Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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This widely acclaimed biography of Stalin and his entourage during the terrifying decades of his supreme power transforms our understanding of Stalin as Soviet dictator, Marxist leader, and Russian tsar.

Based on groundbreaking research, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals the fear and betrayal, privilege and debauchery, family life and murderous cruelty of this secret world. Written with bracing narrative verve, this feat of scholarly research has become a classic of modern history writing. Showing how Stalin's triumphs and crimes were the product of his fanatical Marxism and his gifted but flawed character, this is an intimate portrait of a man as complicated and human as he was brutal and chilling.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307427939
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 848
Sales rank: 200,130
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE is a historian of Russia and the Middle East. Catherine the Great and Potemkin was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar won the History Book of the Year Prize at the British Book Awards. Young Stalin won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, the Costa Biography Award, and le Grande Prix de la biographie politique. Jerusalem: The Biography was a worldwide best seller. Montefiore’s books are published in more than forty languages. He is the author of the novels Sashenka and One Night in Winter, which won the Paddy Power Political Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2014. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Montefiore graduated from Cambridge University, where he received his PhD. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1:
The Georgian and the Schoolgirl

Nadya and Stalin had been married for fourteen years but it extended deeper and longer than that, so steeped was their marriage in Bolshevism. They had shared the formative experiences of the underground life and intimacy with Lenin during the Revolution, then the Civil War. Stalin had known her family for nearly thirty years and he had first met her in 1904 when she was three. He was then twenty-five and he had been a Marxist for six years.

Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili was not born on 21 December 1879, Stalin's official birthday. "Soso" was actually born in a tiny shack (that still exists) to Vissarion, or "Beso," and his wife Ekaterina, "Keke," née Geladze, over a year earlier on 6 December 1878. They lived in Gori, a small town beside the Kura River in the romantic, mountainous and defiantly un-Russian province of Georgia, a small country thousands of miles from the Tsar's capital: it was closer to Baghdad than St. Petersburg.* Westerners often do not realize how foreign Georgia was: an independent kingdom for millennia with its own ancient language, traditions, cuisine, literature, it was only consumed by Russia in gulps between 1801 and 1878. With its sunny climate, clannish blood feuds, songs and vineyards, it resembles Sicily more than Siberia.

Soso's father was a violent, drunken semi-itinerant cobbler who savagely beat both Soso and Keke. She in turn, as the child later recalled, "thrashed him mercilessly." Soso once threw a dagger at his father. Stalin reminisced how Beso and Father Charkviani, the local priest, indulged in drinking bouts together to the fury of his mother: "Father, don't make my husband a drunk, it'll destroy my family." Keke threw out Beso. Stalin was proud of her "strong willpower." When Beso later forcibly took Soso to work as a cobbling apprentice in Tiflis, Keke's priests helped get him back.

Stalin's mother took in washing for local merchants. She was pious and became close to the priests who protected her. But she was also earthy and spicy: she may have made the sort of compromises that are tempting for a penniless single mother, becoming the mistress of her employers. This inspired the legends that often embroider the paternity of famous men. It is possible that Stalin was the child of his godfather, an affluent innkeeper, officer and amateur wrestler named Koba Egnatashvili. Afterwards, Stalin protected Egnatashvili's two sons, who remained friends until his death and reminisced in old age about Egnatashvili's wrestling prowess. Nonetheless, one sometimes has to admit that great men are the children of their own fathers. Stalin was said to resemble Beso uncannily. Yet he himself once asserted that his father was a priest.

Stalin was born with the second and third toes of his left foot joined. He suffered a pock-marked face from an attack of smallpox and later damaged his left arm, possibly in a carriage accident. He grew up into a sallow, stocky, surly youth with speckled honey-coloured eyes and thick black hair-a kinto, Georgian street urchin. He was exceptionally intelligent with an ambitious mother who wanted him to be a priest, perhaps like his real father. Stalin later boasted that he learned to read at five by listening to Father Charkviani teaching the alphabet. The five-year-old then helped Charkviani's thirteen-year-old daughter with her reading.

In 1888, he entered the Gori Church School and then, triumphantly, in 1894, won a "five rouble scholarship" to the Tiflis Seminary in the Georgian capital. As Stalin later told a confidant, "My father found out that along with the scholarship, I also earned money (five roubles a month) as a choirboy . . . and once I went out and saw him standing there: " 'Young man, sir,' said Beso, 'you've forgotten your father . . . Give me at least three roubles, don't be as mean as your mother!'

" 'Don't shout!' replied Soso. 'If you don't leave immediately, I'll call the watchman!' " Beso slunk away.* He apparently died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1909.

