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 Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин



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  |  Stalin's poetry isn't too bad. It mainly consists of verses in a romantic-pastoral vein that was apparently conventional for Georgian poets of the 1890s:

The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

In English translation that's nothing more than pleasant. To readers of the Georgian language, according to biographer Robert Service, "it has a linguistic purity recognized by all" as well as an obvious nationalist subtext. (Writing about the loveliness of the Georgian landscape was understood as a wink and a nudge that the Tsarist censors would never notice.) That poem, "Morning" (which continues for two more stanzas), appeared in the radical intellectual magazine Kvali, and was then published in an influential textbook by the Georgian educator and nationalist Yakob Gogebashvili. As art by future dictators goes, that's a lot more success than Hitler ever enjoyed for his insipid watercolors.

Everyone in the modest literary scene of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, knew the author. He was a 17-year-old seminary student named Joseph (or Yoseb) Dzhughashvili, and he was smart, ambitious, headstrong and quick to anger. For two years young Dzhughashvili was a rising star in Georgian poetry, but he quit writing sometime around 1897 to focus his attention on another passion: revolutionary Marxism. Stalin loved nature and the outdoors to the end of his life, and grew flowers and lemon trees. But he never wrote a poem again.

How much different would 20th century history have been if that pockmarked young man, already a survivor of grinding poverty, an abusive family life and a bout of smallpox that nearly killed him at age 6, had stuck with the poetical muse? Service's fascinating new Stalin biography, the first comprehensive English-language treatment of his life since the opening of the Soviet archives in the mid-1990s, is full of historical what-ifs, some of them fanciful (like that one), others less so.

"Stalin: A Biography," like Simon Sebag Montefiore's 2004 "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," is a major landmark in the recent scholarly reassessment of the notorious dictator who consolidated Soviet power, launched vicious purges against his own people (and indeed his own political party), defeated the Nazis in World War II, and launched the Cold War. Service and Sebag Montefiore -- colleagues and to some extent rivals at Oxford -- aren't trying to excuse Stalin's crimes or apologize for them, but rather to rescue the real Stalin, as much as the record will let them, from the myths and caricatures that surround him.

If Stalin essentially created the Soviet Union in its finished form, Service argues, the Soviet state also created him, as the socialist demigod it needed to worship. The real Stalin had colleagues and sycophants, but almost no friends. He was a standoffish, awkward man, plagued by rheumatism, high blood pressure and bad teeth, whose idea of flirting with women (according to Service) was to flick bits of food across the table at them. He stood an unprepossessing 5-foot-6, wore the same clothes almost every day, and personally cut holes in his military boots to relieve the pressure of corns.

As he himself realized, the heroic, larger-than-life Stalin of Communist Party iconography was something entirely different. Sebag Montefiore quotes Stalin's adopted son, Artyom Sergeev, remembering a family fight in which Stalin berated his wastrel son Vasily for cashing in on his surname. "But I'm a Stalin too," Vasily protested. "No, you're not," Stalin replied. "You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, no not even me!"

Service tries to answer the question of how one Stalin begat the other -- both how the Georgian seminarian became a mass killer and how the flesh-and-blood human became the mythical embodiment of Soviet power. If Sebag Montefiore's book, which is primarily a study of the dictator's inner circle during his years in power, makes for more vivid and exciting reading, Service's trumps all other volumes now available on Stalin's life. It synthesizes all the major narrative accounts and incorporates a good deal of revealing new information.

Hardly any historical figure of the 20th century has been written about more than Stalin, and few, Service and Sebag Montefiore would agree, have been as poorly understood. The caricature of Stalin as a bloodthirsty provincial buffoon, and perhaps a madman, was created by his enemies on the left -- but soon embraced by those on the right as well. When Stalin's rival Leon Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, he wrote an influential memoir describing Stalin as a dim but vicious bureaucrat who could barely speak Russian, possessed no real understanding of Marxism, had played almost no role in the October Revolution of 1917, and had risen to the top of his party through sheer animal cunning.

Stalin's entirely typical mode of revenge -- he had Trotsky murdered in 1940, in his Mexican villa, with an icepick to the head -- did nothing to dispel this portrayal. Superficially, it seemed to account for his regime's horrors: the appalling famines; the ludicrous show trials of Stalin's revolutionary colleagues; the Great Terror of 1936-38, in which more than a million people died; the fear-ridden police state of his later years. But it only heightens the dramatic story of this extraordinary (and, yes, extraordinarily evil) man to grasp that the depiction is entirely false.

Trotsky and his left-wing followers didn't want to admit that they had been outsmarted by a superior politician after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 -- and they also didn't want to admit that Stalin's excesses were merely logical extensions of the Bolshevik obsession with centralized power and state terror. It was Trotsky himself who had said that the revolutionaries didn't have the right not to kill people in the process of building socialism. Stalin believed he was building socialism too -- and he deprived himself of the right not to kill millions.

On some level, Trotsky, like Lenin before him, was afflicted by class prejudice, of all things: They didn't believe that a cobbler's son from Georgia who hadn't been to university could be as smart as they were. As Service presents him, young Joseph Dzhughashvili was strikingly intelligent from the start. He was born in Gori, a scenic Georgian valley town of 30,000 people, in 1878. (For uncertain reasons, Stalin always claimed to be a year younger than that.) He excelled in school immediately, and was put on the fast track toward the Russian Orthodox priesthood, about the most prestigious occupation a poor boy from the outer boondocks of the Russian Empire could hope for.

By the time he dropped out of the Tbilisi seminary and shifted his allegiance from God to Marxism, Dzhughashvili had had "a fairly broad education by the European standards of the time." He had read Xenophon and Plato in the original, along with a good deal of Russian and Georgian literature. (Throughout his life he revisited the Georgian national epic "Knight in the Panther's Skin," by the 13th century poet Shota Rustaveli.) He had studied some higher mathematics, the history of the Romanov dynasty, and of course a lot of Christian theology. He had developed tastes of his own, too; he was twice disciplined for smuggling in novels by Victor Hugo ("modern" literature being forbidden).

Trotsky would never have admitted it, but Stalin became an intellectual in adult life, after his own dogmatic fashion. His essays synthesizing Lenin's thought were clear and capable, and often more readable than the Bolshevik founder's tangled prose. (Contrary to what most in the West assumed, Stalin never allowed a ghostwriter to touch his prose.) Although all sorts of spurious Marxist "science" was promulgated under Stalin's reign, he was personally well informed on scientific and technological issues, and continued to read widely. The Soviet state proclaimed Gorky, Pushkin and to some extent Tolstoy as its literary avatars, but Stalin told his daughter that Dostoevski (although banned for his right-wing Christian mysticism) was the greatest Russian novelist.

All this was more remarkable when you consider his background. Joseph was the only child of a violent and abusive family. His parentage is not entirely clear. His father of record, Beso Dzhughashvili, was a cobbler who was driven out of business and forced to work in a factory. (Clearly this helped form young Joseph's view of capitalism.) Beso drank heavily and beat Joseph and his mother Keke, while Keke was rumored to be sexually promiscuous and perhaps a prostitute. All this stood out in Georgia, which Service describes as a clan-based culture closer in tone to that of Greece or Italy than to Russia. Sex and gender roles were clearly defined, but family violence was unusual and parents tended to dote on their children.

