Robert Service and Simon Sebag Montefiore have produced strikingly different books, although they both offer a revision of the standard history concerning one of the twentieth century's bloodiest dictatorships. The wording of each text helps to illustrate the authors' distinct styles and approaches. When the subject concerns a brutal, complex, and monumental figure like Josif Stalin, it is useful to let the authors speak for themselves. Montefiore hopes that his book will make Stalin "a more understandable and intimate character, if no less repellent" (p. xix). Service states that his book "is aimed at showing that Stalin was a more dynamic and diverse figure than has conventionally been supposed" (p. x).
Service's exhaustive biography reads as one long corrective to the current historiography on Stalin. Stalin left no diary or memoirs, and what we do know about the "man of steel" comes not from him but from others. The most widely cited works on Stalin were written by his political opponents, people like Leon Trotsky and Nikita Khrushchev, or dissident writers like Roy Medvedev. They describe Stalin as a bureaucrat with little intellectual skill, a betrayer of Vladimir Lenin's revolutionary ideas, a non-entity in the Communist Party until Lenin's death. Stalin was viewed by many as a man with no aesthetic sensibility, a dull, bureaucratic, power-hungry Georgian-turned-Russian chauvinist: Genghis Khan with a telephone. Service methodically debunks nearly the entire corpus of conventional wisdom about Stalin. He shows that Stalin rose to prominence within the party because Lenin recognized Stalin's talents in the area of nationalities policy. Stalin amassed and consolidated power not simply because he occupied the post of General Secretary in the party but because he was "able to convince the Central Committee and the Party Congress that he was a suitable politician for them to follow" (p. 246). Whereas Khrushchev caricatured the generalissimo Stalin as one who followed wartime campaigns on a small globe in his office, Service describes a competent and hardworking wartime leader who eventually earned the admiration of his military commanders.
Although Service's impressive biography successfully challenges the conventional image of Stalin, it seems to overcorrect. At times, the Soviet leader appears too skillful or too competent. When discussing World War II, for example, Service acknowledes that Stalin stubbornly ignored the mounting evidence that Hitler was preparing for an attack: "Thus the conditions for the greatest military disaster of the twentieth century were unwittingly prepared by the supremely confident Leader in the Kremlin" (p. 409). Service details how Stalin failed to listen to Marshal Georgii Zhukov when Kyiv came under siege, and the result was a disastrous military defeat and appalling [End Page 132] loss of life. Yet Service offers a generally favorable assessment of the wartime leader, giving Stalin credit for an effective mobilization. Oddly, though, the book itself points to a different conclusion—that Stalin acted in many ways as an obstruction rather than a facilitator of the war effort. The huge losses in the early months of the war were a direct consequence of Stalin's own failure to heed his intelligence agencies and military commanders. His draconian internal policies led only to more losses, and Stalin incarcerated people who could have otherwise contributed to the war effort. Service does not overlook these facts, but he largely sticks to the conventional rendition of the war years as a relatively liberal time rather than including this, too, among his significant historiographical corrections. Stalinist repression during the war was considerable, even if one accounts for the peasant markets, the open churches, and the reduced censorship. With millions of people being sent to the Gulag for skipping work or deported en masse as enemy nations, the war period hardly represented a relaxation of the Soviet order. Nor did terror against enemy nations, perceived traitors, shirkers, and deserters assist the military effort. The USSR won the war despite Stalin and not because of him.
Service has a...