I Wanna Be Literated #234

I Wanna Be Literated #234

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Stalin: Passage to Revolution
by Ronald Grigor Suny

How much has been written about Stalin since he came to power? The man’s history has been written, reanalyzed, and re-written over and over again so much that’s it’s hard to imagine anything new can be said about the guy. However, we always hear about how new documents are uncovered when the soviet archives were opened and the past decades, scholars have taken this opportunity to reevaluate the big figures in Soviet history. Ronald Suny has taken it upon himself to shed more light on the darker period of Stalin’s life, the part happened before the revolution.

Suny’s Stalin is a massive book and incredibly detailed. Throughout the chapters, Suny meticulously reveals the events in Stalin’s life that would later help make him the most powerful man in Russia. From his humble upbringings in Georgia, Suny recounts how Stalin grew up with a failed father figure in his life who was unable to provide for his family and how his mother’s strong discipline shaped his early life, then when he discovered Marxism, the young Stalin believed that he found the guide to how the world really works, and dedicated his life to it. Stalin’s personality traits also develop at an early age, his stubbornness, his lonesomeness, and his tendency to gravitate towards those who would be loyal to him. Suny’s Stalin also does a fantastic job of putting the positions of the Social Democrats, the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, the National Question, and the rivalry between factions into perspective to show the reader exactly where Stalin fit into everything. The picture of Stalin that emerges is of a complex person, often stubborn, who considered the ends to justify the means, who shone in his organizational skills, who emphasized unity, and who found a way to endure during very harsh periods in their life.

There are some parts of this book that make it a tougher read, however. For one, this is an extensive biography about a figure’s most boring part of their life. It’s mostly petty arguments, life in exile, holding grudges, and a Marxist interpretation of how the Social Democrats saw the revolution. So, the book can get repetitive and tedious. Another issue is that we don’t’ quite really see the picture Suny is trying to paint of Stalin. The chapters sometimes start with both flattering and disparaging comments about Stalin. And while Suny argues the usefulness of Stalin to the Bolsheviks, especially a man who could organize, it mostly just feels like Stalin just happened to be the only person available at certain moments. Just because you’re the only person able to do a certain job, doesn’t really mean you can do it well. The other thing is that nowhere in this book does it seem like Stalin ever really had any other opinion than Lenin’s. Whatever Lenin thought, Stalin would agree with. Knowing what we know about Lenin, there’s no wonder he had a proclivity towards Stalin. Also, why does Suny always quote what people had to say about how Stalin looked? He was skinny and had pockmarks. We get it.

Stalin: Passage to Revolution is a massive book with a lot of details and really works to put the different stages of Stalin’s life into perspective, trying really to figure out what motivated the man throughout his decisions in life. It’s also a review of sorts of the history of Bolshevism from before the revolution. It’s undoubtedly valuable, but a little too long.

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