Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Court of the Red Tsar


Joseph Stalin was a monster. It’s become one of those truisms of history. In popular perception he may not have the immediate synaptic association with atrocity that Hitler has achieved, but he well deserves the appellation. Hitler sparked the war in Europe when he invaded Poland, he mercilessly killed political opponents and is responsible for the deaths of at least six million Jews in his death camps, along with other minority groups like gypsies and homosexuals. Today Hitler’s fascist Nazi Germany is still the fodder of many movies, books and video games. Indiana Jones fights the Nazis on screen. William Blazkowicz takes them down in Wolfenstein. They have become almost cartoon villains.

Stalin hasn’t quite achieved that kind of cultural recognition. Orwell used Soviet Russia as inspiration for his novels but that’s mostly it.

Yet Stalin’s depravities were as bad, perhaps worse in some respects, than Hitler’s. 20 million had been killed, Simon Montefiore sums up in his book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the Gulags. Stalin forced a largely agrarian population into collective farming, took food from peasants to sell overseas to fund the industrialisation of Russia and allowed millions to starve to death. He killed them, deported or enslaved them in gulags – Soviet prison camps – all in the name of Bolshevism. He actively made war upon his own people to suppress them for practical and ideological reasons. He presided over a reign of Terror that lasted on and off for most of twenty years in which innocents were arrested, often as scapegoats for a failing Soviet system, then summarily shot or imprisoned after confessions were beaten out of them. Ideologically, a Soviet state must be perfect, it was believed, therefore the failures of Soviet industry must be attributed to wreckers. This was a part of what was essentially a religious creed associated with Bolshevism. Added to this, Stalin’s Terror extended to political opponents, especially after the assassination of Kirov, to those who failed him, or simply anyone who stoked his paranoia. Ín the words of Yezhoz, Stalin’s diminutive henchman, Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away.

The value in reading a book like Montefiore’s is not just to understand this familiar litany, but also to gain some insight into the different place Stalin occupies in history to Hitler; to seek some understanding of the man and those who supported him. True, Stalin was on the winning side in the war and was instrumental in brokering a new world order at Yalta. Winners rarely receive the condemnation given Hitler. But Montefiore suggests Stalin also maintained a degree of adulation among his inner circle and in the community. Valentina Istomina (otherwise known as Valechka), his housekeeper and secret wife, was convinced to her dying day that ‘no better man ever walked the earth’.It’s a familiar refrain: there were those who believed Stalin was a good man who was fooled by his ministers; that evil was done by men like Beria but Stalin was not responsible.

Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The Death of Stalin has Beria dismiss the security around Stalin’s dacha after Stalin dies, and replace them with his own NKVD units who then go on a killing spree, eliminating the house staff and packing up the house. Stalin is attended by a weeping house keeper in the film, although much older than Valechka, who was 38 when Stalin died. Like the others, the house keeper is killed. In reality, Valechka died in 1995. I haven’t been able to find any account that supports this particular massacre as depicted by Iannucci, either in Montefiore’s book or on the Internet, but if, like much in the film, it is a satirical embellishment, the darkly comic scene still captures the truth of much of Stalin’s Terror.

Montefiore recounts two scenes in his book which reflect some of the madness the film attempts to portray. First, there was the jailing of Mikoyan’s sons, Vano, fifteen and Sergo, fourteen. It did not help that Mikoyan was one of Stalin’s ministers. His sons were arrested after a game in which they pretended to appoint a mock government. The essentials of the game were recorded in an exercise book. Both boys were arrested, kept in solitary confinement, interrogated by Vlodzirmirsky, one of Beria’s torturers, and weren’t released for another six months, and only on the condition that they sign written confessions. Most releases or executions required a confession, usually beaten out of prisoners.

A second story, more ridiculous but not as dark, involves Stalin’s son, Vasily. In Iannucci’s film Vasily is first seen trying to coach a new team of hockey players, hoping his father won’t notice the absence of the original team after their plane crashed, due to his insistence they fly in a snow storm. This actually happened. But even more farcical is the story of Vasily’s attempt to make his air force football team top of the league. To help him do this he rescued Starostin, Russia’s top soccer manager from a gulag. As Vasily tried to have Starostin’s charges reversed in Moscow, Abakumov, another of Stalin’s cronies, kidnapped Starostin. Abakumov was boss of a rival team. Vasily grabbed him back, then Abakumov kidnapped him again. Vasily managed to rescue Starostin a third time and took him to a soccer match that featured Abakumov’s team. Vasily called to boast to Abakumov’s deputy that he had Starostin and to threaten him in the name of Stalin. Vasily was a drunkard who was always promoted beyond his abilities.

Montefiore, while never an apologist for Stalin, also attempts to capture not just the farce and outrage of Stalin’s reign, but also his humanity in this narrative. This is why it is interesting that he chooses to both end and begin his history with two significant women in Stalin’s life. He begins his story with the death of his second wife, Nadya, who shot herself after a dinner party celebrating the fifteenth year of the revolution. It is tempting to assume that Stalin had something to do with Nadya’s death, and Montefiore does consider evidence that supports this theory. But he is more interested in Stalin the husband, too harsh and controlling, perhaps, but a man who also suffered from Nadya’s mental illnesses, and who is now broken by the death of his wife whom he loved. This story supports a portrait Montefiore is interested in painting, of a man increasingly isolated and alone in life, not to seek sympathy from readers for Stalin, but to try to flesh out his psychology. Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili gave himself the name Stalin, which literally meant ‘man of steel’, evoking the idea of Stalin, leader of the Soviet people, an image he nurtured. But it represents an ideal, a leader not a man, who is the embodiment of Soviet principles. Montefiore’s account portrays a man who is suspicious, uncertain, intelligent and vengeful, but not infallible. After his failure to read Hitler, Montefiore presents evidence that Stalin not only recognised his own incompetence that lead to the ill-prepared resistance against Hitler’s initial invasion of the Soviet states, but that he expected he would be liquidated according to the same unforgiving rules that had seen thousands die in the Terror of the preceding years.

