THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Stalin's death last year should have brought about not just worldwide rejoicing, but a torrent of new biographies. The world was, however, distracted by the fall of a lesser dictator, Saddam Hussein, and did surprisingly little to mark the occasion. Moscow's bookshops were packed with ghastly revisionist pap rehabilitating Stalin and dismissing his mass murders as necessary, if regrettable, excesses. In France Le Monde devoted a special issue to Stalin, but the French merely reprinted the 2001 biography by Jean-Jacques Marie. In Britain, three studies - Simon Sebag-Montefiore's, Richard Overy's, and my own - were devoted to different aspects of Stalin (the last twenty years of his private life, Stalin as mirror-image of Hitler, his relations with his secret police chiefs), but only now has Robert Service's full biography appeared and brought all the threads together.
Service's chief merit is his complete command of the period, the archives, and both the Russian and English languages. This is an exceptionally well-written book. As with A J P Taylor's work, one can hear the voice of a compelling lecturer in the prose. Service's years of research in Russian