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Stalin: A Biography

av Robert Service

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
3281158,027 (3.87)6
Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years. Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for Lenin, Stalin was a prominent activist long before the Russian Revolution. Equally compelling is the depiction of Stalin as Soviet leader. Service recasts the image of Stalin as unimpeded despot; his control was not limitless. And his conviction that enemies surrounded him was not entirely unfounded. Stalin was not just a vengeful dictator but also a man fascinated by ideas and a voracious reader of Marxist doctrine and Russian and Georgian literature as well as an internationalist committed to seeing Russia assume a powerful role on the world stage. In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers--such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev--found the Stalinist legacy surprisingly hard to dislodge. Rather than diminishing the horrors of Stalinism, this is an account all the more disturbing for presenting a believable human portrait. Service's lifetime engagement with Soviet Russia has resulted in the most comprehensive and compelling portrayal of Stalin to date.… (mer)

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn commented that Nazism was worse than Communism, but Stalin was worse than Hitler (it could have been the other way around; I don’t have a copy of The Gulag Archipelago handy to look it up). It doesn’t really matter which way the comparison goes; the fact that a Russian WWII veteran even brought it up is significant of itself.


Robert Service introduces his biography of Stalin with an apology; that writing about a monster serves to “humanize” it. His rationale is that unless we accept the fact that Stalin was a human, we won’t be prepared for the next one to come along. Throughout the book he sometimes seems compelled to keep reminding readers of both facets; every time a little fact about Stalin might appear to make him more normal, Service drops in a little parenthetical note like “But of course he was a monster”. Service goes out of his way to keep attention focused on Stalin’s personality rather than Stalin’s crimes; for example we get a detailed political discussion of the institution of collective farms with only a passing reference to the resulting starvation of millions.


These are the only things remotely approaching flaws in this excellent book. I was reluctant to read it – for the same reason I’m reluctant to watch horror movies – but now I’m glad I did. I found the beginning and end of Stalin’s career the most interesting; the middle, through no fault of the author’s, tends to become a mind-numbing litany of death and destruction.


Everybody knows that the young Yoseb Dzhughashvili studied for the Orthodox priesthood; what surprised me was how well he did at it. Despite starting later than the rest of the students, (because he father wanted him to go to work), Stalin got the highest marks (5 out of 5) in Holy Scripture, Russian Literature, Secular History, Mathematics, Georgian Language (although he read and wrote Russian fluently, he always spoke with a Georgian accent), Old Church Slavonic singing, and Georgian-Imeretian Singing. He only managed a 4 out of 5 in Greek; the thought of Stalin whiling away his evenings reading Plato in the original while having his compatriots shot is disconcerting. On another unimagined note, he had a part-time job at the Tiflis Physical Observatory, where he recorded weather observations. Alas, the details of exactly why Stalin ceased to be a religious meteorologist and became a bank-robbing Bolshevik are unclear; Stalin wasn’t especially fond of having his past recalled – he had his mother-in-law sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag for commenting that she had know him when he was Dzhughashvili.


The period of takeover of the Communist Party is also unclear – it seems like one day Stalin was just one of many vying for Lenin’s position, and the next he was in a position to have all his competitors shot (which he promptly did). The subsequent years go by in a sort of blur – drop Lenin’s New Economic Policy, shoot anybody who objects, collectivize agriculture, shoot anybody who objects, institute The Great Terror, shoot anybody who objects (and a whole lot of people whether they objected or not – there were quotas for executions, which some local officials filled by picking people more or less at random); get in bed with Hitler, shoot anybody who objects; get out of bed with Hitler, shoot anybody who does an inadequate job of objecting to Hitler; and build a USSR bomb (Stalin, a believer in Leninist materialism, thought modern physics was a “bourgeois myth”; Beria had to plead with him to allow the nuclear physicists to actually do physics. Stalin finally yielded, telling Beria “Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later”.)


