Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), by Simon Sebag Montefiore


The following is a very brief idea of Stalin.

Montefiore’s book, thanks to newly available archival information and interviews with some of the few remaining survivors of Stalin’s inner circle and friends, relatives and acquaintances, is 657 pages of the day-to-day life of Stalin, the stay-at-home Stalin holding his court in the Kremlin and at several dachas and a few other locations bounding a comparatively small geography he favored within his huge realm of eleven time zones.

You don’t read this book for Montefiore’s mind but for his decent-but-tiring groundbreaking job of weaving a factual surface picture of the daily Stalin. You get a sense of Stalin hitherto lost. Conquest, Amis, Bullock and others who have written authoritatively of Stalin generally impress one more than does Montefiore. But until Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, it has not, I believe, been possible to see nearly as far into Stalin’s raison d’etre and joie de vivre; and just short of one or two fundamental myths of how and why humans live, these realities are what you want to look for in a figure so historical. (You don’t like to decorate analyses with French or other foreign phrases but here I do not think any others are as apt.) Stalin’s young days are characterized but the large narrative is of his actual life in his running the USSR: his meals, drunken bouts, vacations, relationships, conferences, meetings with foreign statesmen and, above all, the factual rendering (not so much an interpretive one) of the immediate circumstances of his dread policy-making. Like an optical illusion, his horrible scheming mind, and its explanation, are glimpsed here and there. In this long narrative arise big clues as to his innermost reason for being and what for him was the joy of life.

Stalin is, I think, more historically important than Hitler and, in some ways, may well come to be seen as worse. Not that such fine distinctions matter hugely in the grand sweep!

We all know that analyses of Stalin’s “behavior” abound. Usually, it seems to me, they turn on “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” “the will to power,” “paranoia,” and “psychosis.” It may be heretical, but I think Stalin is far too large and pivotal a monster for such shopworn and increasingly suspect categorizations which, like ill-aimed boomerangs, are circling back to us having slain nothing.

Montefiore doesn’t say so explicitly, but the lasting impression of his Red Tsar is: Stalin, the grand revolutionary, loathed human beings. In what he saw as their inevitable weakness and corruption, they disgusted him murderously. The loathing was monumental. You surmise that the kinds of humans Stalin sought for his aims–young,  tough, ruthless and merciless activists–would, he was convinced, eventually become soft and comfortable in their granted powers: in his eyes and given his obsession with dominance and absolute obedience, they would most likely need to be purged.

The loathing must have started early. Trying to track it back to its early sources, however, strikes me as one of those forlorn imperatives of psychology of the last century which leads to dubious battle.

Stalin wasn’t a Bolshevik version of Marx and Communism nearly so much as the fashioner of a power politics which became a hideously corrupted follow-on to the politics of major religions and secular credos such as Machiavellian pragmatism. There have surely been too many despots to count, but Stalin codified and systematized tyranny as had never been done before, couldn’t have been done before because the technical means were beyond tyrants, and, we must hope, cannot be done again…that it has died in history. His loathing of human beings became his reason for carrying on; he formed a code and system of rule–really, of life–based nearly exclusively on tyrannical punishment as a supremely satisfying end in itself, the joy of his life: cruelty and death for the loathsome. Perhaps when you think of the Purges, the Collectivization, the Gulag, the budding Holocaust in “The Doctor’s Plot” averted largely through Stalin’s death, this idea will make some sense.

The contradictions in Stalin’s Court of Tyrannical Power are there, just as they are in any of history’s great systems of domination. Stalin in his humanity must have felt self-loathing. But he saw himself as superior, if only because he was ever trying to be hardhearted, merciless, expedient to the enth. Stalin was compelled to play conventional politics much of the time, for example, following Barbarossa he adapted his Tyranny-Power game and invoked Mother Russia and anointed the loathsome Zhukov; but he certainly took all that back later, did he not? Otherwise, Stalin’s game of tyrannical power ran according to a strict code. Purge every so often because the loathsome–even the fellow monsters you recruited–will invariably become corrupted, i.e., they won’t after a while want to play their roles in Stalin’s parallel universe. For example, they might well become “soft.” So, replace them by reaching far down to find new grateful thugs–they abound among loathsome humanity–who can be counted on to be depraved monsters for a while before needing themselves to be purged. Humans are so loathsome that whatever tyrannical cruelty you bring to them, it will be forgotten fairly soon (“swallowed”). Besides, the forced confessions are the way to ensure that the reality of the Tyranny Game trumps ordinary reality caused in the first place by loathsome, corrupt Homo sapiens. The confessions were terribly important to Stalin in every sense.

Here is a statement by Stalin when young and among some of his Bolshevik cronies:

“In the early 1920s, Stalin and a few colleagues were relaxing in Morozovka park, lying in the grass. One asked: ‘What is the best thing in the world?’ ‘Books,’ replied one. ‘There is no greater pleasure than a woman, your woman,’ said another. Then Stalin said, ‘The sweetest thing is to devise a plan, then, being on the alert, waiting in ambush for a goo-oo-ood long time, finding out where the person is hiding. Then catch the person and take revenge!'”

–Miklos Kun, Stalin: An Unknown Portrait