Richard Overy

A Man of Steel

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar


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ONE OF STALIN’S closest colleagues in the turbulent years of the dictatorship, Lazar Kaganovich, once remarked that he had known many Stalins. This does not mean that Stalin had doubles everywhere like Saddam Hussein. He was simply a man of many parts oneand many faces. The men and women at Stahn’s court had to learn them all to survive.

There are many Stalins in this magnificent portrait of the dictator and the court that surrounded him. Simon Sebag Montefiore has mined the rich veins of recent Russian writing on the Stalin age and of newly opened archives to give us an intimate history of a man who was always secretive with hls colleagues and who has remained elusive to posterity. What was he like? Harsh, cruel, unyielding, amoral certainly. But Stalin emerges from these pages as a real human being who loved, swore, joked, sang and – judging from the picture on the cover – went on picnics.

Montefiore starts by making the assertion that Stalin was ‘exceptional’. This is a bold claim for a man damned in history by Trotsky’s dismissive epithet, ‘grey blur’. But he is surely right. Sdn survived in the Stalin: too close maelstrom of Soviet politics for thirty-six years, always at, or near, the very pinnacle of power. He had supreme political instincts; he did not survive simply by terrorising everyone. He learned how to manipulate and to outmanoeuvre those around him. The secret was a system for gathering intelhgence on the party faithful – and less faithful – that was second to none. He understood when to hold back, when to strike. He certainly did not control everything in the Soviet Union, but he controlled what he needed to control.

The ‘boss’, as he was affectionately (?) known, was also a powerful¬†personality. He was not the hysterical, theatrical Hitler, ranting one moment, sunk into petty-bourgeois lethargy the next. Stalin could be modest, witty and teasing, but companionable. ‘The foundation of Stalin’s power’, writes Montefiore, ‘was not fear: it was charm.’ This is a step too far. Behind the charm lay a more sinister, iron resolve. Visitors got to know that when Stalin smiled at you, your number was up. Montefiore records the moment at a meeting in 1948 when Stalin engagingly announced that two colleagues, Kuznetsov and Voznesensky, would be hls successors. A few months later they were in the hands of KGB thugs, who kicked crazy confessions of spying out of them before they were tried and shot. You were safer with Stalin when he was argumentative and angry. He liked eyeball-to-eyeball cohntation, but only the bravest dared risk it.

Montefiore’s Stalin is surrounded by his courtiers, and it is through them that the book fizzes and sparkles. For far too long history has regarded Stalin’s dictatorship as a oneand man show, even more so than Hitler’s. The lives of Goering, Hirnrnler and Goebbels are now as well known as the FuhreJs. But relatively few people are familiar with those of Molotov (so stiff he was nicknamed ‘stone arse’), or the vain and stupid Voroshilov, or Kaganovich, Mekhlis, Poskrebyshev, Zhdanov or a dozen others. In this account they are centre stage, the cast of a bizarre melodrama. They were the circle with whom Stalin kept faith for most of the dictatorship until the end, when this capricious and unscrupulous man decided to change the guard once again.

The courtiers were men like Stalin, from humble backgrounds, who rose to supreme power on the back of a revolution which really did smash the Russian bourgeoisie and bring the sons (no daughters) of workers, peasants and lumberjacks into high office. The Soviet system might have close for comfort been less vicious and more efficient if the clutch of educated Bolsheviks around Bukharin and Trotsky had kept power and managed the Revolution. But Stalin was, in Montefiore’s words, ‘married to Bolshevism’. He wanted a real revolution for ordinary people. His utter commitment to the cause of Communism has often been ignored in the effort to show that he was consumed by a personal lust for power. The opposite is the case: the terrible things that he oversaw, from collectivisation to the purges, were to serve the purposes of a very literal revolution. He used and abused power to push on the pace of change in a country simply not ready for hls version of Communist modernity. He did not betray Lenin’s revolution; he pushed it to extreme limits.

He carried the courtiers along with him. The stifling, contiguous life of the Soviet elite in and around the Krernlin is wonderfiiy conveyed, in some of the most striking and literary passages in the book. They knew each other well because they lived almost on top of each other, too close, in some cases, for comfort. The atmosphere is very like the claustrophobic, darkly gothic court of Ivan the Terrible portrayed so memorably in Eisenstein’s film, which was banned by Stalin, perhaps for that reason. Stalin was not a tsar, but he played with his courtiers as if he were.

If few women rose to real prominence around Stalin, there was plenty of female company. Stalin was ktatious and charming with women, but prudish too. This does not seem to have prevented him from having regular affairs after, and probably before, the suicide of his second wife, Nadezhda. Though he was twenty-two years her senior, the match was a fiery and passionate one. She argued back, and in public, to the amazement of the more prudent companions who witnessed it. For one dinner in 1932 she put on an unusually smart dress and make-up; Stalin ignored her, flirting openly with another woman. She returned to their apartment and shot herself. There has always been speculation that Stalin killed her in a fit of rage, but ~ontefioreis unconvinced. This was the sad end to a love affair that had been very important to Sdn, and his courtiers observed a sudden change in hlm. There followed the years of famine, purge, and mass terror.

Was the death of his wife the key to the hard decade that followed? Montefiore implies as much by the structure of the book; the first section bears the title given to the early years of the court bv Voroshilov’s wife – ‘That Wonderfil ~ime’.Y et there ark so many other explanations for the break in the 1930s – explanations which can be derived from the consequences of the massive socio-economic revolution launched in the late 1920s. The personal factor is impossible to gauge, any more than ~itle&-crueltiecsa n be ascribed to the suicide of Geli Raubal, whch happened a year before Nadezhda’s. Stahn was a tough, vindictive revolutionary long before 1932. How apt his nom de rbolution, ‘Stalin’, hm the Russian for ‘steel’.

Striking the balance between political narrative and personal biography is a difficult one. On the whole Montefiore keeps both in perspective, though the result can be a rather breathless rush through the times as well as the life. The sheer level of activitv recounted in the book is dizzying as well as dazzling. he extraordinary scale of the transformation of Eurasia that Bolshevism set out to achieve in the 1920s and 1930s is less clearly conveyed than it might be, yet it was this transformation, day in, day out, that Stalin and the coterie around him tried to orchestrate with such bloody consequences. This remains, nonetheless, a wonderfidly rich and vibrant portrait of the Stalinist elite who lived in the shadow of a remarkable and dangerous colossus.

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