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Stalin: A Biography Paperback – September 25, 2006
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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.
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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So I start this review of the Service biography by citing Shepilov's memoir, because Service's biography, while chock full of detail on all phases of Stalin's life, never quite reaches the intimacy of Shepilov's warm witnessing. Many of the riddles of Stalin's life (e.g., as a young revolutionary, did he in fact work for the Czar's police? Was his shock at ally Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union great enough to first render him mentally helpless? Was the aging despot's death in fact a murder?) are certainly adequately mentioned, but, in my opinion, they are inadequately speculated upon. I hope I'm not asking for the impossible--I know Service was not, as Shepilov was, a primary source of information about Stalin--but I personally would opt for the heat of some speculative, subjective discussion now and then over Service's rather universal objectivity concerning Stalin's life.
But having said that, I offer here some of the book's strengths: Service doesn't automatically dismiss all praise of Stalin as unwarranted propaganda, and that's why I applaud the book as balanced. Service is especially careful of how he considers the values and detriments of daughter Svetlana's accounts of her father's actions. Service freely uses Molotov's memoirs to provide additional strength to the value of Stalin's own viewpoints; Molotov never wavered in his belief in the Boss, and therefore, distorted or not, an actual picture of Stalin often emerges when Service cites Molotov.
But some other weaknesses: 1) How in the world can Service write about the WWII Stalin and never mention Harry Hopkins? I think it entirely fair to say that no Soviet WWII ally had a representative as respected by--and necessary to--Stalin as was Harry Hopkins. 2) Service writes practically nothing about Stalin's role in monitoring the Soviet Union's internal development of the atomic bomb. As I understand it, Stalin monitored this huge effort by a means independent of its official leadership under Beria.
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.
Lots of information, the book is big, after reading Catherine the Great, this book gives me enough information to visit the ex-Soviet Union and hold my own in terms of history and relevant geographic points.