Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин



Up the greasy pole of terror
(Filed: 14/07/2003)

Orlando Figes reviews Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

We are only just beginning to grasp the true nature of Stalin's power. Compared to the Hitler state, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of the Stalinist regime. Stalin's personal character is an obvious enigma: it is hard to tell when insane paranoia supplants scheming rationality. But the tyrant's hold on the Bolshevik Party is just as puzzling. Was he a strong or a weak dictator? Did he direct the Terror or did others do it in his name? And how did Stalin's influence infiltrate into the daily lives of those who called themselves the Stalinists?

Simon Sebag Montefiore takes us one very large step forward towards an understanding of these difficult issues. Despite its title, his book is not a biography of Stalin, although the tyrant's sinister presence can be felt on every page. Sebag Montefiore has written something rather more interesting and original - an intimate account of daily life in Stalin's entourage.

It is a sort of moral history of those fawning, frightened and corrupt "half-men" who did the tyrant's killing and elevated him to the status of a God. In this way Sebag Montefiore is able to place Stalin's power in its immediate political context - and to go a long way to explaining it.


Four years ago this book would not have been possible. Sebag Montefiore has drawn upon the newly opened personal files of Party leaders that were transferred from the Presidential Archive to the Russian state archives in 2000.

Sebag Montefiore has worked with amazing speed, emerging from the archives with a fascinating scoop of documents, including many personal diaries and letters that shed new light on the private lives of Stalin's inner circle. He has supplemented these with interviews with the relatives of the major political clans - the Mikoyans, the Malenkovs and Molotovs, the Berias, the Kaganoviches and the Khrushchevs.

One thing these new documents reveal is how loose the ruling Party was in the early 1930s, when Stalin was just one of many leading Bolsheviks. Indeed in many ways he was overshadowed by the Party boss of Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, who was genuinely popular, not just in the Party but in the country as a whole.

In 1934 Kirov was mysteriously murdered - probably on Stalin's orders (although I doubt we shall ever know for sure). Stalin took charge of the murder investigation and built it into the exposure of a major political conspiracy against the state. This was the origin of the mass terror which culminated in the huge show trials of 1936-38.

Sebag Montefiore portrays Stalin as "the chief organiser" of the Terror. I am sure that is right (we know from documents that Stalin signed the execution lists). But I am not so convinced by Sebag Montefiore's argument that the sources of the Terror are located in Stalin's personal life.

He starts his book with a riveting account of the suicide of Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, in November 1932. According to Sebag Montefiore, it was this event that unhinged Stalin psychologically, and set him on a course to mass terror. But this could only have been the case in the absence of any effective check on Stalin's personal power within the political elite: at this stage, however, in the early 1930s, there still was such a check.

Gradually, in the course of that decade, Stalin eliminated all his main political rivals and surrounded himself with yes-men. To explain this process one needs to look at a different aspect of the new materials that Sebag Montefiore has revealed. For nearly all of Stalin's men were recently promoted to the Soviet elite. Apart from Stalin himself, Molotov and Kalinin were the only major leaders to have been members of Lenin's entourage. The rest all rose as a result of their participation in Stalin's war against the Old Bolsheviks between 1928 and 1938. And all of them depended on Stalin's patronage.

Stalin's court was not unlike that of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin was a voracious reader of history books and he consciously modelled himself on the 16th-century Tsar. He built up his own elite of henchmen - not unlike Ivan's oprichnina - to undermine the old political establishment. He gave them flats and dachas, cars and chauffeurs, to buy their gratitude. And every year he murdered some of them to keep the others on their toes.

Slavishly devoted to Stalin's will, and all too well aware that they could be destroyed by a single flick of his finger, these yes-men were ready to do almost anything to retain their position at his court. This is where the full horror of Sebag Montefiore's account is located. He portrays an extraordinary picture of moral degeneracy at the heart of the Stalinist regime.

The police chief Lavrenti Beria was a sex maniac: young girls were kidnapped from the street, raped by Beria, and sent home with a bouquet of flowers. Politburo meetings frequently descended into boorish drinking bouts, farting competitions, and surreal scenes of homosexual slow-dancing to the gramophone.

Stalin loved to engineer these scenes of ritual humiliation. Somehow he stayed sober while the others all got drunk. He fostered an atmosphere of fear and jealousy among his oligarchs - so much so that there were times when they rushed to denounce each other in a frenzy of terror.

