BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
, December 13, 2003
STALIN: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Rec. price: $65.00This is not a history of the USSR during the Stalin era. Neither is it a standard political biography of Stalin, nor even a comprehensive personal study of him as an individual. There is, for example, very little on the first fifty years of his life.
Instead, this story begins in 1929, the year in which Stalin officially turned fifty (contra
the accepted view, Montefiore claims that he was born in 1878, not 1879).
By 1929, the leadership turmoil following Lenin's death five years earlier had settled down.
Although nominally part of a troika with Kamenev and Zinoviev, Stalin was now de facto
He would hold this position by virtue of his secretaryship of the Party until his death in 1953.
Montefiore sets out the history of those twenty-four years, 1929-53, in terms of Stalin's relationships with his family, relations, and the executors - pun intended - of his policies. These people who surround him are the "courtiers" of the title.
They range from obscure in-laws to loathsome criminals such as Vyshinsky and long-term survivors such as Krushchev.
In between there are characters less well-known to the average reader, but who, in their day, loomed large in Soviet affairs (Politburo members such as Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Ordzhonikidze) or in Stalin's day-to-day life (his bodyguard, Vlasik, and his chef de cabinet
Montefiore sometimes confusingly refers to them by their nicknames or diminutives, and to make things even worse, their families are endlessly interrelated by marriage.
Also, Stalin's mode of administration meant that they come and go as they fall in and out of favour.
The names seem endless, calling to mind expressions such as A.A. Milne's "Rabbit's friends and relations", or the nautical gentleman's "sisters and his cousins, and he's got'em by the dozens, and his aunts" in Gilbert and Sullivan.
Fortunately, there is a four page dramatis personae
at the beginning of the book, to which reference must constantly be made, giving not only the characters' names, but also their positions and relationships.
This might all come across as a bit daunting, but in fact the story is utterly rivetting.
Montefiore has accumulated a mass of personal detail concerning his characters' family lives, houses, holidays, amusements, friendships, affairs, and social functions, which he organises and manipulates superbly.
He takes the events of the era with which we are all familiar - the Five Year Plans; the Great Famine; the Great Terror; WWII; the meetings with Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman; the origins of the Cold War - and uses them as a framework.
He is not out to analyse them in any detail, but to show how the multifarious members of Stalin's entourage were used by Stalin in his handling of these events, and how the events in turn impacted upon Stalin, his circle, and their relationships.
For example, there is a description of the role of Stalin's Bolshevik lieutenants Mikoyan, Molotov and Kaganovich orchestrating the Ukraine famine (in which up to ten million died), but also a description of how the famine contributed to his wife's depression and eventual suicide.
Perhaps the single most striking fact which emerges from this story is the amazing complexity of Stalin's personality.
Determined, ruthless, capable, intelligent, cunning, duplicitous, cruel, callous, devious, manipulative, vindictive; we have always known he was all of these.
But considerate, gregarious, chivalrous with women, funny with children, an affectionate father, a lover of literature? All true as well.
The one constant in Stalin's character and motivation was his devotion to the summum bonum
The perks of office which have overwhelmed other potentates, such as idleness, drugs, clothes, cars, money and sumptuously appointed palaces, never captivated him.
Although he was married twice, with a number of affairs dotted through his life, sex was never a major factor in his career.
He was actually quite prudish, and once terrified his projectionist by angrily walking out of a film which contained a glimpse of a naked woman.
In this respect, he was similar to Hitler, but different from not only Mao (who regularly sent out for batches of teenagers to be trucked in for his recreation) but also from his successive secret police heads, the sadistic, pornography-addicted rapists Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria.
Along with his pornography, Yagoda possessed the two labelled bullets that had been extracted from the brains of Kamenev and Zinoviev. Yezhov inherited them.
Montefiore's story can be seen as an illustration of two dictums.
The first is the truism that there is no honour amongst thieves.
Loyalty and integrity, in the milieu surrounding Stalin, were at best pragmatic and most of the time non-existent.
The other is G.K. Chesterton's famous observation that when men cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing, but in anything.
One of the features of Soviet communism is its quasi-religious rationalisation of evil.
Lenin had demanded, "Merciless mass terror against the kulaks ... Death to them!", and Stalin went on to explain that (in Montefiore's words) theirs was "truly a holy terror that stemmed from Bolshevism's Messianic nature".
No wonder that Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda, wrote: "This religion ... invests man with a godlike authority".
This book is full of murky characters, banal motives and grubby activities.
Despite - or because - of these characteristics, it is utterly absorbing. Could it therefore be seen as a sort of middle-brow family drama (a Soviet Forsyte Saga
) or lowbrow soap opera (a Bolshevik Dallas
Not really. First, because the events it recounts are far worse than fiction, and secondly, because it is true.