Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Suny’s monumental work is not the first to attempt to tell the story of how a young seminarian became the horrific butcher who left this world in 1953. Such misbegotten luminaries as Leon Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher made attempts that are viewed with some degree of askance today. Robert Tucker made a worthy sojourn into Stalinist biography given the lack of material available at the time he was writing. More recently, since the opening of the relevant archives, Robert Service and Steven Kotkin, to name but two authorities, have published much more comprehensive information.
In prose that charms while it informs, Professor Suny has chosen to trace the life of Ioseb Jugashvili (known as Soso or Koba at various periods. Later, the subject of Suny’s book became known worldwide as Stalin). Suny chooses to confine his historical biography to the period from Stalin’s birth in 1879 to the time of the 1917 revolution. (Given that the book is almost 900 pages long, one might be permitted a silent ‘Thank God!’).
Incidents in Stalin’s childhood help to fill in a picture of the man as a boy. We learn that ‘strategic lying’ (37) was considered acceptable, that the boy was something of a prig and not above correcting his teachers (41). We learn of his remarkably beautiful singing voice that used to charm the villagers listening outside the walls of the seminary where the young Stalin was a pupil (45 – 46). We are told an anecdote of the youth Stalin, lying in the grass of an open paddock, claiming that God was never unjust, just non-existent (44). The boy’s lack of faith was replaced by an identification with the Georgian national intelligentsia and their ideas for liberal reform, triggered largely by a reaction to Russian oppression (60). According to Suny’s account, Stalin had made a complete reinvention of himself by 1899. “Unable to reconcile who he was with what he hoped to be, or what the world was, with what it ought to be…Soso sought a way out, a way to realize himself by reinventing who he was to be (70 – 71).
Suny reports that Stalin was able to tell a comprehensible story and worked on that characteristic, discovering that a simple idea repeated, even if a logical absurdity, has a greater impact than a more sophisticated conception (689). Though he found compromise difficult, it appears he grew in confidence since he gained a coherent sense of his life’s purpose (332). Being by no means a deep thinker – an efficient deputy rather than leader – he gained satisfaction from administering rather than through philosophical discourse. Suny instances his cutting of the Gordian knot of Marxist dialectic during the heated arguments of 1906 (305), and the use of selective violence by his Marxist collaborators in 1905 (275).
Stalin begins to come to prominence with his arrest in 1900, but he was still, as one commentator described, a man without a biography, a man active in ideas but whom nobody who counted, really knew him or of him until manhood (95). It is known that he supported the view that workers, who sought knowledge and self-improvement, were indispensable to changing the social order (102). Suny argues that by the turn of the twentieth century, “resentment and hostility to those in power increasingly fuelled his passion for the revolution” (115). We are told that, by the early 1900s Stalin was committed not just to the liberation of Georgia but also to the liberation of all peoples of the empire (134). In 1901, hundreds of spies were operating in Tiflis, Stalin was known to the Tsarist police (141), and politics was accepted as a form of warfare (143).
Trotsky, cited in Suny, gives an intimate image of Stalin at this stage of his career:
Although insensitive to the feelings of others, Koba is extremely easily hurt, exceedingly sensitive about his own feelings, and…moody to the point of capriciousness. His reactions are primitive. Whenever he feels himself ignored or neglected, he is inclined to turn his back upon developments as well as upon people, creep into a corner, and moodily pull on his pipe and dream of revenge (116).
Surely an image of Stalin that described the man throughout the remainder of his life! Yet there is a paradox. The Trump-like ego of a figure, who could plot the deaths of many thousands of followers who might have become opposed to him in the 1930s, was surely nowhere to be seen in the brilliant youth of the seminary. Such a young man would more likely have argued a man to death but not butchered him. Suny brings out personal characteristics of his human subjects and places them within the flowing intellectual mindscapes of the times. He explains what happened to Stalin and pin-points the time when the change occurred.
Steve Donoghue (www.stevedonoghue.com), a critic who writes for many high-profile magazines, has a description of Stalin that I cannot ignore. It is brilliant and accords with my own thinking:
The Stalin who emerges from these pages is a black hole behind a sardonic smile, a tireless schemer and plotter working industriously around the peripheries of bigger and better thinkers, a functionary with barely-concealed dreams of empire.
This is the image of Stalin at any period between 1905 and 1917. Suny is careful to show, through the actions of the now-averred terrorist, the truth of Donoghue’s judgment. Suny’s book is a monster (in a different sense from his protagonist). It covers virtually every aspect of Eastern European political movements with Stalin’s activities placed in context. Yet it is vague in its treatment of events of 1917. Perhaps an explanation, if not an excuse, is to be found in simple human weariness.
By Ronald Grigor Suny
$US39.95; 896 pp
Hardback | Nov 2020 | Princeton University Press | 9780691182032 | 896pp | 235x155mm | GEN | AUD$59.99, NZD$69.99