About 10 years ago, I began reading Anatoli Rybakov's trilogy on the purges in Russia. Beginning with The Children of Arbat, Rybakov weaved fiction and fact to create a bloodchilling account of the Red Terror. Rybakov creates a spellbinding depiction of Stalin, the destroyer of worlds. I realized that I knew very little about Joseph Stalin. Of course, that puts me in fine company; no one predicted that this seminary student would hold such historical prominence.
Edvard Radzinsky's biography, Stalin, claims new documents as sources. The author interviews Stalin's daughter, his second in command, his bodyguards--he finds diaries of the deceased; he unearths classified information from Russia's secret archives. Radzinsky worked for 25 years on this book. He grew up under "the Boss", one of many titles for Stalin. If you want information, you've got another CNN. If you want a relatively compulsive reading experience, Radzinsky's narrative style does not disappoint. If you want to get inside Stalin's very being, I would stick with Rybakov. Something falls flat in this biography.
Radinsky doesn't know what to do with all this material. He organizes Stalin's life around his nicknames that served as pseudonyms. Part 1 is Soso: His Life and Death. We meet Stalin as a child. Part 2 is Koba: the right hand of Vladimir Lenin. Part 3 is Stalin: His Life, His Death. Stalin makes sure that he takes millions with him to the dark lands of death. We get body count galore. We find out Stalin's motives--the revolution is a stage, the people are the players, and Stalin is the director, screenwriter and producer. Radinsky wants to shock us. He wants us to revel in the new uncovered atrocities. He wants us to relive Stalinism as a Russian citizen. It doesn't work.
I cannot blame Radinsky for trying. Stalin is an enigma. How can we resolve the betrayal of the revolution, the death of millions, the endless cruelty? How do we account for Stalin's larger than life presence? How could Stalin serve as the Great Leader, the Kind and Benevolent Shepard who guides Russia to world dominance? Stalin worked an economic miracle in Russia, taking it from a feudal agrarian society into the industrialized world. He helped crush Hitler and divided up Europe to add to his dominion. He easily caught up with the American nuclear program. People still admire him. Some want Stalinism to return to Russia. Why?
Radinsky portrays a Stalin who must control every detail, yet he finds his subordinates programmed and dull. He creates the only ideal for his Soviet Union, but it leaves him lonely--he begins to live in the past. Fear becomes the prime directive. Stalin learned how to control his people. If someone is arrested for counterrevolutionary activity, Stalin punishes everyone--wives, parents, children, friends. People learn to inform on each other. Stalin breaks down human dignity to keep Socialism strong. He births a passive people who love him, even when he prepares to send them to their doom. God always has a reason for allowing evil; he sees the whole picture. Stalin shares God's burden.
Stalin did terrible things in the name of the proletariat: he ordered the Red Army to die before retreating or becoming political prisoners. When the Germans released the Soviet prisoners of war, Stalin insisted that the Allies return them. Some of these men had endured 4 years of Nazi cruelty. When they got back to Mother Russia, Stalin dispatched them to the Siberian camps. They had disobeyed his orders by remaining alive. Stalin was willing to kill his own son,Yakov, for becoming a German prisoner of war. The Nazis shot him first.
This same Stalin understood power. He recognized that people did not want to think too much, so he thought for them. He destroyed intellectuals. He rewrote history. Like God, Stalin is omnipotent. People died with his name on their lips. Here is a letter from Nikoli Bukarin, one of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries, destroyed in the purges: "With you I could converse for hours on end....if only you could see how devoted I am to you!" Bukarin refers to Stalin, not the Revolution. He writes: "Lord, if only there was some instrument with which you could look into my lacerated soul." Stalin doubles as executioner and savior. Is this fucked up or what?
Stalin epitomizes that phenomena known the personality cult. Radinsky is at his best when he paints Stalin as the ultimate Russian icon. We have not experienced anything like this in American politics. Instead, we know the kool aid of Jim Jones, the murderous inspiration of Charles Manson, the reckless devotion of the Branch Davidians--mere shadows to the Soviet dictator. Stalin was all of that and more to his people. He is both frightening and fascinating, a bit like evil. Stalin makes us understand why ancient societies could worship the petty sadism of the Greek gods. Right or wrong, their power was absolute. Mortals had no choice but to submit.