Book review by Robert Service, The Guardian (UK)
London, UK, July 19, 2003
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
Simon Sebag Montefiore
693pp, Weidenfeld, pounds 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.
The Guardian, London, UK, July 19, 2003
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY