Beginning with the Soviet myths reinforced by propagandist posters and an official biography, the 'great man', Joseph Stalin (birth name: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) has left behind a legacy that confronts historians with a conundrum; to decode the personality, psychology, intentions and influence of his person, clouded by historical inaccuracies within Soviet archives attributed to the "cult of personality" and political agendas of subsequent leaders such as the Stalinist myths endorsed by Nikita Khrushchev. It is my intention in this essay to address the issues biographers have uncounted since the first biography of historical merit was accepted and referenced too in academia; Isaac Deutscher, Stalin, A political biography, Oxford University, London, 1961 and to address the question as to why the interpretations of Stalin have changed over time. In order to address this I will focus on three major biographies which are as follows, the previously mentioned biography of Stalin by Isaac Deutscher. Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (a prequel to his first biography of Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar) and Robert Services, Stalin: A Biography (reference to others will be made). As to what is the cause of changing interpretations I offer the following factors; Interpretation and selection of soviet archive material, the authors ideological bias, the increasingly availability of sources, and the different movements in the study of psychology and personality.
Biography as history
We do not understand the history of Russia, or of most of Europe, if we are not familiar with the biography of Josef Stalin. What we know about Stalin has changed as new biographers have found new sources enabling us to tell more about him; but as we learn more about Stalin we learn more about Russia. The Stalin biographies by Montefiore and by Robert Service tell us more about Stalin and about Russia than did the earlier biography by Deutscher. The “great man” approach to history is now out of fashion with many historians, but in the case of men like Stalin who dominated the life of their country for so long it remains important. The biographies of people such as Stalin along with Churchill in Britain, FD Roosevelt in America, Hitler in Germany, must be studied to understand their place and their times. Some historians go further. Professor Robert I Rotberg of Harvard University, for example, argues that: Biography is history, depends on history, and strengthens and enriches history. In turn, all history is biography. History could hardly exist without biographical insights—without the texture of human endeavor that emanates from a full appreciation of human motivation, the real or perceived constraints on human action, and exogenous influences on human behavior. Social forces are important, but they act on and through individuals. Structural and cultural variables are important, but individuals pull the levers of structure and act within or against cultural norms…Most of the time, history is the product of rational actors… Similarly, his fellow American historian Professor Stanley Wolpert argues that: …at its best, biography is the finest form of history. The light of truth embodied in biographical history is the most effective antidote to malicious historical falsehoods, our gravest “errors of judgment.” Learning about the roots of mistakes and errors of judgment in history may someday teach us to avoid repeating them.
Availability of sources and its impact on historical approaches to biography. Deutscher had previously considered writing a History of the Soviet Union but the Oxford Press told him no. They wanted a biography of Stalin. For the first time there existed enough primary evidence and substantial documentation to write a biography of historical merit on Stalin (unlike earlier biographies that had to make up for a lack of evidence with rumor and speculation). When Deutscher...
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