Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Knopf, New York, 2004, 785 pp.
The British Book Awards’ History Book of the Year has been awarded to the distinguished Anglo-Jewish journalist/novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore for his Stalin: the Court of the Red Star. Montefiore’s special writing interest is in matters Russian, especially in the hitherto unrevealed private lives of Russia’s rulers, Tsarist and Communist. In this, his latest work, Montefiore focuses on the bizarre private lives of Stalin and his closest associates, whom the author refers to as the magnates. Montefiore has invested an impressive amount time and research in searching out previously unreported details in the lives of the leaders of Bolshevik government and weaving them together into a very readable personalized history of the Stalinist era. Professional historians may quibble as to its reliability and importance, but this remarkable compendium and compilation of quotes, observations, indiscretions, and remarks by members of the Communist Nomenklatura will surely please history buffs everywhere, and especially many ex-Kremlinologists who can now review their field of interest from an entirely different point of view. Truly, the devil is in the details.
Much of the author’s primary research was done in the newly opened personal files of Party leaders that were transferred from the Presidential Archive to the Russian State Archives of Social and Political History (RGASPI) in 1999, the Russian State War Archives (RGVA), the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO), memoirs and books of the period, and in interviewing the descendents of the prime figures. The author lists Robert Conquest and Robert Service among his many advisers.
With but a few lapses, Montefiore chronicles the everyday, off-the-record lives of the Communist government leaders, eschewing for the most part the role of behavioral scientist or psychoanalyst. His style is tabloid brio, written with a sly sardonic, almost black humor. Once the reader realizes that this is not a conventional history but rather a highly documented account of the faults and virtues of the leading personalities of the later Soviet period, he immediately recognizes that this work is a unique and valuable complement to the more conventional histories of the Soviet Union.
Montefiore concentrates on the personal relations, however crude and brutal, between Stalin (Vozhd’ or leader), Beria (“Uncle Lara”), Molotov (“Iron-Arse”), Mikoyan, Mehklis (“the Gloomy Demon” or “the Shark”), Zhdanov (“the pianist”)Kaganovich (“Iron Lazar” or “the Locomotive”), and their wives, mistresses, and family members in the period from 1929, when Stalin was fifty years old, to his death in 1953 – a period during which his power grew until he became absolute ruler. Isolated from the masses of Russian people, the privileged elite, almost like an extended family, depended greatly on each other for their affairs and social life. In fact, Montefiore opens his book describing a dinner party in the Kremlin On November 8, 1932, prelude to the suicide of Stalin’s wife, Nadya.
Mostly Montefiore refrains from psychoanalyzing the main characters’ behavior, preferring to simply let their actions and words speak for themselves. One of the few instances where the author does venture such an analysis is the suicide of Nadya, the effect of which, according to Montefiore, changed and hardened Stalin forever. This reviewer finds that opinion to be a bit on the romantic side; Stalin was not a sentimental man. Regardless of his wife’s suicide, he could not have possibly reached the top of the Communist hierarchy, without becoming the tough and ruthless Stalin the world came to know. Politics in Russia has always been a blood sport. Life at Stalin’s court has been described by some as a kind of Grand Guignol, in which the tyrant kept his associates in constant dread of his outbursts.
Most surprising to the reader are the many purported cultural interests of Stalin, revealing a high intelligence, knowledge of the bourgeois world through reading, a keen interest in literature and cinema, music, and the graphic arts. In discussing cultural matters, the dictator enjoyed the company of Zhdanov, whom he considered a fellow intellectual. Throughout his later life and in his capacity of arbiter of cultural values, Stalin remained on the selection board for the yearly Stalin Prize. Despite accusations of anti-Semitism in his last years, Stalin, year after year, approved of a disproportionately high number of Jewish recipients. The dictator viewed writers as “engineers of human souls,” and consequently their value as propagandists.
Montefiore recognizes that Stalin possessed a committed and driving faith in the cause of Communism, that, as leader, he was intent on continuing Lenin’s work. Through the years, the mission-devoted Stalin ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity. He displayed a mercurial temperament, switching easily from the genial, charming host to the brutal threatening leader of the Party. His solution to every human problem was death. ‘No person, no problem.’
