The author took up Tocqueville prior to running for office a few years prior. If what you are looking for is an understanding of Tocqueville's visit, impressions of America and their relation to democracy as understood by the author and Tocqueville, the author does an admirable job.
It is only natural to ask questions about the Tocqueville visit in relation to the founding or in relation to today's society, but the author is focused solely on Tocqueville's firsthand account of his experiences in America. For the author to have veered off into these tangents, would have detracted from the focus, clarity of the book. Tocqueville spent almost a year in America and seems to have been an exceptionally insightful young man. This book will certainly challenge and inform your views of the Republic, democracy, and America in the early 1800s. Highly recommended.
This is a long book (24 courses) and that is perhaps the only criticism I had of the course. Much of what Tocqueville wrote is of interest to today and/or in context of the founding, but almost all readers will find their interest during the course to wax and wane. For me there were only a few topics where I just didn't have much of interest. Women in America, the sciences and education in America. Its not that the points weren't of interest but I feel as if the 1830 ish view and today's view are not an interesting juxtaposition, which is a big reason why I read courses / books like this.
Book is highly recommended for anyone looking to understand Tocqueville's visit and its relation to democracy. This is a cornerstone course. It won't answer any of your burning questions but it will certainly lay a strong foundation for understanding the roots of democracy in America. With democracies failing all over the world I think a course like this should be required reading for old and young alike as we are almost certain to live to see whats old come new again.
There are several warnings I would give to someone considering this investment in time. This is a course of 48 lectures delivered by a professor who is relatively monotone and does not convey warmth or enthusiasm the way most people do. I felt that I got used to the way she uses tone and I got over it. If you can't do monotone, you should consider whether this course is for you. Very long course, but commensurate with scope. Despite the length, the topics are treated at a high level. Most readers will find a percentage of lectures that they feel they know better than the professor. You may find her viewpoint in some lectures to be a bit naive, very liberal, or flat out wrong. If this puts you off and you are a conservative or libertarian, you may have difficulty finishing the course. Personally I found the perspective and the focus on "democracy" to be incredibly interesting. She is unabashedly focused on the struggle for democracy even though we find democracy to be in quite a bit of trouble recently, and our founders were not very sanguine about the future of democracy and thus designed a republic. Democracy may not fit in all places, and it may at the end of the day not be the correct system to manage the affairs of human beings, but I think most alternative anchors for a course of the 20th century would fail miserably. Like it or not most in the US believe in the living constitution as well as the Tocquevillian tumble towards equality in all things. Conservatives and libertarians who can accept democracy as an anchor should be able to enjoy and gain insight into how liberals view the 20th century. The broad scope is reflected in the lectures. I would recommend that you Google great courses pamela radcliff 20th century and look at the lecture list. Most non-expert history buffs will find alot here that they will enjoy. Highly recommended. Will challenge your perspective and help you understand better the liberal viewpoint. There was also a PDF course guidebook that I found while googling. I actually believe these guidebooks are essential for many of these courses. Not essential for this one as she sticks to her notes which are very related to the guidebook. If you find the guidebook it may also help you decide if this course is for you.
I bought this book thinking it was a biography of Stalin. It is not and you will not find much about his young life, his marriage and children, his life in the early Communist Party and so on. Rather the book is a study of Stalin during a series of political crisis, many of his own devising, how he came to dominate the Communist Party and State, how he disposed of his rivals and how he maintained that control. It is a frightening portrait of how one person could terrify first a party organization and then an entire state. It is also a view of how a ruthless person who has no controls on his behavior can keep and maintain terror as a weapon.
The author's family apparently grew up in Russia during the time of Stalin and this connection allows him to add a personal touch to the episodes in this book. The very first story in the book concerns Stalin's birth and how the entire Soviet State observed a fictitious anniversary on his “birthday”. This episode is meant, I assume, to assure us that everything we thought we knew about Stalin as likely to be wrong and simply a device through which the dictator fashioned and maintained the information the public thought they knew about him.
Most of the information is related to Stalin's seizure and maintenance of power. Other events, such as the Second World War, occupy little or no space at all. However the re-imposition of terror after the Soviet Union's victory in World War II is given a great deal of space as is his plans for a final round of terror prior to a new war. The book is chilling and one is left with the feeling that only providence prevented World War III.
While much in this book was surprising to me perhaps most surprising was the willingness of some of Stalin's victims to be victims. Their loyalty was more to the Communist Party and the Soviet State than to their own lives and they were prepared to be humiliated and degraded rather than be seen as varying from “the party line”. This seemed to be true of almost all of the early Communist revolutionaries with the exception of Trotsky who never was willing to bend to Stalin.
The title I gave to this review is from a line in the book. Stalin's associates apparently knew that their day would come and felt that as long as he was humiliating them, they were safe. Hence the line – humiliating the living dead. They knew they were, as the expression goes, dead men walking, and he seemed to get a great deal of pleasure out of humiliating the living knowing that they were eventually doomed to be killed in one of his purges. And their view of Stalin is shown in the story of how Khrushchev acted when he found Stalin almost dead from a stroke. While I had read this story before Khrushchev's actions explain perfectly the way Stalin's associates viewed him.
While this book did not give me much information about Stalin's life outside of his struggle to gain and then maintain power, he left me with much more knowledge about this despot than I had before and I feel that it was well worth reading. The narration, by David McCallum, was powerful and perfectly suited for the subject. I would have given it 6 stars had I been able to.
Highly recommended with some warnings. It is not a biography and it is not for young children.