After reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, I decided that I should learn something about, well, old Stalin. It may not have been particularly wise to choose Sebag Montefiore’s previous book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar as my source; maybe another perspective would have been more helpful. However, comparing the two books by the same author had its own charms.
Both begin with dramatic set pieces—Young Stalin with a bank robbery, Court of the Red Tsar with a dinner party that brought together many of the book’s main players. Young Stalin ends its prologue with a warning that Stalin was about to experience a terrible personal tragedy; this turns out to be the death of his first wife, probably due to typhus or tuberculosis. Court of the Red Tsar ends its prologue with a warning that Stalin was about to experience a terrible personal tragedy; this turns out to be the death of his first wife, a suicide. In both cases, when Stalin realizes his loss, Sebag Montefiore writes, “Stalin was poleaxed.” Really, the exact same words in both books. I found this interesting because a) I’ve never heard of anyone being poleaxed; is this British slang? and b) I wonder if Sebag Montefiore was aware of this plagiarism of himself? If he was, did he just shrug, think, “I like the imagery,” and move on? This fascinates me, and yes, I am going to try to work poleaxed into my vocabulary (“Kirsten realized that what she most wished for was coming true at last. Then she woke up. It had been a dream. She was poleaxed.”)
Both books then double back to catch readers up to previous events before explaining the personal tragedy. In Court of the Red Tsar, at first Sebag Montefiore seems to want to use this event, the suicide of Nadya, as kind of a touchstone, the moment when Stalin lost whatever humanity he had. But this isn’t particularly convincing, and even Sebag Montefiore eventually minimizes this idea, pointing out (as is made clearer in the book about Stalin’s early years) that a lot of his brutality and callousness towards human life came from his upbringing in a tough Georgian culture that rewarded thuggery, and the early years of the revolution where fear of the Tsar’s spies meant that no one could ever be paranoid enough.
So the same Stalin who ordered murderous purges, who shrugged at the millions dying during a famine was the same Stalin who loved to play with children and who enjoyed tending to his roses and lemon trees, who sang and read fine literature. These are all part of the Stalin we see in Sebag Montefiore’s subsequent book. That book is more of a traditional biography, with a close focus on Stalin’s life. Court of the Red Tsar is almost equally a portrait of Stalin and those who worked with him, his various ministers and Politburo members. It’s kind of a workplace drama about what it’s like to survive under the rule of one of the world’s worst bosses.
In the early days of Stalin’s tenure, many of the leaders lived together in apartments in the Kremlin. Their children played together, friends dropped in and out to play chess; they were the typical stop in to borrow a cup of sugar neighbors. But the assassination of Kirov, the popular moderate Central Committee member, led to Stalin’s purge of suspected conspirators all over the country. Caught in the net of the Terror were friends of Stalin’s, relatives of suspects, nationally known figures and obscure village politicians; the total number of those “liquidated” was probably somewhere around 700,000.
The purge turned the friendly Kremlin neighbors into not just a team of rivals, but rather a team of desperate-to-survive-even-if-it-means-ditching-you-or-not- standing-up-for-you-or-not-being-seen-too-much-with-you. Committee members sat through trials condemning for treason people they knew were not traitors, and voted for the execution of the innocent. They stood by as family members were taken in for no reason other than who they were related to, barely daring to even try to ask for their pardons.
Stalin particularly had an obsession with the wives of his committee members, finding ways to frame them, send them to prison, and on more than a few occasions, execute them. Stalin’s personal secretary Poskrebyshev did beg for the life of his imprisoned wife, Bronka, but was told by Stalin, “You’ll find another wife.” Bronka was shot and Poskrebyshev suffered silently, remaining loyal to Stalin. All of this, the loyalty and the pointlessness of the murders meant little to anyone. When Lavrenti Beria, the vicious head of the secret police who had given the order for Bronka’s murder, met her daughter Natalya, he cheerfully said, “You’re going to be as beautiful as your mother.” Poskrebyshev reportedly turned green and fled the room. After the war, Natalya recited a worshipful poem to Stalin at an event in his honor, commending the man who had signed off on her mother’s execution.
No one was safe. Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD and Central Committee member, essentially ran the purge in the late 1930s. Nicknamed “the Blackberry” by Stalin (he was a nickname), Yezhov worked tirelessly at his job; he went to meetings straight from his torture chambers, with spots of blood on his cuffs. When someone pointed this out, he said, “One should take pride in such specks because they were the blood of the Enemies of the Revolution.” But despite his zealousness, he eventually was pushed out too, accused of plotting to kill Stalin. He was executed and Beria took over. Beria, tough, ambitious, and just as murderous as Yezhov, survived until after Stalin’s death. Then he, too, was accused of plotting against the Party and was killed.
In this culture, where false accusations were the norm, death sentences didn’t require much proof and someone could die in a “car accident” or perhaps of poison, Stalin’s inner circle drew both closer and more desperate; they knew that no one else except each other could really understand what it was like to be in their situation, but they were ready to destroy each other at any given moment, if it meant saving their own lives or positions.
