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  • The Call of the Vozhd’

Robert Caro, who has spent most of his professional life writing a biography of Lyndon Johnson, once remarked: “You can use biography to examine political power, but only if you pick the right guy.” Iosif Stalin, at least judging by the recent scholarly attention to his life and cult, is now that guy. This issue features a discussion of current scholarship on Stalin’s life and times—most notably, Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin up to 1928 (two more volumes are in the works), and the recent English translation of Oleg Khlevniuk’s Stalin biography. These are but the tippy tip of a longer litany of recent biographies, however, including works by Jörg Baberowski, Ronald Suny, Alfred Rieber, and Hiroaki Kuromiya, among others.1 Indeed, Richard Pipes, in the New York Review of Books, cites the astounding figure of 203 biographies focused on Stalin published since 2000 alone, at least as listed in the Harvard University catalogue. He notes—and how could one disagree?—that this reflects what seems to be a truly “insatiable appetite” for current biographies of the vozhd´.2

This fascination with the examination of politics, culture, and society through the prism of biography is a remarkable development. As graduate [End Page 1] students in the 1990s, many of us concluded that the genre of biography was done for good in the eyes of serious historians. Advisers discouraged dissertations on political biography, even though the genre had been an important focus of historical writing through the 1960s and 1970s, led by the likes of Martin Malia, Marc Raeff, and Stephen Cohen. The great man theory of history, most clearly associated with Thomas Carlyle, who famously claimed that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men,” seemed by the 1990s to have become just that—history. Marx’s related dictum that “men make their history as they please,” even if not under conditions of their own choosing, sounded only moderately more convincing.

Social history, the view from below, gained ascendancy, shifting the primacy of historical agency down the social scale from Bolshevik party leaders to the rank and file. There were exceptions, such as Reginald E. Zelnik, whose “Russian Bebels” lent a personal dimension to the history of Russian industrialization and the development of working-class consciousness.3 Yet relatively few followed Zelnik’s path. Even opponents of historical revisionism, such as Malia himself, stopped looking to biographies for answers, turning instead to ideology for causal explanation. Kotkin, Malia’s student, made his earlier career by focusing on language, culture, and ideology.

All the while, however, the vozhd´ continued to fascinate historians. There was psychohistory, a term Suny applied to Robert Tucker’s biography of Stalin and an approach he also experimented with himself.4 Nor was Stalin the only historical leader who landed on the scholar’s couch. The political scientist William Taubman made similar assumptions in his magisterial biography of Khrushchev.5

Russian and Soviet historians, who have turned in growing numbers to biography in the last six or seven years, have positioned themselves somewhat differently. Analysts in an alternative mode, they have made themselves skilled interpreters of ego-documents: autobiographies, diaries, letters, and other testimonies, mining them for insights into lived experience.6 To interpret [End Page 2] these documents, scholars have engaged a variety of conceptual frameworks. The “imperial turn,” for example, has given rise to collective projects, tracing what individual lives can reveal about cross-cultural connections within and between multiethnic states.7 In this issue Steven Norris discusses recent biographical projects as part of a broader “biographical turn” in the historical profession. Biographers, as Norris puts it, “treat individuals as part of larger social structures and cultures” (164), using biographical subjects as social and political microcosms. Other historians have used the lives of individuals as lenses onto the history of political thought—Claudia Verhoeven’s study of terrorism—or scientific and technological developments—Jay Bergman, Daniel Todes, and our own Andrew Jenks.8

But let us not forget the vozhd´. Biographies of Stalin, including Kotkin’s and Khlevniuk’s, certainly mirror these trends in biography. Kotkin, as Baberowski notes in...


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