Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Khlevniuk jkt ks.inddGood ol’ Uncle Joe…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Josef Stalin’s 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin’s last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

The young Stalin Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX (3827290a)  Joseph stalin sitting at a table in 1918.  VARIOUS
The young Stalin 1918
Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of ‘purging’ opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a ‘dying breed’, and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian’s job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Stalin poster

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin’s purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it’s hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin’s experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin’s relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol’ friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the ‘Great’ Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. NAM 236 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin’s somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn’t feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin’s death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Oleg Khlevniuk Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation (1994-present)
Oleg Khlevniuk
Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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If you’re interested in how the arts were dealt with in this era, you might enjoy Lady Fancifull’s fabulous post on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed at the height of the Terror in 1937. She compares different performances to show how it can be interpreted as either a piece of patriotic triumphalism or as an edgy, almost manic, commentary on the time. Brilliant!

25 thoughts on “Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

  1. Russia has always been a puzzlement to me. They are overall closed people. By that I mean that they do not give much away in conversations or facial expressions. That may be cultural thing, but it does not help them. I have a sister-in-law that my brother met and married when he was working in Russia, and though she has been here for some time, she is still a closed person. And full of fear. And vodka. (Not meant to be funny, actually.) I read a novel a few years ago that gave me some insights. They are a courageous people but their leaders are clueless about how to harness that courage. (Winter Garden, Book by Kristin Hannah)

    • I think they’ve been closer to real starvation-type poverty so much more recently than us in the West and have never really had any form of good government. I guess we are used to being able to express our views openly, however objectionable some of those views might be. Whereas over there every word must have to be considered. Definitely seems to be a huge problem with alcohol in Russia, though that’s a kinda general problem in a lot of Europe – Scotland included! It’s not a country I know a great deal about, partly because I’m not enamoured of the great Russian novels, but I did learn a bit of Russian at school. If you ever want to ask where the number one bus stops in Moscow, I’m your woman! 😉

      • Skinny – malinkey! 🙂
        I know a little about this period of Russian history, but realise that, although I have read quite a few biographies/ hagiographies of Stalin, none of them has been by a Russian, so I may have to give this a go.

        • Haha! Yes!

          I knew a bit in the vaguest of terms so this was worth reading to clarify it for me a bit. Certainly this isn’t a hagiography – he’s tried to keep it a bit balanced, but it’s clear he is NOT in the ‘Stalin was a good guy really’ camp!

    • It was interesting, but not as much as I’d hoped. I get the feeeling Stalin wasn’t terribly interesting as a person – he didn’t seem to do very much other than be a dictator! Mostly he read magazines and journals. It all seemed a bit sad to me really – all he ever did was work out ways to hang on to power.

  2. Fabulous. Sighs happily. I’ve been waiting for your review of this one FF (and not just for that kindly Shostakovich nudge!) As for dismissing yourself as ‘a casual reader’ I’m afraid I strongly part company with that assessment of yourself, though I appreciate knowing that a non-unintelligent person (me) but one who lacks a certain intellectual discipline – I need someone to keep me awake with gifts of literary chocolate in between the statistics and the arguments, or I stop being able to think about those arguments properly. You are brilliant at paying attention to the dry, however much you might prefer dry WITH chocolate, you will be rigorous enough to stay attentive

    My interest IS in those Russian novels, and its all down to a Slavonic inheritance. But what you say about ‘starvation type poverty’ in terms of understanding Russian history and the Russian psyche, is spot on. And possibly also the hugeness and the wildness and the variation in the land itself. Not to mention a history of totalitarian rulers, whether completely unconstitutional monarchs who were God-the-often-cruel-Father or self appointed political Czars. No wonder, what with the coldness of the winters and the coldness of the despots, everyone turned to the warmth of wodka! Not to mention those gorgeous glowing icons

    • Thanks, m’dear! Haha! Well, I really mean ‘non-academic’ rather than ‘casual’ I suppose. But you don’t hear about the ones that I abandon after thirty pages… there have been a few of those this year too. It’s one of the reasons factual books almost never get less than 4 stars from me – if they’re not good, I’ll chuck them aside much more quickly than I do with fiction. Though I’ve chucked some fiction too recently – books are so long these days I can’t be bothered to stick with them if they don’t grab me.

