communist Party but the empire he had hoped to save.

Joseph Stalin was the real creator of the Soviet system as it became consolidated in the 1930s, nearly collapsed before the Nazi invasion and was reconstructed after the war. His successors significantly modified aspects of the system–most important, the arbitrary terror, mass arrests and executions; the nearly total isolation from the outside world; and the confiscatory policies of the state toward the peasants. But until the Gorbachev reforms, its fundaments remained intact: the one-party monopoly on political and economic power; the largely marketless command economy; state control of the media and intellectual expression; and official commitment to a state-socialist version of Marxism. From 1934 to his death, Stalin’s power was so absolute that his own will determined not only how the system was built and operated but the destinies of hundreds of millions of people. He and his “magnates” (as Montefiore calls the members of his inner circle) personally signed the death sentences of hundreds of thousands of people. They set the quotas for how many would be arrested, exiled or shot. Stalin and Churchill, like two aging real estate brokers, sat across from each other in October 1944 and determined which of their countries would dominate which state in the Balkans. When Churchill expressed qualms about deciding the fate of so many people so casually, he asked Stalin if they should burn the note on which he had written the infamous “percentages agreement.” “No,” said Stalin, “you keep it.” In the last years, when his health and mental stability deteriorated, he kept Mao Zedong, the recent victor in the Chinese civil war and ruler over the most populous state in the world, cooling his heels for months in Moscow, both to wear him down into making concessions and to show him who was boss in the international Communist movement.

Stalin biographies, like the classic work by Isaac Deutscher, have usually emphasized the great political decisions of the vozhd (leader), the forces that shaped his choices, the social and economic constraints that dictated a particular path. When they dealt with his personality, as in the psychohistorical account by Robert Tucker, it was usually to emphasize how the brutality of his father and the poverty from which he rose forged a hard, steely character driven in equal measure by ambition and suspicion. The inner workings of Stalin’s mind remained a deep mystery, as few personal letters, diaries or memoirs of those close to him were available. Montefiore’s massive volume is one of the first to delve deeply into the newly accessible facts of Stalin’s family and friendships to give us the personal side of Stalin the man, the husband, the suspicious comrade, the stern father, as well as the public actor. Montefiore has recorded every rumor and whisper, bits of gossip, late-night table talk, each personal slight or suspicious sideways glance, and through them given us a portrait of the tyrant.

Montefiore’s Stalin will not surprise most readers. The brute is familiar to us. But in the relentless detail, the mood-setting descriptions of the leader’s surroundings, the sketches of the people around him and in Stalin’s own words, pranks and tempers, Montefiore gives us not only the most intimate view of the general secretary that we have to date but a rounded and complex portrait of a man who could go from charming to lethal in the space of a few seconds. Montefiore’s Stalin is first of all a Bolshevik, which for the author means a disciplined, ruthless person ready to use violence whenever necessary. “War was the natural state of the Bolsheviks and they were good at it.” (There is, astonishingly, almost no discussion in the book about Marxism or the history of the Social Democratic movement in Russia, no serious engagement with the complexities of inner party disputes about doctrine and practice, and Bolshevism is reduced to what it became under Stalin.) The man himself had the requisite qualities to succeed almost unimpeded in the competitive world of party politics. He possessed both an indomitable will and supersensitive antennae attuned to the political airways. Emotionally stunted, incapable of true empathy, indifferent to the suffering that he caused, he was, nevertheless, occasionally able to extend a kind and generous gesture to a victim. Though he had been damaged as a boy by the violence in his family, and remained insecure and suspicious to the end of his life, he was a “people person,” a “master of friendships,” and ruled as much through charisma as through raw fear. He was abnormal like most politicians, Montefiore says, with a totally obsessive character that fitted Marxism. Like other members of the Bolshevik elite, he suffered from an inferiority complex, had a chip on his shoulder and exploded in irrational tempers. Yet he inspired trust, and even deep love, from those around him (even from those whom he had imprisoned and tortured!). His simplicity, personal asceticism, feigned modesty and mocking humor attracted people, especially women, to him. But throughout his life, especially after the suicide of his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, in 1932, and increasingly toward the end, he was lonely. He desperately required people around him and forced his courtiers to indulge in long nocturnal banquets that stretched into morning and ended up with the drunken Kremlin denizens staggering into their limousines.

