Slender character study of “one of the outstanding monsters civilization has yet produced.”
Noted historian and biographer Johnson (Mozart: A Life, 2013, etc.) should not be expected to write anything but a condemnation of the Soviet dictator, and so he has—not that Stalin has many defenders these days and certainly not among the intelligentsia. However, the author finds a few kind things to say: Stalin was an accomplished letter writer and voracious reader whose personal library encompassed 20,000 volumes, and he could be charming when he wished. Even so, Stalin was, of course, not a good man: His wife killed herself, a son drank himself to death, a daughter defected to the West, and countless millions of Soviet citizens and their neighbors died. Stalin would doubtless call those people “problems,” for which, Johnson writes, he had a formula: “These were problem men, and death solves the problem. No men, no problem.” Like all tyrants, Stalin was afraid of his own shadow: Even as fully half a million Soviets were devoted to serving as his guard, toward the end of his life, despising the “Jewish doctors” who surrounded him, he ate little but hard-boiled eggs with the thought that they were one of the few foods that could not be poisoned. He also succeeded in creating “a society in which everyone was afraid,” from the lowliest street-sweeper to his closest lieutenant. A monster indeed and one with whom history has yet to fully reckon, a task that this too-brief book can only begin to address. Johnson writes that his impetus for writing this short study of Stalin is that “among the young, he is insufficiently known.”
Whether the book can remedy that situation is unknown, as well, but as informed opinion, it’s very satisfying.