A forceful attempt to plumb the heart of evil. Lourie, a novelist (Zero Gravity, 1987, etc.), translator, and the author of a series of nonfiction books on modern Russia, brings great knowledge to bear on this imagined record by Stalin. In straightforward prose, his Stalin traces with no hint of sentimentality his childhood, his clashes with a drunken, abusive father, his early hopes (quickly dashed) to be a poet, and his embrace of Bolshevism in prerevolutionary Russia as a likely path to power. Stalin is above all things shrewd, calculating, without hesitation. His wary relationship with the cunning Lenin, his ruthless attempts to ceaselessly gain more power and displace those others closer to Lenin, his clashes with the party intellectuals, whom he scorns, are all recounted in rapid-fire manner. Because Stalin is supposed to be setting down these memoirs in the ’40s, long after he’s gained power, his recollections of his long years in the underground, the coming of the revolution, and the early days of the Communist state are repeatedly interrupted by his obsessive musings on Leon Trotsky. Lourie’s Stalin is consumed by hatred and fear of Trotsky, the true revolutionary and a figure once seen as Lenin’s heir. Distrusting Trotsky’s principles, fearful of his influence, Stalin argues, again and again, his case against the exiled Trotsky, and plots to have him killed. Lourie catches, in the laconic tones of Stalin’s self-satisfied recollections, his pure ruthlessness; his absolute contempt for life; his furious need for power; his scorn for those willing to be led; his hatred of principles, and his exuberant nihilism (“I feel nothing because nothing is all there is to feel”). Gradually, without melodrama, Lourie creates a convincing portrait of a figure for whom, eventually, only absolute power could stave off terror. His version of Stalin’s warped soul subtly demonstrates how true evil is all too human in its origins.