Stalin: A Biography


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Belknap Press
Publish Date
6.1 X 9.2 X 1.4 inches | 2.15 pounds
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About the Author

ROBERT SERVICE was born in Lancashire, England in 1874, the son of lower middle class parents, the eldest of what would be ten children. When he was four, the family moved to Glasgow, Scotland and he and a brother were taken to live with his paternal grandparents and four aunts nearby in Kilwinning. In school, he was known for getting into scrapes, but mostly was a solitary and imaginative child, immersing himself in books. At a celebratory meal for his sixth birthday, he always remembered surprising the adults and even himself, with two spontaneous rhyming verses in the form of a grace, foretelling of his future and his talents. When his parents came to visit him at last, his mother was so shocked to discover him wearing a kilt and nothing beneath it, she took him home to Glasgow and his family. Bored by school, he submerged himself in books to his liking, reading Shakespeare, Burns, Longfellow, tales of adventure, and declamatory verses. At fourteen, it was suggested he leave school, and soon he was apprenticed as a clerk in a bank. There, with time on his hands, he began rhyming and making verses and by age sixteen, had over a dozen poems published in local newspapers. When he was almost shot in the head by a zealous bank clerk who thought he was a burglar, the inspiration for The Shooting of Dan McGrew was born. A month later, while at a party, he heard a story that gave him the idea for The Cremation of Sam McGee. These, along with other poems that came pouring out at this time, were published in l907 in a book he called Songs of a Sourdough, a reference to the bread starter carried by the miners. In 1908, the bank sent him to Dawson, and there he put his energies into a second volume of verse. He soon realized that he could make enough money from his writing to obtain freedom from the necessity of formal work and could indulge in the dreaming, loafing and outdoor roaming he loved to do. Gradually, these books became widely known, and the royalties started flowing in, which would be the case for the rest of his long life. The next year, he resigned from the bank, rented a cabin and worked on a novel called The Trail of Ninety-Eight, about the gold rush to the Klondike, which was published in l910. He then undertook to make the 2,000 mile journey from Edmonton to the Klondike himself, re-creating the trek the prospectors made, which gave rise to more poems rooted in the northern experience, and a book called Rhymes of a Rolling Stone. By this time war was breaking out in the Balkans, and he was asked by the Toronto Star to be a correspondent for them, which, in his never ending quest for adventure, he accepted. That was the end of his time in the Yukon, and the start of long travels in Europe. After the First World War, in which he volunteered as an ambulance driver, he lived most of his life in France. Robert Service, recognized as the most read balladeer of the twentieth century, continued to write and be published into his mid-eighties. He said, I just go for a walk and come back with a poem in my pocket. He died at his home in Lancieux, in Brittany, in 1958. During the summer months recitals of his ballads at his cabins in Dawson City and Whitehorse draw great crowds. And many of the American and Canadian towns in which he worked, Duncan, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles hold festivals or readings to celebrate this man who captured so much of the color of an earlier era.


