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4.1 out of 5 stars
Stalin: A Biography
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 9 December 2013
Allegedly written using new and previously unused material, despite the fact that a look at the notes shows almost 80 percent secondary sources. The chapter titled "the big three" was particularly poor in this respect, as it relied almost entirely on Churchill's memoirs which if I am not mistaken were written after both Roosevelt and Stalin were dead, thus making it a suspect source of information by itself. The book is a biography NOT a general history of Soviet Russia, and must be treated as such, however I would have liked more detail regarding the second world war which seemed very briefly dealt with.
The book goes into great detail when it comes to his youth and his earlier involvement with the Lenin's ilk. Service does away with the myth that Stalin was the unremarkable dullard and bureaucrat who's ascension could not have been predicted.
Stalin was an intellectual, despite having very few original ideas of his own, and although not feared for suspicions of "Bonepartism" as Trotsky was, it would be wrong to suggest the Great Terror and other incidents of moments of brutal repression could not have been predicted in those early stages. Stalin was ruthless from the beginning. Stalin's leadership style is also put into a new perspective. Whereas Ian Kershaw characterises Hitler as a Weberian "charismatic authority" figure in contrast with Stalin's "bureaucratic authority"; Service's analysis of Stalin makes him appear far closer to Hitler as is often imagined. This characterisation is more in line with the sociologist Ivan Szelenyi.
It is the best Stalin biography I have read so far, even if it could have been a lot longer in places.
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92 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2005
Stalin has had more biographies than even the most dedicated russophile would care to read. So why read this one?
Well, many of Stalin's biographies are warped by the context they were written in. During the cold war the history of Stalin became a battleground in itself, with historians either portraying him either as a crazed bureacrat, a monster, or nigh on a God.
Service makes use of newly available evidence and weaves together a balanced, clear and comprehensive portrait of Stalin. More than any other biography of Stalin I've read it provides a rounded portrayal of this most controversial of figures. However, whilst being dispassionate helps Service cooly analyse his subject, this also leads to this biography being somewhat dry.
If you want to gain a thorough understanding of Stalin without worrying the autor has a hidden agenda, this biography is unsurpassed. However, if you want to get a feel for the warped version of reality that characterised life close to Stalin, and prefer something a bit more readable, Simon Sebag Montefiore's book 'Court of the Red Tsar' may be a better choice.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 16 September 2012
As far as biographies go, Stalin appears to be the most popular of 20th Century's great mass murderers. During the last couple of decades quite a few historians and non-historians have had their say in book form. Why might this be? Was it because Stalin did live a very interesting life - a romantic poet of some renown, political bandit and exile, womanizer, bank robber, warlord and possibly history's greatest dictator? Simon Sebag Montefiore has already shown in two brilliant books (Stalin: The Court of The Red Tsar and Young Stalin) that Stalin's life can be turned into an exciting and well-researched book. Service's approach is more matter-of-fact and, inevitably, dry.

The question that has always interested me most in Stalin's character is his relationship to the Communist ideology. Was he a true believer? Or did he just cynically use the ideology to reach the supreme power? Before reading this book I tended to think that there was an element of cynicism from the beginning, and by the end of his life the Communist ideology was merely a tool. Stalin was a rebel against authority from young age, and Communism and later Bolshevism were rebellions par excellence. So, the act of rebellion was more important than the ideology in which name he rebelled. Service's biography made me change my thinking about this subject: Stalin apparently was something of a believer until the end. He just twisted it to his own ends and probably rationalized to himself that it was all for greater common good.

By the way, if there still are people out there who think evil Stalinism was a perversion of good Leninism, this book - as well as Service's previous biography of Lenin - should make them see that the Soviet system was in most important respects rotten from the beginning. Stalinism was just Leninism that 'went up to 11'. Lenin had no scruples of using mindless violence against those perceived as class enemies. Stalin continued this policy, although he targeted everybody who in his paranoid mind looked like a potential enemy, no matter what their class or political persuasion.

Service's style is more solid than inspiring, but the book reads well enough. As for the research, I would have hoped for more discussion of the nature of his source material and more thorough notation. In many places he discusses major issues with only the most cursory source notation. This book appears to be more of a distillation of a lifetime of research that research in itself. Service's reputation is high enough for me not to be too much bothered about that, but - as they say in Russia - 'Trust good, control better'.

