Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Man of steel.
I've always been fascinated by Stalin.
Hitler did everybody the favor of looking like a madman - the plastered down hair, the permagrimace, the spitting when he talked. In the photos in Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, Stalin's friendly wrinkles, shapeless, battered tunics, and grubby boots make him look like someone's avuncular grandfather. The photographs show Stalin clowning around with his inner circle, posing with his beloved daughter Svetlana, and poking around in the gardens of his dacha. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who ordered so many of his friends killed that he often forgot who was dead and who was alive.
Montefiore, author of Sashenka and the husband of novelist Santa Montefiore, has written a very narrowly focused book despite its clocking in at nearly 800 pages. Strictly speaking, Stalin really isn't a biography. Although Montefiore touches on some aspects of Stalin's early life, particularly his time in prison as a young revolutionary, Montefiore is more interested in tracing the contradictions and complexities of the relationships of the tightly wound circle that surrounded Stalin before and during his rise to power and slow, torturous decline.
Montefiore is very skilled at showing how claustrophobic, paranoid, and incestuous Stalin's inner circle was. The Old Bolsheviks who surrounded him during his ascendancy (most of whom he later liquidated) were related by blood or marriage, and sometimes blood and marriage. Divorces and remarriages were also common among the same small group, and infidelity within the circle commonplace.
Montefiore begins his book with the suicide of Stalin's wife, Nadya, in 1932. It's clear that Montefiore views Nadya's death as some sort of turning point for Stalin, although I think this point is arguable, as I doubt he would have been any different had Nadya lived. In fact, given Nadya's own rabid Bolshevism, I think it's more likely that she would have contributed to the viciousness of Stalin's court. But either way, beginning with Nadya's suicide is a compelling opening, and Montefiore devotes the next few chapters to chronicling the peripatetic movement of Stalin and his court as they moved to consolidate their power and secure their positions within the Party.
After Nadya's suicide, Montefiore skips backwards to 1878, before Stalin was Stalin, when Joseph met the schoolgirl Nadya, twenty-two years his junior. Joseph first met Nadya when she was a toddler and he was a young man. Both were Bolsheviks, although Joseph's background as the son of a Georgian drunkard and a peasant woman (or perhaps a priest...the question of Stalin's paternity is another one of the many questions that swirl around him) gave him more street cred, as did getting exiled to Siberia six times.
Stalin was there at the beginning, serving as one of Lenin's henchmen and slowly consolidating his power base, including angling to remove Trotsky, the only other serious contender for power after Lenin's death. Montefiore makes it clear that the murderousness of Stalin and his cohort had its roots in the Bolshevism of Lenin's rule, when Stalin first began using methods that would later coalesce into the Ukrainian famine, the genocide of the peasants, and the Terror.
At this point, Stalin becomes positively dizzying, as Stalin's peripatetic cohort bounce around from holiday to holiday and dacha to dacha, while organizing the Ukrainian famine and the imprisonment and deportation of the 'kulaks.' Montefiore focuses on the endless strings of letters, commands, and files that flew back and forth between Stalin and clique as they traveled, Stalin's commands scrawled in his trademark colored crayon.
The closeness of Stalin's inner circle is both weirdly touching and horribly sad, as none of the families would escape unscathed from the Terror and his subsequent purges. Starkly put, no one was safe from Stalin, especially as his paranoia grew. Using personal correspondence and interviews with the surviving offspring of Stalin's circle, Montefiore shows the paradoxical sides of the man who could lovingly inquire after the health of one's daughter, just after ordering her mother's death.
Although Stalin certainly had consolidated his iron grip on power by the late 1930s, it was after Russia's victory over Germany in World War II that he emerged as the omnipotent Generalissimo. Montefiore performs a delicate juggling act, showing both Stalin as the personification of Russia's Communist strength and the increasingly isolated, lonely, and regretful man whose mental faculties seemed to be deteriorating and who destroyed everyone close to him.
Stalin remained dangerous to the end as he descended into irrational senility but continued to rule with a capricious and lethal force. With his equally murderous cronies Malenkov, Molotov, Beria, and Khruschev, the last few years of Stalin's rule were marked with frantic denunciations and the imprisonment and execution of many of his closest allies, including the Soviet generals who had rescued Russia's victory over Germany from Stalin's incompetent military command.
The Court of the Red Tsar is certainly not the first (or second, or even third) book one should read about the Soviet Union and Stalin's rule. Global events remain peripheral to the main thrust of the book, which is examining in minute detail the relationships and correspondence between Stalin and his inner circle, as various players rose to and fell from power, almost always fatally. Without a relatively solid grasp of the timeline of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II, most readers would be hopelessly lost. However, The Court of the Red Tsar is an absolutely fascinating look at the inner workings of the tangled and venemous Stalinist court and the fear that drove much of the muderous behavior of its inhabitants.
Red Tsar was published four years before Montefiore's novel Saschenka, but thankfully doesn't have the florid language that makes Sashenka almost comical. Instead, Montefiore shows remarkable restraint (except perhaps when succumbing to the temptation to psychoanalyze Stalin, which I personally believe is an impossible endeavor) throughout the book, allowing the letters and interviews, along with his painstaking research, to paint a very intimate look into the heart of Stalin's murderous empire.