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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. 5 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. 4 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

  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

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Petrie

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 5 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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    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.

  13. 4 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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mary

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

  15. 4 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!!

  16. 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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Hartley Wise

    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.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Frank Deschain

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I've been on a history kick lately and figured I'd delve even further into Russian history and learn all about Stalin. Interesting how any modern leftist can find anything to admire about Communism and its awful consequences. Some of the intricacies of Stalin's life may be shrouded in mystery forever on account of his penchant for secrecy. Some of the more notable atrocities were how much he hated the peasant class and made sure he was in full control of the economy. The kolkovs were basically co I've been on a history kick lately and figured I'd delve even further into Russian history and learn all about Stalin. Interesting how any modern leftist can find anything to admire about Communism and its awful consequences. Some of the intricacies of Stalin's life may be shrouded in mystery forever on account of his penchant for secrecy. Some of the more notable atrocities were how much he hated the peasant class and made sure he was in full control of the economy. The kolkovs were basically communes where peasants were actually forced to work and beaten and tortured if they didn't bend to the will of Stalin's insane policies. Reports of cannibalism and insanity characterized this time, and the average peasant was allowed one egg per week and had to stand in line for hours or days just to recieve a ration of black bread. Stalin was insanely paranoid and had several of his former comrades arrested, slandered, or otherwise ruined whenever they outlived their purpose in the Inner Circle. Maybe next I will read about Mao.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Maximilian Gerboc

    An efficient but thoroughly researched biography of one of history’s most enigmatic characters. As a student of revolutionary politics, it was fascinating to read about the rise and success of Bolshevism in Russia. And as a student of American history and current events, this serves as a cautionary tale, warning us about looking at our history through rose tinted glasses and the warmth of nostalgia. In or there words - don’t give in to easy ideas like “make America (or in this case, Russia) grea An efficient but thoroughly researched biography of one of history’s most enigmatic characters. As a student of revolutionary politics, it was fascinating to read about the rise and success of Bolshevism in Russia. And as a student of American history and current events, this serves as a cautionary tale, warning us about looking at our history through rose tinted glasses and the warmth of nostalgia. In or there words - don’t give in to easy ideas like “make America (or in this case, Russia) great again.” It was never that great, and the people peddling that nostalgia are usually looking to mobilize the masses to consolidate their own power without regard to how the majority of people love be and think.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Henry Correa

    The author presents a complete and not biased story of the life of Stalin. The data, historical events and narrative is engaging, when reading this book I experienced a myriad of emotions and feelings due to the minutiae or detail by which the author presents all the situations in the book. If you’re looking for a book that presents Stalin as a hero and a villain at the same time, this biography will suit your needs. The only reason why I don’t give it 5 stars is because sometimes is hard to fol The author presents a complete and not biased story of the life of Stalin. The data, historical events and narrative is engaging, when reading this book I experienced a myriad of emotions and feelings due to the minutiae or detail by which the author presents all the situations in the book. If you’re looking for a book that presents Stalin as a hero and a villain at the same time, this biography will suit your needs. The only reason why I don’t give it 5 stars is because sometimes is hard to follow up the names and job positions of the people mentioned in the narrative, it should be a good idea to include an index to serve as a guide.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shawn

    A rather unusual order to this narrative, with long straight chronological sections occasionally interrupted with shorter sections detailing the events surrounding Stalin's last illness and death and what followed, but these are clearly related to the events one has just read about in the chronological sections. Includes a great deal of information that became available only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives to scholars, although these new insights, while A rather unusual order to this narrative, with long straight chronological sections occasionally interrupted with shorter sections detailing the events surrounding Stalin's last illness and death and what followed, but these are clearly related to the events one has just read about in the chronological sections. Includes a great deal of information that became available only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives to scholars, although these new insights, while interesting, do little to change the general judgement that Stalin was a monster of a human being.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dolf

    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.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tadas Talaikis

    That one was fun: "Stalin preferred smallest possible government - himself." Will tell anytime I'll meet a libertarian :-D OK, overall, not bad, but still waiting for huge Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, then will be able to compare and say which one is closer to reality. Reality here means not the myths about "evil" and other utter useless thoughts/ opinions from any brainwashed with any side of propaganda bipartisan heads, but closer to reality of the evolutionary psychology.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This was a difficult book to read, though not due to deficiencies on behalf of the author, but due to the subject (Stalin). Stalin was an unpleasant person to say the least, and reading about how he was responsible for the deaths (20 to 25 mil.) of so many people is sad. Nevertheless, this bio is short and succinct. Recommended for those with an interest in learning about the origins of Stalin, how he governed pre/during/post war Russia, and his political prowess.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Carbajal

    Written from a Russian’s language and perspective and expertly translated to English this could have easily been a dry historical slog but was not. Joseph’s meandering journey from seminary school in his native Georgia to Soviet dictator could have gone off the rails at many point in history but for better or worse it all fell into place. His ruthlessness and paranoia are juxtaposed with moments of warm humanity. Humans are never simple.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    A very accessible, balanced historical piece on Stalin. The author does a great job presenting the evidence for various theories about Stalin, while letting us know when things are not fully known. It was an obviously well studied topic, the author giving great depth and historic context surrounding the details of the Dictator. I learned a lot and enjoyed the read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Fernando

    I have "heard" the audiobook. I have liked the non linear kind of biography with jumps and jump backs. It would be better a little more about the second world War. It is amazing how Stalin understood fear as the only incentive for a freedom less society. It is sad this regime is still popular.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kaj Leers

    Finally finished this. An interesting read, with the author shying away from getting enthralled by either the anti- or pro-Stalin crowd. The facts speak for themselves. Well written biography of a wretched human being.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Fernando Escobar

    I felt all through the book that I should know more about Stalin to fully understand it, furthermore I finish the book feeling "gaps" in his life. This is my first Stalin biography, and he whole subject matter (USSR, etc.) is new to me, I should get more cultured on this subject.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Sutherland

    Excellent, well written history. A very good read for anyone wanting to understand Russia, and its relationship to the USA, China and Korea

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