Magazine article The Spectator

'Stalin', by Oleg Khlevniuk - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Stalin', by Oleg Khlevniuk - Review

Article excerpt

Stalin Oleg Khlevniuk

Yale, pp.408, £25, ISBN: 9780300163889

'Lately, the paradoxical turns of recent Russian history... have given my research more than scholarly relevance,' remarks Oleg Khlevniuk in his introduction. Indeed, in Putin's Russia Stalin's apologists and admirers seem daily to become more vocal. The language of the 1930s is used in televised tirades against 'internal enemies' and 'foreign agents'. Stalin himself is upheld not only as a strong leader, but also as an 'effective manager' who, despite his mistakes, did what was necessary to modernise the Soviet Union; or, contrarily, as a benevolent dictator who was unaware of the corrupt actions of his officials.

In short, there could hardly be a more opportune moment for the publication of this authoritative, fluently written, concise life, the pinnacle of current scholarship on its subject. Khlevniuk, who has spent many years working in the Russian archives, commented in an interview that his aim was to produce 'a narrative that rests entirely on what we know for certain about Stalin and his time'. So he swiftly dispatches several myths about the man. There is no evidence to suggest Stalin was an informer for the Tsarist police before the Revolution, and none, either, that he ordered the murder of Kirov in 1934; no record has emerged of him refusing a prisoner exchange for his son Yakov during the war, and the most likely cause of his wife's suicide in 1932 was the combination of her mental fragility and his philandering.

What remains surpasses any fabricated horror. Terror was Stalin's first choice as a means of government and his early control of the secret police was a key reason for his rise to power. Arbitrary torture and murder, applied via campaigns against various largely fictitious 'internal enemies', 'fifth columnists', 'terrorists' and so on, were used to subdue the country, Stalin's closest associates, and the security forces themselves. Under Stalin's aegis, over a million Soviet citizens each year were imprisoned, tortured, executed and exiled; many more -- at least 60 million, or a third of the population -- were affected by some type of repression.

Far from being unaware of his subordinates' actions, Stalin was a micro-manager, as determined to oversee every seed sown in his dacha garden as every piece of fabricated evidence. In small details, as in large: 'We do not know of a single decision of major consequence taken by anyone other than Stalin,' states Khlevniuk baldly. …

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