An astonishing amount of research on the Stalin period has been published since the 1980s, filling in many "blank pages". Mikl"s Kun is embarked on a three-volume study of which this is the first, covering the period from Stalin's childhood to the late 1930s. The author is the grandson of Bela Kun, leader of the failed Hungarian Communist revolution of 1919, who was liquidated in the Great Purge. He was brought up in the USSR and is now a professor of history at the Central European University, established in Prague and Budapest in 1991 by George Soros.
Having "rummaged in the archives for three decades", Kun has unearthed a wealth of material that he combines with much insight. Of his conversations with surviving contemporaries, he writes: "It is no easy task to witness the present misery of victims of the Soviet regime who have been both physically and mentally broken, alongside the carefree lives of corpulent and complacent former executioners."
Fifty video recordings provided material for a series on Hungarian television, among them were interviews with Georgi Malenkov's chief-of-staff who was responsible for recommending Lavrenti Beria to Stalin, ex-KGB chief Aleksandr Shelepin, the sister of Mikhail Tukhachevsky (one of the marshals shot in 1937) and members of the Alliluyev family (Stalin's in-laws), who, we learn, had a history of mental instability.
Thanks to a cornucopia from David King, a picture agent, the book - in its suitably large format - is copiously illustrated with hitherto unseen photographs of Stalin and his entourage, as well as many of the personalities -families, politicians, military figures and intellectuals - mentioned.
The book opens with a detailed account of the early history of the Bolshevik Party, most of it familiar to Western readers. The story of Stalin's activities as an underground organiser of bank robberies in the Caucasus to fill the party's coffers, and his consequent elevation through the ranks, thanks to Lenin's patronage, is retold with the benefit of many known and some unknown sources, which add detail while leaving the narrative line largely unaltered. Party congresses and conferences are revisited, and the relations between leaders, most of whom Stalin was to liquidate in due course, are given added colour by including their correspondence.
Stalin's personal involvement in all areas of social life had a disastrous effect on the creativity of the artistic and intellectual community.
Permission for intellectuals to travel abroad was manipulated as cynically as the honours and material rewards conferred on them. And, of course, it was a game the intelligentsia quickly learnt to play, satisfying the regime's demands for their creative output in politically correct form while gaining admittance to the privileged and protected world of the elite, at least for as long as Stalin rated their survival useful.
Stalin, always uncomfortable speaking in his heavy Georgian accent in front of large crowds, would copy down traditional Russian expressions from books and read them out verbatim. But as the purges progressed, he stopped speaking before big crowds of workers and steadily reduced his audiences to small groups of intellectuals. His oratorical mastery of the party faithful, however, is well documented and even demonstrated on newsfilm, but the implication here is that he was uneasy appearing before the masses at a time when the "meat grinder" of the NKVD, the secret police, was at full steam.
The books being written on the Soviet past inevitably focus on the role and personality of Stalin as its prime mover, and therefore also on the hallmark of the regime, namely, its congenital resort to the use of terror against Soviet society. Kun, in his narrative and in the extended interviews that he cites verbatim, illustrates the deep and lasting effect of the purges on all levels of society, but some of his most graphic material relates to the mass purge of the military leadership and the decimation of the officer corps of the Red Army.
He tells the story of the efforts made at the height of the purges by five brave generals, among them Pavel Alliluyev, Stalin's former brother-in-law, to warn Stalin of the damage being inflicted on the army's military capacity and on discipline. Some were murdered at once, the rest were tortured and executed later, when their failures during the German invasion would provide a more publicly acceptable charge.
It is well known that many thousands were liquidated by a bullet in the head, and millions were worked and starved to death, but we now learn that the overworked NKVD, desperate to meet its targets, tried the "cheaper" method of beheading with axes and, in the north, hosing down victims who were made to stand naked in temperatures of - 30xC until they turned into blocks of ice.
Some Magyarisation in the transliteration of Russian names (Saumian for Shaumyan, Gnegin for Gnedin) and inconsistency between notes and bibliography mar an otherwise impressively fluent English text - a small price to pay for such a wealth of original material and a worthy addition to the literature on the subject.
Harold Shukman is emeritus fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and editor of Redefining Stalinism .