Book Review: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Price: £12:00
Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 0753817667

Of all the books I have ever read on Stalin this was definitely the most enjoyable. If, like I was, you want one of those books to read slowly and pleasurably this will definitely appeal to ones non-academic moods. It distils all the knowledge about Stalin, and adds to this hoard by judicious use of newly released archives and interviews with a few survivors from the Stalinist era, and with the descendants of key members of the ‘red court’ –sounds like a good movie title to me. It also condenses (maybe sometimes not as effectively as one would have hoped) recent books about some of these key members, such as Beria and Kirov

The author’s obligatory underlying contention is that leadership in the Soviet Union was fairly collegial up to the time of the suicide of Stalin's second wife in 1932, and that all the key drivers for the Great Purge in 1937-1938 were already in place before Kirov's assassination in 1934. After that, Stalin's power grew absolute, never more so than a few days after the commencement of operation Barbarossa, (22 June 1941), and in fact he decided virtually everything, squirreling away in his vast memory all key facts that would allow him, years or even decades earlier, to launch yet another purge or send yet another to meet the firing squad. This was apparently easy for him to do because he had a powerful intellect, boundless energy and a remarkable talent for mischief. He wasn't a gambler like Hitler or Mussolini, but rather a chess player who wasn't above opportunism when it suited him.
The biggest thrill for me personally was that this book delivers exactly what you want from it –it takes you past the crimes, just for a while, and shows you the remarkable man you know he had to be to accomplish what he did. He decides everything, from the titles and sizes of Pravda articles, to the poems and novels that can be published, to the movies that may be shown, to the operas and plays that may be played, to the names of towns, factories and streets, to all construction projects, large and small, to the names of those that would perish on the various Terrors that he and his minions unleashed, under his orders. I don't believe I know any historic leader, not even the famed King Philip II of Spain, who was able to run a huge empire spanning many time zones, while intervening, successfully, in such detail.
His hunger for acknowledgement was seemingly bottomless. He wanted to be the country's first intellectual, its first military leader, its first political chief and its only real free man. However, he was never truly free, because his immense gifts were overshadowed by a suspicious nature bordering on the paranoid, and an inability to love anyone. For him, people were really abstractions, who only became real because of their interactions with him. The entire Soviet Union, and indeed the entire world, were, in his mind, mere extras to a colourful display that he ran all by himself. He might have launched a second holocaust against the Jews if he had lived a few years longer. The jury is still out on whether he would have launched a nuclear attack. At the end of his life, when he was scarcely rational, he might have done if there had been an excuse in Europe to do so.
For those that have already read widely on Stalin, this book sheds light on many of his entertaining personal nuances and peculiar personal preferences not to be found elsewhere. Who knew that he had a good singing voice, and that he particularly liked religious hymns, which he enjoyed singing with Malenkov, a former choir boy. Who knew that he favoured a certain politician from the Caucasus, simply because he had the same name as a priest that he had befriended in the early twentieth century. Come to think of it, who knew that Beria loved westerns, that Zhdanov was a prude and that Kalinin was a ladies' man.
It’s not often you can say an authors coverage of Stalin is unparalleled and will probably remain so, but I’m confident enough to call that one. Although, not so successful with a few of the ‘barons’ of his ‘Red Court’. They all, especially Beria, Voroshilov, Kirov and Molotov still come alive, quite surprisingly in the latter's case I found. Others, like Malenkov or Khrushchev or Bulganin or Zhukov could have received more attention. Khrushchev is particularly conspicuous by his lack of attendance, perhaps due to Taubman's excellent all-encompassing biography which I hope to review in the future, and which Sebag quotes occasionally. But I’m nit-picking really, if I want more on Khrushchev I can simply read Taubman’s biography and have the pleasure of owning two excellent books that look great on the shelve together.

Most of the good stories one has read, or heard about Stalin are here with more by the bucket, which also helps make this a practical reference book which I have found useful.
This books broad contextual analysis and its use as a reference guide on the subject are its only academic uses so I’m making this book a History and the Sock Merchant designated Hob-Nob accompaniment.