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The most authoritative and engrossing biography of the notorious dictator ever written Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine direct The most authoritative and engrossing biography of the notorious dictator ever written Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine directly resulting from Stalin's policies. What drove him toward such ruthlessness? This essential biography, by the author most deeply familiar with the vast archives of the Soviet era, offers an unprecedented, fine-grained portrait of Stalin the man and dictator. Without mythologizing Stalin as either benevolent or an evil genius, Khlevniuk resolves numerous controversies about specific events in the dictator’s life while assembling many hundreds of previously unknown letters, memos, reports, and diaries into a comprehensive, compelling narrative of a life that altered the course of world history.   In brief, revealing prologues to each chapter, Khlevniuk takes his reader into Stalin’s favorite dacha, where the innermost circle of Soviet leadership gathered as their vozhd lay dying. Chronological chapters then illuminate major themes: Stalin’s childhood, his involvement in the Revolution and the early Bolshevik government under Lenin, his assumption of undivided power and mandate for industrialization and collectivization, the Terror, World War II, and the postwar period. At the book’s conclusion, the author presents a cogent warning against nostalgia for the Stalinist era. 


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The most authoritative and engrossing biography of the notorious dictator ever written Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine direct The most authoritative and engrossing biography of the notorious dictator ever written Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine directly resulting from Stalin's policies. What drove him toward such ruthlessness? This essential biography, by the author most deeply familiar with the vast archives of the Soviet era, offers an unprecedented, fine-grained portrait of Stalin the man and dictator. Without mythologizing Stalin as either benevolent or an evil genius, Khlevniuk resolves numerous controversies about specific events in the dictator’s life while assembling many hundreds of previously unknown letters, memos, reports, and diaries into a comprehensive, compelling narrative of a life that altered the course of world history.   In brief, revealing prologues to each chapter, Khlevniuk takes his reader into Stalin’s favorite dacha, where the innermost circle of Soviet leadership gathered as their vozhd lay dying. Chronological chapters then illuminate major themes: Stalin’s childhood, his involvement in the Revolution and the early Bolshevik government under Lenin, his assumption of undivided power and mandate for industrialization and collectivization, the Terror, World War II, and the postwar period. At the book’s conclusion, the author presents a cogent warning against nostalgia for the Stalinist era. 

30 review for Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Oleg V. Khlevniuk presents a new biography on one of history’s most ruthless dictators, Joseph Stalin. Taking the reader well behind the (iron) curtain, Khlevniuk explores some of the many topics only briefly mentioned in passing before, if not entirely erased from outsider discussion. Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, came from a frugal household. A Georgian by birth, Jughashvili did not let his family’s plight shape his academic successes, earning top honours throughout his Oleg V. Khlevniuk presents a new biography on one of history’s most ruthless dictators, Joseph Stalin. Taking the reader well behind the (iron) curtain, Khlevniuk explores some of the many topics only briefly mentioned in passing before, if not entirely erased from outsider discussion. Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, came from a frugal household. A Georgian by birth, Jughashvili did not let his family’s plight shape his academic successes, earning top honours throughout his educational endeavours, before joining the seminary. As a young man, Jughashvili rebranded himself as Joseph Stalin, a name that rolled off the tongue with greater ease, while also finding solace in the Bolshevik Party, speaking out for a Marxist way of life. Stalin’s close ties to Lenin saw him rise in the Party and help develop the plans for the eventual uprising that history has called the Russian Revolution. Stalin could not stomach much of the class divisions that he saw developing in his homeland, but also did not stay quiet about these issues, finding himself shipped off to Siberia on a few occasions. Khlevniuk offers up a few interesting vignettes about Stalin’s time there, including letters pleading for assistance as he starved and froze. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks stormed to power after raising a Red Army that crippled the already weakened Russian troops under the current government, with Stalin close to the top of the power structure. Lenin could see that his protégé was less about the Marxist ideology in practice than the complete concentration of power and its delivery with an iron fist—a theme that would recur throughout the biography. As history has recounted, Lenin feared his eventual death, as it would surely see Stalin take the reins and steer the USSR in another direction. Khlevniuk illustrates Stalin’s impatience as he waited for control over the Communist Secretariat, biding his time as Lenin sought a firm, but not harsh, approach to the new ideological delivery. When Stalin did succeed Lenin, things took a significant change in the USSR, as the new leader sought to focus his attention on bringing to pass some of his collectivisation tactics, textbook communism wherein the country would share all. Khlevniuk explores Stalin’s first ‘five year plan’ in which commodities were taken from the various communities and amassed centrally. Brutal hoarding of products brought about by Party rules saw people literally starving, with no remorse by Stalin whatsoever. Khlevniuk depicts brutal murder for those who would not abide by the rules and how some mothers, mad with starvation, turned to murdering their children to eat their flesh. This brutality continued as Stalin killed or brought about the deaths of millions under the USSR’s control, all in an effort to concentrate power. [As an aside, it is fascinating as well as horrifying to see the narrative go in depth about all these atrocities, substantiated by much of Khlevniuk’s research. While the world remained clueless about these acts, focus and shock appeared turned towards Hitler’s decision to exterminate people over the next 10-15 years!] Stalin continued his brutal governing, instilling fear and repression into his people with some of these foundational Marxist values that were taken out of context. Khlevniuk offers countless examples to show just how authoritarian things became in the USSR in the lead-up to the Second World War. Without any firm alliances on the international scene, Stalin inched towards the Nazis, who were solidifying their own power structure in Western Europe. As Khlevniuk explores, Stalin soon realised that he may have made a pact with the devil, noticing Hitler’s plans to overtake Europe with no thought to anyone else. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, Stalin held onto his loose non-aggression pact with Hitler, only to have the German dictator plot an invasion of Russia in secret. The narrative of the war years is both bold in its assertions of how Stalin kept the Red Army in line and brutal in discussions about the clashes with the Nazis and punitive measures doled out for not ‘serving Russia adequately’. By the end of fighting, Khlevniuk cites that over six million Russians had died, a figure that becomes even more astonishing when added to the millions who perished during the famines and collectivisations mentioned before. With the war over, Stalin turned to his own territorial expansions across Eastern Europe, amassing countries under his Communist umbrella. While he did that, he watched with fascination as China turned red, though its leader, Mao, would not be suppressed or bullied. Stalin may have had the role of brutal communist dictator sewed up, but Mao was surely ready to learn and did enact some of his own horrible treatment of the Chinese. Stalin’s health had always been an issue, but it became even more apparent the final years of his life, as his outward appearance showed significant signs of wear. Khlevniuk examines this, both through the narrative and with extracted comments by others, as Stalin suffered a debilitating stroke while those in his inner circle could do nothing. By the end, it was a waiting game, as Russia’s powerful leader and generalissimo soon drifted off and never woke. Sentiment in the streets was mixed, though the Secret Police and communist officials sough to quell much of the critical talk. The end of an era and a loosening of the reins of power would follow for Russia, as one of the world’s most ruthless dictators was no more, his indelible mark not one the world will soon be able to ignore. A brilliant biographical piece that will entertain and educate many who take the time to read it. Highly recommended for those who love political biographies, particularly of those leaders who have received such a whitewashed tale in history books. While I am no expert on Stalin, communist, or even Marxist theory, I can see that Khlevniuk’s efforts with this piece are not only stellar, but comprehensive. Choosing to focus on the man and add the lenses of his leadership and the ideology he espouses, the reader sees a new and definitely more brutal Stalin than has been previously substantiated. Those readers who love biographies and how they are cobbled together will find significant interest in the introduction, where Khlevniuk explains not only why this piece is ‘new’, but how he was able to take past biographies (both of Stalin and those closest to him) and weave new narratives to tell the story from inside the Kremlin walls. Actions are no longer part of a sterlised account and the reader is not fed tasteless narrative pablum, but able to see more of the actions and the blood flowing in the proverbial streets. I was shocked on more than one occasion with the attention to detail provided within the piece and how these accounts received substantiation from those in the room, as though they could now speak out without worry of being persecuted. Khlevniuk is able to convey a great deal of information in his narrative, taking the reader deep into the history, but knows what will appeal to the general reader and what might be too mundane. His dividing the book into six parts (chapters) allows the reader to see the various parts of Stalin’s life. Interestingly enough, Khlevniuk tells the reader in his introduction that each part can be read in whatever order they choose, though anyone seeking a chronological depiction of Stalin should (and would) read from beginning to end in that order. Full of detail and substantiated comments, this biography of Joseph Stalin is not only new, but well worth the reader’s time and should not be missed solely because of its length. There is much to learn about the man and his impact on world history, as we enter an era of new authoritarian leaders who seek to control large portions of the population. Kudos, Mr. Khlevniuk, for an outstanding piece of writing. I learned a great deal and hope that others will be able to take as much away from reading this book as well. Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/ A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cold War Conversations Podcast

