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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

I get the impression that people like to think that Stalin was insane. From a western viewpoint that values freedom, the protection of life, and the rule of law, the fact that Stalin created a political machine that murdered 20 million Russians can only mean that he was a bloodthirsty madman. If you agree with this train of thought, then historian and playwright Edvard Radzinsky would beg to differ. In his book Stalin, he portrays the leader as too calculating and efficient to be insane. Lenin schooled Stalin on the theory of violence as a necessary tool to create the perfect socialist society by using all the means at his disposal to keep the socialist machine lubricated and productive. Radzinsky’s portrayal of Lenin’s tutelage reminds me of Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who’s science was ultimately successful, but led to an aberration: the one man monstrous enough to bring Russia from a backwards feudal society to a modern socialist state.

As for Trotsky, Radzinsky does not sympathize with him. His was the fate of those who preach and practice violence as a means to an end. For Stalin, Radzinsky is neither sympathetic, nor critical of the leader who drove his people to slaughter in the name of a cause. The author takes a detached, but precise approach towards understanding Stalin’s methods of political manipulation and destruction.

Radzinsky’s description of Stalin’s tactics during Germany’s Invasion (Operation Barbarossa) reveals just how calculating Stalin was in regards to Russian lives: His strategy was to use an unprepared army as fodder to slow down the German war machine then to strike them with fresh, well trained forces at the onset of winter. Although Stalin’s gamble almost ended in disaster, as the Germans were knocking at the door of victory in December 1941, the strategic cities of Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Moscow held out long enough for the Soviets to mount a crushing offensive that turned the tide of the war.

For me, Radzinsky’s book raised the question: should we all be grateful for Stalin’s tactics in the Second World War? Or perhaps grateful to the millions of peasants he left in front of the wood chipper? The tactics of the Soviets probably prevented the loss of many American lives and certainly made the Western Allie’s invasion of mainland Europe much easier. That’s probably what Joe Strummer meant by the lyric “Raise up the banners of Stalingrad.”

Though slow moving at times, Stalin is well-written and seemingly accurate account of Russia’s most terrible leader. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Russian writing and cares to see a Russian’s perspective of the man of steel.

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