Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

by Donald Rayfield, Random House, New York, 2005, $16.95

By now, the number of books written about Joseph Stalin has probably exceeded the number of the old Bolsheviks he killed. A quick inquiry on alone returns 762 titles supposedly related to the dictator, and even knowing the Internet’s inclination to connect totally unrelated subjects, we are talking about dozens of first-class books about Stalin currently on the market. Unlike Vladimir Lenin, Stalin is still a household name and a Stalin book will always find a reader.

However, all the general audience had to know about Stalin it found 30 years ago in Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago; now it’s about what people want to learn.

The purpose of this new book by Donald Rayfield, as he is quick to inform us, is “to examine Stalin’s path to total power and the means—and the men— which enabled him to hold on to it.” In other words, this is yet another attempt at an epic covering 50 years and bringing up every important issue and every significant person in Stalin’s realm. But a few years ago Simon Sebag Montefiore had already published a superb book on Stalin and his court based on the new sources that became available in the 1990s. Probably understanding that another epic wouldn’t really work, Rayfield tries to narrow the subject, promising a close look at Stalin’s security forces and secret police—but, again, Anne Applebaum has already done that in her acclaimed Gulag.

The generalist approach of Stalin and His Hangmen is ill-advised. By squeezing one of the most consequential lives of the 20th century into a single volume without a particular focus, the reader becomes a hostage of the author’s idiosyncrasies. For example, the World War II section of Rayfield’s book is a pure blitzkrieg—25 pages, nearly as much as he spends on the purge of the avant-garde artists. Talking about the deportations of 1944, it is hardly sufficient to say, “The Crimean Tatars were next”; the percentage of the adult Tatar males collaborating with the Nazis in the Crimea, hunting down Jews and resistance fighters, was exceptionally high, and the case asks to be examined, not just named.

In a way, Stalin and His Hangmen is a very un-modern book, its emphasis on the personal tragedies of Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Nikolai Bukharin and other intellectuals, not on the humongous plight of the rank-and-file Soviets. Misfortunes of poets and party leaders used to dominate the critique of Stalin’s regime in the 1970s and ’80s, but, with all due respect, Anna Andreevna Akhmatova was not the only woman in the country who had family in jail. Rayfield describes the well-known story of Mandelstam’s arrests in several pages, but the plight of General Andrei Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army—about 300,000 Russian POWs siding with the Germans and subsequently killed or purged by Stalin—earns just eight lines.

Stalin and His Hangmen is a good book, but it falls short of the excellence of Rayfield’s previous work—such as the two biographies Dream of Lhasa: The Life of Nikolay Przhevalsky, Explorer of Central Asia and Anton Chekhov: A Life. Interestingly, both characters resurface in Stalin and His Hangmen, Przhevalsky as a person believed by Georgians to be Stalin’s father (Rayfield emphatically disagrees, remind ing the reader that Przhevalsky, the Russian 007 of the Great Game, was an avowed homosexual writing love letters “to his favorite Cossack”), young Chekhov as a pupil of the father of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police.

Speaking of Dzerzhinsky and the idiosyncrasies of the book, Rayfield insists on an unnecessary revolution in spelling, such as “Dzierzynski” and “Jughashvili,” the former confusing and the latter reading like the name of a Balkan soccer team. As for “Khrushchiov,” an undergraduate who will be able to use Rayfield’s version consistently deserves an A+ from the instructor.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.