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New Left Review 95, September-October 2015

Tony Wood


Among the historical figures who have embodied Russia’s power on the world stage, few have exerted as strong a pull on imaginations, both beyond the country’s borders and within them, as Stalin. [1] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, Allen Lane: London 2014, £30, hardback 950 pp, 978 0 713 99944 0. Oleg Khlevniuk, Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, Yale University Press: New Haven and London 2015, £25, hardback 408 pp, 978 0 300 16388 9 For much of the twentieth century, his name was virtually synonymous with the Soviet order itself, and it remains difficult to disentangle assessments of his individual character and role from the question of Russia’s standing in the world. Since his death in 1953, a succession of paradigms for interpreting the man and the system that bore his name have held sway, each in turn the subject of intense political contestation. For its part, much of the Western scholarship produced during the high Cold War embraced a ‘totalitarian’ model, ascribing to the Soviet state, and to Stalin personally, a capacity to reach into and dictate every realm of life. The assumptions of this orthodoxy were first undermined by the Khrushchevite Thaw and then, from the 1970s on, discarded under the influence of social history, as researchers made use of Soviet archives to explore the workings of Stalinism at ground level. This first wave of ‘revisionism’ looked at the experiences of the factory floor, everyday life and, especially from the 1980s onwards, the sphere of culture—finding a much less monolithic system, involving both more popular participation and contention from below, than had previously been assumed. One of the main effects of these studies was to de-emphasize Stalin’s role, redirecting attention instead to the broader social context and the underpinnings of the regime.

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Tony Wood, ‘Lives of Jughashvili’, NLR 95: £3

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