Book Review by Marc Lambert, The Scotsman, Scotsman.com
Edinburgh, Scotland, Saturday, 19th July 2003
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ¸25, 694 Pages, ISBN: 1842127268
[Amazon price: ¸17.5]
He was never a poster boy for the Revolution. Hardly anyone remembered
him from the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. One of the most reliable
eyewitnesses of the period described him merely as a "grey blur". But beware
the invisible man, a renegade seminarian from Georgia named Joseph
Dzhugashvili, later Stalin - the "man of steel". In the end, he would
outstrip the heroes of the Revolution and destroy them, one by one.
Yet, even at the height of his fame and power, he remained an enigma. "He
was a different man at different times," said "Iron Lazar" Kaganovich, a
close partner in crime for more than 30 years, "I know no less than five or
six Stalins ..."
So just who was Joseph Stalin? In this fascinating account of the dictator's
reign, based on new archival research, letters and interviews, Montefiore
provides a riveting portrait of the man and his ruling circle. Published to
coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death, this book gives us an
unprecedented glimpse into his intimate life, the inner workings of his
government and the relations between the members of his junta, many of whom
have remained shadowy figures until now. We learn in detail about everyday
Bolshevik culture, how the vanguard of the party lived and ruled, how they
took decisions, how they loved and hated - and just what they were prepared
to do for themselves and for the Cause.
The result is a much finer and nuanced understanding of the Bolshevik
phenomenon than we have had before. Using his sources with great skill,
Montefiore has succeeded in placing Stalin and the Bolsheviks in the context
of their time, avoiding the easy option of simply demonising them. "If
Stalin isn't human then there's no message in his life for us," he declares.
"If you say he's mad or the devil incarnate, the lesson of history is
It was Lenin who first noticed Stalin, promoting him to the key post of
General Secretary in 1922. Stalin had had an undistinguished war, bungling a
key offensive against the White Army and clashing with Trotsky, whom he
dismissed as an "operetta commander". Yet he could be counted on to do
what he was told, no matter how dreadful the task, and he was as ruthless as
Lenin, who instructed him to be merciless. "Rest assured," he replied, "our
hand will not tremble."
Stalin and the Collective Farm Shock Workers, 1935
(Click on image to enlarge it)
It never did. Stalin had a taste for death that went beyond the usual
Bolshevik response to political problems - a bullet in the neck. No-one was
safe with him, not the Russian people, not his colleagues, not even his
family. Stalin systematically destroyed everything he came into contact
with. Trotsky, his most famous victim and a man with bloodstained hands
himself, was nevertheless correct in calling him "the gravedigger of the
Revolution". By the time he died at the age of 75, Stalin was responsible
for 20 million deaths, an enormous slave labour system called the Gulag,
and the forcible deportation of whole nations of peoples. He was simply the
greatest mass murderer in history.
It was Stalin's key position as General Secretary that gave him power over
the internal workings of the party. Aided by Trotsky's inept arrogance, his
inscrutable cunning ensured his rise to power. Lenin realised too late the
threat that he posed. Writing a secret testament just before his death in
1924, he warned against Stalin as a harsh master, "a cook who only knows
how to prepare peppery dishes".
Yet, as Montefiore shows, it is a mistake to see Stalin's reign as a tragic
distortion of Lenin's legacy. Though it remains contentious, it is now
apparent that Stalin, whose chosen nickname echoed that of his master, was
Lenin's greatest pupil, and that many of his policies were extensions of
what had already been established as Marxist-Leninist law. Moreover, the
violence at the core of Bolshevism came not only from the particular
situation of revolution and the civil war of 1917. Long before this it was
implicit in the extraordinary intemperance and vituperation of Lenin's
language, in his paranoia and dogmatism, brilliantly captured by
Solzhenitsyn in his book, Lenin in Zurich. If one begins by killing people,
there is only one way to go. As former Politburo member Alexander
Yakovlev admitted, Bolshevism was a social system based on blood- letting.
