There is a very rich memoir literature covering Stalin’s life and times, written after his death by those centrally involved. The most prominent part of these works are the memoirs of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. Like all memoirs, these sources have to be treated carefully – self-interest or failing memory affects all of them, although it is accepted that Svetlana’s memoirs are in a separate class in this regard. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian archives relating to the Soviet period were opened, providing new material on that period, and in particular on Stalin himself. These lives of Stalin and his entourage draw on this, as well as drawing carefully on the memoir literature.
In Oleg Khlevniuk’s view, too many sources for biographies of Stalin have been made available over the last twenty years, if one bears in mind the need to sift their sheer volume. In his words, the dilemma consists either of covering the hero without the context, or the context without the hero. He emphasises that many of the documents on which Stalin worked directly are in the former archive of the politburo, now the Russian Presidential Archive, which has not yet been completely opened to researchers. Pending such opening, perhaps a fully definitive biography cannot yet be written. For the time being we’ll have to content ourselves with the results of research on the documentation available, of which these are the most notable. Khlevniuk is liberally acknowledged as an important source of assistance in the other two works. It is difficult to imagine that his own work, which admirably covers both the hero and the context, will be surpassed except in matters of less important detail.
Stalin was one of the great monsters of the twentieth century, quite on a par in this regard with Hitler. The challenge is to understand how the son of an obscure cobbler, born in a small town in Georgia on the margins of the then Russian empire, could in the course of his life become the master of half of Europe and the creator of what became a superpower. He was indeed born into a humble family. For all that, there is no evidence that he suffered from oppression. His father became a drunkard and did eventually leave his mother to raise him alone. This she did, earning a living as a seamstress. While doing this, she evidently was especially solicitous of his education. She managed to have him schooled in the Georgian Orthodox church system, at first at primary level and then at the church’s junior seminary in Tiflis, the capital. In the course of this education, he acquired fluent Russian, although he always spoke the language with a strong Georgian accent. The surviving documentation shows him to have been a model student, until the fourth year, when he became associated with rebellious movements in the seminary, arising evidently from the spartan regime, an atmosphere of constant investigation, searches, denunciations and punishments. He got involved with the illegal railway workers’ movement in Tiflis, and began to read Marx at a time, the late 1890s, when his revolutionary teaching had become widely popular among dissidents in the Russian empire. It is also clear that this experience gave him a first taste of conspiracy ‑ a conspiratorial outlook would mark his take on things for ever after. He left the seminary in 1899 after four years under unclear circumstances. Although he was excluded on the formal grounds of not turning up for examinations for unknown reasons, remarkably, at the end, he was certified by the seminary authorities as having been of good conduct. It seems more than likely that both young Jugashvili, as he was at the time, and the seminary authorities were at one in concluding that he was not good raw material for a church career.
Jugashvili gravitated to the radical wing of the social democratic organisation, organising strikes and demonstrations at first in Tiflis. Under threat of arrest, he left his formal place of employment and lived illegally as a professional revolutionary, thus early entering into a conspiratorial mode of life. His hatred of the establishment was firmly founded on his experience of arbitrariness and obscurantism in the junior seminary. His revolutionary activities extended to Batumi in western Georgia, and then to Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the former a port on the Black Sea important for the export of the oil produced in the area around the Caspian centred on Baku. He was arrested several times and exiled to Siberia, escaping easily under the rather lax Tsarist oversight of exile. In the course of this activity, he rose in the revolutionary ranks of the Social Democratic Party, and joined the more radical, Leninist, wing of the party, called the Bolsheviks, devoted to the acceleration of the process of history through a vanguard party which would advance the proletarian cause through creating an elite of professional revolutionaries. In the course of the 1905 revolution provoked by the defeat of the Russian navy by Japan, the Tsar made some concessions, including the convocation of the parliament, or Duma. This led to a superficial reunification of the Social Democratic Party, as a result of which the Menshevik faction became the majority of the party delegation from Georgia to its convention in Stockholm, and Jugashvili was the only Bolshevik delegate from Transcaucasia. In the course of this trip, he would get to meet Lenin in Berlin, and also visit London and Paris, (apart from a short trip to Vienna, his only trips outside Russia until he went to Tehran for the Allied conference of 1943 and the Potsdam conference two years later). All this experience went to reinforce his conspiratorial approach to affairs; at the same time, his allegiance to Lenin accentuated his sense that he was part of an elite charged with steering history towards a predetermined end.
After the gradual petering out of the 1905 revolution, Jugashvili attained prominence in the Bolshevik wing of the social democratic movement, becoming one of its leaders in 1912, when he was elected to the central committee of what had now become the Leninist party. His field of activity now extended to the whole empire, where he exerted himself mightily in underground agitation and the propaganda of revolution. At this stage too he adopted the revolutionary name Stalin, which sounded more Russian, the name by which he would henceforth be known. He showed outstanding organisational and propaganda abilities, as well as daring, decisiveness, stamina, lack of pretention and devotion to Lenin. But a shattering event, which changed his circumstances profoundly, occurred in 1913. He was arrested once again, but this time he was betrayed to the authorities by Roman Malinovsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders, and a favourite of Lenin, who had already for some time been collaborating with the police. This time he would be exiled to Siberia, but the pattern of early and easy escape was also broken. He was sentenced to four years exile in. In 1913, the prospects for Bolshevik revolution seemed to have been reduced to almost naught: the party’s leaders were either imprisoned, exiled or abroad, there was internal dissension and with other parts of the social democratic movement and the party, and Stalin personally, had been betrayed by one of its own leaders. He was thirty-eight years old.
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