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Book Forum: History and Society   |    
Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar
WILLIAM EDWIN FANN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2413-2414. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2413
View Author and Article Information
Houston, Tex.

By Simon Sebag Montefiore. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, 816 pp., $30.00; $19.00 (paper published 2005 by Vintage).

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The question of why tyrants develop as they do has never been satisfactorily answered. The extensive published scrutiny provided the 20th century’s most murderous despots seems yet to describe an ontogeny sufficient to our understanding of their bizarre motivations and behaviors. Details of their personal lives have been largely, and often deliberately, obscured, and any sense of personal intimacy with these social aberrants has eluded almost all of their chroniclers. This particular biography does quite a bit better than its predecessors on the subject of one Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili. It is not fully successful in illuminating the darkest of places within the most dangerous of our species, but it notably doesn’t content itself with the usual clichés like "enigmatic" and "satanic" with which such men are often despairingly summarized.

Stalin may be responsible for more intentional human slaughter than any single person in recorded history. The "Man of Steel" rose to succeed Lenin in 1929, ruled the Soviet Union for 24 years, and died still in office in 1953. From early in his reign he doggedly pursued Lenin’s murderous policies and overlaid them with his own clearly paranoid and sadistic personality to impose horrible decimation and cruelty on every element of Soviet society. Before World War II, Stalin executed, jailed, and tortured so much of the Red Army’s senior officer corps that its remaining leadership was poorly prepared to face the invading German army and defend Russia against the most fearsome war machine ever assembled. Willfully blind to repeated warnings of Adolph Hitler’s gathering threat, Stalin’s colossal bungling allowed the Wehrmacht nearly unimpeded access to the gates of Moscow, and total conquest of the vast territories and millions of Russian soldiers and civilians they found on their way there. Stalin’s purges and show trials systematically murdered most of the major figures among the Bolshevik leadership, including his own revolutionary friends and colleagues, his "comrades." But he was even more devastating in the Russian countryside, where millions of peasants, farmers, and laborers, the people from whom he came (his father was a cobbler), starved and fell to enforcers of his policies of collectivization. After World War II, uncounted others were cut down as Stalin continued to murder, assassinate, and imprison in his slave-labor camps to consolidate his power within the Soviet Union and the states abandoned by the conquering Allies to his absolute control.

This is a thoroughly researched and masterfully conceived work. Simon Montefiore is able to find in Stalin "a more understandable and intimate character, if no less repellant." Mining previously unrecovered archives, memoirs, personal letters, family interviews, and testimony from the dictator’s inner circle, Montefiore considers Stalin as a son, husband, and father, and tries to locate a credible personality within the public personae. The intimate access to Stalin’s life and era one feels is sometimes exhilarating, but the enormity of the coldly determined cruelty ultimately becomes numbing, and the vital question of how a man becomes motivated to destroy millions finally remains a mystery. No one yet knows many details of Stalin’s early life. He apparently saw to that, as he manipulated historical records, even altered photographs before it was easy, to serve what he thought was his advantage throughout his career. Whipped as a child? Raised by wolves? Brain-washed by crazed religiosities at school? Montefiore is better than many biographers in resisting the urge to write fiction when he doesn’t know the facts, so we won’t learn the answers to those questions here. He is able to tell us that Stalin was a mutterkind (like Hitler), an Orthodox seminarian, a scholarly intellectual, a dedicated revolutionary and disciple of Lenin, and a skilled politician who ascended the pyramids of Bolshevik leadership and matured from a canny apparatchik to a tyrant of terrible malignity. When he’s writing about things the surviving record can support, Montefiore has a lot of fascinating things to say. He is an excellent historian.

Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar begins at a 1932 party in the Kremlin apartment Stalin shared with his second wife, Nadya. The couple and their guests were celebrating the anniversary of the great revolution. Before dawn, Nadya was dead, a suicide. All surviving accounts agree that Stalin was devastated. Always secretive and suspicious, he became even more emotionally isolated, bitter, and suspicious. With his indelible memory, especially for slights and insults, he would later make those colleagues and their wives whom he believed were somehow involved in Nadya’s death pay with their own lives. Montefiore proceeds to bring us into Stalin’s life: into his office, apartment, dacha, committee rooms, war councils, politburo sessions, meetings with heads of state, hunting and fishing trips, private railroad cars, command bunkers, and then into the room where he died. The text is amply laced with conversation and is richly anecdotal. Though Stalin believed himself an intellectual and read voraciously (he boasted of 500 pages a day), early in his revolutionary career he was careful to hide his intellectual leanings from some of the coarser, less educated Bolsheviks whose support he needed on his way to the top. When he got there, he commandeered the role of sole arbiter of Soviet literary, musical, and artistic tastes. Montefiore never betrays admiration for Stalin, but he does recognize and detail the man’s astonishing capacity for hard work in leading a backward and crippled country, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century: "Stalin was already famous for his Sphinxian inscrutability and phlegmatic modesty.... Far from being the colourless bureaucratic mediocrity disdained by Trotsky, the real Stalin was an energetic and vainglorious melodramatist who was exceptional in every way." His ascension to power drank from the same well: "No one alive was more suited to the conspiratorial intrigues, theoretical runes, murderous dogmatism and inhuman sternness of Lenin’s Party."

Montefiore’s anecdotes and metaphorical snapshots study the working parts of Stalin’s seductive personal charm and how he used it to manipulate colleagues and world leaders throughout his career. He was a formidable politician by any standard. He was also unimaginably crude, always the peasant beneath the costumes of power. Traveling on a lonely and unpaved Russian back road, he ordered his driver to stop the Zis limousine, dismounted, unbuckled, squatted, and unburdened himself on the side of the road. He joined in singing and enjoyed entertaining visitors with his fine tenor voice. He also loved to humiliate his party guests, especially the Magnates and visiting communist officials, by commanding performance of the high-kicking peasant dances that their well-fed figures just couldn’t manage any more. He was a living parody of the mad dictator.

But the inescapable theme of this work is Stalin’s retributive and arbitrary cruelty. The exploits of his secret police chiefs, appalling sadists who tortured and murdered as much for their own amusement as for Stalinist policies, will sicken and infuriate most everyone who reads about them here. Torture in the infamous Lubianka Prison was prolonged and vicious. Eyeballs were left hanging from their sockets as "confessions" were routinely beaten from the hapless innocent. Lavarentia Beria, architect, husband, father, murderer, sadist, rapist, and philanderer, was the last and worst of the legendary secret police directors; his predecessors had all been dispatched, many by him, as they inevitably became troublesome.

Montefiore tells a fine tale of Stalin in his last days, commanding a new "Terror" with the Anti-Semitic Doctors’ Plot, arbitrarily imprisoning some of the country’s finest scientists, artists, and physicians and ordering the secret police to "Beat, beat, beat, and beat again." On the evening of Sunday, March 1, 1953, he was found paralyzed and semiconscious on the floor of his dacha. The devouring terror he had generated in his staff and closest colleagues redounded in delicious irony, as no one dared to put caring hands upon him for fear of implication in this ultimate horror. The country’s best doctors were all behind bars, and Stalin was left virtually untreated on a sofa for the several days it took him to die.

This intimate portrait of Stalin is also a portrayal of the excesses and corruption of unchallenged power. Though we still do not know all the psychological and social influences that shaped this shoemaker’s son into one of history’s greatest monsters, this consummate exposition will confirm for many of us the intuitive intelligence of our Founding Fathers and the care they took to protect themselves and us from the worst excesses of governmental power. This is what can happen, and this is what did happen. If for no other reason than to help us keep our political faith Montefiore’s opus is a rewarding and edifying experience.

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