Stalin sometimes sent money to help his mother but henceforth kept his distance from Keke whose dry wit and rough discipline resembled his own. There has been too much cod-psychology about Stalin's childhood but this much is certain: raised in a poor priest-ridden household, he was damaged by violence, insecurity and suspicion but inspired by the local traditions of religious dogmatism, blood-feuding and romantic brigandry. "Stalin did not like to speak about his parents and childhood" but it is meaningless to over-analyse his psychology. He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive. He was abnormal but Stalin himself understood that politicians are rarely normal: History, he wrote later, is full of "abnormal people."

The seminary provided his only formal education. This boarding school's catechismic teaching and "Jesuitical methods" of "surveillance, spying, invasion of the inner life, the violation of people's feelings" repelled, but impressed, Soso so acutely that he spent the rest of his life refining their style and methods. It stimulated this autodidact's passion for reading but he became an atheist in the first year. "I got some friends," he said, "and a bitter debate started between the believers and us!" He soon embraced Marxism.

In 1899, he was expelled from the seminary, joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party and became a professional revolutionary, adopting the nom de revolution Koba, inspired by the hero of a novel, The Parricide, by Alexander Kazbegi, a dashing, vindictive Caucasian outlaw. He combined the "science" of Marxism with his soaring imagination: he wrote romantic poetry, published in Georgian, before working as a weatherman at the Tiflis Meteorological Institute, the only job he held before becoming one of the rulers of Russia in 1917.

"Koba" was convinced by the universal panacea of Marxism, "a philosophical system" that suited the obsessive totality of his character. The class struggle also matched his own melodramatic pugnacity. The paranoid secrecy of the intolerant and idiosyncratic Bolshevik culture dovetailed with Koba's own self-contained confidence and talent for intrigue. Koba plunged into the underworld of revolutionary politics that was a seething, stimulating mixture of conspiratorial intrigue, ideological nitpicking, scholarly education, factional games, love affairs with other revolutionaries, police infiltration and organizational chaos. These revolutionaries hailed from every background-Russians, Armenians, Georgians and Jews, workers, noblemen, intellectuals and daredevils-and organized strikes, printing presses, meetings and heists. United in the obsessional study of Marxist literature, there was always a division between the educated bourgeois émigrés, like Lenin himself, and the rough men of action in Russia itself. The underground life, always itinerant and dangerous, was the formative experience not only of Stalin but of all his comrades. This explains much that happens later.

In 1902, Koba won the spurs of his first arrest and Siberian exile, the first of seven such exiles from which he escaped six times. These exiles were far from Stalin's brutal concentration camps: the Tsars were inept policemen. They were almost reading holidays in distant Siberian villages with one part-time gendarme on duty, during which revolutionaries got to know (and hate) each other, corresponded with their comrades in Petersburg or Vienna, discussed abstruse questions of dialectical materialism, and had affairs with local girls. When the call of freedom or revolution became urgent, they escaped, yomping across the taiga to the nearest train. In exile, Koba's teeth, a lifelong source of pain, began to deteriorate.

Koba avidly supported Vladimir Lenin and his seminal work, What Is to Be Done? This domineering political genius combined the Machiavellian practicality of seizing power with mastery of Marxist ideology. Exploiting the schism that would lead to the creation of his own Bolshevik Party, Lenin's message was that a supreme Party of professional revolutionaries could seize power for the workers and then rule in their name in a "dictatorship of the proletariat" until this was no longer necessary because socialism had been achieved. Lenin's vision of the Party as "the advance detachment" of the "army of proletarians . . . a fighting group of leaders" set the militarist tone of Bolshevism.

In 1904, on Koba's return to Tiflis, he met his future father-in-law Sergei Alliluyev, twelve years his senior, a skilled Russian electrical artisan married to Olga Fedorenko, a strong-willed Georgian-German-Gypsy beauty with a taste for love affairs with revolutionaries, Poles, Hungarians, even Turks. It was whispered that Olga had an affair with the young Stalin, who fathered his future wife, Nadya. This is false since Nadezhda was already three when her parents first met Koba, but his affair with Olga is entirely credible and he himself may have hinted at it. Olga, who, according to her granddaughter Svetlana, had a "weakness for southern men," saying "Russian men are boors," always had a "soft spot" for Stalin. Her marriage was difficult. Family legend has Nadya's elder brother Pavel seeing his mother making up to Koba. Such short liaisons were everyday occurrences among revolutionaries.

Long before they fell in love, Stalin and Nadya were part of the Bolshevik family who passed through the Alliluyev household: Kalinin and Yenukidze among others at that dinner in 1932. There was another special link: soon afterwards, Koba met the Alliluyevs in Baku, and saved Nadya from drowning in the Caspian Sea, a romantic bond if ever there was one.