In the course of this engrossing and well-researched book, Stalin emerges as a fascinating, complex figure.--Andrew Roberts"Daily Telegraph" (10/09/2004)
Robert Service's brilliant biography of Stalin is a major work: the fruit of long research, profound insight and understanding of his subject. It offers a truly rounded and thoroughly readable portrait of this monstrous figure.--Andrew Roberts, Daily Telegraph
For an understanding of Stalin the man, the leader, the Georgian, the Russian nationalist, the revolutionary, the party politician, the mass murderer and the international statesman, and his place in modern Russian history--Robert Service's book is unsurpassed.--Harold Shukman, author of Stalin's Generals
[A] profound and readable assessment of the Soviet dictator.... Service paints a picture of a ruthless man absorbed in the pursuit of politics, widely read, perceptive, cunning and, despite a self-effacing and isolated persona, the stuff of leadership.--Richard Overy, The Mail on Sunday
Service revises every dimension of this multidimensional titan. His book emphasizes the importance of Marxist ideology, economics and Bolshevik culture. But it also rightly presents a human Stalin ... Gritty and unshowy, but enlightened by Service's compelling characterization, magisterial analysis and dry wit, this outstanding biography of lightly worn authority, wide research and superb intuition will be read for decades.--Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
Here is a life-and-times biography in the grand style: deeply researched, well written, brimming with interpretations. Oxford historian Service, author of an acclaimed biography of Lenin, provides the most complete portrait available of the Soviet ruler, from his early, troubled years in a small town in Georgia to the pinnacle of power in the Kremlin. Most previous biographers have depicted Stalin as a plodding figure whose only distinguishing characteristic was brutality. But Service describes a man who was intelligent and hardworking, who learned from experience and who played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement...By providing such a rich and complex portrait of the dictator and the Soviet system, Service humanizes Stalin without ever diminishing the extent of the atrocities he unleashed upon the Soviet population.-- (02/21/2005)
This is effectively the first full biography since perestroika to encompass the economic, political, diplomatic, military, administrative and, above all, ideological dimensions, as well as the personal aspects of Stalin's colossal life. Gritty and unshowy, but enlightened by Service's compelling characterisation, magisterial analysis and dry wit, this outstanding biography of lightly worn authority, wide research and superb intuition will be read for decades.-- (10/10/2004)
A profound and readable reassessment of the Soviet dictator...Service paints a picture of a ruthless man absorbed in the pursuit of politics, widely read, perceptive, cunning and, despite a self-effacing and isolated persona, the stuff of leadership...Stalin was no fool; he could scarcely have become dictator of a vast nation if he had been. Yet his contemporaries, and many historians since, have underestimated him. Service makes sense of Stalin's achievements by making us take him seriously...Stalin's power at its peak was immense and daunting. Service reminds us that a quarter of Russians recently polled put the Stalin years top of the list of periods in Russian history they most admired...This shrewd biography helps us understand clearly and dispassionately why not everyone remembers Stalin as a murderous ogre.-- (10/31/2004)
Service triumphs in portraying Stalin's personality in the context of his times...This book is a tour de force. Not only does Service trace Stalin's road to dictatorship, he shows us what he did with absolute power...No one has shown in more convincing detail than Service Stalin's evolution to the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. It is, above all, a balanced account. He has the courage to confess that the monster, in his shabby clothes and wornout boots, dying alone in his dacha, soaked in his own urine, remains for him an enigma, not least because of the tyrant's consistent massaging of his own image.-- (12/04/2004)
In his new biography of the Soviet dictator, Robert Service has given the most convincing description yet of how Stalin's insecure Georgian childhood fashioned his psychology. At key points in the book, we are reminded of Stalin's duality--on the one hand he was a proud Caucasian toughie who organized bank robberies and could drink spirits all night. On the other, he was a man who aspired to understand and interpret (crassly) high art and politics...This is the first serious political biography of Stalin since the opening of the archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1990s and Service has made good use of them.-- (11/27/2004)
In Service's eyes, Stalin remains ruthless, cunning and murderous. But a richer and more complex individual emerges--and a more human one. Stalin is shown as lover, husband and father. A man who wrote poetry and loved singing. A serious communist political thinker and the best-read Russian leader since Catherine the Great...[Service] has written a masterly book, with great erudition, style and wit. Although there are still some Soviet-era archives that remain closed, this biography will surely stand the test of time.-- (10/23/2004)
