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Stalin: cynic or true believer?
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.