It is no accident that biographies are among the bestselling books dealing with history. Personalities, especially of celebrated figures, offer readers apparently easy access to dense and difficult questions about politics. But the emphasis on personality, so essential in a biography, can lead to an overemphasis on the determining effect of the person and a neglect of context and social forces. Certainly, Montefiore gestures toward the contribution of “vast political, economic and diplomatic forces,” like those that led to the Great Terror of the late 1930s, but he is far less concerned with those forces than with more mundane, quotidian matters and personal relations. It can certainly be argued that when a politician accumulates the degree of power that Stalin did, in a system without institutional restraints on it, his personal whims and preferences take on a power comparable to great economic and social forces. Nevertheless, even absolute monarchs or totalitarian dictators are constrained by forces beyond their control. The level of development of the country or the strength of other states confronting the ruler’s state make some moves possible and others not. Moreover, once certain choices are made, certain paths chosen, others are precluded.

The large historiographical questions that have puzzled professional historians–notably, whether Stalinism was a continuation or a bloody perversion of Leninism–are not addressed. Was the revolution doomed from its onset, as conservative scholars have argued, or were there choices that might have led to a different outcome? Stalin had various options at decisive moments, but they were limited. The Soviet Union was in his time a relatively poor country, backward by European standards, whose population was largely made up of impoverished, uneducated peasants living in isolated villages. And it was faced by powerful adversaries–imperial Britain in its first decade, Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early ’40s, and the United States after 1945–that limited his options. At the same time, Stalin’s own actions–declaring war on his own peasantry in the collectivization campaigns of the early 1930s, employing massive terror against his own party, the intelligentsia and, most disastrous for the security of the state, the military–determined what in that new environment the dictator could do and how others would react. Eerily, at certain moments, Stalin turned to one or another of his policemen and asked about a certain comrade that he wanted for a certain job only to be told that that person had been executed.

The picture drawn by Montefiore is a dark one of court intrigues, debauched satraps vying for the emperor’s ear. Alcohol was the drug of choice among the Soviet elite, and many died of alcoholism. While his henchman Lavrenti Beria’s proclivities for young women, who either satisfied his needs or ended up in prison, are well-known, the level of sexual promiscuity that Montefiore reports will be new to most readers. Bolsheviks have conventionally been renowned for their puritanism (Stalin did not like kissing in films), and the most durable of Communists, like Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan, were dedicated family men. But Montefiore, whose most frequently used word appears to be “womanizer,” documents the sexual adventures of other magnates. Stalin himself, the object of attention of many women, appears to have been moderate in his sexual appetites. (“Stalin was no womanizer: He was married to Bolshevism and emotionally committed to his own drama in the cause of Revolution.”) Montefiore maintains that Stalin’s greatest personal suffering came with the loss of his beautiful Nadya. He grieved alone for days, wept bitterly at her funeral and threatened to resign from his high office. His greatest affection was directed to his daughter, Svetlana, though even she could be brusquely excluded from his company. When the young girl found affection from an older man, the film writer Alexei Kapler, Stalin flew into a rage, had Kapler sentenced to five years in the notorious Vorkuta camp and banished Svetlana for months.

Stalin’s rage in this case was not simply that of a patriarchal Georgian upset at his daughter’s relationship with a married man. Kapler was Jewish, and Stalin shared the general prejudices of his countrymen. Stalin’s view of peoples stems from a belief in national character based in culture and social environment (Jews were considered a separate nationality in the USSR). Such ideas were difficult to reconcile with a Marxism that views social determination as prior to cultural, the nation as a product of a definite stage of history, and ethnicity as situational and malleable. The Soviet state had been from its earliest days a place where many Jews had flourished. Although Zionists and religious Jews were persecuted, the pre-World War II USSR legislated against expressions of anti-Semitism and sponsored mass demonstrations against Hitler’s persecutions of Jews. The Soviet Union was among the first states to grant de jure recognition to the state of Israel, even before the United States. Yet, whether positive or negative, stereotypical views of Jews and other nationalities were part of Soviet discourse. By the late 1940s Stalin was convinced that the “rootless” Jews were a global danger to the Soviet Union, and he turned on Soviet Jews with a vengeance. In his last years he presided over purges of Jewish intellectuals, personally ordering the murder of the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, engineering the blatantly anti-Semitic “Anti-Cosmopolitan” campaign and prodding his torturers to obtain confessions from the victims in the completely fabricated “Doctors’ Plot.”