As Service says, no psychology degree is required to see the roots of a disordered personality in this story. Certainly most people who are beaten viciously by their parents don't grow up to be murderous dictators, but then again, they don't usually get the chance. To the world's misfortune, this shrewd and ambitious young man collided with the fast-rising politics of revolutionary communism.

Joseph's boyhood friends in Gori remembered him for his pugnacity; he fought bigger and stronger boys who were likely to beat him badly, and then he sought out weaker, smaller boys to dominate. In later life, Stalin would use the image of physical beating over and over again in his speeches and writings. In 1931, when he was driving the Soviet economy furiously forward through the first Five-Year Plan, he gave a memorable speech to a conference of industrial managers:

"The history of old Russia consisted, among other things, in her being ceaselessly beaten for her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal rulers. She was beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords. She was beaten by the Anglo-French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. Everyone gave her a beating for her backwardness."

Service notes the emotional intensity of the speech, but not its potent connection to Stalin's own childhood, with its memories of both beatings and, from the Russian point of view, cultural backwardness. Lenin and Trotsky encouraged and committed acts of ruthless violence during the October Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, but they did so essentially as bourgeois dilettantes. Lenin was born into the lower Russian nobility and Trotsky into the Jewish intelligentsia. Stalin was a true son of the working class, forged by violence of the most intimate kind, and under his leadership the dictatorship of the proletariat was going to make damn sure it administered the beatings rather than receiving them.

Joseph Dzhughashvili didn't make many friends in the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party (as the future Communist Party was then known), but he distinguished himself through hard work and ideological commitment. While Lenin and most of the party's other leadership lived in exile in Polish or Swiss or French villas during the years before 1917, Dzhughashvili was repeatedly arrested by the tsar's secret police. He served several prison terms and was sent to Siberia three times, only to escape. (He seems to have treated this as an object lesson: There were few escapees from the Siberian Gulag under his reign.)

Trotsky's famous claim that Stalin was a nonentity who "missed the Revolution" is not accurate. He made his way back to Petrograd after four years in northern Siberia just before the fall of the tsar in February 1917, and became one of Lenin's most loyal lieutenants. As Trotsky must have known, Stalin -- he had been using that name since 1912 -- was elected to the party Central Committee and was an editor of Pravda, the party newspaper. He played a key organizational role that October, when the Bolsheviks (Lenin's revolutionary faction of the party) seized power, and became a commissar in the new government.

If anything, Trotsky was trying to conceal the extent to which Stalin was already competing with him for Lenin's favor. In the civil war that followed the Revolution, Stalin first became known for his brutality. He seized command of the Red Army near the city of Tsaritsyn (later to be called Stalingrad), ordered deserters shot, treated his own troops and the enemy mercilessly and had to be restrained from sinking a barge crowded with White Army POWs in the Volga.

By the time Lenin was felled by a stroke in 1922 (he would live for two more years, but take little part in running the nascent Soviet state), Stalin had positioned himself perfectly. If Trotsky was more charismatic and radical in tone, Nikolai Bukharin had more intellectual heft, and other Bolsheviks like Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev had more seniority, Stalin had established himself as a muscular leader devoted on the one hand to Leninist doctrine and on the other to preserving the Soviet revolution against its enemies (which at this early stage meant virtually the entire world).

As Service makes clear, this was exactly what the other Bolsheviks were looking for, and Stalin could never have emerged from the leadership struggle without widespread support. It's true that Lenin grew mistrustful of Stalin, and sought to denounce him near the end. But Lenin's famous "Testament," while urging that Stalin be removed from his post as general secretary -- more because Lenin saw him as "crude" and "uncouth" than because of any brilliant political foresight -- failed to endorse Trotsky or Zinoviev or any other plausible candidate.

Stalin sat "pale as chalk" during the reading of Lenin's Testament at the 13th Party Congress in May 1924. But in the end, Kamenev and Zinoviev supported him, and Trotsky wasted his last, best chance. So Stalin survived. After he emerged as the party's sole leader a few years later, many of those in the room that day would not be so lucky.

Virtually since Stalin assumed power, the left-wing line has been that the Georgian usurper had abandoned Marxism and betrayed the true promise of the Russian Revolution. There are grains of plausibility in this, Service argues, but not much more. A Trotsky-led Soviet Union might have been less repressive than Stalin's, with more cultural freedom and some gestures toward "worker's democracy" (although Service wonders how long it would have survived). But Stalin never lost his faith in the Marxist-Leninist doctrine that global communism was inevitable, and everything he did, no matter how brutal or irrational it seemed, conformed to his understanding of Marxist theory.

On the other hand, Stalin's understanding of Marxism was very much his own invention. He introduced the heretical notion of building "socialism in one country," which Lenin and Trotsky had always insisted was impossible. In fact, he announced that it had been accomplished, in November 1936, after his program of forced industrialization and the mass collectivization of agriculture had mostly been completed -- causing a horrific famine in western Russia and the Ukraine in which somewhere from 6 million to 10 million people starved.

But the final stage, Marx's classless workers' paradise of communism -- even the great Stalin couldn't see that far. During the dictator's 24 years in power, the Stalinist state certainly showed no signs that it might "wither away," in Lenin's famous phrase. Stalin's task, as he saw it, was to defend his existing socialist state from all enemies, whether real, potential or entirely hypothetical. If that took an iron fist, well, so be it. He was the man for the job, and the worldwide proletariat would thank him for it one day.

In that context, Service's reading of the Great Terror of 1936-38 is more nuanced, if that's not an inherently offensive idea, than that of most other historians. He agrees that most of those arrested in this massive purge -- among them Stalin's longtime colleagues in the original Bolshevik leadership, including Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev -- had done little or nothing to threaten the regime. The conspiracies they were tortured into confessing were entirely fictitious. But by the late '30s Stalin had come to see his own survival as crucial to the possibility of global communism, and Service believes that he also understood how widely dissatisfaction with his brutal regime had spread.

In fact, Service thinks that Stalin might have lost a crucial Central Committee vote in 1934, and that other leading Bolsheviks had asked Sergei Kirov, perhaps Stalin's best friend at the time, to take over as party leader. But Lazar Kaganovich, a Stalin loyalist, was responsible for counting the votes, and the Boss -- as many of his followers called him -- survived again. Kirov would be "assassinated" in a highly suspicious incident before the year was out, and most of the others who could confirm or deny the story vanished in the Terror. (It's surprising, in fact, that nothing happened to Kaganovich.)

Another event of 1934 that paved the way for the Terror was the suicide of Stalin's wife, Nadya Allilueva (after a Kremlin dinner party at which he had abused and mistreated her). Clearly this was a key event in his transformation into an increasingly isolated, increasingly cruel despot. Kaganovich said Stalin was never the same man after that night, that he "turned in on himself and hardened his attitude to people in general," as Service puts it. Nadya's nephew, Leonid Redens, wrote that her death "altered history" and "made the Terror inevitable."

This may be overstating things; the Terror was brought on by interlocking forces, and Stalin's personality was only one of them. Still, as Sebag Montefiore puts it, "Nadya's death created one of the rare moments of doubt in a life of iron self-belief and dogmatic certainty." As he told numerous people after Nadya's death, Stalin had been a bad husband. Husband and wife were both volatile and unbalanced people -- she may have been schizophrenic, and he was, after all, Stalin.