This is probably the best one-volume biography at the moment, but leaves room for a still better one.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 26 November 2011
I found Robert Service's Stalin to be a very detailed and informative read. Although the writing is a little dry at times, it is very redable and service does manage to take the reader into the mind of Stalin - this is no mean feat given the mythologising surrounding him and state secrecy. The first half of the book, from Stalin's childhood in Georgia to his gradual rise to political supremacy is the driest section. Alot of it is taken up with political, Marxist or Leninist theory. Once Stalin reaches the summit the pace does quicken up annd the narrative flows. However, as another reviewer has stated, the Second World War is given relatively short treatment.

Stalin comes across as a murderous thug beset with political and personal paranoia about being overthrown in a coup, very much a psychopath. What struck me reading this book is how brutal the Soviet regime was, not just Stalin's in particular but Lenin and the post-Stalin eras also appeared bedevilled by political backstabbing and personal ambition. Numerous times I read of conspiracies (not all were imagined by Stalin's paranoia), show-trials, executions and whole groups of people being hauled off to the Gulag on little pretext. Service also tells us of Stalin's murderous treatment of his family, friends and colleagues.

Recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2012
Stalin, one of the most controversial and important political leaders of the 20th century no doubt. Yet, do we have a real understanding of the man and his desires to dominate? Robert Service, a Russian history professor at the University of Oxford, is an expert on all the important figures from this time and has written books on Lenin and Trotsky also. Service is able to give the reader a chapter by chapter account chronicling Stalin's childhood in Georgia, to his early revolutionary days in London and St Petersburg. Leading onto the October Revolution, his rise to power and notoriously the great terror. Service explores themes of personality and society as well the wider picture of global and national politics. I found his account of Stalin's pure determination to take everything and to use murder as a state tool fascinating and eye opening.

I only had a basic understanding of Russian history before but feel I have learnt a great deal. However, I would add that the books on Lenin and Trotsky will give a greater understanding on those figures because if Service had written in greater detail on those two, it would have been a much longer read.

Easy to read and enjoyable.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 11 June 2010
I have only finished reading the first section - there are 4 left to go. But based on what I have read, I am very glad I have bought this book. The first section goes over Stalins early years and talks about different ideas which have been thrown out about his childhood, as there is not much known. But Service does not needlessly drag out his childhood like some biographies tend to do. Instead he is concise, giving a glimpse into the sort of life Stalin lead in his early years. I look forward to the rest of the book.

I have read other biographies by Service and he always writes well and fully. If you are really interested in the subject then you definately feel you get your monies worth with Service.

Interested in Stalin,Cold War, WW2, biographies generally? Then I would say go for this for sure.

I ordered this for someone to bring to me (as I am not currently in the UK) and he read it in the 10 days before I saw him - that says a lot for a book this size.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 1 August 2010
There are a lot of reviews on Amazon.com which say things I would want to put in a review. So why add another?

One writer says the book leaves him with the question as to whether Marxism as a creed has any merit, and wishes Service had addressed this, while acknowledging it was outside his scope.

This is a big question. Another reviewer complains that Stalin's split with Trotsky is not adequately covered. Equally Service's book on Lenin doesn't really say much about Stalin or Trotsky, and I get the feeling you have to read all three to get Service's full picture of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps the Trotsky book which I haven't yet read gives clues to his views on Marxism.

Another reviewer complains that this book can't be read without a prior knowledge of Russia. I'm sure he's right and would recommend Pipes' general history of Russia and perhaps Marx's 1844 manuscripts and Lenin's `State and Revolution'.

However what Service does do is provide a balanced political biography. At all times Service is trying to arrive at a fair picture of what Stalin did politically and how this sat with the situation he was in.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book for me was his relationship with Lenin. He clearly adored Lenin. Stalin had some exceptional personal qualities, including enormous self-discipline, great capacity for hard work, and quite a sophisticated and flexible intellect. He was able to appreciate the work of the revolutionary (in a non-political sense) thinker Bogdanov whose subtleties escaped Lenin. For about a decade he managed with Lenin's support the difficult task of marrying the needs and demands of the different nationalities with the Soviet Union with the requirements of Bolshevik ideology and the needs of the state, a task which no-one else had patience with.

Lenin appreciated these qualities and also Stalin's utter ruthlessness, although he got quite worried about Stalin towards the end of his life because he was `careless', perhaps callous, personally as well as politically.

About 1929 Stalin changed tack radically, and abandoning the flirtation with capitalism which was the New Economic Plan he and Lenin had nurtured, reverted to a more orthodox Leninism involving the collectivisation of agriculture and the subjection of the nationalities to the Soviet cause. At this time also he began the ruthless suppression of opposition, culminating in the frenzy of the Great Terror of 1937-8.

Service describes all this without offering speculation about exactly why these changes occurred.

Presumably Stalin's decisions resulted from perceptions of his about political necessity, including perhaps his perception of the collapse of world capitalism or the potential threat from Hitler.

