Throughout, though, we see a serious student of history and a strikingly keen analyst of power who, for instance, coolly and perceptively assesses and then notes for the future Napoleon's failures. And the numerous archival photographs of Stalin and of friends and collaborators add an extra dimension to a study that fully holds the reader. In a 1915 photo, in particular, a young Stalin, sporting a full Georgian mustache, stares at the reader with a smile so cold it chills to the bone.
Finally, Sebag Montefiore provides important new insight into Stalin's relationship with Lenin. It is noteworthy that by 1917, Stalin had known the older man for 12 years. The latter treats him as a protegé and admires his writing and organizational skills as well as his decisiveness. Contrary to Trotskyist interpretation, Stalin does not simply trick or manipulate Lenin. It is a partnership that Lenin consciously fosters over a long period.
Figes picks up from Stalin's accession to power in the Politburo and then covers his era of total command. The author of the much-honoured A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, Figes constructs this book as part of a vast undertaking in which three teams of researchers went through three major archives, where they uncovered detailed data for several hundred families, and then interviewed the oldest relatives in each case. Adding to the overarching assessment of terror by Conquest and others, and the autobiographical works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that were so revealing about the gulags, Figes's book thus becomes a true and intricate dialogue with the hidden Soviet past, for it illuminates, as the author writes, "the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Stalin's tyranny."
In a system that benefited hundreds of thousands who provided the core of support and ran the machinery of the regime, the rest of the 200 million Soviet citizens largely suffered. They were too terrified to fight back against oppression or too beaten down, isolated and distrustful of their neighbours even to speak up - they just whispered. In recapturing their memories, Figes draws us into hundreds of individual family horrors, emblematic of the fate of an entire people who were dehumanized, and where a regime that promised the best fed on and fuelled the worst human instincts.
We also come across instances of tragic blind faith in Stalin. Konstantin Simonov, an army correspondent, genuinely believed in Stalin's invincibility. He advised his Jewish relatives and their neighbours not to flee their villages in the early days of the war because, in his view, the Germans would obviously be repulsed - only to have the Nazis capture the area within a few days and promptly murder all 6,000 Jewish men, women and children.
A few loyalists such as Alexander Fadeyev, leader of the Writers' Union, eventually felt terrible remorse for their collaboration with Stalinist terror; in 1956, Fadeyev committed suicide. Other supporters died unrepentant. believing that what they started in the Soviet Union was still something great. The vast majority of the families, though, just tried to survive a terror they could not comprehend and repression they would not discuss for decades.
Notwithstanding the exceptional contribution both authors make, it is still worth noting that they may be overemphasizing the role of Stalin in the tragedy that befell the Soviet people. Personalities indeed make a tremendous difference in history, but they do not entirely explain it. We need to understand that Stalin, an enormously gifted psychopath, was part of a system that, crucially, enabled him to greatly increase these horrors.
Terror, of course, was not invented by the Communists; they did, however, perfect it. The grand social engineering experiment Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts began - one in which, as historian Richard Pipes demonstrated, all the Soviet instruments of coercion were quickly institutionalized and justified - gave Stalin his opportunities. From the beginning, it was a corrosive political order where later, working in tandem, Stalin and the system magnified the mistrust, isolation and fears of the population in order to pursue what was claimed to be the common good. It was a system in which individual self-preservation fostered the cruellest means and methods, and where relentless dehumanization corrupted the soul itself.
Absent historical healing, as well as an honest and informed understanding of the past, Russia risks being and becoming a society that more than just trades freedom for security. It faces a danger in which the myth of dictatorial greatness stifles the finest instincts of a talented people, where conformity and silence become the norm, where individuals hope for privileges rather than insist on their rights. These two books, therefore, are more than just a tribute to the victims and an attempt to converse with the past. They are also a warning.
Aurel Braun is professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century.