But they obviously loved each other. Their letters are full of appealing endearments, which were unusual in the dreary era of everything-for-the-people Bolshevik correspondence. "I miss you so much Tatochka," Stalin once wrote, using his pet name for her, "I'm as lonely as a horned owl." Nadya's response (to a different letter) concluded, "I am kissing you passionately just as you kissed me when we were saying goodbye!" -- which was about as close as good Communists got to epistolary heavy breathing.

Stalin was already guilty of crimes against humanity by 1934, and it's dangerously romantic to imagine a vastly different historical outcome with Nadya by his side. But it's clear that this loss was a devastating blow to an already disordered personality, and it's also true that Stalin the man had not yet become Stalin the Soviet icon or Stalin the murderous ogre. He still had human dimensions and human possibilities.

Whether the motivation was primarily political or personal, Stalin felt the need to consolidate his power and crush all resistance. The point of the Terror was, after all, terror -- whose principal audience is not the people imprisoned and shot but the others who are left at their desks. It didn't matter whether Stalin was annihilating his real enemies in the party (he got some of them but missed others), only that he was demonstrating what could happen to those who snickered at disloyal jokes or consorted with supposed counterrevolutionaries or had the wrong father-in-law or were just a little too Ukrainian or Polish or Armenian or Jewish.

Hence the precise numbers cooked up by his vicious secret-police chief, Nikolai Yezhov, which would seem like a parody of the Soviet quota fetish if they weren't real: In the Terror's first go-round, there were to be 268,950 individuals arrested, with just under 76,000 to be executed and the remainder sent to the Gulag. (The final numbers, of course, were much higher. No precise count is now possible, but Service thinks that roughly 1.5 million people were seized by Yezhov's agents, with half of those summarily executed, and the rest exiled to labor camps. Only about 200,000 came home again.)

One could view the Stalinist system as a vast production line, one of whose most consistent outputs was death. For Stalin, the lives of his own people were an almost infinitely expendable resource, not unlike the Siberian timber forests or the Ukrainian wheat fields. He starved them into modernization, drove them out to fight the German war machine by the hundreds of thousands, murdered them en masse to prove his own mightiness. As Service writes, "Stalin was willing to pay any price in lives to attain his objectives."

Service insists that Stalin never lost either his Marxist faith or his sanity, but both became severely frayed as the dictator aged. Stalin never understood, Service suggests, quite how badly the Soviet state was being managed and how grim life was for ordinary people in the latter stages of his rule. He never traveled, except to and from his various dachas by limousine, and his sycophantic inner circle learned the hard way to avoid giving him any bad news. If he was as intelligent as Service thinks, he must have known, or at least suspected, that "socialism in one country" had become a cruel farce and that the adulatory Stalin cult masked an equally deep reservoir of hatred.

On at least one other occasion after 1934, Stalin apparently believed that a coup against him was imminent, or had already happened. After Hitler violated the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty and launched Operation Barbarossa, the blitzkrieg June 1941 invasion that nearly brought Soviet Russia to its knees, Stalin ran state affairs for a week and then abruptly disappeared to his favorite dacha, instructing the staff to say he wasn't there. It was probably what we'd now call a depressive episode. When several Politburo members went to fetch him, they found him slumped in an armchair, looking "strange" and "guarded."

"Why have you come?" he asked. One visitor, Anastas Mikoyan, thought the Boss was expecting to be arrested. But his lieutenants lacked the nerve, or even the desire, to remove him. In the long run, Service thinks, Stalin's bulldog leadership and symbolic importance to the Russian people were crucial to winning the war. For a short time during the wartime Alliance, he was a beloved figure in the West, our "Uncle Joe" standing tall against the Nazis. (When Roosevelt, who liked Stalin, told him about the Western media's nickname, Stalin nearly walked out of the Yalta conference that was carving up the postwar world. He poked fun at himself sometimes, but never allowed others to do so.)

During the latter stage of his life, in the Cold War police state of the postwar period, Stalin must have experienced cognitive dissonance. He still believed in socialist world revolution, but what he had built looked more like a new version of the Russian Empire, more repressive and authoritarian than any since the days of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible (both of whom he admired). For ceremonial occasions he dressed up in his fruit-salad uniform as "Generalissimus Stalin," which even he thought was ridiculous. Otherwise he never went out in public.

Stalin died at his dacha outside Moscow in March 1953, after a severe stroke. His guards were too terrified to go in the room, and he lay on the floor for most of a day, partly paralyzed and soaked with his own urine. Long before he was dead, the infighting to replace him was well under way, which was no more than he deserved. Russian historians have suggested that Lavrenti Beria, the secret-police chief of the later years, had him poisoned as part of a coup attempt, and amid all the dark skulduggery of who did what in those few days, Service admits that we'll never know.

Some readers, no doubt, will object to Service's dedication to "humanizing" his infamous subject by focusing on his ordinary and even congenial qualities: Beyond the troubled childhood, the youthful poetry and the fondness for trees and flowers, the Stalin we meet in his book can be a charming if mercurial host (who relished "crude masculine humor"), has a nice baritone singing voice and likes to play with children. (In his games with daughter Svetlana, she pretended to be the supreme dictator, writing him letters ordering him to take her to the movies. He wrote back: "All right, I obey.")

Service pleads guilty as charged, arguing that it's both naive and dangerous to depict Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the other great mass murderers of history as inhuman monsters. They all lived much of their lives as "normal human beings," which does not mean that their official conduct was normal at all. (Hitler, famously, loved his dog -- probably more than he loved any human being.) If we fail to recognize our essential kinship with such people, Service suggests, we will be unable to spot the next Stalin or Hitler who emerges among us.

For years after his death, Stalin remained less a historical figure than a political totem to be repeatedly repudiated, buried and then partway dug up again. He haunted the left like an especially bad conscience. To this day, cultish Stalinist organizations like the Workers World Party and its front groups (International ANSWER, the International Action Center, etc.) are treated by the American activist left with far more respect than they deserve. It's as if some misty nostalgia for the original goals of revolutionary socialism can still cloud some people's minds to the unforgivable crimes committed in its name. This is every bit as disgraceful as Trent Lott's sentimental attachment to the era of white supremacy.

For socialists and other leftists, Stalin had to be apologized for or explained away or consigned to oblivion; there were idiotic debates about the precise moment when the Russian Revolution took its fateful turn toward totalitarianism. Perhaps understandably, the anti-communist left fled in the other direction. If some progressives have never confronted Stalin's legacy honestly, others have ritualistically abased themselves, vowed their undying loyalty to American capitalism and sworn never ever to follow a bad god again.

For many on the right, including those founders of the neoconservative movement whose intellectual origins lie in communism or socialism, the Red tsar has been a useful cudgel with which to batter their political opponents. Look, they could say, holding up the dictator's rotting head, here is the endpoint of all so-called progressive politics: the Gulag, the prison-state, the regime of lies. (That's pretty much what David Horowitz, former editor of the Marxist magazine Ramparts, would tell you today.)

Service's cold-eyed appraisal evades all these traps. He accomplishes the remarkable feat of painting Stalin as a believable human being, one who had sympathetic qualities but also suffered from a "gross personality disorder" that made his collision with history especially dire. This can be no consolation to Stalin's millions of victims -- nor indeed to the Russian nation, still in many ways trying to overcome his legacy -- but he carried his wounds with him to the end and, like anyone else, held at least the possibility of other outcomes within him.