It’s hard to convey the weirdness of the Great Terror. The upper echelons of the Communist Party all basically went nuts; in fear that each day would be their last, they turned to vodka and women (sometimes men) in abundance. Stalin himself was fairly restrained; although there are rumors about various romantic – if spending time with him can be called “romantic” – dalliances, but nothing solid. He enjoyed throwing lavish stag parties, where he drank tea out of a wine glass, while everybody else was served vodka in theirs. Numerous toasts were made, and Stalin got to see if anybody made incriminating comments while drunk.


The end of the Vozhd (leader) was finally something of a comeuppance. Although his dacha was guarded by patrols, Stalin was always alone inside – in a different bedroom each night. He then normally called some guards in for breakfast when he awoke. One day he didn’t – the guards were too intimidated to do anything, waiting until 22:00, when a package arrived, to finally enter the dacha. They found Stalin semiconscious on the floor, drenched in his own urine. Nobody called a doctor – instead they called various Party officials. Khrushchev, Malenkov and Beria eventually showed up and finally got some doctors. Unfortunately for Stalin, he’d just purged most of the USSR’s doctors, and the most qualified were languishing in the Lubyanka. This lead to a surreal episode; guards awoke the prisoners in the middle of the night, described the symptoms of a “hypothetical” patient, and asked what treatment they recommended. The doctors must have thought this was some new perverse form of interrogation and racked their brains for the correct Marxist-Leninist answer. Eventually they concluded that things didn’t look good for the subject. And they were right. Among Stalin’s papers were three notes he’d carefully saved – one from Lenin criticizing him, one from Bukharin asking why his death was necessary, and one from Tito recommending that Stalin stop sending assassins to Belgrade, else he’d start sending them to Moscow.


There’s one disturbing question that Service skirts. Suppose there was no Stalin – the Tsar remains or the Kerensky government doesn’t fall or somebody else becomes General Secretary. Would the USSR/Russia have been able to survive Hitler? And if Hitler had conquered the Stalin-less Russia, would he have had enough additional resources to preserve the Third Reich? I hate to think of Stalin as a necessary evil, but there is something to this argument. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
I drifted midway. Must begin again.
  Sharayu_Gangurde | Jan 19, 2017 |
Service writes awkwardly, and clumsily repeats himself a lot. At least 20% of the 'fat' should be skimmed in my view, much of which includes downright bizarre formulations and half-baked pop psychology.

I'm hoping that Kotkin's three-part volume makes for a significant improvement. ( )
  whirlingdervish7 | Jun 23, 2015 |
Service's biography of Stalin is an excellent treatment of one of history's most notorious figures. Well written and researched, Service charts Stalin's life from Georgia in his youth to his death as master of Eastern Europe, and does not try to hide Stalin's great crimes. Yet, he also shows Stalin as a human being, which make his crimes even worse. Alongside an excellent biography, there is an epilogue that deals with Stalin's legacy in Russia today, and how often he is looked upon fondly.

An excellent companion to Service's biographies of Lenin and Trotsky. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
school
  ottilieweber | Apr 24, 2014 |
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Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years. Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for Lenin, Stalin was a prominent activist long before the Russian Revolution. Equally compelling is the depiction of Stalin as Soviet leader. Service recasts the image of Stalin as unimpeded despot; his control was not limitless. And his conviction that enemies surrounded him was not entirely unfounded. Stalin was not just a vengeful dictator but also a man fascinated by ideas and a voracious reader of Marxist doctrine and Russian and Georgian literature as well as an internationalist committed to seeing Russia assume a powerful role on the world stage. In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers--such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev--found the Stalinist legacy surprisingly hard to dislodge. Rather than diminishing the horrors of Stalinism, this is an account all the more disturbing for presenting a believable human portrait. Service's lifetime engagement with Soviet Russia has resulted in the most comprehensive and compelling portrayal of Stalin to date.

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