Biographer Describes More Sophisticated 'Stalin'

Detail from 'Stalin' cover

hide captionJosef Stalin in a detail from the cover of the book. Biographer Robert Service says his latest subject's reputation for vulgarity was largely self-made.

Harvard University Press

Stalin, a biography by Oxford University historian Robert Service, adopts a new view of the Soviet leader. Service says Josef Stalin was not the uneducated and coarse man he was often perceived to be. In fact, Service says, Stalin deliberately fashioned that image for himself.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Josef Stalin was one of the supreme monsters of history. He may have murdered more people by execution, persecution and starvation than even Adolf Hitler. And yet, of course, Stalin broke the back of Hitler's conquest of Europe.

Mr. JOSEF STALIN (Soviet Leader): (Russian spoken)

SIMON: That is Josef Stalin announcing that the German army had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Once that battle was joined, Stalin became the ogre who was essential, the functionary who became a despot, a face and a name that became feared and beloved and scorched into history. Historian Robert Service of Oxford University has written a new biography. It's called "Stalin." Mr. Service joins us from the studios of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he's a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Professor Service, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ROBERT SERVICE (Historian, Oxford University; Author, "Stalin: A Biography"): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Your biography questions the image of Stalin as undereducated or uninterested in ideas.

Prof. SERVICE: Yes, I think this is one of the major misconceptions. Josef Stalin was a very privileged young boy who was dragged out of poverty by his mother who wanted him to be a priest. And he was sent to the most prestigious seminary in the Georgian capital in the south of the Russian empire. And he was quite a little poetic talent.

SIMON: He was adored and cosseted in a sense by his mother, but he was beaten by his father.

Prof. SERVICE: Yes. His father was a drunk, a man who frittered away his income and who basically abandoned the family. So some of the harshness of his father must have come through in Stalin's own later life, but he was a very, very resentful little boy, as well. He hated being second or third in any race. He had to be first, and he'd do anything to get to that position.

SIMON: Can you give us some idea of what it was like to be in his company?

Prof. SERVICE: He was a brilliant mimic. He had a lot of intellectual effervescence. He tended to disguise this, because the Bolshevik Party placed a premium on toughness, crudity of behavior and discourse. And so Stalin constructed an image of himself which was much more ill-educated, much more uncultured than the reality.

SIMON: Professor Service, I want to get you to read a section in which you truly mince no words in your biography of Josef Stalin, and that's when you explain the Great Terror.

Prof. SERVICE: OK. (Reading) `One thing is sure, it was Stalin who instigated the carnage of 1937 to 1938. He and nobody else was the engineer of imprisonment, torture, penal labor and shooting. Yet though he didn't need much temptation to maim and kill, he had a strategy in mind. Stalin knew what he was hunting in the Great Terror and why. There was a basic logic to this murderous activity.'

SIMON: And what was the basic logic of this murderous activity?

Prof. SERVICE: I think the key to the Great Terror is for us to understand that Stalin really did have enemies. He had collectivized the peasantry. He had hunted down the priests and the mullahs and the rabbis. He had eliminated the anti-Bolshevik Parties, and he had eliminated the Bolshevik internal factions. So there were millions of people in the country whom he rightly regarded as his enemies. And the Great Terror was meant to eliminate them once and for all.

The problem, though, was that the Soviet state was very chaotic and disorderly. And so Stalin gave his associates a numerical quota to be reached in eliminating enemies. And a lot of people who were purged in 1937 to 1938 didn't belong to the categories of people whom he said were his enemies.

SIMON: And, Professor, what figure are you comfortable with as to an estimate of how many people died?

Prof. SERVICE: I don't think we yet know how many people died, but what we do know for certain is that, at any one time, there languished in the Gulag camps one and a half to two million unfortunate victims. And that is true right the way through the late 1930s and down to Stalin's death in 1953, because the Gulag was so important for the mining of gold, for the hewing of timber, for the construction of new towns and mine shafts. So the inmates had to be replenished.

SIMON: Professor Service, I guess that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin should sign a non-aggression pact and, however briefly, be non-combatants, if not exactly allies, doesn't seem surprising. They were the two biggest tyrants of the 20th century. But remind us why this was so shocking at the time.

Prof. SERVICE: Well, for years, the Soviet Union, if it stood for anything, stood for standing up to right-wing dictatorships. And people became Communists in the 1930s especially because it was thought that Stalin was resolutely opposed to fascism and to Naziism. So it came as a terrible shock at the end of August 1939 for Communists everywhere that Stalin had engineered a pact with Adolf Hitler, and he thought that he'd got away with the threat of a German invasion of the USSR by the Third Reich.

SIMON: And Stalin was genuinely flabbergasted by the invasion.

Prof. SERVICE: He was so flabbergasted that he suggested that Hitler had been conned by his own generals and that those generals were trying to provoke a war that Hitler didn't want. So Stalin refused to allow his generals to retaliate against the invading German forces. So the Germans got even deeper into Soviet territory than they would have done if Stalin had come to his senses earlier. And this was the military catastrophe of the 20th century.

SIMON: But just a few years later, it was to be one of the greatest catastrophes and miscalculations in military history for the Germans.

Prof. SERVICE: No, you're right, because Hitler had to capture Moscow before the autumn mud, and he failed to do so. Moscow was held by Marshal Zhukov. There then followed the battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk. And because Stalin had built up a phenomenally strong Red Army and had trained it and had a big factory work force to produce the tanks and the aircraft, Stalin was able to turn the tide.

SIMON: Was he a gifted military leader?

Prof. SERVICE: He was counterproductive in the way he treated his generals and his soldiers. He bullied them. He executed some of them. On the other hand, he did learn from his mistakes. Most of his generals in the memoirs we can now read suggest that he was a fast learner, he was a willing learner. He was even willing to learn lessons from the best of his generals, and Marshal Zhukov could bark at him without being punished.

SIMON: Nikita Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader to have the nerve, or perhaps he found the political necessity, to denounce him. And now, under Vladimir Putin, there is some nostalgia for Stalin.

Prof. SERVICE: You're right. What people are remembering is an unreal, unhistorical period of Stalin's rule. They look back to a period of stability and certainty, which it certainly wasn't. But it was a period of order. And nowadays, Russia is very, very unruly and disorderly.

SIMON: Could there be some nostalgia for a time when Russia was feared rather than a time when they're often considered a kind of beggar state?

Prof. SERVICE: Oh, you're absolutely right. The Russians feel degraded. They aren't a world power anymore. All empires, when they fall apart, have this backlog of feelings that take decades to get over. An example of this is the United Kingdom. The British perhaps not yet have got over the problems of losing their empire. But the British had an open debate about this in the 1950s and 1960s, and that made it easier for them. And if Russians know more about their history, the day of their self-liberation from that history will start to arrive.

SIMON: Robert, thank you very much.

Prof. SERVICE: Thank you.

SIMON: Robert Service's new book is "Stalin."

One of the hit songs in Russia right now might have warmed Josef Stalin's icy heart. It's a sentimental tune by Oleg Gazmanov called "I Was Made in the USSR."

(Soundbite of "I Was Made in the USSR")

Mr. OLEG GAZMANOV: (Singing in Russian)

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