Among a very small cache of private papers found after Stalin's death (including an angry note from Lenin demanding that Stalin apologize to Lenin's wife for being rude) was his last communication from Nikolai Bukharin, the most adventurous intellectual among the original Bolsheviks. Stalin hounded him for years after taking power, and in March 1938 made him the star defendant in the last big show trial of the Terror. Bukharin had humiliated himself, confessed to imaginary anti-Soviet plots and pleaded for mercy. From his execution cell in Lubyanka Prison he wrote to Stalin, using a Georgian nickname only the dictator's oldest colleagues knew: "Koba, why is my death necessary for you?"

Service assumes that Stalin kept this to gloat over his onetime foe, and felt a "frisson of satisfaction" while rereading it. That's a natural conclusion. But its proximity to the Lenin note, which can only have stung him, is intriguing. Was some small part of him, whatever of the teenage Georgian poet had not been burned away, troubled by the question?

About the writer
Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.


June 12, 2005

Stalin's Intelligence


The Enigma of Barbarossa.
By David E. Murphy.
Illustrated. 310 pp. Yale University Press. $30.

The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front.
By Constantine Pleshakov.
Illustrated. 326 pp. Houghton Mifflin Company. $26.

A Biography.
By Robert Service.
Illustrated. 715 pp. The Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press.

IN the past four years the United States has paid heavily for two major intelligence failures. Before the 9/11 attacks, accurate warnings of the threat posed by Al Qaeda were not acted upon. Conversely, before the invasion of Iraq, inaccurate assessments about Saddam Hussein's military capabilities were acted upon. The world would be a different place today if the earlier intelligence had been heeded and the later intelligence ignored. And thousands of Americans might still be alive.

Slightly fewer than 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the 9/11 attacks, though not all were American citizens. The latest official figures put the number of American military fatalities in Iraq since the invasion at about 1,650, though not all have been caused by hostile action. Each premature death is of course a tragedy. But compare those figures with the casualties arising from another, far more disastrous intelligence failure, and you suddenly see how little the United States has suffered for its mistakes. For in this case, the dead could be counted in millions, if not tens of millions.

In the early hours of June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By July 9 the German forces west of Minsk had already captured more than 287,000 prisoners. By the end of August, the total number of Soviet captives stood at 872,000. Accurate death tolls are unavailable, but must have been comparably high, since the Luftwaffe bombed cities like Minsk to rubble and thought nothing of mowing down columns of refugees. By the time the German advance slowed, the Soviet Union had lost roughly half its industrial and agricultural capacity. This was one of the greatest military disasters in history. Yet the losses might have been significantly lower if accurate intelligence about Hitler's intentions had been heeded.

If, after the war, the Soviet Union had somehow been capable of producing an official inquiry into the catastrophe of 6/22 -- comparable in its mandate to the 9/11 commission here -- its report might have read a little like David E. Murphy's ''What Stalin Knew.'' The former chief of Soviet operations at C.I.A. headquarters, Murphy brings to his subject both knowledge of Russian history and an insider's grasp of how intelligence is gathered, analyzed and used -- or not.

He has, however, enjoyed much less access to classified information than did the 9/11 commission. Although able to draw on recently published collections of documents from the Soviet archives, notably the two-volume collection 1941 god (''The Year 1941''), he has enjoyed direct access to just one archive, the Russian State Military Archive. He was refused access to documents in the Central Archive of the Foreign Intelligence Service, even those that had already appeared in 1941 god. The Central Archive of the Defense Ministry declined even to answer his questions. The relaxation of official secrecy that was such a welcome feature of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin has been reversed by Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin. Perhaps that is not surprising, given Putin's evident desire to revive the old myths about ''the Great Patriotic War.''

Historians have long known that Soviet agents supplied highly prescient intelligence about Operation Barbarossa in the months before the German invasion. Six years ago, the Israeli scholar Gabriel Gorodetsky published ''Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia,'' an outstanding book on the subject, drawing on, among other things, hitherto neglected Balkan archives. Murphy provides additional, copious detail.

As early as May 1939 Stalin was sent a six-page document outlining ''The Future Plans of Aggression by Fascist Germany,'' based on a German briefing obtained by Soviet spies in Warsaw. In December 1940 the Soviet agent Rudolf von Scheliha (code-named Ariets) reported that Hitler planned to declare war on the Soviet Union in March 1941. By Feb. 28, 1941, the same agent provided a provisional launching date of May 20. This intelligence was corroborated by sources in Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia and Rome, to say nothing of the information provided by the famous spy Richard Sorge (code-named Ramsay) in Tokyo. On April 17 a Prague informant predicted a German invasion in the second half of June. The precise date and time of the invasion were revealed by a reliable source in Berlin fully three days before the Germans attacked.

All of this Stalin ignored. Typically, he scrawled on the bottom of the Prague report: ''English provocation! Investigate!'' On May 19, Sorge predicted that 150 divisions were being readied by the Germans for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin retorted with an expletive.

The result was that literally nothing was done to prepare for the German assault. Soviet planes were not camouflaged. Troops were not in defensive positions; indeed they were ordered not to occupy such positions, for fear of provoking the Germans. Worse, Stalin responded to the gathering storm with yet another purge of suspected threats to his own authority. In June 1941, on the eve of the tempest, around 300 senior service personnel were arrested, among them no fewer than 22 who had been awarded the highest Soviet military decoration.

Two things stand out in Murphy's account. The first is the extent to which the Soviet spy network in Europe continued to deliver first-rate intelligence, despite Stalin's best efforts to purge it out of existence. It was not just the British establishment the Soviets managed to penetrate; there were agents in the German economics ministry, air ministry and foreign ministry, not to mention the American Embassy in Moscow.

The second point is that Germany relied not on secrecy to conceal the preparations for Barbarossa but on disinformation, assuring the Soviets that their troops were being massed on the Soviet borders to keep them clear of British air raids, that dozens of German planes were violating Soviet airspace merely because their pilots were inexperienced and that talk of a German invasion plan was a cynical British smear designed to provoke a Nazi-Soviet war.

Can Stalin, scarcely renowned for his credulity, really have believed these brazen lies? Historians have long sought better explanations for the lamentable Soviet response to the German assault. In 1990 a Soviet defector writing under the name Viktor Suvorov published ''Icebreaker,'' which claimed that Stalin had failed to anticipate the invasion because he himself was planning a pre-emptive war against Germany. Suvorov's (wholly circumstantial) evidence was the destruction of defensive assets along the Soviet western frontier in 1940 and early 1941. On this basis, Suvorov sought to portray Operation Barbarossa as a defensive measure by the Germans.

This argument is now widely accepted in Russia. In ''Stalin's Folly,'' a new book aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly readership (at one point Marx is compared with Stephen King), the young Russian journalist Constantine Pleshakov has restated it, claiming to have new evidence in support of the theory that Stalin was bent on attack, not defense. The documents in question -- several drafts ''on the principles of the U.S.S.R.'s armed forces deployment'' from 1940 and 1941 -- also appear in 1941 god.

Yet there is a problem. While Stalin clearly did consider the possibility of attacking Germany, he was just as clearly in no hurry to do so. What he commissioned were sketches of a pre-emptive strategy; there was no detailed operational planning of the sort the Germans had been working on since July 1940. So why did Stalin ignore the intelligence that (in his terms) Hitler was about to pre-empt him?

