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The nature of the beast

4 December 2004

12:00 AM

4 December 2004

12:00 AM

Stalin Robert Service

Macmillan, pp.714, 25

Robert Service has set himself a formidable task. He has to explain how the son of a wife- beating, dirt-poor Georgian cobbler, brutalised by drink, became a Russian despot as ruthless as Ivan the Terrible. A master of his sources, which include the partially opened Soviet official archives, Service triumphs in portraying Stalin’s personality in the context of his times.

The career of Stalin would have been inconceivable had not his pious mother defied his father in order to give her son an education, including learning Russian, to prepare him for the priesthood. The young Stalin left the Orthodox church seminary at Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a militant atheist and a committed Marxist to work in the Bolshevik underground in the Caucasus. It was the murky world of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Exiled for four years to Siberia, he relieved the monotony of that frozen waste by fishing and seducing the 16-year-old daughter of his peasant host.

When Stalin returned from exile on the fall of Tsarism in February 1917, he was a relatively unknown figure among the Bolshevik leaders. They had been safe in exile, reading in libraries and plotting in cafés while Stalin had risked his life in the Russian underground. He had written to Lenin from Siberia, ‘You must be having a gayer time.’ Lenin, the Europeanised bourgeois revolutionary despised him as an ‘Asiatic’. But Lenin did not underestimate him as other returned exiles were to do to their cost. To Lenin he was the necessary hard man, the man of steel. With Lenin’s help he became a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party and its general secretary. Service insists that he was not ‘the grey blank’, the stereotypical bureaucrat of his critics. In the crisis of the civil war, during the struggle for survival of the Bolshevik regime established in October 1917, Stalin proved himself to be a dynamic leader ready to take risks and responsibilities. In the process he never hesitated to tread on others’ political turf.

Lenin watched this ruthless will to power with alarm. By January 1923, shortly before his death, he advised that Stalin should be removed as general secretary. But in the faction fights that followed Lenin’s death he emerged on top as Lenin’s heir. He fought as a ‘political street fighter’, building up his ‘gang’ as ‘the Soviet counterpart to Al Capone’.


Stalin had not triumphed as a mindless murderer like the drifters of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is central to this book’s analysis that Service rejects the ‘standard view’ that Stalin had ‘no external reason’ for feeling insecure and acting accordingly. He was a paranoiac, surrounded by real enemies as well as imagined ones. There were the defeated in the civil war, longing for the régime’s collapse as well as the remnants of the non-Bolshevik opposition parties driven from political life ‘but willing to start operating again if the opportunity happened’. His enemies in the party who had slighted him in 1914, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Kamenev, might patch up their quarrels to dethrone him. He shot them on a charge of treason in the show trials of the Great Terror of the 1930s. Since there was no evidence of treason, they were beaten up until they confessed.

To these old enemies he added those of his own making. Always sceptical of Lenin’s belief that only a European socialist revolution would allow the Soviet Union to survive, he opted for ‘socialism in one country’ to meet the threat posed by the surrounding capitalist powers.

We have fallen behind the advanced countries by 50 to 100 years. We must close the gap in ten years. Either we must do this or we will be crushed.

To close the gap (with the first Five-Year Plan) he determined to create by brute force an industrial giant and embark on an agrarian revolution that would drive millions of peasants off their land into collective farms, exile, death or starvation. To Service, this ‘economic terrorism’ created widespread hatred of his person and his rule.

Inevitably, this could not be quantified or reflected in a censored press. What is certain is that the ‘gang’ of supporters in the Central Committee never forgot the fate of the old Bolsheviks. They lived in ‘mortal fear’ of the ‘boss’ who played his cards close to his chest and at any moment might strip them of privilege and power. In his Moscow dacha at his command they danced or sang old Georgian songs, drinking themselves into self-abasement on the hard stuff, while Stalin drank vodka-coloured wine. All this was the coarseness of the former small-town bully, of the domestic tyrant described by Service. He expected his wife, Nadia, to provide his creature comforts and tolerate his public flirtations. After a dinner at which he had thrown bread balls at attractive guests, she shot herself.

Coarse in manners though he was, Stalin is respected by Service as the intellectual he always claimed to be; autodidact, he read omnivorously in Russian literature and history. Nor can he be dismissed as a mere hypocrite, cynical and opportunistic as he was in his climb to power. To the end, in his last book, he believed that the historic destiny of Marxism-Leninism was to establish a Utop-ian society peopled by new socialist man. He asked a victim whom he was about to execute in the terror of 1937, ‘Can you explain your conduct by the fact that you have lost your faith?’ He was a true believer. The saviours of humanity’s destruction by true believers are sceptics who recognise that there is a limit to the possibility of creating new men.

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. Speaking with a heavy Georgian accent, he did not hypnotise a nation by his oratory as Hitler did. His cult was the ‘cult of impersonality’, presenting himself as the all-wise leader, the distant father of his people. His unshakable confidence in his own judgment led him to make catastrophic errors, neglecting all Churchill’s warnings that Hitler was about to invade Russia in 1941. Yet Churchill respected his strengths as war leader though it was a bitter pill that victory on the Eastern front was an opportunity to enslave the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

Stalin was a monster. But to shout ‘monster’ and leave it at that is not only an excessively simplistic account of Russian history since 1917, but is to fall prey to a neo-conservative vision. The more monstrous Stalin is presented, the greater fools liberals — the real target of neo-conservatives — appear in their blindness to the horrors of communism as a new dawn in the 1930s. Monsters are not born ready-made; they evolve in response to their environment. 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 worn-out 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.


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