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Dark Prince of the Kremlin

By Steven Merritt Miner Published: May 05, 1996 STALIN The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents From Russia's Secret Archives. By Edvard Radzinsky. Translated by H. T. Willetts. Illustrated. 607 pp. New York: Doubleday. $30. LIFE AND TERROR IN STALIN'S RUSSIA, 1934-1941 By Robert W. Thurston. Illustrated. 296 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press. $30 In 1961 Nikita Khrushchev ordered Stalin's mummified body removed from its place of honor beside Lenin, where it had lain for nine years, and reinterred more discreetly underground. Those charged with this grisly task were told to place two slabs of concrete over the coffin. As Edvard Radzinsky wryly notes in his new biography, "Stalin," perhaps this was in the hope that the tyrant would never again rise. It didn't work. Unlike his fellow totalitarian Hitler, Stalin never lost a war. Nor were his minions ever subjected to a Nuremberg-style investigation and trial. Instead, men who made their careers under Stalin and institutions created during his rule continued to dominate the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Stalin's creations were everywhere, though his name and his historical image were nowhere to be found.

Only now have Russians been able to study the man and his era with anything like objectivity. The image of Stalin emerging from newly opened archives is therefore of far more than mere historical interest; like the Germans after 1945, the Russians must deal with their past if they are to create a more humane future. Judging from these two works, this won't be easy. Mr. Radzinsky's portrait will be familiar to readers of the standard Western biographies. In his account, fluently translated by H. T. Willetts, Stalin was a figure of immense cunning and unfathomable evil who dominated his country and his era. He was able, snakelike, to shed his skin as his power grew and to destroy all those who could remember him before he became the Great Stalin. The murderous collectivization of Soviet agriculture; the mass arrests, purges and deportations; even the cold war -- all were Stalin's work, stepping stones carefully and intentionally laid on the road to what Mr. Radzinsky calls the "great dream" of creating a universal Communist state with Stalin as emperor. As readers of his best-selling biography, "The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II," will know, Mr. Radzinsky is a gripping storyteller, and he does not disappoint here. He has a sure eye for the striking anecdote, especially concerning personal details. He also cites a number of diaries, letters and Government documents either previously unreleased or not yet available to an English-speaking readership. These allow him to reinterpret key incidents of Stalin's life, like the suicide of his second wife, Nadezhda, in 1932. He also makes a case that Stalin was murdered by his cronies, though this claim is based on suspicious coincidences -- not exactly a scarce commodity in Stalin's Kremlin. Mr. Radzinsky is generally at his best when mulling over alternative meanings of new documents, a style he employed to great effect in his earlier work. His account of the arrest and trial of Nikolai Bukharin, who was shot in 1938 for having opposed Stalin's assault on the peasantry, is as moving as his earlier treatment of the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family. Among other things, such passages highlight more effectively than most biographies Stalin's sadistic playfulness: As his many victims writhed in psychological agony and begged for mercy, Stalin would often pretend to be their most ardent defender, even as he prepared their destruction. Himself a playwright and a product of the Soviet literary world, Mr. Radzinsky provides especially valuable insight into the ambivalent relationship between Stalin and writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. Many cultural figures, he shows convincingly, were repelled by the regime's violence and at the same time attracted dangerously by the promise of Promethean power, which would ultimately destroy so many of them. The Stalinist system was built squarely on a foundation of secret police and widespread fear, and Mr. Radzinsky demonstrates how terror spread from the top down. Stalin used it as a regular means of governing, and only his death in 1953 prevented another mass outburst of purging along the lines of 1937-38. "Constant fear kept the country and the system stable," Mr. Radzinsky writes. "One day the collapse of the Communist empire would confirm this." This biography deserves the wide readership that it will no doubt receive. At times, however, Mr. Radzinsky's taste for speculation becomes overpowering, teetering uneasily on a shaky factual

