76 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2005
Reading this biography one becomes aware how much previous biographies of Stalin were affected by Trotsky's work and perspective. A good deal of scholarship about the Soviet Union depended on documents that were carried out by him and his written works were influential. Some of the more influential writers of Soviet history were in fact disciples of Trotsky such as Isaac Deutscher.
Broadly Trotsky hoped to gain power in the Soviet Union following Lenin's death. He was however outmanoeuvred by Stalin. Trotsky was contemptuous of Stalin's ability and he thought he was a nonentity. This is reflective in his writing and accounts of Stalin's career and rise. As a result he portrayed Stalin as a nothing who had arisen not through his own ability but through a mysterious numbers game in the party which preferred hacks to people of real talent.
Stalin after in his road to power was happy to portray himself in a similar way to the Trotsky caricature of him. That is an ordinary practical man who could empathise with the problems of workers and peasants and have real solutions to problems rather than overblown rhetoric.
This book suggests a very different picture of Stalin's rise. In reality he was only General Secretary of the party for a short time before the power struggle to oust Trotsky. He had little time to stack the party and the reason he won was because he was a better political operator. In fact Stalin had always been an important figure in the Bolshevik movement holding important positions such as being the editor of the party newspaper. Although a poor public speaker he was a person of considerable intelligence and he was a skilled writer. Broadly Trosky was a person who was somewhat egocentric and he had little ability to read people and depended on his charisma and ability as a speaker. By the 1920's a bit more was required to gain power in the Soviet Union.
The main power of the book is to show that Stalin was in fact an intellectual figure. It deals in less detail with the historical background of Stalin's rule skating over the oppression of the peasants and the development of industry. In fact the chapter on the second world war makes at least one mistake suggesting that the battle of Karhov was the first Soviet offensive of the war obviously forgetting the attacks on the German forces by Zhukov in late 1941.
Never the less the power and importance of the book is to show how previous biographies were written and influenced by ideas around Stalin's rise which when put to the test are shown to be wrong. In looking at Stalin's personality it is also clear that he was not a person who suffered from what would be described as a mental illness. His actions were to purposeful and systematic for that. Despite this the book is perhaps better at showing what could be described as the evil of Stalin's rule. Not only the effects on those who were killed by his regime but the brutal and irrational nature of the regime he created.
73 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2005
This book is an adequate introduction to Stalin's life, but it's unlikely to add much to the knowledge of anyone who's read multiple biographies. Service's best sections are the early ones where he describes Stalin's intellectual development and corrects what he terms as misconceptions about how Stalin acquired power in the early days of the Bolsheviks' rule. Service is much weaker in describing and analyzing Stalin's long tenure as the unquestioned leader of the Soviet Union. Major episodes like the elimination of Bukharin and Kirov's murder are not given the treatment they deserve. Service wastes space with onerous repetition. As one example, we learn twice on facing pages (556 and 557) that Mao's Army crossed the Yalu into Korea on October 19, 1950. At other times anecdotes are repeated in different chapters, and we encounter the same generalizations about Stalin's rule in many places. Nor is the book particularly well-written. In addition to many unfelicitous turns of phrase, there are gratuitous asides such as Service's parenthetical agreement with Stalin in disliking Coca-Cola. However, I would like to defend the author of the charge made by some previous reviewers of "humanizing" Stalin, as if Service doesn't recognize that Stalin was a monstrous tyrant. Building a case for the dictator as more of a thinker than commonly thought doesn't have any moral implications, and Service doesn't gloss over Stalin's crimes.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2005
Without much debate, one of the best works on Stalin. What is worthwhile mentioning here is: Unlike many American and European historians, biographers and political analysts who have had written, edited or commented on Stalin and his rise to power in the CC of the USSR quite acrimoniously and dubiously over the years, this book is quite different. Instead, Service does an EXCELLENT job of:
1. Taking into accounts as they were and not mentioning what he thinks on them. Rather criticising Stalin and his every political move, we get a clear account of his real motives, his way of thinking, pressures he handled, the question of being either in power or out of it.
2. His fights with Trotsky, later with Kamenev and Zinoviev and then finally with Bukharin are mentioned and exemplified in great finesse. What one ought to note is that contrary to what most historians (over the decades) have seen Stalin as: short-tempered and haughty, he was a man of great discipline, far-sighted and highly motivated political analyst.
His childhood, rise to power, dekulakisation, rapid industrialisation and collectivisation of farms and other facets of Soviet regime are very nicely introduced, mentioned and illustrated. Moreover what makes the reading even better is: opposite views from Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and others are mentioned and contrasted. 5 stars overall!
26th Dec 2005
St. Cross College,
University of Oxford
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2008
Robert Service's Stalin biography provides a detailed glimpse into the life of one of history's great tyrants. In the course Service dispels a number of myths especially whether Stalin murdered his second wife. Another reviewer pointed out the assassination of Kirov and Stalin's destruction of Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev deserves greater attention. I agree. These prominent opponents of Stalin are dispatched by Service with only a few sentences. Service additionally makes broad-brush statements about popular views, resistance or opposition to Stalin which he does not support with facts or anecdotes.
Ultimately, where the book let me down is when the 1930's end and enters the World War 2 and post-world war 2 eras. It seems the author was bored by the subject or just wanted to the book quickly. Service additionally assigns the lion's share of responsibility for the Cold War to Truman and his desire for world-wide United States hegemony.
These last chapters of the book I feel made Service's "Stalin-A biography" seem incomplete.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2005
Gangster! Evil dictator! Georgian Al Capone! Robert Service uses all of these terms to describe Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhughashvili, known as Stalin, in this new biography. That he also uses terms such as intellectual, paterfamilias, singer of songs and lover of wine, to describe the `man of steel' disgusts and alienates some readers. Apparently, we must distance ourselves from such a man, make him somehow inhuman, in order to fit him into our modern worldview. More interesting, and more useful, is a biography that seeks to understand the human factors, for Stalin was not some alien dropped from outer space, but a man.