If all the quotes and comments, however convincingly referenced, in Montefiores book were to be believed, Stalin was nothing short of a Renaissance man. An autodidact, the tyrant’s 20,000-volume library contained works on Greek history, the Napoleonic wars, biographies of the Persian shahs, Goethe’s letters, Shakespeare, poetry of the French revolution, history of the Seven Year’s War, Belles Lettres, etc. Stalin is said to have had exquisite taste in poetry and drama; he appreciated Boris Pasternak’s poems, and understood Mikhail Bulgakov perfectly. If exposure to the humanities and world literature is supposed to edify man, its effect was apparently lost on Stalin. How many of the 20,000 volumes in his library the dictator actually read is of course unknown.
His tastes in cinema included both Russian and American films. Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were among his favorite actors. He liked American westerns, especially when John Ford teamed up with John Wayne. After the war he took possession of Goebbels’ film collection and was very likely viewing the same films as Hitler once enjoyed. Since his own regime was most often compared to that of Ivan the Terrible, he took a special interest in Sergei Eisenstein’s production of the life and reign of that despot, explaining to the producer why Ivan had every right to be so cruel.
The dictator, the author continues, had a good singing voice and would often invite his favorite tenor to sing the Duke’s jolly area from Rigoletto. He and Voroshilov, both ex-choirboys, often sang together. According to Madame Voroshilov, whom Montefiore cites, Stalin particularly like old Georgian melodies, arias from Rigoletto, and loved hearing the hymn from the Orthodox liturgy, Mnogaya leta. To relax, Stalin had several palaces on the Black Sea where he shot partridges and enjoyed boating. He could be a very charming host, although he might decide at a later date to execute some of his former guests. He possessed, Montefiore comments, a certain feline charm. Personally, as befits a revolutionary leader, Stalin was a modest man, avoiding ostentatious displays in dress and demeanor. Women, especially many Jewesses, constantly fawned over him.
Outside the Communist world the dictator understandably had few admirers. In the present day world, with Communism all but dead, Montefiore points out, Saddam Hussein is a notable exception. The Iraqi leader modeled his own life on Stalin, complete to the extermination of political enemies and the building of personal palaces.
Off stage, the Vozhd’ had a rich scatological vocabulary and usually spoke in such earthy terms to his associates, i.e., in a language they were sure to understand. He had a cynical gallows humor that everyone knew was not intended to be humorous. On one occasion Montefiore cites, Stalin ordered that one unlucky commissar “was to be hung by the balls, and if they didn’t break, throw him in the river.
Stalin’s extramarital sex life is little discussed because, unlike Beria who was a flagrant satyr, and most of the other magnates, Stalin’s interest in women in later life was focused more on their politics, their influence on their husbands, and whether or not they might be spying on him. Montefiore: “Stalin was no womanizer.” The author does, however, dwell on the late-night, early-morning, wild drinking and eating orgies the tyrant presided over and enjoyed with his cronies after WWII. One quote sums up a typical debauch: “Mikoyan started to bring spare pairs of trousers to dinner.” (A favorite prank of the dictator was to plant rotten tomatoes in a place where the best-dressed attendees were bound to sit on them.) During some of these drunken orgies, Stalin would occasionally force his ministers to dance for his amusement: “He made the sweating Khrushchev drop to his haunches and do the gopak that made him look like ‘a cow dancing on ice.’” Montefiore cites another instance when the Head of Polish Security, Jacob Berman, was made to waltz with Molotov. Montefiore quotes Mikoyan as writing (after Stalin’s death of course):
“Stalin got too big for his boots and became capricious. […] he liked to play the ringmaster of a circus of uncouth hijinks.”
Consistent with Stalin’s belief in the concept of familial co-responsibility, wives and other family members often were made to pay for the alleged crimes of the husband or father. According to a Soviet law passed in 1935, the author notes, the relatives of an accused person were also responsible for the crime, even if they were ignorant of it. In the case of Marshal Vasily Blyukher, who died under torture in 1938, his first and second wives were shot, and the third was sentenced to eight years in the Gulag.
