Blending impeccable scholarship and deeply revealing anecdotes, noted Soviet scholar Conquest (Stalin and the Kirov Murder, 1989, etc.) illuminates Stalin's role in history as well as his private character. ""Overall he gives the impression of a large and crude claylike figure, a golem, into which a demonic spark has been instilled,"" writes Conquest of ""a man who perhaps more than any other determined the course of the twentieth century."" Conquest sifts through post-glasnost material to pursue the truth about the author of the Big Lie, who ""ruled not only by terror but also by falsification"" (the emblem of which was, Conquest notes, torture to extract false confessions). In revisiting the stages of Stalin's upbringing, rise to power, and despotism, Conquest excels at finding the telling detail to reveal the man: Stalin's claim to party leaders that Lenin had asked Stalin to procure poison for him; Stalin's telephone call to Pasternak inviting him to plea for the poet Mandelstam's life; his praise of Hitler for murdering much of the Sturmabteilung--the Nazi storm troopers--one night. At the height of the 1932 famine in which millions were dying (and which the Soviet government made a state secret and simply denied worldwide), Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda, told him of the famine, which resulted in a fight and may have led a few days later to a public scene of brutality--after which Nadezhda shot herself. In the larger historical events (collectivization, the purges, the Great Patriotic War, the show trials), Conquest shows a masterful grasp, quickly and lucidly drawing fresh assessments without getting mired in the nonessential. Said to be the first post-glasnost Stalin bio by a Westerner, this is a must for anyone interested in the dictator, and helps to illumine the recent, denser study by Soviet military man Dmitri Volkogonov (Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, p. 921).