This widely acclaimed biography provides a vivid and riveting account of Stalin and his courtiers—killers, fanatics, women, and children—during the terrifying decades of his supreme power. In a seamless meshing of exhaustive research and narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives us the everyday details of a monstrous life. We see Stalin playing his deadly game of power and pThis widely acclaimed biography provides a vivid and riveting account of Stalin and his courtiers—killers, fanatics, women, and children—during the terrifying decades of his supreme power. In a seamless meshing of exhaustive research and narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives us the everyday details of a monstrous life. We see Stalin playing his deadly game of power and paranoia at debauched dinners at Black Sea villas and in the apartments of the Kremlin. We witness first-hand how the dictator and his magnates carried out the Great Terror and the war against the Nazis, and how their families lived in this secret world of fear, betrayal, murder, and sexual degeneracy. Montefiore gives an unprecedented understanding of Stalin’s dictatorship, and a Stalin as human and complicated as he is brutal....more
Paperback, 848 pages
Published September 13th 2005 by Vintage (first published 2003)
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £25, pp693
Because I want to retain my faith in human nature, I would like to believe that Stalin and his henchmen were all clinically insane. Surely people who wallow in blood - metaphorically when they order the slaughter of seven million kulaks, and literally when they beat old friends to death - must have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
But the leaders of the interwar Soviet Union, for whom killing was an instrument of policy, 'never discussed the Terror before [their] children who lived in a world of lies'. The deceit and hypocrisy prove that they could feel shame, if not guilt. Yet Stalin and those who served him continued the policy of mass murder for almost 30 years, liquidating everyone who was thought to stand in their way. And, for good measure, they liquidated their enemies' wives and children, too.
The blood ran so thick and deep that it presents historians with a problem. Reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, it seems at first that the author is preoccupied with accounts of murder. Sometimes he generalises. In 1931, there was 'a war of extermination in the countryside'. On other occasions, he is specific: '10 per cent of the Georgian party were killed.' More precise still: 'On 29 July [Stalin] signed another death list that included more of Yezor's protégés.'
From time to time, the account of horror is only an aside: 'Before he turned wantonly to kill another of his friend's wives...' But that is how Stalin lived. His story is, unavoidably, a tale of continual slaughter. He, not Sebag Montefiore, is guilty of excess. There is violent death on almost every page because that is the defining characteristic of life 'at the Court of the Red Tsar'.
Some of the henchmen took pleasure in the butchery. Beria 'distinguished himself by personally performing the torture of Lakobas's family, driving his widow mad by placing a snake in her cell and beating her children to death'.
But Stalin seems motivated only by the desire to seize and hold on to power. Of course he claimed to be driven forward by his passionate belief in communism. When Lenin's widow tried to exploit her status, he demanded to know if, 'because she used the same toilet' as the Father of the Revolution, she imagined herself 'to understand Marxist-Leninism'. Stalin understood it perfectly well. Sebag Montefiore leaves the reader in no doubt that the monster had brains. But the philosophy - though perhaps once genuinely respected - became a front. In the end, all he wanted was power.
It was very nearly denied him. A few weeks before he died, Lenin dictated a secret 'Testament' which not only wanted to rob Stalin of the succession but actually called for his dismissal. Sebag Montefiore does not explain which quirk of Russian temperament or Politburo convention made it necessary for the denunciation to be revealed only after Lenin's death. Whatever the reason, the delay was crucial. By the time that the truth was out, Stalin had organised Lenin's funeral in a manner more appropriate to an 'Orthodox saint', and convinced the people that he was the rightful heir.
And the power brokers had agreed, in a major error of judgment, that the potential tyrant against whom they had to organise was 'Trotsky, the revolution's preening panjandrum'. 'Preening panjandrums' is an example of alliteration for alliteration's sake. There are many better descriptions of Trotsky than that little conceit.
Apologists for the old Soviet Union, if there are any left, will regard the slightly forced brio as evidence that Sebag Montefiore is incurably biased against communism in theory and practice. I suspect that to be true. For he writes about the excesses of Stalin's regime with uninhibited relish. But the prejudice neither invalidates the truth of his story nor diminishes the clarity with which it is told. The references are exact and the sources are impeccable. The obvious, open contempt for the regime which he describes allows him to write with an élan which would be impossible for an observer weighed down with regret that a noble idea had been so corrupted.
Contempt, mixed with disbelief, is the only decent reaction to the discovery of what Stalin did. It was beyond any sort of justification. But the terror did not even achieve its intended objectives. The slaughter of the kulaks - supposed to double agricultural output - was followed by a decline in wheat production to below Tsarist levels. And the war was not won by Stalin and his commissars but by Mother Russia herself. Uncle Joe, our great ally, was ready to surrender. Why not? He had signed a pact with the Führer, and the two men had much in common.
Stalin and Molotov instructed Beria to sound out Hitler about a negotiated peace, even if it required the sacrifice of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic Republics. But the intermediary who should have passed on the message judged - with a greater understanding of the situation than any member of the Politburo - that geography would win the war for the Soviet Union.
That victory was won at a terrible price. After he discovered that German soldiers were more afraid of their officers than the enemy, Stalin adopted the same policy. 'There is a myth that the only time Stalin ceased war against his people was during 1941 and 1942.' In those two years, 994,000 soldiers were condemned to death and 157,000 were shot.
Yet Stalin retained the admiration of some Western democrats right to the end of his life. Of course, they did not know how vile he was, but they should at least have suspected. Thanks to Simon Sebag Montefiore, there is no longer the slightest justification for thinking of Joseph Stalin as anything other than a monster.