Simon Sebag Montefiore “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar”

Reading Aleksander Wat’s “My Century” (a great read especially for Polish readers) has fuelled my appetite for Soviet history, already whetted by other books waiting on the shelf [1]. My choice landed on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar”, a recent and universally acclaimed biography of one of the darkest individuals in the 20th century. Incongruous as it may sound for a book dealing in large part in murders, famine, deportations, torture and ubiquitous terror, reading was a pure delight and came as close to “started reading in the evening, finished and it was light” as possible for a whopping 700-pages tome.

Stalin was a complex, multifaceted personality and this finds reflection in Montefiore’s dense narrative. The prelude of the story is set in a perfectly dramatic moment – the 1932 suicide of Stalin’s second wife Nadya, in all aspects a decisive turning point in Stalin’s life. On the personal level, by Stalin’s own words, with Nadya’s suicide “died the last warm feelings for humankind I ever had”; in parallel, it was about that time that USSR’s political system began transforming from oligarchy, with Stalin at its head but by no means the autocratic ruler he would later become, to dictatorship, with Stalin’s power increasingly more and more unilateral. This impact of family life upon state matters was in a way typical of Bolshevik’s ruling style – Bolshevik magnates were close to each other not only as members of Politburo, but also personally, often intermarrying, forming a kind of extended family revolving around Stalin. This eponymous “court of the Red Tsar” is the focal point of Montefiore’s story – the reader gets to know the whole cast of Stalin’s courtiers and members of the inner circle of power; “Stone Arse” Molotov, a skilled diplomat and the most devoted and ruthless of Stalin’s followers; stupid but loyal Voroshilov; the dynamic “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich, nicknamed “Locomotive”, in charge of railways; the dapper Mikoyan, arguably the most decent and civil of Stalin’s cronies; later, the cast is joined by “hideous creatures”, the secret policemen Yezhov and Beria, and a host of younger generation bureaucrats. In the background there are women surrounding Stalin – usually relatives – vying for his attention and intriguing against each other; some of them are reputed to have been Stalin’s lovers after Nadya’ death. In a few years, closeness to Stalin would prove toxic, as most of his women courtiers were later arrested, deported or executed and his family obliterated – with Stalin’s knowledge and approval.

Before the calamity of purges and Great Terror, however, we learn Stalin’s surprising (given the standard political portrait as a psychopathic dictator) side as a supremely intelligent and charming individual. This semi-educated cobbler’s son, who took Ivan the Terrible as his role model, was a book addict, devouring history and fiction alike, and probably the best-read Russian ruler from Catherine the Great to Vladimir Putin. Stalin was not incapable of warmth and affection and in the early days of his rule, his sway over Party magnates was based not on fear, but on personal charm, culminating during idyllic evening parties when Stalin would sing Georgian songs with his excellent tenor (in fact, his voice was good enough that he could have become a professional singer, which Montefiore calls “a mindboggling historical possibility”). With time, political needs and vision took priority over everything else, the atmosphere in his inner circle grew poisonous, and the idylla of the early days degenerated into a caricature of itself. After the war the old and increasingly paranoid Stalin, already showing signs of encroaching senility, tormented his guests and comrades with dinners full of excruciatingly boring reminiscences of his youth and took pleasure in humiliating them by getting them blind drunk.

Naturally, the bulk of the book concerns the political scheming and plotting of Stalin and his cronies – each period is marked by an eruption of terror and state violence. First, we witness the nightmarish forced collectivization and industrialization of early 30s, resulting in the Great Famine in Ukraine, a debacle in which Khrushchev played a major role. Then, in 1937 and 1938, comes the lunacy of Great Terror and “yezhovschina”, with its notorious show trials of Old Bolsheviks and insane quotas for number of killed and deported, which local NKVD had to fulfill. The last bout of state terror comes after the war, when Stalin launches a campaign of virulent anti-Semitism starring characters even more repulsive than Yezhov and Beria. As Montefiore skillfully highlights, resorting to violence and terror had been, ever since the Revolution, the cornerstone of Bolshevik politics and the favorite way of solving political problems. Far from being excesses of a deranged dictator, the horrors of Stalin’s reign were a natural product of Bolshevik mentality and Communist system. All Bolshevik magnates were at least partially complicit in serving the terror machine which most likely destroyed more people than any other political system in last century, although some of them, especially Khrushchev, managed later to partially whitewash their biographies.

A striking development, a fleeting moment of weakness in Stalin’s Tsar-like supremacy, occurs during the German invasion, when Stalin and his proteges’ appalling incompetence in running the war results in terrible blunders costing millions of lives of Soviet soldiers. When Hitler approaches Moscow, Stalin suffers a nervous breakdown and leaves running the state in hands of his Politburo comrades. This was the only moment when the magnates could have deposed Stalin, who in fact expected to be arrested, probably leaving Molotov or Beria to succeed him – however, all political challengers had been already purged during the 30s and Stalin survived the ordeal unharmed, just in time to launch a counteroffensive. This poignantly shows how total the devotion and faith in Stalin were, even if mixed with fear and loathing – it was unnerving to see those proud men whose wives and family were killed or taken away on Stalin’s orders, and yet they remained loyal followers. There must have been a strong element of quasi-religious faith, the blindness of true believers, but psychological subtleties of “doublethink” required for survival in Stalin’s court might have been even more complex and twisted.

Montefiore’s brilliant narrative and vivid style perfectly conveys the intensity of these terrible times. I found it flawless, as enlightening and informative as it is, perhaps morbidly, enjoyable. The looming presence of Stalin in politics and lives of people who experienced his overwhelming presence is best captured by the very last paragraph of the book, a quotation from an interview with Molotov taken many years after Stalin’s death. Asked if he dreams of Stalin, Molotov responds: “Not often but sometimes I dream of him, in very unusual circumstances. It is a sort of destroyed city and I cannot find my way out. After that, I see HIM… ”

[1] “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford, a novel on glory and decline of planned economy, and Trotsky: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary, a comic/biography about Trotsky. Both coming from Cosma Shalizi‘s book recommendations.

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