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Stalin: A Biography Paperback – June 9, 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Here is a life-and-times biography in the grand style: deeply researched, well written, brimming with interpretations. Oxford historian Service, author of an acclaimed biography of Lenin, provides the most complete portrait available of the Soviet ruler, from his early, troubled years in a small town in Georgia to the pinnacle of power in the Kremlin. Most previous biographers have depicted Stalin as a plodding figure whose only distinguishing characteristic was brutality. But Service describes a man who was intelligent and hardworking, who learned from experience and who played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement. On so many of the complex issues of Soviet history—including Stalin's rise to power within the Communist Party, the policy shift to forced collectivization, the Great Terror and the prosecution of the war against Nazi Germany—Service provides lucid accounts based on his own research and the most recent scholarship. Stalin was the key figure behind every major development from the mid-1920s onward. He based his policy decisions on his understanding of Marxism-Leninism and on a hardheaded, realistic assessment of his own often uneasy position and of the Soviet Union's relatively weak standing in the world. By providing such a rich and complex portrait of the dictator and the Soviet system, Service humanizes Stalin without ever diminishing the extent of the atrocities he unleashed upon the Soviet population. 47 b&w photos, 4 maps. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Stalin has ascended to an equal plane with Hitler in the pantheon of world-class monsters and mass murderers. Yet, perhaps due to the relative unavailability of primary-source material, much of Stalin's life and his motivations remained a mystery. But recently released Soviet archival material, of which this fascinating and unsettling biography takes full advantage, has shed new light. Service, an esteemed scholar of Russian and Soviet history, does not minimize Stalin's crimes or absolve him of responsibility for the horrors of the Soviet era. He makes clear that Stalin, from his youth, was a "damaged" personality with a propensity for brutality against both friend and foe. But, as Service convincingly illustrates, this monster was a human who could write sensitive poetry, dote on family members, and inspire loyalty. Furthermore, the paranoia that permeated the reign of Stalin and led to the Great Terror descended not from Stalin but from an adherence to a pseudoreligion that encouraged followers to shape, even twist, their perceptions of reality to conform to absolute truth. A necessary reappraisal. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 736 pages
  • Publisher: Pan Macmillan (June 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330518372
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330518376
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.9 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,858,954 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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!

Subhasish Ghosh

26th Dec 2005

St. Cross College,

University of Oxford
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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