Koba meanwhile married another sprig of a Bolshevik family. Ekaterina, "Kato," a placid, darkly pretty Georgian daughter of a cultured family, was the sister of Alexander Svanidze, also a Bolshevik graduate of the Tiflis seminary who joined Stalin's Kremlin entourage. Living in a hut near the Baku oilfields, Kato gave him a son, Yakov. But Koba's appearances at home were sporadic and unpredictable.

During the 1905 Revolution, in which Leon Trotsky, a Jewish journalist, bestrode the Petersburg Soviet, Koba claimed he was organizing peasant revolts in the Kartli region of Georgia. After the Tsarist backlash, he travelled to a Bolshevik conference in Tammerfors, Finland-his first meeting with his hero, Lenin, "that mountain eagle." The next year, Koba travelled to the Congress in Stockholm. On his return, he lived the life of a Caucasian brigand, raising Party funds in bank robberies or "expropriations": he boasted in old age of these "heists . . . our friends grabbed 250,000 roubles in Yerevan Square!"

After visiting London for a Congress, Koba's beloved, half-ignored Kato died "in his arms" in Tiflis of tuberculosis on 25 November 1907. Koba was heartbroken. When the little procession reached the cemetery, Koba pressed a friend's hand and said, "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for people." He pressed his heart: "It's desolate here inside." Yet he left their son Yakov to be brought up by Kato's family. After hiding in the Alliluyevs' Petersburg apartment, he was recaptured and returned to his place of banishment, Solvychegodsk. It was in this remote one-horse town in January 1910 that Koba moved into the house of a young widow named Maria Kuzakova by whom he fathered a son.* Soon afterwards, he was involved in a love affair with a schoolgirl of seventeen named Pelageya Onufrieva. When she went back to school, he wrote: "Let me kiss you now. I am not simply sending a kiss but am KISSSSSING you passionately (it's not worth kissing otherwise)." The locals in the north Russified "Iosef" to "Osip" and his letters to Pelageya were often signed by her revealing nickname for him: "Oddball Osip."

After yet another escape, Koba returned to Petersburg in 1912, sharing digs with a ponderous Bolshevik who was to be the comrade most closely associated with him: Vyacheslav Scriabin, only twenty-two, had just followed the Bolshevik custom of assuming a macho nom de revolution and called himself that "industrial name" Molotov-"the hammer." Koba had also assumed an "industrial" alias: he first signed an article "Stalin" in 1913. It was no coincidence that "Stalin" sounds like "Lenin." He may have been using it earlier and not just for its metallic grit. Perhaps he borrowed the name from the "buxom pretty" Bolshevik named Ludmilla Stal with whom he had had an affair.

This "wonderful Georgian," as Lenin called him, was co-opted by the Party's Central Committee at the end of the Prague conference of 1912. In November, Koba Stalin travelled from Vienna to Cracow to meet Lenin with whom he stayed: the leader supervised his keen disciple in the writing of an article expressing Bolshevik policy on the sensitive nationality question, henceforth Stalin's expertise. "Marxism and the National Question," arguing for holding together the Russian Empire, won him ideological kudos and Lenin's trust.

"Did you write all of it?" asked Lenin (according to Stalin).

"Yes . . . Did I make mistakes?"

"No, on the contrary, splendid!" This was his last trip abroad until the Teheran Conference in 1943.

In February 1913, Stalin was rearrested and given a suspiciously light exile: was he an agent of the Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana? The historical sensationalism of Stalin's duplicity shows a naïve misunderstanding of underground life: the revolutionaries were riddled with Okhrana spies but many were double or triple agents.* Koba was willing to betray colleagues who opposed him though, as the Okhrana admitted in their reports, he remained a fanatical Marxist-and that is what mattered.

Stalin's final exile began in 1913 in the distant cold north-east of Siberia, where he was nicknamed "Pock-marked Joe" by the local peasants. Fearing more escapes, the exile was moved to Kureika, a desolate village in Turukhansk, north of the Arctic Circle where his fishing prowess convinced locals of magical powers and he took another mistress. Stalin wrote pitiful letters to Sergei and Olga Alliluyev: "Nature in this cursed region is shamefully poor" and he begged them to send him a postcard: "I'm crazy with longing for nature scenes if only on paper." Yet it was also, strangely, a happy time, perhaps the happiest of his life for he reminisced about his exploits there until his death, particularly about the shooting expedition when he skied into the taiga, bagged many partridges and then almost froze to death on the way back.

