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Book Review June 3, 2005
An Ordinary Joe
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Stalin: A Biography - by Robert Service

"Stalin: A Biography"-by Robert Service

Harvard University Press 2004

The conceptual problem that ruins this book was blurted out by a visitor whom my wife and I were showing around Moscow a couple of years ago. After hearing a guide describing the slaughter of clerics in the 1930s, the visitor shook her head and said solemnly, "That Stalin has a lot to answer for."

Which is true enough. But he can't answer for it, any more than Attila could answer for the trail of burned villages he left behind him. We want the great killers to have the mark of the beast somewhere on their preserved pelts. And they don't. They aren't monsters. Nor are they "banal," in Arendt's idiotic, endlessly misapplied cliche. They're just prime specimens of their type -- smart, ruthless, tough guys. Attila was a great steppe chieftain, no more and no less. You could put him through a thousand CAT scans, strap him down on a shrink's couch for a month, and learn nothing -- because there's nothing to learn. All that can be said of him is what Sam Elliot says of the Dude: "He's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."

And Stalin was, self-evidently, the man for his. Service's biography collapses into the Attila paradox: writing the biography of a man who wasn't nearly big enough for the big, smoking crater he left in history.

Service seems to have a dim, intermittent sense of his problem. He chafes now and then against a Stalin-centric view of Soviet history, reminding the reader that Stalin's worldview was not idiosyncratic -- it was, in fact, the standard, shared perspective of most high-ranking Bolsheviks. Therefore Stalin's character can't explain the course of Soviet history.

But in making this point Service is essentially objecting to his own genre, the Great Man's Biography. His book is so focused intensely on Stalin that its very shape reinforces the centrality of the man himself, no matter how many times he tells you to look away from the little man with the big mustache to the bigger picture.

The conventional view is that Stalin's rise was bad luck; that if Trotskii or Bukharin had won the struggle for power after Lenin's death, the GULAG would have been smaller and cozier, at least. It's a dubious notion for all kinds of reasons. The most fundamental is one of those valid tautologies: Stalin was clearly the man most suited to win because he won. If he was also the most cruel and suspicious of the contenders, then those traits were obviously crucial to winning.

It wasn't an unlucky accident that Stalin won, and it's unlikely he was very different from the other contenders, any more than Attila was different from other Steppe chieftains. The men at the top of any hierarchy, from Bishops to real-estate developers, are pretty much alike. In fact, as Service notes, Stalin was the moderate, "democratic" voice in many crucial disputes with Trotskii. Trotskii wanted the workers' unions abolished, since the state now served their members' interests. Stalin did his best to preserve them.

Any genuinely thoughtful or compassionate Bolsheviks, like Bogdanov, had been purged or quit long before the succession struggle began. So doing psychobiography of the contenders is roughly like psychoanalyzing the first hyena to reach the wildebeest's carcasse. That's why so much of Service's admirable research into Stalin's obscure youth seems pointless. By uncovering the details of Stalin's childhood in Gori and adolescence in Tbilisi, he aims to prove that Stalin was "damaged" by his father's brutality, failure and descent into alcoholism. As if to signal his own uneasiness with this overreading of the evidence, Service usually couches it in unusually awkward, negative clauses: "That Joseph developed a gross personality disorder can hardly be denied..."

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