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Monday, November 01, 2004

Review: Stalin - the Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I have just finished reading this excellent book, Stalin - The Court of the Red Tsar which was a gift to me from Waddling Thunder this summer when he was over.

In brief, this is an anecdotal history of Stalin and his those closest to him, from the late 1920s to his death in 1953. It is not a political history of Stalin's Soviet State, a dissection of the Terror, an account of WW2 or the Cold War. All these things do impact, but it is a history of the persons involved, of their families and their children. It is an examination of the personal relationships that worked at the heart of Stalin's regieme. It is a gallery of literary portraits, all centred around the Vozhd himself, Stalin, the Georgian Emperor of this Communist Russia.

Several things will immediately become clear, and that is how thoroughly people from the Caucauses dominated the Soviet state during Stalin's reign. Some of the greatest men of the era, including Stalin himself, came from the Caucausian republics. The second is that Stalin comes across as an incredibly intimate person at times. Even during the hieght of the Terror we are confronted with a father's touching relationship with his daughter, of how he went out of his way to save and old school-friend from the executioner's bullet. No where is Stalin's atrocities, or those of his magantes, excused, but neither are we allowed to pretend that these men are simple monsters. Even Beria is shown more completely. It makes the barbarity of what these men did all the clearer.

Stalin himself comes across as an immensely complex figure, of a character that obviously changes from the relative care-free days of the late 20s, through the trauma of his wife's suicide, the assasination of Kirov, the bloodletting of the Terror, and frenetic war, and finally the succession struggles and paranoid anti-semitism of his final years.

If Stalin is the brightest star in this galaxy, there are many other lights. Some are relatively well known, people like Beria, Molotov, and Khreschev. Other are perhaps less well known, like Anastas Mikoyan (brother to the one of the MiG desingers), Yagoda, Yezhov, Bulganin, Kaganovick, and Voroshilov. Whenever a person enters the court circle for the first time we are given a quick round-up of them. Often these write-ups, as indeed the book itself, is not fixed in time. While there is a chronological progression throughout, the anecdotes can range all over as the themes are explored. Thus, right at the beginning of the book when his secretary, Poskrebyshev, is introduced there is a note relating to the final years of his life.

But this is not just a tale of the magantes themselves, but also their families. It is a tale of Svetlana Stalin's perilous love-life, of the very personal terror that infected the families of Stalin's closest. They themselves might also have been mass murderers, but the degree of fear which these people lived under, for themselves and for their family, helps one understand why some were so eager to sign away hundreds of deaths, if it meant they might perhaps keep breathing. In this respect the take of Molotov is particularly touching. After the war his wife (and they were a couple passionately in love) was arrested because of her Jewish roots. Molotov did not know for certain whether she were alive or not, and it was Beria, of all people, who kept him going promising him that Polina Molotova was alive.

When I finished I wanted to know when he would write the sequel about Khreschev's Court, and then Brezhnev, and end finally with Gorbachev's. Of course, I seriously doubt that is on the cards, but I wish it were. The Postscript can only give the barest details of what happened to these many individuals after Stalin's death, tantalising glimpses.

Amid all those glimpses for me one character from Stalin's Court stands out for being somewhat exception, and that was the Armenian Anastas Mikoyan. This Old Bolshevik is one of the very, very few people present and in power at the start of the book, and present and in power (if threatened) at the end. It Stalin had lived another year - perhaps he too would have gone the way of so many others, but as it is he not only surived Stalin's reign, he survived the Khreschev-Beria power struggle, the failed coup to oust Khreschev in 1957, and the successful coup to oust Khreschev in 1964. He stands out as the great survivor of Soviet politics, the last of all Stalin's grandees still standing. He carried the tomb of Lenin, and was present at JFKs funeral. He died peacefully in 1978. A final mention though must go to Kaganovich, who had been on the losing side of the 1957 coup attempt, one of the men who had helped put the Soviet Union together, lasted to see its final fall.

My final though having read it is that in our cosy western world we simply do not live in an atmosphere as vital, as charged as the one in which they did. Our revolutions happened centuries ago, and I am very grateful for that fact.

This is an excellent book, and well worth every penny.

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