Joseph Stalin has never lacked for biographers. His personal influence, like the scale of his crimes, was immense. He was secretive, dark and exotically foreign, a Georgian in the capital of a Russian empire.
The Soviet Union's charismatic leader fascinated his contemporaries, and successive generations continue to debate the personality responsible for tens of millions of deaths, untold human suffering and, simultaneously, the USSR's consolidation as a major power.
Among the many volumes exploring his tale, Robert Service's biography is one of the very best. It benefits from the wide-ranging archival revelations of the past two decades, including some of Stalin's personal papers, as well as material relating to the secret police and the military leadership. It draws extensively on the memoirs of Stalin's intimates and their children, many of which, like the archival documents, would not have been available to scholars of a previous generation. Best of all, however, it is informed by the author's breadth of expertise, combining his well-honed skills as Lenin's biographer with his experience as a leading histo-rian of the entire Soviet period.
Service's Stalin is a far cry from the grey blur, the dull bureaucrat, of Leon Trotsky's early broadsides. Indeed, as a young man the future Soviet leader showed little appetite for routine paperwork, preferring action and even personal risk during the years of revolution and civil war. The ambitious politician nonetheless indulged his taste for conspiracy at every turn, reputedly eavesdropping on his colleagues' telephone conversations, manipulating ballot results and bullying his followers into lamb-like loyalty. Service does not imply that Stalin had an early blueprint for his future supremacy. Instead, he describes a ruthless, suspicious and intolerant loner, untiring in his pursuit of power, but also well-equipped to lead: "Decisive, competent, confident and ambitious"; a man of "will-power, clarity of vision, endurance and courage".
It was his taste for conspiracy, together with tireless hard work and his fabled ruthlessness, that swept Stalin to power at the expense of older and more eminent comrades after Lenin's death. By December 1929, when his 50th birthday was celebrated on the front pages of every Soviet newspaper, the politician from provincial Georgia had no rival in Moscow. His heyday was also a time of rapid, violent and far-reaching change, for Stalin was no less ambitious for the Soviet state than for his own place as its leader.
The collectivisation of peasant farms, and the simultaneous ousting and murder of millions of supposedly wealthy farmers, was among the greatest social revolutions ever seen. It was accompanied by a drive for industrial growth, plunging the Soviet economy into a decade of tumultuous upheaval.
Stalin's own contribution to both processes was unmistakable. Though the great revolution of the early 1930s was the work of millions of hands, and its violence was partially shaped by zealots in the provinces, documents trace Stalin's involvement and his attention to detail all along the way.
Service also follows much post-Soviet scholarship (as well as a great deal of older polemic) in ascribing almost all responsibility for the purges of the later 1930s to Stalin himself. The process was undoubtedly unleashed by Stalin, possibly in response to his observations of disunity in Spain, and it was Stalin who encouraged the murderousness of officials, from police chief Nikolai Yezhov downwards. Fear of potential enemies, or rather the determination to exterminate them before they could pose a real threat, combined in this instance with Stalin's personal taste for violence. The process was not irrational, but neither was it civilised politics. At a rough estimate, 1.5 million people were killed in just 18 months.
Almost no other biographer has passed up the temptation to diagnose the leader with a mental illness of some kind. Service is commendably circumspect, however, focusing instead on the emptiness of Stalin's private life (his wife Nadezhda's suicide in 1932 left the Soviet leader, in his own words, "crippled"), his loneliness, the distortion of his political vision and his extraordinary detestation of rivals. Many of these features mark the leader as eccentric, and certainly as dangerous, but they are not symptoms of illness. Stalin, after all, was supremely effective, with an ability to concentrate, plan and take decisions that few psychiatric patients share.
He also had the persistence to overcome mistakes. His failure to accept the probability of German invasion in 1941 (and even to credit its reality immediately after the fact) counts among the most catastrophic errors of his leadership, but despite rumours of mental collapse his recovery was swift. Willpower, as ever, drove him to work on, gathering information and laying plans. For several days he hardly slept. He would make many mistakes in the months ahead, but he never slackened his grip on government. When the war ended in Soviet victory, Stalin would claim the triumph as his own.
It was a devastating piece of arrogance, a slap in the face for both his generals and the Soviet Union's long-suffering and exhausted people. At the same time, there is no doubt that Stalin's leadership was pivotal, and no doubt, either, that his own efforts had cost him dear physically.
No leader could have survived, let alone achieved so much, without substantial popular support. Stalin had bitter enemies - the mass of Russia's peasants, many members of Soviet ethnic minority groups and large portions of the intelligentsia among them. But his policies struck genuinely popular chords as well, encouraging education and training, appearing to sponsor a glamorous, urban and futuristic world. A man whose own emotions were inscrutable aroused extreme passions, devotion as well as hatred, hope as well as bleak despair. It would have been easy to portray the murderous Bolshevik as an evil genius or even a monster, but Service sensibly avoids both. This is a portrait of Stalin the man and the politician that does not merely catalogue the crimes. It even, sometimes, and always with balance, concedes his human strengths.
Catherine Merridale is professor of contemporary history, Queen Mary, University of London.
Stalin: A Biography
Author - Robert Service
Publisher - Macmillan
Pages - 715
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 333 726 8