If there was a contest the goal of which was to write a one word book review of Robert Conquest's Stalin: Breaker of Nations, I'd create an antonym of the computer programmers' well-used acronym GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Stalin: Breaker of Nations, is QIQO: Quality In, Quality Out.
A member of Stanford University's Hoover Institute, Conquest is British born, and maintains his British citizenship. Does he have the credentials to write a definitive biography of Stalin? As the Brits might say: indubitably. With a doctorate in Soviet history, a list of books published about Soviet history that is quite literally voluminous, and firsthand experience confronting Soviet expansionism during WW II while serving in the military, Conquest can go head to head with the best writers on Soviet history in the world. Lucky for us, the reader, Conquest's knowledge of his subject matter is profound and nuanced. Luckier still, he is able to bring the richness and horror of Stalin's swath of destruction and terror to the reader in engaging prose.
If you read history because you like to have your facts straight, similar to the sports fan that can expound on an inning by inning description of a Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants World Series, you'll be deeply satisfied by Stalin: Breaker of Nations. If you read history because accurate historical information (quality in) leads you to formulate well founded theories of human behavior and/or political science, you will find this book to be rich soil for well grounded speculation (quality out).
Why might you be tempted to invest your time in this book? Maybe because only once (Chairman Mao) have the actions of a single human being led to more deaths (15-20 million in the USSR, by solid estimates). Hitler, truly, was a putz, in comparison. Possibly because there might be tremendous value in examining the rise to power (with an eye towards preventing future recurrences) of a deeply malignant dictator. How did Stalin rise to power, and keep it? Breaker of Nations provides answers. Some Stalin pearls on the road to success: Choose an ideology that allows you to claim that you are doing everything "for the people". Develop an uncanny ability to charm those in your presence. Deliberately foster a down home, good ol' boy, "let's have a vodka (beer) together" persona. Regularly sneer at academic achievement, and systematically disenfranchise intellectual thought. Make science subservient to ideology (under Stalin evolution is dissed, genetic research is suppressed, absurd scientific theories are publicly endorsed). Make all decisions with utter confidence, avoid any input from experts. Ensconce yourself in a mono-ideological inner circle. Refuse to imagine the consequences of your actions. Appeal regularly to patriotism and nationalism. Promote torture as a political tool. Launch a determined attempt to subvert the nation's legal system to the goals of the regime. Most importantly of all, use domestic terror and murder on a scale that is jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, breath-taking, and soul-wrenching.
Stalin: Breaker of Nations, will leave a mark on you, a bruise that will not quickly resolve. The temptation is to identify Stalin as a man so evil that we need not take any responsibility for what happened under his watch. Conquest's high quality input demands a higher quality conclusion. What about Edmund Burke's assertion that "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing?" Why did western leaders, famously including Roosevelt (FDR), let themselves be duped by Stalin's "aw shucks, guys" persona? Is it reasonable to ascribe all of the evil that occurred under Stalin to Stalin alone? Was the reign of Stalin, as Conquest reportedly believes, the inevitable consequence of a flawed political ideology (Marxism/Leninism)? Or is it better to ponder Solzhenitsyn's comment "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" I'm with you, Alex: Breaker of Nations isn't so much about Stalin, or Marxism, as it is about the hearts of men.