Friday, July 04, 2014

Book Notes: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montifiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore's massive book on the workings of Stalin's government is the stuff of nightmares - quite literally for me as I have read it over the last couple of weeks. Those nightmares are testament both to the ghastly grip of terror in which Stalin held the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, and Montefiore's skills as a researcher and writer. This book is as compelling as it is disturbing.

When I opened the book, I knew a bit about Stalin - his rise to power, the five year plans, collectivisations, liquidation of the 'kulaks', the purges, show-trials and WWII and Stalinism being a byword for tyranny. That however was not enough to prepare me for the full disclosure of the malevolence, violence, sadism, and genocide which to Stalin and his band of 'magnates' were simply political tools for the furtherance of their own fanatical Marxist-Leninist agenda, and personal quests for power.

Montifiore introduces the reader to the band of Bolsheviks who ran the Soviet Empire with Stalin from the mid-1920s. He shows how they lived, worked, partied and played together in a politico-social world centred on the Kremlin, where the leading party members children wandered in and out of each others apartments. One by one, of course, each of these families is destroyed by the paranoia and jealousy of Stalin - and his secret police. The secret police were themselves of course, purged repeatedly each head seeking to impress Stalin with his willingness to take the principles of terrorising the population with mass-killings to further extremes. So Yagoda fell to be replaced by Yezhov, who fell to be replaced by Beria - who was about to be flung out from Stalin's favour when the latter died in 1953.

Strangely alongside this grim tale of evil and carnage, Montifiore paints a picture of Stalin the man. He was someone who loved singing with friends, taking party grandees on picnics, playing with children, who loved dancing and parties and who was deeply affected by the suicide of his wife Nadya - and who raged against the alcoholic foolishness and debauchery of his uncontrollable son. He paints a picture of a man who without emotion personally signed off the deaths of erstwhile friends, colleagues allies and neighbours; or signed death warrants for hundreds of thousands of people he had never met with s stroke of a pen; but who personally censored all references to sex from Soviet film because it offended his sense of Bolshevik-morality! 

In these pages we meet a Stalin who was a gregarious party host, with a riotous sense of humour, but also the owner of a vicious temper and a long, long memory for grudges. Stalin is seen here as paranoid, devious, awesomely powerful, charismatic, and utterly devoid of morality, but also capable of both great personal kindnesses and personal vulnerability. On one page he demands the torture of some Russian he believes plots against him (real or imagined plot), while on another he walks lonely in his garden (all his friends dead at his hand), muttering the words "Oh Nadya" about his late wife, over twenty years after her untimely death.

The other engaging but disturbing part of the book were the chapters on Stalin's intellectual life. Having read a little about Stalin before - I had encountered writing which simply described a foolish thug. Montifiore demolishes such two-dimensional caricatures and presents a Stalin who was the master political plotter and strategist, who read voraciously, who not only read and  understood Marx, but was fanatic in his pursuit of Lenin's interpretation of him. Stalin debated with writers, filmmakers, poets, composers, generals, journalists, heads of industries and contributed to all these fields; persuading (or shooting) people who disagreed with him on the way - forcing his way on others regardless of whether it had merit; or was utter folly, such as his faith that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would hold until 1942 at least.

Alongside all the henchmen and Bolshevik characters (both friends and foes of Stalin), such as Bukharin, Molotov, Mikoyan, Krushchev, Bulganin, Beria and the rest; other great figures who loom large in this book include FDR, Churchill, Tito, Mao, Ribbentrop, Hitler, and Harry S. Truman. Stalin's assessments and interactions with all these men are fascinating and intriguing.

Stalin is seen as either the great distorter of Lenin's more benign legacy; or as a warning about the inevitable consequence of starting down the path of extreme political ideologies; be they theocratic, nationalist, class-based, ideology-driven or race-based like Nazism. Tsarism was a dreadful system, and Nicholas II a dreadful exponent of it; but how might people have acted differently in 1917, if they had seen that it would lead them towards the horror that spread through their country a decade later.

Montifiore's book is staggering, shocking and gripping tale of the workings of arguably the most profoundly wicked, weirdest and most disturbing regime of the 20th Century (it's a straight fight between Stalin and Hitler for that dark accolade). Superb reading, but nightmare inducing.

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