May 22, 2008
Stalin’s untold story

Book Review

Book: Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Publisher: Phoenix Books
Cost: Shs 26,000
Volume: 720 pages
Reviewer: Martyn Drakard
Available at Aristoc

For years it has been politically incorrect to expose the enormous evil committed under Stalin’s regime. The arch-villains have always been Hitler and the Nazis.

Simon Montefiore’s book sets the record straight, relying on newly-opened archives.

Josef Stalin, the son of a violent, drunken cobbler, who was expelled from the seminary and became a professional revolutionary, is one of the most colourful, complex and cruel leaders of the 20th century.
Self-controlled and reckless, Stalin was intensely sensitive, talented, deeply ambitious, restless and lonely yet sociable –the soul of the party- in need of privacy, an avowed atheist who respected what he’d learnt in the seminary, and who came to believe that the solution to every human problem was death,- through accident, poisoning, widespread famine, or a bullet in the back of the head. A convinced Marxist fanatic from youth, his mission was quasi-Messianic.

A self-taught intellectual who loved and discussed classical literature –the best read Russian leader from Catherine the Great to Putin- he reduced complex problems to lucid simplicity. He was a ‘people person”, capable of profound extremes of feeling; he could be magnificently generous and entrancingly charming. At ease with the common people and children, he yearned to be liked. But when he thought he’d been betrayed he would never forget, and eventually took revenge.

Montefiore plots the development of Stalin and his Bolshevik idealists from their almost family intimacy in the early 1920s, when naively they believed they could quickly implement Lenin’s message of the transition of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to the ultimate achievement of the Socialist state, right through to Stalin’s lonely, squalid death.

Crucial stages were the suicide of his wife, Nadya; the forcible delivery of grain from private farmers –kulaks- to fund an industrial and military expansion to rival the west, and the subsequent deportation and liquidation of whole classes of people.

The resultant famine, from 1931-1933, saw millions more die from starvation; by then the peasants had killed off their cattle and horses to try to make a point to the rulers.

Opposition was dealt with in only one way. The blood-bath had begun. All “enemies” and those impossible to educate in socialism were to be slaughtered to “accelerate the erasing of class barriers” and introduce “paradise for the masses”. Quotas of executions had to be met in each province. Over-zealous officials made sure they were doubled! With the able assistance of a cynical, thoroughly dissolute, but tireless worker, Laurent Beria, his security chief, expectations were exceeded. And a new era of intrigue, suspicions and ruthlessness began.

The last part deals with the super-power betrayal at Yalta when much of east, central and south-east Europe was given over to Soviet rule; and the succession of Khrushchev, whose hands were already bloodied under Stalin.

The portrait of Stalin is masterly, while the description of his debauched court is occasionally overdone. Still, an essential book to understand how a tyrannical dictatorship, headed by a complex character, can bring untold misery to millions.