The Twentieth Century might well be called “The Century of Monsters.” Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong wielded absolute power over great states. They used that power to murderous ends from a combination of ideological fervor and personal pathology. Hitler and now Stalin have been the subjects of an abundant biographies, each one seeking to understand what they did and why they did it.
Ronald Suny, an experienced and admired historian of the Soviet Union has added a first installment on his own biography of Stalin. It covers the years from Stalin’s 1878 birth in a remote backwater of the Tsarist Empire to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The isolated, inhuman, psychopathic dictator is hard to recognize in his greener days. Yes, he had a drunken, violent father. He also had a loving mother. Yes, he grew up in poverty and a society where the central government disdained his peripheral culture. So did many Europeans.
In another time and place, perhaps he would have been something different. But he was born into a Russian Empire facing grave difficulties under bad leadership. The Tsar-Liberator Alexander II had ended serfdom on terms disadvantageous to the freed people; he had sought to reform the law courts; he had begun the process of teaching Russians how to govern themselves at the lowest levels. For all of these reforms he had been much hated and finally murdered. His successors had embarked on a rapid industrialization that filled cities with unhappy toilers and a growing middle class. However, the rulers had clamped down on reforms while mercilessly hunting dissenters and fostering anti-Semitism. Defeat by Japan in 1905 wrenched political concessions from Tsar Nicholas II. He soon repented this weakness.
Stalin came of age politically in this seething cauldron of unrest. He encountered Marxism during a brief passage through a seminary run on much the same lines as the Russian state. He encountered Lenin in books well before he met the man who led the extreme faction of Russia’s fragmented Marxist movement. For Lenin, Stalin organized strikes (which often turned violent), robbed banks, and did time in Siberian prison camps. For himself, Stalin schemed against other Bolsheviks closer to the center of power. It became a life-long trait.
The First World War created a final crisis for the Tsarist regime. Calling up millions of peasants for military service (along with their draft animals) created a terrible food crisis in 1915 and 1916. Incompetent management of both the war and the economic mobilization to support it cost the government the last shreds of credibility with the mass of Russians.
Stalin played only a mid-rank role in the Revolution that followed. Food riots broke out in the capital city, Saint Petersburg, in February 1917. These triggered a revolt against the whole regime that flashed across the empire. The first victors were the established political parties: conventional bourgeois liberal parties and the moderate wing of the Social Democratic party. The Bolsheviks found their real base of power for the subsequent October Revolution in the industrial workers. Only then would Lenin—and Stalin—be on the road to dictatorship.
 Vladimir Lenin and Benito Mussolini sought absolute power, but resistance from powerful forces in their own countries clapped a stopper on their tricks before they could reach the heights of their successors.
 Ronald G. Suny, Stalin: Passage to Revolution (2020). Reviewed by Joshua Rubinstein, WSJ, 29 October 2020.
 Although it is hard to say what else he might have been. A book reviewer? “Eugen Onegin. BAM! BAM!”
 There has long been a suspicion that he worked as a police agent to thin out the competition.