Wednesday, September 29, 2010


This book is not a complete biography of Stalin: rather its subject is just what its subtitle says it is, the court of the Red Tsar. Naturally, the period of Stalin’s having a court covers the most important part of his life.

The author spent years gathering documents and remembrances from survivors in Russia. As well, he had unprecedented access to the Stalin archives. His patient collection of new information shows in the book’s many fascinating anecdotes, ranging from bizarre to horrifying.

For those familiar with the career of Stalin, the book has no great shocking revelations. Rather it is in its anecdotes we gain grim new details of this almost unprecedented tyranny. The contrast in court life before the first great terror, 1937, and after; Stalin’s intense interference with the personal lives of his colleagues, whom the author nicely terms the magnates; Stalin’s endless lists of names carefully checked off; certain glimpses of Stalin’s wartime behaviour; and details of Stalin’s death – all these and more are new stories and add detail and nuance to our understanding of one of history’s greatest monsters.

Stalin, by the reckoning given here, was the second greatest mass-murderer in human history, surpassed only in the sheer volume of victims by Chairman Mao, but such counts are never accurate even with good archives because so many of the events in those horrifying regimes were disguised or unreported.

When Stalin wanted a prominent person killed, often the act was disguised as something like an automobile accident. Beria, one of his chief killers, sometimes employed poisons, reminding one of a prince in the court of the Borgias, and he may have done so in the end with the Vozhd himself as Stalin became obviously senile and busied himself with still new terrors in the early 1950s, ones aimed at doctors, Jews, and Mingrelian speakers from Georgia – the last including Beria himself. All of the magnates in the last days feared another great wave of murder and torture, as they also feared Stalin’s failing mind carelessly risking war with the West.

Stalin believed the government needed regular shaking up. In that he reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the tree of liberty needed new blood every fifteen or twenty years. Stalin also, I believe, simply tired of some of the people with whom he worked for any time. He had such a severe set of standards of behaviour and performance – Stalin was a workaholic - that he grew tired of magnates who, with success, assumed manners that suggested being at odds with his deeply rooted concepts of Bolshevik standards. Above all, Stalin was paranoid about anyone who doubted him or anyone who might challenge him, and his extraordinary ability to read human beings made it close to impossible for anyone to hide their doubts. His relentless intelligence apparatus also fed his doubts or fears about people. Everyone of consequence was bugged, and it only took one casual suggestive remark at home to start Stalin’s thinking about the end of someone’s usefulness.

Stalin’s human-intelligence operation abroad might well have been the greatest ever assembled (it included Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies in Britain, Richard Sorge in Japan, someone unknown high in the German government, and important people in America’s Manhattan Project) and it provided him with many important tips, but Stalin’s paranoia often caused him to reject the information in a bizarre twist on the Cassandra legend.

Stalin certainly suffered from some form of mental illness: his extreme paranoia alone attests to that. He was also a true psychopath, able to charm and disarm people even while planning to kill them. Stalin had a stare, with yellowy unblinking eyes, that he used often to question or discomfort or threaten people, sometimes terrifying those he was about to destroy. He enjoyed, like a cat with a captured mouse, toying with his victims. It was a significant sport for him during his campaigns against magnates or officials. His sense of humor was crude, and he enjoyed throwing bits of orange peel or wine corks at his dinner guests. He sometimes greeted officials or friends with questions like “haven’t they arrested you yet?” But, as Montefiore tells us, he was exceptionally intelligent and, like Hitler, he had a prodigious memory.

But of course, most of his killing was not competitors, their families, authors or artists who displeased him, but millions of ordinary people: the millions of kulaks (successful farmers, the beginnings of a Russian middle class) he arrested and tortured and killed, the millions of Ukrainians whom he deliberately consigned to starvation (on the order of 10 to 12 million), and various other national groups from Poles to Germans who were killed by the hundreds of thousands. Stalin had a godlike stance towards the suffering and deaths of millions of victims: what happened was simply necessary, like a gardener pulling weeds, in working towards the ideals of Bolshevism.

I believe the author has straightened out the conflicting tales of Stalin’s behaviour in the first days of Hitler’s invasion. There have been many conflicting stories in reputable books about whether Stalin crumpled into a useless drunken heap or kept his steely grip.
The author has given us more information about Stalin’s death, but the picture remains unclear in some details. Here again, reputable books have contained conflicting stories.

Rich with new information, the book is not without faults. Indeed, it has several significant ones.

The index, I realize in writing this review, is seriously inadequate to the size and complexity of the book’s subject matter. I recall specific events or descriptions, but when I try finding them in the index by several possible routes, there are no adequate references.

The book has an episodic nature in which years at a time on some subjects disappear. There is also the sometimes annoying practice of a very brief fact tacked on to a passage, almost a non sequitur, I assume just to employ material people had supplied the author.

The writing varies between quite good and not so good. For example, Riumin, one of his last killers, is described at the start of Chapter 56 as “…plump and balding, stupid and vicious….” Yet in the same paragraph, Riumin is said to have completed a good education (for that day) and qualified as an accountant, hardly the achievement of a stupid person, especially in those days of much more stringent school requirements. This kind of thing is fairly common through the book, and it is annoying, being the result I suggest of the author’s readiness to dash off colorful descriptions of new characters which later prove less than accurate as their tales are told.

Despite its shortcomings, the book is an indispensable source for students of the Soviet Union, Stalin, tyranny, modern European history, and psychology.