Montefiore’s “The Court of the Red Tsar”

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If Cheney would be Stalin, who would be Beria? Ok, so Cheney would be Stalin and Beria. Or let Wolfowitz be Stalin. Bolton as Molotov? Close enough. Obama? Let’s say Bulganin. This regime unleashed a terror the likes of which have only been seen in previous regimes with different Stalin/Berias. Only they did it outside their own country. What is remarkable in the case of Stalin is that he did it to his own people (and to a lesser extent those in his sphere of control to the west). Is it justifiable to compare this ‘Monster’ to our monsters? I think so. Our comparisons are effective and sometimes necessary, particularly when we begin to make the mistake of looking at politics in terms of good versus evil. Stalin and gang’s crude and massively murderous rapid industrialization is certainly ugly to read about, but what was it if not a compression of the Industrialization that took place in England, which certainly exceeded Stalin’s efforts in terms of vicitms, coming as it did along with colonial rapine and the complete gutting of India, where the British orchestrated famines as bad as that in the Ukraine in the early 30s.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Court of the Red Tsar has little new to say in broad terms about Stalin and his crew, because Stalin has been written about repeatedly, from the early and percipient biography by the all but forgotten Isaac Deutscher to the perhaps definitive biographer Robert Service. But Montefiore has more information at his disposal than any writer has yet had and he made the decision to write a rather gossipy book that reads like a South American novel of a despot. Even his language is that of a novelist at times, freely using the word dwarf, mostly to describe the sadistic (the book is filled with sadists, but it has to be said here anyway) shorty Yezhov, who headed the inquisitions after Yagoda and before Beria. So the book is highly entertaining, more so than any other biography of Stalin, giving specific inside story after inside story, quote after quote, so that a bland statement like ‘Stalin was merciless even in his closest circles, ordering the executions of…’ is given horrific life by closely acquainting the reader with these people, what they said, and how they subsequently suffered: there are many accounts of specific tortures (One thing I learned was that I have been wrong all these years to believe that a paranoid Stalin was quite practical about offing his enemies, simply sending them to the Lubyanka to be shot; given the extraordinary numbers of political murders [millions] this had to be to some extent true, but he often requested various tortures be applied and in many personal cases took an interest in the reactions of the victims.)

Since so little of the general story was new to me, I didn’t begin marking the book until late, around page 500 or so. Here are some of these bits:

Stalin: ‘Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later.’

‘The film star Zoya Fyodorovna was picked up by these Chekists at a time when she was still breastfeeding her baby. Taken to a party where there were no other guests, she was joined by Beria whom she begged to let her go as her breasts were painful. »Beria was furious.« The officer who was taking her home mistakenly handed her a bouquet at the door. When Beria saw, he shouted: »It’s a wreath not a bouquet. May they rot on your grave!« She was arrested afterwards.

‘The film actress Tatiana Okunevskaya was even less lucky: at the end of the war, Beria invited her to perform for the Politburo. Instead they went to a dacha. Beria plied her with drink, »virtually pouring the wine into my lap. He ate greedily, tearing at the food with his hands, chattering away.« Then »he undresses, rolls around, eyes ogling, an ugly, shapeless toad. »’Scream or not, doesn’t matter’,« he said. »’Think and behave accordingly.’« Beria softened her up by promising to releaase her beloved father and grandfather from prison and then raped her. He knew very well that both had already been executed. She too was arrested soon afterwards and sentenced to solitary confinement. Felling trees in the Siberian taiga, she was saved, like so many others, by the kindness of ordinary people.’

Like I say, the book fleshes out novelistically what we for the most part already new. One of the most astonishing things we knew was how Stalin refused to accept the fact that Germany was going to attack his country and refused to make any efforts to prepare, in fact did the opposite so as not to offend Hitler, who might take troop movements and such as a provocation. This book does not bore on the topic, for instance Montefiore finds a quote from Stalin who is told less than a week before Operation Barbarossa that a spy in the Luftwaffe confirms the impending attack, and Stalin replies ‘Tell the »source« in the Staff of the German Air Force to fuck his mother!«

Other matters of particular interest to me are Churchill’s calling his agreement to divide post-war Europe into states controlled by East and West, using percentages (Greece 90% west, 10% East…) a ‘naughty document’; And, moreso, I was pleased that an anecdote I have been telling for years regarding attempted assassinations of Tito was factual. Some letters were found on Stalin’s Kremlin desk, apparently the contents unknown to any but Stalin. In my old version there were three, two from Lenin, one from Tito. In this version there were five, but only three could be recalled by witnesses. One was indeed from Lenin, scolding Stalin for speaking ill of Krupskaya, one from Bukharin asking why he needed to die, and the third was from Tito that read ‘Stop sending assassins to muder me…If this doesn’t stop, I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.’

Finally, grading this book. The effort, the travels, the inexhaustible reading and travelling the author undertook…this alone suggests five of five stars. The writing itself, weaving the personal and the enormous historic without jarring the reader, managing to tell readers what they quite likely already know without boring them, that too suggests five of five stars. And, more difficult than anything probably, telling much the same personal tales of victims, endless victims close to Stalin, their stories not significantly different from all the others for the most part, without either appealing to the basest instincts of the reader (I, for one, could have used more specifics) or boring us—that deserves a five as well.

 

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