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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Although there is no shortage of ink to be spent on explaining the inexplicable, the life of Stalin remains almost as much of a mystery now as it was 50 years ago. Save for a few nagging mysteries, what Stalin did is well understood. It is the human element of Stalin, the contradictory, unsettling, often paradoxical evidence of the man himself that renders his interior life invisible, and which stubbornly resists explication or explanation.

The hook behind Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest contribution to the strange world of Stalin studies places the figure of Stalin in the foreground through a focus on previously classified letters and memos from the archives of the former Soviet Union. This focus allows for an unsettling degree of intimacy with previously fearsome (or purposefully obscured) figures such as Beria, Molotov and Khrushchev, not to mention Stalin himself. Access to new documents enables Montefiore to introduce the reader to a new Stalin, or perhaps more correctly, to allow Stalin’s own words to demolish the layers of myth and obfuscation that have accrued. We are introduced to a Stalin of frighteningly human proportions, a man fully capable of love, grief and sorrow.

There is a degree of calculated risk involved in any such undertaking. Showing us the figure of Stalin collapsed in grief over the coffin of his dead wife Nadya in 1931 could be mistaken, in the hands of a less adroit author, as an invitation to sympathy. Reprinting private correspondence between Stalin and his wife opens up surprising intimate vistas onto the Soviet “Man of Steel”:

“Hello Tatka [Nadya]. . . I miss you so much Tatochka — I’m as lonely as a horned owl. I’m not going out of town on business. I’m just finishing my work and then I’m going out of town to the children tomorrow . . . So goodbye, don’t be too long, come home sooner! My kisses! Your Joseph.” [21 June 1930, Pg. 7]

How is it possible to reconcile the historical monster, an unrepentant mass murderer whose only peers in all history are the likes of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung, with the image of a doting husband and a loving father? This is the tightrope that Montefiore deftly walks. It is enough that we never lose sight of the gravity of Stalin’s every utterance, and the sheer brutal authority that enforced his will. The added dimensions of character through which we are allowed to — briefly — glimpse Stalin’s human facets only serve to reinforce the monstrous nature of his crimes against history. In Montefiore’s able hands he becomes less an historical force of nature, the caricatured Sociopath of the Steppes whom we have grown accustomed to seeing profiled on endless History Channel biographies, than a man — a man of horrifying dimensions, but recognizable nonetheless. It’s easier to dismiss this kind of remorseless evil when it comes in an obviously repulsive package, but it’s much harder to grapple with the notion that an actual flesh-and-blood human being with fully operable emotions lay at the heart of such intolerable, systematic cruelty. The unreasoning psychopath can be explained and neutralized; the rational, human killer can only fill us with greater horror.

Just as illuminating is the new insight gained on Stalin’s intellectual habits. The easy shorthand that has developed and been generally accepted in the popular imagination allows that Lenin was the intellectual dynamo, whereas Stalin was a competent plodder of no great talents himself. A close examination of the man’s library and personal reading lists exposes a compulsive reader, a self-made autodidact whom Montefiore would have us understand was easily the equal of Lenin and the better of any of his Politburo peers in terms of any intellectual contest. The Stalin we meet found succor in history during the bleakest hours of World War II — during the German siege of Moscow in 1941, as the city fell around him and the debate over abandoning the city raged within his inner circle, Stalin pored over a recently published biography of Kutuzov, the general who abandoned Moscow to Napoleon in 1812. Facing the bleak possibility of again abandoning the Russian capitol in the face of European aggression, Stalin “heavily underlines” the sentence “Until the last minute . . . no one knew what Kutuzov intended to do.”

Not merely the most brutal but the most intelligent man in almost any room, even during his swift postwar decline, Montefiore’s Stalin keeps a reading list stocked with “Goethe’s Letters, Poetry of the French Revolution, Pushkin, Konstantin Simonov, Shakespeare, Herzen, History of the Seven Years’ War — and Battle At Sea 1939-1945 by Peter Scott”. More chilling, however, is the evidence that Stalin allowed some of the most revered anti-Soviet artists of the day to survive successive bloody purges — here we see that despite the Soviet party line, Stalin the man had the almost unimaginable aesthetic sense to see that geniuses such as Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak transcended temporal politics. When Pasternak’s arrest was (inevitably) proposed, Stalin is reported as saying: “Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.” (Isaac Babel did not escape, however, by virtue of the fact that he was unlucky enough to become involved in the political machinations of Stalin’s inner circle.)

