Review – Stalin: Profiles in Power; Kuromiya

Kuromiya, Hiroaki.  Stalin: Profiles in Power.  Harlow, England: Pearson, 2005.  Xviii + 227 pp.  $42.91.  ISBN 0-582-78479-4.


Hiroaki Kuromiya’s Stalin: Profiles in Power is a definitive yet concise profile of a controversial yet critically important Soviet leader.  It is small enough to make it accessible to lay-readers, yet comes from a historian with over 30 years of experience in the field, making the information contained in it dense and informative.  Kuromiya’s approach to Stalin is unique to profiles of the former leader in that he paints Stalin not solely as a totalitarian dictator, nor as a multi-faceted human being.  For Kuromiya, Stalin is politics – it was his life’s blood, and everything else was secondary.  Stalin ‘lived by politics alone’ and was not constrained by sentimentality in the way most other politicians are.[1]  At the crux of Kuromiya’s argument, Stalin’s politics, his view of himself as the voice of the party and his inability to separate himself from it throughout his political career take center stage in the overall structure and context of the work.  This contextual framework is painted throughout the various stages of Stalin’s life and career, and by framing Stalin’s legacy this way Kuromiya creates for the reader a portrait of Stalin that is unique as a biographical work.  Overall, Kuromiya achieves his objective naturally, and he makes it simple for both the casual reader and the student of history to fit the pieces together both in his central theme and in his subject overall.

Kuromiya’s work separates Stalin’s life into seven chronological sections which begin at Stalin’s birth and end shortly after his death.  These sections represent key phases in Stalin’s life and career ranging from his upbringing, education and entry into political life through the post-World War II Soviet empire.  Between these two sections are chapters that discuss the revolution, the struggle for power within the party after Lenin’s death, the agricultural collectivization enterprise, famine and the purges and WWII.  Each chapter is an overview of the material contained within it, and careful attention is paid to Stalin’s role, tying everything back to Kuromiya’s thesis, thereby viewing everything through a political lens.  While sub-arguments are introduced in the introduction to each chapter, they all tie back to the central theme by framing the context through the political sphere to the necessary exclusion of other factors and interpretations.

From the opening salvo of this work through to its conclusion, Kuromiya tackles the controversial figure of Stalin with the knowledge and curiosity of a practiced historian.  He goes out of his way to avoid fitting neatly into either the totalitarian or revisional school of historiographical thought, nor does he embrace post-revisionism.  Instead, he focuses on aspects of all three.  He is not afraid of the controversy or of presenting evidence from each school of thought, balancing all with both primary and secondary sources.  He frames his own conclusions but allows the reader to do so as well.  He has no problem placing blame with Stalin for many of his brutal practices as a totalitarian would, yet he refuses to make moral pronouncements either on the man himself or the overall regime and chooses to focus on the facts and evidence available instead.  Like revisionists, he highlights the participation of the everyday people and average party members in addition to party elite and points towards their support of the regime, yet also ensures that party leadership takes its share of the responsibility for some of its most horrific actions.   Yet Kuromiya takes a step back from prior historiography to approach the subject of Stalin from a different perspective, attempting to neither humanize him or to place him as a power-hungry despot desperate to cling to power regardless of the cost.

From the preface onward, Kuromiya critiques the bias of many former biographers as being unduly harsh to Stalin due to their personal and cultural dislike, rather than taking a more objective approach.  Kuromiya’s bias, on the other hand, swings a bit in the opposite direction.  It seems as though on some level, Kuromiya admires Stalin – not for his brutality but more for his ability to single-mindedly focus all of his energy into the political sphere.  Stalin does this to the extent that the will of the party became indistinguishable from his own.[2]  For Kuromiya, Stalin rose to power not by accident but by careful preparation and organization, sparked at just the right moments by a dose of Lenin’s sponsorship.  Kuromiya admires both Stalin’s political acumen as well as his administrative organization, repeating several times that Stalin’s rivals grossly underestimated both is ability and his political intellect which led ultimately to their downfall.[3]

Kuromiya’s approach to the Great Terror specifically, as one of the most controversial topics of Stalin’s reign is particularly interesting.  Given the rise of Hitler in Europe and the increasing probability of being drawn into a war, Kuromiya frames the terror as a form of war preparation and an attempt to root out potential spies, saboteurs and party enemies.[4]  Kuromiya acknowledges Stalin’s role in the introduction as a desire to maintain power by eliminating his rivals.[5]  By combining the chapter on terror with the section on the famine that preceded it, Kuromiya can place a broader context for the upheaval and repression by intoning a fear of possible rebellion.[6]  This chapter also covers the suicide of Stalin’s second wife and Stalin’s reactions to it.[7]  The combined loss of Kirov and Nadezhda, Kuromiya posits, removed any lingering faith in people Stalin may have possessed.  This assertion is confirmed by evidence from Stalin’s daughter Svetlana.[8]

The subject of Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union is vast and contentious.  Given the enormity of the topic as well as the evidence supporting it, it is understandable that Kuromiya’s attempt could not even begin to scratch the surface of its complexity.  By focusing on Stalin as a man who ‘lived by politics alone’ as argued in the thesis, Kuromiya is able to focus on critical pieces of support while still providing a broad and comprehensive summary of Stalin’s life.[9]  Readers without introductory knowledge on the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin’s regime may find the mass amount of names, abbreviations and locations confusing, but Kuromiya does a good job of hitting key points, expanding upon explanations when necessary while still keeping the chronological narrative moving forward at a quick yet manageable tempo.  His unique thesis proves sound, and Kuromiya does an excellent job of breaking with the norm to explore Stalin the politician in a new and interesting light.  It is accessible to historians and lay-readers alike and provides a good summary of the life and ideologies of one of history’s most controversial leaders.

[1] Hiroaki Kuromiya, Stalin: Profiles in Power, Harlow: Pearson, 2005, ix.

[2] Kuromiya, Stalin, 67.

[3] Kuromiya, Stalin, 68.

[4] Kuromiya, Stalin, 126.

[5] Kuromiya, Stalin, 106.

[6] Kuromiya, Stalin, 100.

[7] Kuromiya, Stalin, 109.

[8] Kuromiya, Stalin, 107.

[9] Kuromiya, Stalin, ix.

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