This is the work of a professional historian who is deeply immersed in both the primary sources (many newly available) and the historiography of Stalin. Service seeks to undertake a multidimensional approach, looking at political, economic, personal, international and many other factors of both Stalin and the world in which he lived. Among the more interesting points Service brings out, is the importance of Stalin in the pre-revolutionary period, including his importance and high place (although less visible than some of the others) in the party structure, debunking the myth that Stalin came out of nowhere, suddenly and mysteriously knocking the Bolshevik train off track. Stalin was Lenin's protégé and student, and although he differed on several key points, there was continuity between the two. In a sense this is the sequel to the author's works on Lenin.
If there is one thing I wish could be added to a generally excellent work, it would be while Service sufficiently discredits both Leninism and Stalinism I would have preferred, since he was on the subject, a discussion of the failure not only Bolshevism but of Marxism in general. Admittedly it is slightly beyond the scope, but it seems to leave open the question, could a Marxist state under some more benign leadership have worked? It is my belief that the historian of the twentieth century has already before him evidence to answer this question, and anyway, (with sincere apologies) let us hope no one will ever undertake such an experiment. That being said, in all a very good biography suitable for all readers.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2005
Robert Service has succeeded in restoring to Stalin his humanity. This does not mean that he makes him less guilty of huge crimes or more lovable. Not at all. He succeeds in showing Stalin's talents as well as his vices. He demonstrates that while Stalin had paranoid tendencies and uncivilized traits he was neither psychologically insane nor unintelligent. Stalin overcame his deprived cultural and emotional background and his semi-
Asiatic nationality to demonstrate real intellectual curiosity and ability, organizational talent, and hard work. He was no Hitler, not being obsessed by ideas of grandeur and ideological fantasies. He was a Marxist-Leninist and whatever one thinks of that philosophical school it was more rationalist and modern than anything hanging around Hitler.
There are three areas where Service could have done more. The victory of Stalin over Trotsky is not sufficiently treated, nor is it sufficiently and convincingly explained. Stalin was not as surprised by Hitler's attack on the USSR as some imagine but there are still questions about Stalin's expectations in 1939-41 which could be more clarified. Finally, the alleged anti-semitism of Stalin is correctly modified. Stalin had close Jewish collaborators right up to the end and he regarded Jews as possibly too inclined towards Jewish nationalism but he did not share the paranoid and conspiratorial view of real anti-semites. I suspect that Zionist activities turned Stalin into a more suspicious man concerning the Jews. We know that the current crop of Jewish neoconservatives got started with Henry Jackson's campaign to get Soviet Jews the right to emigrate to the West and to Israel. Israel's need, and the need of Jews to deny their once close relationship to Soviet Socialism, probably exacerbated Stalin's view of the Jews. A recent book by a Soviet emigre, Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, shows the close collaboration between Soviet Jews and Lenin and Stalin -- right up to the Israeli campaign to Zionize them. Soviet anti-semitism is more the result than the cause of the falling out between Jews and the Soviets. Service could have spent more time on issues of anti-semitism.
Finally, Service is quite dismissive, as he should be, of the nonsense advanced by J. Arch Getty that Stalin did not inaugurate the Great Terror. In one simple sentence Service puts Getty where he belongs, on the dung heap of historians.
Service's prose is at times tedious and his need constantly to restate his basic thesis about Stalin and his ability is another negative in an otherwise important book.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2006
Contrary to what some other reviewers have stated, I do not believe Service goes out of his way to humanize Stalin. However, Service glosses over huge and momentous events, such as the Great Terror. We have all heard of the monstrous acts committed by Stalin but none of the details are given, other than numbers and names. It seems inconceiveable that a 600 plus page book would be superficial and lacking specificity but it does. One gets the feeling Service felt previous biographers had already provided the dirty details and therefore left them out. He also does not tell Stalin's story in any chronological manner. He jumps around endlessly. I cannot recommend this book.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2006
A very readable biography of Stalin that describes his entire life, from his beginnings in Georgia to the top of the Soviet Union. His relationship to Lenin and other members of the Bolshevik clique and his rise to power are all chronicled.
There is a letter from Tito to Stalin that was found in Stalin's desk drawer shortly after he died. Tito, in this letter, is out-dueling Stalin in threatening assassination attempts. It encapsulates the gangster tactics of the entire communist regime. Service points out that there were no innocents in the rise to power after the October revolution. Stalin learnt well from his teacher Lenin. Bolshevism may have been based on the books of Marx and Engels, but its practice was raw power and Stalin wielded this for over thirty years.
Sometimes in this work there seems to be too much focus around Stalin and not enough history of the outside forces - such as the effects of famine during the 1930's.
Nevertheless we are left with the portrait of a ruthless individual who amassed power for its' own sake. Stalin accrued very little personal wealth during his reign - for example he only wore good clothes during his World War II meetings when the Allied powers came to visit.
It is also interesting to note that it is only during World War II that Stalin had any prolonged and direct contact with the outside world. At the end of the war Stalin effectively shut the door on the West - he met with the leaders of China and his East European satellites, but this was more like the bully dealing with his victims in the schoolyard.
Service does give Stalin credit for pushing the Soviet Union into the twentieth century - industrially and educationally. Without this the Soviet Union would not have been able to cope with the German onslaught in 1941.
But there was a heavy price to pay for all this- the Soviet Union was cut-off culturally from the rest of mankind and its' ideological dogmatic path collapsed in the 1990's. It was Stalin that led his country into this one-way street from which it was never able to veer away from and adjust to a different lifestyle.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 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.