      What I don’t understand, and never really do with any tyrant, is why someone doesn’t just shoot them. I can sort of understand it with monarchs, with all the mystique of divine right and so on, but dictators? It ought to be fairly easy. It’s why I never find it easy to do the ‘blame the man at the top’ thing – of course Stalin was responsible but so were the hundreds of thousands of people who made his regime work. Same with Hitler…

      But mainly what the Russian monarchs needed was Diane de Poitiers. They were such a joyless bunch. She’d have taken their minds off tyranny for a bit!

      • I guess to be a successful tyrant you really need to build up a huge machine to first of all protect you on the way up, and then you can let fear do the rest. It’s then quite easy. Then once you capture the young – with the various Youth movements, capitalising of the idea of a higher purpose, being part of an group/elite, the job is almost done – and that is true whether the politics is left, right, religion or issue ideology. I agree, we all have responsibility – but perhaps the greatest moment of freedom is right at the start of any dodgy movement, before it gets itself established. What is a little despairing, is how often things might start with a vision which seems progressive, fair, egalitarian, and then arises the great or not so great leader, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or something like that. I do think communism was a particularly potent dream. Shame that visionaries sometimes burn with such a fervour that in the end, burning anything which doesn’t match a narrower and narrower definition of ‘rightness’ almost begins to seem inevitably. I think I prefer some one who holds communist beliefs rather than a communist, if you get my slightly convoluted meaning. ‘I believe in….’ does not hold an absolute description of THIS (and nothing else) is what I am. I believe that chocolate tastes wonderful. But I’m not a chocolatist (there are other things which taste wonderful, too) And actually, if you aren’t a person who thinks chocolate tastes wonderful………brilliant! Can i have your share!!!

        • Indeed yes! I still find the idea of communism appealing, but experience has taught me that it doesn’t work with the human desire to acquire more of everything, and especially more than the folk next door. And that’s not a criticism – it’s a perfectly natural desire that would have ensured the survival of oneself and one’s family back in days of scarcity and famine. I’m afraid the desire for power over other people is perfectly natural too, and any kind of system that doesn’t take account of the fundamentals of what makes us what we are is doomed, doomed, I tell ye!! One of the saddest things about Stalin, I felt, was that although he maintained power quite easily and had the wealth that goes with it, he never seemed to actually enjoy it, which makes it seem even less worthwhile somehow. Between paranoia and what came across to me as a kind of uninterest in life beyond power, he didn’t even enjoy the finer things or create the kind of lasting monuments of tyrants of old. Not that creating beautiful things ever justifies tyranny, but at least it leaves some kind of legacy. Stalin’s legacy was being dismantled before his corpse was cold. Rightly so, of course, but so much suffering for nothing seems worse than so much suffering for something. I didn’t even get the feeling that he really had a strong belief in any particular political ideology, except the ‘Stalin must rule’ one. Idealists are probably too wishy-washy to rise to the top…

          • Oooh this is interesting! Especially as we agree – but of course the OTHER side of human nature and biology is also there to take the inevitable DOOM out of it – namely, though life is red in tooth and claw and all that (as are we) life is ALSO co-operative, and the co-operation exists right there down on a cellular level. Organisms evolved into becoming more complex organisms through mutuality – eg photosynthesis in plants, our gut bacteria, etc. And of course, we are getting stark reminders of the interdependence we have on each other and with the planet, too – so the exercise of MY WILL implacably, without the ability to find compromise, negotiation, mutuality, will in the end probably not even serve the MY WILL-er very well, as it must lead to an endless looking over the shoulder for the surely to come stab in the back, whereas the chimpanzees that learn to engage in co-operative grooming kind of learn that a kind act will get a kind de-fleaing in return, and can make things quite a bit safer and calmer – even if flare-ups arise, theres also a mutuality

