Khlevniuk (Master of the House: Stalin and His Inner Circle, 2008, etc.) delves into the existing body of work surrounding Stalin’s life and career to separate fact from fiction, and he crafts a complete picture of a complex man.
The author opens on the final hours of Joseph Stalin’s life. From there, he bounces between a chronological retelling of the dictator’s rise to power and a detailed examination of the man on his deathbed. It’s an interesting choice that lends an element of retrospection from the very beginning, as readers attempt to find linkages between the mythic Stalin in his later years and the young Georgian student Ioseb Jughashvili. Khlevniuk carefully dismantles the many theories and fictions that surround the life of Stalin, a helpful touch given the long-standing lack of official documentation from the Soviet era. In place of speculation, the author offers readers a portrait of Stalin’s rise to and stranglehold on power, grounded in the leader’s paranoia, opportunism, and willingness to rewrite even his own recent history. Khlevniuk offers deep analysis of the political situation in Russia at various key moments in Stalin’s career, which is useful but at times detailed to the point of distraction. Although the author does not give Stalin the benefit of the doubt when it comes to culpability for the many atrocities that took place during his reign, he doesn’t make Stalin an otherworldly monster. Instead, Khlevniuk’s narrative requires readers to hold in mind the many seemingly contradictory facts of his subject’s life at once. A former seminary student, an ambitious revolutionary, a loving father, and a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions: Stalin is all of these, and Khlevniuk makes room for them all.
An ambitious yet manageable biography of Stalin, this book sheds new light on its subject for amateur historians and experts alike.