The man who orchestrated all this, Stalin, doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional personification of evil. Rather, as noted above, Sebag Montefiore points out the more human side of Stalin: his close relationship with his daughter (though he did not get along with his sons at all), his kindness to children, the odd gesture such as seeing peasants waiting for a bus in the rain and giving them a ride in his limousine. Sebag Montefiore relates one incident where Artyom Mikoyan, one of the ever precarious inner circle, was taken ill and put to bed. He felt someone putting a blanket over him and was surprised to look up and see it was Stalin (he probably was surprised that Stalin wasn’t putting a pillow over his face).
The General Secretary also had a quirky side. A professor who had been imprisoned began working on a new translation of some Georgian poems while confined and found his work coming back to him with notes by a mysterious editor. Eventually he was released and found out that the edits had come from Stalin. He loved movies, particularly silly Russian romantic comedies, Hollywood movies with big stars (It Happened One Night was a favorite), and John Ford westerns. The unlucky employee in charge of the films had to edit out almost everything to do with sex, even cutting kisses (the Stalin of the Red Tsar is a prim prude, wildly unlike the young, womanizing version shown in Young Stalin). The film manager also had to provide translation for American films, even though he didn’t speak English; preparing to show a film was the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter for an exam, as he tried to cobble together as much information about the story and words as he could. The result was generally less than accurate, but this seemed to amuse Stalin even more. One of Stalin’s odder stunts was how he went about choosing a new national anthem for the Soviet Union to replace the Internationale. He held what Sebag Montefiore described as a competition that resembled the Eurovision Song Contest, making the final edits on the winning song lyrics himself.
But all of this charm (and many said he was quite charming) was just one part of a man whose callous evilness was astonishing. He could order the deaths of thousands with an almost disinterested pen stroke, shrug as millions starved and send friends and relatives to their deaths. While reading Young Stalin, I had struggled with Sebag Montefiore’s seeming glamorization of Stalin the youthful revolutionary, who came off in that book more like a fun-loving Hollywood gangster than a brutal thug. But by presenting the so-called human side of him in this book, Sebag Montefiore shows how that makes him even worse. A purely evil person can be dismissed as a psychopath, but someone who can be kind one minute and vicious the next is something worse.
Stalin ordered the executions and accusations with increasing paranoia; his motive supposedly was protection of the Party, but it was really more about protecting himself. This may have come back to haunt him. During a final burst of particularly virulent anti-Semitism (he considered Jews allies of the US, and thus a threat to the USSR), Stalin, who had always been suspicious of doctors, concocted the Doctors’ Plot, a supposed conspiracy amongst Jewish doctors to murder him and members of the Committee. At least hundreds of doctors were rounded up and imprisoned. When Stalin had a stroke, members of his staff dithered and hesitated, not calling a doctor for hours; they feared how he might react if he saw one of the suspected assassins at his bedside. Finally a few were brought in to see him, but they could do little other than diagnose his massive cerebral hemorrhage. Inquisitors at the prison described the condition of a mysterious “uncle” and asked some of the jailed doctors who should best treat him. The doctors named others who were in prison with them. When told who was attending this “uncle,” the condemned doctors dismissed them as barely competent. While it’s not likely that Stalin could have been saved, particularly given the state of 1950s medical knowledge about how to treat strokes, his paranoid lock up of all the best doctors in the land probably contributed to making his death harder and more difficult than it might have been.
Sebag Montefiore used newly released documents and archives to research his book; conversations throughout come directly from Central Committee minutes and transcripts of other meetings. Other pieces of information come from interviews with survivors of the Stalin era, particularly the children of the Committee members. Their stories make up some of the most fascinating parts of the book.
In many ways, this is a fine book. By focusing on the whole "court" of Stalin and including the personal dramas of his inner circle, readers get a broader picture of life during that time period than would be found in just a straightforward biography. However, if you’re looking for a complete picture of the man and the era, it’s probably not the place to go. Sebag Montefiore warns about this in the introduction—if you want to know about life outside the Kremlin, and the effects of Stalin’s policies on the people of the Soviet Union you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you want real analysis of his political ideology or a study of his moves both as a peace time and war time leader, again, this isn’t the place to go. But for what it is, it is quite good, although I have a few gripes. One is my ever present complaint of TOO MANY LARGE CHUNKY FOOTNOTES CLUTTERING THE BOTTOM OF EACH PAGE. Again—and I don’t care how many times I have to repeat this: if something deserves enough words that it takes up one third of the page or runs to another page, it belongs in the text. It’s not a footnote. My other complaint is that there is something jumpy and episodic about this book. It took me a long time to read, but it took longer than maybe it should have because each time I picked it up, I found myself a little lost and having to backtrack (then again, maybe I’m just not very bright). And maybe it says something that I never felt compelled to keep reading. I had little time to read over the past few weeks, but if I had really wanted to, I undoubtedly could have found more.. While I enjoyed it and thought it reasonably interesting, I wasn’t enthralled by it. Love eluded me again.
So I think I am done with my Stalin crash course, for now at least. What did I learn? Let Khrushchev, the court’s supreme survivor sum it up: “When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances.”