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. 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.

In the ussr, meanwhile, glasnost brought forth a welter of archival revelations that once again made Stalin and his legacy an object of painful scrutiny—hence the obvious allegorical resonance of Tengiz Abuladze’s 1987 film Repentance, in which a small-town tyrant’s corpse is time and again mysteriously disinterred. Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy was a landmark of the new condemnatory consensus; though finished in the early 1980s, it could not be published until 1989. The increasing availability of Soviet archival materials coincided with a sharp rightward turn both in Russia and in the West, which produced an outpouring of denunciations not just of Stalinism, but of Communism or leftism tout court. After 1991, the tendency to see the crimes of Stalin as the ultimate truth of the socialist idea became still more marked, breathing new life into the ‘totalitarian’ model. Over the course of the 1990s and into the 2000s, Sovietologists took up various theoretical approaches and opened up new areas—Foucault, Bourdieu, Geertz, Bakhtin; ethnicity and nationality, frontier zones, rituals and festivals, ‘mentalities’. But in the West, Stalin himself continued for the most part to be seen in the terms of the triumphant Cold War right. The major biographical works in English of the post-Soviet period—from Robert Conquest’s 1991 Breaker of Nations to Robert Service’s 2004 Stalin, or to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Court of the Red Tsar (2004) and Young Stalin (2007)—certainly adhered to the standard line.

In Russia, by contrast, the Yeltsin-era tide of denunciatory works on Stalin began to yield, after 2000, to an increasingly prolific counterflow of justifications of his reign, aimed principally at a popular audience; a sampling of titles from 2013 includes Stalin: Era of Achievements and Victories, The Great Stalin: Manager of the 20th Century, and Stalin Without Lies: An Antidote to the ‘Liberal’ Infection. Western think tanks and Russian liberals have long fretted over poll data showing the post-Soviet public’s reluctance unreservedly to denounce the dictator, displaying instead a contradictory fusion of condemnation and respect. Here as in other spheres, there would seem to be a profound disjuncture between prevailing attitudes in Russia and in the West. The gap between the two has only widened with the Ukraine crisis, as a waspish nationalism in the East confronts increasingly virulent neo-Cold War rhetoric in the West. It seems especially fitting, then, that this moment should produce two contrasting attempts to come to terms with Stalin’s life and legacy, one originating in the us and one in Russia.

Despite their shared subject, Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, Vol. I: Paradoxes of Power and Oleg Khlevniuk’s Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator differ markedly not only in their scale and character, but also in their intellectual and political goals. Weighing in at close to 1,000 pages and dealing with the period from Stalin’s birth to the eve of Soviet industrialization, Kotkin’s tome is the first instalment of three, with further volumes due in 2016 and 2019. Somewhat dispiritingly, we learn at the outset that this ambitious project ‘originated with my literary agent’, ‘whose vision is justly legendary’. But Kotkin, one of America’s leading Sovietologists, has plenty of his own historical axes to grind. Born in 1959, he studied in the 1980s at Berkeley under Cold Warrior Martin Malia. His first book, Steeltown, ussr (1991), gave a close-quarters account of perestroika in Magnitogorsk, the rustbelt vantage point from which Kotkin came to understand both the final days of Communism and the Soviet past. In Magnetic Mountain (1997) he argued that Magnitogorsk embodied all the utopian aspirations and terrors of Stalinism, seen as not simply a system of political rule, but an enduring set of social structures and ideological discourses; the book’s subtitle spoke of ‘Stalinism as a Civilization’. Since the turn of the century, Kotkin has focused on more recent history: Armageddon Averted, 1970–2000 (2001) is a compact account of the ussr’s collapse, arguing that it was the late Soviet elite’s abandonment of the Party-State and cannibalization of the planned economy that accelerated their joint demise. In Uncivil Society (2009), co-written with Jan Gross, he once again highlighted the elite’s crucial role in making the system implode in Eastern Europe. Kotkin’s output also includes edited volumes on Russia and Mongolia, a flood of articles for The New Republic and op-eds for the New York Times, along with policy studies for the State Department and the Soros and Ford Foundations.