    An excellent scholarly yet easy to read Stalin biography. Oleg V. Khlevniuk has dug deep into the Russian archives to create this relatively concise by most biographical standards yet authoritative account of Stalin's life. Whilst I was familiar with Stalin’s wartime role I was less familiar with his rise and the circumstances of his death. The author cleverly uses the dictators last days to bind a wide ranging account to a common point of reference and uses the circumstances of his death to effe An excellent scholarly yet easy to read Stalin biography. Oleg V. Khlevniuk has dug deep into the Russian archives to create this relatively concise by most biographical standards yet authoritative account of Stalin's life. Whilst I was familiar with Stalin’s wartime role I was less familiar with his rise and the circumstances of his death. The author cleverly uses the dictators last days to bind a wide ranging account to a common point of reference and uses the circumstances of his death to effectively show how he became so dominant. Several standard Stalin histories are questioned and undermined by the lack of firm evidence that Khlevniuk has found in the archives as well as questioning the reliability of some of eyewitness accounts those histories have been based on. An excellent easy to read biography of the man who by most accounts killed more people than Hitler.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kamil

    4,5 close to 5. Definitely best book I've read this year yet... Well written, very readable and impressively informative. The latter is no surprising, taking into account that endnotes make up to almost 70 pages. Extremely impressive... 4,5 close to 5. Definitely best book I've read this year yet... Well written, very readable and impressively informative. The latter is no surprising, taking into account that endnotes make up to almost 70 pages. Extremely impressive...

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

    A sober and well-organized biography. The book is based on twenty years of research, but the book itself is pretty modest and easy to read. Khlevniuk’s writing is insightful and all of his arguments are clearly presented; he disputes the idea that Stalin was behind the Kirov murder, for example, and suggests that Stalin’s medical condition may have influenced his paranoia. There isn’t too much on politics, and this is usually discussed in terms of Stalin’s feuds The book reads more like a history A sober and well-organized biography. The book is based on twenty years of research, but the book itself is pretty modest and easy to read. Khlevniuk’s writing is insightful and all of his arguments are clearly presented; he disputes the idea that Stalin was behind the Kirov murder, for example, and suggests that Stalin’s medical condition may have influenced his paranoia. There isn’t too much on politics, and this is usually discussed in terms of Stalin’s feuds The book reads more like a history of Stalin’s times than a conventional biography of the man, though, and often seems like an overview. Still, the narrative is insightful and witty, and you get a good sense of who Stalin was; less so of the people surrounding him. A well-researched, concise and readable work.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    Although this book is published by Yale, Klehvniuk is a research fellow at the Russian national archives, and has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Stalin, the ruler that held much of Eastern Europe in an iron grasp from 1929-1953, when he died. That must be a really dark place, but he’s done a brilliant job. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Yale University Press for allowing me a free peek. This book is available for purchase right now. The author tells us that revisionists have under Although this book is published by Yale, Klehvniuk is a research fellow at the Russian national archives, and has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Stalin, the ruler that held much of Eastern Europe in an iron grasp from 1929-1953, when he died. That must be a really dark place, but he’s done a brilliant job. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Yale University Press for allowing me a free peek. This book is available for purchase right now. The author tells us that revisionists have undertaken to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation lately, and to attribute his various unspeakable crimes against humanity to those below him. What a thought! Many previously secret archives were opened in the early 1990s, and our researcher has been busy indeed. He begins with a brief but well done recounting of Stalin’s childhood, which he says was grim, but not grimmer than that of most of his peers, and surely not sufficiently grim to account for the monster he would become later in life. Then he discusses the Russian Revolution, and the relationship and struggle among its leadership, most notably Lenin (of whom he has a less favorable view than my own), Trotsky, and Stalin. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over a number of things, primarily the role of the peasantry in the new society and its government. Lenin pushed Stalin to a higher level of leadership for a brief while because he was not happy with Trotsky, who in any case was in charge of the military, a critical task all by itself at the time. However, when Lenin’s health began to fail and he realized he would have to select a successor, he turned to Trotsky. By then, unfortunately, Stalin had built himself a clique within the leadership. A struggle for control ensued. Stalin came out on top, and Trotsky was banished. In 1940, Stalin paid a henchman to go to Mexico City and kill him with an ice pick. After Lenin’s death, government was largely by committee, and although ruthless decisions sometimes had to be made at a time when there were still Mensheviks (Social Democrats) who would turn the revolutionary achievement into a bourgeois state, no one person had the ultimate power over the lives of his comrades. Over the next few years, however, the German Revolution failed and scarce resources had to be allocated. Stalin consolidated his hold on authority and the precious resources that could not be distributed sufficiently to keep everyone under the Soviet umbrella warm and fed went first (and increasingly lavishly) to the corrupt bureaucratic caste that controlled the Soviet Union, foremost Stalin himself. After that came resources for the workers in Russian cities; and after that came everyone else. The peasantry, which had been in a state close to slavery under the Tsar, were still shut off from the benefits of the Revolution, and Stalin undertook to force them to produce food for the city while punishing and often executing those that tried to stockpile a small amount on which to sustain their own families. Klehvniuk gives a good deal of space, and rightly so, to the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Stalin began suspecting all sorts of people, those close to him, far away, sometimes in large groups, of conspiring against him. He had them rounded up and executed. There even came a point in his career when he was having family members rounded up and shot. Toward the end of his life it was hard to find a qualified physician to treat him, because Stalin had been having so many doctors arrested and shot. Klehvniuk provides us with a surprisingly readable narrative. He tells the chronological story of Stalin’s rule, with the horrifying numbers of people, most of them innocent, that were slain for political and nonpolitical “crimes” during the quarter century of his rule, and he alternates it with a narrative of Stalin on his deathbed. (Because everyone was so afraid of the guy, when they found him on the floor, alive but in a humiliating position, they had to step out and take a meeting so that no one individual would bear that responsibility. Until then, he stayed on the floor right where he was.) An intriguing question that will probably never be answered has to do with the very congested state of his arteries upon autopsy. How much of his behavior can be associated with physical causes, possibly including dementia? He was one mean old man when he died. It’s a haunting consideration. This reviewer was already familiar with a lot of the basic facts of Russian history, and moreso with the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, and Trotsky. Nevertheless I think that the interested lay reader, if not overly attached to remembering the names of all of the secondary players that came and went, ought to be able to make it through this work and find it as absorbing as I did. It’s dark material, and I read other things in between sessions in order to keep my own mood from sliding. That said, I don’t think you will find a more knowledgeable writer or a more approachable biography anywhere than this one. Whether for your own academic purposes or simply out of interest and the joy in reading a strong biography, you really aren’t likely to find a better written biography of Stalin nor a more well informed author. It went on sale May 19, so you can get a copy now. Highly recommended!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barry

