Book Review: Stalin – The Court of the Red Tsar
October 11, 2011 by lukebarnes
My history education was utterly woeful. I had some smatterings of myth and cliche in primary school – people in the middle ages thought the earth was flat, the early European explorers of Australia found things a bit difficult etc. In high school I had two years of Australian history, which for anyone interested can be summarised in one line: Aboriginals hunter-gather, the British somehow see the south of Wales, Federation (1901), Bodyline (1933) and the Gatting ball
(1993). From year 9 we could choose between history and geography, and thus the last time I was in a history class, I was 12 years old. Pathetic.
I’ve been trying to catch up for a while now, and decided that a few choice biographies of twentieth century figures would be a good place to start. (Please recommend some in the comments!). Thus I came to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 700 page biography of Josef Stalin.
The book was enjoyable though not easy reading. That last remark requires further clarification: I usually read popular science, and occasionally a novel. Such books can be read quickly, and only become difficult when they lack lucidity or encounter particularly complex material. The difficulty with Stalin was not the difficulty of the material but its gravity. One feels that passages such as the following should be read more than once,
They did not even specify the names but simply assigned quotas of deaths by the thousands. … The aim was ‘to finish off once and for all’ the Enemies and those impossible to educate to socialism, so as to accelerate the erasing of class barriers and therefore the bringing of paradise for the masses. The final solution was a slaughter that made sense in terms of the faith and idealism of Bolshevism which was a religion based on the systematic destruction of classes. … On 20 July , Yezhov and his deputy Mikhail Frinovsky proposed Order No. 00447 to the Politburo: that between 5 and 15 August, the regions were to receive quotas for two categories: Category One – to be shot. Category Two – to be deported. They suggested that 72,950 should be shot and 259,450 arrested … The quotas were soon fulfilled by the regions who therefore asked for bigger numbers… the original arrest quota ballooned to 767,397 arrests and 386,798 executions, families destroyed, children orphaned, under Order No. 00447.
The portrait of Stalin that builds up is a surprisingly personal one. We seem to be where the action is at all times, in the room where the decisions were made. I feel, naively or not, that I have glimpsed something of what the real Stalin was like. This strange creature, always shadowed by the suicide of his wife in 1932, overprotective of his daughter but negligent towards his alcoholic, air-force pilot son, signing death lists day by day in crayon, drinking to the early hours, commanding varying amounts of fear, loathing and admiration from those closest to him, whose conventional morals regarding sexuality are in stark contrast to the debauchery of his imperial court. The book abounds with detail but doesn’t lose sight of the overall narrative. The Russians were dangerously close to striking an agreement with the Germans against the Allies (a chilling gedankenexperiment for world history). After the early progress of Hitler into Russian territory, Stalin became depressed and reclusive, shut up in one of his dachas, needing to be coaxed out by his quivering underlings. Soon, however, his resolve in the face of the threat on Moscow returned:
“When a commissar phoned in from the front to discuss evacuation eastwards, Stalin interupted him:
‘Find out, do your comrades have spades?’
‘What, Comrade Stalin? … yes, we’ve got spades! What should we do with them?’
‘Tell your comrades,’ replied Stalin calmly, ‘to take their spades and dig their own graves. We won’t leave Moscow. They won’t leave either …’
Over dinner with Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle in 1944, Stalin introduces his entourage with a series of toasts: for Kagonovich, if the trains don’t run on time (pause for effect) ‘we’ll shoot him’. Novikov would be hung, Khrulev also: ‘that’s the custom in our country!’. When Stalin was informed of Hitler’s suicide, one of histories greatest monsters gave another a terse eulogy: “So that’s the end of the bastard”. When Stalin attempted to rewrite the national anthem, those he left to work on his lyrics discovered a minor problem. When they sang ‘the Fascist hordes were beaten, are beaten and will be beaten’, they burst out laughing because when sung in Russian ‘are beaten’ sounds like ‘are fucking us’. They jovially changed the line to ‘we’ll beat them to death and we’ll beat them’. Such detours and details are used very effectively by Montefiore both to maintain interest and to provide valuable insights.
I can’t testify to the historical accuracy of this book, though it is reassuring that Montefiore can cite personal interviews with survivors. All in all, this is a remarkable and memorable work and I highly recommend it.