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Book Nook: Stalin - Volume One - Paradoxes of Power - 1878-1928, by Stephen Kotkin


Last summer I spent several months reading an advance copy of this first volume of Stephen Kotkin's planned three book biography of the Soviet dictator Stalin. I would read a chapter then set the book aside for a while so I could mull over what I was learning. I also needed to rest my arms because this book weighs a lot! Stalin, who died in 1953, still casts a long shadow-he had an impact upon millions of souls. Those people that he ruled, that he terrorized, that he killed are nearly impossible to tabulate. My father's parents were among them.

My paternal grandparents left the area which is now modern day Lithuania during the early 20th Century. They were fleeing from their lives as serfs. But they never forgot their homeland and those they had left behind. After World War One ended Lithuania became an independent nation following centuries of domination and subjugation by Russians, Poles, Teutonic Knights, Napolean, and other invaders. 

My grandparents were very proud that Lithuania was an independent nation from 1918 until 1939. Their freedoms were crushed when Germany and Stalin's USSR made a pact in 1939. The German Army invaded Lithuania and proceeded to wipe out the heart of Jewish culture in Europe. The alliance between Germany and the Soviets was short-lived. In 1945 the Red Army swept through the Baltic nations on the way to the final victory over the Nazis in Berlin.

Shortly thereafter the Iron Curtain fell and many countries including Lithuania were subjected to Stalin's reign of terror. My grandmother's sisters sent her letters during the early 1950's. Each letter bears a Soviet stamp. In 2004 I took a handful of those letters to Lithuania and asked my friend Ramunas to translate them. My grandmother's sisters had put up brave fronts in their letters. They understood that Stalin's KGB would be reading them and censoring them. When I was a small boy I never understood the fear that gripped my grandparents when they thought about their loved ones who were trapped under Stalinist rule in their homeland. When Ramunas read me those letters their fear of this dictator's regime finally became palpable to me. Stalin was so very clever. He was also a mass murderer and along with Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the leaders of ISIS, one of the great monsters of recent history. The ghost of Stalin remains omnipresent in modern Russia. The recent assassination of a critic of the current regime took place right beneath the onion domes of the Kremlin. So Stalinesque.

In this magnificent biography Stephen Kotkin reveals in gripping detail how this man Stalin managed to grasp the levers of Soviet power. He was a highly unlikely dictator from the very periphery of Russia. He wasn't even a Russian! But he was oh so determined. Some Stalin biographers have asserted that the man who would become Stalin had a difficult childhood and that this might have been a factor in how Stalin became this vindictive and boundlessly cruel individual. As you listen to this interview you'll have an opportunity to hear why Kotkin doesn't buy into those theories. This is an astounding story. I cannot wait for the next volume to be published.

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Vick Mickunas introduced the Book Nook author interview program for WYSO in 1994. Over the years he has produced more than 1500 interviews with writers, musicians, poets, politicians, and celebrities. Listen to the Book Nook with Vick Mickunas for intimate conversations about books with the writers who create them.  Vick Mickunas reviews books for the Dayton Daily News and the Springfield News Sun.