On another such occasion, cited by the author, Bronka Poskrebysheva, the wife of Aleksandr Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s chef de cabinet approached Stalin to plead for the life of her arrested brother who had been arrested. When Stalin refused, she appealed to Beria. She was never seen again. When Poskrebyshev himself appealed to Stalin to release his wife, Stalin replied: Don’t worry, we’ll find you another wife.” Bronka was eventually shot, but Poskrebyshev nonetheless remained dedicated to both Stalin and Beria. This incident occurred in 1942, when the Germans were 50 miles from Moscow.
By 1942, the Soviets had lost some three million men in German encirclements. To stem the hemorrhaging, Stalin took draconian measures. He approved NKGB Order No. 246 that stipulated the destruction of the families of men who were captured and then NKGB Order No. 270 (in his own words): “I order that anyone who removes his insignia and surrenders should be regarded as a malicious deserter whose family is to be arrested as the family of one who has broken his oath and betrayed the Motherland. Such deserters are to be shot on the spot...Those falling into encirclement are to fight to the last...those who prefer to surrender are to be destroyed by any available means.” Over 900,000 Russian soldiers were condemned under these directives and 157,000 shot. The capture of Stalin’s own son, Yakov, by the Germans caused the dictator considerable anguish but he chose to let him die rather than accept the exchange of prisoners that the Germans had proposed.
Both Lenin and Stalin saw Germany as useful, almost indispensable, to the acceptance of Communism throughout Europe. Stalin, according to the author, once read in D’Abernon’s Ambassador of the World that if Germany and Russia were allies, ‘the dangerous power of the east’ would overshadow Great Britain. “Yes!” Stalin noted approvingly in the margin. Moreover, Stalin had a certain fascination and admiration for Hitler, Montefiore notes. Shortly after Hitler took power and authorized “the night of the long knives” to eliminate left-wing deviationists within the Nazi Party, Stalin was greatly impressed and excitedly asked Mikoyan: “Did you hear what happened in Germany? Some fellow that Hitler! Splendid! That’s a deed of some skill.” To sooth Hitler’s sensitivities and make a gesture of good will at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Stalin replaced Litvinov, the Jewish commissar of foreign affairs, with Molotov, a Russian. (But Molotov in turn quietly appointed Solomon Lozovsky, a Jew, as one of his deputies.) When asked after the war whether he thought Hitler was a madman or an adventurer, Stalin replied: “I agree that he was an adventurer but I can’t agree he was mad. Hitler was a gifted man. Only a gifted man could unite the German people. Like it or not, the Soviet Army had to fight its way into German lands...and reached Berlin without the German working class ever striking against the Fascist regime. Could a madman so unite his nation?”
After the war, with Zionism and cosmopolitanism perceived as the immediate threat to his empire, Stalin ordered Polina, Molotov’s wife to be arrested for her Jewish chauvinism. To his dismay, Polina had publicly welcomed Golda Meir on her visit to the Soviet Union and even went so far as to ask Stalin to give the entire Crimea to the Soviet Jews for their homeland in the USSR. Her husband, Vyacheslav, apologized to Stalin and agreed that she deserved her fate. The wives of many of the Party leaders were Jewish and more than a few also occupied government positions.
Once the tyrant had ordered the death of one of his former loyalists, however high-placed and however long they might have served faithfully, he resented most bitterly when the wife would appeal to him for mercy. There were simply too many such cases. On a typical occasion the wife of Marshal Kulik asked Stalin to free her brother from the Gulag. Kidnapped within hours, she was murdered, and the Marshal had to wait twelve years to learn what had happened to her. Montefiore notes that one of the despot’s few truly self-revealing comments after denying clemency of a former colleague who, on Stalin’s order, was liquidated was, “Gratitude is a dog’s disease.”
