Cozy days inside Stalin's Kremlin
Paul Mitchinson, National Post, November 22, 2003
book review of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Joseph Stalin sang beautifully; his tenor was "rare" and "sweet," and he was gifted with perfect pitch. His police chief, Lavrenty Beria, was an incorrigible prankster who enjoyed slipping rotten tomatoes or chicken bones into a colleague's suit pocket. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was a study in contrasts. He could be a sanctimonious prig, complaining about the bathrooms in Winston Churchill's country mansion, but he passionately addressed his wife as "bright love, my heart and happiness, my pleasure honey, Polinka."

Simon Sebag Montefiore's compulsively readable new book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, is filled with such glimpses into the private lives of one of history's bloodiest ruling classes. He has burrowed into Russia's sporadically open archives, combed through recently released letters, memos and diaries, and come away with an astonishingly intimate account of life and death among Stalin's ruling elite. Most revealingly, he has probed the memories of surviving family members. Some of these personal interviews help reconstruct the final moments of a doomed Party member. Others enable us to peer into the abyss of contemporary unreconstructed Stalinism. "I can see an Enemy by their eyes," the daughter of one Politburo member warns Sebag Montefiore. "Are you an Enemy? Are you afraid of the Red Flag?"

There is a voyeuristic thrill to reading this book -- but something more edifying as well. How could a group of powerful and intelligent men and women have inflicted such horrors on so many, so enthusiastically? Like many historians before him, Sebag Montefiore compares Stalin's entourage to a Czarist court, where loyalty was purchased with treasure and sealed with blood. Terrorists and organized crime have long understood how to cultivate loyalty by implicating its members in great crimes.

Doubts and misgivings rarely darkened the thoughts of this ruling class -- at least until the revolution's guns turned inward in the late 1930s. "Oh what a wonderful time it was," the wife of Defence Commissar Kliment Voroshilov confided to her diary. "What simple, nice friendly relationships." Sebag Montefiore paints a remarkably vivid portrait of a ruling elite living cheek-to-jowl behind the Kremlin walls, like "dons living in an Oxford college." Colleagues would drop by each other's apartments unannounced for tea and conversation. There was drinking, dancing, nights at the cinema, and shared holidays at each other's spacious dachas. "We were not afraid then," says the daughter of Central Committee secretary Andrei Andreyev. "I remember smiling faces and climbing mountains, heroic pilots."

But what of starving peasants? Such dark clouds appeared fleetingly, but were quickly dispelled by cheerier subjects. Writing to his patron Stalin in 1931, Semyon Budyonny reports famine in the countryside, but adds, "The building on my new country house is finished, it's very pretty." A year later, travelling through famine-stricken Ukraine, Voroshilov gloomily notes the expanses of uncultivated fields. "Sorry to tell you such things during your holiday, but I can't be silent," he tells Stalin. "I see it's very hard for you," writes Molotov, commiserating with a colleague engaged in the thankless task of seizing grain. "But I hope we'll break their backs ... PS: Hurrying off to the Crimea for the holidays."

Private letters and personal interviews, it should be obvious by now, paint a very different picture of history than newspaper reports and official memos. The bloody carnage of Stalinism, in this book, has less to do with battles over Marxist theory than with petty personal rivalries. The Terror "would not have happened without Stalin," Sebag Montefiore acknowledges. "Yet it also reflected the village hatreds of the incestuous Bolshevik sect where jealousies had seethed from the years of exile and war." Lives were lost on the basis of a stray remark, an imagined slight, an old grudge.

This is an important insight, but Sebag Montefiore overplays his hand at times. The suicide of Stalin's wife in 1932 -- a crushing personal blow that is devastatingly retold in this book -- is transformed into an event that, in the words of Stalin's nephew, "made the Terror inevitable." Later, when Stalin orders the arrest of his first wife's family, Sebag Montefiore explains it in the context of a petty personal incident in which the leader was kept waiting for dinner. "They would pay for their tardiness," he writes portentously.

But the overwhelming majority of Sebag Montefiore's judgments are sober and reliable. Surprisingly, he remains an agnostic on almost every controversial issue of Stalin's life. Did Stalin order the murder of Sergei Kirov, the popular Leningrad Party boss whose 1934 death signaled the beginning of the Terror? Was Stalin's "disappearance" shortly after the Nazi invasion of June, 1941, a genuine personal crisis or a calculated ploy? Was he murdered by his henchmen in 1953? There is nothing in this book to resolve these issues, although the author immensely enriches our understanding of each of these events. Sebag Montefiore cautions that despite Stalin's relentless rise to power, he too experienced setbacks and crises throughout his career. And not every death of a Party leader under Stalin was murder, he dryly observes. "The magnates lived such an unhealthy existence that it is amazing so many survived to old age."

Stalinism might finally be unfathomable, but Sebag Montefiore has probed deeply into its murky waters. His book captures the moral depravity of Stalinism better than any previous work of history.

Paul Mitchinson spent months working in Russian archives completing a dissertation in Soviet history. He is a Toronto writer and historian.

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