    Probably one of the best history books I've ever read. Eminently readable, despite the major focus of the book, whom committed some of the worst atrocities in history. Stalin's combined policies of mass repression of potential enemies (both real and imagined), horrific economic decisions, unhinged purges of close associates at the top of the Soviet leadership, as well as reckless wartime decisions, have been estimated to have killed millions of people. And he did not just commit one or a few hei Probably one of the best history books I've ever read. Eminently readable, despite the major focus of the book, whom committed some of the worst atrocities in history. Stalin's combined policies of mass repression of potential enemies (both real and imagined), horrific economic decisions, unhinged purges of close associates at the top of the Soviet leadership, as well as reckless wartime decisions, have been estimated to have killed millions of people. And he did not just commit one or a few heinous acts, but almost every year of his dictatorship was filled with some combination of the aforementioned dreadful policies that resulted in innummerable suffering and deaths. This book is absolutely well-researched and brutally honest. The author does not play down or seek justification on the horrific acts perpetrated by Stalin and his associates. However, the author clearly indicates unsubstantiated accusations or rumors that can't be verified by historical documents. An excellent brief yet comprehensive introductory biography on Stalin as a dictator. 4.5 Star.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Leah

    Good ol' Uncle Joe... Josef Stalin's 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dic Good ol' Uncle Joe... Josef Stalin's 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s. I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin's last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power. Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of 'purging' opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life. After Lenin's death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a 'dying breed', and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian's job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved. Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin's purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it's hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin's experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended. Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin's relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol' friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the 'Great' Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology. Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin's somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn't feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin's death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia. Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself. NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press. www.fictionfanblog.wordpress.com

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Robert Service, Stephen Kotkin, Robert Conquest, and Simon Sebag Montefiore have all produced widely-read accounts of Joseph Stalin’s life. They’re among scores of others. In fact, Amazon dredges up more than 1,000 titles in response to the query “Stalin biography.” Why, then, is yet a new biography of the man necessary? The Russian historian who wrote it explains that “in today’s Russia . . . Stalin’s image is primarily being shaped by pseudo-scholarly apologias.” Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Robert Service, Stephen Kotkin, Robert Conquest, and Simon Sebag Montefiore have all produced widely-read accounts of Joseph Stalin’s life. They’re among scores of others. In fact, Amazon dredges up more than 1,000 titles in response to the query “Stalin biography.” Why, then, is yet a new biography of the man necessary? The Russian historian who wrote it explains that “in today’s Russia . . . Stalin’s image is primarily being shaped by pseudo-scholarly apologias.” Rejecting an “alternative” Stalin This “large-scale poisoning of minds with myths of an ‘alternative’ Stalin” prompted him to write his sixth book on the man. And Oleg Khlevniuk may well be the world’s leading expert on Joseph Stalin, having dedicated more than two decades to studying his life. His “new biography,” published in 2015, benefits from the opening of Soviet archives and his own seemingly obsessive pursuit of other original sources. While the book is not an easy read, it may be as close to an authoritative and well-balanced picture of the man who ruled the USSR as a dictator from 1928 to his death in 1953. The harsh reality of Stalin’s rule To the West, Joseph Stalin was a monster who was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet citizens. Khlevniuk does not shy away from this reality. “Official records show,” he writes, “that approximately eight hundred thousand people were shot [on Stalin’s orders] between 1930 and 1952.” But that number only hints at the wider truth. “Between 1930 and 1952, some 20 million people were sentenced to incarceration in labor camps, penal colonies, or prisons. During that same period no fewer than 6 million, primarily ‘kulaks‘ and members of ‘oppressed peoples,’ were subjected to . . . forced resettlement to a remote area of the USSR. “On average, over the more than twenty-year span of Stalin’s rule, 1 million people were shot, incarcerated, or deported to barely habitable areas of the Soviet Union every year.” And these numbers don’t include the seven to ten million people who died in the Great Famine in Ukraine—or the twenty-seven million people who lost their lives in the country in World War II, many of them needlessly as a result of blunders by Stalin. The death of Stalin is a linchpin for the story At its core, Khlevniuk’s Stalin is a conventional political biography, chronologically ordered. But its six chapters alternate with interludes that use Stalin’s death and the events surrounding it as a device to explore the dictator’s family life and the way he conducted himself on a daily basis. The book opens on the evening of February 28, 1953, at Stalin’s home near Moscow. The five men who govern the Soviet Union—ostensibly as a collective known as “the Five”—are at dinner. As the author explains how Stalin relates to them, we learn how terrified all four of the others are. But this is the last time they will meet for dinner. After they leave, sometime in the early hours of the morning of March 1, the seventy-four-year-old Stalin suffers a devastating stroke that leaves him immobile and alone. Subsequent interludes reveal how he lay dying for hours, with everyone in his entourage afraid to intrude. It’s a brutally effective portrayal. And Khlevniuk’s account proceeds to relate the great speed with which the men around Stalin moved to undo many of the harsh and counterproductive policies he’d pursued. Nearly four decades to rise to unchallenged control In the main body of the book’s text, Khlevniuk describes—sometimes in mind-numbing details—Stalin’s twenty-year rise to a position as “one of Lenin’s closest associates” and the power politics that consumed the Soviet leadership for years after Lenin’s death in 1924. Most accounts of Soviet history report that Stalin had clawed his way to unchallenged command of the Party and the government by 1928. But the author suggests that time didn’t arrive until 1937. The Great Purge (or Red Terror) eliminated any hint of potential opposition as Stalin methodically murdered his Bolshevik colleagues, one after another, only to replace them with younger men who were beholden only to him. That shift to inexperienced and sometimes incompetent men sorely tested Stalin’s ability to respond once Nazi Germany attacked in July 1941. Khlevniuk’s account explains in great detail in his depiction of the disbelief, shock, and inaction with which Stalin and his close associates greeted the arrival of the invading German armies. He writes, “There is no serious basis for revising the traditional view that Stalin was fatally indecisive and even befuddled in the face of the growing Nazi threat.” A balanced portrayal of Stalin’s life Most accounts of the life of Stalin imply that his paranoid personality and lack of compassion stem from the brutal circumstances of his upbringing. He is commonly portrayed as an ignorant thug. Khlevniuk dispels that notion. He writes, “By many measures, Stalin’s childhood was ordinary or even comfortable.” His mother could read and fiercely pursued all possibilities for him to receive an education. Because he was a “model student” and his mother used all the resources at her disposal, Stalin benefited from ten years of religious education, including four in a seminary—he was studying for the priesthood—and gained a lifelong love of reading. He was also well-traveled early in his life, visiting Stockholm, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Krakow. Apparently, too, he could read English, French, and German to some extent. For a time before the Revolution, he was the editor of Pravda. And he had a prodigious memory. The man was formidable. In most respects, it was difficult to distinguish him from the middle-class intellectuals who predominated in the Bolshevik leadership—other than that he was just a little smarter than most. About the author Wikipedia notes that Oleg V. Khlevniuk (1959-) “is a historian and a senior researcher at the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow. Much of his writing on Stalinist Soviet Union is based on newly released archival documents, including personal correspondence, drafts of Central Committee paperwork, new memoirs, and interviews with former functionaries and the families of Politburo members.” Stalin is his sixth book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    Maybe I was spoiled by Jung Chang's 'Mao' biography, but I was hoping for more from this book. I never really felt like I understood Stalin's motivations behind actions. This book just sort of a feels like a general overview of Stalin's life. The best parts of the book were when it intercut a narrative about the end of his life, and the book slowed down to dwell on things. Maybe I was spoiled by Jung Chang's 'Mao' biography, but I was hoping for more from this book. I never really felt like I understood Stalin's motivations behind actions. This book just sort of a feels like a general overview of Stalin's life. The best parts of the book were when it intercut a narrative about the end of his life, and the book slowed down to dwell on things.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