At all times Stalin needed to keep a clean ship, free from spies and internal opposition, and his usual approach was `If in doubt, get rid of people.' At the same time his relentless attention to detail preserved his control.

The later parts of the book are a little dry - try Montefiore's excellent books on Stalin, especially the `Court of the Red Tsar' if you want to feel the blood rain down on you.

However Service retains excellent balance and perspective through, which is what is needed with this emotive subject.
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on 7 November 2013
In this excellent biography of Stalin, Robert Service provides an informative and balanced account with a high level of readability.

The inescapable conclusion is that Stalin was a suspicious and aggressive "Gang Boss", selecting his gang members, and deciding who would join and who would leave. He also informed them of who their enemies were.

Massive violence didn't worry him at all if it enhanced his power and removed his real, potential or imagined enemies, and he retained a direct oversight of the killings which proceeded on an epic scale with something like 15.000.000 mostly Russian and Ukrainians being killed from 1917 onwards by the Cheka/NKVD, in the Gulag death camps and in artificial death famines (see Google "Holodomor, Kaganovich").

Service shows that Stalin was a master of power relationships, for example playing Lenin's chosen successors off one against another while building his own Secretariat power base including future figures like Molotov and Kaganovich and gaining sufficient power to finally attack his erstwhile colleagues. The author makes the point that unlike Trotsky, Stalin wasn't an intellectually superior "distant" leader and had a habit of close contact with direct rewards for his followers, which is not to say that he didn't have a considerable intellectual capacity. He was well read but understated his ability for political advantage.

The book also interestingly covers the cult status of Lenin developed by Stalin with himself as the high priest.

Some weaknesses in a basically excellent book could be 1) not making completely clear that the Bolsheviks did not have popular support in October 1917 and gained power in a violent coup, 2) not dedicating a full chapter to the extreme inefficiency of the Soviet system - which eventually brought it down, 3) not making clear that from 1917 to the late 1930's the Bolshevik leadership was overwhelmingly Jewish and not evaluating in more detail Stalin's relationship with them - not just after 1938.

The book says that the Bolsheviks were the largest party in the 1917 Second Congress of Soviet Workers and Soldiers Deputies which could be somewhat misleading since they had nothing like a majority in the much more representative national Constitutional Convention which they violently broke up when their minority status became clear.

The author does say that the Soviet economy was a consistent failure, "It had never been as adaptive (efficient) as capitalist societies in the West, and the conditions after the 2nd WW rendered its inflexibilities stronger that ever." It was also corrupt, "Not only in politics but throughout the administrative strata of the USSR there was theft, corruption, nepotism, informal patronage, misreporting and general disorder. Regional, institutional and local interests were defended" . Stalin also had a paranoid tendency to see "saboteurs and foreign agents" everywhere leading to a general fear of telling him the truth.

Service does say that Jews were 2% of the Russian population and developed Bolshevism through the sequence Marx > Lenin > Trotsky/ Zinoviev/ Kamenev > and finally Stalin's Jewish administration with all the "Terror" directorates run by Jews eg. NKVD (Genrikh Yagoda, Yakov Agranov), the Gulag (Aron Solts, Yakov Rappoport, Lazar Kogan, Matvei Berman, Naftaly Frenkel) and the 1932/33 Ukrainian death famine organized and executed by Lazar Kaganovitch. The author could have usefully evaluated Stalin's relationship with his Jewish "gang" and their highly protected and favoured status prior to his 1937/38 conversion to Russian nationalism.

Nevertheless, a great book and highly recommended.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2011
This book is fat heavy and detailed but is unputdownable.
It is so well written it flows easily despite being incredibly comprehensive .
The detail is wonderful. I imagine that this will always be a must read book for anyone interested in this period and in revolution.
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VINE VOICEon 23 September 2013
I read this, knowing just a little about Stalin and the history of the USSR. This book is well suited for anyone in a similar position - it's comprehensive enough to provide necessary background on the social and political contexts of Stalin's life, but also manages to be concise and readable. Obviously, not all of his life and legacy can be exhaustively evaluated in one volume, but nonetheless, Robert Service gives a very well reasoned account, detailing Stalin's personality and how this affected his career and the lives of those around him, those who lived in the USSR, and the world at large. The central theme, compellingly presented, is Stalin's deep desire for power and control and how this permeated his approach to all aspects of state, party and personal life. Service is unequivocal in his condemnation of Stalin's role in the many acts of barbarism that occurred throughout the USSR, and portrays him as a ruthless, callous tyrant. This is a superb volume for anyone interested in C20th history.
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