Gift Guide

Gift Guide

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

by Donald Rayfield

Random House, 592 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Mao: The Unknown Story

by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Knopf, 832 pp., $35

Many of us thought we would never see detailed and densely documented biographies of the great 20th-century communist leaders. The Cold War and the Iron Curtain stood in the way of Western academics, and it was always easy to assume that emergent biographies of Mao and Stalin would be incomplete at best and propaganda at worst. This is why Stalin and His Hangmen and Mao are such important books: fairly objective, certainly encyclopedic, well researched, and – though sometimes flawed by undocumented assertions – just opinionated enough to let the reader know the authors' writing is unabridged.

The two books are extensive in their examinations of the youth and rise of the century's most enduring and deadly rulers. The parallels in the young men's lives are numerous: They were both kicked out of the secondary schools they had been sent to by aspiring peasant parents. In their 20s, they were romantic cads, womanizing, hanging about revolutionary bookstores, writing awful poetry, and doing what was best for Mao and Stalin. Both began as middle-class young turks within the Communist movement, and the extent of their political thought varied only slightly from its most basic tenets. This lifestyle first took them outside their local towns and then to exotic places where they met and formed romantic political cliques. Membership in these cliques eventually brought them to the sources of revolutionary money and power in the dying days of the Russian and Chinese empires of the Tsars and the Manchus. In turn, their revolutions were not funded by Communists, but by opponents of the old regimes.

Stalin and His Hangmen is more of a biographical history, and contributes greatly to the history of post-World War II Russia. Previously inaccessible Russian archives are heavily referenced and footnoted. The author points out how Stalin kept his Communist grip in power by pitting underlings against one another, eliminating each in their turn. Then, the self-named "Man of Steel" culled informants from the regular population and snuffed out any anti-Stalin cabal – indeed, any anti-Stalin thought – that might form. His precision and deliberation in doing so is as alarming as it ever has been.

Meanwhile, Mao: The Untold Story is more of a historical biography and draws, understandably but sometimes lamentably, on hearsay and oral history given by Chinese émigrés about Mao's approach. Apparently, aware of how words could be used against politicians, Mao didn't allow many things he did, said, or even proclaimed as law to be written down by anyone, much less observers and archivists. Absent neutral documentation, many sections in the book show the authors' prejudice against the admittedly unlikable subject. Passages mocking Mao, calling him "the head Supremo" or making such unbased assertions as "Mao used agents-provocateurs" or "Mao used ten times his sleeping pill quota during the cultural revolution" call into question the ability of the author to find relevant detail. But, because any level of detail is offered on this previously inscrutable subject, the authors can be forgiven. For her part, Jung Chung is best known for her memoir of survival in Red China, and isn't a professional historian or biographer. That memoir is banned in China, where Mao's body still lies in Red Square, and many of her informants took part in the book at some risk.

Now that Communists are not seen in the West as evil incarnate, serious readers can use these two volumes to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about what went on behind the Iron Curtain. But they should question what they read, as these books represent what might one day be seen as a freshman effort. What one ends up reading about are the buckets of blood on the hands of the two dictators, and an equal amount of blood on the hands of their subordinates, who time and again were chosen for their servility rather than their nobility. Sadly, some of them are still around.

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