Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years.
Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for Lenin, Stalin was a prominent activist long before the Russian Revolution. Equally compelling is the depiction of Stalin as Soviet leader. Service recasts the image of Stalin as unimpeded despot; his control was not limitless. And his conviction that enemies surrounded him was not entirely unfounded.
Stalin was not just a vengeful dictator but also a man fascinated by ideas and a voracious reader of Marxist doctrine and Russian and Georgian literature as well as an internationalist committed to seeing Russia assume a powerful role on the world stage. In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers--such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev--found the Stalinist legacy surprisingly hard to dislodge.
Rather than diminishing the horrors of Stalinism, this is an account all the more disturbing for presenting a believable human portrait. Service's lifetime engagement with Soviet Russia has resulted in the most comprehensive and compelling portrayal of Stalin to date.
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Robert Service is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Russian History at Oxford University.Review:
Stalin, a sequel to Mr. Service's Lenin: A Biography, presents a richly documented, highly persuasive portrait of the man who transformed the Soviet Union into a modern military-industrial power, terrorized millions and ruled over an empire that would have been the envy of the czars... Brick by brick, Mr. Service constructs a solid, accessible work that does as much as one book can to explain Stalin as a human being, and as the architect of a system that still weighs heavy on millions of citizens in the former Soviet Union. (William Grimes New York Times 2005-04-13)
[An] excellent new biography...Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty--above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free. (Niall Ferguson New York Times Book Review 2005-06-12)
Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources--a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk...Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie...Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party. (Leon Aron Washington Post 2005-04-17)
In Service's eyes, Stalin remains ruthless, cunning and murderous. But a richer and more complex individual emerges--and a more human one. Stalin is shown as lover, husband and father. A man who wrote poetry and loved singing. A serious communist political thinker and the best-read Russian leader since Catherine the Great...[Service] has written a masterly book, with great erudition, style and wit. Although there are still some Soviet-era archives that remain closed, this biography will surely stand the test of time. (Stefan Wagstyl Financial Times 2004-10-23)
This is effectively the first full biography since perestroika to encompass the economic, political, diplomatic, military, administrative and, above all, ideological dimensions, as well as the personal aspects of Stalin's colossal life. Gritty and unshowy, but enlightened by Service's compelling characterisation, magisterial analysis and dry wit, this outstanding biography of lightly worn authority, wide research and superb intuition will be read for decades. (Simon Sebag Montefiore The Sunday Times 2004-10-10)
A common perception of Stalin is that of an oafish backroom bureaucrat who bludgeoned his way to the heights of power. But this image does not do justice to the multi-faceted and fascinating person who emerges in this latest biography. Drawing on fresh archive material, historian Robert Service lays the man bare and places him within the context of his times. He paints a picture of a talented politician who was driven by a severe personality disorder to behave in the way he did...Humanising him, Service believes, will help to identify future tyrants. Here he has struck the right balance and produced an intellectually cogent and highly readable account. (Gavin Engelbrecht Northern Echo 2005-02-01)
Robert Service's brilliant biography of Stalin is a major work: the fruit of long research, profound insight and understanding of his subject. It offers a truly rounded and thoroughly readable portrait of this monstrous figure. (Andrew Roberts The Daily Telegraph)
In the course of this engrossing and well-researched book, Stalin emerges as a fascinating, complex figure. (Andrew Roberts Daily Telegraph 2004-10-09)
In his new biography of the Soviet dictator, Robert Service has given the most convincing description yet of how Stalin's insecure Georgian childhood fashioned his psychology. At key points in the book, we are reminded of Stalin's duality--on the one hand he was a proud Caucasian toughie who organized bank robberies and could drink spirits all night. On the other, he was a man who aspired to understand and interpret (crassly) high art and politics...This is the first serious political biography of Stalin since the opening of the archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1990s and Service has made good use of them. (Misha Glenny Irish Times 2004-11-27)
A profound and readable reassessment of the Soviet dictator... Service paints a picture of a ruthless man absorbed in the pursuit of politics, widely read, perceptive, cunning and, despite a self-effacing and isolated persona, the stuff of leadership... Stalin was no fool; he could scarcely have become dictator of a vast nation if he had been. Yet his contemporaries, and many historians since, have underestimated him. Service makes sense of Stalin's achievements by making us take him seriously... Stalin's power at its peak was immense and daunting. Service reminds us that a quarter of Russians recently polled put the Stalin years top of the list of periods in Russian history they most admired... This shrewd biography helps us understand clearly and dispassionately why not everyone remembers Stalin as a murderous ogre. (Richard Overy The Mail on Sunday 2004-10-31)
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