By 1929 Stalin had consolidated his ruling position in the party. Using
diaries, letters and other primary sources, Montefiore shows us how these
years were regarded by the ruling elite and their wives as "that wonderful
time". Stalin did not yet rule by fear. Instead, the foundation of his power
in the party, surprising as it may seem, was charm. Stalin was rough, but
affectionate. Small, with a pigeon-toed gait, a pockmarked face and a
withered arm, he nevertheless moved with a feline grace and was attractive
to women. He had the ability to make whoever he was talking to feel like a
trusted, important friend. Colleagues such as Molotov, Mikoyan and
Kaganovich lived with their families in close proximity to him in the
Kremlin, casually dropping in on each other, dining and holidaying together,
acting like a large extended family.
Never mind that the murderous upheaval of collectivisation and
industrialisation was going on, that the Ukrainian famine created by the
Bolsheviks was claiming seven million lives. What bound these leaders
together and what in some sense explains their actions, was their cult-like
devotion to the glorious task of constructing a communist utopia. As one
historian has ironically remarked, in order to kill many people, you need a
But this comradeship was soon to change. Montefiore prefaces his book with
a key event in Stalin's life, the suicide of his second wife, Nadya, in
1932, a blow from which he never recovered. Thereafter, Stalin tightened his
grip on power, becoming ever more paranoid, homicidal and corrupt.
Engineering the death of Kirov, a close favourite in the party, he launched
the Great Terror of 1936-8 to destroy the last hint of opposition, the
Bolshevik Old Guard. It was a frenzied era of bloodletting, intrigue and
betrayal. On one day alone Stalin and Molotov signed off 3,167 executions.
As Khrushchev later admitted, they were all "up to their elbows in blood".
The pattern was set for the rest of Stalin's rule. The detail that
Montefiore uncovers is always chilling and frequently astonishing. We learn,
for instance, that in 1942, with the Germans only 50 miles from Moscow,
Stalin still found the time to order Beria - one of his most ghastly
henchmen - to kidnap and murder the wife of his most longstanding cabinet
secretary. Her crime? To have asked him to release her brother from prison.
The slaughter continued through the Second World War, in which it is
estimated Russia lost a further 26 million people, and into Stalin's final
decade. Only his death in 1953 prevented the launch of a new anti-Semitic
purge that he had been carefully preparing for years.
The complex portrait of Stalin that emerges from this groundbreaking book
is as fine an examination of the nature of dictatorship as one is likely to
find. Prudish and ascetic in his personal habits, given to doodling
wolfheads in red ink on his pad during meetings, Stalin made terror a way of
life, revelling in his ability to manipulate truth, history and those around
him. Highly intelligent, gifted with a prodigious memory, he constantly
undermined and humiliated his associates, who existed in a permanent state
of fear while plotting feverishly against each other in a bid to survive and
Yet Stalin also loved children and roses. He was a voracious reader, loved
theatre and film, and was gregarious in his hospitable Georgian way. In
drawing him so masterfully from the shadows of history, Montefiore poses
us a conundrum: the human reality of a monster. It is one of the greatest
mysteries of human nature, the enigma of this once invisible man.
Simon Sebag Montefiore will be talking about Stalin at the Edinburgh
International Book Festival on Saturday 16 August .
EDITOR'S NOTE: Simon Sebag Montefiore, who was born in 1965, read
history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He spent much of the
nineties travelling through the ex Soviet Empire, particularly the Caucasus,
Ukraine and Central Asia, and wrote widely on Russia especially for the
Sunday Times, New York Times and Spectator.
Simon Sebag-Montefiore was a journalist on the SUNDAY TIMES before he
started writing books. He speaks several languages, has travelled widely,
and now writes books full time. His first biography, Prince of Princes, the
life of Catherine the Great's lover and chief minister Potemkin, was a huge
seller in hardback and paperback.
Prince of Princes: the Life of Potemkin was published in 2000 and
shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and Marsh Biography prizes.
The author of two novels and presenter of television documentaries, he lives
in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their daughter.
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY