Book Review: ‘Stalin’ by Paul Johnson; Lenin was impressed by the young Stalin’s hard work, intelligence and willingness to resort to violence.

Book Review: ‘Stalin’ by Paul Johnson

Lenin was impressed by the young Stalin’s hard work, intelligence and willingness to resort to violence.


May 23, 2014 5:11 p.m. ET

In the months leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, Joseph Stalin was, recalled one fellow revolutionary, no more than a “gray blur.” The quiet inscrutability of this controlled, taciturn figure eventually helped ease his path to some murky place in the West’s understanding of the past, a place where memory of the horror he unleashed was quick to fade. Pete Seeger sang for Stalin? Was that so bad?


By Paul Johnson 
Amazon Publishing, 58 pages, $9.99

This bothers Paul Johnson, the British writer, historian and journalist. Hitler, he notes with dry understatement, is “frequently in the mass media.” Mao’s memory “is kept alive by the continuing rise . . . of the communist state he created.” But “Stalin has receded into the shadows.” Mr. Johnson worries that “among the young [Stalin] is insufficiently known”; he might have added that a good number of the middle-aged and even the old don’t have much of a clue of who, and what, Stalin was either.

Mr. Johnson’s “Stalin: The Kremlin Mountaineer” (Amazon, $9.99) is intended to put that right. In this short book he neatly sets out the arc of a career that took Soso Dzhugashvili from poverty in the Caucasus to mastery of an empire. We see the young Stalin as an emerging revolutionary, appreciated by Lenin for his smarts, organizational skills and willingness to resort to violence. Stalin, gushed Lenin, was a “man of action” rather than a “tea-drinker.” Hard-working and effective, he was made party general secretary a few years after the revolution, a job that contained within it (as Mr. Johnson points out) the path to a personal dictatorship. After Lenin’s 1924 death, Stalin maneuvered his way over the careers and corpses of rivals to a dominance that he was never to lose, buttressed by a cult of personality detached from anything approaching reason.

Mr. Johnson does not stint on the personal details, Stalin’s charm (when he wanted), for example, and dark humor, but the usual historical episodes make their appearance: collectivization, famine, Gulag, purges, the Great Terror, the pact with Hitler, war with Hitler, the enslavement of Eastern Europe, Cold War, the paranoid twilight planning of fresh nightmares and a death toll that “cannot be less than twenty million.” That estimate may, appallingly, be on the conservative side.

Amid this hideous chronicle are unexpected insights. Lenin’s late breach with Stalin, Mr. Johnson observes, was as much over manners as anything else: “a rebuke from a member of the gentry to a proletarian lout.” And sometimes there is the extra piece of information that throws light into the terrible darkness. Recounting the 1940 massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, Mr. Johnson names the man responsible for organizing the shootings—V.M. Blokhin. He probably committed “more individual killings than any other man in history,” reckons Mr. Johnson. Ask yourself if you have even heard his name before.

To be sure, Mr. Johnson’s “Stalin” will not add much new to anyone already familiar with its subject’s grim record. It is a very slender volume—a monograph really. Inevitably in a book this small on a subject this large, the author paints with broad strokes, sweeping aside some accuracy along the way. Despite that, this book makes a fine “Stalin for Beginners.”

As Mr. Johnson’s vivid prose rolls on, the gray blur is replaced by a hard-edged reality. Stalin’s published writings were turgid, and he was no orator, but there was nothing dull about his intellect or cold, meticulous determination. As for his own creed, Mr. Johnson regards him as “a man born to believe,” one of the Marxist faithful, and maybe Stalin, the ex-seminarian, was indeed that: Clever people can find truth in very peculiar places.

But what he was not, contrary to the ludicrous, but persistent, myth of good Bolshevik intentions gone astray, was the betrayer of Lenin’s revolution. As Mr. Johnson explains, Stalinist terror “was merely an extension of Lenin’s.” Shortly before the end of his immensely long life, Stalin’s former foreign minister (and a great deal else besides), Vyacheslav Molotov, reminisced that “compared to Lenin” his old boss “was a mere lamb.” Perhaps even more so than those of Stalin, Lenin’s atrocities remain too little known.

Over to you, Mr. Johnson.

—Mr. Stuttaford, who writes frequently about culture and politics, works in the international financial markets.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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