Thursday, December 1, 2016

Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

I'm back for a series of book review postings, one a day until just before Christmas. As a bad habit, I've collected thoughts and jottings on books I've read this year, brushed them up somewhat, and, since they'd gathered into a dozen-plus, decided to set them down here. This is only a small sampling of what I've read throughout 2016. I've read lots, and there's no particular reason these books got words while others didn't. Time after reading a certain book, perhaps. Perhaps a particular theme or idea caught my attention. And in a few cases, a particular ecstasy or annoyance quickened my decision to engage. These are presented in no reasoned order, though they follow somewhat chronologically. Towards the last 5-7 days, I'll post some reviews from earlier journals in which they first appeared, and I may end this burst with a complete year-end reading list. I've no idea whether I'll resurrect the blog in the new year, or if this will just be a frozen quasar on a spaceship blog-log past Pluto. But enough. Here's the first review.


Montefiore’s 2003 historical biography of Stalin is an expansive genre offering in that it uses almost as much textual consideration of the Vozhd’s magnates as on the dictator himself. Most readers with a bare acquaintance of Soviet history will know, broadly, of the Great Purge during 1937-38. But the intrigue, paranoia, alliances, disinformation, frame-ups, political jockeying, secret murder, fear, ideological assertion, factional preference, 14-19 hour work days, alcoholic bingeing, fury, and bungling pervaded not only that black period, but most of the rest of Stalin’s rule from 1924 till his last breath in 1953. The author takes advantage of biographical material heretofore unreleased, but, in addition, goes the extra thousand miles to unearth detail locked away and forgotten in coded diaries from none other than Stalin’s Georgian mother. In this way, he’s able, with authoritative substance, to disagree with earlier assessments: for example, Montefiore notes that earlier biographers considered Stalin’s brutal slap and outrageous denunciation of daughter Svetlana, after she makes known her initial seduction by a sophisticated lover, a low point in the mass murderer’s roll call of evil. But the age difference (the seducer was 21 years older), the cultural norms (it wasn’t uncustomary for Georgian fathers to pull out the proverbial shotgun in such cases), and Stalin’s shrewd awareness of Svetlana’s emotionally unsophisticated personality (borne out during the rest of her life) enables the biographer to downplay prior assessments of this event. On that note, one criticism of Montefiore is that he makes Stalin too human. This, however, is what makes one of the top three monsters of the 20th century even scarier. The fact that someone who tends to his lemon trees, who gives money to old friends from decades ago just because he thought of them lately, who reads, at times, 500 pages a day of literature (or history or Marxist commentary or political news) can also issue specific death quotas of 100,000 whether many of those victims are innocent or not, can terrorize (and at times, kill) his own extended family and the families of his own Party, can psychopathically turn on long-time friends with cruel and delayed tactics, can murder millions based on absurd paranoiac fantasies of plots against his leadership or life: the complex record is an extreme reminder that wholesale wickedness isn’t the sole domain of a non-human entity, the present-day equivalent of a fantastical horror figure, but that of a brutal man made worse by upbringing, street intrigue, fanatical organization, megalomania, and a series of fortuitous circumstances.

But it’s the relationships between Stalin and his grandees that make for gripping, incredible drama. Montefiore casts a dubious eye over many post-Stalin accounts, cross-referencing them with many other sources to come up with credible reports of the maze of relationship shifts over the decades. The pusillanimous Kaganovich, the multi-faced and punctilious Malenkov, the savvy Mikoyan, the brave and ill-fated Ordzhonikidze, the plodding but effective Molotov, the alcoholic and prissy Zhdanov, the murderous rapist-terrorist Beria, the murderous bisexual dwarf Yezhov, and many more, often co-existed in close quarters, while trying to protect themselves (in part by betraying colleagues) from Stalin’s unpredictable outbursts and changing alliances.

Montefiore’s writing is all over the map. At times disjointed – he too often funnels quotes from his own narrative, thereby creating a confusion of referents – and at times typo-ridden, there are passages of surprisingly daring diction as well as sentences of gorgeous comparison: (“Malenkov stood up and ran forward, chins aquiver, with the desperate grace of a whippet sealed inside a blancmange.”)

Incredibly, Politburo vet Mikoyan survived not only Stalin, but, while also in high office, Lenin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, as well. And though Mikoyan was implicated by signing off, with the others, on continual death warrants, he also tried to save innocents at the risk of immediate death for himself and family (wife and seven children), was a major factor in defusing the Cuban missile crisis, and (with Khrushchev) was the driving force of de-Stalinization after the dictator’s death. In a long, densely-packed armoured tank-rolling display of text, it was he, and the sporadic appearance, on the periphery, of artists, that allowed for several fresh breaths in an otherwise perpetually claustrophobic charnel house.

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