Stalin: the man and the era

Two new books dig deeper to offer new insights on both Stalin and the vast empire he controlled.

Joseph Stalin's experience in Siberia was utterly unlike those of the many prisoners he banished to work camps there. Stalin, exiled to the north from 1913 to 1917, hunted and learned survival skills from the indigenous people, living a boring but relatively comfortable life. Millions of Russian urban dwellers, by contrast, were confined from the 1930s to the 1950s in frigid Siberian barracks and died there to fulfill Stalin's economic goals, surviving emotionally only through the letters they received from their families.

Readers can discover these two sides of the 20th-century Russian experience in Young Stalin and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia,two new books from British historians, both of which follow up on highly regarded previous work. In both cases, the authors did extensive work in archives, thus producing historical records that have no analogous Russian retelling: the history of Stalin's youth and a chronicle of the private life of "average" Russians under Stalin's regime.

Simon Sebag Montefiore produced a highly praised history of Stalin's years of power in "Court of the Red Tsar"; Young Stalin traces the dictator's childhood, youth, and early adulthood up until the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in late 1917.

Some prior knowledge of Russian history might help readers follow the story's flashbacks and flash-forwards, but even those who aren't Stalin specialists should persevere – the dramatic narrative reads like an adventure novel. Major characters include his mother, who stubbornly enabled Stalin to gain the seminary education that ultimately converted him from a shoemaker into a revolutionary, and his first wife, who fell victim to his devotion to the revolutionary cause. The book opens with a suspenseful description of a bloody 1907 robbery, when Stalin organized an attack on a czarist government carriage carrying hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Montefiore paints a vivid picture of Stalin, showing the paranoia and desperation that marked his (and the Bolsheviks') czarist-era experience and the dark conspiratorial patterns established then that shaped the workings of government throughout the Soviet period and since.

Footnotes tell how Montefiore unearthed many "firsts" about Stalin – tracking down relatives and former Stalin intimates, finding juicy details in neglected memoirs and files from czarist or Soviet police archives, and even appearing on TV in Stalin's native Georgia to appeal for tips.

Figes (author of "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia" and "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution") not only worked in archives, he created his own. "The Whisperers" is based largely on oral testimony and private papers from survivors of Stalinist repressions. In a country where little such research has been done – and where survivors of Stalinism are fewer each year – this is a profound service.

Figes shows how Stalin's policies shaped the lives of millions of Soviet citizens from 1917 through 1991. The story is all the more poignant due to the early (and honestly idealistic) zeal of supporters of communism; their belief in the Party made them vulnerable to Stalin's abuse and less willing to stand against him, sure that their own arrest was the only mistake in an otherwise just cause.

Figes thus tells two stories: that of the lives of his interview subjects, at best distorted and at worst destroyed, and that of the Russian dream of a socialist society, manipulated and betrayed by Stalin's pragmatics of power.

Figes provides broad context for each period, from the economic calculations that created the Gulag to the retreat from communist internationalism during Hitler's rise. Woven throughout with notable compassion and detachment are the comments of hundreds of inteviewees. (There are 450 names listed in an appendix.)

Certain individuals' fates thread throughout the book, illustrating chillingly how good fortune could turn to bad as political winds changed. Arrests and fear in one generation often created model Soviet citizens in the next, as parents taught children to avoid persecution.

One main character is the writer Konstantin Simonov, whom Figes follows from his aristocratic childhood through transformation into a war journalist and well-known poet, and then to remorse in the years after Stalin's death as Simonov learned the truth behind mass arrests.

Figes also introduces Antonina Golovina, from her childhood in a prosperous peasant family through the family's exile as "kulaks" on to years of silence about her past. (Until the early 1990s she hid her parents' arrest and her own exile from two husbands and her children.)

Although 600 pages of such stories could be overwhelming, Figes redeems the gloom by demonstrating compassion for flawed human beings and revealing compelling examples of moral courage and kindness – such as teachers and principals taking in the orphaned children of "enemies of the people."

The two books work well in conjunction. A reader of Montefiore's book will feel like an eerily privileged insider with a special understanding of Stalin's whims while reading Figes's. In return, Figes illuminates the widespread "utopian fanaticism of ... quasi-religious ideology" that Montefiore names as a crucial factor allowing Stalin's rise. As examples of fine writing and of dedication to greater historical clarity, both books deserve acclaim.

Megan Dixon taught Russian literature and culture at Principia College and is currently getting a PhD in cultural geography with a regional focus in Russia.

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