Khlevniuk, a leading Russian expert on the archives of the Stalin era, is a rather different kind of scholar, with a much lower public profile than Kotkin. Curiously enough, he is Kotkin’s exact contemporary, born in 1959 in Vinnytsia in Ukraine. Educated there and in Moscow at the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences, he was among the first generation of scholars to work on the archives of the cpsu Central Committee in the 1980s. His first book, on the Great Purge of 1937, went to press in late 1991 but appeared after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Works on Stalin and Ordzhonikidze (1993) and the Politburo in the 1930s (1996) followed, again based on Party files, by now transferred to Yeltsin’s Presidential Archive. Khlevniuk then produced a meticulously documented History of the Gulag (2004) and two portraits of Stalin’s inner circle, Cold Peace (2004, with Yoram Gorlizki) and Master of the House (2008). As the ‘main specialist’ at the State Archive of the Russian Federation, he has also been involved in scholarly publications of the transcripts of Politburo meetings from 1923–29 and of Stalin’s correspondence with Kaganovich and Molotov.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator covers the same chronological ground as Kotkin in its first 100 pages, which gives a sense of its relative concision. Two parallel strands run through it, chapters of chronological narrative interspersed with shorter, thematic interludes which centre on the moment of Stalin’s death to look back at different aspects of his life and the system he created. Here as in his earlier work, Khlevniuk rejects the emphasis placed in some revisionist accounts on the decentralized, bottom-up character of the Terror; on the contrary, he finds traces of Stalin’s controlling hand throughout the bloodletting, and the distinguishing mark of the Party-State he ruled—as distinct from that of the 1920s or the one that emerged after 1953—was the concentration of power in the hands of one man. Appearing simultaneously in Russian and in English, Khlevniuk’s book is principally designed to provide an alternative to two genres of Stalin biography that have become particularly widespread in Russia since the 1980s: on the one hand the ‘archival exposé’, pioneered by Volkogonov and the playwright Edvard Radzinsky (1996), and on the other the ‘pseudo-scholarly apologia’, works which on his account ‘typically cite fabricated sources or shamelessly misrepresent real ones’. Khlevniuk aims to provide a level-headed account of his subject, sticking closely to the documentary record. This includes a wealth of new source materials: original drafts of Stalin’s writings and speeches, his correspondence with Politburo members, logs of visitors to his Kremlin office, his personal library. Much still remains off-limits, however, in the Presidential Archive or among the files of the nkvd and its successors. Other recent biographies in English have also made use of many of these new sources, shedding more light on Stalin’s early years in particular. But Khlevniuk’s book stands apart from them in its resolute anti-sensationalism.

Where Khlevniuk’s aim is to lower the polemical temperature, Kotkin tries to reignite several controversies at once, advancing a slew of contentious arguments. In his view, previous biographers have underestimated or wilfully misread Stalin—starting with the earliest portraits. In 1922 the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov described Stalin as a ‘colourless personage’, a view echoed by the Franco-Russian Marxist Boris Souvarine in his 1935 Staline: aperçu historique du bolchévisme; though the most famous formulation is Trotsky’s description of Stalin as the ‘outstanding mediocrity of our Party’. This is ‘flat wrong’, according to Kotkin: far from being a peripheral nullity, Stalin ‘demonstrated surpassing organizational abilities, a mammoth appetite for work, a strategic mind and an unscrupulousness that recalled his master teacher, Lenin’. Kotkin also wants, secondly, to abolish the idea that Stalin could have been the passive product of broader social or historical forces: in deeming him a mere creation of the bureaucratic machine, Trotsky had it ‘exactly backward’—‘Stalin created the apparatus, and it was a colossal feat.’ At the same time, Kotkin dismisses the notion that Stalin’s trajectory can be explained by individual psychological factors or pathologies—here arguing against the likes of Robert Tucker’s Stalin as Revolutionary (1973), which stressed the formative influence of parental conflict and identification with the hero-symbol of Lenin, and Robert Conquest, who compared his subject to ‘a vaguely humanoid troll or demon from some sphere or dimension in which alien physical and moral laws apply’. For Kotkin, Stalin did not represent any kind of aberration, of either a psychological or ideological kind. Indeed, it is precisely his faithful adherence to Marxist ideology that in Kotkin’s view explains much of Stalin’s trajectory: ‘The fundamental fact about him was that he viewed the world through Marxism.’