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For a leader who oversaw the transformation of the Soviet Union into a superpower, who claimed and received so much credit for that success but was so profoundly responsible for many of the catastrophes that the Soviet people suffered, and for an individual who loomed so large on the world stage for decades, Joseph Stalin has generated relatively little interest among Western biographers, particularly for the pre-1917 years.

Similarly, though we are familiar with the horrific statistics of murder, starvation, torture and exile during the Stalin era, thanks to scholars such as Robert Conquest and Alexander Yakovlev, relatively rarely have we had the individual or family victims of the Soviet totalitarian system speak to us directly. Yet, statistics can hide as much as they reveal, and the power of individual tragedies is often what penetrates the mass and illuminates the depth of totalitarian criminality.

  • Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, McArthur & Company, 397 pages, $34.95.
  • The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes, Metropolitan, 740 pages, $40.50

Nonetheless, scholars and specialists aside, why should Western people in general - or for that matter, even the populations of Russia and the other post-Soviet states - really care about events that occurred so many decades ago and a leader who has been dead for more than half a century? After all, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the leaders of the primary successor state, the Russian Federation, tirelessly tell us of their commitment to democracy and to a peaceful world. And today's Russia is clearly not the Soviet Union. It has vastly less power and considerably more freedom.

Yet, there are worrying signs about the country's future as the recent, gravely flawed, parliamentary and presidential elections suggest a significant move away from the democratic path that Vladimir Putin promised when he took office eight years ago. Russian civil-society organizations remain under attack, and journalistic and political freedoms are increasingly curtailed. Worse, Stalinism, once favoured by a small, elderly, hard-line fringe, has benefited from considerable historical revisionism under Putin, who has indicated that he intends to remain centrally influential even under the leadership of Dmitry Medvedev. Last year, the former publicly minimized Stalin's "mistakes," praised him for making Russia great and called on teachers to portray the late Soviet leader in a more positive light. And in 2005, it is noteworthy that more than 40 per cent of Russians favoured the return of a "leader like Stalin."

Even in reduced circumstances, we should understand that Russia, a country that covers 11 time zones and controls some of the most important natural resources in the world, still matters. Further, when we consider not only how dangerous the Cold War was to the survival of the world in the nuclear age, but also how the political system under Stalin lured and damaged so much of humanity beyond the Soviet Union's borders, then works that give us a better understanding of the past and highlight risks to the future ought to have wide relevance.

Two exceptional books have been published recently that relate to such concerns. Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin and Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia are massive tomes by authors who have previously produced impressive works in the field. Despite their lengths, painful revelations and demand for concentrated attention, both books are totally riveting. Further, they challenge us morally and intellectually; they richly deserve the widest possible readership.

Sebag Montefiore, who wrote an award-winning biography of Stalin in 2004, has produced a kind of prequel here (it ends in 1917) that, he rightly points out, could also stand on its own. It is a work backed by massive and probative research, with crucial new material not only from the Stalin archives in Moscow, but also in Georgia, where the author gained access to unpublished memoirs of family members. Sebag Montefiore was also able to interview rare witnesses in Georgia who knew Stalin well, including a 109-year-old woman who was related to Stalin's wife, Kato.

Much of Stalin's image in Western eyes has been shaped by Trotsky's rather caricaturized portrayal of him as a vicious, grey mediocrity. Sebag Montefiore, who closely examines Stalin's childhood, youth and rise in the party under the mentorship of Lenin, provides incontrovertible evidence that Stalin was certainly no mediocrity. Sparing us social science psychobabble and "rotten social background" theories, Sebag Montefiore demonstrates that Stalin, a psychopath and megalomaniac, was both a serious intellectual and a killer. In fact, he claims that Stalin was always "exceptional."

As the author takes us through Stalin's childhood and youthful relations, and his political manoeuvres among the Bolsheviks as they prepare over many years and then do take power, we see a seducer, a bank robber, a merciless criminal, a first-rate poet and a brilliant political operator. In the several poems Sebag Montefiore uses at the beginning of each part of the book, Stalin, nicknamed "Soso," shows not only impressive literary talent but also gives hints of the megalomania that would characterize his rule.

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.