Ian Grey boldly claims that his new biography of Stalin "is an attempt to lift its subject from a mass of distortion, prejudice and obfuscation in which it has become buried. I have sought," he continues, "to present briefly Stalin's life, his objectives and outlook, and, as far as possible with the scant material available, to portray the man."
How successful, then, is this attempt? The prose is certainly very readable, and Grey, as befits one who has already written nine books on Russia, knows his sources pretty well. Three of his books have dealt with Ivan, Peter and Catherine, and the present study see Stalin as continuing their tradition - hence the otherwise rather obscure subtitle Man of History. In general, Grey sees Stalin as carrying to new heights the supremacy of the State, the centralization of absolute and autocratic power, the antipathy to western values and the confident, self-reliant, introverted and almost messianic belief in Russia's destiny already enshrined in the centuries-old Russian political tradition.
It is thus not surprising that the best part of this book is the lengthy section on Stalin's duel with Hitler from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to the entry of Russian troops into Berlin in 1945. Stalin's autocratic relationship with his generals is particularly well delineated; there are clear and informative maps of the campaigns, and the whole episode is told with verve and style.
Yet, if Grey's long historical perspective (and personal involvement in the war period) enables him to give a good account of the Russo-German clash, it does not serve him so well in other areas. There is remarkably little evidence available on Stalin's private life. And itis inherently implausible to say, as does Grey, that Stalin was an exceedingly reticent individual who took no interest in history's verdict. Much more convincing is the picture of Stalin advanced in earlier biographies, most notably Robert Tucker's Stalin as revolutionary, as an intellectually mediocre man pathetically anxious to author works that would be counted as substantial contributions to Marxist ideology alongside those of Marx and Lenin. Presumably it is Grey's self-declared abhorrence of Marxist dogma that precludes his discussing Stalin's reformulation of historical materialism and his intervention in the controversy on the role of language.
Grey sees the triumph of the doctrine of socialism in Russia largely in terms of the continuous history of Russian Nationalism. But this long-term historical perspective that views Stalin as successor to the great Russian autocrats leads Grey to neglect the complicated and subtle intra-party debates of the 1920S. More seriously, his treatment of what is the major event in the Stalin phenomenon - the collectivization campaign of 1929-1934, when Russian peasants were forcibly separated from their lands and forced onto communal farms - is inadequate.
Although it is laudable to take issue with those who denigrate Stalin while continuing to think Lenin beyond reproach, those who elide the important, differences between their respective political outlooks err at the other extreme. More crucially, there is virtually no discussion or analysis here of the economic dilemmas confronting the Bolsheviks in the 1920S. Yet economic development was the issue around which the kaleidoscope of fissures and splits in the Bolshevik leadership revolved. For example, the bracketing of the views of Eugene Preobrazhensky, the theoretician of industrial development at the expense of the peasantry, with those of Bukharin who was a great champion of the peasants, can only be highly misleading.
History does indeed belong to the victors. And biographies of Stalin far outweigh in number those of Lenin, Trotsky or even Marx. Grey is right, of course, to point out in his preface that many of these studies have distorted their object due to the assiduous grinding of many varied political axes. Grey rejects this tradition (in which he rather quaintly includes E.H. Carr's work) as too hostile, but, regrettably, he has not improved upon it. It is precisely because of their awareness of the economic and political background that biographies of Stalin in the trotskyist tradition, for all their polemical intent, have yet to be eclipsed. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Richard Willson