Review of Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator.

Oleg V. Khlevniuk and Nora Seligman Favorov. Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator. London: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300163889. £25.00 (hardcover).

Stalin. A name that rightly produces a sense of dread—after all, he did have four times the body count of Hitler, and none of his apparent charm. If ever there were a world leader that took Machiavelli’s dictum “it’s better to be feared” to heart, it was  Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, better known to history as Joseph Stalin.

Oleg Khlevniuk has given us a fantastic biography of the Soviet dictator in just 400 or so pages, with much of it based on newly available material found in the Soviet archives that have been steadily opening to Western researchers over the past decade. The story is straightforward: a Georgian peasant turned seminary student gets tossed from school due to his radicalization at the hands of the Bolsheviks, helps found the Politboro, works the October Revolution of 1917 to his advantage, and rises to power as the sole dictator of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of Lenin’s death by prudently killing off all of his potential rivals, helps the Allies win the Second World War—mainly in the hopes of so weakening the West that he’d be able to easily dispatch whomever was left standing in the end, and single-handedly engineers and orders some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity in all of history. This is the life of one of humanity’s most inhuman monsters.

This work is structured around two narratives: the first, a conventional chronological narrative of Stalin’s life. The second, a detailed account of Stalin’s death and how those around him reacted to it. These alternating chapters are ingeniously interwoven, and rather than detracting from the overall impact of the book, they add to it by complementing one another.

While Stalin isn’t an incredibly dense book, it is a very, very readable one, full of trenchant insights into Stalin’s character and his influence on those around him, served with a side of scathing Russian humor. Most interesting to me was how Khlevniuk followed Stalin’s activities through the banality of archives and memoirs and yet never allows the miasma of Stalin’s incredible evil to dissipate for an instant. Khlevniuk is best when he describes the menacing aftermath of Stalin’s decades long oppression of the people so that they finally became their own oppressors.

Short enough to be read in a timely fashion, but full of more than sufficient material, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator is an excellent piece of historical writing than I highly commend.


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