Joseph the Terrible

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 25

He was never a poster boy for the Revolution. Hardly anyone remembered him from the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. One of the most reliable eyewitnesses of the period described him merely as a "grey blur". But beware the invisible man, a renegade seminarian from Georgia named Joseph Dzhugashvili, later Stalin - the "man of steel". In the end, he would outstrip the heroes of the Revolution and destroy them, one by one.

Yet, even at the height of his fame and power, he remained an enigma. "He was a different man at different times," said "Iron Lazar" Kaganovich, a close partner in crime for more than 30 years, "I know no less than five or six Stalins ..."

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So just who was Joseph Stalin? In this fascinating account of the dictator’s reign, based on new archival research, letters and interviews, Montefiore provides a riveting portrait of the man and his ruling circle. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death, this book gives us an unprecedented glimpse into his intimate life, the inner workings of his government and the relations between the members of his junta, many of whom have remained shadowy figures until now. We learn in detail about everyday Bolshevik culture, how the vanguard of the party lived and ruled, how they took decisions, how they loved and hated - and just what they were prepared to do for themselves and for the Cause.

The result is a much finer and nuanced understanding of the Bolshevik phenomenon than we have had before. Using his sources with great skill, Montefiore has succeeded in placing Stalin and the Bolsheviks in the context of their time, avoiding the easy option of simply demonising them. "If Stalin isn’t human then there’s no message in his life for us," he declares. "If you say he’s mad or the devil incarnate, the lesson of history is meaningless."

It was Lenin who first noticed Stalin, promoting him to the key post of General Secretary in 1922. Stalin had had an undistinguished war, bungling a key offensive against the White Army and clashing with Trotsky, whom he dismissed as an "operetta commander". Yet he could be counted on to do what he was told, no matter how dreadful the task, and he was as ruthless as Lenin, who instructed him to be merciless. "Rest assured," he replied, "our hand will not tremble."

It never did. Stalin had a taste for death that went beyond the usual Bolshevik response to political problems - a bullet in the neck. No-one was safe with him, not the Russian people, not his colleagues, not even his family. Stalin systematically destroyed everything he came into contact with. Trotsky, his most famous victim and a man with bloodstained hands himself, was nevertheless correct in calling him "the gravedigger of the Revolution". By the time he died at the age of 75, Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths, an enormous slave labour system called the Gulag, and the forcible deportation of whole nations of peoples. He was simply the greatest mass murderer in history.

It was Stalin’s key position as General Secretary that gave him power over the internal workings of the party. Aided by Trotsky’s inept arrogance, his inscrutable cunning ensured his rise to power. Lenin realised too late the threat that he posed. Writing a secret testament just before his death in 1924, he warned against Stalin as a harsh master, "a cook who only knows how to prepare peppery dishes".

Yet, as Montefiore shows, it is a mistake to see Stalin’s reign as a tragic distortion of Lenin’s legacy. Though it remains contentious, it is now apparent that Stalin, whose chosen nickname echoed that of his master, was Lenin’s greatest pupil, and that many of his policies were extensions of what had already been established as Marxist-Leninist law. Moreover, the violence at the core of Bolshevism came not only from the particular situation of revolution and the civil war of 1917. Long before this it was implicit in the extraordinary intemperance and vituperation of Lenin’s language, in his paranoia and dogmatism, brilliantly captured by Solzhenitsyn in his book, Lenin in Zurich. If one begins by killing people, there is only one way to go. As former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev admitted, Bolshevism was a social system based on blood- letting.

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By 1929 Stalin had consolidated his ruling position in the party. Using diaries, letters and other primary sources, Montefiore shows us how these years were regarded by the ruling elite and their wives as "that wonderful time". Stalin did not yet rule by fear. Instead, the foundation of his power in the party, surprising as it may seem, was charm. Stalin was rough, but affectionate. Small, with a pigeon-toed gait, a pockmarked face and a withered arm, he nevertheless moved with a feline grace and was attractive to women. He had the ability to make whoever he was talking to feel like a trusted, important friend. Colleagues such as Molotov, Mikoyan and Kaganovich lived with their families in close proximity to him in the Kremlin, casually dropping in on each other, dining and holidaying together, acting like a large extended family.

Never mind that the murderous upheaval of collectivisation and industrialisation was going on, that the Ukrainian famine created by the Bolsheviks was claiming seven million lives. What bound these leaders together and what in some sense explains their actions, was their cult-like devotion to the glorious task of constructing a communist utopia. As one historian has ironically remarked, in order to kill many people, you need a great idea.

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But this comradeship was soon to change. Montefiore prefaces his book with a key event in Stalin’s life, the suicide of his second wife, Nadya, in 1932, a blow from which he never recovered. Thereafter, Stalin tightened his grip on power, becoming ever more paranoid, homicidal and corrupt. Engineering the death of Kirov, a close favourite in the party, he launched the Great Terror of 1936-8 to destroy the last hint of opposition, the Bolshevik Old Guard. It was a frenzied era of bloodletting, intrigue and betrayal. On one day alone Stalin and Molotov signed off 3,167 executions. As Khrushchev later admitted, they were all "up to their elbows in blood".

The pattern was set for the rest of Stalin’s rule. The detail that Montefiore uncovers is always chilling and frequently astonishing. We learn, for instance, that in 1942, with the Germans only 50 miles from Moscow, Stalin still found the time to order Beria - one of his most ghastly henchmen - to kidnap and murder the wife of his most longstanding cabinet secretary. Her crime? To have asked him to release her brother from prison.

The slaughter continued through the Second World War, in which it is estimated Russia lost a further 26 million people, and into Stalin’s final decade. Only his death in 1953 prevented the launch of a new anti-Semitic purge that he had been carefully preparing for years.

The complex portrait of Stalin that emerges from this groundbreaking book is as fine an examination of the nature of dictatorship as one is likely to find. Prudish and ascetic in his personal habits, given to doodling wolfheads in red ink on his pad during meetings, Stalin made terror a way of life, revelling in his ability to manipulate truth, history and those around him. Highly intelligent, gifted with a prodigious memory, he constantly undermined and humiliated his associates, who existed in a permanent state of fear while plotting feverishly against each other in a bid to survive and prosper.

Yet Stalin also loved children and roses. He was a voracious reader, loved theatre and film, and was gregarious in his hospitable Georgian way. In drawing him so masterfully from the shadows of history, Montefiore poses us a conundrum: the human reality of a monster. It is one of the greatest mysteries of human nature, the enigma of this once invisible man.

• Simon Sebag Montefiore will be talking about Stalin at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday 16 August.