Stalin: A Biography

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Overview

"Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years." "Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life - his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for Lenin, Stalin was a prominent activist long before the Russian Revolution. Equally compelling is the depiction of Stalin as Soviet leader. Service recasts the image of Stalin as unimpeded despot; his control was not limitless. And his conviction that enemies surrounded him was not entirely unfounded." Stalin was not just a vengeful dictator but also a man fascinated by ideas and a voracious reader of Marxist doctrine and Russian and Georgian literature as well as an internationalist committed to seeing Russia assume a powerful role on the world stage. In examining the multidimensional legacy of Stalin, Service helps explain why later would-be reformers - such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev - found the Stalinist legacy surprisingly hard to dislodge.
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Editorial Reviews

New Leader

Stalin made little distinction between his personal and political life, and as Service demonstrates in this balanced, tightly written work, it is necessary to consider each in the context of the other. Never abandoning his wide-angle lens, Service shows how Stalin's experiences of religion, nationalism, peasant lore, and imperialism became the channels through which he funneled his radical agenda...Keenly aware that by putting a human face on the monster he is exposing himself to charges of being an apologist, Service nevertheless perseveres in setting the record straight in this comprehensive and landmark biography...By painstakingly deconstructing Stalin's personal reinventions and self-created legacy, Service takes an important step toward revealing the man behind the myth. The more the tyrant is exposed for who he was, the harder it will become to wax nostalgic for his times.
— Rebecca Reich

New York Times

Stalin, a sequel to Mr. Service's Lenin: A Biography, presents a richly documented, highly persuasive portrait of the man who transformed the Soviet Union into a modem military-industrial power, terrorized millions and ruled over an empire that would have been the envy of the czars...Brick by brick, Mr. Service constructs a solid, accessible work that does as much as one book can to explain Stalin as a human being, and as the architect of a system that still weighs heavy on millions of citizens in the former Soviet Union.
— William Grimes

Sunday Times

This is effectively the first full biography since perestroika to encompass the economic, political, diplomatic, military, administrative and, above all, ideological dimensions, as well as the personal aspects of Stalin's colossal life. Gritty and unshowy, but enlightened by Service's compelling characterisation, magisterial analysis and dry wit, this outstanding biography of lightly worn authority, wide research and superb intuition will be read for decades.
— Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Mail on Sunday

A profound and readable reassessment of the Soviet dictator...Service paints a picture of a ruthless man absorbed in the pursuit of politics, widely read, perceptive, cunning and, despite a self-effacing and isolated persona, the stuff of leadership...Stalin was no fool; he could scarcely have become dictator of a vast nation if he had been. Yet his contemporaries, and many historians since, have underestimated him. Service makes sense of Stalin's achievements by making us take him seriously...Stalin's power at its peak was immense and daunting. Service reminds us that a quarter of Russians recently polled put the Stalin years top of the list of periods in Russian history they most admired...This shrewd biography helps us understand clearly and dispassionately why not everyone remembers Stalin as a murderous ogre.
— Richard Overy

The Spectator

Service triumphs in portraying Stalin's personality in the context of his times...This book is a tour de force. Not only does Service trace Stalin's road to dictatorship, he shows us what he did with absolute power...No one has shown in more convincing detail than Service Stalin's evolution to the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. It is, above all, a balanced account. He has the courage to confess that the monster, in his shabby clothes and wornout boots, dying alone in his dacha, soaked in his own urine, remains for him an enigma, not least because of the tyrant's consistent massaging of his own image.
— Raymond Carr

Irish Times

In his new biography of the Soviet dictator, Robert Service has given the most convincing description yet of how Stalin's insecure Georgian childhood fashioned his psychology. At key points in the book, we are reminded of Stalin's duality—on the one hand he was a proud Caucasian toughie who organized bank robberies and could drink spirits all night. On the other, he was a man who aspired to understand and interpret (crassly) high art and politics...This is the first serious political biography of Stalin since the opening of the archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1990s and Service has made good use of them.
— Misha Glenny