To guarantee their submission, Stalin punished several of his entourage by having their wives arrested. Molotov, Poskrebyshev (Stalin's personal secretary), the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin - they all suffered this indignity. Yet none of these Good Bolsheviks raised one word of protest: the Party was always right.

The moral degradation of the Stalinist elite was crucial to Stalin's power, especially in the post-war years (1945-53) when his own anti-Semitism was allowed free rein, leading to a wave of arrests and expulsions from the major cities, and when much of Soviet policy was resolved at drunken dinners in his private rooms.

Stalin has its minor faults (the footnotes, for example, are inadequate, which is regrettable for a book with so much new material). But its extraordinary revelation of the evil - the complete amorality - at the heart of the dictator's court will change the way historians approach the great historical questions about the Stalinist regime.

Orlando Figes's 'Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia' is published by Allen Lane.


Inside a monster's mind

In terms of terror and sheer evil, Joseph Stalin was in a class of his own. Simon Sebag Montefiore tells a story of continual slaughter in his biography of the Soviet dictator

Roy Hattersley
Sunday July 20, 2003
The Observer

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.


A despot and a flirt

Boots, billiards, babies on his knee. Robert Service on the domestic banalities revealed by Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Joseph Stalin

Saturday July 19, 2003
The Guardian

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
693pp, Weidenfeld, £25

Simon Sebag Montefiore's book is gripping and timely. Few occupants of Joseph Stalin's Kremlin remain alive, and most of those who do are cagey when it comes to talking about their experience of the 1930s and 40s. Years of trouble have made them button their lips.

Montefiore, though, refused to take no for an answer. The principals are long dead: Stalin died in March 1953 and his prime associates perished in subsequent years. Only one of them, police chief Beria, died an unnatural death. But their sons and daughters responded to the call to tell their tale, with plenty to say about what they saw and heard as adolescent members of the Soviet elite.

Montefiore, a skilled journalist, has elicited significant testimonies from many residents of Rostov-on-Don, Georgia and Abkhazia. He also made good use of the Moscow archives, but instead of restricting himself to Stalin's files, he had the bright idea of examining the letters, telegrams and diaries of his intimate associates. As a result, this is a book based on extraordinary primary research.

The main subject is the Kremlin "court", established by Stalin after rising to supreme power at the end of the 20s. Politics and economics, though not neglected, take second place to the cultural milieu of high Stalinism.

Stalin was a vengeful and unpredictable despot, whose confederates lived in constant trepidation that they might be thrown into the gulag. Montefiore adds to the existing long list of abuses, but where he breaks ground is in his description of the mundane aspects of life in the Kremlin and the dachas. As he points out, Stalin was not only a very dangerous politician, but also a man who liked to throw parties, flirt with women, play billiards, dandle babies on his knee and sing the Orthodox hymns of his youth. Abnormality and domestic banality were combined in him.

Previous accounts of the "court" tend to understate the wide interplay of feelings in that milieu. Among Montefiore's discoveries is a pack of love letters from Politburo member Molotov to his wife Polina. Molotov is usually depicted as a gloomy type - Lenin called him "stone arse" because of his zeal for sitting through interminable party meetings. Now we can see a different aspect. When the foreign newspapers mentioned him prominently, Molotov proudly told his wife what had been written. On trips abroad, he never failed to keep in contact with her and vouch his continuing passion.

Polina was virtually the first lady of the Soviet state after the suicide of Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, in December 1932. She dressed smartly and, unlike the other Kremlin women, acquired political postings and headed people's commissariats for perfumery (a lost cause in the Soviet period) and fisheries (vital for consumers). But Stalin took against her.

The police collected compromising material on everyone in the Kremlin, even purportedly on Stalin himself. Polina was sacked. Worse followed after the second world war. Polina was Jewish and was eager to grant the heavily populated Crimea to the Jews of the USSR as their own autonomous region. She greeted Golda Meir on her trip to Moscow in 1948. All this was too much for Stalin, who had Polina arrested. Her loving state-terrorist husband, after trying to abstain from the Politburo vote, had to apologise to Stalin and agree that she deserved her fate.

Yet Kremlin life was tranquil between the frequent hectic emergencies. Stalin, contrary to what is usually supposed, did not ditch the Alliluyev family of his wife Nadezhda after her suicide. They still stayed at his dacha outside Moscow. Indeed, he gave them the run of it by themselves, since its rooms and garden reminded him too painfully of happier times.

