Robert Conquest is one of the better known authors on Russian history, specifically on the rule of Stalin and the Communist era. The beginning of this book lists over fifteen books written by Conquest on these subjects, along with books of poetry. There is even a fictional book listed, written in conjunction with Kingsley Amis. Conquest's sources are vast and are included at the back of the book, although a lack of footnotes is bothersome.
Conquest starts out his book where it all began, in the country of Georgia at the birth of Stalin. We learn there is some confusion over Stalin's birth date and his birth father. Life is hard for young Iosif; his home life is abusive and the family moves around a bit. Stalin ends up enrolled in a seminary school, where he spends five years studying Russian and reading banned Western books. School discipline is strict, and this discipline and arbitrary rules radicalizes young Stalin. Stalin falls in with Marxist revolutionaries and begins his long march to infamy. Conquest's account of Stalin's revolutionary years is a long litany of arrest and internal exile. Stalin repeatedly escapes from Siberian exile only to be rearrested. Stalin does manage to move up in the ranks, becoming known to both Lenin and Trotsky. When the revolution breaks out, Stalin ends up on the front lines, where he takes part in a few unimportant actions (which are elevated to godlike military exploits once Stalin is in charge). Iosif defies many orders and tends to take matters into his own hands, a trait that others will die for when Stalin assumes control.
The rest of the book is the monster. After the death of Lenin, Stalin begins his climb to power by systematically eradicating his fellow Politburo members. Conquest succinctly covers the internal power struggles, the show trials, the war against the peasantry, the treaties and war with Hitler, and the post-war era of lies and murder. Along the way untold millions die of famine, executions, and imprisonment in the gulag system. The most interesting information in these sections is the rise of the personality cult, where Stalin is elevated to the status of a god. Conquest reveals the ridiculousness of this cult. When one of Stalin's speeches is released on records, one side of an album is devoted entirely to applause. A picture in the book, from a celebration of Stalin's 70th birthday, shows Stalin's head in the sky emitting beams of light over the lowly masses, like some bizarre sun. This is sick, sick stuff.
Conquest attempts to account for Stalin's behavior by showing that Stalin has no links to humanity (his wives died and he has few friends). Some of his attributes reek of sociopathy: his emotional expressions always seem to be forced, as though he is acting a part and not really feeling anything, and his natural state is one of cruelty. Conquest also shows how Stalin is really, well, nothing. The guy is a vacuum; he is not Russian, and he doesn't really share the traits of a typical Georgian. It is as though Stalin rose up out of the ground from nowhere. Isn't that how Damien appeared in "The Omen"? Maybe they should check his mother's grave and see if a jackal's skeleton is in there.
This book should be required reading. I did have some problem with Conquest's writing style, which I thought was a little obtuse. This may be my own fault, as I have been reading literature for the past month and I'm out of practice with textbook language. This book gets five stars for its subject. Let's never forget about this monster.