This is undoubtedly one of the best books I've had a chance to read on the Soviet Union in the past decade. As an avid reader of Soviet times, especially the Stalinist period, I try to keep up to date on the newest releases. I fought over how many "stars" to give this book because the author presents a 'model' which we follow throughout the book about Stalin, the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/MVD, and the repressions/purges. This 'model' tries to show in a rational sense what Stalin did, how he did it, and the success or failure that was achieved in the process. The backbone for this 'model' is rationality. I honestly think that the author has a good point in this regard, much of Stalin's behavior as well as the NKVD is rational when put into correct context. This obviously doesn't make it right, but following Stalin's thought process, it makes sense. Sadly, in the end I can't say I'm a fan of such 'models,' I'd rather have the information presented to me and then decide if it might fit into a certain 'model.'
What I was most interested in when reading through the book was the information and the structure/contextualization that information was put into. The author undoubtedly has a good, in fact a very good, grasp of the Soviet period and the purges that took place from the time of Lenin to even after Stalin. He's done the archival research and leans on current Russian primary/secondary literature to give a good narrative of the time and events in question. Again and again I found myself looking up end notes trying to figure out where various bits of information were coming from.
While Stalin indeed deserves a large portion of the blame for what occurred throughout his reign, in the end he was not the only one responsible for what befell the Soviet Union. He can be blamed for the atmosphere that was created, but he was not the only one approving and issuing death sentences or prison terms. Indeed, few if any of those who achieved high status/rank within the USSR can say they did so with "clean hands." Aside from the 'model' that the author presents I'd say the fact that much of the 'bottom-up' relationship - not that of the NKVD personnel to Stalin but the citizens and their complaints against one another - is never really mentioned or contextualized. Obviously Stalin and the NKVD as well as other party functionaries deserve much of the blame for what occurred, if not the majority, but all those people who complained about their neighbors for one reason or another (greed, revenge, etc) also took part in the development of the Soviet state. In the end an interesting read and a worthwhile investment, very much recommended.