The military blunders and food shortages of the Great War inexorably destroyed the monarchy which, to the surprise of the Bolsheviks, collapsed suddenly in February 1917, replaced by a Provisional Government. On 12 March, Stalin reached the capital and visited the Alliluyevs: once again, Nadya, a striking brunette, sixteen, her sister Anna and brother Fyodor, questioned this returning hero about his adventures. When they accompanied him by tram towards the offices of the newspaper Pravda, he called out, "Be sure to set aside a room in the new apartment for me. Don't forget." He found Molotov editing Pravda, a job he immediately commandeered for himself. While Molotov had taken a radical anti-government line, Stalin and Lev Kamenev, né Rosenfeld, one of Lenin's closest comrades, were more conciliatory. Lenin, who arrived on 4 April, overruled Stalin's vacillations.

In a rare apology to Molotov, Stalin conceded, "You were closer to Lenin . . ." When Lenin needed to escape to Finland to avoid arrest, Stalin hid him chez Alliluyev, shaved off his beard and escorted him to safety.


A Conversation with Simon Sebag Montefiore

Q: Newly opened archives in Russia allowed you, unlike any previous Stalin biographer, to assemble a shockingly personal portrait of one of the world's most brutal dictators. What insight can be gained by knowing the intimate details of Stalin's life and personality?

This is a biography of Stalin at his apogee but it is also a chronicle of his imperial court, the story of how he became dictator. It is the story of how his highest magnates ruled with him and how their wives and children survived - an intimate account of life, fear, betrayal, privilege and debauchery, family life and murderous brutality in that extraordinary time. I wanted to answer the questions: how did he really rule? How did they really live? Who was the boy from Georgia who rose to rule the Tsarist Empire? Who was his Himmler, his Goebbels, his Goring? Power fascinates me and this is a story of power, and ruthlessness, and fanaticism - but it also tells how they wrote love-letters, danced, partied, sang, ate, what they read and what movies they watched and what cars they drove, and what pornography they liked. Because all these things became literally fatally important in the politics: people died of gossip at Stalin's court. The ideology was omnipresent like religion in the middle ages, but the exercise of power was not that different from the courts of Genghiz Khan or Louis XIV or Henry VIII perhaps. I suspected that personal relationships were much more important than dry institutional analysis, yet much of Soviet/Stalinist history had been written in the same impersonal way that the Soviets described themselves. This was partly due to theirsecrecy and partly due to the Cold War Kremlinology which depersonalized the Soviets.

Q: What did you find in the archives?

I was amazingly lucky to find totally new unpublished memoirs and unpublished photographs as well as the accounts of the many eyewitnesses I interviewed myself. I hope some of it may change the way Stalinism is described in the future. Stalin's own letters and letters to him, the letters and notes amongst the top leaders, and their love letters revealed a completely different world of intimacy and informality, quite different from what we had been told before. It showed that Stalin used charm as well as fear and guile; that there was great intimacy and friendliness amongst the magnates; that he often had to apologize to his leaders, showing that he was not yet dictator; it revealed the humor as well as the horror.
We find him ordering deaths but also being a loving husband, an adulterous flirt with a host of illegitimate children, a movie expert who liked John Wayne films, a songwriter and a fine tenor singer, an intellectual who loved Hemingway, Balzac, the Forsyte Saga and Last of the Mohicans, a teller of jokes, a lover of gardening especially roses. We find behind the steely mask, a highly strung, emotionally damaged, jealous man, a suffocating friend, a harassed husband, loving father, a man for whom everything was political yet whose personal feelings changed history. Above all, it proved that politics at the court of Stalin was not about Politburo meetings but about proximity to the Leader, personal patronage, rivalries and ambitions - and his top henchmen were not grey men without characters but often remarkable and extraordinary in their own right. Though Stalin was most truly exceptional and I hope I show him as less enigmatic, more intimate, no less brutal but more human - and he never ceased to astonish me.
Yes these Soviet grandees were first and foremost Bolshevik fanatics who believed in Marxism like a religion - but politics was even more personal than in a normal system. The vast new archives that are used in the book show how these personal court politics worked and I think it is fascinating. While everything was meant to be political, in fact everything was personal. Therefore the personal, the intimate, the rivalries, everything in the details mattered enormously - and this is not merely gossip but a matter of life and death and power. The new archives and my own interviews prove this and I think this may change the way Stalin is described in the future.

Q: When constructing the biography, did you find it difficult to mesh the personal information you'd uncovered with Stalin's political life? For instance, a passage about his holiday plans might also mention the starvation of millions of peasants in the countryside.

