Dictators are sensitive about the biographies written about them. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s ruler from the late 1920s until his death in 1953, was no exception. After commissioning an official volume in 1938 he heavily edited the content. Those selected to draft it had to produce a wart-free account. He found fault with them at every stage, filling their lives with dread of being dispatched to the Gulag.

Suspicion and vainglory, as Ronald Grigor Suny shows, were present from the start in Stalin’s approach to politics. Suny, a distinguished Soviet historian, has been working on “Stalin: Passage to Revolution” for as many years as the dictator was in power. His more than 800-page book is a half-biography, being limited to the years up to the October 1917 revolution in Petrograd. The purpose is to trace how a working-class Georgian boy in the Russian Empire rose to the height of power in the second half of his life, when he towered over Soviet politics and became one of the most murderous autocrats in world history — and to explain “why a revolution committed to human emancipation ended up in dictatorship and terror.”

The conventional picture of Stalin was first painted by his enemies. Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by a Soviet NKVD agent, depicted him as talentless, a poorly educated dullard, a communist who believed in no ideology — communism included. Trotsky contended that Stalin as ruler was simply a spokesman for the oppressive state bureaucracy.

Suny, like most who have written about Stalin in the past three decades or more, finds gaping holes in that old approach. Stalin was a bright student who did well at primary school. After abandoning his training as a priest, he spent the rest of his life reading voraciously. He was an autodidact intellectual who came to adhere to the precepts of Marxism as Vladimir Lenin interpreted them. As an underground Bolshevik he developed skills as a writer, organizer and leader. Before 1917 he was not afraid to voice his opinions on the big questions of revolutionary strategy. After the Bolsheviks seized power, he showed that he could put his words into practice. Stalin was no mere pen-pusher.

The book’s strength lies not in any innovative, broad analysis but in its excavation of important episodes of the early years. Above all, Suny knows Georgia. (His sources are mainly in the Russian language, but many of them are brought to light for the first time.) Stalin, the author demonstrates, was thrashed not by his booze-soaked father but by his devout mother, Keke, who wanted to inculcate an ambition to make a better life for himself. Suny also relentlessly describes the succession of party committees that Stalin joined as he climbed the Russian Marxist hierarchy. It was a dangerous life. No revolutionary could be sure whether anyone was a true comrade or a police informer. Arrests and periods of exile were the common fate.

What I took from “Passage to Revolution” — and I agree with the idea — is that young Stalin was an angry optimist. He dedicated his time to the Marxist project when few imagined that Lenin’s Bolsheviks would ever come to power. He could have become an Orthodox priest or continued as a staff member at the Georgian meteorological observatory, but instead he channeled his ambition into the cause of revolution.

Disappointingly, the book’s final chapters reproduce a tired account of Stalin in 1917. Suny wants to judge him mainly by his willingness to recognize the genius of Lenin’s policies after his return from Switzerland in April of that year. That Lenin led a successful seizure of power is beyond doubt. It is equally undeniable that Lenin did more than anyone to get the Bolsheviks to focus on removing the provisional government that ruled after the fall of the Romanov dynasty in the February Revolution. But Lenin had to learn important lessons of his own before he could become an effective party leader. He came back from abroad spouting wild ideas about the desirability of a European civil war and a proletarian dictatorship that were unpopular with Russia’s workers. Stalin was one of the party’s leaders who got Lenin to moderate his rhetoric.

Moreover, Stalin had always been ahead of Lenin in explaining that Bolsheviks would never get the peasantry on their side unless they promised to let them take over all the agricultural land in whatever fashion they wanted. It took Lenin months in 1917 to accept this case. The political partnership between Lenin and Stalin was one of the most momentous of the 20th century, and Suny’s book fails to take its measure.

Neither Lenin nor Stalin exercised power before the October 1917 revolution — and the unanswered question is why Stalin, after rising to the apex of party leadership in the 1920s, would come to stun the U.S.S.R. with his penchant for human butchery. Does the first half of Stalin’s life allow us to predict what we all know came next? Suny is a skeptic. He rejects attempts to over-psychologize his subject while admitting that he reportedly was exceedingly antisocial in many of his traits. He stresses that Georgia was a cauldron of violence in the early 20th century but argues that this is not enough to explain the passage to the Great Terror.

His hefty, demanding tome emphasizes the effects of changing circumstances that pivoted both Stalin and Russia into a vortex of revolution and civil war. Suny leaves unexplained the mystery of why Stalin, once he achieved supreme power, went on with the killing on a scale that almost defies belief.

Stalin

Passage to Revolution

By Ronald Grigor Suny

Princeton.
857 pp. $39.95