Lourie's Stalin, a monster by himself

May 30, 1999|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

"The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin," by Richard Lourie. Counterpoint. 320 pages. $25.

The image of Stalin, one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, reaches us a little blurred by World War II. Hitler's grotesque personality and the colossal evil he inspired has long been dissected and displayed. The man born as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili remains a murkier figure. Lurking in the collective American memory of the Soviet tyrant is the stern yet good-hearted Uncle Joe, our steadfast ally against the German fascists.

Crowning him as "Man of the Year" for 1942, Time magazine called Stalin "an imponderable, soberly persistent Asiatic" and "a pleasant host" who "worked at his desk 16 to 18 hours a day." "Stalin's methods were tough, but they paid off," the magazine concluded.

The next year, in his book "One World," Wendell Willkie gushed over the great man's "robust sense of humor" and penchant for "light pastel shades" in his clothes. "Mr. Willkie," Stalin told him, "you know I grew up a Georgian peasant. I am unschooled in pretty talk. All I can say is I like you very much."

One can imagine the gruesomely cheerful Stalin of Richard Lourie's fictional autobiography taking immense pleasure in toying with the wide-eyed Willkie, an innocent American abroad. Lourie's Stalin is reminiscent of Iago, doing evil for the sheer joy of it.

"After a good smoke, if I am brought a list of Enemies of the People scheduled for execution and spot a familiar name, I might easily write, in my own hand, that the person in question is to be sent to the camps, whereas if a bad pipe has soured my mood, I'll sign the list without even looking," his Stalin confides.

As for physicians, the rule for writers of historical fiction ought to be, First do no harm -- if the facts are known, spin no Oliver Stone fantasies. Lourie, a veteran translator, novelist and author on Russia, complies. He traces Stalin's troubled childhood as the son of a drunken cobbler; his youth as would-be seminarian, poet and kinto, or Georgian street thug; his early political ascent, impressing Lenin with a bank robbery for the Bolshevik cause; his hardening in the "university of boredom" that was Siberian exile.

"I chose solitude because, like a monk, I wanted to scour myself of the last shreds of attachment," his Stalin declares.

Nicknamed "Comrade Cardfile," describing himself as "fascinated by the hydrodynamics of power," his Stalin discovers in the tedious duties of party personnel manager the mother lode of political control.

Though vividly written, Lourie's novel ultimately offers no striking advantage over the best non-fiction accounts of Stalin's life. The 1996 biography by Edvard Radzinsky, for instance, is written with the drama, irony and insight one might expect from Russia's most popular contemporary playwright.

And by focusing on Stalin's elimination of political rivals from Bukharin to Trotsky, Lourie's book fails to convey the scale of the terror, an industrial enterprise that swallowed millions of ordinary lives. But Lourie's book is nonetheless a worthy attempt to imagine this dictator whose spiritual offspring rule today from Belgrade to Baghdad.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun since 1983, is a former Moscow correspondent and author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

Pub Date: 05/30/99

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