Financial Times

In Service's eyes, Stalin remains ruthless, cunning and murderous. But a richer and more complex individual emerges—and a more human one. Stalin is shown as lover, husband and father. A man who wrote poetry and loved singing. A serious communist political thinker and the best-read Russian leader since Catherine the Great...[Service] has written a masterly book, with great erudition, style and wit. Although there are still some Soviet-era archives that remain closed, this biography will surely stand the test of time.
— Stefan Wagstyl

Daily Telegraph

In the course of this engrossing and well-researched book, Stalin emerges as a fascinating, complex figure.
— Andrew Roberts

Northern Echo

A common perception of Stalin is that of an oafish backroom bureaucrat who bludgeoned his way to the heights of power. But this image does not do justice to the multi-faceted and fascinating person who emerges in this latest biography. Drawing on fresh archive material, historian Robert Service lays the man bare and places him within the context of his times. He paints a picture of a talented politician who was driven by a severe personality disorder to behave in the way he did...Humanising him, Service believes, will help to identify future tyrants. Here he has struck the right balance and produced an intellectually cogent and highly readable account.
— Gavin Engelbrecht

Washington Post

Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources—a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk...Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie...Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party.
— Leon Aron

Salon

Service's fascinating new Stalin biography, the first comprehensive English-language treatment of his life since the opening of the Soviet archives in the mid-1990s, is full of historical what-ifs...Stalin: A Biography...is a major landmark in the recent scholarly reassessment of the notorious dictator who consolidated Soviet power, launched vicious purges against his own people (and indeed his own political party), defeated the Nazis in World War II, and launched the Cold War...Service's trumps all other volumes now available on Stalin's life. It synthesizes all the major narrative accounts and incorporates a good deal of revealing new information.
— Andrew O'Hehir

Newsweek

Stalin: A Biography...offers the most detailed account of his life, career and beliefs.
— Andrew Nagorski

New York Times Book Review

[An] excellent new biography...Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty—above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free.
— Niall Ferguson

Houston Chronicle

A stimulating study of a monster whose thoughts and motives remain obscure. It also serves as a reminder that unbridled power is usually a recipe for disaster.
— Lynwood Abram

Journal of Cold War Studies

Service’s impressive biography successfully challenges the conventional image of Stalin...Service has a remarkable talent for covering a lot of ground with clarity, brevity, and nuance. His portrait of Stalin is highly contextualized, and he balances his analysis of Stalin with a broader discussion of the historical events that the dictator both influenced and experienced.

— Golfo Alexopoulos

New Zealand Slavonic Journal

[Service’s] biography of Stalin is the first in English touching on every aspect of the dictator’s life, using resources made available since the perestroyka era and the subsequent break-up of the USSR...This book, over its 715-plus pages, reveals a definite, even definitive, mastery of its topic...The insights seem fresh and original, helped by the author’s trenchant style, his robust, short sentences...[M]ore than any other biographer, Service shows the human—indeed inhuman—figure at the centre of all this activity and his daily routine in his rise to the power of life and death over everyone in the USSR. Underpinning this is the author’s broad thesis that the personal and political in Stalin were so intermingled, as to be indistinguishable—more so than with any other tyrant...[A]ny criticism of a scholar who has scaled the mountain that is Stalin’s life, with such dedication and mastery, cannot be very substantial. The author’s very achievement casts a huge shadow—benign in his case—over any critic.

