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Before Stalin was a monster, he was ... a monster Add to ...

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.

Sebag Montefiore demonstrates that Stalin, a psychopath and megalomaniac, was both a serious intellectual and a killer

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.

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