When it came to state terror, Stalin was at the center. Here the strengths and weaknesses of Montefiore’s approach to history are most evident. Like Robert Conquest before him, Montefiore sees Stalin as indispensable to the Terror, though he maintains that the killing began with Lenin and “reflected the village hatreds of the incestuous Bolshevik sect where jealousies had seethed from the years of exile and war.” Terror is an intrinsic part of Bolshevism for Montefiore. He makes no effort to distinguish the scale and purpose of the Great Terror from the far less murderous Red Terror of the Civil War days, when White killings far outstripped Red ones in the midst of a fratricidal war. In the 1930s the regime turned on its own for reasons that remain unfathomable to many historians. Montefiore piles on possible explanations in addition to the nature of Bolshevism: Stalin was replicating Ivan the Terrible’s campaign against his boyars, strengthening and centralizing his state as his admired predecessor had done; he was dealing with the corruption of the old elite and making way for a new Soviet-trained elite; he was curbing regional lords, removing the threat to his power from the generals, eliminating the last remnants of political opposition, while creating scapegoats for economic and social disruptions caused by the regime’s own policies. Too many explanations are almost as bad as none. What does emerge is what most historians have always proposed–that Stalin ordered, directed, propelled forward and ultimately called a halt to the Terror largely from a Machiavellian fear of actual and potential opposition to his consolidation of autocratic power. In the great bloodletting of the late 1930s, three-quarters of a million people were executed and countless hundreds of thousands tortured, imprisoned or exiled. Just days after Stalin died, the imprisoned doctors, at least those who had survived, were released, and within months an amnesty freed both criminal and political prisoners. Terror was replaced by a more familiar police state, in which arbitrary arrest on trumped-up charges was no longer systemic.

The Unknown Stalin of the Medvedevs tells much the same story as Montefiore, but it is a different kind of book. Made up of discrete essays by one or the other brother, the book is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces about Stalin, primarily about science and foreign policy, with something here about Bukharin, something there about Stalin’s mother. It has much interesting material, culled from memoirs, personal experience and published materials, but there is no consistent theme or compelling organization of its contents. Well-written, easy reading, the text adds little to what is available elsewhere, though for a Stalin buff it has its own fascination. Chapters cover episodes like the making of the Soviet atomic bomb, Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956 and Stalin’s intentions to make Mikhail Suslov his heir. There is an exploration of the “riddles” surrounding Stalin’s death that concludes there was no plot to kill him. The Medvedevs’ account of the succession differs from Montefiore’s in some details. Whereas they give Khrushchev and Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin the major role in forming the post-Stalin government, Montefiore sees Beria as the chief operator at that fateful time.

With Montefiore’s bedroom revelations, one would think we have reached the bottom of the barrel. Where to go next? Into the bathroom? Indeed, he has a scene of Stalin defecating by a railroad track with his traveling companions looking on! There are moments in both books where the grandeur of the decisions made by petty and vicious men elevates the story. The drama of the war years, when Stalin managed to pull himself together and act on the world stage as generalissimo and statesman, is brilliantly told by Montefiore as a tale of small men rising, reaching beyond themselves against the backdrop of heroic sacrifice on the part of millions. But for Montefiore great ideas or grand visions are less what the “Red Tsar” was about than insecurity and intrigue. Deadly intraparty politics had been Stalin’s training ground, and it contributed both to his unsentimental, realist appreciation of international power politics and to a paranoia that foreclosed certain opportunities. The two books together give us a picture of the banality of politics at court. Whether the court is led by the son of a cobbler or the son of a president, politics up close looks far less like the pomp of costume pictures and more like a meeting at the Bada Bing. However finely they dress in public, emperors really have no clothes.