Before there was Stalin, there was Koba. Before that, Soso. And first there was Ioseb Jughashvili.
He was born in Georgia, on the periphery of the Russian empire, in 1878. As a child and teen, he went by Soso, the diminutive of Ioseb, even using this moniker as a pen name for the poems he published in seminary.
As a young radical, around the time of the 1905 Revolution, he became Koba, borrowed from the outlaw protagonist in Georgian writer Aleksandre Qazbegi’s The Patricide.
In 1913, he fashioned his final nom de guerre: Stalin. Derived from stal, the Russian word for steel, he was the man of steel during the 1917 Revolution and throughout his leadership of the Soviet Union, from 1929 to 1953.
These were more than mere names. Stalin took on these identities because they reflected his character. And in turn, he shaped his character around these identities.
In the 30-plus years it took to write the 850-page biography Stalin: Passage to Revolution, Professor Ronald G. Suny became acquainted with them all.
In 1987, based on his work on a 200-page manuscript, Suny signed a contract to publish a new Stalin biography.
He wasn’t the only one in search of Stalin. U-M Library alone has 62 biographies of Stalin published between 1987 and the book’s eventual debut in 2020. Suny’s project focuses on the first half of Stalin’s life, up to the 1917 Revolution.
There is no key to understanding Stalin, but the most complete picture begins with the fact that Stalin came of age in the periphery of the Russian empire, in Georgia.
“I wanted to put Stalin in the context, which I knew better than almost anyone, of the South Caucasus, of Georgian history,” said Suny. “I’d spent decades working on this stuff.”
As a young Georgian boy in seminary, Stalin was a good student. He published romantic poems and was a gifted singer. But he resented his treatment by the clergy. And he resented the treatment of his fellow Georgians by the czarist regime.
As a nascent revolutionary—and Georgian nationalist—he witnessed the czarist regime violently dismantle an independent Georgian republic during the 1905 Revolution.
“This is a person of considerable talent, and of sensitivity and romantic vision,” said Suny. “All of which is given up as he moves through his experience in the underground, as a political outlaw, with the revolutions, with the violence that’s there from the early days in the streets of Gori into the revolution.”
“He loses empathy over time, he becomes more Machiavellian, more instrumentalist.”
This tracks with what most readers will likely know about Stalin’s life, from his role in the 1917 Revolution to his actions as leader of the Soviet Union who consolidated and maintained power by murdering millions.
The reader—and for that matter, the writer—can’t “unknow” this part of the story or forget how it ends. The challenge for biographers is to account for contingencies, to avoid flattening or pathologizing their subjects and assigning them predetermined outcomes. This is especially tempting in a biography that focuses on Stalin’s formative years.
“I put epigrams at the beginning of each chapter—positive, negative, or whatever—to show that there are all kinds of views of Stalin and not everything fits,” said Suny. “I have to make judgments about what seems true or not true and not impose on young Stalin.”
Historians work through this by evaluating all possible evidence. But first, they have to get to the sources.
Suny needed access to archives that were closed to scholars. This wasn’t a new challenge for him.
His work as a historian, beginning with his undergraduate years at Swarthmore in the late 1950s, spanned the bulk of the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall, Prague Spring, Détente. Sources were influenced by domestic and global politics. He was used to this.
In 1964 Suny, a PhD student at Columbia University, made his first visit to the Soviet Union. He returned the next year as part of a graduate student exchange program. He was working on his dissertation, a study of the 1917-18 revolution at Baku, an oil producing hub on the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan.
Suny was given “tidbits” of information from the Russian archives and not allowed to enter the party archive in Baku. But in Yerevan, the capital of what was at the time Soviet Armenia, he was given a different reception.
His project highlighted an Armenian Bolshevik, Stepan Shahumian. And Suny was seen as an Armenian American. “They adopted me,” he said. “I was allowed to work in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism on all the amazing newspapers that existed of all political types in the revolutionary years.”
It was enough for his dissertation and first book, The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972).
He later turned to histories of Georgia, and—after being appointed the first Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History in 1981—modern Armenia.
In 1987, the same year Suny signed the contract for Stalin, President Ronald Reagan visited the Berlin Wall and exhorted Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down. But most Sovietologists knew that the USSR was already in critical condition.
Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reorganization) policies weren’t enough to head off pro-democracy activists in the USSR and its satellites. Intertwined geopolitical and economic tensions—a costly war in Afghanistan, untenable military spending—increasingly strained the resources of the Soviet state.
“It became clear that the archives were beginning to be opened,” said Suny. “As the Soviet Union was disintegrating, the possibility of doing history in a new way was becoming a reality.”
But it could still be frustrating. He traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to pursue leads on Stalin. “Every morning from our hotel room I would call the archives and say, ‘Can I work there?’ ‘No, not yet. Not yet. We are in the process of razsekrechevanie.’”
