But the terror did not even achieve its intended objectives. The slaughter
of the kulaks -supposed to double agricultural output - was followed by a
decline in wheat production to below Tsarist levels
Observer Book Review by Roy Hattersley
Guardian Unlimited Books
The Observer, London, UK, Sunday, July 20, 2003
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicholson ¸25, pp693
Because I want to retain my faith in human nature, I would like to believe
that Stalin and his henchmen were all clinically insane. Surely people who
wallow in blood - metaphorically when they order the slaughter of seven
million kulaks, and literally when they beat old friends to death - must
have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
Photograph from the period of collectivization in Ukraine
(Click on image to enlarge it)
But the leaders of the interwar Soviet Union, for whom killing was an
instrument of policy, 'never discussed the Terror before [their] children
who lived in a world of lies'. The deceit and hypocrisy prove that they
could feel shame, if not guilt. Yet Stalin and those who served him
continued the policy of mass murder for almost 30 years, liquidating
everyone who was thought to stand in their way. And, for good measure,
they liquidated their enemies' wives and children, too.
The blood ran so thick and deep that it presents historians with a problem.
Reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, it seems at first that the author
is preoccupied with accounts of murder. Sometimes he generalises. In 1931,
there was 'a war of extermination in the countryside'. On other occasions,
he is specific: '10 per cent of the Georgian party were killed.' More
precise still: 'On 29 July [Stalin] signed another death list that included
more of Yezov's proteges.'
From time to time, the account of horror is only an aside: 'Before he turned
wantonly to kill another of his friend's wives...' But that is how Stalin
lived. His story is, unavoidably, a tale of continual slaughter. He, not
Sebag Montefiore, is guilty of excess. There is violent death on almost
every page because that is the defining characteristic of life 'at the Court
of the Red Tsar'.
Some of the henchmen took pleasure in the butchery. Beria 'distinguished
himself by personally performing the torture of Lakobas's family, driving
his widow mad by placing a snake in her cell and beating her children to
But Stalin seems motivated only by the desire to seize and hold on to power.
Of course he claimed to be driven forward by his passionate belief in
communism. When Lenin's widow tried to exploit her status, he demanded to
know if, 'because she used the same toilet' as the Father of the Revolution,
she imagined herself 'to understand Marxist-Leninism'. Stalin understood it
perfectly well. Sebag Montefiore leaves the reader in no doubt that the
monster had brains. But the philosophy - though perhaps once genuinely
respected - became a front. In the end, all he wanted was power.
It was very nearly denied him. A few weeks before he died, Lenin dictated a
secret 'Testament' which not only wanted to rob Stalin of the succession but
actually called for his dismissal. Sebag Montefiore does not explain which
quirk of Russian temperament or Politburo convention made it necessary for
the denunciation to be revealed only after Lenin's death. Whatever the
reason, the delay was crucial. By the time that the truth was out, Stalin
had organised Lenin's funeral in a manner more appropriate to an 'Orthodox
saint', and convinced the people that he was the rightful heir.
And the power brokers had agreed, in a major error of judgment, that the
potential tyrant against whom they had to organise was 'Trotsky, the
revolution's preening panjandrum'. 'Preening panjandrums' is an example of
alliteration for alliteration's sake. There are many better descriptions of
Trotsky than that little conceit.
Apologists for the old Soviet Union, if there are any left, will regard the
slightly forced brio as evidence that Sebag Montefiore is incurably biased
against communism in theory and practice. I suspect that to be true. For he
writes about the excesses of Stalin's regime with uninhibited relish. But
the prejudice neither invalidates the truth of his story nor diminishes the
clarity with which it is told. The references are exact and the sources are
impeccable. The obvious, open contempt for the regime which he describes
allows him to write with an Član which would be impossible for an observer
weighed down with regret that a noble idea had been so corrupted.
Contempt, mixed with disbelief, is the only decent reaction to the discovery
of what Stalin did. It was beyond any sort of justification. But the terror
did not even achieve its intended objectives. The slaughter of the kulaks -
supposed to double agricultural output - was followed by a decline in wheat
production to below Tsarist levels. And the war was not won by Stalin and
his commissars but by Mother Russia herself. Uncle Joe, our great ally, was
ready to surrender. Why not? He had signed a pact with the Fuhrer, and the
two men had much in common.
Stalin and Molotov instructed Beria to sound out Hitler about a negotiated
peace, even if it required the sacrifice of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and
the Baltic Republics. But the intermediary who should have passed on the
message judged - with a greater understanding of the situation than any
member of the Politburo - that geography would win the war for the Soviet
That victory was won at a terrible price. After he discovered that German
soldiers were more afraid of their officers than the enemy, Stalin adopted
the same policy. 'There is a myth that the only time Stalin ceased war
against his people was during 1941 and 1942.' In those two years, 994,000
soldiers were condemned to death and 157,000 were shot.
Yet Stalin retained the admiration of some Western democrats right to the
end of his life. Of course, they did not know how vile he was, but they
should at least have suspected. Thanks to Simon Sebag Montefiore, there is
no longer the slightest justification for thinking of Joseph Stalin as
anything other than a monster.
The Guardian Observer, London, UK, Sunday, July 20, 2003
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY