Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf, 816 pp., $30)
Communism, it is now generally acknowledged, was a human calamity of a kind and on a scale never previously known. As a matter of ideology, all means were justified in pursuit of Communist ends, and this granted a license for criminality devoid of moral restraints. What might have been an age of unmatched progress in the greater part of the globe was made instead to bear the mark of the beast.
This was the work of a very few men, and principal among them was Josef Stalin. Murderous autocrats are nothing new in history, but from the mid Twenties until his death in 1953, Stalin aimed for much more: the complete reordering of his own country, and the mobilization of the Communist movement against all who stood in his way internationally. Through a combination of unchecked power and personal strength of will, he was able to twist reality in pursuit of an inhuman and terrifying fantasy about mankind.
Historians have by now soberly taken the measure of Stalin’s crimes, the show trials, the concentration camps of Gulag, the unprovoked aggressions against so many other nations, with genocide attempted several times–and all this while millions of deluded people everywhere were proclaiming that mankind was crossing the doorstep into utopia.
British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore has set himself the task of unraveling the enigma of Stalin’s character. With easy mastery, he has assembled a mass of material from published and unpublished sources, using archives newly available in Russia, and interviewing children and grandchildren of those who once came into Stalin’s orbit. Vividly, with many telling anecdotes, he depicts Stalin and the myriad interactions of the courtiers and secret policemen who carried out his every order and whim. This stimulating and imaginative book illuminates how this small pockmarked man with a bad arm and a strange pigeon-toed gait and chronic tonsillitis was able to command the slavish obedience of his courtiers and so impose the nightmare of Communism.
In some respects Stalin was normal. In his way, he loved his first wife, who died young, and also his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, who killed herself. Occasionally he consoled himself with mistresses, including a faithful maid. The sad fates of his children perplexed and even distressed him. Highly intelligent, he was an autodidact who read up thoroughly on whatever he needed to know, from ancient Greek history to the Napoleonic wars and biographies of Persian shahs. The 20,000 books in his library are scrupulously annotated. At night he watched Russian films, or American westerns from a collection that had been looted from Goebbels. Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were actors he specially admired. Music of all sorts mattered to him; he had perfect pitch, and would often invite his favorite tenor to sing the Duke’s jolly aria from Rigoletto. He shot partridges and enjoyed boating trips from one of his several palaces on the Black Sea. Sebag Montefiore stresses that charm was one of the tools Stalin perfected in the course of acquiring his sinister hold over others.
Everything changed in the Kremlin, this book argues, with the fateful decision at the end of the Twenties to collectivize agriculture. Peasants and small-holders were bound to oppose such a policy, and the secret police duly liquidated them by the millions. One way or another, Stalin’s colleagues all participated in this violent extension of civil war, and from then on they knew that they were accomplices in mass murder. Once they had compromised themselves, Molotov, Kaganovich, Mikoyan, Khrushchev, Beria, and all the other courtiers willingly sank deeper into crime. In the manner of gangsters, they tried to shift the blame, to build alibis, to denounce one another and save their own skins. Documenting this snake pit, Sebag Montefiore shows how “hatred, fear, and bloodlust” swept the country from the top downwards.
By rights, the courtiers should have saved themselves and everyone else by turning on Stalin and killing him. But as Communists, they believed that they belonged to what Stalin called “a sort of military-religious order” that demanded blind faith. Submission, or Partymindedness in the ideological jargon, was the sum total of the law. Besides, the secret police, torture, and death awaited anyone whose loyalty was in any way open to question.
The abnormal side of Stalin flourished in the hysterics of suspicion and betrayal that he himself had created, so that he seemed some sort of Dostoevskyan misfit, locked away in the Kremlin as though in a superior asylum, humiliating all the other inmates with enforced drinking, taunts, and menaces. Wreckers and saboteurs were constantly alleged to be holding the country in their grip, and all means were authorized to identify these phantoms as living people and wipe them out. For special cases, Stalin personally arranged fatal accidents or death by chloroform and poison. His gallows humor was particularly frightening. One commissar, he ordered, was “to be hung by the balls” and if they didn’t break, then “throw him in the river.” In front of the visiting Churchill, he threatened to hang a general. His secret policemen brought daily reports of those they’d arrested, and he would write “Ha-ha-ha!” in the margin, and then sign death warrants by the thousands. Zinoviev, victim of one of the great show trials, pleaded at the moment of his execution to be allowed to talk to Stalin, and then in dread began babbling prayers. Stalin laughed till he cried at the account of it.
A Polish Communist, Kostyrzewa, happened to live next to Stalin’s dacha outside Moscow. One day she found Stalin looking over the fence, and he observed, “What beautiful roses.” She was arrested that night. At a Kremlin party, Kira, the wife of Marshal Kulik, finding herself alone with Stalin by the piano, asked him to free her brother from Gulag. Kidnapped within hours, she was murdered, and her husband had to wait twelve years to learn what had happened to her. “Gratitude is a dog’s disease,” is one of Stalin’s few truly self-revealing remarks. To the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, he explained why Ivan the Terrible had been right to be so cruel. With “secrecy, caprice, and obscurity”–again in Sebag Montefiore’s well-chosen words–Stalin masterminded everything, from the smallest details about the implication of a new play or an opera to the grand-scale conduct of the war against Hitler, the one and only man in the world whom he could respect as an equal.
With his disgusting coarseness and indifference to suffering, his paranoia and self-importance, Stalin sometimes seems close to madness. One night his sister-in-law heard ugly sounds coming from his room, and she went in to find him lying on a sofa drenching the wall with his spit. He was afraid of his own shadow, he complained to Marshal Zhukov, unable to trust even himself. A courageous marshal once said to him that many good and remarkable people had been lost in Gulag, and Stalin agreed. With a nod in the direction of psychology, Sebag Montefiore judges that Stalin was lonely and unhappy. So he was, yet a more profound truth emerges from this cautionary tale of our times: What made Stalin and his courtiers monsters was their common belief that good comes from doing evil.