In fact, Nadezhda had been more unstable than Stalin. She was not just moody, but on the verge of mental illness for most of her short adult life. (Who wouldn't have been, living with Stalin?) Her sisters retained affection for him after the suicide, and he had a soft spot for Yevgenia Alliluyeva to the point that she married someone else to avoid his attentions. Stalin was not a man of self-restraint, but a volatile mixture of emotions.

At social functions he was, until the war, a charming host. Things changed a bit with Operation Barbarossa, when Stalin adopted the spartan lifestyle of Emperor Nicholas I and slept for preference on a simple divan. The women in his life became fewer, and his despotic control over male minions grew tighter. Shortly after the war he suffered a heart attack, and his health declined. His ability to intervene directly in public affairs was reduced, and he switched to choosing favourites through whom to rule. Holidays by the Black Sea became ever longer.

Yet Montefiore rightly emphasises that Stalin kept watch on distant Moscow by means of regular telegrams. He had cemented a whole system of power into place. His associates tried to anticipate what he wanted in policy for fear of annoying him. This was a vain undertaking. Stalin raised a succession of favourites - Kaganovich, Molotov, Malenkov, Beria and Kuznetsov - only to cast them down when they seemed too big for their boots.

Boots, by the way, are one of the few among Stalin's personal idiosyncrasies that are left by the author to future scholars. Stalin was a cobbler's son who had worked as an apprentice in a Tbilisi shoe factory. Whenever he met cobblers later in life, he spoke animatedly of footwear. In 1918 he commissioned a shoemaker in Tsaritsyn to construct a pair to his specification. He wanted to look the part of the macho commissar. Subsequently he went in for boots of softer leather. In middle age he was plagued by corns, and cut holes in footwear to relieve the pain. He did not smarten his appearance until the second world war, when meetings with Churchill required him to look the full part of a commander.)

From Montefiore we learn which fish Stalin liked, which wine and which fruit. (The dictator loved bananas: now there's a psychology dissertation for someone.) The sombre architecture of his dachas is described by an author who has visited most of them. The teachers, nannies and bodyguards are brought to life. Stalin's inclinations in literature, music and history are judiciously considered.

For many years it has been unfashionable for professional historians to examine the "private" lives of rulers. Structures have been regarded as important to the detriment of personality and intentions. Yet this has been a false polarity. Even in Stalin's personal dictatorship, he always had to respect the intrinsic imperatives of the Soviet order. He was not free to do everything he wanted. But his whims had a huge impact and the management of the Soviet order changed a lot under Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev.

Stalin, moreover, deliberately remained enigmatic in the eyes of his confederates; he was a master of dissimulation. Montefiore, by excavating and analysing the shards of evidence about daily life in his office and dachas, has illuminated wider aspects of the history of the USSR. This is one of the few recent books on Stalinism that will be read in years to come. The devil is in the detail.

Robert Service is completing a biography of Stalin

07/07/03 - Books section

Confessions of the Kremlin henchmen

By Anne Applbaum

This is an extraordinary book, and Simon Sebag Montefiore might well be one of the very few people who could possibly have written it. By that, I mean that the research and the writing required not only the skills of a journalist and the patience of a historian, but also the ear of a gossip columnist and the talents of a seasoned party-goer - qualities not often found combined in one person.

Only an unusually creative mind (and only someone who could have got Mick Jagger to write favourably of his previous book, on the 18th century Russian statesman, Potemkin) could have seen through the grey facade of Stalin's entourage, and found, behind all of those leaden photographs of leaders standing to attention in Red Square, a debauched, intrigue-filled, scandal-laden world, populated by star-crossed lovers, wicked rapists, spoiled children and men who murdered their best friends.

There will, I am certain, be historians who dislike this book, who pick apart Sebag Montefiore's assumptions or who question the recollections of some of the people he interviewed. But they will never be able to deny his basic achievement.

Not only has he combed through archives, uncovering not just state papers but billetsdoux, postcards, and other personal notes, he has managed to persuade a whole generation of little old ladies and elderly men - the wives, daughters, granddaughters, servants, nieces and nephews of Stalin's henchmen - to give him a series of extraordinary interviews and, in some cases, lend him their hand-written memoirs.

The Zhdanov family - relatives of Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin's court favourites - even let him listen to a tape made, decades ago, of one of the Politburo's music sessions, featuring General Voroshilov on vocals and Zhdanov on piano: "There one can actually hear the fine voices and tinkling piano of a night at Kuntsevo," Stalin's dacha, writes Sebag Montefiore.

Why so few have thought to search out these people before is unclear. Perhaps his interest in real people, as opposed to historical caricatures, led him in this direction.

And his research has produced what will have to be seen as genuinely new portraits of Soviet leaders. Thanks in part to his interview with Martha Peshkova - granddaughter of the writer Maxim Gorky and childhood friend of Svetlana Stalin - we have, for example, a full portrait of the private life of one of the 20th century's great criminals.

For Peshkova married Sergo Beria, son of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's chief of secret police in the 1940s, a time when Stalin's concentration camps and jails were at their fullest. Not only does she describe Beria playing volleyball on the weekends, she tells of how he once amazed her by pointing at her daughter - his grand-daughter - and announcing that she would "be tutored at home, and then she's going to Oxford University", not a very Communist sentiment.

That certainly puts a new twist on Beria's end: he was put to death after Stalin died, having been accused, falsely, of being a British spy.

But there was another, distinctly less attractive side to Beria, too. Others have written of his violent womanising, but Sebag Montefiore compiles the details: the rape of Soviet film star Tatiana Okunevskaya, the cruises through Moscow to pick up women, the town houses where he wined and dined women before attacking them - "Scream or not, it doesn't matter," he told Okunevskaya - and the arranged abortions.

Earlier this year, the Russian prosecutor's office revealed the existence of 47 volumes of files on Beria's criminal activities, compiled after his arrest. Alas, the files will not be opened for another 25 years.

Although Beria was an unusually depraved sexual predator, he was certainly not alone among Stalin's entourage in his abuse of power. Genrikh Yagoda, an earlier secret policeman, managed, in the course of his Communist career, to acquire 3,904 erotic photo-graphs, 11 pornographic films - among the first of their kind - along with nine female coats, 31 pairs of female shoes, 91 female berets, 130 pairs of foreign silk stockings and 69 nighties, among many other objects, all found in his apartment after he, too, was arrested.

Vasily Stalin, the dictator's son, denounced his teachers as a child, and later indulged in alcoholic binges, terrorised his wife, and flew back from Germany at the end of the Second World War with a plane full of loot: gold, diamonds, carpets, furs and, again, ladies' lingerie.

Viktor Abakumov, head of counter-intelligence, (who also had a fondness for expensive china and crystal vases) removed 16 families from a building, and employed 200 people to convert it into a "palace" for himself and his wife.

With enormous attention to detail, Sebag Montefiore documents the crimes of all of these half-known people, and traces the complex web of their relationships-from the relative warmth of the early 1930s, through the trauma of the war years, to the horrific climax, in the early 1950s, when Stalin terrorised his closest associates as thoroughly as he terrorised the rest of the country.

Without question, Sebag Montefiore proves his main point: that Stalin did not rule alone, as so many have assumed, but governed rather with the enthusiastic assistance of a corrupt oligarchy, linked by ideology, by bonds of marriage, and, ultimately, by guilt.

For my tastes, Sebag Montefiore writes too little of Bolshevism, the creed that all of these perverse figures professed to believe in, and too little of the policies that the oligarchs, as a group, actually produced, but perhaps those are matters that can be left to another book.

He has succeeded in bringing alive a group of characters who for too long have seemed too dull to merit much historical investigation, and provided a glimpse of what life was really like behind the Kremlin walls.

For anyone fascinated by the nature of evil - and by the effects of absolute power on human relationships - this book will provide new insights on every page.

Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History of the Soviet Concentration Camps is published by Penguin at £25.




Stalin: the court of the red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Will this compelling portrait of Stalin as domestic monster distract us from his wider crimes? Lesley Chamberlain considers the vogue for history as gossip

19 July 2003

Reading this magisterial new biography of Stalin is like looking at a familiar object from an unfamiliar perspective. Mantegna's Foreshortened Christ comes to mind, a painting in which greatness becomes visible feet first. Mantegna's picture at first disconcerts, but finally confirms Christ's humanity. Simon Sebag Montefiore's portrait of Stalin seems designed to work the other way round.

Think of this man as your neighbour, your brother-in-law, your husband. Hear the jokes he told, taste the soup he enjoyed, share the well-being he feels wearing old clothes. Sit on his shoulders, and see what he saw. And then remember what he did.

Peasants with swollen bellies ran alongside the trains, begging, but Stalin didn't see them. The man the Russians worshipped as their vozhd - Russian for Führer - starved a generation in his campaign against the peasants he branded kulaks. According to Robert Conquest, 11 million died prematurely between 1929 and 1933. Another 3.5 million were arrested and died in camps.

Back in the Kremlin, despite an intimate atmosphere Sebag Montefiore likens to an Oxford college, Stalin had no compunction about having rivals and yesterday's men tortured and shot. He is quoted as having said: "No man, no problem." His paranoid suspiciousness shaped a terrifying regime of purges and show trials.

Stalin, self-made "man of steel", presided over the Gulag terror and, with it, an epoch of dubiously applied "socialism". Lenin, before Stalin, was a beast, and the Politburo pusillanimous and morally degenerate. Sebag Montefiore paints pictures of a fornicating nomenklatura, comparable to Ancient Rome. Stalin was a monster to beat them all, "a thin-skinned neurotic egotist on his Messianic mission" and a practitioner of "proletarian machismo".

Sebag Montefiore clearly indicts him. Yet there are problems with this "life", and in these mainly psychological verdicts, which must make us wonder where our culture is going. The biographer has culled a wealth of domestic detail from the newly opened archives to make a new picture of "Tsar" and court, but does the result do the moral trick for the reader? My feeling is it becomes harder, not easier, to reach a dispassionate judgement of moral guilt when the picture is crowded with detail.

When I read half of this 600-page tome at one sitting, I spent the rest of the evening haunted by visions of the sexual depravity of Stalin's henchman, Yezhov. Returning to the blight of Stalinism on the 20th century, I would rather have been laid low by the horror of mass suffering, to have felt anew the devastating impact of a chronicle like Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago; to have had a clear picture of that venal, calculating aberration from rational humanity whom Alan Bullock painted in Hitler and Stalin. I want to condemn this man. I don't want to be wondering what he was like in bed.

Sebag Montefiore makes some interesting new assertions about Stalin's psychology. One is that Stalin's power over the Party was a matter of charm rather than fear. Joseph Vissarionovich, the streetwise kid from Georgia, could make anyone feel special and cared for. He delivered personal rewards of cars and money to needy colleagues. He was attentive to children. He had a wonderfully sweet voice.

But I'm not sure any of this amounts to charm. Equally as Party leader and party-goer, Stalin was a bloody bully, who "charmed" children because they were easy. He kept handwritten lists of where the cars and money went so he could call in his debts. Gratitude was dismissed as "a dog's disease". At Politburo meetings he never spoke first, forcing colleagues to make themselves vulnerable.

Above all, Stalin had no respect for human dignity. He was a typical peasant tyrant, tiresomely dominating over the dinner table, compensating for his defective arm and pockmarked skin, not charming at all. We also hear some rather striking declarations that he was a consistent and passionate Marxist, and an intellectual. To that, all I can say is that the value of Stalin's alleged Marxism and intellect have passed me by, and Sebag Montefiore cannot persuade me anew because his focus on the domestic man leaves little space for the public man and his speeches. Also, real intellectuals don't boast of reading 500 pages a day.

The most interesting aspects of this book are two images or paradigms which help guide and justify its exhaustively personal format. The first, a loving marriage, is Sebag Montefiore's original choice. His narrative opens with the night Stalin's second wife, Nadya, committed suicide. The paranoid Stalin cried: "How could you do this to me?" The other leitmotif is the incomparable achievement of Shakespeare in capturing the life of tyrants. Think of how you might set King Lear in Stalinist Russia.

Sebag Montefiore's book is well-written; he evidently has a superb grasp of Russian, and can operate well in that still-difficult country. But which genre does his work belong to? History with a novelistic dimension, I think. The novel is supposed to bring the subject alive; to sex up the factual report; to add entertainment to analysis. Portions of direct speech taken from comments on documents do that here, although not half so well as a real novel would.

Then there's character and bedroom behaviour (the latter hard to come by in Stalin's case). Stalin was a clumsy wooer of women, a prude afraid of his daughter growing up, a macho show-off incapable of love. Plenty of women will know what's going on here. But is the implicit reference to a more loving partnership, the kind "ordinary" men and women desire, enough to give us the measure of Stalin's crimes? I don't think so.