Nor does the author spare any of the Bolshevik magnates their due desserts. Montefiore describes the universally hated Lavrenty Beria as “a sadistic torturer, loving husband, warm father, and priapic womanizer.” Beria is said to have had women picked off from Moscow streets, brought to him, and raped. He blackmailed girls whose fathers were in jail, seduced teenagers and actresses. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin in his usual sardonic manner introduced Beria to Roosevelt as “our Himmler.” But, as the author comments, Beria proved himself an excellent wartime economic Tsar, reorganizing and increasing Soviet production. Moreover, Beria was entrusted to organize the Soviet atom bomb project. Considering the workload of arrests, imprisonments, and executions, as well as his economic responsibilities, her father-in-law was responsible for, Martha Peshkova, Beria’s daughter-in-law once remarked that had Beria been born in America, “he would have risen to something like a chairman of General Motors.”
Neither does Montefiore spare Lenin, suggesting that the founding father of Communism was a late-stage syphilitic and the actual originator the terror commonly attributed to Stalin. Lenin’s dictum was: “A revolution without firing squads is meaningless.” It was Lenin, too, who established the Gulag penal system and urged Stalin to be merciless to enemies of the State. And it was Lenin who had recognized Stalin’s “gifts,” promoting him to the key post of General Secretary in 1922. Lenin more than once encouraged Stalin to be merciless against enemies of the State. According to the author, Stalin coolly replied: “Rest assured our hand will not tremble.” Stalin’s historical favorite was Ivan the Terrible.
Lenin, the author emphasizes, was as ruthless as Stalin. He once told Gorky: “The intelligentsia is not the brains of the country but the shit.” Neither Lenin nor Stalin gave any leeway to erring intellectuals. In fact, it was usually an intellectual or a group of intellectuals who might have ideas of their own and threaten the regime. Certainly, the average Russian peasant or worker could be no threat. The murder of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn by the NKVD, the same fate that had already befallen the Russian clergy and intellectuals and which certainly would have been the policy in Germany and all of Europe had the Red Army succeeded in occupying all of Europe, was a perfect example of Communism’s intent to decapitate the best heads of every vanquished bourgeois nation. On the personal level Stalin exhibited this in his raw hatred of Trotsky, the intellectual, and his enduring fondness for Kaganovich, a cobbler and man of little education.
Once, after Lenin’s death, when Lenin’s widow tried to exploit her status, Stalin demanded to know if, “Because she used the same toilet as the father of the revolution, she imagined herself to understand Marxist-Leninism.”
All in all, Montefiore has written a thoroughly engrossing account of the major personalities of the Soviet Union, their strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults, successes and failures, their encounters with their Western counterparts, and their ultimate fates. Aside from the informal glimpse of the personalities, The Court of the Red Tsar also provides many new insights into the everyday life in the USSR. For example, it was little known that Stalin had an adopted son Artyom Sergeyev. In the early days of the revolution it was the custom for surviving revolutionaries to adopt the children of comrades who had died in the revolution or civil war.
It is, however, a book that must be read with caution. For example, what the principles had to say about Stalin while he was alive often differs sharply from their remarks made after he was dead. Based on mostly informal conversations, remarks, comments and opinions of the principles in the drama, as recorded in various and sundry sources, it, as the author readily acknowledges, is not a conventional history in that it does not record nor analyze the political, economic, or military events of the period. For all the informal talk of the players among themselves, the official decisions and actions finally taken by the Soviet Government may have been quite different from the impressions created by the major players in their unofficial capacities. “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”
For example, on the question as to whether the Soviet Union was ill-prepared for war, the author creates the impression that Stalin never believed that Hitler would strike and open a two-front war while England was still in the war and that therefore the USSR was unprepared for the attack and the war. Montefiore rejects the idea that the Soviet dictator was himself planning to attack Germany but was beaten to the punch. Instead, Montefiore makes the completely unfounded and incorrect statement that “Suvorov’s view [of a planned Soviet attack] is now discredited.” Quite the contrary is the case. For Montefiore to dismiss the importance of Stalin’s speech of May 5, 1941, as merely a pep talk for the troops’ morale is silly. Not to even mention the Memorandum of the Peoples Commissar of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army to J. V. Stalin May 15 in at least a footnote is unpardonable.
Both Lenin and his disciple Stalin believed that Communism could only be installed in Europe after another destructive great war. After the devastating preemptive German attack and the possible defeat of the Soviet Union, Stalin lamented in despair: “Everything’s lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up...Lenin left us a great heritage and we his successors have shitted it all up.”