    Needless to say, there is already a vast, existing canon of literature out there on the Soviet dictator, by established authors such as Robert Service and Simon Sebag Montefiore, so the immediate question is, can Oleg Khlevniuk contribute to the already highly acclaimed works out there. The simple answer, is yes. Much like Service and Montefiore, Khlevniuk has had access to the archives, and therefore has been able to shed more light on Stalin's life and rule. As such, the book takes a very analy Needless to say, there is already a vast, existing canon of literature out there on the Soviet dictator, by established authors such as Robert Service and Simon Sebag Montefiore, so the immediate question is, can Oleg Khlevniuk contribute to the already highly acclaimed works out there. The simple answer, is yes. Much like Service and Montefiore, Khlevniuk has had access to the archives, and therefore has been able to shed more light on Stalin's life and rule. As such, the book takes a very analytical approach, offering key insights into his decision making process. The book is not a simple chronology of events, rather it is also an analysis and insight into what motivated the Soviet strongman, how he thought, and how he rose to supreme power. The book has an unusual structure. While it does follow a chronological pattern, each chapter ends with a flash forward, in many cases to 1953 with a different in depth analysis of the circumstances surrounding his death. Oleg Klevniuk does not offer a positive appraisal of Stalin's rule or governance. This may seem like an obvious conclusion, but when one considers the increasing tendency in Russia for a positive reappraisal of the man of steel, in light of the disorderly and chaotic times that have followed, a negative assessment is not to be taken for granted. Khlevniuk cites the increasing tendency toward slave labor within the Soviet Union, the rather harsh conditions workers were subject to, the suppression of any information that Western Countries had a better way of life, and overall, the very intense climate of fear. Perhaps most interesting is Khlevniuk's assessment of the eventual end of his life. He states that one can never truly know the public reaction, since many people would choose (out of the will for self preservation) to keep their opinions to themselves. On the whole, this is a more concise work than other works out there, but by no means an easy read. Khlevniuk is very intense and detailed, and the book can be demanding at times, but definitely worth it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sami Eerola

    As a avid Stalin biography reader, this was on of the best that i have read. Its style of mixing meticulous academic research standards and analyses with a Holywood movie biopic narrative style, made it a engaging and informative read. The new evidence presented in this book shows that Stalin was worst than previously known. The only problem that i saw in this book is the authors clear anticommunist bias. He for example says that communes are a "insane idea". But that was the only instance that i As a avid Stalin biography reader, this was on of the best that i have read. Its style of mixing meticulous academic research standards and analyses with a Holywood movie biopic narrative style, made it a engaging and informative read. The new evidence presented in this book shows that Stalin was worst than previously known. The only problem that i saw in this book is the authors clear anticommunist bias. He for example says that communes are a "insane idea". But that was the only instance that i picked that bias. The most interesting thing in this book is, that it proves that Stalin was a true believer in communism, not just and opportunist that masked himself as a communist to gain power.

  12. 4 out of 5

    A

    No doubt this is a gripping read. But content wise its just adequate. I'd have loved to read more about the context (factors, society before and after Stalin, revolution, opponents especially Trotsky, nationalities question and so on). This is just what Stalin did when and some speculation on why. however I will always be amazed at MLs choosing Stalin as the hill to die on. do better, lads. No doubt this is a gripping read. But content wise its just adequate. I'd have loved to read more about the context (factors, society before and after Stalin, revolution, opponents especially Trotsky, nationalities question and so on). This is just what Stalin did when and some speculation on why. however I will always be amazed at MLs choosing Stalin as the hill to die on. do better, lads.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chuck Sheldon

    Good introduction to Stalin if you were looking for a nice overall perspective on his leadership that's not to big. Excellent read with some nice quotables. Good introduction to Stalin if you were looking for a nice overall perspective on his leadership that's not to big. Excellent read with some nice quotables.