Yes but that is the essence of how real life worked at Stalin's court and therefore to show how it really happened, I of course did blend in the holidays with the murders, the movies with the intrigues, the poisonings with the dinners, the dancing and the deaths. I really wanted for the first time to create the feeling of the intimate texture of life in this tiny elite of Stalin and his grandees. After torturing their victims all night, they arrived at breakfast with their wives with the speckled blood still on their shirtsleeves. Since as I have explained in the first answer, power was personal, the intimate details played a part in the high politics and therefore in the lives of millions. It is important to understand with the terrible events of history how they became NORMAL, for this explains how these monsters did the impossible - believed in killing millions. The Great Terror, for example, was mostly the result of great historical forces but personality also played a huge role in it. I try to show both these things. I must add that I was so lucky with my materials - not just the archives, but the new memoirs I found and my interviews too - because I was often able to tell a whole day in Stalin's life with BOTH the political decisions and personal details, such as his daughter's little loving letters, his gardening, his sore throats — and, in some cases, I even found the photographs of that very day so I could provide both sound and vision as it were. This made this book very thrilling to write.

Q: Contrary to what most of us think, Stalin didn't rise to power by fear; he rose by charm. He was, you write, "a people person." Could you give us an example of his charm?

A: Charm was how Stalin built his dictatorship: if he set his mind to charm you, he was irresistible (as Roosevelt and Churchill attested). There are legion examples of this - but a good one is when young Beria, a provincial official, visited Moscow. Stalin invited him to dinner, befriended his young son, sat him on his knee, and when the boy was cold, wrapped him in his own fur coat and asked him endless questions, treating the child as a grownup, sat him at dinner with the leaders and then watched cartoon films with him and when it was bedtime, he put the child to bed himself. When Beria moved to Moscow, Stalin personally handled the move; inspected the Berias' new flat and decided it was not good enough; found Beria a beautiful mansion, visited it and checked the heating was working and so on. No wonder Beria was devoted to him. This is not a unique example - Stalin was accessible to his officials, sometimes answering the phones himself; he wrote them apologetic and charming letters; he embraced them into his close family, sang with them; he befriended their wives and took a great interest in their children - he was in fact very good with children; and he made them feel the most important people in the world. He personally inspected their homes, personally gave them financial bonuses, and personally wrote out what car - Buick, Cadillac, Rolls - was to go to each family.

Q: But Stalin could, and did, order the torture and murder of top aides and their families if they were unfortunate enough to be considered in any way harmful to the regime. Why didn't people flee from him?

It was very hard to flee because security was so tight by the mid-thirties, but some of them did plan to escape and some tried but got caught. There were defections, but many did not because of the most important fact of all: they BELIEVED in the Party and Bolshevism. And more than that, they believed in Stalin's charm and decency and fairness.

Q: Politburo wives knew about the mass starvation and murders and still actively supported — believed in -- the regime. This doesn't say much for female humanity.

The women were the most fanatical and bloodthirsty of all. Most of the magnates' wives were in love with Stalin but they also enjoyed the fruits of power and privilege - the cars, the box at the opera, country house life - and of course they also had access to their own haute couture designer who copied the designs of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar for them!

Q: As part of your research, you interviewed sons and daughters of the regime leaders. How did you find them?

Yes I had to find all these forgotten families and it was an amazing detective story that took me from Petersburg to Tbilisi in Georgia and Rostov-on-Don. I used every possible trick, and when they would not see me, I simply rang and visited until they agreed but some were by chance: I once visited Russian Vogue and met a Mikoyan; I rented a flat from Litvinov's grand daughter; I knew Molotov's family because a friend lived in their flat; I met Beria's great-grandson at a dinner party; the publisher of my last book on Prince Potemkin is also a minister in the Putin government and he helped open many doors to these very secret people. In Georgia, I had many friends and when I asked them, they said, "Don't you know my grandfather" and when I found out who that was, I was amazed: "How come he is still alive?" "Oh he's 97 and he can still dance and when he has danced for you, he will tell you about Stalin and even show you his memoirs. No one has ever been interested before...."

Q: Were the interviews emotional? How do these people feel about their past?