In the matter of Stalin’s death, the author minimizes the idea that the dictator was murdered before he could implement his planned purge, which would have swallowed up Beria and most of the old guard. While no one as yet knows for certain, Montefiore is quite aware and writes that Beria and some of Stalin’s other cronies did delay seeking medical aid until it was too late. Beria, in particular, had the best of motives (the preservation of his own life), the opportunity, and the means to poison Stalin. When he saw finally that Stalin was indeed dead, Montefiore quotes him as blurting out to those in the room: “That scoundrel! That filth! Thank God we’re free of him.” He even boasted to Molotov and Kaganovich: “I did him in...I saved you all.” One can only assume that those present who heard those words shared Beria’s opinion because the hated secret police boss took immediate charge.
In the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death and the execution of Beria, Montefiore quotes an exasperated Khrushchev, backed by Marshal Zhukov, as shouting to his colleagues, Kaganovich, Molotov, and Malenkov, “All of us taken together aren’t worth Stalin’s shit” – an evaluation that would be hard to refute. Shortly after, Khrushchev repaid Zhukov for his support by sacking him for “Bonapartism” – also a valid criticism. Khrushchev himself was later sent packing as a dangerous buffoon.
Although the focus of the book is firmly on the despot himself and his entourage of debauched sycophants, a persistent theme running through the work is Stalin’s relationships with and attitude towards the many Jews in his family of friends, in his government, and in the last few years of his life, the Jews he saw in the enemy camp.
On the matter of that old bugaboo of anti-Semitism, Montefiore maintains that Stalin became an anti-Semite in his last years, having been only mildly so in his earlier years. But even the author makes it clear that Stalin for most of his life lived in a Jewish world, was surrounded by Jewesses, was served faithfully by numerous Jews as commissars, propagandists, editors, and especially in the secret police and foreign espionage. His loyalty and kindness to many of them (e.g., Mekhlis, Kaganovich) was known. Over many years of close association, none of his closest Jewish friends or even enemies (not even Trotsky) ever accused Stalin of being anti-Semitic. Nor did any of them object to the ghastly assignments the Vozhd’ levied on them. In this reviewer’s opinion, the split between the dictator and his Jewish supporters occurred chiefly with the growth of Zionism, the establishment of the state of Israel, and actions of some Soviet Jews themselves.
Unrestrained chauvinistic public displays of support and affection for Israel by Soviet Jews, many of them well placed in the Soviet Government, during the visit of Golda Meir unnerved Stalin. Already, the wife of Molotov had irritated the dictator by her repeated requests that the Crimea be set aside for Jews. The close blood ties between Soviet Jews and their coreligionists in Israel and the United States could scarcely be denied. From his vantage, Stalin certainly would be concerned about their loyalty to the Soviet Union. When he finally openly turned on Soviet Jews as an entity (most obviously in the Doctors’ Plot), as he had done previously with other nationalities (Germans, Chechens, Tatars, etc,) he considered a threat to the Soviet Union, Jews worldwide labeled him anti-Semitic. Soviet Jews did ultimately become for Stalin not just untrustworthy intellectuals, whom he despised regardless of nationality, but subversives and possible foreign agents as well.
It was also said, and reported by the author, that Stalin was becoming increasingly paranoid. Considering the number of real enemies the dictator had, and most certainly was aware of, this charge is ridiculous. The threats were real and possibly even realized in the dictator’s death.
To better explain the ruthlessness and seeming amorality of the Soviet regime, Montefiore might have elaborated more on the concept of Partymindedness (partiynost’), namely, submission to Party ideology as proclaimed by its high-priest Josef Stalin. Judged by Western standards and morality, the outrageous acts of the magnates may be considered amoral or immoral, but in reality they were rigidly moral according to their own chosen morality. Simply stated, that morality was: whatever advances the interests of the Party is morally good; whatever obstructs the Party’s goals is morally bad. Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin early on replaced Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Later still, Stalin wrote the catechism. The Bolshevik “intellectuals” totally rejected what they called bourgeois (read Christian) morality.
