This fine book is based on extraordinary access to Soviet archives and on documents recently published in China and the West, shedding new light on some aspects of the Chinese leader’s life and career. Early on, Pantsov and Levine write, Mao Zedong was “an obedient pupil of the great Stalin.” But the relationship became fraught in the late 1940s, when Stalin, chronically suspicious, thought that Mao might betray him, as had Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito -- a fear dispelled only after China entered the Korean War. Emotions affected Sino-Soviet relations later, as well, when Mao’s deep contempt for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev exacerbated the growing rift between the two communist powers.
Pantsov and Levine succeed in conveying a balanced image of Mao’s complex persona and revealing the contradictions in his beliefs and actions. Mao insisted that policies had to be based on investigation but rejected results that failed to conform to his vision. He claimed to follow the “mass line” but abandoned it if he believed socialism was endangered, as during the devastating famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, when Mao refused to indulge the preferences of the peasant masses, who favored restoring the practice of family farming. Mao was a radical who took enormous and destructive risks. But despite his cruel treatment of offending subordinates during the Cultural Revolution, he was enough of a realist to allow the survival of some moderates in the leadership, such as Deng Xiaoping, which aided the triumph of moderation after his death.