— Tony Wilson

William Grimes
Stalin, a sequel to Mr. Service's Lenin: A Biography, presents a richly documented, highly persuasive portrait of the man who transformed the Soviet Union into a modern military-industrial power, terrorized millions and ruled over an empire that would have been the envy of the czars. Mr. Service writes in a colorless, often plodding prose. He is often repetitive. His book lacks the verve, and the penetrating psychology, of William Taubman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (W. W. Norton). But brick by brick, Mr. Service constructs a solid, accessible work that does as much as one book can to explain Stalin as a human being, and as the architect of a system that still weighs heavy on millions of citizens in the former Soviet Union.
— The New York Times
Leon Aron
Given the subject, then, one hesitates to call Robert Service's biography a labor of love, but the expression seem to fit the years (perhaps decades) this massive book must have taken to produce, filled with the relentless and arduous search for facts. A fellow of the British Academy and St. Antony's College at Oxford and the author of an earlier biography of Lenin, Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources -- a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Here is a life-and-times biography in the grand style: deeply researched, well written, brimming with interpretations. Oxford historian Service, author of an acclaimed biography of Lenin, provides the most complete portrait available of the Soviet ruler, from his early, troubled years in a small town in Georgia to the pinnacle of power in the Kremlin. Most previous biographers have depicted Stalin as a plodding figure whose only distinguishing characteristic was brutality. But Service describes a man who was intelligent and hardworking, who learned from experience and who played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement. On so many of the complex issues of Soviet history-including Stalin's rise to power within the Communist Party, the policy shift to forced collectivization, the Great Terror and the prosecution of the war against Nazi Germany-Service provides lucid accounts based on his own research and the most recent scholarship. Stalin was the key figure behind every major development from the mid-1920s onward. He based his policy decisions on his understanding of Marxism-Leninism and on a hardheaded, realistic assessment of his own often uneasy position and of the Soviet Union's relatively weak standing in the world. By providing such a rich and complex portrait of the dictator and the Soviet system, Service humanizes Stalin without ever diminishing the extent of the atrocities he unleashed upon the Soviet population. 47 b&w photos, 4 maps. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stalin was a mass murderer responsible for changing the political and social spectrum of Russia's old tsarist empire through unimaginably vicious means. But, according to Service (history, St. Antony's Coll., Oxford; A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin), if we only know him in these terms we miss the full persona: "Stalin was a bureaucrat and a killer; he was also a leader, a writer and editor, a theorist (of sorts), a bit of a poet (when young) a follower of the arts, a family man and even a charmer." Service's volume is similar to Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar in wanting to view Stalin out of the glare of myopic 20th-century writers. But Service's biography is full-scale, eking out the details of Stalin's childhood and education (including his nearly complete seminary instruction), while Montefiore keeps Stalin within the context of 1929-53. Service has used material newly released from Soviet archives to understand Stalin during the Bolshevik revolution, showing how he learned butchery from Lenin and struggled to survive as Lenin's successor. Service's biography is even more readable and accessible than Montefiore's. Highly recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with a Soviet history collection.-Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Australian Slavonic and East European Studies
A striking example of what solidly researched historiography with an appeal for a wider readership might look like. Erudite yet never abstruse, comprehensive and gripping at the same time, Stalin: A Biography should become required reading for students, specialists, and anyone else interested in modern history.
Harold Shukman
For an understanding of Stalin the man, the leader, the Georgian, the Russian nationalist, the revolutionary, the party politician, the mass murderer and the international statesman, and his place in modern Russian history--Robert Service's book is unsurpassed.
The Mail on Sunday - Richard Overy
A profound and readable reassessment of the Soviet dictator... Service paints a picture of a ruthless man absorbed in the pursuit of politics, widely read, perceptive, cunning and, despite a self-effacing and isolated persona, the stuff of leadership... Stalin was no fool; he could scarcely have become dictator of a vast nation if he had been. Yet his contemporaries, and many historians since, have underestimated him. Service makes sense of Stalin's achievements by making us take him seriously... Stalin's power at its peak was immense and daunting. Service reminds us that a quarter of Russians recently polled put the Stalin years top of the list of periods in Russian history they most admired... This shrewd biography helps us understand clearly and dispassionately why not everyone remembers Stalin as a murderous ogre.
The Sunday Times - Simon Sebag Montefiore
Service revises every dimension of this multidimensional titan. His book emphasizes the importance of Marxist ideology, economics and Bolshevik culture. But it also rightly presents a human Stalin... Gritty and unshowy, but enlightened by Service's compelling characterization, magisterial analysis and dry wit, this outstanding biography of lightly worn authority, wide research and superb intuition will be read for decades.
The Daily Telegraph - Andrew Roberts
In the course of this engrossing and well-researched book, Stalin emerges as a fascinating, complex figure.
The Spectator - Raymond Carr
Service triumphs in portraying Stalin's personality in the context of his times...This book is a tour de force. Not only does Service trace Stalin's road to dictatorship, he shows us what he did with absolute power...No one has shown in more convincing detail than Service Stalin's evolution to the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. It is, above all, a balanced account. He has the courage to confess that the monster, in his shabby clothes and wornout boots, dying alone in his dacha, soaked in his own urine, remains for him an enigma, not least because of the tyrant's consistent massaging of his own image.
Irish Times - Misha Glenny