According to Gabriel Gorodetsky, Stalin was a prisoner of history. Memories of the Crimean War and of British intervention in the Russian civil war had persuaded him that the Soviet Union had more to fear from a British naval raid than from a German invasion.

Murphy prefers to see Stalin as having been blinded by a combination of Communist dogma and Nazi guile. As a convinced Marxist, Stalin assumed that the capitalist powers, led by Britain, were more interested in the destruction of the Soviet Union than in the destruction of Nazi Germany. Any intelligence that pointed toward a German invasion of Russia must therefore be disinformation emanating from British sources, who hoped to dupe the two dictators into fighting each other.

As evidence for his interpretation, Murphy publishes a translation -- originally from a French source -- of a speech that Stalin may have made at a Politburo meeting on Aug. 19, 1939, supporting a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Even more intriguing, though perhaps just as likely to be fake, are the letters Hitler allegedly wrote to Stalin in December 1940 and May 1941, swearing on his ''honor as a chief of state'' that the German troops gathering on Russia's borders were destined for the British Isles, not the Ukraine. If genuine, the May letter does indeed indicate that Hitler's psychopathic mendacity trumped Stalin's pathological mistrust.

But there was also a historical calculation in Stalin's mind. One of his favorite arguments was that Germany, having lost one two-front war in 1918, would never risk fighting another. Thus, so long as Britain was not defeated, Hitler would never invade Russia. In ''Stalin,'' his excellent new biography, Robert Service adds a further important point: Stalin may have ruled out a German invasion so late in the year as June 22, given the limited time that would remain before autumn rains turned the Russian roads into impassable bogs.

Yet whatever Stalin was thinking -- whether he deluded himself or was deluded by Hitler -- the fact remains that he, and he alone, was to blame for the greatest military defeat in Russian history. How, then, did he get away with it? The answer is simple. By 1941 he had so ruthlessly wiped out any potential rivals to his authority that no one dared try to get rid of him.

Service and Pleshakov both describe the extraordinary scene on June 30, 1941, when Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, led a deputation from the Politburo to Stalin's dacha, where ''the boss'' had been skulking for nearly two days. Stalin seems to have feared that this was his comeuppance: ''Why have you come?'' he muttered. But instead of arresting him, they invited him to head a new State Committee of Defense.

Was Stalin an unnecessary evil? The majority of Russians -- and not only those old enough to have been exposed to his cult of personality -- think not. In a poll conducted in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of his death, the Russian Center for Public Opinion found that 53 percent of Russians still regard him as a ''great'' leader. He was, a Russian pensioner told the BBC's Moscow correspondent, ''the father of the family, the person who took care of us.'' The popular view remains that Stalin brought victory on the battlefield and discipline on the home front -- a combination that many Russians look back on with nostalgia after the upheavals of the past two decades.

If historians have failed to change such popular views, it has not been for want of trying. Like Stalin's other recent biographers -notably Robert Conquest, Dmitri Volkogonov and Edvard Radzinsky -- Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty -- above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free.

Intelligence failures, in short, can change the course of history, whether failures of espionage or failures of analysis. Had successive administrations heeded Richard A. Clarke, the World Trade Center might still stand. Had the C.I.A. discerned and frankly reported the feeble state of Iraq's defenses, Saddam might still rule in Baghdad. These are imaginable scenarios, because the consequences of these errors, though grave, have not been truly disastrous. It is much harder to conceive how World War II might have turned out if Stalin had not trusted Hitler -- or had not survived the terrible consequences of so doing.

Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His latest book is ''Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.''

Stalin's Blindness
He deceived himself about Hitler, and it cost millions of Russian lives.
by Andrew Nagorski
06/27/2005, Volume 010, Issue 39

What Stalin Knew
The Enigma of Barbarossa
by David E. Murphy
Yale, 340 pp., $30

WHAT WAS JOSEPH STALIN THINKING when he allied himself with Adolf Hitler for nearly two years at the beginning of World War II? What did Stalin know about Hitler's intentions to turn on him, and when did he know it?

Historians have grappled with these questions ever since foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the infamous Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939, and the subsequent German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa, as the German invasion was called, blindsided Stalin and came closer than most people realize to achieving its aim of inflicting a swift, mortal blow to his country. In What Stalin Knew, David E. Murphy, a former CIA agent who was in charge of Soviet operations, provides the most thorough answers to date. His systematic examination of the "product" of Soviet intelligence during the critical 22 months of the pact, and of how Stalin angrily rejected most of the reports of his spies, is an absorbing account on several levels--tactical, psychological, and moral. The result is a devastating indictment of the Soviet tyrant on all those grounds.

Stalin's apologists have always maintained that he had no choice but to agree to the pact with Hitler, since he needed to buy time to prepare for war. Britain and France's appeasement at Munich a year earlier, and their lack of serious interest in forging an alliance with Russia, left Stalin with no choice, they claimed. In fact, Murphy points out, the Soviet leader was much more than Hitler's reluctant partner. He was enthusiastic about dividing the spoils of Poland, which he attacked from the east 16 days after Hitler's armies attacked from the west, and seizing control of the Baltic states. And, most tellingly, he slipped quite comfortably into the role of defending Germany and vilifying the British and the French.

So comfortably that the case can be made that Stalin may have wondered what kind of outcome he really wanted from the war he helped unleash. In the most controversial part of his book, Murphy offers the first English translation of a speech Stalin allegedly made on August 19, 1939, right before formalizing his agreement with Hitler. In it, he argued that if the West defeated Germany in a long war, that country would be ripe for Sovietization; but if Germany won in a long war, it would be too exhausted to threaten the Soviet Union, and a Communist takeover would be likely in France. Hence a win-win situation for the Soviet Union, and his conclusion that "one must do everything to ensure that the war lasts as long as possible in order to exhaust both sides."

The speech was first reported by the French news agency Havas in late 1939, and Stalin promptly branded it a fabrication. But in his denial, he insisted "it was not Germany that attacked France and Britain but France and Britain that attacked Germany, thereby taking on themselves responsibility for the present war." Murphy is convinced that Stalin did make this speech; but even if he didn't, the Soviet leader's protests were almost as revealing as the contested transcript. Besides, Stalin let slip similar comments on September 7, 1939, in the presence of several of his top aides. Discussing the war "between two groups of capitalist countries," as he characterized the Western powers and Germany, he asserted: "We see nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other."

The problem was that Hitler, who had all along believed that subjugating Russia was a key part of his life's mission, quickly became frustrated with his inability to bomb Britain into submission or mount Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of that island nation. Instead, he convinced himself that if he knocked Russia out first, this would leave Britain more isolated and vulnerable than ever. The fact that history (to wit, Napoleon's disaster in 1812) and common sense flew in the face of that reasoning meant little to Hitler. But Stalin refused to believe it--as he refused to believe the steady stream of reports flowing from Soviet agents abroad.