Come back to the Shakespearean theme. The plays dealing with monsters are great because we get the close-focus psychology within an artistic form rigorous enough, rational and universal, to carry the moral judgement. Here we don't have the moral form, only something like the artist's notebooks. The preference for life over art is one we live with these days. One of its effects - which can be seen very clearly here - is to lessen the impact of moral horror by burying it under a weight of more obvious nastiness and filth.

Lesley Chamberlain's new novel, 'Girl in a Garden', is published by Atlantic






Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 693 pages; £25


Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953
By Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov

HarperCollins; 416 pages; $26.95. John Murray; £20

Josef Stalin

Blood on the tracks

Jul 24th 2003
From The Economist print edition

AS WITH Stalin himself, it is hard to remember sometimes that the monstrous, ruthless, terrified, sycophantic, debauched, idealistic, deluded people around him were human beings. Simon Sebag Montefiore's book, based on a thorough synthesis of existing works, archival material, and his own interviews with survivors and their descendants, provides a richly detailed reminder.

His account does give one a start. It is much easier to read ghastly accounts of Beria's debauchery, or Stalin's paranoia, than anecdotes about children scampering happily through their parents' Kremlin offices, or of Stalin's punctilious habits in his personal correspondence, his bizarre flashes of kindness and decency or his extraordinary appetite for books. But Mr Sebag Montefiore's book is all the more valuable for the surprises it presents. As the author himself points out, demonology is no substitute for history.

What also jars, to less effect, though, is when the author's effortless prose turns facile. A good editor might have advised against over-use of words like “pinguid”, avoided the use of nicknames for the main characters, pruned some sloppy repetition of details and tidied up the Russian transliterations.

Scholars disagree still over whether Stalin was born bad or whether he was simply corrupted by power, and many continue to ask themselves what he might have done next. Mr Sebag Montefiore's book offers a convincing argument that shows that Stalin's manners, and much else besides, grew worse as he got older. Despite the terror which was used against the Russian people, in the 1920s the inner dealings of the Bolshevik elite were still collegial. Stalin then was a first among equals, dominating his powerful colleagues by charm and persuasion.

In the 1930s, as the supply of external enemies ran dry, the Soviet regime turned the terror inwards, in tighter and tighter circles. Even at the top, intimacy gave way to fear. For a few years after the disastrous outbreak of war, Stalin backtracked. For all their political reliability, he realised, cronies could not win battles the way that generals could. The post-war years brought ever more terror, and ever more sycophancy—but also a physical and mental decline that set his subordinates thinking about what might follow.

This, like many other chapters in Mr Sebag Montefiore's racy narrative, is worth a separate book of its own. Jonathan Brent, a distinguished American specialist in Soviet archives, and Vladimir Naumov, one of modern Russia's best historians, provide an unparalleled account of one such episode: the famous doctors' plot of January 1953, in which a vast conspiracy of Jewish doctors is meant to have planned to murder the Kremlin leaders. In reaction, Russia seemed to wobble for a while towards its own final solution.

Although the outlines of this piece of history are clear, the details are devilishly difficult to pin down. Stalin was certainly anti-Semitic by instinct. The foundation of the state of Israel gave him reason to doubt the loyalty of even the most zealous Jewish communists. And by 1953 he needed a new enemy, having killed so many of the old ones. Russia's Jews, starting with a group of unfortunate doctors, provided a tempting target.

But so much was also invented, so much disguised. Stalin died less than two months after he dramatically pointed his finger at the doctors. The authors have managed, with commendable scholarship, to trace the origins of the so-called plot. But they cannot prove, as some conspiracy-minded scholars insist, that Stalin died of anything but natural causes. Meanwhile, in Russia, there is still a dreadful nostalgia for his rule.

Irish Independent

Unveiling the man behind the murderer

Saturday July 26th 2003

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar By Simon Sebag Montefiore Weidenfeld & Nicolson, stg £17.50 Patrick O'Meara

There is an enormous and constantly expanding literature on Stalin and his era both in post-Soviet Russia and the West. This latest British contribution, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the dictator's death, treats Stalin as a 'tsar' and his seat of government in Moscow's Kremlin as a regal 'court'.

