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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Book Reviews


by Edvard Radzinsky (translated from the Russian by H.T. Willetts)

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996, pp. 576 and index.

This important book, which has recently been translated from the Russian by Mr. H.T. Willets, is essential reading for those who are interested in the history of the twentieth century. Indeed, as a knowledge of such matters is desirable, it should be read generally.

Edvard Radzinsky, who is also the author of The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, has had access to newly available official records in Russia. Although Stalin organised periodic cullings of significant documents, much remains which indicates the workings of perhaps the most sophisticated and elaborately organised police state the world has ever known. Radzinsky writes well, but of course in a Russian style which is often direct and almost colloquial. His style should not mislead readers into believing that there is any element of superficiality. On the contrary, the book is carefully researched; the author commenced writing in 1969 and was able to make use of the gradual opening of archives during the period of the breakdown of the Soviet Union.

Stalin was born as Joseph Dzugashvili in Gori, in the Ukraine, in 1878 (although with what was perhaps an instinct for dissimulation on his part he conveyed that he was born in 1879). He was a clever pupil at school, and entered the Tiflis Seminary to become a monk. Anomalously, the Seminary became affected by revolutionary activists, and Stalin became rapidly a revolutionary himself. By revolutionary one refers here not to anything resembling moderate reaction. On the contrary extreme violence was regarded as not so much a regrettable necessity, but as something to be gloried in, in accordance with early Russian anarchist and marxist writers such as Bakunin and Nechaev.

Stalin participated in progressively more extreme revolutionary activities. In particular, he became a notorious assassin, using bombs and other methods of destruction. He appeared to enjoy killing people. Those he killed were not always supporters of the Tsarist regime (which by comparison with communism was mild and amateurish), but were commonly fellow revolutionaries with whom, for one reason or another, he had fallen out. He became a disciple of Lenin, another person for whom extreme violence was an essential continuing requirement of the new order. So when divisions arose amongst revolutionaries those who could be isolated and who were unable to obtain or keep control were not simply voted out: rather they were killed.

Stalin was, from 1902, arrested and jailed on a number of occasions, but despite his activities he was not punished severely and was able to attach himself to Lenin as a loyal and trusted lieutenant. His anti-semitism was deep-rooted and freely expressed, but although many of the Mensheviks and other groups were Jewish and amongst the more ruthless revolutionaries there were many Jews his anti-semitism did not constitute an obstacle. His often-expressed judgment was that Jews did not work, they only traded. His campaign in 1949 against homeless cosmopolitans was targeted primarily against Jews. But his organised disinformation worked here also. After Golda Meir arrived in Russia she exclaimed on one occasion, Such an ocean of love overwhelmed me that I could hardly breathe. I came close to fainting.Of course, this naivete was not confined to Golda Meir. Many leading Western writers, intellectuals and men of influence were carefully cultivated during the entirety of Stalins rule. A typical example was George Bernard Shaw, who described Stalin, the murderer of perhaps sixty million Russians, as an openhearted, just and honourable man . . . who owes his outstanding elevation to those very qualities, and not to anything dark and sinister. Shaw declared the Soviet Union to be the country of the future. When asked why he did not remain in that country Shaw replied laughingly, England is Hell, its true, but its my duty to remain in Hell.

The Soviet success in propaganda recalls the success of the communist North Vietnamese (who persuaded eager and credulous Western liberals that those moving the South Vietnamese war were dissatisfied South Vietnamese, whereas in fact the war was won by hundreds of thousands of communist North Vietnamese troops invading with tanks and artillery). It is not surprising that Stalin frequently expressed contempt for Western liberals.

The Soviet regime depended on the recurrent shedding of blood. Stalin is shown to have had a continuous policy of eliminating senior members of the Communist Party. In one year he would purge leftists, with the approval of rightists, and then the turn of the rightists to be eliminated would come. This procedure followed down to the lowest rankings of society. Indeed, the slightest suspicion of complaints or discontent was often followed by a visit at three oclock in the morning, when the victim was removed, to be killed or sent to the Gulag; and the members of his family and neighbours did not call out or complain, but pretended not to be cognisant of what had happened.

The thoroughness of Stalins propaganda and indoctrination was horrifying. With few exceptions, senior officials as well as low level victims confessed freely to crimes that they had not committed. They were entirely indoctrinated into believing that what the Party did was necessarily right, even if they did not understand why they were being punished. Daniel Auerbachs wife was a typical example: The old woman was hugging a shabby handbag holding the family photographs she had treasured throughout all her ordeals. She told Trepper that my husband, my sons, my brother, and my husbands brother were all arrested and killed. But do you know in spite of everything I believe in communism. So too Molotov Stalins loyal supporter over many decades - finally, not long before Stalins death, received intimations that his time for execution was approaching. But despite this knowledge, and living in daily fear that his end would come, he praised Stalin to the last, and continued to do so even after Stalins death.

Stalins death on 5th March 1953 was in fact mysterious. Did he die of a stroke, or was he murdered? His fatal collapse occurred on the first night for many years on which he had dispensed with his guards. Khrustalev, who had had the opportunity to poison Stalin, himself fell ill and died soon after Stalins death. When Stalin was first discovered, unable to move or speak, he was denied medical help for thirteen hours. Molotov subsequently said that Beria had boasted to him, I took him out.

Two particularly interesting matters should be mentioned.

First, Radzinsky makes a compelling case that when Hitler made his ill-fated attack on Russia in 1941 he did so in the belief that if he did not strike first he would shortly be attacked by Stalin. Stalin had begun a rapid build up of the Red Army. By 1941 more than a million parachutists had been trained, for example, and on 5th May 1941 he said openly, There will be war, and the enemy will be Germany.

Secondly, Radzinsky is of the view that at the time of his death Stalin was contemplating commencing Òthe third war (the first being the revolutionary war from 1917 on and the second being the Second World War). Stalin believed in the invincibility of Russia and communism. In his view the third war would be as successful as the first two. Radzinsky indicates that after dealing with the Jews for Hitler was proposing to move against the Russian Jewish population in 1953 he would intensify Soviet Cold War operations, advancing the frontiers of communism implacably until a full-scale war with the West including the United States took place. This war, Stalin believed, would be won by Soviet Communism just as the first two wars had been won. In support of his view Stalin could depend on the largest army in the world, now fortified by atomic and hydrogen nuclear weapons.

Whatever would have happened if Stalin had survived, it is clear that he would have continued to do all that he could to extend communism and increase the territory subject to Soviet rule. Radzinskys analysis is particularly compelling in delineating the personality of this intelligent but remorseless man and the mechanisms by which modern communist societies control completely their people, so that freedom of thought is as much a casualty as other freedoms and the fear of death is always present.

R.M. Pearce

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000