Murphy provides details that prove "beyond any reasonable doubt," as he puts it, that the Soviet services filed alarming reports about German intentions early and often. From Berlin, a source code-named Ariets reported on September 29, 1940, that Hitler intended to "resolve problems in the east in the spring of next year." Maj. Gen. Vasily Tupikov, the Soviet military attaché in Berlin, backed up his source and later confirmed the redeployment of large numbers of German troops from the western to the eastern front. From Bucharest, the Soviet military mission reported on March 26, 1941: "The Romanian general staff has precise information that in two or three months Germany will attack the Ukraine. The Germans will attack the Baltic states at the same time . . . "

Stalin reacted by ridding himself of Ivan Proskurov, the head of military intelligence who had consistently refused to buckle to his pressure to deliver better news. His replacement, Filipp Golikov, began relying on reports from his officers who picked up German disinformation, which dismissed all talk of an invasion of Russia as "English propaganda." When Golikov felt obliged to pass along a report from his Prague station that the Germans would attack in the second half of June, it landed back on his desk with Stalin's note in red ink: "English provocation! Investigate!"

In keeping with that sentiment, Stalin was determined to honor his trade commitments with Germany, and his country provided huge amounts of oil, wood, copper, manganese ore, rubber, grain, and other resources to keep the German military machine well stocked. He seemed genuinely to believe that he could convince Hitler of his good intentions by such craven behavior. In the words of Nikita Khrushchev: "So while those sparrows were chirping, 'Look out for Hitler! Look out for Hitler!' Stalin was punctually sending the Germans trainload after trainload of grain and petroleum."

As Murphy spells out, Stalin also ignored reports directly from the border regions of large German troop concentrations, and ordered his soldiers not to open fire on German aircraft that were routinely violating Soviet airspace to stage brazen reconnaissance missions. On April 5, 1941, border troops received the order that, in the case of any confrontation, they should "strictly see to it that bullets do not fall on German territory." Instead of recognizing all the signs of German preparations for what they were, Stalin--convinced that he couldn't trust anyone, especially his spies who must have been doing someone else's bidding--closed himself off more and more, and refused to allow his generals to put their troops on a war footing. He was also happy to keep arresting anyone who questioned his policies, dispatching them to his legions of executioners and torturers.

Murphy's book should put to rest the myth that Stalin was a great tactician, the brilliant savior of his country. Before he saved it, he almost destroyed it, when he had every opportunity to prepare his troops for the worst and at least limit their losses. In the end, 27 million Soviet citizens perished during "The Great Patriotic War." Of those, there's no telling how many could have been saved if the country had been led by someone who was willing to listen to the "sparrows," and to renounce the use of terror against his own people--at least for the duration of their epic struggle.

Andrew Nagorski, a senior editor at Newsweek International, is writing a book about the battle for Moscow during World War II.

N Z Z  Online

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9. Juli 2005, Ressort Feuilleton

Stalins Leben – neu aufbereitet

Klaus Kellmann: Stalin. Eine Biografie. Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 2005. 352 S., Fr. 42.30.

Das Böse ist nicht nur banal, es ist auch anziehend. Nur durch die Doppelnatur des Faszinosum tremendum kann man das anhaltende Interesse erklären, das sich mit der Person Josef Stalins verbindet – jenes Mannes, der für den gewaltsamen Tod mehrerer Millionen Menschen verantwortlich ist. Die blutige Spur, die Stalin in der sowjetischen Geschichte hinterlassen hat, ist lang: Die Hungersnot während der Zwangskollektivierung, der grosse Terror der dreissiger Jahre, die verheerenden militärischen Fehlentscheidungen im Kampf gegen Hitlerdeutschland und die antisemitischen Repressionen nach dem Krieg sind direkt dem ehemaligen Zögling des Tifliser Priesterseminars anzulasten. Der Kieler Historiker Klaus Kellmann lässt den autoritativen Darstellungen von Isaac Deutscher, Robert Conquest und Dmitri Wolkogonow eine weitere Stalin-Biografie folgen. Der Wert von Kellmanns ansprechender Darstellung liegt nicht so sehr in der Präsentation neuer Materialien – der Autor stützt sich im Wesentlichen auf die bekannten Fakten. Kellmann erzählt Stalins Biografie vor dem Hintergrund der Zeitgeschichte und erklärt dabei eine ganze Reihe von Begleitumständen, die sonst oft nur Spezialisten bekannt sind. Dadurch gewinnt Stalins Leben eine historische Plastizität, die bei anderen Biografen oft in der detaillierten Schilderung der einzelnen Palastintrigen unterzugehen droht.






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

She sat at Stalin’s feet smiling up at the camera with a huge beam on her face, wearing one of her large lace collars. I recognised her immediately: Zhenya Alliluyeva, the Soviet dictator’s sister-in-law and probably his mistress.

I was sitting alone in a little room in the hideous concrete Communist party archives in central Moscow, still emblazoned with carvings of Lenin and Marx. The old wooden desk in front of me was covered in photographs, letters and diaries.

These treasures of the party archives had only just been opened to the public. There were Stalin’s letters to many of his Bolshevik magnates and friends; his love letters to his wife Nadya; the gossipy diary of one of his in-laws and the family photograph albums.

The newly opened documents in the archive change the way historians will see the Soviet leader and his entourage. Their power emerges as amazingly personal and informal — and much more of an oligarchy in the early 1930s than was previously thought. It is fascinating to see handwritten letters in which Stalin often had to apologise to his magnates or in which they actually tease him or disagree with him.

The photographs are also revealing. Many histories of Stalin have claimed that after the death of his wife in 1932 he retreated into all-male society. Yet here he was, at his birthday party two years later, surrounded by women, Zhenya luminously among them. Blue-eyed and busty, with wavy blonde hair, dimples and glistening lips, she seemed to be leaning against his knee.

This photograph [not carried on the website] catches not only Stalin’s intimacy with her but an intimate moment in his world, when he found himself for a few years embraced into the suffocating warmth of his sisters-in-law and the wider Bolshevik matriarchy. It did not last. Stalin saw the wives as hostages for his comrades’ good behaviour and as gossipy, irresponsible liabilities.

The bitchy infighting among the excitable coterie of women also contributed to Stalin’s growing paranoia, which would result in the murderous Terror he unleashed in 1937. There was even an element of puritanism to his purges, a reaction to the growing elite corruption and decadence. Many of those in the birthday party pictures were shot or arrested. Zhenya herself faced a terrible future.

STALIN’S close relationship with Zhenya arose from a personal tragedy, the most wounding and mysterious of his career.

At about 7pm on November 8, 1932, his wife was dressing for a party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Fragile, 31-year-old Nadya prided herself on her “Bolshevik modesty”, wearing the dullest dresses and no make-up. But tonight she was making a special effort. In the Stalins’ gloomy apartment in the Kremlin, she twirled for her sister Anna in a fashionable black dress embroidered with red roses.

In his office a few hundred yards away, Stalin, 52, was chatting with his prime minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. The subject was their ruthless war to subjugate the peasantry, which was causing famine and widespread loss of life. At 8pm, they left for the party through the snowy alleyways and squares of the Kremlin. Stalin wore his Communist party tunic, baggy trousers, soft boots, old greatcoat and a wolfskin shapka with earmuffs.

The Vozhd had a reputation for inscrutability and modesty. But the real Stalin was a mercurial neurotic. He was highly intelligent, garrulous, sociable and a fine singer but also a lonely, cold and unhappy man. He loved roses and mimosas but believed the solution to every human problem was death. He could not have been a worse partner for his self-centred wife, who was troubled by depression and occasional attacks of hysteria.

They had become lovers in 1918 when he was Lenin’s brutal troubleshooter at Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) during the civil war; she was a teenage typist on his armoured train. Their later letters reveal a difficult but loving marriage.

