Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this, as I knew the very basic outline of Stalin’s life but few details. Initially (the book has a loose opening focus centring on a key event some time before WWII) I found it a little difficult to get into. Stalin’s obviously the overarching figure but many others (Molotov, Beria etc) feature prominently.

After this opening, the biography falls into a more traditional, chronological, account of Stalin, from difficult childhood through early adulthood, eventually ending with his death some time after the conclusion of the Second World War. The author has clearly drawn on existing histories, testimonies (which he frequently acknowledges may be somewhat biased by those seeking to protect the reputation of themselves or their relatives), and diaries and other papers.

The result is a 600 page or so account of one of the critical men of the 20th century, which sheds new light in many areas due to the opening up of archives that were inaccessible previously, and personal interviews with the individuals (and relatives of those) who were present at the time.

The monstrous capriciousness of Stalin, toying with victims sadistically whilst feigning ignorance, and his bizarrely double-faced nature, ordering executions by quota yet helping a colleague’s daughter with her maths homework when she rang up and her father was absent, paints a picture of a chaotic, lethal maelstrom. The only constant was the rise and then supremacy of Stalin.

Those of you who have read 1984 or, perhaps even better, Animal Farm will recognise much of the horror: the religious, zealous devotion to the ideal of the Party, the blind, trusting devotion of many (reminiscent of Boxer the horse), and dissolving individuality in the acid of socialism.

The title itself is a signpost, with Stalin every bit the monarch a tsar, or king, or emperor, might be.

Although post-war there was a Terror against the Jews, before it the Soviet approach to massacre was completely different to the Nazi way. The Third Reich, of course, aimed for the extermination of the Jews. Stalin wanted to get rid of the inconvenient, cared little for human life, and created quotas for genocide. His underlings executed tens of thousands quite literally to make up the numbers. One might say he was, at that stage, an equal opportunities genocidal maniac.

The intelligence of Stalin, particularly as a master manipulator of those who were his colleagues and became his subordinates, is compelling, as is the wilful blindness he displayed towards Hitler’s betrayal and invasion of the USSR.

Beneath Stalin is a cast of characters that occasionally match his wickedness, and others who seem a little less brutal (it’s a difficult thing to try and assess people who would’ve destroyed themselves and their families if their words or actions had sought to save the persecuted innocent). Voroshilov, the personally brave and politically wimpish soldier; Budyonny, the likeable cavalryman with no appreciation of how tanks might be better than horses; Beria, the sadist, the rapist, the schemer.

This isn’t my period of history, but I still felt displeased by my own ignorance about someone so significant to recent events. Similar to the first time I learnt something about the Eastern Roman Empire, albeit with less ignorance and more recency.

However, having recently finished it, I’ve got to say I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s grim in many places, but engaging and enlightening. As I posted elsewhere, it’s baffling that a man who died within living memory and was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people (and the enslavement of a similar number) isn’t better understood. Even today, some idiots in the UK happily march under banners of a man every bit as evil as Hitler.

I strongly recommend this book.


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