my favorite dictator

Edvard Radzinsky
(Doubleday, 607 pages)

stalin cover
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There’s undeniably something smug about the recent rash of books promising to give the reader a “new perspective” on Soviet Russia, based on unprecedented new access to heretofore classified documents. Edvard Radzinsky, a Russian playwright and television personality, gained access to such documents - “from Russia”s Secret Archives” as the jacket of Stalin proclaims - in order to fill out, and perhaps scandalize, our perception of a man who vies against notable competition for the considerable posterity that comes with being known as this century’s bloodiest dictator.

For those of us whose conception of Joseph Vissarionovich Dzugashvili Stalin tended to be about as monolithic and impenetrable as the thousands of monuments to him that litter the landscape of the territories “formerly known as the Soviet Union”, Radzinsky’s book has the unusual effect of filling in the human, biographical details without dispelling the inscrutable mystique surrounding a man whose motivations and prerogatives we could never hope to understand. Nature - or nurture, I’m still not sure after reading the book - may have given Joseph Dzugashvili the instincts of a particularly cunning sociopath, but the accidents of history put this sociopath in the most seredipitous right place at the most volatile right time. 

His public image, compared to that of Hitler, is telling. Where Hitler’s speeches were delivered in a mounting, hysterical shriek, Stalin’s were unmemorably calm, monotone, spoken in a voice barely above a murmur. Paranoid, cynical and pragmatic, he was like a stone, an inscrutable, almost passive obstacle against which his often more intelligent enemies found themselves blunted and spent; the same silent, wordlessly lucid countenance that made him a virtual god in Russia while he lived.

Still, Radzinsky does assign Stalin one role, hardly passive, that, while hardly humanizing the Great Dictator, does make his story more dramatic. The essence of drama, in  fact for, in Stalin, Radzinsky finds the Great Dramatist. 

There’s far more than a hint of admiration as Radzinsky depicts Stalin scripting the bloody show trials of the thirties, attending rehearsals and  actually writing the confessions of men he has framed so neatly, sending them to their foredestined deaths with the benign purpose of a playwright conniving the final exit of one of his characters. The great party and military purges of the thirties, usually the grimmest, most monotonous reading of most Soviet histories, are here transformed by Radzinsky into real theatre.

The origins of Stalin, a series of chrysalis-like transformations from one identity to another, make mostly murky reading in the first half of the book, but when Radzinsky shifts into overdrive in the thirties, his portrait of Stalin becomes compelling, his protagonist neither hero nor anti-hero, but a phenomenon, capable of almost anything after this unexpected stroke of fiendish genius. 

At the beginning of the Second World War, there was no doubt that Winston Churchill feared and hated Stalin far more than Hitler, yet it was with this man, literally the Devil in Churchill’s eyes, that he was forced to make an alliance. Radzinsky makes this scenario, so ironic as to be dramatically implausible from most perspectives, seem inevitable, Churchill little more than yet another great planet drawn irresistably into the orbit of this inscrutable cipher.

The end, when it comes, has all the necessary props and staging of great tragedy, but oddly lacks resonance.  Using his “explosive” new research, Radzinsky, fills out Stalin’s last days with some horrifying surprises, but lets us drift over the Death Scene with no racing pulse or exhalation of relief.  The man-monster dies, but in a world of his creation, for the Cold War that continued for more than three decades after his death, and which we still inhabit the smoke and fallout, really was Stalin’s monument to himself, a more visible mausoleum in the landscape of history than Lenin’s, able to endure much more than Khrushchev’s official denouncement. 

Radzinsky’s admiration for Stalin, merely the admiration of one artist for another - moreover one who has been given access to a palette richer and larger than his - blurs the line between biography and unwitting hagiography.  Aiming to explode the myth of Stalin, Radzinsky has done little more than burnish it to a new lustre.

©1997, 2002 Rick McGinnis