Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Hardcover, 2003

Status

Available

Publication

London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

Description

A biography of the Soviet dictator and the men and women who surrounded him focuses on the foundation of human, psychological, and physical supports that encouraged him through the early days of Communism, World War II, and the Great Terror.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RickHarsch
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 knew. 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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LibraryThing member EmmetNZ
Montefiore's treatment of 'the Red Tsar', Joseph Stalin, and his Soviet 'court' is a laudable achievement. The work repels, chills and almost brutalises the reader as the tragic, horrific, evily banal saga unfolds. Stalin here is thoroughly human - no longer the enigmatic demi-god/demon of popular imagination - and his family life, friendships, humour and personality come to life. This is the key to Montefiore's work because, juxtaposed to the monstrosity (I struggle to find an apt word) of the man, his regime and their collective deeds, the result is a picture of a life lived so utterly cynically as to jar and bewilder the reader. Many of the sordid vignettes in the book resonate. For me, M.V. Blokhin, one of Stalin's executioners and possibly one of the single biggest murderers in history, haunts the book, draped in his butchers apron, brutally executing onetime comrade after onetime comrade, a dull, banal figure from hell reporting back the last words of his victims for his bosses'dinner table amusement.… (more)
LibraryThing member etabu
This work did not do much for me on understanding Stalin except importantly turning me to two or three other biographies which were more extensive and complete. It was good in speculation, e.g., on the death of his wife, if I remember. The book, then raised questions for me which I immediately pursued, by reading good histories of Russia (which I will evenutally list here) and a bio on Lenin, and a classic three volume one on Troksky (which I didnot and perhaps willnot finish). It is apparent to me that there is a western conceit in understanding leaders and styles of life of other countries. There is one book on my list which is an actual account of a black man's life in Russia. Robert Robinson was a trained machinist from Detroit who answered Russia's call of volunteers during the 30s. He had faced nothing but closed doors in his own country. His bio presents the realism of political and human fear under the Stalin communists. I had a romantic view of communism, and I needed Robert Robinson's experiences to counter it. I still have more to say, more feeling, on radical thought, how it helped my people in America during the 30s, 40s. But as for Stalin, Montefiore's work did not help me understand this personage anymore than previous works, as I have said. My point is that this work demonstrates a strange conceit which I cannot at the moment explain. I appreciate the ordering of Stalin's hencemen, his administrators, the betrayals. But I need to understand why such as Molotov survived. What did such an individual have inside that could counter and control the mad and criminal genius of Stalin that one such as Troksky did not have. And I need to understand several questions of morality. Is there a political morality? Is there a Russian morality? A Stalin morality? A Scottsboro Boys Morality? There are desperate parallels of history in all countries. At this moment American violence is letting loose in a war of which now are coming out unspeakable acts. Robert Robinson grew to fear Russia because they didnot let him leave the country until, I believe, the 60s. He wanted to come home. In Chicago at present, if you do not support the ascendency of a certain black politician's family, you are toasted cheese. There is no difference here from if you didn't follow a stalin. I would like to develop this thought.… (more)
LibraryThing member fist
Just to be clear, this great read is not a biography of Stalin. His early years as a Bolshevik aren't covered, and often more attention is given to the "Soviet aristocracy" families surrounding him, justifying the subtitle "the Court of the Red Tsar".
The book relies on a lot of research and interviews with the last survivors of that period. It paints a horrifying picture of the ruthlessness with which internal politics (the Terror) and external politics (Molotov/Ribbentrop) were conducted. The poignant end is when Stalin enters a long protracted agony, not attended by any doctors because the other leaders (amongst whom Khrushchev) preferred to let Stalin die rather than allow him to unleash the second Terror he was preparing, and because doctors were terrified of attending him (Stalin's own physician was being tortured in the Lubyanka at that very moment because he had had the audacity to recommend that Stalin should rest more).
I sometimes felt I could have done with a timeline and a list of main characters, just to keep track. But that's maybe because I've read it in many separate sittings rather than in one go.
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LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
This widely acclaimed biography provides a vivid and riveting account of Stalin and his courtiers—killers, fanatics, women, and children—during the terrifying decades of his supreme power. In a seamless meshing of exhaustive research and narrative ?lan, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives us the everyday details of a monstrous life.We see Stalin playing his deadly game of power and paranoia at debauched dinners at Black Sea villas and in the apartments of the Kremlin. We witness first-hand how the dictator and his magnates carried out the Great Terror and the war against the Nazis, and how their families lived in this secret world of fear, betrayal, murder, and sexual degeneracy. Montefiore gives an unprecedented understanding of Stalin’s dictatorship, and a Stalin as human and complicated as he is brutal.… (more)
LibraryThing member ohernaes
Impressive work about Stalin, who at all times was some combination of of cynical, ingenious, paranoid, brutal and mad. Purges work some of the time, but give personnel challenges. I should read this again to get more of the history.
LibraryThing member xuebi
Montefiore has written what will be the defining book on Stalin for years to come. He portrays in great historical detail every aspect of Stalin and his inner circle, and remarkably shows Stalin, Beria et al. as humans (which makes their excesses and crimes even worse). Montefiore has proven himself an able scholar here and Court of the Red Tsar is an excellent addition to Soviet studies.… (more)
LibraryThing member rgolubev
A comprehensive book on Stalin's life as reflected in his interaction with people close to him: family, party members, friends and the fate of these people. The author personally interviewed some of their descendants, used recently uncovered/made accessible Soviet archive materials. Lots of references (full list at the back), footnotes, a few photographs. It's the most well-grounded and interesting work on Stalin's court I've read (including a few originals in Russian) in a way how it's written: not a dry research but a vivid journalistic coverage.