This approach determines the book's narrative line: a chronicle of Stalin's court from his acclamation as 'the leader' in 1929, five years after Lenin's death, to his death in 1953 at the age of 73.

Simon Sebag Montefiore's focus, therefore, is on the 'human factor' and his book makes no claim to be a political history of the longest and most tragic chapter in the history of Soviet Russia. In order to reconstruct daily life in the Kremlin's corridors of power and in the apartments inhabited by Stalin, his courtiers and their families, Montefiore has travelled extensively throughout the former USSR, interviewing survivors of this extraordinary era and several descendants of those closest to the Boss and gaining access to unpublished documents and photographs. Indeed, an immediately striking feature of the book is the large number (over 60) of fascinating photographs, many of which are published here for the first time.

The author pays particular attention to Stalin's family life and his interaction with his henchmen and their families, notably Molotov, Beria, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, Yezhov and Zhdanov. The result is a dizzying kaleidoscope of new and well-known materials, all of which combine to give fresh insights into the bizarre world of Stalin's rule. Among these is the author's arresting claim that is was not fear but charm that was the foundation of Stalin's power in the Communist Party. It was a charm, however, that proved murderous.

The book opens dramatically with a reconstruction of the events of the fateful evening in November 1932 that led to the suicide of Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. The brutalising impact of this tragedy on Stalin emerges very clearly and remains a constant reference point throughout the book. Stalin's reaction to the next major watershed, the assassination of the popular Party Boss Sergo Kirov in Leningrad in 1934, prompts a treatment of the Great Terror from the Kremlin's perspective. The wave of arrests that convulsed the USSR, the orgy of executions and the inexorable growth of the Siberian Gulag through the 1930s, while instigated from the Kremlin by Stalin and his courtiers, all seem to have been terribly remote from the cosseted experience of their everyday lives, and those of their wives, mistresses and children.

It is true that much of Montefiore's account relies on anecdote and gossip and, although some of it might be considered redundant and hardly the stuff of history, much of it is highly entertaining and actually gives the history greater authenticity. An important point brought out by the author is that Stalin was not the sole architect of the terror and cannot alone be convicted for the fate of its millions of victims.

The infamous prosecutor Vyshinksy, for example, proved 'ravenously bloodthirsty'. He constantly proposed to Stalin the shooting of show-trial defendants. Khrushchev, eventually Stalin's successor and detractor, was a 'rabid supporter' of the trials and shootings. Blokhin, the chief torturer in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, was among the 'most prolific executioners' of the 20th century, killing thousands personally with a bullet in the back of his victim's neck.

The roles of Yezhov, Molotov, Mekhlis and Voroshilov in what Montefiore calls "an astonishing lottery of slaughter designed to kill a whole generation" emerge as among the most decisive. Not all of the courtiers could cope with the amorality of Stalin's reign: a chapter is devoted to the suicide of Sergo Ordzhonikidze in 1937.

The chapters on Stalin as war leader are among the most original and present several interesting new details on the Boss as triumphant victor and on his relationships with Churchill and Roosevelt. Similarly, the post-war chapters provide fascinating new glimpses of Stalin's troubled family life and the gradual deterioration of his friendship with his would-be successor and fellow Georgian, the odious Lavrenty Beria. The descent of the entire court into the depths of depravity and corruption, and the growing tension between Stalin and his old courtiers are described in the closing chapters. Montefiore's account culminates with the lonely death of an old man who so terrified his entourage that help, when it came, was far too late for any possible resuscitation.

Of all the book's revelations of life at Stalin's court, perhaps the most remarkable is the apparent existence in the Zhdanov family archive of a recording of a typical evening's carousing at Stalin's Kuntsevo dacha. It features the 'murderous boy band' of Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Beria and Stalin himself, who loved singing and was very good at it, backed up by Zhdanov on piano. Too good, if not too grotesque, to be true!

Patrick O'Meara is Associate Professor of Russian at Trinity College Dublin



The Other Monster

A cascade of new books examines Stalin and his terror.

By Andrew Nagorski

May 30, 2005

Read this article here                  



Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There have been many biographies of Stalin, but the court that surrounded him is untravelled ground. Simon Sebag-Montefiore reveals the vast network of victims, unwilling accomplices and collaborative hate-figures who kept him in power during his worst excesses.