A: The interviews were often so agonizing that I and the interviewee could not help but weep. When Rykov's daughter told me how she said goodbye to her father in 1937, I asked "So did you ever see him again?" "Only in my dreams," she replied. When I asked how she survived 20 years in the camps, she replied, "The beauty of nature - and the kindness of ordinary people." Some of the families, such as the Khrushchevs and the Mikoyans, are now very liberal and yes, they are guilty of what their fathers did and it is painful to them. But there are also lots of them who are fascinatingly unchanged and rabidly Stalinist. Beria's daughter-in-law is still beautiful and her intimate life living with Beria enabled me to bring him to life as a person and not just a monster. Andreyev's daughter Natasha was typical - she claimed her father was innocent but that very afternoon I found his file in the archives that revealed him as a frenzied mass murderer on a killing spree. But when I questioned her, she turned nasty, saying the West had killed more by AIDS than Stalin and then she said: "Are you an Enemy of the People Simon? My mother had the talent of recognizing Enemies by looking into their eyes and she said I had inherited this gift. Are you an Enemy?" The daughter of Stalin's secretary Poskrebyshev was most interesting: her mother was shot by Stalin yet in the middle of the interview, after she weepingly told this tale, she claimed to be Stalin's illegitimate daughter: "Do I remind you of someone?" she asked. All the families were special and could never forget how they were and are touched forever by Stalin - hence my last chapter the epilogue tells their special stories.

Q: Stalin was quite popular with women, often receiving letters with invitations for trysts. Wouldn't dating Stalin be a little dangerous?

I was very lucky to find new material about his mistresses in the 1930s. It is interesting that virtually all the women around him in those days were Jewesses - and that some of these Jewesses became his mistresses, given his later rabid anti-Semitism.
We think of Stalin as a freakish grotesque but to the women around him, he was a good-looking, self-deprecating and flirtatious man of power. And as Kissinger said, power is the greatest aphrodisiac. Yet this does not quite apply to Stalin because he was always very attractive to women: Georgians are the Italians of the Soviet Empire. His golden eyes, black hair, quiet voice made him dashing even as a powerless exile: he was never without a mistress throughout that time and we now have some of his love letters. He stole a girlfriend off Molotov and Sverdlov. During the 1920s and 1930s, Stalin was married but probably had affairs all the time. He was no womanizer, women were not important to him, he was fairly uneasy and crude in his manners to them, but they were drawn to him. But in 1937, this all changed: women did approach him to flirt and ask for their brothers to be freed but Stalin henceforth did become a figure of real fear. More interestingly perhaps, Stalin himself no longer wanted women or trusted them: he feared they would be used against him politically and he preferred a secret life of austere sterility. His housekeeper Valechka became a sort of secret wife but he had been burned by the political and personal dramas of his wife and his mistresses in the 1930s. His private life became so secret it ceased almost to exist.

Q: You report on a lot of sexual degeneracy among the secret police chiefs. Who was the worst?

Beria was the Bluebeard of Bolshevism - but also the most intelligent and capable and interesting of Stalin's magnates. Yet all the secret police chiefs lived such a life of murderous degeneracy because they had access to every luxury and power over life and death. And they were themselves brutalized by their life of torture and murder. Yagoda collected early German porn films and pipes with phalluses and breasts on them. Yezhov was bisexual, very promiscuous and a drunk too. His charming Jewish wife was also promiscuous and loved to sleep with famous writers: she became the Black Widow of Stalin's court, bringing death to all her lovers, especially the greatest of all, the writer Isaac Babel. But Beria was the worst: super intelligent and amazingly capable, he was a sadist, a torturer, a pervert, and a rapist. He enjoyed torturing people to death; he raped women who came to ask his help and later even kidnapped them off the streets. He caught VD and had many illegitimate children. Now bones have been found under the house in Moscow, now the Tunisian Embassy. A true monster - and yet his daughter-in-law also reveals the human man because she lived with him for many years. When a woman resisted him, his bodyguard handed her the usual bouquet but Beria spat: "That's not a bouquet. It's a wreath!" She was arrested soon afterwards.

Q: When he wasn't running the state or ruminating over his health (the Politburo seemed overrun with hypochondriacs), what did Stalin do in is private time to relax?

Gardening, movies and above all reading were his favorites. He was such a good tenor singer that he could have been a professional singer. He loved gardening and even weeded himself and sometimes he made his guests help him. He liked presenting people with roses. He was obsessed with the cinema and loved the films of John Ford, cowboy films, and by the end of this life, he virtually ran the USSR from his private cinema. He was also the Soviet film industry's supreme censor and had to view all movies: he sometimes wrote the words to their songs, vetted their scripts, coined their titles and in Eisenstein's movie Ivan the Terrible, he gave a personal master class on how to present him. When he grumbled that Ivan kissed too much, kissing was almost banned in all Soviet movies. He never stopped reading and was probably one of the best read Russian leaders between Catherine the Great and Putin - yet he was self-educated. He read novels such as Balzac and Zola and Last of the Mohicans but he lived for history and read about Ancient Greece, Bismarck and Talleyrand, and Ivan the Terrible who was his hero. He made notes in all his books and I have been through his library in the archive. "Even though I am 70, I never stop studying," he said.