There are other little details that help the portrait. Stalin’s only job before he joined the Bolshevik revolution was as a meteorologist. He was a weatherman! Apparently, he played a drinking game with his guests in which they had to guess temperatures. He was also a tenor. He sang so well, apparently, that he could have been professional, and there are accounts of his personal life in which he sings with his ministers.

Overall, Montefiore’s book is a fascinating account of Stalin’s rule, although it has much less to say about his earlier life. The opening section of the book is meant to cover the period from 1878 to 1932 when Nadya died, but there is insufficient detail to do this period justice. This is forgivable, since Montefiore has another biography on Stalin that covers this period, Young Stalin. But in that case, he may as well have started at 1932, given that Nadya’s death is more central to his thesis.

The book will be of more interest for those who wish to trace the slide towards the Terror of 1937 and beyond, primarily beginning with Kirov’s death, but already a reality for the peasants upon whom Stalin waged war prior to that. Montefiore covers the dark years of the German invasion with a lot of detail, and gives a sense of Stalin’s contact with, and at times manipulation of, world leaders like Churchill, Roosevelt and Mao. Montefiore’s treatment is even-handed. There is Stalin the bungler: the man who misreads Hitler and refuses to believe an invasion is underway, even though he receives several creditable reports. There is also Stalin the leader who, in an inspirational move, holds a military parade in Moscow on the 7 November 1941, with the Germans only 50 kilometres away. It was a clever piece of propaganda – the event and Stalin’s speech were filmed – as well as a much-needed morale boost for his people facing imminent invasion. But there is also the Stalin who fails at brinkmanship. His withdrawal from the UN security council to protest America’s refusal to recognise Mao’s China only gave Truman the opportunity to secure UN intervention against North Korea.

There is the Stalin who foresaw the political importance of the atomic bomb and tasked Beria with developing it. There is also the paranoid Stalin who purged Moscow’s doctors even as his own health was failing, including his own physician. The farcical attempts to find doctors to treat an ailing Stalin in Iannucci’s film may not be entirely accurate, but it captures the irony of the Soviet system that, under Stalin, learned to value obedience over innovation.

In short, Montifiore’s portrait of Stalin is complex and nuanced.

Apart from the Montefiore’s personal portrait of Stalin, there is the Stalin who becomes a cult figure. This is central to Montefiore’s understanding of why Stalin maintained power over his people. I have heard people mistakenly talk of Stalin’s regime as godless. He had churches torn down. He banned established religions. But Montefiore also traces the rise of Stalin, the God-like leader, whose Marxist-Lenninist beliefs formed the basis of a new kind of faith. This is another facet of the Stalin portrait at Montefiore’s hand; of a man who grieved the death of his wife and friend, Kirov, was suspected in both their deaths, but was also clearly moved by their loss. Stalin achieved a mythical status, having transformed himself into an idea; not Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, but Stalin, a man of steel.

The book includes a detailed index which I found useful while reading and was written with access to newly opened archives, along with interviews with surviving members of Stalin's circle. For those interested in a serious study of the subject, the paperback version only includes a selected bibliography, although it is quite extensive. The book claims a full reference list is available on the author’s website, but I was not able to find it there. More promising is the black and white plates throughout the book, illustrating Stalin’s personal life and his inner circle. Montefiore refers to some of the pictures in his text, giving them a more detailed context.

This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in Stalin’s years as leader of the Soviet Union, full of historical detail and personal anecdote that makes it both informative and entertaining.

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Stalin's 7 November 1941 speech with English subtitles
The above video claims to show all the available footage from the 7 November 1941 parade and Stalin's speech. The parade took place with the German army bearing down upon Moscow. A watch had to be kept to ensure the army didn't advance and take Moscow by surprise while the parade was in progress.
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Nadya was only three years old when Stalin first met her at the age of 25. They had a difficult marriage and Nadya suffered from mental illnesses, no doubt exacerbated by her husband. Montefiore acknowledges theories about Stalin's role in her death, but prefers to see it as a suicide. He claims Stalin was shaken by her death.
Kirov's Assassination
Stalin has also been implicated in the assassination of Kirov, however Montefiore remains circumspect. Kirov's assassination heightened the political paranoia surrounding Starlin and contributed to the emerging Terror.
Beria was head of Stalin's secret police and responsible for the arrest, torture, imprisonment and death of thousands of prisoners. He was a womaniser and frequently raped women. He was falling out of favour with Stalin before his death. Ironically, his conviction and execution after Stalin's may have prevented much-needed reforms in the Soviet system.
The Gulag System
The Gulag system was a series of prisoners right across Russia. Many innocent people were sent to these prisons where they were essentially used as slave labour for the Soviet state. In some prisons the death rate for workers reached 100%, thereby necessitating a never-ending stream of new prisoners.
Stalinism was based upon a belief in Stalin as a supreme leader following the ideals of Communism and centralisation. Stalinism is based on the ideas of Marx and Engels. Stalin is here portrayed as equal to his predecessors: an equal intellect to Marx and Engels as well as a natural successors to Lenin. Stalinism led to the starvation and killing of millions of peasants in a war to force collective farming upon traditional agrarian communities, as part of Stalin's push to industrialise the Soviet Union.
Valentina Istomina
Valentina Istomina (Valechka). Montefiore describes her as Stalin's 'ideal' woman, buxom and neat, 'round-faced and pug-nosed', primitive, simple and unlettered.