foundation, as when he argues that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany in 1941 and the United States in 1953. The book is stronger as a psychological portrait than as a history. Stalin is always center stage, making events, rarely being shaped by them, the master puppeteer. It is Great Man history with a vengeance. Robert W. Thurston's view could scarcely be more different. "Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941" is being published by a major university press and has been chosen as a forthcoming History Book Club selection, so it arrives with serious credentials. Yet it is proof that credentials -- and access to the Soviet archives so far made available -- are no substitute for critical historical judgment, or indeed for basic human sympathy. The book is oddly named, since, if one were to accept its thesis, Stalin was rarely in control of Government policy, much less of Russia as a whole; nor was there ever much terror at all. Mr. Thurston, an associate professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, allows that Stalin was "almost certainly mentally disturbed," and that he "bears the ultimate responsibility" for creating the atmosphere that made purge hysteria possible. But Stalin, he says, "reacted to events as much as he made them." He was "not the cold mastermind" of purging that Mr. Radzinsky and others would claim; instead, the terror had "almost a will of its own," even a "populist nature." If widespread terror existed at all, then "it existed only between mid-1937 and some point in 1938," Mr. Thurston writes. "At any time during that period," he says confidently, "apprehension toward the state was surely less important than belief in the authorities and their hunt for enemies." He claims that most Soviet secret-police officers, and the country's population as a whole, believed in Stalin and the purges, and that secret-police agents showed a remarkable "concern for evidence" as they arrested millions. Unfortunately, they often got carried away. Mr. Thurston's work is chock full of new discoveries. Widely accepted estimates made by earlier historians concerning the numbers arrested or shot are "much too high," though he finds the new, lower numbers he offers still "appalling." He accepts an arrest figure for 1937-38 of fewer than 2.5 million, and a figure of some 681,000 for those executed. In every case where there is doubt about numbers of people repressed, Mr. Thurston opts for the lower estimate. He allows that punishments were harsh by "Western standards of justice," but even the fearsome gulag was not always as bad as one might think. Some people survived incarceration and, although it was "ironic and cruel," until 1937 camp guards sold state bonds to inmates: "an indication that they were still regarded as participants in society to some degree." By this curious standard, sheep being led to slaughter are participants in agriculture. It seems that Soviet judicial authorities were rapidly becoming "more tolerant" on the eve of the purges; arrests were sharply down in 1936, though in the table that Mr. Thurston helpfully provides to illustrate this, the hundreds of thousands of peasants exiled during collectivization mysteriously vanish, as they did in life. It is no easy thing to prove widespread support for a regime where opinion polls, not to mention elections, were unthinkable and where, even by Mr. Thurston's own count, millions of citizens were unjustly incarcerated or shot. Undaunted, he writes that the Soviet population's resistance against the Nazi invasion of 1941 was the "acid test" of the regime's support. Here he is even more self-contradictory than elsewhere. He argues simultaneously that soldiers in most armies

fight for their fellow soldiers and friends, not for abstractions like patriotism or ideology; but Soviet soldiers' willingness to fight somehow demonstrates their belief in the Soviet state. Although most Russians did fight loyally for Moscow and many no doubt believed in the system, their motives were far more complex, and the evidence less one-sided, than Mr. Thurston would have us believe. Stalin's infamous order of August 1941, holding soldiers' families hostage for their behavior at the front, was both a powerful disincentive for surrendering to the Germans and an implicit admission that this was a widespread problem. Although Mr. Thurston discusses the welcome that some Soviet citizens extended to the German invaders, he explains it away by claiming, wrongly, that such welcomes occurred mostly in areas that had only recently been incorporated into the Soviet Union. He dismisses evidence to the contrary as the product either of cold war exaggeration or of testimony tainted by the ostensibly bourgeois background of eyewitnesses. He ignores entirely the extensive collaboration of many non-Russian ethnic groups, for which Stalin deported several entire nationalities, notably the Chechens, at the end of the war. Voluntary service in the German Army by ethnic Russians and others warrants no mention at all; nor does partisan resistance against the return of the Red Army in 1943-45. And yet these were serious problems. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn cites a Russian folk saying to explain this: "Well-fed horses don't rampage." Nazism's murderous racist policies, which became clear very early as word spread through a fluid and permeable front, left Soviet citizens few choices. Stalin may have been bad, but Hitler proved even worse. A secret-police document from the city of Kharkov after its liberation in 1943 reveals many people saying that "what comrade Stalin could not do in 24 years, Hitler did in one." Mr. Thurston reserves his most preposterous claims for his conclusion. Stalin, he says, "was not guilty of mass first-degree murder." How, then, to explain things like his decision one day in March 1940 to shoot more than 20,000 Polish prisoners -- an atrocity Mr. Thurston does not discuss? It seems that Stalin believed his victims really were enemies. If we were to accept this twisted logic, of course, there could be practically no such thing as murder, since most killers believe their victims deserve their fate. Finally, it turns out that "Stalin becomes more human than others have portrayed him. And his regime becomes less malevolent but possessed of greater popular support." Even more astonishing, he writes, "Stalinism created the preconditions for perestroika," since it was in the Stalin era that the "roots for reform" first grew. Thus Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms were apparently not a reaction against Stalinist evils, carried out by people determined that such things must never happen again, but rather their ultimate fruit. Stalin's misrule was not the product solely of his evil wizardry; this view too easily excuses his many willing apprentices, and it underestimates the pathologies of a society that proved all too fertile ground for his brand of hatreds and fear. At the same time, it is absurd to write airily of "popular support" in a system where no free political choices were possible and where the population was subject to an endless drubbing by state-monopolized propaganda. If Stalin's ghost is finally to be exorcised, historians must not play down the malevolence of the system he

created. His victims deserve better of us. And those grim-faced Stalinists who still cherish their icons of the Great Leader deserve no aid and comfort. Steven Merritt Miner, the author of "BetweenChurchhill and Stalin" is currently working on a book about the Soviet Union during World War II.