Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stalin: The Man and the Era

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stalin: The Man and the Era

Article excerpt

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. …

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