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to Stalin’s birthplace, Georgia, to his various homes and hideaways as far away as war-torn Abkhazia, unearthed unpublished memoirs and carried out numerous interviews with anyone who knew Stalin and would talk to him (including most of his living descendants, with the notable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.