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The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin:
A Novel


by Richard Lourie,
320 pages,
ISBN: 1582430047


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Brief Reviews - Historical Fiction
by Dmitry Beniaminov

Leon Trotsky is trying to kill me.

He has every right and reason. By hook or by crook, I defeated him in the power struggle after Lenin's death in `24. I expelled him from the Party. I banished him from Moscow. I exiled him from Russia. I hounded him across Europe and drove him to seek refuge in Mexico earlier this year.... [H]istory demands that he kill me. And history is ... our god.

Richard Lourie's The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Counterpoint, 261 pages, US $25 cloth) is an intriguing look at the rise and rule of the petty thief from Georgia who became a ruthless world leader whose hands were indelibly stained with the blood of the countless millions he had starved, "purged", and deported to the gulags. But more than that, it is a masterful portrait of an unstable Europe threatened by Hitler's expansionist zeal and Russia's turbulent transition from Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism.

The book outlines the power struggle between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin that took place on the brink of the Second World War. All the "enemies of the people" have been disposed of and only one threat remains: Trotsky, who, from his exile in Mexico, is investigating Stalin's rise to power, and who might discover something that would compromise his hold over the nation. A game of cat-and-mouse is played out between the two-but just who is the cat and who is the mouse remains open to interpretation.

As Trotsky's scrupulous research discloses the secrets of Stalin's past, Stalin tells the unabridged version of what happened. Through flashbacks, which start with his childhood, Stalin's method and theory of ruling are gradually presented. The flashbacks also provide insight into the jealousies and boyish rivalries at work within the Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin triangle. Like Machiavelli's The Prince, this book serves as a guide to attaining and retaining absolute power, and includes examples from recent history and the reasoning behind some "unusual" decisions, such as the ritual elimination of Stalin's own elite.

Lourie connects the chronologically-ordered, real-life events with the thinking that Stalin might have used while observing or participating in those events. The result is a cohesive, logical account of incidents as if written by Stalin. This idea works well. Imagine what thoughts could cross the mind of a person capable of disregarding his mother's dying wish for a Christian burial and then failing to show up at the service. Every one of Stalin's dirty, little secrets is guarded vehemently until and unless he decides to share it with the reader-or until Trotsky discovers it. Reading the book becomes like observing a large-scale conspiracy unravelling page-by-page.

Lourie, who holds a PhD in Russian, has written about Russia before (Russia Speaks, 1991) and has translated works by Gorbachev and Sakharov into English. In this "autobiography", he includes excerpts from Trotsky's real biography of Stalin (Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, 1946), and attempts to write a biography, thriller, and history book in one. This is a tricky endeavor: diaries captivate and seduce because they are an intimate exposť of the subject; proper history, in theory at least, must be objective. It is precisely this tension between the I and he, between the introversive and reality, that holds the reader's attention. Stalin's documented paranoia and cruelty allow Lourie to get away with it: with cruelty a given, there is no temptation to pause and ponder whether a man really can make his devoutly Orthodox wife engage in an act of "ardent prayer" to God and husband... And since the author can shock his readers without sacrificing their credulity, the thriller part of the book practically writes itself. Also, by establishing early on the existence of the only crime that can destroy Stalin, Lourie teases his readers with the inevitable disclosure of Stalin's Achilles' heel. However, if readers approach the book as history, they will be on shaky ground: the fact that Lourie's Stalin attributes too many accomplishments of early twentieth-century Russia to himself, providing "convincing" evidence for them, may work in the context of a paranoid leader with delusions of grandeur, but it won't as an objective account of events.

Like a paleontologist, Lourie looks at the bones of a creature long dead, and from their physical properties recreates the animal, defining its behaviour, goals, and thoughts. This alone is a wonderful accomplishment and worthy of note. But what Lourie also does is to give is a unique view of a Russia blindfolded during Stalin's reign of terror: in the eyes of Stalin, Russia is a land of infinite resources, entertainment, and power, and who better to manipulate it to his own advantage? 

Dmitry Beniaminov's grandfather barely escaped a purge.

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