            • Indeed! But (I’m feeling very pessimistic today) I fear that the people who like to co-operate are never quite as forceful as the individualists. I find it hard to believe that anyone genuinely doesn’t believe that it’s at least possible that humans are causing climate change, and yet not only are there vociferous climate change deniers, but frankly most of us (me too) just shuffle on in the same old way hoping someone else will solve it. I pin my hopes on scientists more than politicians, because democratic politicians reflect the attitudes of their electorate and undemocratic ones don’t care what happens after they’re dead! But I remember reading years ago that one of the results would be a flood of people trying to get into Europe as their own countries suffered poverty, famine and war, and I watch the news every night and see the boats… the idea of the whole of humanity trying to squeeze into a small fertile belt scares the bejabers out of me quite frankly. (And I don’t mean that in a UKIP Keep Them Out sense!)

              It’s your turn, Madame Optimiste – persuade me that we’re nicer than I think…

            • Well, because inevitably the negative stuff is painful, it draws our focus and attention, so that that becomes all we can see – just as (oh, I do love body wisdom as my guide!) if we have toothache, that is where we focus, and can’t think ‘ well my toes, feet legs etc don’t hurt’ We are biologically programmed to pay attention to pain, for obvious reasons. And I think you can translate that out into the wider world. We notice the awfulness of what is broken and painful. If a stranger bumps into you and snarls rudely at you, that’s what we hold on to, perhaps for the whole day, it’s an example of hell and a handcart! And what we focus on, and allow to influence us, far LESS, is, as the poet said (was it Wordsworth? ) the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and if love’ We just don’t NOTICE the ‘wellness’ in the way we notice the dysfunction. And it kind of needs a fairly constant, active attempt to focus on the nameless unremembered etc. I don’t think it’s a question of this or that, it’s both, and (as you may know both, and is one of my favourite concepts) oppositions and the tensions between them are kind of the stuff of the world of matter, right down to the atomic stuff. Things are holding together and things are flying apart. And that red in tooth and claw AND the mutuality. I do think there is (to link in all back to the fact we notice pain and conflict more within our biology) more attention paid to our struggling, conflicting with each other side, then is paid to our mutuality. Okay, I’ll burbly wurbly out of here and endeavour to pay attention to the little namelesses today, rather than to the clumsy snarling single jerk!

            • Intriguing! You have almost persuaded me – or maybe it’s just that the sun is shining for once! But I shall put my cynical hat away, declare you Queen of the World and wait patiently for you to resolve all the problems. I’d be grateful if you could start by sorting out the cold-caller thing, because if I get one more person offering me payment protection claims, I shall become red in tooth and claw and the heat of my rage will push global warming off the charts! If you can’t stop the calls, perhaps you could provide free chocolate to help keep us calm…

  3. My late dad would have found this most interesting, FF. He was the biography-lover in my family. Me? I’d prefer fiction! Still, if one is looking for more understanding of stuff touched on in history class, perhaps this would be a good filler.

    • It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been reading a lot of factual stuff but I actually enjoy it nearly as much as the fiction now. And school’s so long ago I’ve forgotten what little they managed to cram in to my head… 😉

  4. Interesting…Stalin is a guy I’ve been avoiding for just the reasons you mention: authors are often apologists or they try to cover too much and end up doing none of it well. This writer does sound like he’s taken an interesting approach, though. Will have to consider.

    • Yes, he complained a bit in the introduction about being restricted by space, but whoever decided to keep the book to a readable length made the right decision I think. Anyone who wants to know more about a particular aspect can find plenty of material, but this gave a good overview for realtive newcomers to the period.

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