Picking up this biography of Stalin, I wondered what prompts us to read biographies. Most of the biographies I read are of figures viewed more-or-less positively by history, like American presidents (how do I not have a single biography of Lincoln or Washington reviewed on the site?), and even more complicated figures, like Von Braun or HG Wells, are generally viewed as having done more good than harm in their lives. When we read about such people, success stories who achieved great things, I think we are often looking for insights, to understand what made them great, to bask a little in their glory, to feel that, in a sense, we know them, rather like the parasocial relationships fostered by social media. Reading a biography of a figure like Stalin, though, is a different story. We can learn the history of a time, place, or person without reading a biography. Biographies are fundamentally personal, and why should we desire to spend time in the company of someone considered one of history’s villains?
In most cases, I think that the answer is a desire to understand. That’s why I sought out this biography of Stalin, and as Suny explains, that is how most biographers approach the Soviet dictator’s life story; they seek explanations, narratives, psychoanalyses that will allow them to conceptualize and approach someone whose actions seem unjustifiable. That desire can make easy, simple answers profoundly tempting, but Suny doesn’t settle for the briefly summarized explanations of other Stalin scholars. He gives us a rich, full accounting of Stalin’s life (such as can be achieved with the limited evidence from some periods) through the revolutions of 1917 without attempting to point to any one factor and say “this, this is why Stalin became the man he did.” By refraining from identifying a single, packaged solution, Suny’s Stalin does what biography does best; it makes the narrative of Stalin’s evolution from Georgian peasant to Soviet dictator seem the inevitable result of a series of logical steps.
When crafting a narrative for fiction, authors often deploy the phrase ‘surprising, yet inevitable.’ The core idea is that, while a reader should not necessarily see the end result coming, they should be able to look back and see the series of perfectly logical and concrete steps that lead unalterably to the conclusion. Stalin: Passage to Revolution attempts to achieve the same result, and Suny does a remarkable job for most of his biography. He is hampered, however, by the lack of information, especially about Stalin’s earliest years, because we cannot know exactly what happened during Stalin’s schooling that led him to turn from his path to becoming an Orthodox priest with a talent for singing to instead the path of the professional revolutionary. Oh, we can point to various social factors, proximal events, and other contributors that likely influenced him, but in the absence of any kind of journal or memoir from Stalin or a close companion, Suny can only give us conjecture. If there is a place where Stalin fails to make its subject’s passage to revolution inevitable, it is here.
That is no fault of Suny’s, however, and in fact may constitute one of his greatest strengths as a biographer: he limits commentary and moralizing, instead providing us with as much information as possible about what happened and the context of those events so that we, as readers, can make our own conclusions. This may be the most honest way of approaching biography, for humans are complex creatures who rarely can be reduced to a simple explanation. We are too full of contradictions and inconsistencies and emotions for that to be adequate. To present a figure such a Stalin as neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, to reserve as far as possible judgement from the text, is an impressive feat, and is prime amongst the reasons I would recommend Stalin.
Any biography of Stalin must inevitably address Marxism/socialism/communism, for Stalin’s rise to power, and, as this biography makes clear, the majority of his identity, were inextricably linked to what is, by some metrics, the most destructive ideology in human history (despite this, it somehow remains the darling of the modern ‘intelligentsia,’ and is even rising in prominence as the shadow it cast over the twentieth century fades from living memory, which could be the subject of its own book). I read some Marx after reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (in the interest of fairness), so I was already grounded in the basics of these related political philosophies/theories of history, but Suny does an excellent job of conveying the key elements of these ideologies, especially the inevitable weight of historical progression and the emphasis on denomination of class above all other identifiers, without wading too deeply into murky philosophical waters that would only serve to confuse and muddle any text intended as a biography or history.
While I understand that the book is titled Stalin: Passage to Revolution, the conclusion still took me by surprise; this is one of those books where you get just past halfway and discover that most of the second half of the book is the notes, bibliography, and other material not part of the main text. Suny cuts off his biography within days of the end of the revolution in October 1917, provides a brief sketch in his conclusion of the remainder of Stalin’s life, and is then finished. Suny’s central aim is to show how Stalin evolves from provincial Georgian to a leader in the Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolution, which he asserts is the springboard by which the remainder of his rise to dictator of the Soviet Union and one of the “Big Three” rulers during the Second World War is assured, but I think that either a continuation of this text, or a second volume that explores the remainder of Stalin’s life, would be just as interesting. If my biggest critique is that the book is not long enough, however, it must have been well-written, and this was. Whether you are trying to write better villains in your fiction, learn more about an under-taught part of world history, gain a better understanding of how Russia came to be the country it is today under Putin, or just want to understand how someone like Stalin comes to be, I think you will appreciate Suny’s Stalin: Passage to Revolution.