  14. 5 out of 5

    James

    Written in a more accessible style than the excellent Cold Peace and Master of the House, this is a solid, deeply-researched one-volume biography. If you are not intending to work your way through Kotkin's multi-volume Caro-esque biography, you will find more than enough updates to classic works like Robert Conquest's Breaker of Nations, to justify reading a new Stalin bio. Written in a more accessible style than the excellent Cold Peace and Master of the House, this is a solid, deeply-researched one-volume biography. If you are not intending to work your way through Kotkin's multi-volume Caro-esque biography, you will find more than enough updates to classic works like Robert Conquest's Breaker of Nations, to justify reading a new Stalin bio.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Luke White

    Stunningly objective and sourced. A truly exciting look into this man’s life. His capacity for evil and limitless ego seem to be the driving forces behind his dictatorship. I’ve come away having a newfound understanding of the tyrant. If you want to understand Stalin, and contrast his mode of governance with that advocated by socialism, then read this book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mikko Silvennoinen

    A wonderful Stalin 101 Just the Basics Ma'am course. Khlevniuk's writing is clear and biting, steering clear of hyperbole and flowery prose. He's careful, even, which with this subject is doubtless warranted. Stalin is a monster, and a biographer is not compelled to say it out loud. Just a cold litany of his deeds suffices. Khlevniuk unblinkingly also shows Stalin at his most charming. Yes, he could be charming, just like Hitler. Just like most horrible, manipulative people. Nora Seligman Favoro A wonderful Stalin 101 Just the Basics Ma'am course. Khlevniuk's writing is clear and biting, steering clear of hyperbole and flowery prose. He's careful, even, which with this subject is doubtless warranted. Stalin is a monster, and a biographer is not compelled to say it out loud. Just a cold litany of his deeds suffices. Khlevniuk unblinkingly also shows Stalin at his most charming. Yes, he could be charming, just like Hitler. Just like most horrible, manipulative people. Nora Seligman Favorov's English translation must be singled out for praise. A truly beautiful translation, one could believe that the book was originally written in English by a native speaker. Sublime work.

  17. 5 out of 5

    ❄️BooksofRadiance❄️

    Definitely well worth the read. Highly recommended.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Augusto Bernardi