A common perception of Stalin is that of an oafish backroom bureaucrat who bludgeoned his way to the heights of power. But this image does not do justice to the multi-faceted and fascinating person who emerges in this latest biography. Drawing on fresh archive material, historian Robert Service lays the man bare and places him within the context of his times. He paints a picture of a talented politician who was driven by a severe personality disorder to behave in the way he did...Humanising him, Service believes, will help to identify future tyrants. Here he has struck the right balance and produced an intellectually cogent and highly readable account.-- (02/01/2005)
Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources--a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk...Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie...Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party.-- (04/17/2005)
Service's fascinating new Stalin biography, the first comprehensive English-language treatment of his life since the opening of the Soviet archives in the mid-1990s, is full of historical what-ifs...Stalin: A a major landmark in the recent scholarly reassessment of the notorious dictator who consolidated Soviet power, launched vicious purges against his own people (and indeed his own political party), defeated the Nazis in World War II, and launched the Cold War...Service's trumps all other volumes now available on Stalin's life. It synthesizes all the major narrative accounts and incorporates a good deal of revealing new information.-- (05/05/2005)
Service's biography is full-scale, eking out the details of Stalin's childhood and education (including his nearly complete seminary instruction)...Service has used material newly released from Soviet archives to understand Stalin during the Bolshevik revolution, showing how he learned butchery from Lenin and struggled to survive as Lenin's successor. Service's biography is...readable and accessible.-- (06/01/2005)
Stalin: A Biography...offers the most detailed account of his life, career and beliefs.-- (05/30/2005)
[An] excellent new biography...Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty--above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free.-- (06/12/2005)
A stimulating study of a monster whose thoughts and motives remain obscure. It also serves as a reminder that unbridled power is usually a recipe for disaster.-- (03/27/2005)
This will likely serve for a long time as the most authoritative and comprehensive one-volume study of Stalin...Service portrays Stalin as an intellectual of sorts who read widely, although always within the wobbling worldview of Marxist-Leninism and with an eye to the usefulness of ideas in expanding and maintaining his own power...Stalin: A Biography, with its low-key, frequently wry, and exhaustively researched telling of the story, will be a standard reference for years to come.-- (06/01/2005)
Stalin made little distinction between his personal and political life, and as Service demonstrates in this balanced, tightly written work, it is necessary to consider each in the context of the other. Never abandoning his wide-angle lens, Service shows how Stalin's experiences of religion, nationalism, peasant lore, and imperialism became the channels through which he funneled his radical agenda...Keenly aware that by putting a human face on the monster he is exposing himself to charges of being an apologist, Service nevertheless perseveres in setting the record straight in this comprehensive and landmark biography...By painstakingly deconstructing Stalin's personal reinventions and self-created legacy, Service takes an important step toward revealing the man behind the myth. The more the tyrant is exposed for who he was, the harder it will become to wax nostalgic for his times.-- (03/01/2005)
Stalin, a sequel to Mr. Service's Lenin: A Biography, presents a richly documented, highly persuasive portrait of the man who transformed the Soviet Union into a modem military-industrial power, terrorized millions and ruled over an empire that would have been the envy of the czars...Brick by brick, Mr. Service constructs a solid, accessible work that does as much as one book can to explain Stalin as a human being, and as the architect of a system that still weighs heavy on millions of citizens in the former Soviet Union.-- (04/13/2005)
A striking example of what solidly researched historiography with an appeal for a wider readership might look like. Erudite yet never abstruse, comprehensive and gripping at the same time, Stalin: A Biography should become required reading for students, specialists, and anyone else interested in modern history.--Australian Slavonic and East European Studies
Service's impressive biography successfully challenges the conventional image of Stalin...Service has a remarkable talent for covering a lot of ground with clarity, brevity, and nuance. His portrait of Stalin is highly contextualized, and he balances his analysis of Stalin with a broader discussion of the historical events that the dictator both influenced and experienced.-- (01/01/2008)
[Service's] biography of Stalin is the first in English touching on every aspect of the dictator's life, using resources made available since the perestroyka era and the subsequent break-up of the USSR...This book, over its 715-plus pages, reveals a definite, even definitive, mastery of its topic...The insights seem fresh and original, helped by the author's trenchant style, his robust, short sentences...[M]ore than any other biographer, Service shows the human--indeed inhuman--figure at the centre of all this activity and his daily routine in his rise to the power of life and death over everyone in the USSR. Underpinning this is the author's broad thesis that the personal and political in Stalin were so intermingled, as to be indistinguishable--more so than with any other tyrant...[A]ny criticism of a scholar who has scaled the mountain that is Stalin's life, with such dedication and mastery, cannot be very substantial. The author's very achievement casts a huge shadow--benign in his case--over any critic.-- (01/01/2006)