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Joseph Stalin

In a brief poem written in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, W.H. Auden ridiculed the inexpressive nature of tyranny and tyrants: "One prize is beyond his reach, / The Ogre cannot master Speech."    Now, it seems, the translator and novelist Richard Lourie has set out to prove Auden wrong.   In The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, he lets that chuckling despot tell his own story, from his obscure origins in the Georgian sticks to his bureaucratic apotheosis as ruler of all Russia.   In part Stalin simply wants to get his life down on paper.   But as he informs the reader, he's also trying to launch a pre-emptive strike against his arch-nemesis, Leo Trotsky, who's currently compiling a scurrilous (i.e., fundamentally accurate) biography of Stalin in Mexico City.
Given this scenario, many a novelist would have turned Uncle Joe into an articulate monster, a kind of Bolshevik Iago. Lourie takes a different route.  Oh, his narrator does have a gift for poetic doublespeak, which comes into play during his ruminations on the 1938 Moscow show trials: "In a certain highly literal sense of the word, most of these men are not guilty of most of
these crimes.   They may, however, be guilty of many other crimes, crimes for which the state has decided to spare itself the expenses of a trial but which would have cost them their head in any case."   He also gets off some memorable character sketches, like this one of Lenin:
He was five feet three at most but so solidly planted on the floor that he made you feel the smaller man.   As the Hungarians say, his forehead reached to his ass, but his baldness was dynamic, not pathetic -- as if intense thought had sent the hairs flying from his scalp.   He wore a three-piece suit and had the lawyer's habit of hooking his thumbs inside his vest.
Still, Lourie's Stalin is very much a meat-and-potatoes stylist -- perhaps blood-and-guts would be the more appropriate epithet, considering the number of corpses he leaves in his wake.   His raw efficiency as a narrator does have its black-comic charms, however, and his race to the
biographical finish with Trotsky gives the book a powerful momentum.  (Students of history will recall that the narrator's rival was brutally cut off in mid-sentence.) And what would be the moral of Stalin's story, at least in Lourie's version?  There are two, which should surprise nobody: Always watch your back and It's lonely at the top. --James Marcus
The ring of truth and a great novel to boot   If you've read enough biography and history about Stalin, you probably feel that he is still an enigma wrapped inside a riddle (to paraphrase Winston Churchill's assessment of Russia). This novel may not be TRUTH, but it surely contains many lower-case truths about one of the monsters of our sad century.  Even aside from the issue of its veracity, this is simply an enthralling read, an artistic, sophisticated and beautifully plotted and executed attempt to plumb the depths of this particular darkness.  Highly recommended.

" A monumental and completely absorbing volume that creates vivid  portraits of two tyrants, while illuminating the first half of this blood-stained century."
From Kirkus Reviews , January 15, 1992
A masterpiece by Bullock (Ernest Bevin, 1984, etc.) that covers some of the most devastating events -- as well as two of the most terrible personalities -- of our century with breathtaking analytical power and narrative sweep.   One of the most fruitful aspects of this dual biography is to reveal, for all the differences between Hitler and Stalin, how much they had in common.   The differences were mainly in personality: Stalin the great calculator, Hitler the gambler; Stalin the master of bureaucracy, Hitler the artist-politician, hating routine; Stalin the sly, political Houdini, Hitler the charismatic leader.   But their similarities were perhaps more significant. Both were guilty of crimes against humanity on a scale unprecedented in history: Like the Jews in Germany, peasant farmers in the Soviet Union were members of an outlawed class denied all human rights.    The corruption in the heart of Nazism, according to Bullock, lay in its ends; in Communism, in its means.   Neither Hitler nor Stalin, he believes, was mad.    Both were entirely serious about their historic roles, the author says; skeptical about the motives of others, their cynicism stopped short of their own.    But Hitler, at the end, was close to insanity; and Stalin had all the symptoms associated with paranoia -- chronic suspicion, self-absorption,  jealousy, hypersensitivity, and megalomania.   Both men brought unprecedented suffering on their own people; the difference, Bullock notes, is that defeat exacted a terrible price from the German people, but at least spared them the continuation of Nazism, while victory cost the Russian people even more -- but did not liberate them.   A magnificent history, accessible and often moving.   Bullock's mastery of research sources, his judgment, and his analytic powers prove him one of the great historians of our time. (Seventy-one photographs and 18 maps--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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