Reviewed by Simon Heffer

Read this article here                  


As a teenager, Stalin wrote odes to violets
(Filed: 10/10/2004)

Andrew Roberts reviews Stalin: a Biography by Robert Service.


The ice in Stalin's heart
(Filed: 10/10/2004)

Michael Burleigh reviews Stalin: A Biography by Robert Service.

Read these articles here                  


Institute for Historical Review

Journal of Historical Review

Book Review

Stalin's War

Reviewed by Dennis Nayland Smith

Read this article here                  

Death and the Dictator

Reviewed by Leon Aron

Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW03


A Biography

By Robert Service. Belknap/Harvard Univ. 715 pp. $29.95



The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield. Random House. 541 pp. $29.95

Read this article here                  

A dictator and his world
2 books look at Joseph Stalin, his inner circle and his role in shaping Soviet cultural policy

By Andrew Wachtel. Andrew Wachtel is director of Northwestern University's Center for International and Comparative Studies, and chair of the school's department of Slavic languages and literatures
Published June 20, 2004

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 785 pages, $30

Shostakovich and Stalin
By Solomon Volkov, translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
Knopf, 313 pages, $30

Read this article here                  


April 18, 2004

'Stalin': Up Close and Personal


The Court of the Red Tsar.

By Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Illustrated. 785 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $30.




Read this article here                  



Ordinary Monsters
When mass murder was a business with its own bureaucrats and memoranda.

Reviewed by David Satter

Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page BW10

STALIN: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf. 785 pp. $30


Read this article here               



In the Kremlin 'Village'

A Stalin biography paints a chilling personal portrait

By Andrew Nagorski

              Read this article here                         



June 12, 2005

Stalin's Intelligence


                    Read this article here                  

The human monster

The best biography yet of Joseph Stalin traces his life from abused child to murderous dictator -- and forces us to ask whether he could have taken a different path.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf, 816 pages


May 5, 2005

              Read this article here                     


July 31, 2005

History: Stalin's Folly by Constantine Pleshakov; What Stalin Knew by David E Murphy

STALIN’S FOLLY: The Secret History of the German Invasion of Russia, June 1941
by Constantine Pleshakov
Weidenfeld £20 pp352

WHAT STALIN KNEW: The Enigma of Barbarossa
by David E Murphy
Yale £17.95 pp400


Read this article here                         





Nov. 1, 2005

The pitiless Soviet


Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
768pp., $30

By Anne Applebaum
677pp., $16.95

Read this article here                         



Frankfurt am Main, 02.11.2005

Am Hofe des roten Zaren

Simon Montefiore wirft einen Blick durchs Schlüsselloch auf den sowjetischen Diktator Josef Stalin


Simon Sebag Montefiore:
Stalin. Am Hof des roten Zaren.
S. Fischer Verlag,
Frankfurt am Main,
856 Seiten, 24,90 Euro.

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Artikel erschienen am Sa, 12. November 2005

Ein charmanter Massenmörder

In seinem großartigen Stalin-Porträt entdeckt Simon Sebag Montefiore die Person als treibende Kraft der Geschichte wieder

von Alan Posener


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Der monströse Stalin

Rezensiert von ULRICH TEUSCH

KLAUS KELLMANN: Stalin. Eine Biographie. Primus Verlag, Darmstadt 2005. 351 Seiten, 24,90 Euro.

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Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 18.09.2005, S. 8

Einsam wie eine gehörnte Eule
Liebesbriefe, Todesurteile und Limonen aus dem Kaukasus: Eine Stalin-Biografie rekonstruiert das Privatleben des monströsen Diktators


Simon Sebag Montefiores "Stalin. Am Hof des roten Zaren" ist im S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt am Main erschienen.


N Z Z  Online


Mittwoch, 22. Februar 2006

Das historische Buch

Väterchen Stalins Haushalt

Eine Art Dokufiktion von Simon Sebag Montefiore

Cord Aschenbrenner


Simon Sebag Montefiore: Stalin. Am Hof des Roten Zaren. Aus dem Englischen von Hans G. Holl. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2005. 874 S., Fr. 43.70.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 22. Februar 2006, Ressort Feuilleton


Read these articles here               







Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore




Stalin's women

Pictures of a birthday party, forgotten for half a century in the Communist archives in Moscow until they were unearthed by Simon Sebag Montefiore, led him to discover a story of romance and terror at the court of Joseph Stalin, the Red Tsar.

Read it here