Review of Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

Stalin
By Edvard Radzinsky
Anchor/ Doubleday, New York
Pages 607, $15.95 1996

“All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but whenever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared…We brought you the truth, and in our mouth it sounded like a lie. We brought you freedom and it looks in our hands like a whip…we brought you the future, but our tongue stammered and barked”, thus mused Rubashov, the Bukharin like central character awaiting a certain death in a GPU prison in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. Rubashov’s prosecutor Gletkin says as he pronounces the sentence on him, “You were wrong, and you will pay, Comrade Rubashov. The Party promises only one thing: after the victory, one day when it can do no more harm, the material of the secret archives will be published.”

The archives today have been opened, though not after the promised victory of the Party. In the book under review, rather pompously subtitled as the “first in- depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia’s secret archives”, Stalin, the dead dictator comes back to life.

Radzinsky is the most popular playwright in Russia after Anton Chekov. He trained as a historian and this is his second book on history, the first one having been published in 1991 as The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicolas II. The present one makes for a gripping reading, the author’s penchant for dramatization rising over and above the life of its protagonist, often, however to fall down as if with a damp squib.

Questions are posed with a theatrical flourish, like, “The official date of his birth is indeed fictitious. But when was it invented? And why?” Others: Did Stalin murder his wife Nadzezhda Alliluyeva? Did Stalin poison Lenin? Was Stalin himself a victim of his proteges when he died in 1953?

These are questions that have lingered on more in gossip rather than as questions of serious historical inquiry. To each of these questions, the author falls back on routine answers, more often than not basing himself on conversations and hearsays rather than on any “explosive” archives. One is often left wondering why he raised the question in the first place and then devoted tens of pages to finally greet the reader with the fallacy of the question itself.

In terms of tone and intent, the present work follows the pattern set earlier by Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin (1988). Its purpose seems to be to wreck vengeance on his subject rather than seeking to understand him in a wider historical context. The study is at either a descriptive level or at a psychological level, often creating the impression that the author is keen to read Stalin’s life selectively. For a much more serious study, one would without any hesitation still turn to Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin published in the 70th year of Stalin’s birth anniversary- 1948 (a newer edition was published after his death with an additional chapter).

And yet the book makes for a compulsive reading. For one, it brings out some very interesting archive material on people like Trotsky and notably on Bukharin. For another, it forces one to grapple and look again into the life of Stalin- and how a revolution can be taken over by a sheer mediocrity and how history gives a rich space to political shrewdness and chicanery at the expense of brilliance and eloquence.

Radzinsky points to the early influence of the anarchist Nechaev on both Lenin and Stalin as well as that of N. Chenesvesky, who urged: “Summon Russia to the Axe”. Nechaev had also said “poison, the knife and the noose are sanctified by the revolution”.

Early on in the Party, Stalin realized that being close to the God Lenin, a la Sancho Panza (though Lenin was no Don Quizote) was essential for a successful career. Radzinsky points to a number of incidents when Stalin hid or protected Lenin from arrest or physical danger. That was the reason Lenin preferred to keep the pock marked Georgian around him. In the dazzling company of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin, Stalin was the undoubtedly an anachronistic dwarf. This must have given him a bruised ego, as the author rightly suggests.

The author also conjectures rather provocatively that Stalin could have been a double agent for the Tsarist police. One of Lenin’s proteges Malinovsky had indeed turned out to be a double agent and despite Lenin’s soft corner for him, he was executed after the Revolution when his treacherous role had been clearly proved by the police records seized by the Bolsheviks. After Stalin’s death, when it was suggested that Stalin too might have been a double agent, N. Khrushchev is said to have thrown up his hands and declared: “Its impossible. It would mean that our country was ruled for 30 years by an agent of the Tsarist police”. Indeed, in the face of any incriminating evidence, it seems to be yet another speculation, a rather amusing one.

As one reads the gory account of the terror that Stalin launched after his trusted lieutenant and heir- apparent Kirov’s murder under suspicious circumstances in 1934, one gets transported to the most tragic period of the revolution. It was Stalin the paranoid in action as he systematically went about physically eliminating the Bolshevik old guard. Among them was Lenin’s “son”, the “darling of the Party”, as Lenin had once termed the young Nikolai Bukharin.

As this century draws to a close the Russian Revolution for all practical purposes has passed into history as yet another “could have been” the long prophesied socialist revolution. One may finally conclude and recognize for what it truly was. A product of the late 19th century secret revolutionary groups that happened to be intellectually well prepared and organizationally well oiled to fill the power vacuum that marked the collapse of the absolutist Tsarist ancien regime, the Bolsheviks just happened to be in the right place. Trotsky was to correctly remark later: “Revolution was lying in the streets of St. Petersburg for us to pick it up”.

The Bolsheviks did just that and under Lenin and Stalin went about turning Dostoyevsky’s grim prophecies in the novel The Possessed into reality.

November 25, 1998
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 20 Dec 1998

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