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Thursday, May 30, 2013

“Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar”, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

816 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-1400042302

Hannah Arendt, in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe the rather bland existence of those who, like Eichmann, were capable of committing unpardonable acts of unspeakable bestiality. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s elegantly written Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar mines this same vein in his examination of the life of Stalin and his inner circle. Red Tsar provides the reader with an inside, almost voyeuristic, view of the life of Stalin and his circle from his accession to power after the death of Lenin until his own death in 1953. Montefiore does a masterful job of setting out the personal lives and inner workings of Stalin and his court against the backdrop of the extraordinary historic events that wracked the USSR during those times. During Stalin’s rein the Ukraine was wracked by forced starvation in the Ukraine and rural masses were brutally killed and/or exiled in the anti-kulak campaign. Through show trials and purges and through a war on the eastern front that will probably never be matched for horror and brutality, Stalin and his courtiers lived lives of bourgeois expectations and affectation that would be recognizable if they were played out in Moscow, Idaho and not the USSR.

Red Tsar has been meticulously researched, and Montefiore has done a marvelous job of examining newly opened Russian archives. He interviewed a large number of surviving family members of the inner circle and was provided access to diaries, memoirs, and personal correspondence that has not been seen by historians prior to this work. The end notes can be a bit confusing but it's clear that Montefiore's factual observations and his evaluations of those observations are grounded deeply in thorough research.

The book begins with the death, apparently by suicide, of Stalin's second wife, Nadya. Despite rumors that Stalin killed his wife Montefiore makes clear the emotional devastation visited upon Stalin as the result of her death and gives little credence to the rumor. The death of Nadya takes pride of place in Red Tsar because it is Montefiore’s opinion that the emotional blow was the turning point at which Stalin began the transformation that would take him from strong ruler to brutal tyrant, and it is from this point that Montefiore takes us back and examines the process by which Stalin acquired absolute power. Montefiore makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, it took Stalin years to acquire the power that has since become enshrined in myth. He did not just intimidate people: he cajoled, he charmed, and he compromised. Even as late as the mid-1930’s there were more than a few instances where Stalin did not quite get his way. Unfortunately, Stalin had a prodigious memory for slights and obstacles along his path to power. Stalin was, if nothing else, capable of long term thinking and he did not need instant gratification when it came to evening the score.

Montefiore does an incredible job of humanizing Stalin without once belittling the horrors that were committed in his name. Montefiore does not excuse Stalin by dispelling the myth that his life involved nothing more than engaging in evil acts. Rather, his fleshing out the person that was Stalin, highly literate, smart, often engaging and charming, devoted to his daughter points out the duality from which banality can give birth to evil. Further, this work is not simply an overview of Stalin's personal life. It is an overview of Stalin's court, occupied as was by the likes of Beria, Malenkov, Molotov, Khrushchev, Yezhov (NKVD boss before Beria), Zhdanov, and their families. They all lived in the same apartment complexes in or near the Kremlin, and they were friends (as well as rivals) while their wives and children mingled freely with each other, and even with Stalin. Stalin’s interest in literature and the arts is also examined closely. Stalin had a strong interest in the arts and considered himself the ultimate arbiter. He was instrumental in having Gorky return to the USSR where he was treated as a returning hero. He peered over, edited, praised, or criticized the works of Babel, Akhmatova, Eisenstein, and Shostakovich. He was, perhaps, a dilettante, but a dilettante with the power of life and death.

Lastly, two portions of the book are particularly compelling. The first takes place in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the USSR in June, 1941. Totally despondent over the overwhelming early losses suffered by a military criminally weakened by purges and aware that Hitler had completely outfoxed him. He took to his rooms and would not come out. Finally, when his court finally saw fit to intrude on Stalin's isolation Stalin quivered and asked if they had come to arrest or execute him. Equally compelling is the story of Stalin's long medical decline and the horrible events surrounding his lingering death.

One caveat for readers new to Soviet history: Montefiore's treatment focuses on the inner workings of Stalin and his court. He describes the historic events that take place outside the court in a manner that assumes a certain baseline familiarity with those events. As good as this book is, the reader new to Soviet history might be well served to start off with a general history before delving into Red Tsar. Having said that, Court of the Red Tsar is a wonderful treatment of the inner works of life under Stalin. It should be read and savored.

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