The Best Books On Stalinism

Roger R. Reese Author Of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917
By Roger R. Reese

The Books I Picked & Why

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

By Nicolas Werth, Steven Rendall

Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag

Why this book?

I love this book because it “names names.” It is a tragic recounting of the sending of petty criminals combined with a mostly random rounding up of innocent “undesirables” off the street by the police in the USSR in 1934 who are then shipped to exile in Siberia where they were expected to work for the good of the Soviet state. In a matter of months thousands of them died from maltreatment, exposure, and starvation. The book traces the chain of events from inspiration by head of the Gulag Berman and chief of the secret police Iagoda all the way down the chain of command of the Party and police officials to the man responsible for stranding the people on a river island in Siberia. The book gives a glimpse into the nature of the repressive organs and mentality of the Soviet state in a way that humanizes the experience by showing the predicament many of the authorities found themselves in. The “cogs in the wheel” who had to transport, feed, care for, and guard the prisoners were not necessarily cruel and unfeeling people but mostly found themselves in machine that demanded obedience and left them with few or even no options. In some ways it can be viewed as analogous to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, in that evils act are sometimes perpetrated by not so obviously evil people.


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Comrade Pavlik: The Rise And Fall Of A Soviet Boy Hero

By Catriona Kelly

Comrade Pavlik: The Rise And Fall Of A Soviet Boy Hero

Why this book?

This book is intriguing as it reads like a historical detective mystery. Pavlik Morozov was murdered in Siberia and the Soviet state used the murder to further its propaganda effort to inculcate youth into proper modes of socialist behavior. He was turned into a martyr for the Soviet cause and some relatives were railroaded into confessing to his murder, however the author sheds considerable doubt that the true culprits were caught. The whole story reeks of cynicism and fickleness on the part of the powers that be as they tried to make an example of the life of Morozov.


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Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's Iron Fist

By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov

Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's Iron Fist

Why this book?

This is a great book because it is probably the only truly even-handed treatment of one of the most reviled people in Soviet history, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD during the great terror. The authors by no means treat him as a sympathetic character, but they convincingly dismiss the many myths about him that have gotten in the way of understanding his relations with Stalin and his true motivations and behavior during the purge. They show that he played a truly significant role in convincing Stalin to let him purge the party and then the whole Soviet population because he believed there was a vast conspiracy to undermine Stalin’s version of Soviet power. Rather than a psychophant who groveled at Stalin’s feet, it is clear that he exercised agency to accomplish a task he believed in. You almost get to know Yezhov as a real human being, which is rather frightening.


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Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

Why this book?

This book is very interesting because it puts the reader inside the workings of the great terror at the local level with the words of the perpetrators themselves. The author uses the records of trials of numerous low level secret police interrogators to show how the regime created the conditions under which the policemen rationalized how they understood their work and made it possible for them to persecute innocent people.


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The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

By Yuri Slezkine

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Why this book?

This is a long book, but easy to read and worth the investment in time. It is about the USSR primarily in the 1920s and 1930s as seen through the lives of people who lived and worked in the House of Government in Moscow. The book traces the lives of people as they (and their children) rose and fell in power and grace. It uses interviews of many of the people so you get the real human story here with all the passion and pain.


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