To many, Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili (known as Joseph Stalin) is remembered as the Man of Steel (Stalin) with murderous instincts, the heir of Vladimir Lenin and the unquestioned dictator of the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century. This may explain why Stalin is largely misconceived by many but understood by few.

The Oxford University Press published a bulky book, Stalin: A Political Biography, by a well-known The Economist journalist, Isaac Deutscher. The author, unlike many other writers on Stalin and Soviet politics concerns himself with his political life, not his boring private life (if he had any?) which explains why he titled his book essentially “a political biography.” This aspect of the title is therefore important in guiding our understanding of what is the political aim of this bulky volume.

Deutscher is a Polish journalist who broke with Stalinism in 1932 because he favored a united front with the Social Democrats against the Nazis; it is said that for a while he was sympathetic to Trotskyism. At the beginning of the war, however, he fled to England, and served as a Russian expert for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

He is well acquainted with the factual and documentary material available on his subject and handles them scrupulously on the whole, although in general his method is to question all charges or testimony adverse to Stalin that cannot be verified beyond question, and to give him, the benefit of the doubt in most such cases. It is this method, plus the curiously detached manner in which it is written, that has earned the book its reputation for objectivity in some quarters.

Before reading the book, all I knew about Joseph Stalin then were from books on the history and politics of the Soviet Union. We read things like: he was responsible for the deaths of untold number of Soviet’s citizens through starvation and ‘concentration’ camps; murderer of many if not all his opponents and supporters (including the respected Leon Trosky one of the leaders of October 1917 revolution); reigned terror on many through the notorious and dreaded KGB (the Secret Police) and the GIU.

The book explores the formative years of young Joseph who was raised primarily by his mother, whose modest work as a washerwoman did not prevent her from providing her gifted son with the best education available to prepare him for the priesthood. Djugashvili, like many young boys in Russia in the 1890s, especially among its repressed ethnic and national minorities, was drawn to the revolutionary movement that conspired to undermine the czarist autocracy.

Like many other writers on Soviet Revolution, the book has placed Stalin in a secondary role as the Bolsheviks moved against the provisional government that succeeded the czar. A contemporary chronicler of the revolution, Nikolai Sukhanov, wrote that Stalin was “a grey blur emitting a dim light.” And John Reed in “Ten Days That Shook the World” (1919) did not mention Stalin at all, which explains why the book was banned for decades in the Soviet Union. He does indeed make a case for Stalin’s deep participation but it was still far from equaling the decisive importance of Lenin and Trotsky, who made the strategic decisions during those painful months.

Stalin’s moment will come years later, after the Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Civil War. Joseph was appointed by Lenin to be general secretary of the Communist Party. As the author himself writes: “the choice of Stalin for the job gives a measure of Lenin’s high confidence in him…free itself from every taint and blemish of officialdom.” (Deutscher 1960: 230). With the monarchy gone and the turmoil of war and revolution, the country had broken up into contentious regions.

The debate will continue as to the proper role Stalin played in development of the Soviet Union. For those who do not know, Stalin it was that mechanized Soviet’s agriculture; turned around its education that rural farmers were all sent to school; laid the foundation of Soviet’s industrialization, and development of nuclear power which compelled Americans to treat Russians as equals in international politics; responsible for Soviet’s victory over Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army. All these came with great costs. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and other great reformers have been dwarfed by the giant form of the Man of Steel (Ibid p. 295). If we remove Stalin’s contribution to Russia’s history what is left? There is always a price to pay for making progress!

Mr Deutscher’s volume joins an impressive shelf of books on Stalin. Where does it fit? Of course, all students of Stalin rely on Conversations With Stalin (1962), a wonderfully written memoir by the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas, who spent time in Moscow during and after World War II, when he was able to watch Stalin up close. The book, written from the unique perspective of a political journalist, will make an interesting reading for lovers of history, politics and international relations.

 

References

Deutscher, I. Stalin: A Political Biography, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960)

Conquest, R. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties, (New York: The Macmillan Company; First American edition1968)


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