It shows Stalin not as a black&white person but as a live one with all the contradictions, weaknesses and strengths.
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LibraryThing member Fluffyblue
I really didn't get on with this book very well - I didn't enjoy the fact that most of it was taken from other peoples' letters and diaries - it made the writing disjointed to me. The book is about Stalin and his cronies from the time he took over from Lenin to his death.

The bits I did enjoy where the pure writing, ie just the facts.… (more)
LibraryThing member ponsonby
Really excellent account of Stalin's rule told through an account of the rise and (often) fall of those who surrounded him, both politically and domestically. Vividly written, weaving together anecdote and political analysis in a highly readable way. Wears its considerable scholarship and research lightly. All in all an exemplary example of a book about a histroical figure of great importance.… (more)
LibraryThing member carterchristian1
An excellent introduction to the horrors of Stalin and best of all an explanation of other leaders affected by him. An interesting afterward about what happenedto their families.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
For a while, I was tempted to believe that all people have a little core of good in them. Even Hitler had a few tiny sentimental spots.

Stalin doesn't even have that - he is a beast. A terrifying man, and this biography spares no details about the terrors of life around him. His retainers are also fascinating in their own twisted way. Extremely enlightening(?!) and fascinating book about the nature of modern tyranny.… (more)
LibraryThing member maunder
This book presents in great detail, the rise and fall of the various powerful personalities, their wives and lovers. The appalling cruelty of the Terror and the war are revealed in the rise and fall of the people around Stalin. What made the most telling impression was the staggering numbers of people who were killed, or who starved to death in the famines and executions of the Terror. The bizarre personal lives of the leaders of the Secret Police such as Lavrenti Beria and Yehzov are revealed in detail. The book's focus is limited and because of that, one will be disappointed if looking for an historical or strategic account of the the war and other major events, however this lengthy book is a fascinating account of an era in history when 20,000,000 people list their lives and another 28,000,000 were dislocated to the gulags. While almost any history will outline the horrific losses of the holocaust, far fewer pay attention to staggering losses of Stalin's rule.… (more)
LibraryThing member 4bonasa
To a reader unfamiliar with Soviet history should read Lenin by Robert Service and Young Stalin by Montefiore before reading Stalin...
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Case study of absolute power corrupting that raises the interesting side issue of what happens if you destroy civil society and competing social groups-Dictators arise. Democracies need a balance of social forces to work. Or do you need a strong centre when those social forces are too antagonistic?
LibraryThing member jonfaith
Christmas time is a tricky time for my friends and relatives. Only the intrepid make moves to buy books, films and music without my preapproval. My friend Ed bought me a book, a memoir, which I had previusly found for a quarter and considered myself cheated at that price. I returned his book and selected this among the meager offerings at the local independent book store; I should qualify that the independent stores across the river are not provincial nor meager but the one here is, despite my buying many books upon their opening, they or my town lack vision: I'd assume its an admixture of such. I went home with this biography and sort of tumbled into its depths. We had wicked a storm a few days later and I used the time off work to complete such, ice overstreets and sidewalks lent a theatric detail. The next Christmas I bought my dad a copy which I remain unclear as to whether he perused: he's funny that way. I then bought Young Stalin for myself in paperback but haven't approached such in a meaningful way.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hubster
What makes this book stand out for me is the detail of day to day life in the centre of power of the Stalinist regime at that time. Yes, at times there are an almost overwhelming amount of names that flow towards the reader, but even if you let many of those flow past you like I did on my first read through, what remains is the sense of intimacy with the characters involved.

Interviews with survivors, children of officials and archival evidence provide a shocking picture of how even the most petty of prejudices and spiteful exchanges could lead to terrible consequences for millions of people. As someone who as a youth read with great interest on the 'great scientific experiment' of the soviet union, I can only hang my head even further in adult shame as a picture of policy unfolds, on many occasions driven by nothing much more than the irrational fears and prejudices of a small incestuous clique, that causes untold carnage.

This can be read as an overview of the era with all the usual events of the time covered and Stalin and his cronies attempts at responses, and this it does admirably and thoroughly, but what really chills me is the sheer pettiness in the decisions made. The way that saving face around a meeting table is more important than saving the lives of whole populations or even preparing for a war with the Third Reich. These people really were the same pig headed fools that exist in any organisation today, but given absolute power and a licence to do whatever is required in the name of the greater good. The sad thing is that you can recognize the characteristics of these people, the self denial, the desire to please in order to gain favour.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Hubster
What makes this book stand out for me is the detail of day to day life in the centre of power of the Stalinist regime at that time. Yes, at times there are an almost overwhelming amount of names that flow towards the reader, but even if you let many of those flow past you like I did on my first read through, what remains is the sense of intimacy with the characters involved.

Interviews with survivors, children of officials and archival evidence provide a shocking picture of how even the most petty of prejudices and spiteful exchanges could lead to terrible consequences for millions of people. As someone who as a youth read with great interest on the 'great scientific experiment' of the soviet union, I can only hang my head even further in adult shame as a picture of policy unfolds, on many occasions driven by nothing much more than the irrational fears and prejudices of a small incestuous clique, that causes untold carnage.

This can be read as an overview of the era with all the usual events of the time covered and Stalin and his cronies attempts at responses, and this it does admirably and thoroughly, but what really chills me is the sheer pettiness in the decisions made. The way that saving face around a meeting table is more important than saving the lives of whole populations or even preparing for a war with the Third Reich. These people really were the same pig headed fools that exist in any organisation today, but given absolute power and a licence to do whatever is required in the name of the greater good. The sad thing is that you can recognize the characteristics of these people, the self denial, the desire to please in order to gain favour.
… (more)

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Signed by author.

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6973
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