It's not very convincing. For starters, psychology, which was riding high when Stalin was alive, has crashed and burned. Nobody much buys the Freudian phantasmagoria any more, and the neuro-chemical model which has replaced it isn't going to be much help in Stalin's case.
Then there's the problem of the changing norms of childrearing in the past century. Stalin's childhood seems rough by the standards of the Western middle class in 2000, but it certainly doesn't stand out among working-class childhoods more than a century ago. If you want really epic beatings and whippings, try Gorkii's memoirs. Stalin's father Beso was more interested in getting drunk than devoting himself to thrashing his wife and son.
Of course, Beso's abandonment of his family offers another easy psychological explanation for Joseph's bad character. A dad who was literally distant, and a smothering, coddling mom -- that's the short version of the early life of Joseph Djugashvili. Unfortunately for the biographer, it's also the early life of every European born before 1945. It was the norm, and whatever pathology it produced was also the norm.
Which brings us to another problem with writing Stalin's biography: the idea that our norms work for him. We forget so easily what crazy, violent people Europeans used to be. If we imagine Europe as it really was until 1945, the problem of Stalin vanishes. He was like that because THEY were like that.
He was cruel, remorseless, totally lacking in compassion -- like Churchill. It's worth remembering that Churchill was an utterly savage man, an outright fascist who endorsed the use of poison gas against Kurdish villages in Iraq because it was a weapon especially suited to deployment against, and I quote, "the lower races." If we didn't lie to ourselves so much about swine like Churchill, we'd be much less puzzled by Stalin.
Service digs and digs, looking for proof that Stalin was mean, conceited and dumb as a boy. He cites friends' recollections to prove that the boy Djugashvilii fought dirty, hated losing, played cruel pranks and stole food. He was envious and vindictive, and once "deadlegged" another boy who out-danced him in front of friends.
In other words, he was just like every other boy ever born.
As hard as Service tries, there's not a single incident he uncovers that suggests anything abnormal in Stalin's childhood. Not since Augustine admitted stealing fruit has there been so underwhelming an account of boyish sin.
Service seems to know this. He's always qualifying his attempts at psychobiography. Summing up his account of Stalin's childhood, Service waffles: "[Stalin as a boy] was volatile, shy and resentful. But nobody yet felt that these features existed to an abnormal degree." Perhaps because they didn't.
Service concedes, "The upbringing of young Dzhugashvili did not predetermine the career of Joseph Stalin...Yet without the childhood experienced by Joseph there would have been no Stalin. For the tree to grow there had to be a seed."
In other words, for Stalin to grow up he had to be a child first. This argument, puerile in every sense, marks the point where Service's biography falls into a conceptual black hole. We may toss around the commonplace that "the child is father to the man," but we have no idea exactly how. And when we can't accept the norm that produced the man, the desperate attempt for nonexistent evidence of abnormality revs up, even when the poor biographer knows better.
If childhood can't account for Stalin's alleged abnormality, then we resort to ethnicity. Here again, Service writhes between the need to find a pyschobiographical reason for the GULAG and the fear of offending an entire ethnic group (or region). Was Stalin cruel because he was Caucasian? The evidence for this seems a bit better than the account of his boyhood habits. "Koba," which Joseph adopted as a nickname in adolescence and kept in adulthood, was the name of the outlaw-hero in a Georgian story which Joseph adored. Service quotes Koba's signature line, "I'll make their mothers weep." That sounds like a pretty serious influence to me.