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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pop Historian Takes On the Boss

For Edvard Radzinsky, growing up in the Soviet Union after World War II, Josef Stalin was a remote, god-like figure.


But his playwright father used to tell him that one day he would write a book about the mysterious "Boss."


Now, more than 40 years after the Soviet dictator died alone in a pool of his own urine as his terrified aides awaited his orders, Russia's most popular historian has fulfilled his father's prediction.


Granted rare access to the Presidential Archive and other closely guarded documents, Radzinsky spent years researching his book "Stalin," which is already available in English and many other foreign languages and will shortly come out in Russian.


"This is the secret Stalin, the Stalin hidden from us for half a century," Radzinsky said in an interview. He said he expected a "wild reaction" when the expanded Russian-language version of the book is published this spring. He has already whetted the Russian public's appetite with a series of historical television documentaries.


"I specifically did not want to divide the country over Stalin, who still evokes powerful emotions here, but to build up a careful and balanced picture of him," Radzinsky said.


Like many Russians, Radzinsky is still fascinated by the man who sent untold millions to their graves or to concentration camps while turning a backward rural land into a nuclear-armed superpower at the center of an expanding communist empire. Soldiers marched into battle with his name on their lips, and prisoners in the vast gulag he created wept when he died. Astute observers from British wartime leader Winston Churchill to Russian novelist Boris Pasternak felt the power of his charm. Churchill spoke of an almost extraterrestrial force lifting people to their feet when Stalin entered a room.


"I wanted to find out what motivated Stalin, why he did what he did and why he created a country like the Soviet Union," said Radzinsky, who is also a successful playwright.


He rejects claims, still popular in some Western leftist circles, that Stalin was paranoid and that he subverted the revolutionary legacy of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.


"He was too clever, too sly, too adequate to be mentally sick. He had the psychology of an oriental despot. But he was a genuine Marxist and revolutionary, the best student of Lenin among all the Bolshevik leaders. He understood best how to seize and to keep power," he added.


Quoting the diary of Maria Svanidze, sister-in-law of Stalin's first wife, Ekaterina, he said "the Russian people need a tsar."


Until now Radzinsky has been best known in Russia and abroad for "The Last Tsar," a dramatic account of the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the Bolsheviks' murder of Nicholas II and his family. A play based on the book is now showing in Moscow.


Radzinsky also painstakingly chronicles the story of Stalin the man -- his Georgian childhood, his wives and friends, his black sense of humor, his love of nocturnal drinking parties. When Stalin already had the vast country in his iron grip in 1935, the former seminarian visited his pious peasant mother in Tbilisi who asked him what he was doing in distant Moscow. Stalin said: "Do you remember the tsar? Well I am a bit like that." Unimpressed, his mother retorted: "You would have done better to have become a priest."


In his final years, supreme at home and abroad, Stalin was a lonely, unhappy man. "He would complain that he was surrounded by great men but there was nobody to sit down with for a cup of tea." The truth was that he had had most of his friends shot.


Perhaps the most controversial claim made in Radzinsky's book is that Stalin was already drawing up plans to trigger a third world war just before his death on March 1, 1953. Citing Czech archival evidence, Radzinsky said Stalin wanted to strike against the West while the communist bloc, fresh from triumphs in China and North Korea, held what he regarded as a temporary advantage. Radzinsky says the deportation of the Soviet Union's Jewish population to Siberia was intended to spark a conflict with the United States.


When Radzinsky began writing his book in 1991 he said people laughed at him. "'Who wants to hear about Stalin now?' they would ask me as the Soviet Union collapsed about our ears."


Radzinsky, with his dramatist's sense of timing, replied, "By the time I finish the book, Stalin will be back [in fashion]."