The Bolshevik state – a society without laws, without morals or ethics, and without any true values - gradually devolves into a dystopia. Most of the leaders were simply power seekers. Once power was achieved, the rot set in. The British historian, Lord Acton, summed it up neatly over a hundred years ago when he said: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In recent years the English-speaking world has benefited greatly from the incisive, but essentially post-mortem, anti-Communist writings of such distinguished Anglo-American analysts of Soviet affairs as the author Montefiore, Anne Applebaum, Jonathan Brent, Vladimir Naumov, Albert Weeks, et al. If only in the period 1920-1950—at the time of the revolution and the peak of Communist power and terror, the West could have had such right-thinking intellects as its Kremlinologists, pundits, and political analysts, instead of the ones it had who seemed so infatuated with and sympathetic toward the Soviet Union and Marxism in general. Ah, the power of hindsight.
Montefiore’s book is hard to categorize, whether as history or historical celebrity gossip, nonetheless, it remains an excellent companion to the many conventional histories of the Communist era. The detailed Index, even the Table of Contents, and the convenient List of Characters are a considerable help to the reader. The many rare photographs of Stalin and his magnates over the years bear captions that ought not be passed over. Nonetheless, with some 650 pages of quotes and comments, the veracity and reliability of which is highly questionable, and another 100 pages of references, it is all too easy to miss the forest for the trees – the forest being the essential historical truth and the trees being the interesting, but ultimately unreliable and irrelevant celebrity gossip.
Antonia Fraser, herself a renowned biographer, has referred to Montefiore’s work as “a good racy historical read,” but it is more than that, it is also a monument to painstaking research and hard work.
|||The Montefiores are descended from Sephardic Jews, the Sebags of Essaouira, Morocco (a town whose other sons included Disraeli and Leslie Hore-Belisha. His mother’s family is descended from Russian Ashkenazim Jews who arrived in England in the 1880s. Among his mother’s ancestors were two Lord Chief Justices (including the present one). The movie star Gwyneth Paltrow, like the author, is descended from the Paltrowiches of Nizhniy Novgorod. Hard-working and competent, an earlier Montefiore once told Disraeli “Our race can do anything but fail.” |
|||Other books by Montefiore are: My Affair with Stalin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997, 226 p.; Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin. Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2001, 634 p. He is a regular contributor of articles and book reviews to the major British and American newspapers and journals. Montefiore, who was born in 1965 and worked on a kibbutz in Israel as a teenager, later read history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He spend most of the 1990s traveling through the ex Soviet Empire. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore. Other prominent Anglo-American-Jewish writers on Soviet affairs are Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, and Gabriel Gorodetsky, author of Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia, also studied at Oxford/Cambridge. |
|||Lev Mekhlis, Jewish, Stalin’s secretary, then Pravda editor, political chief of the Red Army with the rank of Colonel General to whom the dictator was devoted until Mekhlis’ death in 1949. Mekhlis assured Stalin that he was a loyal Communist first, and a Jew second.|
|||Andrey Zhdanov, Politburo member, Leningrad boss, Naval chief, Stalin’s friend and father of Yury who married Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. Zhdanov, a Great Russian nationalist was considered Stalin’s heir apparent. Over the years Stalin was gradually turning over power to native Russians and reducing the Jewish influence.|
|||The Forsyte Saga and The Last of the Mohicans were among his favorites. Montefiore cleverly suggests that the first named provided the dictator some insight into British bourgeois life, while the second confirmed his opinion as to how the imperialists treated the native peoples. |
|||For example, a picture showing Beria and Yezhov describes the latter as an ambitious fanatic, a bisexual dwarf, and frenzied killer. Another photo shows Genrikh Yagoda, another of Stalin’s NKVD chiefs, who is described as a Jewish jeweler’s son with a knowledge of poisons and a ruthless ambition. Yagoda enjoyed the good life: collecting wines, growing orchids, amassing ladies’ underwear, and buying German pornographic films and obscene cigarette holders. Still another photo shows Stalin with some of his lady admirers, including his mistress Zhenya Alliuyeva and Bronislava Poskrebysheva.|