    Very comprehensive book about the extremely vast subject of Stalin from "the leading Russian historian on Stalin". Oleg explains in the opening chapter how difficult it is to properly sum up the life and impact of not just one of the most important figures in the 20th century but also someone so powerful that trying to distinguish fact from fiction is very difficult and you have to find a balance between endless, factual political legislation and personal traits that make up how he was as a pers Very comprehensive book about the extremely vast subject of Stalin from "the leading Russian historian on Stalin". Oleg explains in the opening chapter how difficult it is to properly sum up the life and impact of not just one of the most important figures in the 20th century but also someone so powerful that trying to distinguish fact from fiction is very difficult and you have to find a balance between endless, factual political legislation and personal traits that make up how he was as a person. The validity of many of these things is again difficult because of the intense censorship of the soviet union and also the terrible fear of Stalin as he ordered the execution of countless people. Literally, countless. But what makes Oleg stand out is that he writes his books on Stalin and the soviet union based on newly released files and information. The book isn't as long as you might expect from such a person but on the other hand it des cover all the major events and "chapters" in his life. I did think that the book was a tad messy in it's structure as it would jump back and fourth in time as Stalin's life was developing and also at the time of his death. His life is already complex enough with the multitude of interchangeable Russian names so making the structure of the book any harder is sometimes disorientating. Oleg, is classic Russian style, is not dramatic at all and can sometimes zoom over seemingly important points or events for us as the readers. For example the death of Lenin, Hitler and the revolution itself must have happened in one sentence each. I think my superficial knowledge of Stalin beforehand knew most of the major key points of his life like his early more rebellious years, Russian revolution with Lenin, taking power after Lenin and disposing of Trotsky, catastrophic famine and the harshest regime imaginable, at first losing WW2 and then coming back to win it. Lastly, his death in his 70s of a stroke that caused tremendous confusion in the following months and eventually being succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. I was surprised actually how Nikita was barely mentioned in this book. From the perspective of this book, it seems like he had a reasonably minor role in the life of Stalin as opposed to his death. I have learned a lot from this book though and my perspective on him, the soviet union and history has changed and I'm further interested. Some of the thing's that changed my perspective was that I didn't know how cultured Stalin was. He was at least for the most part towards the start a good student ( I wonder how much of that is true), didn't know any other languages but was at least a fan of music and some reading. To me that's a huge difference from other completely murderous leaders of history. There seems to also be a large amount of letters from Stalin so he was definitely a writer. How on earth people still have or keep letters at all is a mystery to me. While I'm at it complementing him, you can't deny on how much he worked. It seems like he worked non stop, right up to the very end of his life and had a meddling hand in pretty much all major aspects of the country. That's seriously impressive for someone who wielded so much power. It is true that Stalin got his major political break reasonably late in life, rising from the bottom of Georgia to the General Secretary of the communist Party and Chairman of the council of ministers of the soviet union. Very high position that he made a grand effort right to the end of his life to maintain that position for 30 years. Incomparable to any other leader of the modern era certainly. Only rivalled by Kublai Khan possibly in the early millennium. This is possibly my biggest takeaway which is one of the constant themes throughout the book which was how politically savvy he was. It really is over simplistic to assume that his political success is solely due to the people he eliminated. In such a massive country with a complex government system in such a politically important time in history, Stalin was not often outdone politically speaking. Off the top of my head, there is only the blunder between his trust of Hitler that almost cost him the country but that still managed to end in his favour (despite the countless loses of the red army during the war). As he was not a king o monarch or even technically a dictator, he did rely on having the majority approval of his party and this is a very complex and SUBTLE game that he seemed to have mastered. OF course a main tool in this game was fear, but that could be used as something to make people react the way he wanted or to be more specific, even create competition within each other in order to be loyal and show results. Tow of his biggest priorities. One of his impressive long term power plays is that he got rid of the old politicians and replaced them with a new generation that was specifically indebted to him. He would remote people only to later promote them too. Many unusual tactics of harsh politics. He was on the other hand not a great speaker. Generally thought as a standard quality of a politician, like Trotsky and Lenin and of course, Hitler, but he was smart on how much he exposed his deficiencies and also that he spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and according to scholars spoke in a Georgian way too, grammatically speaking. Lenin is another impressive figure that did have a long and difficult relationship with Stalin with many ups and downs. I was surprised on hoe long it took for him to die. His health had been deteriorating for years and that played a major role on his political views and choices that then impacted Stalin. How Trotsky was so openly against Stalin was shocking to me. Far more people met the same fate for far less. I guess that's because I didn't know that Trotzky was as powerful as he was in charge of the Red Army. The parts about the famine or how the author Robert Conquest calls it, "The Great Terror", are much harder to wrap your mind around. These years are objectively devastating for the country and according to this book, millions died of famine or executed and sent to the Gulag. That didn't seem like it was something that ever really let up throughout his reign. The extreme stance of the Collectivization policy did not seem to be beneficial and it's difficult for a layman like myself to understand the motivation and purpose of it because there did seem to be other options that he could have taken and specifically didn't. How could that have somehow worked out in the long term? There must be a gigantic consequence that the country itself must deal with in the long term from the literal terror and huge amounts of loss of life of one of the main demographics of the country, the farmers and peasants. And my perspective is not coming from a fanatic anti communist American. But it's very hard to overlook those years in Russian history and weather that was either necessary or beneficial in the short or long term. In regards to the war, I didn't know how bad it had gotten for Russia. Not just did they suffer the most casualties out of ANY country but things were getting really close to being far worse. I hesitate on saying close to loss because Russia is still such a big country that it seems like a stretch to say that. Stalin did have a hand in the battle tactics and that was been debated on how effective they were. In hindsight you of course can say that they won eventually but the death to is still so high and the organisation in comparison to the Germans is different too. Oleg rather quickly went over some rather unknown horrors of the war and it's aftermath with the low moral of the red army and the frequency of their cruelty on the people of that region (of their own country). Possibly the most absurd account is of that of cannibalism in the countryside during the famine. Unfortunately, wasn't elaborated on which is understandable. It seemed that the post war Stalin was far smarter and had a better understanding of the geopolitical scene, especially against their subtle rivals, America and the UK. A great example of his tactfulness post war was dealing with the upcoming new Communist leader, Mao. I didn't know they had met and how long Stalin had held off the meeting as the leader wasn't fully established yet in China. Things got much hairier with the Korea as that was a physical manifestation of the cold war. Again, didn't know how much of a part Stalin had in the cold war and how he put up Kim Ill Sung in North Korea and also the Soviet Union eventually getting nuclear weapons. On a more personal note, Stalin did not have the best relationships with women or his family either. In his early life, he was just very wild and had children with probably more than one woman and a terrible relationship with his eldest. Later on in life his last wife committed suicide after an argument at a dinner where she left early. Oleg disputes a lot of myths about Stalin that were spun by his enemies or the West. Classic example of this is the suicide of his wife for allegedly disagreeing with his policies. There is no evidence for that and she did have a serious jealousy problem and mental illness. Worst of all is his relationship with his youngest son, Vasily, who was such a pain in the ass that would get away with anything despite of his poor relationship and disappointment from his father. A drunkard from start to finish. He had an early death in exile after Stalin had died too. His daughter Svetlana on the other hand had a pretty good relationship with her father and he was very protective of her. There were some touching stories of them playing with each other. His gripes with her had to do with her marriages to a Jewish man. That was another unexpected opinion of Stalin. Apparently after the war, there was a steep rise in antisemitism that Stalin supported. Svetlana moved to the US after her father's death to escape the regime and tried to justify her father's policies and actions on Beria.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    Comparatively brief biography of the vile person who murdered millions. This is basically a political biography, though there is some attention to the man's private life. The main chapters are chronological, but after each, there's a shorter section that deals with what happened at the time of Stalin's stroke that resulted in his death. The way his cronies reacted (or didn't) is used as a springboard to make more general comments about the man's overall character and how it influenced people aro Comparatively brief biography of the vile person who murdered millions. This is basically a political biography, though there is some attention to the man's private life. The main chapters are chronological, but after each, there's a shorter section that deals with what happened at the time of Stalin's stroke that resulted in his death. The way his cronies reacted (or didn't) is used as a springboard to make more general comments about the man's overall character and how it influenced people around him. It also is a vehicle for talking briefly about his family life. The text is only 330 pp. long, which is very brief given the vast number of historical events in which Stalin was involved, from the Bolshevik Revolution, though the imposition of Soviet Rule and the succession to Lenin, through the huge collectivization and industrialization policy from 1928 on (with its disastrous effects, both human and economic), through the Great Terror across the War with Germany, and into the establishment of the Communist order in eastern Europe and the Cold War. Naturally, one can only be very selective in this context, and the author mainly tries to establish Stalin's responsibility/culpability for the monstrous toll in human life that resulted from Bolshevik rule in the USSR. To some extent, this makes the book's outlook very "personal" in the political context. That is, it's mainly interested in figuring out Stalin's basic attitude for adopting the steps that he took rather than looking at those steps themselves in much detail. For instance, there is virtually no discussion of the way in which industrial policy was carried out in the 1930s (apart from noting that it was often very inefficient). Oddly, very little is said directly about the "cult of personality" (the extreme elevation of the persona of Stalin as the genius who embodies the state). This is not to criticize the author's knowledge of the overall topic. The footnotes make it clear that the author is writing from an academic background that is based on a wide understanding of the history of the USSR. All I mean is that the author's main purpose is to examine the way in which Stalin the man was responsible for the actions that he took. And I should also add that the author takes a very dim view of his subject, whom he characterizes at one point as a "misanthrope" and holds directly responsible for the paranoid nonsense that resulted in the destruction of the lives of millions. The author is also interested (as made clear at the end of the book) in the way that contemporary Russians may take the figure of Stalin as representative of a supposedly pristine earlier period when things "got done" (as opposed to the chaos of the present day), and he wants to make it clear that Stalin was a monster and that nobody should view his times with nostalgia. On the other hand, he has no interest in the question of whether the evil of the Stalin period was simple of a specific manifestation of an overall defect of the Bolshevik system (i.e., Stalin was different from Lenin only in body count, not in kind) or whether the Stalinist savagery was all attributable to one man's madness and not to the system as a whole. In any event, the author holds Stalin directly responsible for all the "excesses" (hardly a sufficient word for the malicious destruction carried out in his name) of the period. One thing that still remains unanswered in my mind: did Stalin really believe the lies that were used to justify the destruction of so many people? The author seems to indicate by the way he describes things (such as orders to force people that Stalin wanted to kill to confess to falsehoods) that he thinks that Stalin cynically knew exactly what he was doing, and it was all just a means of attaining and maintaining tyrannical power. But the question is never really treated directly, and given the overall thrust of the interpretation, one might have expected a more overt discussion of the topic. Overall, I'd call this book more of an "interpretation of Stalin as a historical figure" than a full biography. It always kept my interest, but wasn't hugely engaging. The translation is good in that the English flows smoothly, and there were only one or two instances where I figured that an expression was overly influenced by the original (and even these were minor). Given the verbal characterization of the star system used here, I'd probably give it 3.5 stars.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tae

