In the ""People in Focus"" series, the author of the excellent Theodore Roosevelt Takes Charge (p. 676) presents a clear but conventional account of the paranoic Georgian whose atrocities rivaled Hitler's. To her credit, Whitelaw notes that, although an enormous amount has been written about Stalin, it's often difficult to distinguish fact from propaganda (""Stalin ordered systematic alterations of some records and complete destruction of others""). Sticking instead to unembellished near-certainties, she depicts a man whose early experiences--including abuse by a brutal father; rebellion as a student at a rigidly ascetic Russian Orthodox seminary; repeated escapes from arrest and exile--were far from unusual in czarist Russia, where the response to bread riots was to gun down the populace. Those experiences may also help explain the vicious distrust that governed Stalin's rule of the USSR; his simplistic, savagely punitive economic policies; and the continual purges, from the time he ""sent hundreds of suspected traitors"" from his own Red Army to firing squads in 1918. Impassionately, Whitelaw lets the facts speak for themselves, incorporating enough background about world events to set them in context. A good introductory biography. B&w archival photos; glossary; selected sources; chronology; index.