Tucker, Robert C. New York: Norton, 1973, 518 pages
Left: 1902 mugshot of Stalin
Tucker’s book, which is the first of a trilogy on the life of Stalin, uses a psycho-history approach in its attempt to explain the legacy of Iosif Djugashvili, known to the West as Josef Stalin. Tucker argued that Stalin’s personality was greatly influenced by his childhood, his years in a Georgian seminary and through his hero-worship of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, and that a complete understanding of this period of Russian history necessitates understanding the psychology of Stalin. While some attempts to analyze historical figures using psychology seem dated, Tucker’s work for the most part does not overreach, and the book remains an important contribution to Stalin-era Russian historiography.
One of the unique features of this work is the refusal by Tucker to follow conventional forms in writing biographical history; writers often begin biographies in a chronological fashion by describing the birth and early life of the book’s subject. The character of Stalin does not appear in the text until the third chapter of Tucker’s work, and the author spent the first two chapters detailing the rise of a Russian revolutionary movement to provide the context for the life of Stalin. Because of this approach, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the social and political milieu in which Stalin came to prominence.
Tucker argued that Djugashvili’s childhood had a profound effect on his personality, and the relationship with his father Vissarion in particular was pivotal. Stalin’s father was a brutal, drunken shoemaker who frequently lashed out at both his wife Ekaterina and son Iosif; Tucker argued that the relationship between Vissarion and Iosif led to “the vindictiveness that would characterize him [Stalin] later in life.” This dysfunctional relation also, according to Tucker, led Stalin to later become “a rebel against paternal authority in all guises.”
Another factor in the development of Stalin’s personality was the Georgian seminary school that Djugashvili attended from 1894 to 1899. The author argued that conditions in the school had “long been turning out young Georgian revolutionaries,” and that Djugashvili was merely one of a tradition of socialist activists. The school’s insistence on Russian as the language of the seminary bred discontent among Georgian students, but the administrators of the facility actively attempted to destroy all traces of Georgian language and culture among the seminarians. As a result, Djugashvili matured in an environment that fostered his hatred for the existing imperial authority, and helped develop the ruthlessness that would mark his career in revolutionary and Soviet politics;
Djugashvili’s adoption of the more Russian-sounding name of Stalin (“man of steel”) around the year 1910 intrigued Tucker. One explanation given by the author, that “Stalin” was similar to “Lenin,” is quite plausible, considering the high esteem in which Djugashvili held Lenin. The author, however, gave an additional rationalization that Djugashvili was somehow expressing his disgust for all things Georgian, since the kingdom was “weak because of its smallness” and “a perennial victim in the centuries-old contest among the powers of the area.” This is perhaps the most overstated argument in the book, and one for which Tucker had little documentation to support. Furthermore, the author did not consider the idea that Djugashvili might simply have seen a name change as a pragmatic way to better blend in with the Russian Marxists. Also, given his numerous arrests, prison terms, and periods of exile, a name change might have been Stalin’s method of achieving some distance between past and present. At any rate, the “man of steel” felt a deep internal drive toward self-perfection; Tucker called this an “intolerance of anything short of perfection in himself,” which not only spurred him forward but also made him blind to his own blemishes.
The author provided an extensive bibliography, divided into primary and secondary sources. In addition, the 14-page index was thorough and detailed; I could scarcely think of a subject that was not covered in the cross-referenced index. Footnotes were annotated and located at the bottom of the page for easy reference. Tucker, however, relied too heavily upon the works of Freud and Weber, ignoring later 20th-century theorists.
One theme that Tucker briefly mentioned, but could have been further developed, was one of the conflict between the Marxist interpretation of history in contrast with the powerful personage of Josef Stalin. Marxists, of course, adhere to some version of historical materialism, or the idea that it is the clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that drives history. However, Stalin and, to a lesser extent Lenin, ran somewhat counter to this proposition; these were seemingly larger-than life figures whose force of will could change the course of history.