Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929
by Robert C. Tucker
Norton, 519 pp., $12.95
Stalin: The Man and His Era
by Adam B. Ulam
Viking, 760 pp., $12.95
To write a biography of Stalin must be a daunting task. It is difficult to write impartially about any revolutionary leader. Revolutions generate myths, and any historian is likely to take an attitude, favorable or hostile, to the achievements of the revolution in which his hero participated. In the case of very recent history, it is difficult not to have prejudices of one’s own—about Hitler or Mussolini, Roosevelt or Churchill—quite apart from the prejudiced nature of some of the evidence. But these are problems which normally face the historian—sifting the evidence, discounting personal distortions. Most of the evidence is available: all that remains is to check and interpret it.
In the case of Stalin the evidence itself is elusive. It has been subject not to one mythmaking process but to several. There is what Professor Tucker calls “the politics of revolutionary biography”: from at least the 1920s the prerevolutionary careers of Lenin’s potential successors—Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Stalin—were already the subject of controversy. With Lenin deified, the deviation of any of his followers from his line, at any time of their careers, became the cause of reproach. Two myths—at least—emerged: the Stalinist myth of the lives of Stalin and Trotsky, and the Trotskyist myth. Both myths were rewritten as political circumstances changed.
Then after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the decision to end “the cult of personality” there came the Khrushchev myth of Stalin. To this we owe a great deal of information previously unavailable, but it has to be used with caution. Khrushchev had his own political axe to grind, his own skeletons to keep locked up in cupboards. The infallibility of Lenin was still an article of faith, so that exaggerated significance was attached to relations with him. In consequence of all this the revelations were incomplete, one-sided, and need almost as much interpretation as the Stalinist and Trotskyist myths. Finally, in the last few years the Soviet regime, recognizing the difficulties of letting half a cat out of a bag, has tried to discourage further discussion. A great many essential facts about Stalin’s life (and death) are still totally unknown.
So the biographer of Stalin has to evaluate myths and countermyths as well as to sift evidence. It is one degree less exacting than writing a life of Christ, for at least in Stalin’s case orthodoxy did not succeed in suppressing the heretical tradition altogether. But the sheer bulk of the material, in addition to its shifting and treacherous nature, makes the biographer’s task an unenviable one. So far the best life in English is that by Isaac Deutscher. But that was published in 1949, though revised in the 1960s. In 1949 the only alternative to the Stalinist myth was the Trotskyist myth, on which Deutscher perforce had to rely. Now that so much more material is available, there is a case for a fresh assessment. Here, published almost simultaneously, are two big books …