“Hello, Tatka . . . I miss you so much Tatochka — I’m as lonely as a horned owl . . . My kisses! Your Joseph,” he wrote to her in June 1930. Her reply spoke of their “very passionate kisses”.

There were country weekends at peaceful dachas, cheerful dinners in the Kremlin and languid holidays on the Black Sea that Stalin’s children would remember as the happiest of their lives. But there were also dramatic rows. Nadya had recently ruined an evening at the theatre by throwing a tantrum when Stalin flirted with a ballerina.

Now, however, Nadya was excited as she placed a scarlet tea rose in her black hair and set off for the party. It was being held at the home of the defence commissar, Kliment Voroshilov, just across a lane from the Stalins’ apartment. All the Bolshevik potentates lived so close to each other around the spired and domed courtyards of the Kremlin that they resembled dons in an Oxford college. Stalin was always popping in for a chat. As the documents in the party archive show, he still had to use charm and cajolery to get his way.

These were men hardened by years in the Bolshevik underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the civil war, and now exultant at the industrial triumphs of the Stalin revolution.

Their cheerful soirees usually ended in Cossack jigs and Georgian laments. But this November night things did not end as usual. Stalin never forgot the part each played. Many of them would die terrible deaths within five years.

Some time during the evening, over a table of vodka, Georgian wines and simple food — soup, salted fish, maybe some lamb — Stalin and Nadya became angry with each other.

He had barely noticed how she had dressed up. Irritated, she started dancing with her louche Georgian godfather, “Uncle Abel” Yenukidze, the official in charge of the Kremlin, who had shocked the party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.

Stalin was flirting with Galya Yegorova, the beautiful wife of a Red Army commander. Galya, 34, was a brash film actress well known for her affairs and risqué dresses.

The Soviet dictator was no womaniser, but he was not uninterested in women — and women were definitely interested in him. Whether they were the wives of comrades, relations or servants, women buzzed around him. He was bombarded with fan mail. “Dear Comrade Stalin, I saw you in my dreams . . . I have hopes of an audience,” wrote a provincial teacher. “I enclose my photograph . . .”

His bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik, once confided that Stalin was so besieged with offers that he could not resist everyone: “He was a man after all.”

Certainly Nadya suspected him of having affairs, most recently with a female hairdresser in the Kremlin. Disappointed by Stalin’s oafishness, she now exploded.

Some accounts claim that, sitting opposite Nadya at the table, Stalin upbraided her for not raising her glass when he toasted the destruction of the enemies of the state.

“Why aren’t you drinking?” he called, tossing orange peel at her. “Hey you! Have a drink!” “My name isn’t ‘hey’!” she retorted, and she stormed out screaming: “Shut up! Shut up!” Molotov’s wife Polina followed her out and calmed her down. When they said good night she seemed “perfectly calm”.

Stalin’s own movements after the party are a mystery. Some have it that when he did not come home Nadya called their dacha.

“Is Stalin there?” “Yes,” replied a security guard.

“Who’s with him?” “Gusev’s wife.”

Gusev, said to have been an army officer, has never been identified. Others say Stalin slept at home. He certainly returned at some point and went drunkenly to his bedroom — down a different corridor from his wife’s.

He woke late in the morning, apparently unaware of the consternation in the apartment. But when he walked into the dining room Nadya’s godfather greeted him with the news that she had shot herself during the night, still wearing her black dress.

AMONG the first relatives to arrive were Zhenya and her husband Pavel, who was Nadya’s brother. They were shocked not only by the death of a sister but by the sight of Stalin himself, who had never seemed so vulnerable. He threatened suicide and asked Zhenya: “What’s missing in me?” She temporarily moved in to watch over him. One night she heard screeching and found him lying on a sofa in the half-light, spitting at the wall, which was dripping with trails of saliva.

The all-powerful widower soon found himself in the loving but overwhelming embrace of a newly reconstructed family. Pavel and Zhenya became his constant companions. Nadya’s sister Anna and her husband Stanislas Redens, boss of the Moscow secret police, also drew close.

A third couple, Alyosha and Maria Svanidze, completed this inner circle. Alyosha was the brother of Stalin’s first wife, who had died in 1907. Maria was a Jewish Georgian soprano with a peaches and cream complexion and big blue eyes. She began to keep a remarkable diary, one of the most revealing documents of the 1930s, which was later preserved by Stalin in his own archive.

Alongside these close relatives, the wives of the Bolshevik magnates were in constant bitchy competition for his favour.

The most important of Stalin’s courtiers were all at his dacha on December 21, 1934, for his 55th birthday. It was a dangerous time. Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s favourite magnate, had been assassinated. In the few weeks since his death more than 6,500 people had been executed. Yet a saddened Stalin allowed his entourage to arrange his usual birthday party.

As I went through the Communist party archives I read the details of that night recorded in Maria Svanidze’s diary. I also interviewed Stalin’s adopted son Artyom Sergeev, now a retired general, who had attended the birthday party as a boy of 13. Their memories matched.

Stalin served cabbage soup to his guests and there were tearful toasts to Kirov and Nadya. Then his bodyguard assembled everybody for photographs.

In the most telling photo, Stalin is surrounded by his worshipful women. To his right is Sashiko Svanidze, pushy older sister of his first wife; then Maria Kaganovicha, wife of one of the most powerful magnates, and the busty Maria Svanidze. On his left is the elegant Polina Molotova.

Stalin had long admired Dora Khazan, wife of another politburo member, who stands behind him; indeed it has been claimed that she was once his mistress. But the whole group is framed around Zhenya, who smiles like the cat who has got the cream.

Then 36, Zhenya was the daughter of a priest. With her golden skin and mischievous nature, she radiated health. While the other women had grown older and fatter, she was young, fresh and feminine in her frilly dresses, flamboyant collars and silk scarves.

Stalin had long admired her joie de vivre. She said whatever she thought and was unafraid of him. On her first visit to his dacha she had found a meal on the table. She ate it all. Stalin then walked in and asked: “Where’s my onion soup?” Zhenya admitted she had eaten it. This might have provoked an explosion but he had merely smiled and said: “Next time they had better make two.”

She was the only person who could tease Stalin. He openly admired her dress sense, humour, even her mischievous defiance. She was an expert teller of the chastushka, bawdy punning rhymes. They do not translate well but Stalin’s favourites were such gems as “Simple to shit off a bridge, but one person did it and fell off” or “Sitting in one’s own shit feels as safe as a fortress”.

After Nadya’s suicide a fresh relationship developed between the widower and this blithe woman. They probably became lovers in 1934. Bolshevik secrecy and prudishness make these matters especially difficult to research, but Maria Svanidze observed their relationship and recorded it in the diary that Stalin himself preserved.

Maria spotted how Zhenya went out of her way to be alone with him. He “teased Zhenya about getting plump again. He treated her very affectionately. Now that I know everything I have watched them closely”.

This is confirmed by Zhenya’s daughter Kira, who frequently saw them together. A former actress, Kira is now a very old lady but still possessed of electric energy and mischief like her mother. When I met her in Moscow she talked for hours about the relationship with Stalin, who was “in love with my mother”. Another child of the era, Kira’s cousin, Leonid Redens, agreed that it was “more than a friendship”.

