I had a real love/hate relationship with this book. When it came to elements of writing style, I found that I enjoyed Radzinsky very much. However, I found that I was rather disappointed in the level of analysis that the book provided.
To the best of my memory’s reliability, I think this is the third biography of Stalin that I have read over the last twenty-five or so years. Given what I remember of the others, I found Radzinsky’s style of writing to be very lucid and simple in comparison. There were none of the lengthy sentences and hefty vocabulary that one normally finds in a significant work of nonfiction. In short, the book was a very easy, if lengthy, read. I also felt that, despite its length, it was well organized and decently edited.
Despite its strengths, there was one critical element that I found quite lacking: analysis. Radzinsky marches through Stalin’s early years in Georgia and his growing role in the history of the Russian revolution, laying down the course of events in brisk, brief kernels. Unfortunately, there was nowhere near the synthesizing of information that I would like to have seen. Quite frequently, the why of things was not explained. Over and over, the reader is told about shifting alliances, but there is very little written to help the reader to understand why these shifts kept happening. If the book had been a novel, a reviewer would have said that the characters lacked motivation for their actions. Based on what is given in this book, a reader would have serious difficulty understanding Stalin’s Purges because it seems that the vast majority of the players went from cohort to out of favor in a very big way in a very big hurry.
Although it was often easy to loose track of which direction the relationships were heading, many sections of the book, such as those about the tragic years of famine, read quite compellingly. Many sections of the book gave the feeling of having been written as self-contained stories which were then compiled into a book. It was not always a bad thing, as often the sections flowed very well within themselves. However, for the most part, it made the book feel very choppy.
The one thing that makes Radzinsky’s book stand apart from other biographies of Stalin is that the author had unprecedented access to documents from the old Soviet archives. He quotes extensively from these primary source materials to give the reader an inside view into the minds of his subjects by using their own letters and reports. I am a huge fan of authors who extensively direct quote their subjects, so in this, I loved the book.
I do not think that I would recommend this book for people who are new to the subject matter, given the lack of continuity of story line and explanation of motivations. If you would like to learn more, I would highly recommend Albert Marrin’s Stalin. Although aimed at the young adult crowd, this biography remains one of my favorites for taking a very complex man and making him understandable.