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Soviet History

Death and the Dictator

Reviewed by Leon Aron
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW03


A Biography

By Robert Service. Belknap/Harvard Univ. 715 pp. $29.95


The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield. Random House. 541 pp. $29.95

Villains fascinate, and mass murderers doubly so. From Herod to Pol Pot, Genghis Khan to Hitler, Ivan the Terrible to Saddam Hussein, we have been drawn to the edge of the abyss for a glance into the bottomless and cold darkness of Great Evil. What for? To confirm our own humanity? To learn, and guard against, the warning signs of advancing savagery?

Even in this gallery of mega-rogues, Joseph Stalin stands apart. Although second to his imitator Mao Zedong in the absolute numbers of the compatriots killed (shot, tortured to death in prisons, starved in villages, murdered in concentration camps) and to Pol Pot in the proportion of the country's population exterminated, Stalin may be unmatched, at least in modern times, in the number of people his policies affected -- in his impact on the contemporary world.

Had it not been for those policies, promulgated and enforced by a Comintern completely subservient to Moscow, Weimar Germany's left would not have been split by the Communists' relentless attacks on the Social Democrats ("social fascists," Stalin called them). The two parties, which together commanded far more votes than Hitler's National Socialists (and initially more muscle as well), could have almost certainly prevented Hitler's rise to power and, with it, World War II. Built to strict ideological specifications, the totalitarian state -- whose construction Stalin completed and perfected and which took almost four decades after his death to dismantle -- could not but be aggressive and expansionist in its struggle to the bitter end with "world capitalism." Hence, the forced and violent Sovietization of Eastern and Central Europe, with its own tsunami of death, destruction, suffering and daily indignities; the nuclear arms race; the global Cold War; and more death in local hot wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

Given the subject, then, one hesitates to call Robert Service's biography a labor of love, but the expression seem to fit the years (perhaps decades) this massive book must have taken to produce, filled with the relentless and arduous search for facts. A fellow of the British Academy and St. Antony's College at Oxford and the author of an earlier biography of Lenin, Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources -- a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk.

As fine biographies of political leaders so often are, this one too is an inside version (as it were) of grand history, a new perspective on well-known facts and larger themes. In the case of Stalin, these touchstones comprise many of the 20th century's defining moments: the rise of Bolshevism; the 1917 October Revolution, the Civil War and the foundation of the Soviet state and the world communist movement; the 1928-32 "revolution from above," which completed the construction of the world's first modern, industrialized and militarized totalitarian state by robbing and enslaving the peasants who made up 80 percent of the Soviet Union's population; and the Great Terror of 1936-39, which left Stalin in possession of probably the most -- and surely the least challenged -- power of anyone in modern history.

Following his declared goal of eschewing stereotypes and looking at his subject afresh, Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie. In villainies of such a scale, there is never a single smoking gun. Yet while falling short of the impossible -- a complete explanation for the behavior of the man at the root of one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in history -- Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party.

Iosif Dzhughashvili became editor of Pravda in 1912 and changed his party alias from the Georgian "Koba" (after the legendary 19th-century robber whom young Iosif emulated) to "Stalin," or "man of steel," a translation of his last name into Russian (dzhuga is steel in Georgian and stal its Russian counterpart). He was a difficult loner, crude and vulgar, increasingly unbalanced and suspicious, but also strong, determined, capable and effective, thirsting for knowledge and widely read. The only surviving child of a doting mother and a drunken cobbler father who beat them both mercilessly, Iosif grew up in a sleepy Georgian town named Gori. Resentful of his deformity (his left arm was permanently damaged in an accident), he was vengeful, never forgetting (let alone forgiving) a slight. According to his boyhood friends, Iosif "coddled grievances for years," and, in Service's words, saw "malevolent human agency in every personal or political problem he encountered." He joined the fledgling party at the age of 20, having left the Tiflis (Tbilisi) Theological Seminary a few months before graduation in 1899. His first wife, Ketevan Svanidze, died in 1907, a year and four months after they were married. His second, Nadezhda Allilueva, committed suicide in 1932. He was never close to his three children.