    Book 1 of 2020 I started this book after I had finished Ali Wong’s book thinking I needed something more serious. Though I read 61 books in 2019, I spent all of December reading this book. I’m having hard time describing how I feel about this book. I read Mao’s book earlier in the year and I figured Stalin’s life would be equally interesting. I feel like it was but the book itself wasn’t well written. This book felt like a history textbook more than anything else. Perhaps, I was in a rush to fini Book 1 of 2020 I started this book after I had finished Ali Wong’s book thinking I needed something more serious. Though I read 61 books in 2019, I spent all of December reading this book. I’m having hard time describing how I feel about this book. I read Mao’s book earlier in the year and I figured Stalin’s life would be equally interesting. I feel like it was but the book itself wasn’t well written. This book felt like a history textbook more than anything else. Perhaps, I was in a rush to finish this book to count toward books I read in 2019 but felt like it would never end. I was also hoping that they would go in depths of his role in the Korean War and his interactions with Kim Il Sung. You have to remember that Stalin passed away just before Korean War ended so it was silly of me to rush through the book to that section. The only book that I can really compare is Mao’s book which is just as long but it felt more entertaining. There was just a lot of interesting things that happened in his life like fighting a revolution and leading that long ass march. Stalin was given his role and made decisions from Kremlin. They both had significant impact on the lives of millions of people. It’s truly sad what they did to the people of their respective countries. I’m just glad that we can move on and stop people from making the same mistakes. I’ve set 24 books as my goal for 2020 which was the same goal as last year. I plan to stick to it this time and be more selective with the type of books that I read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    John

    With So much about Russia in the news today, I realized I needed more context about Russia I had because of how little I knew about Stalin, who brutally ruled the Soviet Union for 29 years. During that time, he murdered millions of his own citizens and created a state of fear that is not easily forgotten. Khlevniuk is a Russian historian with deep access to Soviet era archives and therefore writes with authority and authenticity. I came away with several takeaways. First is that the Bolsheviks w With So much about Russia in the news today, I realized I needed more context about Russia I had because of how little I knew about Stalin, who brutally ruled the Soviet Union for 29 years. During that time, he murdered millions of his own citizens and created a state of fear that is not easily forgotten. Khlevniuk is a Russian historian with deep access to Soviet era archives and therefore writes with authority and authenticity. I came away with several takeaways. First is that the Bolsheviks were a bloodthirsty lot from the beginning. 12 million Russians died between 1917 and 1922 and only 2 million of those because of WWI. The rest died from the Civil War, mass executions and starvation. To say that Stalin was heartless and that his viciousness had no bounds is putting it mildly. In the first few months of WWII, when things were going badly for the Russians, he ordered a no retreat policy and over 10,000 of his own troops were shot dead in violation of it. And of course, he murdered over 21,000 Polish elite in the Katyn massacre. And his utter disregard for the lives of his countrymen cost the lives of 27 million Russians in WWII, far more than were lost by any other country. And notwithstanding WWII on the horizon in 1940, he still found it in his heart to track down his old nemesis Trotsky in Mexico, where he lived in exile, and have him stabbed to death with an ice pick. Shades of Kim Jong Un. And, of course, it was Stalin who put his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in power in North Korea in 1948. Only Hitler and Mao among 2oth century villains come close to matching his evil. And finally this. A wonderfully precise description of how the Cold War came to be: ....The intensifying conflict the World War II allies was fed by the utter incompatibility of their systems, their competing desires to expand their spheres of influence, mutual grievances dating to the prewar years, and a shared need for a foreign enemy... So we do not get off entirely scot free.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Phil Villarreal

    Oleg V. Khlevniuk writes with passion and purpose in unearthing the festering corpse of one of his country's most notorious tyrants. From the outset, and especially with his watershed conclusion, he makes it obvious that he fears that Russia is drifting toward the blindly despotic cult of personality in the Putin era that it found itself sucked into in the mid-20th century. With strong-armed rule, senseless violence and a self-serving, humanity-devoid obsession with stature and optics over practi Oleg V. Khlevniuk writes with passion and purpose in unearthing the festering corpse of one of his country's most notorious tyrants. From the outset, and especially with his watershed conclusion, he makes it obvious that he fears that Russia is drifting toward the blindly despotic cult of personality in the Putin era that it found itself sucked into in the mid-20th century. With strong-armed rule, senseless violence and a self-serving, humanity-devoid obsession with stature and optics over practical benefits, Stalin engineered and steered the Soviet apparatus toward his twisted vision of glory. A burning obsession with dominance and ruthless authoritarianism flew at the top of Stalin's figurative freight train. An obsessive student of history and analyst of processes, personnel and procedures, Stalin was the consummate overthinker, envisioning threats where there were none. In a paranoid effort to snuff out all challenges before they could arise, he stoked a culture of surveillance, nudging informers to expose their neighbors. Stalin ferreted out his trumped-up threats through sadistic purges that cost the lives of millions and destroyed the livelihoods of countless others. Those who weren't snuffed out were often relocated or ruined. Only a life of strict adherence to the party line held a chance of success, and even then only by the grace of happenstance. A venom-soaked jealous whisper from a rival could trump up preventative punishment in a society that presumed guilt. Narrator Peter Ganim recites the prose with a steady, professorial authority blended with a storyteller's enthusiasm. With excellent pacing and poignant pauses, he marches through the smoldering anecdotes with gripping urgency. Exhaustively researched and graced with effective context, this Stalin biography is a fascinating display of applicable history. A chilling reminder of the past is a sobering portent of the present, as well as its near-future implications.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Arthur

    A satisfying sketch of the man behind the 'vozhd' while also serving as a concise, effective introduction to Soviet history up to the end of the Stalinist system. The duel narrative format, alternating between the chronological history of Bolshevik/Stalinist USSR and the life of Stalin himself, was refreshing and imbued the book with a fast tempo. However, I was unimpressed with Khlevniuk's weak dismissal of the claims made by newer generations of Soviet historians who assert that Stalin had deve A satisfying sketch of the man behind the 'vozhd' while also serving as a concise, effective introduction to Soviet history up to the end of the Stalinist system. The duel narrative format, alternating between the chronological history of Bolshevik/Stalinist USSR and the life of Stalin himself, was refreshing and imbued the book with a fast tempo. However, I was unimpressed with Khlevniuk's weak dismissal of the claims made by newer generations of Soviet historians who assert that Stalin had developed an offensive grand-strategy centered around invading Europe after Hitler and the western powers had exhausted themselves, but that this plan was interrupted by a pre-emptive German offensive in the summer of '41. Khlevniuk simply states that, "Convincing evidence that Stalin planned to go on the offensive has yet to surface. There is no serious basis for revising the traditional view that Stalin was fatally indecisive and even befuddled in the face of the growing threat." Khlevniuk's wholesale refusal to at least describe the other side of the debate was disappointing. From the point that I realized Khlevniuk wouldn't discuss this alternative hypothesis, even if only to disprove it, my interest in the book declined. There IS evidence for this alternative theory of Stalin's grand-strategic intentions, and if there is a reason to disbelief this thesis, Khlevniuk should have given it to us, rather than just hand-waving away even the possibility of a discussion. A solid, even very good biography of Stalin and introduction to early Soviet history, but for readers familiar with current historiographical debates within the field of Soviet history, the book feels unsatisfying -- even unfair.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Hartley

