Stalin - Montefiore Biography Cover

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Montefiore Biography Cover


Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that he intended to read 26 books over the next year. Though I am not a “friend of Mark”, it’s not a bad idea. Like a lot of people my intend-to-read list is growing faster than my have-finally-read list, at least partially because I spend an excess amount of time on Mr Zuckerberg’s site and its ilk.

So I am taking up the challenge: to read a new book every two weeks for the next year, and to post a short report on each one. Here’s the first:

Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar  (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

How did Josef Stalin, a second-rank Bolshevik thug from the backwaters of Georgia, rise to become the supreme leader  of the Soviet Union? How did he keep his head and his crown for twenty years while all around him were losing theirs? Many accounts write off Stalin as a Saddam Hussein-like figure – a ruthless, vicious, amoral and Machiavellian strong man. He was all of that and more, but as Simon Sebag Montefiore concludes, he was also an extremely clever and charismatic leader and an excellent judge of character. His reign atop the Soviet Union is attributable not to chance, but to careful planning, knowledge of his rivals’ and subordinates’ weaknesses, a well-established reputation for inscrutability and the capacity to switch without warning from sentimental camaraderie to sudden and savage violence.

Montefiore’s book synthesizes a huge amount of primary research, much of it from the newly-opened Soviet archives (being hurriedly closed again by V Putin). He tracked down and interviewed a number of surviving members of the inner circle and their descendants, and was able to access a number of never-before released memoirs and letters. The temptation to include all of this information in a single volume must have been great, and on occasion he does succumb to the desire to fit in every interesting but marginally-relevant factoid, but overall the book is very readable and a compelling account of the inner workings of a dictatorship.

While first and foremost a biography of Stalin, it also provides a detailed account of the daily life (and death) of the inner circle of Soviet leaders – the “magnates” as Montefiore calls them, and their wives and families. He brings these disparate characters – Kirov, Beria, Khrushchev, Molotov and all the other nomenclatura – to life and shows how Stalin manipulated, outwitted and terrorized them. But quite rightly he also shows how they all, including Stalin, were deeply committed to Marxist-Leninism, and how this allowed them to justify the use of mass murder, deportations and slave labour in the building of the Workers’ Paradise.

The reader should be aware that this is not intended as an introduction to the Soviet era. In order to keep it to a manageable size Montefiore assumes a good general knowledge of the history of Stalinist Russia. He covers all of the major milestones: Collectivization, the death of Kirov, the Great Terror, the Great Patriotic War and the Doctors’ Plot, but his focus is less on what happened and more on the internal manoeuvring within the leadership that accompanied these events.

Overall this is an excellent work, and highly recommended for those with an interest in the Soviet era and a good background knowledge of Soviet history.

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