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21 November 2018

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Stalin: A New Biography of a Dictator

By Oleg Khlevniuk
Translated by Nora Favorov
(Yale Univ. Press, $35)

There is a refreshing terseness in this new biography.

As the author states, “the literature on Stalin and his era is impossibly vast.” But too often solid research gets mixed up with the slapdash. And there is no shortage of people who will cobble together a bit of both to make political points, to rewrite or even whitewash history.

Khlevniuk is one of the most respected scholars on Stalin and his era, and he seeks in this work to compile “only what we know for certain about Stalin and his time,” and to very directly counter those (particularly in modern Russia) who would romanticize the Stalin era.

This makes for a very digestible biography, yet one packed with revelations, if only because of the concise and clear way the author presents them. Khlevniuk demonstrates the linkage between the Spanish Civil War and the purges of 1937-38, catalogues Stalin’s catastrophic and repeated failures as a military leader, gives fascinating detail on the inner workings of the ruling circle and the tortured history of Stalin’s family life, and sheds light on the vozhd’s death and the surprisingly smooth transition to oligarchic rule. All in just over 300 pages.

Best of all, Khlevniuk soundly debunks revisionists who absolve Stalin from inciting and leading the purges, or exaggerate his significance as a military leader, economic thinker, or foreign policy strategist. The record is clear here: Stalin was the driving force behind the purges, and he succeeded as a leader in spite of his deficits, and largely as a result of the system of State Terror he forged. And the proof that “just one person” could have motivated such vast repression is found in the swiftness of change that followed his death – within weeks, the KGB was significantly reined in, the war in Korea was brought to an end, and economic reform was begun.

If you read just one biography this year, make it this one.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2015