The most authoritative and engrossing biography of the notorious dictator ever written Josef Stalin exercised supreme power in the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. During that quarter-century, by Oleg Khlevniuk’s estimate, he caused the imprisonment and execution of no fewer than a million Soviet citizens per year. Millions more were victims of famine directly resulting from Stalin's policies. What drove him toward such ruthlessness? This essential biography, by the author most deeply familiar with the vast archives of the Soviet era, offers an unprecedented, fine-grained portrait of Stalin the man and dictator. Without mythologizing Stalin as either benevolent or an evil genius, Khlevniuk resolves numerous controversies about specific events in the dictator’s life while assembling many hundreds of previously unknown letters, memos, reports, and diaries into a comprehensive, compelling narrative of a life that altered the course of world history. In brief, revealing prologues to each chapter, Khlevniuk takes his reader into Stalin’s favorite dacha, where the innermost circle of Soviet leadership gathered as their vozhd lay dying. Chronological chapters then illuminate major themes: Stalin’s childhood, his involvement in the Revolution and the early Bolshevik government under Lenin, his assumption of undivided power and mandate for industrialization and collectivization, the Terror, World War II, and the postwar period. At the book’s conclusion, the author presents a cogent warning against nostalgia for the Stalinist era.
Oleg V. Khlevniuk is a leading research fellow at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences and senior research fellow at the State Archive of the Russian Federation. His previous Yale books include The History of the Gulag, Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, and several collections of Stalin's correspondence.
Table of Contents
The Seats of Stalin's Power 1
1 Before the Revolution 11
The Bulwarks of Stalin's Power 33
2 In Lenin's Shadow 42
A World of Reading and Contemplation 92
3 His Revolution 100
Trepidation in the Inner Circle 142
4 Terror and Impending War 150
Patient Number 1 189
5 Stalin at War 198
6 The Generalissimo 261
The Dictatorship Collapses 310
The Funeral: The Vozhd, The System, and the People 317
Why do we need another biography of Stalin?
Rarely have so many new sources of information become available within a short period as with the opening of the Stalin-era Soviet archives. I saw it as my task to weave the most salient new information into a narrative that rests entirely on what we know for certain about Stalin and his time.
Was Stalin necessary?
Decades ago the British historian Alec Nove asked, "Was Stalin really necessary?" Everyone knows what a brutal murderer Stalin was, but many believe that "the trains ran on time." The evidence, however, points to catastrophic mismanagement. Nothing in Stalin's background qualified him to take dictatorial control of a vast country, reorganize its agriculture, or serve as its chief military strategist. To the end, he remained willfully blind to the fact that he had built an unworkable system.
You have been among the first to explore Stalin's personal archive. What discovery from this collection most surprised you?
It is interesting that Stalin kept the coerced confessions of the Old Bolsheviks whom he condemned to death. He, of course, knew they were innocent, but for some reason he needed these confessions. Maybe he felt they would justify his actions to posterity?
Beside the lost lives, what, for you, is the greatest tragedy of the Stalinist legacy?
I am frightened that so many of our fellow Russians proclaim the Stalinist period to represent the pinnacle of the country's achievement and that we should use Stalinist methods to return Russia to glory. They refuse to see the horrible price paid. Stalin's admirers regard human life as expendable—the needs of the state come first—and are eager to hunt down twenty-first century "enemies." This totalitarian mindset is Stalin's most terrifying legacy.
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