“They never unsecreted it,” he said. But he got more tidbits.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, former Soviet states transitioned to independence, though the process was far from smooth. Ethnic and national rivalries fueled the Georgian Civil War from 1991 to 1993, killing tens of thousands, displacing many more, and throwing the new country into chaos.
Research was tricky. During this time, Suny had his sights on the Georgian Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which housed the Communist Party archive.
“It was rotting,” said Suny. “There was water in the basement, the documents were being destroyed.”
“Two young Georgians, Giorgi Kldiashvili and Levan Avalishvili, saved that archive. They made contact with a guy who was in the Ministry of Internal Affairs—that is, the police—and together they cleaned it up, dried it out, disinfected it, and housed it in an old building,” said Suny, who was the first to enter that archive and work there.
Archives, much like the history they reflect, are often constructed by those who have power and seek to maintain it. Put to nefarious ends, states can redact, restrict, manipulate, or—in the worst case—destroy records altogether.
“History was subversive of all the myths that make states and nations work,” said Suny. “Anti-democrats understand that they have to control history.”
Famously, under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union doctored photographs to remove individuals who had fallen out of favor. Control the archive and you can control history.
“During Stalin’s time in power, they collected hundreds and hundreds of memoirs of whoever they could find,” said Suny. “A lot of them are very hagiographic. So you read through them and you find tidbits and you find things that work and that can be corroborated elsewhere.”
Historians are more than just subject experts. They sift through all of the available evidence, consider historical context, and determine veracity. Sometimes, the absence of evidence is integral to the story. They assemble their research into a complex matrix of likelihoods and contingencies, and from this, they develop a narrative.
“You’re not going to get the story from the archive,” said Suny. “You’re going to bring the story, your selection, your art, your logic, your explanations, as honestly, objectively, neutrally as possible.”
This is the historical method in action.
Suny had two goals for the book. The first was to put the Caucasus in people’s minds. The second was to take Marxism seriously.
After all, Stalin took it seriously. “It’s his understanding of the world,” said Suny.
Stalin: Passage to Revolution is full of internecine battles and internal schisms with Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, social democrats, and others squaring off on topics like nationalism, the role of peasants, and whether to cooperate with czarist reforms. These can appear to be arcane matters.
But in revolutionary Russia, Marxists—Stalin included—put their lives on the line for these issues. Many died doing so. They might have shared a basic understanding of Marxism, which Suny calls “an extension of democracy into all realms, including the economy,” but the devil was in the details.
“Sincerely, they’re going to make a democratic revolution. [Vladimir] Lenin is all about that until 1917,” said Suny. “But they begin to see politics as war, which is don’t compromise with your enemies, destroy your enemies. And that becomes something that does really become stronger for Stalin in the revolution and in the Soviet period.”
The biography ends with the 1917 October Revolution, with the Bolshevik Party dominating the revolutionary government. Lenin was at the helm, flanked by Stalin and a core cadre of Bolsheviks who would consolidate their power during the Russian Civil War. Stalin took over in 1929 and ruled the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.
“I have an attitude towards the Soviet Union and the revolution,” said Suny. “It’s regret that this experiment—this beautiful attempt of ordinary people to be liberated—failed ultimately.”
“The Russian people are not necessarily happy with autocracy or Putin or Stalin or Ivan the Terrible. They tried over and over again, and the victories of ordinary people in the streets were stolen—in one case by the Bolshevik Party, another by Boris Yeltsin and pseudo-democrats who then appointed Putin and the oligarchs.”
When Suny received his copy of the completed book, he opened it up and started reading. One of his first thoughts was, “Did I do that?”
“You don’t remember how refined it became over the years because there were so many revisions and recensions and so forth,” said Suny. “In some ways it’s like a child. You have a child, you hold the child in your arms, but do you make that child or is that child making itself? It’s a very beautiful process.”
Doing the work of history takes time. Sometimes history itself gets in the way. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the same conditions that delayed access to certain archives made it possible for them to open in the first place.
Stalin is less the product of three decades of writing and more the product of three decades of study. In the 33 years from the initial publishing contract to the book’s debut, Suny wrote, edited, or collaborated on 18 other books on the history of Russia and Armenia.
Each of these works contributed to Stalin. Indeed, the arc of his career—beginning with his dissertation on the Baku Commune, later work on Georgia and Armenia, his study of the Russian, Armenian, and Georgian languages—all of it contributed.“
The book is rich because of all of that time,” said Suny.
Suny has been a professor for more than fifty years. He’s currently working on a history of modern statecraft, Forging the Nation: The Making and Faking of Nationalisms. And he’s contemplating a second volume of Stalin.
“The good thing about being a historian is that unlike a tennis player or a mathematician, you get better over the years,” said Suny. “It’s like wine, or good cheese.”
Maybe a book like this is only possible after 33 years.