In his new biography of the Soviet dictator, Robert Service has given the most convincing description yet of how Stalin's insecure Georgian childhood fashioned his psychology. At key points in the book, we are reminded of Stalin's duality--on the one hand he was a proud Caucasian toughie who organized bank robberies and could drink spirits all night. On the other, he was a man who aspired to understand and interpret (crassly) high art and politics...This is the first serious political biography of Stalin since the opening of the archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1990s and Service has made good use of them.
Financial Times - Stefan Wagstyl
In Service's eyes, Stalin remains ruthless, cunning and murderous. But a richer and more complex individual emerges--and a more human one. Stalin is shown as lover, husband and father. A man who wrote poetry and loved singing. A serious communist political thinker and the best-read Russian leader since Catherine the Great...[Service] has written a masterly book, with great erudition, style and wit. Although there are still some Soviet-era archives that remain closed, this biography will surely stand the test of time.
Northern Echo - Gavin Engelbrecht
A common perception of Stalin is that of an oafish backroom bureaucrat who bludgeoned his way to the heights of power. But this image does not do justice to the multi-faceted and fascinating person who emerges in this latest biography. Drawing on fresh archive material, historian Robert Service lays the man bare and places him within the context of his times. He paints a picture of a talented politician who was driven by a severe personality disorder to behave in the way he did...Humanising him, Service believes, will help to identify future tyrants. Here he has struck the right balance and produced an intellectually cogent and highly readable account.
Washington Post - Leon Aron
Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources--a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk...Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie...Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party.
Salon - Andrew O'Hehir
Service's fascinating new Stalin biography, the first comprehensive English-language treatment of his life since the opening of the Soviet archives in the mid-1990s, is full of historical what-ifs...Stalin: A Biography...is a major landmark in the recent scholarly reassessment of the notorious dictator who consolidated Soviet power, launched vicious purges against his own people (and indeed his own political party), defeated the Nazis in World War II, and launched the Cold War...Service's trumps all other volumes now available on Stalin's life. It synthesizes all the major narrative accounts and incorporates a good deal of revealing new information.
Newsweek - Andrew Nagorski
Stalin: A Biography...offers the most detailed account of his life, career and beliefs.
New York Times Book Review - Niall Ferguson
[An] excellent new biography...Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty--above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free.
Houston Chronicle - Lynwood Abram
A stimulating study of a monster whose thoughts and motives remain obscure. It also serves as a reminder that unbridled power is usually a recipe for disaster.
New Leader - Rebecca Reich
Stalin made little distinction between his personal and political life, and as Service demonstrates in this balanced, tightly written work, it is necessary to consider each in the context of the other. Never abandoning his wide-angle lens, Service shows how Stalin's experiences of religion, nationalism, peasant lore, and imperialism became the channels through which he funneled his radical agenda...Keenly aware that by putting a human face on the monster he is exposing himself to charges of being an apologist, Service nevertheless perseveres in setting the record straight in this comprehensive and landmark biography...By painstakingly deconstructing Stalin's personal reinventions and self-created legacy, Service takes an important step toward revealing the man behind the myth. The more the tyrant is exposed for who he was, the harder it will become to wax nostalgic for his times.
New York Times - William Grimes
Stalin, a sequel to Mr. Service's Lenin: A Biography, presents a richly documented, highly persuasive portrait of the man who transformed the Soviet Union into a modern military-industrial power, terrorized millions and ruled over an empire that would have been the envy of the czars... Brick by brick, Mr. Service constructs a solid, accessible work that does as much as one book can to explain Stalin as a human being, and as the architect of a system that still weighs heavy on millions of citizens in the former Soviet Union.
Journal of Cold War Studies - Golfo Alexopoulos
Service’s impressive biography successfully challenges the conventional image of Stalin...Service has a remarkable talent for covering a lot of ground with clarity, brevity, and nuance. His portrait of Stalin is highly contextualized, and he balances his analysis of Stalin with a broader discussion of the historical events that the dictator both influenced and experienced.
New Zealand Slavonic Journal - Tony Wilson
[Service’s] biography of Stalin is the first in English touching on every aspect of the dictator’s life, using resources made available since the perestroyka era and the subsequent break-up of the USSR...This book, over its 715-plus pages, reveals a definite, even definitive, mastery of its topic...The insights seem fresh and original, helped by the author’s trenchant style, his robust, short sentences...[M]ore than any other biographer, Service shows the human—indeed inhuman—figure at the centre of all this activity and his daily routine in his rise to the power of life and death over everyone in the USSR. Underpinning this is the author’s broad thesis that the personal and political in Stalin were so intermingled, as to be indistinguishable—more so than with any other tyrant...[A]ny criticism of a scholar who has scaled the mountain that is Stalin’s life, with such dedication and mastery, cannot be very substantial. The author’s very achievement casts a huge shadow—benign in his case—over any critic.
First Things
This will likely serve for a long time as the most authoritative and comprehensive one-volume study of Stalin...Service portrays Stalin as an intellectual of sorts who read widely, although always within the wobbling worldview of Marxist-Leninism and with an eye to the usefulness of ideas in expanding and maintaining his own power...Stalin: A Biography, with its low-key, frequently wry, and exhaustively researched telling of the story, will be a standard reference for years to come.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674022584
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 736
  • Sales rank: 366,871
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Service is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Russian History at Oxford University.
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Table of Contents