    This was the first detailed overview I’ve read on Stalin or Stalinism, recommended by a Moscow professor teaching an online class. The book is ruthlessly researched, as indicated by the author dismissing many of the events described by other histories as false or lacking sufficient evidence. It’s also one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, scary in that everything presented in the book really did happen. The famines, the purges, the humiliations and assassinations and of course the torture an This was the first detailed overview I’ve read on Stalin or Stalinism, recommended by a Moscow professor teaching an online class. The book is ruthlessly researched, as indicated by the author dismissing many of the events described by other histories as false or lacking sufficient evidence. It’s also one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, scary in that everything presented in the book really did happen. The famines, the purges, the humiliations and assassinations and of course the torture and imprisonment. The Stalin portrayed by this book is a man who did believe in the truth of socialism but mainly of *his* socialism or his interpretation of Lenin. The October Revolution taught him that seizing power was easily achievable through violence, and so he spent the rest of his life dispensing violence on his citizens and comrades so that none could ever overthrow him as he helped overthrow the tzar before him. It is unlikely there will ever be as much power amassed in a single man as had been in Stalin ever again, although certainly time will tell. A must-read for people who want to discover what they already know about Stalin is true, untrue, or only the beginning.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amperfy

    The book offers a cursory review of Stalin but mainly focused on defending arguments that are supported by newly opened archives. It reads as if it's a supplement for the moonlighting Stalin scholar. Almost no words are dedicated to the historical atmosphere at large. I do applaud the book and the authors complete lack of apology for Stalin. I consider Stalin to be history's greatest monster of all time and certain powers in Russia today are trying to whitewash his image. This book acts as an im The book offers a cursory review of Stalin but mainly focused on defending arguments that are supported by newly opened archives. It reads as if it's a supplement for the moonlighting Stalin scholar. Almost no words are dedicated to the historical atmosphere at large. I do applaud the book and the authors complete lack of apology for Stalin. I consider Stalin to be history's greatest monster of all time and certain powers in Russia today are trying to whitewash his image. This book acts as an important counterbalance. . . A voice that is probably being drowned out by hysteria. This is not a bad read, it's just not what I want out of a biography. Enter with a good deal of your own knowledge and you may enjoy.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dolf Haven

    In the end I am still not sure what this book was supposed to tell me. I did not get to know Stalin as a person. I did not learn about the history of the USSR during his reign in any detail (the battle of Stalingrad was mentioned in half a sentence). I did get to know about boring Soviet bureaucracy and the infighting in the Politburo. The author focuses repeatedly on minor details that were uncovered "now that the archives have opened" to the delight of "historians" (like him, I suppose). I've be In the end I am still not sure what this book was supposed to tell me. I did not get to know Stalin as a person. I did not learn about the history of the USSR during his reign in any detail (the battle of Stalingrad was mentioned in half a sentence). I did get to know about boring Soviet bureaucracy and the infighting in the Politburo. The author focuses repeatedly on minor details that were uncovered "now that the archives have opened" to the delight of "historians" (like him, I suppose). I've been struggling to stay awake with this book, tried repeatedly to get through it. Waste of time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jenni Schell

    This book was nothing short of amazing. There were so many things that I read that I had never read about Stalin before. GREAT JOB!!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Excellent book. Extremely readable, and makes use of the latest archival evidence on Stalin and his life.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Chris Chapman

    Man, that Stalin guy- what an asshole.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tralala Tralala

    Spoiler alert: communism doesn't work. Interesting to see all the waste and misery created by centralization, when everything must come from the top. Every time (and by that I mean that Mao's system felt the same, having also read Mao's Great Famine), you have pseudo ideological feel-good-garbage sold to vulnerable masses, while at the top, inept managers (but expert power players, ie politicians) do a stellar job of running their country into the ground. After using the populist appeal of mass Spoiler alert: communism doesn't work. Interesting to see all the waste and misery created by centralization, when everything must come from the top. Every time (and by that I mean that Mao's system felt the same, having also read Mao's Great Famine), you have pseudo ideological feel-good-garbage sold to vulnerable masses, while at the top, inept managers (but expert power players, ie politicians) do a stellar job of running their country into the ground. After using the populist appeal of mass mediocrity and equal outcomes, the game is all about amassing power, keeping it, political games, hiding the fact you are incompetent in your job, and that the top guy lives in lalaland and will have you killed if you don't tell him what he wants to hear. This economic model simply doesn't work. Collectivism doesn't work. In no particular order, some of my take-aways: War. Interesting analysis of the loss of lives and wasted resources during the war effort, stemming from decisions taken by people who had no business taking them, with no experience, who were structurally absent from the front, in complete disregard for human lives. None of it rung like military leadership. Baseless production targets. Various references to ridiculous targets set in those famous 5y plans, routinely revised upwards many times for no valid reason, set by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, in an interest of self preservation or advancement. This echoed Mao's great famine. In fact it was more thoroughly covered in the latter. Paranoia. The paranoia of Stalin is covered at length, as well as his cruelty. One thing he was very good at, was ruling through fear and purges. Of course by doing that, you kill all the good fish, so while you remain the biggest fish, your aquarium is not going to do too well. This became quickly & painfully apparent when the war vs Hitler broke out. Incentives. There are also various references to the topic of incentives, and how they affect production output, whether industrial or agricultural. Take personal incentives away from people, and they'll stop caring. That's how humans work. Economists know it. Communist doctrine chooses to ignore it. That topic and prism of analysis was also very prevalent in Mao's great famine. Next time you run into a communist, ask him how you handle the issue of lack of incentives, or, worse, misaligned incentives. Stakhanov. Also an interesting passage about Stakhanov and how quickly he became eager to play the insiders' game of getting preferential treatment to raise above his fellow workers / comrades. I guess that's anecdotal, but symptomatic of how to play a rigged game. Incentives, here again. I read elsewhere that he was a sham, which is hinted to in this as well, in that his production output was the work of several people, not only his. Dementia. Also interesting was the parallel drawn between his physical disabilities, deteriorating health condition leading to his death, likely dementia, and the way he ruled. Various accounts of people close to him saying that he had "changed", or that his mind just wasn't there anymore. This sounded a lot like Trump in recent weeks (I write this in Jun-20). Overall, very interesting. Everyone will appreciate different things, but I read this mainly to understand what the reality of communism / socialism / collectivism looks like. Doesn't mean that full freight capitalism is the answer, but it's intellectually insulting to see populists tout the same ideas today, when it's clear the system they promote not only never worked, but always resulted in mass misery and death. And I don't buy "yeah but this time, it will be different", because "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

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