Q: Taking together all the details of Stalin's life and personality, can you pinpoint an event or offer a theory explaining what could have happened that made him capable of devaluing human life to the degree that he did?

I think psychobabble is a great danger in a biographer. Even when a psychiatrist spends hours with a patient, they rarely penetrate to the real person and we historians do not even have that sort of access. But now with all this new material, we really know a lot about Stalin. His childhood was violent, insecure, poverty-stricken, his father and mother beat him - yet his mother gave him great belief in his unique power. He despised family as a result. His childhood was also priest-ridden and religious - so he embraced Bolshevism with religious indeed quasi-Islamic fanaticism and Bolshevism was a creed of bloodletting. Many of the top Bolsheviks came from religious homes but most had happier families than Stalin and YET ALL OF THEM BELIEVED IN THE RANDOM KILLING OF MILLIONS. So much of this is not to be found in their abnormality but in their fanaticism. Or perhaps by chance, there were many psychopaths at the top of the Bolshevik State?

Q: You visited all of Stalin's houses, including those in the forbidden war torn republic of Abkhazia. How did find them?

Again, this was a great detective adventure story that I relished. I had to get the help of the bandit republic of Abkhazia, the UN Peacekeepers, and the top experts in Soukhoumi and then I set off via UN helicopter, then car into Abkhazia to find these houses. No historian had been to all of them but when I asked if anyone else had seen them, the local expert said: "Yes there was this Arab VIP in the 1970s." "Who?" "His name was Saddam Hussein," she replied.

Q: So there are parallels to be drawn between Stalin and contemporary dictators like Saddam Hussein?

Saddam Hussein was obsessed with Stalin and there were many coincidental and deliberate parallels between them. Soon after Saddam Hussein became President of Iraq in 1979, a Kurdish politician named Dr. Mahmoud Othman was invited to meet him at dawn in his palace. When he arrived the Kurd was shown into Saddam's tiny private office where the President worked until the early hours before bedding down on a military iron cot in the corner: "the rest of the office," observed Othman, "was nothing but a small library full of books about one man, Stalin. One could say he went to bed with the Russian dictator."
Othman is far from the only source who has witnessed Saddam's private shrine to Stalin. The best biographers of Saddam, such as Said Aburish, who cites this story, agree that his obsession with the Soviet dictator pervades his career. This is much more than a simplistic parallel but the deliberate reverence of a pupil for his historical master and prototype. Saddam's Baathist Party, a hostile branch of which also rules Syria, is an Arabist pastiche on post-war Stalinism. Saddam's life resembles and parodies Stalin's. They were born a few hundred miles apart, Stalin in Gori, Georgia in 1879; Saddam in Tikriti northern Iraq probably in 1937, the very year of Stalin's Great Terror. Both were labeled illegitimate, had weak feckless father figures, powerful ambitious mothers. Both were helped forward by clever patrons, Saddam's uncle Khairallah Tulfah, and Stalin's godfather, Yakob Egnatashvili.
"When we take over the government," Saddam said frequently, "I'll turn this country into a Stalinist State." When the Baathists took power in 1968, Saddam played the similar role of brutal troubleshooter to his political master, General al-Bakr as Stalin did to Lenin. Like Stalin, he initially moved behind the scenes. After ten years, he emerged in 1979 as President just as Stalin, after 19 years as General-Secretary, became Premier in 1941.
When President Kim Il-Jong recently visited Moscow on a surreal train journey, he proudly informed Vladimir Putin that he was traveling in the armored train given to his father as a present by Stalin.

Q: Did the Russians help you in your research? Have the rights to your book been sold in Russia?

Interesting question: as I said earlier, I was helped in this project by Government Ministers and oligarchs in Russia as well as by the families of the Stalinist grandees and many wonderful people in the archives. But my book deliberately indicts not only Stalin but many others with guilt for the murders and I think many in Russia will prefer just to bury the past and blame it all on Stalin and Beria. My last book on Prince Potemkin was very popular amongst Russians and has just been published there. STALIN has just been sold there as well and will be published in the next year or so.

Q: For all his nastiness, Stalin managed to stay in power for 30 years. Are there any lessons of leadership to be taken from him?

Oh yes. The case of Stalin would be a brilliant basis for a management guide taught in business schools! Up until 1937, when he began to use naked fear as a ploy, he was a superb manipulator and manager, using every possible weapon in the manager's arsenal of personnel skills - charm, patience, flattery, bribery, firmness, temper, apology, U-turns and sudden retreats. After 1937, that suddenly changed until 1941/2 when the huge defeats of Soviet forces by Hitler finally convinced the overconfident warlord Stalin that he had to rule again by a sort of collegial system. After his collapse in late June 1941, he began to listen to his magnates again; in 1942, he started to rely on the advice of his outstanding generals Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky. But once he was rewarded with victory, he returned to fear and manipulation again, methods that he used progressively more as he declined towards his death.