Preface

A Note on Renderings

Maps

ONE: THE REVOLUTIONARY

1. Stalin As We Have Known Him

2. The Family Dzhughashvili

3. The Schooling of a Priest

4. Poet and Rebel

5. Marxist Militant

6. The Party and the Caucasus

7. On the Run

8. At the Centre of the Party

9. Koba and Bolshevism

10. Osip of Siberia

11. Return to Petrograd

TWO: LEADER FOR THE PARTY

12. The Year 1917

13. October

14. People's Commisar

15. To the Front

16. The Polish Corridor

17. With Lenin

18. Nation and Revolution

19. Testament

20. The Opportunities of Struggle

21. Joseph and Nadya

22. Factionalist Against Factions

THREE: DESPOT

23. Ending the Nep

24. Terror-Economics

25. Ascent to Supremacy

26. The Death of Nadya

27. Modernity's Sorcerer

28. Fears in Victory

29. Ruling the Nations

30. Mind of Terror

31. The Great Terrorist

32. The Cult of Impersonality

33. Brutal Reprieve

FOUR: WARLORD

34. The World in Sight

35. Approaches to War

36. The Devils Sup

37. Barbarossa

38. Fighting On

39. Sleeping on the Divan

40. To the Death!

41. Supreme Commander

42. The Big Three

43. Last Campaigns

44. Victory!

FIVE: THE IMPERATOR

45. Delivering the Blow

46. The Outbreak of the Cold War

47. Subjugating Eastern Europe

48. Stalinist Rulership

49. Policies and Purges

50. Emperor Worship

51. Dangerous Liasons

52. Vozhd and Intellectual

53. Ailing Despot

54. Death and Embalming

55. After Stalin

Glossary

Notes

Select Bibliography

Index

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