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  • E.G. Maladroit

Radzinsky's 'Stalin' - The Best Biography of Stalin?

Edvard Radzinsky’s biography was a standout on its release in 1977, as it was one of the first to access the newly declassified Russian ‘secret archives’, giving Radzinsky an extremely informed perspective on the events of Stalin’s life. I am minorly biased towards the book; it began my historical interest in Stalin and the Soviet Union four years ago, an passion which now encompasses many of my intrigues – including in art and literature. In a way, however, this is just a testament to the skill of Radinsky’s writing, and is why I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the man or the era. The book is also bolstered by Radzinsky’s own experiences and his informative consultation of living sources. Unlike in Amis’ diabolical ‘Koba the Dread’, where half the time he’s giving odd and ill-fitting anecdotes about himself and his father, Radzinsky’s mentions of his life are moving and illustrate a genuine knowledge of what it was to be living under Stalin. This particularly shines in his introduction, where his description of his father’s dislike of Stalin gives an important context to the lives of people who often become lifeless statistics in similar biographies.

One of the main reasons Radzinsky’s biography was so formative for my interests (and why it makes such a good biography) is the extreme emotional intelligence with which he constructs Stalin as a person. Reading it one feels the effects of Radzinsky’s literary skills – he knows how to write a story. Despite the extreme historical detail, he never fails to make the book an intense and encompassing read, never too dry or hard to continue. On top of this, he is not unsympathetic - he stays true to portraying as unbiased an account as is possible, including moments and accounts which almost incline one to identify with Stalin, slightly horrifyingly. Well-placed narratives such as stories about Stalin’s relationship with his mother, and how after his gain of total power she still said “you’d have done better to become a priest”, lighten the book and allow Stalin to become multi-dimensional – he doesn’t try to pretend Stalin was some anomaly-monster (like many have). Similarly, the description of Kirov’s murder, and Stalin’s genuine love for him, is surprisingly moving. This aspect is mirrored in Radzinsky’s choice to separate the book into the different evolutions of Stalin’s nicknames – SoSo, Koba and Stalin. It is a choice which helps illustrate how Stalin, rather than being simply how he showed himself, really formed himself around a series of characters, names – it is still a refreshing take on him, despite the book coming before many of the more well-known takes.

A review I came across described Radzinsky as ‘bitterly angry’ in his tone throughout the book, and whilst this is not necessarily a huge criticism, considering the fact that Radzinsky saw the horrors of Stalin’s reign, I feel it is not entirely accurate. Perhaps that is the view one would create after reading the prelude’s first page, concerning his father’s experiences, but reading any further will reveal the entertaining and highly readable ‘mournful irony’ the narrative assumes. He dotingly nicknames Stalin ‘the boss’, and instead of seeming pretentious or informal, it gives the biography personality. It lets the horrors of Stalin’s reign speak for themselves – not romanticising or fetishizing them. They even seem more stark, and disturbing, in the context of such an emotionally ambiguous tone – rather than dulled by the compassion fatigue some more emotive writing styles provoke.

One of my favourite aspects of the biography is that it has a level of detail you just cannot find elsewhere. Radzinsky, as is aforementioned in this review, has an incredible eye for detail. He never fails to explain absolutely everyone and everything. This can be slightly overwhelming for someone fresh to the subject, or who’s less used to skim reading through large lists of people (along with every one of their family backgrounds, which sometimes feels a little excessive, though still impressive). However, it is worth it for the level of personality he manages to show through little details that seem singular this biography – such as the fact that in his later years Stalin cut out pictures of children from magazines and stuck them on his walls as substitutes for grandchildren [page 540]. Such details are odd, yet meticulously chosen to create truly compelling narratives.

From a research point of view, my experience the book’s layout was extremely positive. Being only a humble sixth form student, I do not offer scholarly experience – however, despite the topic I was looking for being fairly niche, and rarely mentioned in the book (Holodomor), I easily found all sections pertaining to it (thanks to the choice of clear chapter headings and subheadings within each chapter). It is a small detail, but a well appreciated one.

To conclude, as is fairly obvious, I highly recommend Radzinsky’s book. It is an enjoyable read and makes for a thorough, personal understanding of both Stalin and his reign. Best of all, despite how personally knowledgeable Radzinsky is (thanks to his and his father’s experience of Stalin), it does not try to push any agenda. It is a fantastic read. Wether or not its the best biography of Stalin, it remains my favourite.


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