Friday, February 26, 2010


Late last summer I was in a brief Russian phase, and so I picked up Simon Sebag Montefiore’s two-volume biography of Stalin (Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar).
This is thick description at its finest; Montefiore doesn’t provide a systematic overview of Bolshevism or Communist Russia, but that’s not what he’s aiming for. Rather, he has produced a fascinating, intimate picture of Stalin and his nearest (in his case, one can only rarely speak of his dearest).
A few things that stick with me a few months later:
- the “wild east” of the Caucasus, which produced the Georgian Joseph Djugashvili, who went by the names Soso, Koba, and eventually Stalin. The Caucasus region was barely under the Tsar’s control, and the lawlessness and violence there (in Stalin’s hometown of Gori, organized brawls between all of the town’s inhabitants was a regular pastime) undoubtedly shaped young Stalin.
- Montefiore provides the most compelling explanation I’ve found for Stalin’s terrible paranoia that culminated in the Great Terror of the late 1930s (indeed, informed his entire life and rule). In addition to Stalin’s personal insecurities and need to dominate, it was the Tsarist regime itself which fostered this paranoia. The regime’s ochrana secret service, established after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by radicals, was everywhere and had penetrated the radical circles in which Stalin grew up – but the ochrana itself had been penetrated by radical agents. Some of these agents for both sides were, in fact, double and even triple agents. No one could ever fully be trusted. Stalin’s paranoia grew out of these real conditions at the end of the Tsarist regime. Of course, the scale of paranoid violence under the two regimes was orders of magnitude different: the ochrana was responsible for four to five thousand deaths, Stalin for something like 20 million.
- the author shows convincingly that Stalin’s power derived not just from the terror he exerted, but also from his charm. He could be an attractive man – witty, exuberant, on occasion showing sincere concern for at least some of his circle. This side of Stalin makes his inhumanity, which hardly gets short shrift here, all the scarier.
- one strand throughout are the parallels between the Bolsheviks and religious movements. Montefiore decribes them as a “military order of knights.”
- since the focus is on Stalin and his “court,” the millions of deaths of ordinary Russians, Ukrainians, and others only appear on the margins. Nonetheless, the focused study of this smaller circle still provides plenty of chilling moments. Though not as dramatic as the period of the show trials in the 1930s, for me perhaps the most vivid, visceral illustration of the terror Stalin inspired occurred in the last years of his life. The dictator had begun to focus his suspicions on an alleged Jewish plot against him. “Shrewd people began to divorce their Jewish spouses,” Montefiore notes laconically(SCRT, 498). This single, short sentence conveys the terror of the dictator’s moods rippling out in expanding circles.
- there’s a terrible, tragic irony in the Bolsheviks’ motivation, given their avowed philosophy. Marxism had preached, of course, that the oppressed would overthrow the elite. The Russian situation ended up being nearly the opposite. Lenin (a nobleman) and many of the other top Bolsheviks were elites who expressed hatred of their own, backward countrymen. In other cases, like Stalin’s, the pattern was at least somewhat closer to what Marx had predicted: they came from minority groups (Caucasians, Jews) who hated the dominant Russians. Once the Bolsheviks came to power, they made war on their own country, and the main victims would end up being Russian and Ukrainian peasants, hardly the elite.
- finally, Montefiore’s prose is enjoyable to read. Frequently, there are real gems, especially when it comes to colorful put-downs. When Stalin’s paladins regularly break into song at their late night banquets, they form a “murderous boy band.” The same group, on an especially inebriated night, resemble a “Neanderthal stag party.” Khrushchev is a “meteoric bumpkin.”

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