On reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin

If you can find a copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin and his court, you should seize it, and devote yourself to reading it. It’s long, and dense, and horrifying, and so worth reading.

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

I knew little of Stalin, and his enablers, other than the barest details of the horrific Terror that he unleashed on peasants and high politicians alike. Montefiore is sparing of details, but just a few here and there have stuck in my mind, of the terrible deaths meted out to those who had the temerity to be related to one of Stalin’s “Enemies”, let alone to the targets of his animosity and paranoia. Stalin and his court were monsters.

There is not even a “Yes, but…” in my mind. Many of the men who executed the Terror were in fear of losing their own lives: the extraordinary account of Stalin’s final days when he had a stroke, yet no one dared summon a doctor because to do so would be to suggest that the leader was failing, is testament to the fear in the court. Even so, they could have stepped aside, could have chosen not to murder innocents, or to murder at all.

And in amongst the horror, some items that are extraordinary to the point of comic absurdity. When Stalin and his court tried to investigate the high cost of the Russian invasion of Finland in the last days of 1938 and the beginning of 1939, the Finns lost around 48,000 solidiers, and the Russians over 125,000. It seemed that the Finns did not fight fair: they wore white clothes instead of standard army greens and greys and browns and blacks, so that they could not be seen in the snow; at least one Russian commander was surprised to find that Finland had forests; most astonishingly of all, the Finns had the temerity to attack when the Red Army was taking its afternoon nap.

These bizarre details counterpoint the ugly truth of the narrative, that guilty as Stalin was of revolting crimes, he did not act alone. Instead, his court aided every single one of his actions. Not just one evil man, but a whole cohort of evil men, and women.

Montefiore spoke to the descendants and friends of many of the key players, and with the opening up of the former Soviet Union, was able to access archives and records that had been hidden for decades. His book is extensively researched and documented. I am no student of the history of the Soviet Union, or of Stalin, so I can’t tell you whether or not his text is consistent with what others have written. But he brings alive the workings of Stalin’s court in extraordinary and horrifying detail.

I recommend this book.


3 comments on “On reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin

  1. Stef says:

    And now you have me re-obsessed with Russia.

  2. It is a fascinating and horrible story.

  3. Gae says:

    And that brings up a childhood memory — first part, a lecture from my father about not wishing for the death of a human being (I must have told little bro to ‘drop dead’ or something).
    THEN, remembered as a short time later, came the news of Stalin’s death, and I asked my father if that rule still applied — that is when he explained the principle of ‘the exception that proves the rule’. I would have been about 9 at the time, but it all made an impression.

    Gae, in Callala Bay

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