jesse cohen comments on edvard radzinsky

  Imagine a man who has never held a job, has robbed and murdered, has lived under an assumed name, has been jailed more than once--in short, a man who could easily be described as a psychopath.

Now imagine if that man were the leader of your country.

It sounds like the premise for a far-fetched thriller, but in fact it is the story of Joseph Stalin. A bully since childhood, paranoid, devoid of any kind of humanizing emotion, Stalin found his perfect calling in revolution. Russian communists were a dangerously delusional assortment of romantic idealists, simpering cowards and unabashed criminals, all of whom were quick to use violence to back up their beliefs. In the lawless milieu of Soviet Russia, Stalin thrived, eventually gaining complete power and holding the country hostage to his terrorist regime.

Edvard Radzinsky's Stalin is the only biography that fully captures just how terrifying Stalin and his regime were. A playwright and the author of the bestselling The Last Tsar, Radzinsky knows how to tell a dramatic story, and his depiction of Stalin's crimes, of the murderous atmosphere of the Kremlin, of the Grand Guignol of the show trials, of the endless roundups and campaigns, has an impact no other biography can match.

Radzinsky also shows us how thoroughly cunning Stalin was. His sheer craftiness, backed up by a total lack of scruple, would have put Macchiavelli's Prince to shame. Like a great chess player, he was able to plan several moves in advance--except his chess pieces were human beings, whom he cynically deployed across the board of the globe. Western commentators tend to view Stalin as bullheaded, opportunistic and sometimes lucky--someone who merely muscled his way through every problem. But they don't recognize how calculating he could be. Radzinsky's view of Stalin as a brilliant strategist is shared by many Russians and should not be discounted. As the emigré writer Andrei Nazarov has written: "Generations of western historians...have sought to denigrate Stalin's intelligence even at the price of denying him the Wagnerian genius for power maximization, both personal and global, that surpassed even Hitler's."

Stalin also understood, perhaps because he was schooled in a seminary, the importance of religion in Russian life. Soviet Russia was officially atheist, and he filled the void with a cult of personality. Huge images of him, of Lenin, of the party leaders, were everywhere--on buildings, in offices, in homes. He was a god. In a land where icons--paintings of saints--were essential parts of the religious culture, he created new icons, with himself as the most prominent.

Let's take a look at him trading on his image and stage-managing history as he deftly manipulates two other icons--Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt--at their famous World War II summit meetings.

Read an excerpt from Edvard Radzinsky's Stalin.
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Copyright © 1997 Jesse Cohen.