Suny’s Biography of the Young Stalin Wins Distinguished Prizes

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By Ronald Grigor Suny

This essay, in the form of a newspaper article reviewing reviews of a recent prizewinning book, is actually – full disclosure – written by the author of that book, the recipient of some positive reviews, and the target of some others. The voice I have chosen in this essay is of an impartial journalist, though since you the reader have now been informed of the actual author of the book and current essay, will make up your own mind about the value of this account.

Professor Ronald Grigor Suny

Many people may not have heard of the Deutscher Memorial Book Prize. Granted by a jury in Great Britain, the prize honors the memories of the Marxist activists and writers Isaac and Tamara Deutscher. This year’s prize was awarded to Professor Ronald Grigor Suny of the University of Michigan for his book Stalin: Passage to Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2020). This prize is given for a book which “exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.” Suny has been invited to London to give the keynote address at the annual Historical Materialism Conference in November 2022. Former prize winners include geographer David Harvey, journalist/scholar and activist Mike Davis, literary critic Terry Eagleton, and historians Eric Hobsbawm, Arno J. Mayer, Teodor Shanin, Robert Brenner, Maxime Rodinson, and Robin Blackburn, among others. Suny says he is humbled to be in a company of so many who have inspired him in his work.

The author or editor of more than twenty books and hundreds of published articles, Suny is the grandson of the Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist Grikor Mirzayan Suni (1876-1939) and the son of choral director Gurken (George) Suny (1910-1995). Appointed Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History, Suny was the founder and first director of the Armenian Studies Program at the University of Michigan. Trained as a historian at Swarthmore College, he received his PhD in history from Columbia University. He has written books on the histories of the USSR, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Ottoman Empire, most notably “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton, 2015). His works have been translated into Turkish, Russian, and Hungarian.

Each year the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) awards the prestigious Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences published in English in the United States in the previous calendar year. In 2016 Suny won the Vucinich Prize for his book on the Armenian Genocide, and this year his book on the young Stalin won honorable mention.

Suny’s biography of Joseph Stalin from his birth to the October Revolution of 1917 is a panoramic and often chilling account of how an impoverished, idealistic youth from the provinces of tsarist Russia was transformed into a cunning and fearsome outlaw who would one day become one of the twentieth century’s most ruthless dictators. The author worked on the book for over thirty years, waiting impatiently for the Soviet archives to open. With the fall of the USSR and the independence of the Caucasian republics, Suny was able to freely mine the archives of three republics – Russia, Armenia, and Georgia – but not of another, Azerbaijan. In this book he sheds light on the least understood years of Stalin’s career, bringing to life the turbulent world in which he lived and the extraordinary historical events that shaped him. Drawing on a wealth of new archival evidence from Stalin’s early years in the Caucasus, he charts the psychological metamorphosis of the young Stalin, taking readers from his boyhood as a Georgian nationalist and romantic poet, through his harsh years of schooling, to his commitment to violent engagement in the underground movement to topple the tsarist autocracy. Stalin emerges as an ambitious climber within the Bolshevik ranks, a resourceful leader of a small terrorist band, and a writer and thinker who was deeply engaged with some of the most incendiary debates of his time. Along the way he abandoned his religious faith, instilled by his pious mother, and became a dedicated Marxist and a revolutionary outlaw, a skilled political operative within the underground Social Democratic Party, and a single-minded and ruthless rebel.

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Most reviews of the book have been laudatory. Stephen Lovell wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “As a distinguished historian of both the Caucasus and the labour movement in the Russian Revolution, Suny is uniquely well placed to shed new light on the first half of Stalin’s life…. Many of Suny’s sources – especially memoirs composed years after the fact – raise tricky questions of interpretation. But Suny aims to avoid conjecture, and for the most part he succeeds: he is a lucid writer and a perspicacious scholar. His Stalin is a personality in a continuous state of becoming, ‘both a product of the successive cultures through which he passed and an actor making choices and defining himself in unprecedented and unpredictable historical circumstances’.”

