Heather Rossiter

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

reviewed by Heather Rossiter, 4/10/2003, Sydney Morning Hearld

Strange to read a book in which there is not a single hero. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar opens with a dinner party in the Kremlin on November 8, 1932, prelude to the suicide of Joseph Stalin's young wife, Nadya. The author describes the dress she wore, the scarlet tea rose in her black hair and how she and Stalin quarrelled. The dialogue is verbatim. Such detail instantly draws the reader into the circle of violent criminals who ruled the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953. By the time Nadya crosses the lane to the flat in the Poteshny Palace and picks up a lady's Mauser pistol, the reader is entrapped, just like Stalin's victims, like Nadya's sister, like her sister-in-law.

Simon Sebag Montefiore spent seven years hunting and interviewing the children who played in the Kremlin courtyards, reading letters and diaries held fearfully in family archives, talking to the grandchildren of Politburo members, tortured generals and Gulag survivors. Co-ordinating these rich sources with material in newly opened state, military and defence archives, Montefiore is able to present an intimate picture of Stalin and his courtiers, monsters with whom intimacy was often a passport to death.

More than a biography of Stalin, or an indictment of the Bolshevik power players, this work is testimony to the dangers of utopian ideas and a reflection on individual responsibility.

No one - not the Germans, not the Mongols, certainly not the French - has done as much harm to the Russians as they have done to themselves. By the time of Stalin's death in 1953, the Bolsheviks had killed 20 million people and deported 28 million, 18 million of whom had slaved in the Gulags.

Intertwining public and private events, Montefiore sweeps through the horrors of collectivisation, famine, World War II, purges and show trials. The names and figures have been known for years, but not the daily life of Stalin's court, nor the vicious Politburo intrigues, nor where ultimate responsibility lay. Names such as Anastas Mikoyan, Andrey Zhdanov and Sergei Kirov had only a political profile. Seeing them within the Kremlin family makes them people, but not a jot less inhuman.

Word pictures - Stalin helping Natalya Poskrebysheva with her homework while knowing her mother was being tortured; Yezhov, a bisexual dwarf who ran the Lubianka prison, coming to dinner with bloodstains on his uniform; Lavrenti Beria whispering to Iron-Arse (Molotov) after the arrest of his adored Polina: "She's still alive" - make this book disturbing.

The Terror was, in reality, a civil war, except no one knew which side they were on until the arrest came. The archives confirm that Stalin initiated and ran the Terror, which fell heavily on the intelligentsia. In an elegant phrase, Lenin had told Gorky: "The intelligentsia is not the brains of the country but the shit." Stalin and his magnates treated them accordingly. In Galina: A Russian Story, the great soprano Vishnevskaya gives a tearing account of the treatment of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. At least they survived. As Montefiore records, poets Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky and so many others didn't, despite Stalin's ambiguous attitude to literature. (Someone, please tell Montefiore the feminine of poet is poet. Magnificent, defiant Anna Akhmatova a "poetess", indeed.)

In the Kremlin apartments, at the dachas, or on holiday in the Black Sea resorts integral to Stalin's court were the families of his first wife, the Svanidzes, and of his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva. Influential at first, they were not impregnable. Maria Svanidze, an indefatigable diarist until she was arrested and "taken away in her beautiful clothes" in December 1937, was shot in 1942. Zhenya Alliluyeva, Stalin's lover in 1934, though imprisoned and tortured, survived him.

Death, Stalin believed, was the solution to every problem. Liquidate, he wrote; arrest and shoot, he ordered; make them take spades and dig their own graves; shoot on the spot; beat, beat and beat again. Having obeyed, the magnates then joined Stalin's all-night party where, in an environment of fear and competition, they were tormented by mutual jealousies. Thanks to Montefiore's research, we now know who was present, what they ate, how drunk they became, which woman was groped and, more sinister, who was no longer invited. The court is laid bare. It is hard to believe that a whole circle could be so malicious, despotic and cruel.

This book has problems, mostly editing matters, but nothing can diminish Montefiore's achievement in amassing and integrating so much new material. Historians will dine off this meticulously referenced, if not completely digested, book for years.


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