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Imagine there’s no Stalin

Two new biographies help us to ask one of the great unanswered questions of the last century—what would have happened had Trotsky led the Soviet Union?

By Victor Sebestyen   November 2009

Trotsky: A Biography By Robert Service (Pan Macmillan, £25)

Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky By Bertrand Patenaude (Faber and Faber, £20)

There was a fad among popular historians in the 1980s and 1990s to produce works of “virtual” or counterfactual history, as a way of answering some of the intriguing “What if?” questions. What if Napoleon had succeeded in invading England? What if America had never won independence? This was more than an amusing game. Some excellent historians, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts among them, worked on books that contained important ideas that could not have…

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