Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union, by Alex de Jonge. New York: William Morrow. 542 pp. $19.95 More than three decades after his death, Joseph Stalin's mythic shadow still falls across the Soviet landscape. Among not a few Soviet citizens, for example, there is a nostalgic yearning for the ``good old days'' when the global community stood in awe -- and trepidation -- at the enormous power wielded by the Soviet dictator. Current Soviet officials, as underscored by Mikhail Gorbachev's muted calls for reform at the recent 27th party congress, grapple with the need to modernize the nation's cumbersome political and economic system, an apparatus given its final shape more by Stalin than by any other of his fellow revolutionaries, including Lenin and Trotksy.
Alex de Jonge's engrossing biography vividly plumbs the character of Stalin, a man of enormous personal contradictions. Stalin could be pitiless, ruthless. He could also demonstrate genuine interest in the arts, seeing one play 17 times, for example, and allowing composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokoviev, and Aram Ilich Khatchaturian to escape the deadly purges of the 1930s that consumed so much of the nation's leadership. He could make incredible mistakes, from the serious to the trivial -- destroying many of his top generals just before World War II, for instance, and initiating the great ``rabbit campaign,'' during which millions of bunnies were turned loose throughout Russia as a substitute for dwindling meat supplies.
Most of all, he is remembered as a man who possessed unique organizational talents, creating political machinery that survives to this day. De Jonge's account, coming in a period when books exploring the impact of organizational structure on the individual are pouring out of publishing houses and universities, is a vivid reminder of just the opposite: the impact of the individual on organization -- and history.
De Jonge, unfortunately, has built his analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy on a dubious comparison of the Soviet system with a modern corporation. Stalin, the ultimate collectivist, would no doubt find such a linkage amusing. But not all corporations are pyramidal in structure, as was Stalin's Russia. Moreover, many corporate chieftains have to account to shareholders. What shareholder would have dared challenge Stalin?
Still, De Jonge's book is a good read and raises genuine questions -- the type, in fact, now raised by Mr. Gorbachev. How can Soviet leaders modernize a society that is based, in part, on its innate inability to modernize in the most fundamental way -- that is, provide a greater sense of participatory democracy for its millions of citizens? Could the system survive if party privilege and elitism were curbed and greater production incentives allowed? The People's Republic of China is now willing to modernize its political-economic system. The more conservative Soviets have yet to make the full-scale leap toward reform that will be necessary to rejuvenate their stodgy economy.
De Jonge's account draws important lessons for nations attempting to coexist with the USSR. In terms of the economic betterment and the day-to-day lives of its people, the Soviet Union has advanced far beyond the Stalin era. But Soviet dissenters would argue that the Gulags remain and that individualism is no more honored today than in the Stalinist past, despite the absence of mass firing squads.
What does seem clear is that the popularity of the Soviet system runs far deeper into the hearts and souls of the Soviet and Russian past than many Westerners might prefer to recognize. The system, as was true of Stalin himself, continues to outlast its detractors. In short, then, nations dealing with the Soviet Union must never underestimate its leadership -- or its potential.
Guy Halverson is a Monitor editorial writer.