Joseph Stalin seems increasingly remote to most people in the Western world. He died in 1953, and the disintegration of Communism both in Eastern Europe and in Russia appears to have largely broken a sense of continuity between Stalin and the contemporary world. The claim that Stalin made a greater impact on the twentieth century than any other single person might meet general disbelief. As Robert Conquest’s book makes clear, however, Stalin’s influence on Russia and the world continued well after his death; it continued after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow in 1956 (when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin) and into the 1990’s.
Only in the late 1980’s did the Soviet leadership finally come to grips with Stalin’s large-scale destruction, and the pervasive falsification that he initiated continued for three decades after his death. In Conquest’s words, “Stalin invested his whole being in producing illusion or delusion. It was above all this domination by falsehood that kept even the post-Stalin Soviet Union in a state of backwardness, moral corruption, economic falsification and deterioration” until the 1980’s, when “the truth became too pressing to be avoided.”
This was the context of the major events that occurred between 1986 and 1991: glasnost(“openness”), the failed perestroika (“restructuring”), and the final demise of the Soviet Union. These events cannot be understood without an understanding of the work of Stalin. In Conquest’s portrait of Stalin, falsification emerges as a basic element of the regime, as important as terror. (Boris Pasternak had written that “the reign of the lie” was essential to the system.) The extent of this falsification, which permeated Soviet society, was not understood in the West, even by leaders and scholars nominally anticommunist or hostile to the regime. Economic falsification should probably be singled out—the true statistics about the functioning of the Soviet economy were far worse than almost any Western specialist on Soviet affairs suspected.
Numerous studies of Stalin have been written, but he remains peculiarly elusive. It is generally agreed that he was responsible for the death of far more people than Adolf Hitler was; he was one of the greatest mass murderers of all time. Yet his traits and his combination of strengths and weaknesses are hard to grasp. In a book published in Moscow in 1922 entitled Notes on the Revolution, N. N. Sukhanov wrote that Stalin “gave me the impression—and I was not alone in this view—of a grey blur which flickered obscurely and left no trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.” This was early in Stalin’s career, when he had the confidence of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and of other Bolsheviks, many of whom were assassinated by Stalin when his power was consolidated.
Later, when Stalin was secure in his dictatorship, the image of Stalin as a beast of prey—often a tiger—occurred to many observers. One ambassador noticed that Stalin made doodles of wolves as he listened to speeches. Yet one of the most remarkable comparisons of Stalin with the animal world, and perhaps the most accurate one, was made by Maxim Gorky. After Gorky had died, the leader of the secret police was reported to curse as he was reading Gorky’s papers. A passage characterized Stalin. Gorky wrote that a flea, if made thousands of times larger, would be the most dreadful and dangerous of all possible beings. Stalin, he said, was just such a being—a monster insatiable for humanity’s blood, yet essentially parasitical.
For a generation of American students, Adam Ulam’s Stalin: The Man and His Era (1973), Ronald Hingley’s Joseph Stalin: Man and Legend (1974), and Robert Tucker’s Stalin As Revolutionary: 1879- 1929 (1973) have been prominent: They are useful and objectively present an abundance of information. Much new material about Stalin, however, began to appear in the Soviet Union during the Mikhail Gorbachev period and continues to emerge regularly. Conquest’s biography synthesizes much of the new information as well as older material. One reviewer has written, “Mr. Conquest is without peer in the knowledge of Soviet history of the 1930’s. He has supreme command of the sources, including those currently being released from Soviet archives.” Conquest’s earlier books, such as The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), a study of the forced collectivization in the early 1930’s, and The Great Terror (1990), are much appreciated by scholars in Russia and are being translated into Russian.
His new biography, Stalin: Breaker of Nations, focuses on the man himself rather than the historical background. Conquest presents what he calls a “portrait.” He writes of his book that “a large effort has gone into removing material which added to its length more than to its weight…I have tried to give, not an exhaustive chronicle, nor yet anything like a formal psychological analysis…I have sought, rather, to thread around the unavoidable central column of this history the details which seem...
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