Robert Service wrote in The Washington Post,“Suspicion and vainglory, as Ronald Grigor Suny shows, were present from the start in Stalin’s approach to politics. Suny, a distinguished Soviet historian, has been working on Stalin: Passage to Revolution for as many years as the dictator was in power. His more than 800-page book is a half-biography, being limited to the years up to the October 1917 revolution in Petrograd. The purpose is to trace how a working-class Georgian boy in the Russian Empire rose to the height of power in the second half of his life, when he towered over Soviet politics and became one of the most murderous autocrats in world history — and to explain ‘why a revolution committed to human emancipation ended up in dictatorship and terror’.”

Donald Raleigh wrote in the American Historical Review, “Suny has produced a classic, the definite study of the ‘passage’ of Soso to Koba to Stalin, one of modern history’s most consequential individuals. In doing so, he invites readers to engage his crucial point that ‘revolution is not pathology but a political alternative, a choice, among others’.”

Less favorable reviews have appeared that take issue with Suny’s attempt to understand Stalin and the Marxist movement in tsarist Russia without condemnation and indictment, separating what had been an emancipatory movement in Caucasia and Russia long before a mature Stalin consolidated his dictatorship in the 1930s. Once he possessed despotic powers, Stalin used them to destroy his real opponents and imagined enemies. A British scholar of Georgia, Donald Rayfield, writing in Russian Review, was disturbed by what he takes to be “the common ground between author and subject: Suny discusses Lenin’s influence at some length and with the same unreserved admiration for Lenin’s principles and determination as Stalin expressed. In fact, Suny’s book could have been published with very few deletions in the USSR in the period of de-Stalinisation of the early1960s, so uncritical is he of Bolshevik ideology and activity. Furthermore, while Suny does mention the disgust and suspicion that Stalin’s acts and speeches aroused in more respectable Georgians, it is Stalin’s vitality, rather than remorse or empathy, which dominates.”

Even more damning is Sean McMeekin’s review in Slavic Review, the journal of the ASEEES, the same organization that rewarded the book a distinguished prize. “Suny’s empathy with Stalin helps readers get inside the head of his protagonist, but it can also blind him to the obvious… Suny’s decision to end his massive tome ‘on the eve’ of the October Revolution suggests that the author prefers to luxuriate in the years when Stalin and the Bolsheviks could dream of a Marxist utopia—rather than discuss the years they ruled Russia and murdered millions to build that utopia. While a defensible choice, the effect is at once jarring and deflating, like reading a sympathetic biography of Hitler that wraps up before the Beer Hall Putsch. Suny’s study will prove a useful resource for scholars, but others may wonder, when do we get to the story?”

Suny had earlier reviewed works by both Rayfield and McMeekin unfavorably, and their reviews of Stalin gave them a change to get even. Years ago, Rayfield wrote a tendentious, polemical treatment of Stalin, which expressed his deep hostility toward the Soviet experiment, as well as a lumpy history of Georgia that in Suny’s view lacked analysis and explanation. McMeekin has written a series of revisionist, histories of Russia and the USSR, even blaming Stalin, rather than Hitler, for starting the Second World War. While teaching in Ankara, Turkey, he wrote works that fall into the camp of those denying the Armenian Genocide.

In prizes awarded and reviews written, Suny has been praised and criticized, sometimes ad hominem. The Deutscher and Vucinich prizes were rewarded for his research, writing, and scholarship, which is characterized by a serious and critical approach to Marxism and the Soviet experience. The Deutscher Prize in particular recognizes his book as one that explores a Marxist movement that aimed to create a democratic and socialist society but ultimately descended into an authoritarian and repressive state. Isaac Deutscher, who was at one time a Communist only to break with Stalinism and side with Trotsky, himself wrote in a critical Marxist tradition and was pilloried by liberal and conservative critics for his loyalty to socialism. The prize in his name celebrates what is to be learned from “the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition.” If a historian like Suny chooses to write in that tradition, the price to be paid is to be attacked by critics on his right. He might take some comfort in the example of Isaac and Tamara Deutscher and the Prize that honors them, which, as friend told him, vindicates his choice. A good word, vindicates, which turns out to mean “clear (someone) of blame or suspicion,” “show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified.”

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