Stalin: The Man and His Era
In this biography of Joseph Stalin, Adam Ulam explores the secret of his power, the hold his memory still has over the imagination, the suffering he inflicted upon his own society, the unprecedented triumphs achieved by the Soviet Union under his leadership and the mysteries surrounding his death.
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This imposing treatise consists of the musings and personal thoughts of its author, who apparently believed that he was the repository of all knowledge of Stalin. He rarely cites any authority for his statements. His few footnotes are mostly to add an aside to the narrative or to give credit for a direct quote. Ulam obviously believed that he had no need to cite any sources for his narrative. The book has neither a bibliography nor an introductory Note on Sources. Ulam was a Harvard professor and the book can be appreciated only if one understands its true nature--it is a conversation with Ulam's academic colleagues, his part of a dialogue with life-long experts on the Soviet Union. Do not look to this book for the facts and details of the Stalin era. Ulam assumes that the reader already knows all those fundamentals of Stalin's life and can appreciate his sophisticated gloss on the facts and events of the Stalin phenomenon.
Some of Ulam's unsupported statements are just ludicrous on their face. For example, he writes that "To understand one of the main purposes of the Moscow trials one must try to see them through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old Soviet citizen." (p. 389) Oh, are you referring to the thousands of Soviet teens who, in the midst of the terror when tens of thousands were being arrested daily and housing, food, and consumer goods were in such desperately short supply that the entire population lived in abject poverty, were following the political winds in the Kremlin? Further along in the book, he makes the embarrassing statement that when President Roosevelt stayed in the Soviet compound in November 1943 for the Tehran Conference, "It is most unlikely that there were any hidden recording devices in Roosevelt's suite." (p. 588) How could anyone who professed to be an historian knowledgeable of the historical record make such a na´ve statement?
Another example of Ulam's rank speculation appears on page 373 where he puts himself into the heads of the members of the Central Committee and Politburo at the Seventeenth Party Congress in early 1934. In explaining why, after Stalin's horrendous starvation of millions during the collectivization of 1929-1933 and other atrocities, they did not remove him from office, Ulam says nothing about fear for themselves and their families. Rather, his explanation is that by prostrating themselves before him, they hoped that "the dictator, his megalomania appeased, would be content to become sort of tutelary divinity-elder statesman and leave the management of Party affairs to his faithful comrades at arms." How could anyone with Ulam's presumed knowledge of Stalin and the Soviet Union write such drivel?
Most of the contemporary reviews of the book were favorable, with the reviewers paying homage to the great Harvard professor. But in the New York Times review of the book shortly after it was published, the reviewer stated: "Regrettably, the lack of a bibliography and adequate documentation leaves Ulam's speculations on these and other questions open to doubt. Furthermore, he seldom acknowledges the vast body of valuable research by E. H. Carr, Moshe Lewin and other Western specialists." (NYT, Jan. 27, 1974, p. 7). Another circumstantial indicator of the real quality of this book is the fact that Robert Tucker, another Soviet scholar who wrote a 3-volume biography of Stalin, which is now regarded as one of the definitive texts on the subject, completely omits the Ulam biography from an extensive bibliography. In Tucker's Stalin in Power: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941, which was published in 1990, seventeen years after Ulam's work, Tucker fails to even cite Ulam's text.
On some occasions, Ulam makes statements that are plainly contradicted by the historical record. In a section on the Moscow show trials of 1936-1938, for example, where he raises the question of why so many high Party officials confessed to fantastic crimes that they did not commit, he states
A PEASANT FROM THE PROVINCE OF TIFLIS
AMONG THE BOLSHEVIKS
THE ASCENT AND THE ORDEAL
ON THE CREST OF THE WAVE
THE TASTE OF POWER
IN LENINS SHADOW
AT THE TOPALONE
THE WAR AGAINST NATION