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

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Review by Basil Ransome Davies

In Young Stalin the author studied his subject’s early career under the microscope. In this epic volume he expands his approach, while still paying attention to detail, to take in a panorama of Stalin’s years as a member of a revolutionary government during years of unceasing turbulence. The Red Tsar was embroiled with civil war, radical reconstruction of the Soviet economy at a terrifying human cost, a calculating and merciless struggle to eliminate virtually all of the old Bolshevik leadership who opposed him, World War 2 and the first years of the Cold War. By the time of his death in 1953 the bookish Georgian desperado had become a world statesman and paranoid dictator atop a mountain of corpses and a heavily policed population finding solace in vodka. I believe Montefiore’s subtitle is aptly chosen; much of the fascination of the book lies in its dramatic picture of an imperial régime and its distinctive cast of senior Bolsheviks – ‘magnates’ in the author’s estimation – competing for the approval of the enthroned all-powerful one, dancing to his tune (sometimes literally) and mortally fearful of antagonising him. 

But that wasn’t immediate. The party’s internal conflicts had already been bubbling under, prompting Lenin to forbid intra-party factions (fat chance). The euphoric flush of triumph masked schisms, and the leaders – ‘magnates’ is Montefiore’s term – who moved into the Kremlin ‘were always in and out of each other’s houses. Parents and children saw each other constantly.’ The magnates held parties and took holidays together. That cordial, family atmosphere was not to last. The inter-war years – what the British arch-historian of Bolshevism E. H. Carr has called ‘the twenty years’ crisis’ – saw the mutual relations among the comrades become far less comradely after the death of Lenin in 1924, leaving a power vacuum and a succession to be fought for. The Red Tsar covers the deterioration with documented precision, as Stalin, against whose character and ambitions Lenin had personally warned the central committee, plays both ends against the middle with diabolical astuteness.  

Stalin’s imperial ‘cult of personality’ – alternately encouraged and faux-modestly disavowed by him – was as at variance with the principles of a communitarian society as his policy of ‘socialism in one country’ was with world revolution, a key tenet of Marxism-Leninism. He was fond of comparing himself to Ivan the terrible, Manipulation, terror, duplicity and crushing force were his methods as the collective leadership  – the Politburo – was winnowed to a single autarch. Trotsky, a charismatic architect of the revolution’s success (and the model for the Two Minutes Hate renegade Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984) was isolated, exiled and later assassinated. ’Deviationism’ became a capital offence. The scale of Stalin’s crimes was prodigious – death by famine for millions of peasants as he attempted to tilt the uneven balance from an agrarian to a heavy-industrial economy, by show trial and execution for many of his former comrades in arms, by forced labour or deportation for hapless citizens. The statistics of the Terror are overwhelming. 

Moreover, Stalin was not always so astute. He saw treason everywhere and it could blind him. The purges of the late thirties included a reckless culling of the Soviet military high command and thousands of senior officers, with the customary bogus trials and confessions extracted under torture, weakening the Soviet Union’s defence at a time when war was on the horizon. Even the receipt of warnings from Western intelligence sources of a planned attack by Hitler in 1941 were waved aside by the ever-suspicious Stalin, who aimed his paranoia in the wrong direction, dismissing the friendly wake-up calls as a capitalist ruse to provoke conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. When Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, the Wehrmacht made rapid advances against ill-prepared Soviet troops. It took over a year and a half, countless lives and a bitter Russian winter before the Red Army turned the tide at Stalingrad and headed westward, almost four years before the red flag was hoisted in Berlin. Such grave lapses of judgement cause Montefiore to label Stalin a ‘bungling genius’ (though the same  and more might be said of Hitler, who emulated Napoleon’s vainglorious Russian adventure and catastrophic defeat).

It is always a question whether the revolutionary struggle against an oppressive government, calling on extralegal violence, puts iron in the soul, hardening the freedom fighter and creating, in its turn, a conviction of militant, righteous purity that too easily veers into savage authoritarianism and injustice. In the Soviet Union the Marxist dream of a classless society, prompted by the evils of nineteenth-century capitalism, became a twentieth-century nightmare, death and persecution on an industrial scale. Not all of this was Stalin’s fault, but I won’t indulge in whataboutery and he can never be acquitted. I do suspect Montefiore of harbouring the right-wing credo that grand visions of utopia necessarily bring about their repressive opposite. Certainly he drops in plenty of frankly antipathetic, sometimes sneering, asides about the Soviet system to garnish his recitation of the horrifying facts, often drawing parallels between Communism and Nazism. Though there’s no gainsaying the atrocities, in some contingent aspects the author seems unaware his slip is showing: a highly dedicated, hard-working female Bolshevik is called ‘pushy’, a plainly dressed one ‘dowdy’ and a woman poet a ‘poetess’. This heavyweight volume is  momentous, but a serious historian shouldn’t lapse into a Daily Mail vocabulary where gender is concerned.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020) 978-029786385, 720 pp., paperback.