The paradox was that Stalin was an awkward man of the 19th century: flirtatious with the women of his circle, strictly prudish about his own daughter and shocked at feminism and free love. Even the reign of terror he was unleashing was partly — among many more important things — the triumph of prissy Bolshevik morality over the sexual freedom of the 1920s. The scent of actresses, the whirl of diplomatic salons and the glow of foreign decadence were sometimes enough to convince the lonely Stalin, reeking of puritanical envy, that treason and duplicity lurked.

The “aunties” — as Stalin’s children called them — were about to be purged. One pities these haughty, decent women, who found themselves in a quagmire they so little understood.

IN THE spring of 1937, Stalin began to distance himself from the “family”, whose gossipy arrogance suddenly seemed suspicious. When they gathered at his apartment for his daughter Svetlana’s 11th birthday on February 28, he did not attend.

The Svanidzes were the first to fall. On April 2, Stalin wrote an ominous note to Nikolai Yezhov, the secret police chief: “Purge the staff of the state bank.” Alyosha Svanidze was its deputy chairman. Maria’s access to Stalin suddenly ended. Her diary stopped abruptly.

Then came news of the arrest of Galya Yegorova, with whom Stalin had flirted before Nadya’s suicide, and her best friend, Olga Budyonny, wife of one of Stalin’s favourite marshals.

It seems that Olga, a Bolshoi singer, was cuckolding Budyonny with a tenor and flirting with Polish diplomats. According to the secret police, she and Galya “visited foreign embassies”. Galya was shot and Olga went mad in solitary confinement.

So the purge was not confined to the aunties. Stalin was probing the submission of his comrades by investigating and sometimes killing their wives. “You must be brave,” he told Budyonny. “Do you think I don’t feel sorry when my closest circle turn out to be enemies of the people?” In the view of Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few top Bolsheviks to outlive the dictator and enjoy a peaceful old age, “Stalin did not recognise personal relations. The love of one person for another did not exist”.

Maria Svanidze and her husband remained under investigation for the rest of the year. At Christmas they visited Zhenya in the House on the Embankment, the apartment block by the Moscow river where the family all lived. Maria showed off her new low-cut velvet dress. After they left at midnight, Zhenya and Kira were doing the dishes when the bell rang. It was Maria’s son: “Mama and Alyosha have been arrested. She was taken away in her beautiful clothes.”

Zhenya received a letter from Maria who begged her to pass it on to Stalin: “If I don’t leave this camp, I’ll die.” Zhenya took the message to the dictator, who warned her angrily: “Don’t ever do this again!” Maria was moved to a harsher prison. Both she and her husband would eventually be shot.

Next it was the turn of Yevgenia Yezhova, wife of the head of the secret police. One of several pretty young Jewish women who fluttered around Stalin — more interested in clothes, jokes and affairs than dialectical materialism — she fell victim to the iron law of terror: the executor must be executed.

Lavrenti Beria, the intelligent and able sadist whom Stalin brought in from Georgia to assist in the purges, threw suspicion on her in his efforts to usurp her husband. She poisoned herself in an attempt to save Yezhov, but he too was eventually executed.

“All our family,” wrote Svetlana, “was completely baffled as to why Stalin made Beria, a provincial secret policeman, so close to himself and the government in Moscow.” But this was precisely why Stalin had promoted him: nobody was sacred to Beria.

Putting him in the family circle was like putting a fox in a chicken coop. Burning with the inferiority complex of a scorned provincial, he was determined to prove himself by destroying the new nobility, and the wives were a special target.

There was a history of tension between Beria and Zhenya. He had once tried to flirt with her while her husband and Stalin were sitting nearby. She warned: “If this bastard doesn’t leave me alone, I’ll smash his pince-nez.” But Beria had persisted, and she appealed to Stalin: “Joseph! He’s trying to squeeze my knee!” Now, in November 1938, Zhenya’s husband Pavel, a tank forces commissar, died suspiciously. Zhenya was convinced that Beria had poisoned him.

Next Stalin’s brother-in-law, Stanislas Redens, was arrested. His wife Anna badgered Stalin about him for several years, unaware that he had been shot. Perhaps Stalin was settling private scores against his over-familiar, interfering family. But he did not regard the Terror as a private spree: in his view he was cleansing his country of spies before war broke out with Germany. If his family were among the casualties, he regarded them as his own sacrifice.

Zhenya’s relationship with Stalin had cooled. Yet he chose this moment to make a strange, indirect proposal. Beria came to see her and said: “You’re such a nice person, and you’re so fine looking, do you want to move in and be housekeeper at Stalin’s house?” He is unlikely to have made such a suggestion without Stalin’s permission. This was surely a marriage proposal, an awkward attempt to salvage the warmth of old days. But it was unforgivably clumsy to send Beria, whom Zhenya loathed.

Zhenya was alarmed, fearing that Beria would frame her for trying to poison Stalin if she became his housekeeper. She swiftly married an old friend instead.

Stalin was appalled, claiming it was indecent so soon after Pavel’s death. Beria fanned the flames by suggesting she had poisoned her husband. She was banned from the Kremlin.

Stalin looked elsewhere for a housekeeper and found her in a busty maid at his dacha. She became his trusted companion and effectively his secret wife.

Henceforth, his private life was frozen in about 1939: the dramas of Nadya and Zhenya that had caused him pain and anger were over. He warned his son Vasily against women with ideas — “We’ve known that kind, herrings with ideas, skin and bones.”

But he retained his fascination with Zhenya. After Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, Stalin summoned her and asked her to take his children east to safety. With typical bravery, she refused. Stalin never saw her again.

Zhenya survived the Terror only to fall foul of Stalin’s increased anti-semitism after the war — and of his bristling suspicion of female meddling.

Solomon Mikhoels, a Yiddish actor and Soviet star accused of being anti-Soviet and pro-American, mistakenly hoped to appeal to Stalin on behalf of Russia’s Jews through his daughter Svetlana.

Mikhoels asked Zhenya, who mixed with the Jewish intelligentsia, for help in meeting Svetlana. Her family warned her against meddling, but it seems that the ever fearless Zhenya agreed.

Stalin was already brooding about the taste for Jewish men that Svetlana had developed as a young woman. When he heard that Zhenya had introduced her to Mikhoels, he erupted. The Jews were “worming their way into the family”. He muttered to Svetlana that Zhenya was a poisoner.

Zhenya was arrested and accused of “disseminating foul slander about the head of the Soviet government”. Her new husband turned out to be a secret police agent who had been informing on her ever since their marriage.

Kira was also arrested; and Anna Redens, who had been annoying Stalin with phone calls, joined them in prison.

Svetlana tried to intercede for the “aunties” but Stalin told her: “They talked too much.”Kira claims that he warned his daughter: “If you act as their defender we’ll also put you in jail.”

Mikhoels was murdered. Zhenya was jailed for 10 years and Kira for five for “supplying information about the personal life of (Stalin’s) family to the American embassy”. Anna also received five years.

In solitary confinement Zhenya tried to kill herself by eating stones, but she was kept alive by the kindness of strangers. A Polish prisoner in the neighbouring cell knocked in prison code: “Live for your children.”

Anna lost her mind in the gulag, but Zhenya survived. She was released in 1953, unaware of the reason why.

“So finally Stalin saved us after all!” she told Kira, herself newly released. “You fool!” exclaimed her daughter. “Stalin’s dead!”

An unrepentant Stalinist, Zhenya remembered him with admiration up to her own death in 1974.