By Stephen Dewar
Here is yet another biography of Stalin. Yes, you probably have thirty biographies of Stalin already, so why, you groan, should you get yet another? First, the timing of this new volume by outstanding British scholar Robert Service is spot-on. Channel One’s 24-part television series “Moscow Saga” is on everyone’s lips. The story of several generations of a family who lived, suffered and died during the Stalin era, “Saga” portrays Stalin as much as a monster as a hero. It is bound to spark a fierce debate on Stalin’s role in Russian history.
Second, Service’s book benefits enormously from fresh research carried out in Russian archives made accessible since 1999. Service writes a comprehensive biography covering his political philosophy, anti-Semitism, Georgian character, wartime successes and failures and much more. “Stalin Saga” tells you just about everything you could possibly want to know about Uncle Joe (too much in some of the more stomach-churning passages) – and more than enough to hold your own in discussions of “Moscow Saga” with your Russian friends and colleagues.
Stalin: A Biography, by Robert Service, 717 pp., Macmillan, £25.
We also recommend new translations of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and a set of five lesser-known works by Anton Chekhov, published under the title “Complete Short Novels.” Both are new translations into English by husband-and-wife team American Richard Pevear and Russian Larissa Volokhonsky. The talented duo is attracting attention in the West with their sophisticated and nuanced translations. Their system of work is for Volokhonsky to produce a first draft which Pevear rewrites more idiomatically. Volokhonsky corrects this and Pevear does another version. Then they jointly go through the result, editing and improving until they are satisfied. Preparing “Anna Karenina” in this way took them 18 months. The result was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey as her Book Club choice for this summer, which certainly helped sales in the U.S.
Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy, 862 pp., Penguin Classics, $16 and The Complete Short Novels, by Anton Chekhov, 600 pp., Everyman’s Library, $23. Both translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.