Q: Which other writers and historians do you admire?

I admire the great scholars of 20th century Russia, most of them working in America today - especially Richard Pipes, Robert Tucker and Robert Conquest, as well as the great popular historians such as Robert Massie who has written so much on Russia. My dream with this book is to combine their qualities - to write a readable and interesting book that also used new archival and other materials and was written to a scholarly standard. I want this to be read by experts but also by people who have never read a book on Stalin before. I read those great scholars when I was a child and I longed to join them in writing about Stalinist Russia. Robert Conquest helped me with this book and his Great Terror was the first book I read on the subject. Then I moved on to other greats, such as Pipes and Tucker, Sheila Fitzpatrick and so on. But I also admire the most recent biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw that in some ways inspired my book because it showed Hitler as a person and how he ruled as well as lived using new materials - it set a very high standard too. I admire modern writers on Russia too, such as David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb - and historians who have brought WWII to life such as David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose for they have made history exciting for readers who are not experts and that is the highest skill I believe.
Q: There are a lot of institutions in America, particularly hospitals, named 'Montefiore.' Your family history is interesting. Could you tell us a bit about it?

A: Sir Moses Montefiore was a remarkable man - vastly rich, partner of the Rothschilds, founder of the new City of Jerusalem (hence the Montefiore Quarter and Windmill in Israel), friend of Queen Victoria, the first Jewish baronet, a patriotic Englishman, proud of his Jewishness. He was born in Italy in the 18th century and came to London where he became a young financier and brother-in-law of NM Rothschild. The two brothers-in-law lived together and did business together making a great fortune. When Montefiore was 40 he retired from business and became an international envoy of the Queen and her Prime Ministers, especially Disraeli and Palmerston, visiting the leaders of the world to fight for Jewish and British interests and he became a tremendous philanthropist. He visited Tsar Nicholas I and Alexander II to fight for Jewish rights; he visited Jerusalem six times. It was an amazing life: he had no children and his heir was his nephew Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore, who was a Moroccan banker: my family is descended from him so I am of Italian-Moroccan Jewish descent...

Q: What's next for you?

I am still very busy on Stalin because it comes out this year not only in America but also in Sweden, Holland and about ten other countries and I am visiting some of them and I am still promoting it in England. Of course I want to write a third history book about Russia so that I will have completed a trilogy - Prince Potemkin, Joseph Stalin and ...... I remain fascinated by the 20th century but I long to escape the curse of Stalin. When I was writing this book I often had nightmares about being executed and even my wife began to imagine she was talking to Stalin and Beria. So I think I would like to return to the civilized and sumptuous grandeur of Petersburg in the 18th century....but I am still recovering from Stalin.

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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Andrew Risio More than 1 year ago
As a historian it pains me to write this but the writing is terrible. First off the book is written for students of Stalin not as a stand alone biography. You need come to this story with a significant amount of background knowledge on the hundreds of individuals introduced in the work as the author does not present much background on these individuals. He jumps around to different time periods with little regard for the timelines. And the writing is poorly done and not well structured.
rgolubev on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
ponsonby on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
EmmetNZ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
4bonasa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
To a reader unfamiliar with Soviet history should read Lenin by Robert Service and Young Stalin by Montefiore before reading Stalin...
etabu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
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Zor-El More than 1 year ago
I debated heavily on what to give this book. I agree with some of the reviews that note that this is not an easy book to read. One needs to be patient as a large number of persons with their very russian names are thrown at you early on (many who went by different names as is common ) and if you are not used to it one could get confused rather easily. However, don't give up on it. If you are patient and continue reading the names start to come together. By the time I finished this book I felt like the author had successfully done his job. I had a much more complete knowledge of Stalin and those around him. I could go into how horrible I find his regime but anyone that reads this book won't need me or anyone to say a thing. If you are looking for a good book on Stalin and have a bit of patience to get your head around all the names this is a tremendous book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I knew very little of Stalin which is why I purchased this book. It is very informative. It can sometimes be confusing with all the characters that are involved and constant footnotes. The footnotes should have been incorporated into the regular text. I think the author did a great job in his depiction of Stalin but I can't exactly agree that Stalin was so much of an intellect as he was more of a bully with mental problems. Needless to say, I think it is a good book to read for the information it contained.
Gruvy-Clan More than 1 year ago
absolutely fascinating!!
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