But even given Stalin’s preternatural intelligence, he is still prone to surprising and tragic oversight. Perhaps most famously, he underestimated Hitler up to and even after the moment of war with Germany. He refused to understand the monumental deficiencies of Soviet military strategy leading up to the war, even going so far as to initially back a proposal on the part of an aging attaché to emphasize horse-drawn guns as the best possible defense against the Nazi Blitzkreig, which had in the dawning months of 1941 had already twice proven its lethal capabilities against defending armies. Ultimately, despite his intelligence, Stalin was the product of an extremely narrow ideological focus, and it was this focus that ultimately would prove the downfall of the Soviet Union, albeit forty years after Stalin’s death.

Stalin’s answer to every problem he faced was to purge. Just as the Bolsheviks fought their way to power through the ruthless narrowing of their ideological agenda, abandoning any faction or ideology that threatened their momentum, Stalin created an atmosphere of fear and terror based on the principle that any problem could be solved merely by strengthening devotion to ideological purity. The impure — the politically incorrect — were merely casualties. In practice, this form of government merely became a tool for the propagation of power despite the almost unimaginable incompetence that defined the vast majority of Communist government. How could someone with such a wide breadth of knowledge fail to understand the limited applicability of these self-destructive tactics on a nation-wide scale?

We will never know whether or not he even understood the question on these terms. By harnessing the power of perpetual uncertainty and almost constant fear, he was able to keep his personal power intact at the expense of his country and, later, the world. Stalinism is the most destructive and counter-productive form of government known to man, unless you consider that the only purpose behind such an outlandish system is the protection and comfort of those at the very apex of society. We can see this even today in the example of Baathist Iraq and Kim Il Jung’s North Korea — dysfunctional countries organized like cocoons around their precious, God-like rulers. In this aspect, at least, Stalinist dictatorships run quite well.

Stalin’s Soviet Union was the greatest monument to one man’s monumental paranoia that could be imagined. It also matches well with what we now understand of Soviet society following Stalin’s death. There was never a “missile gap” — Soviet military capacity fell rapidly following Stalin’s death. Khrushchev backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis because he, unlike Stalin, just didn’t have the courage of his monomaniacal convictions. (Which is not to say that Krushchev couldn’t be brutal — he was certainly brutal during his long tenure as Stalin’s chosen ruler of the Ukraine.) But Krushchev, for all his canniness and occasional bumbling, was no Stalin, and we should all be quite thankful that this was so. No one, following Stalin, had the sheer strength of will to keep Communism afloat — an essentially impossible task given the system’s massive and consistent economic failures. The cracks began to show immediately following Stalin’s death. His force of will was the glue that made the impossible — and the unthinkable — possible.

Ironically, despite his well-earned reputation as the most immoral sociopath in a circle of psychopaths, the world might have been a better place if Lavrenti Beria had won control of the Soviet government in the days immediately following Stalin’s death. Despite his homicidal proclivities, he was also one of the few men in the top echelons of power who understood the basic instability of Communism. Long before Stalin’s death he had already seen that the Soviet system would eventually fail without private property ownership. After Stalin’s death he was very vocal in his desires to liberalize the Soviet economy, liberate the nationalities that Stalin had repressed, announce a general amnesty for the subjects in the slave labor camps, expose the sham trials that had fueled the terrors up through the “Doctors’ Plot” of the early 1950s, and even free East Germany from Communist control. But all these lofty goals were too much for the majority of Stalin’s old guard. Beria fatally underestimated Krushchev, and he didn’t even survive his boss by a full year. Perestroika would have to wait another forty years.

The Court of the Red Tsar represents a massive contribution to our comprehension of one of the most crucial and poorly understood figures of recent history. Ironically, despite the many humanizing elements, the actual figure of Stalin only continues to recede from easy comprehension, tangled in layer upon layer of personal contradiction and paradox. There can be few satisfactory answers when contemplating crimes of such magnitude. We must be content with the probability that we will never understand the demons that drove him — it is enough that the ideology that enabled his tyranny be eradicated, never to return.