What we learn from Service about the man plausibly explains the young Stalin's easy and unwavering choice of Bolshevism from among at least half a dozen leftist parties and movements in the anti-czarist underground. He was drawn to the party's conspiratorial zeal, intolerance of dissent, obsession with control, and its mix of doctrinal dogmatism and tactical flexibility.

Stalin seems to have internalized, then embodied and built on the most truculent, pitiless and aggressive components of Lenin's credo. The connection between Bolshevism and Stalinism and between Lenin and Stalin -- the nature and extent of which used to be hotly debated by scholars and the world's left -- emerges here as something natural and organic. The only man other than Lenin whom Stalin was ever reported to have genuinely admired was Hitler. "What a great fellow!" Stalin told a fellow Politburo member after learning of the 1934 purge of the Nazi brownshirts known as the Night of the Long Knives: "How well he pulled this off!" (When we both were college students in Moscow in the 1970s, Khrushchev's grandson Alexei Adzhubei told me of his grandfather's reminiscences about a high-level Nazi delegation arriving in Moscow in the late 1930s to learn more about setting up and running concentration camps.) Three years later, after painstaking preparation, Stalin launched his own vastly wider and bloodier internal war for total supremacy. Within the two years of what would be called the Great Terror, at least 1.5 million people were arrested and at least half of them executed -- mostly party and state leaders, engineers, intellectuals and military officers down to the regiment level.

This rate of elite extermination was not to be repeated, but the systematic mass terror that started with the birth of the Soviet state would continue unabated until Stalin's death. Millions more were arrested, imprisoned, tormented in the gulag or shot. Nor was the Great Terror the single most intense slaughter in Soviet history, as Donald Rayfield estimates in Stalin and His Hangmen, his searing and beautifully written chronicle of state-sponsored murder. That grisly distinction belongs to the 1929-33 "peasant Holocaust," when between 7.2 million and 10.8 million villagers died during "collectivization," or the elimination of personal ownership of land, tools and livestock and the forcible pooling of these into a "collective" property held de facto by the state -- a process aimed in particular at the class of formerly well-off farmers known as kulaks. (Stalin later told Churchill that collectivization cost 10 million lives.) Families were arrested, herded into cattle cars, driven for days without food or water, then unloaded in the frozen tundra or swamps and left to die without food or shelter. Other kulaks were simply evicted from their homes in the middle of winter -- men, women, nursing babies -- and wandered until they froze or starved to death, with everyone else forbidden, on pain of sharing their fate, to give them a blanket or a crust of bread. Most victims perished in the famine that followed the requisition of grain for sale abroad.

The stages of this gruesome period are known: the "red terror" unleashed after an attempt on Lenin's life in 1918; the Civil War killings, when captured "White" officers who fought the "Red" Bolsheviks were loaded on barges and drowned; the "pacification" of villages suspected of giving support to the Whites; the killing of "class enemies" chosen from the Moscow phone book (including all the Boy Scouts and the Lawn Tennis Club); the show trials of "wreckers" of the new society, including engineers, agronomists, veterinarians and historians; the extermination of peasants; the arrests, executions and mass exiles from Leningrad following the murder of the Leningrad party boss (and Stalin's potential rival) Sergei Kirov in 1934; the Great Terror; the 1940 killing of some 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn forest; the genocidal exile of the "traitor nations" (including the Chechens) after World War II; and, in the last months of Stalin's life, the "Doctor's Plot," which was rumored to be the prelude to public hangings on Red Square and a country-wide anti-Semitic pogrom, to be followed by the exile of more than 2 million Soviet Jews to the Far East.

Yet as he gives us stomach-wrenching details of these torments and portraits of the men who engineered them (beginning with first-rate essays on Stalin and the founder of the Cheka secret police, Feliks Dzierzynski, the son of a Polish nobleman, a fanatical Bolshevik and hollow-cheeked ascetic who subsisted on the diet of tea and bread to which he became accustomed as a prisoner in czarist jails), Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London and the author of a very fine biography of Chekhov, manages to make this abstract and often unimaginable evil feel close and real. Layered with subplots and striking vignettes and filled with voices (both the victims' cries for help and the commissars' orders for more killing), the horrid saga acquires texture, color and an immediacy that will mesmerize readers almost despite themselves. One marvels at the sheer mastery of craftsmanship that has made this relentlessly depressing, often repugnant material into such a compelling tale. •

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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