THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF

JOSEPH STALIN

By Richard Lourie

Counterpoint. 261 pp. $25

Reviewed by Anthony Olcott

If the universe were fair, a big chunk of the money people will spend on Hannibal Lecter and young Darth Vader this summer would go instead to Richard Lourie, because the monster with whom The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin brings us face-to-face is the genuine article. No one has suggested that Stalin actually tasted the flesh of the millions of human lives that he consumed, but there is no doubt that the Soviet dictator demonstrated much better than can any computer-tweaked pixels just where the Dark Side really begins.

That one of history's bloodiest tyrants could die a natural death, mourned by the country he had enslaved, is argument enough that the universe isn't fair. What Lourie suggests in this chilling novel, though, is the more subtle point that our common faith that the universe must contain some element of justice was exactly the weakness Stalin transformed into his most potent weapon in the struggle to gain absolute power.

The plot of this book -- which Lourie manages to make exciting even though we know its outcome -- is Stalin's battle with Trotsky. Militant atheist and materialist though he was, Trotsky was continually wrong-footed by Stalin precisely because Trotsky could not believe that his brighter mind, his more silvery tongue, his better claim to inherit power would not be recognized by fate. In Lourie's account, Stalin -- the six-toed seminarian from the fringes of the Russian empire, the pockmarked son of a drunken Georgian cobbler -- triumphed in this duel for power precisely because he entertained no such delusions. As if musing to himself, Lourie's Stalin describes a universe that rewards not virtue but only clearer foresight, more careful planning and the utter absence of scruples.

Paradoxically, Lourie's imitation of Stalin is so successful that, in a certain sense, it actually rings false. This is not because of the infrequent clang of a wrong note -- would Stalin really describe himself as being "a touch under five feet four," for example? -- but rather because the mesmerizing Stalin whom Lourie conjures up would never have written the diary through which Lourie explains him.

Lourie's Stalin would have maintained his sphinxlike silence not because he feared discovery -- by the time this diary would have been written, Stalin already crushed half the globe in the fist of his withered left arm -- but because the logic of his actions, as interpreted by Lourie, derived from his certainty that the universe is indifferent to explanations.

In Stalin's estimation, the penchant for explanation is the weakness of intellectuals, because to give reasons implies that there is somewhere in the universe an ear which will listen to them, judging actions by the intentions that lie behind them. Whether there is such an ear was precisely the hypothesis the young Josef Djugashvili of Lourie's book sets out, scientifically and systematically, to test. Tracing a path from rebellious son to recalcitrant seminarian to bank robber to revolutionary to dictator, he comes gradually to the conviction that there is no good or evil in the universe, no better or worse; there is only strength and weakness, predator and prey. The dictator's response to this discovery is to construct the persona of a "man of steel" (or "Stalin" in Russian) who feels no sentiment, no pain, no boredom, and no compunction, even about murdering the one man in the world whom he admires; it is only thus, in Lourie's words, that a person can have "the strength to bear a world in which there is only nothing and yourself."

Most of us today share Stalin's bleak suspicion that we may be alone in the universe, but instinctively we reject Stalin's conclusion, that humankind therefore has the choice only to be ruled or to struggle to become the ruler, using methods that may be judged only by whether or not they work. A writer, translator and eminent scholar, Lourie knows perfectly well the horrors to which Stalin's postulates lead, but he refuses us the lazy comfort of "explaining" Stalin as mad or demonic. By putting this novel in the first person, Lourie forces us, in effect, to argue ethics with Joseph Stalin.

Happily, we no longer risk our lives if we talk back to the tyrant, but Lourie's dedication of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin suggests that the attempt to refute Stalin's cynical conclusions will at least cost us some peace of mind. Lourie offers his novel to "whatever spirit possessed me to write," in the hopes that the spirit may now "be gone forever." Publication of this disturbing book might have exorcised Lourie of the demon of emptiness that taunted him to write it, but, if they grapple honestly with the ethical questions that Stalin poses, Lourie's readers will soon sense within themselves that this spirit has merely relocated.

Anthony Olcott is a professor of Russian at Colgate University.