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185 of 198 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary Examination of the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt, in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase `banality of evil' to describe the rather bland existence of those who, like Eichman, were capable of committing unpardonable acts of unspeakable bestiality. Simon Sebag Montefiore's elegantly written Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar (Red Tsar) mines this same vein in his examination of the life of Stalin...
Published on August 22, 2004 by Leonard Fleisig

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34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stalin liked to play billiards, Kaganovich played tennis
I had never read a biography of Stalin and chose this book. It was not what I was after. The book is for the reader that has a good grounding in Stalin's life and accomplishments (and Russian history) and is looking for the more day-to-day intimate or trivial details of the man's life. Below is an example of a typical page:

"Nadya played tennis with the...
Published on October 27, 2004 by M. Dog


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185 of 198 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary Examination of the Banality of Evil, August 22, 2004
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
Hannah Arendt, in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined the phrase `banality of evil' to describe the rather bland existence of those who, like Eichman, were capable of committing unpardonable acts of unspeakable bestiality. Simon Sebag Montefiore's elegantly written Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar (Red Tsar) mines this same vein in his examination of the life of Stalin and his inner circle. Red Tsar provides the reader with an inside, almost voyeuristic, view of the life of Stalin and his circle from his accession to power after the death of Lenin until his own death in 1953. Montefiore does a masterful job of setting out the personal lives and inner workings of Stalin and his court against the backdrop of the extraordinary historic events that wracked the USSR during those times. During Stalin's rein the Ukraine was wracked by forced starvation in the Ukraine and rural masses were brutally killed and/or exiled in the anti-kulak campaign. Through show trials and purges and through a war on the eastern front that will probably never be matched for horror and brutality, Stalin and his courtiers lived lives of bourgeois expectations and affectation that would be recognizable if they were played out in Moscow, Idaho and not the USSR.

Red Tsar has been meticulously researched. Montefiore has done a marvelous job of examining newly opened Russian archives. He interviewed a large number of surviving family members of the inner circle and was provided access to diaries, memoirs, and personal correspondence that has not been seen by historians prior to this work. The end notes can be a bit confusing but it's clear that Montefiore's factual observations and his evaluations of those observations are grounded deeply in thorough research.

Red Tsar begins with the death, apparently by suicide, of Stalin's second wife, Nadya. Despite rumors that Stalin killed his wife Montefiore makes clear the emotional devastation visited upon Stalin as the result of her death and gives little credence to the rumor. The death of Nadya takes pride of place in Red Tsar because it is Montefiore's opinion that the emotional blow was the turning point at which Stalin began the transformation that would take him from strong ruler to brutal tyrant.

From this point Montefiore takes us back and examines the process by which Stalin acquired absolute power. Montefiore makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, it took Stalin years to acquire the power that has since become enshrined in myth. He did not just intimidate people, he cajoled, he charmed, and he compromised. Even as late as the mid-1930's there were more than a few instances where Stalin did not quite get his way. Unfortunately, Stalin had a prodigious memory for slights and obstacles along his path to power. Stalin was, if nothing else, capable of long term thinking and he did not need instant gratification when it came to evening the score.

Montefiore does an incredible job of humanizing Stalin without once belittling the horrors that were committed in his name. Montefiore does not excuse Stalin by dispelling the myth that his life involved nothing more than engaging in evil acts. Rather, his fleshing out the person that was Stalin, highly literate, smart, often engaging and charming, devoted to his daughter points out the duality from which banality can give birth to evil. Further, this work is not simply an overview of Stalin's personal life. It is an overview of Stalin's court, Beria, Malenkov, Molotov, Krushchev, Yezhov (NKVD boss before Beria), and Zhdanov and their families. They all lived in the same apartment complexes in or near the Kremlin. They were friends as well as rivals and their wives and children mingled freely with each other and even with Stalin.

Stalin's interest in literature and the arts is also examined closely. Stalin had a strong interest in the arts and considered himself the ultimate arbiter. He was instrumental in having Gorky return to the USSR where he was treated as a returning hero. He peered over, edited, praised, or criticized the works of Babel, Akhmatova, Eisenstein, and Shostakovich. He was, perhaps, a dilettante, but a dilettante with the power of life and death.

Last, two portions of the book are particularly compelling. The first takes place in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the USSR in June, 1941. Totally despondent over the overwhelming early losses suffered by a military criminally weakened by purges and aware that Hitler had completely outfoxed him. He took to his rooms and would not come out. Finally, when his court finally saw fit to intrude on Stalin's isolation Stalin quivered and asked if they had come to arrest or execute him. Equally compelling is the story of Stalin's long medical decline and the horrible events surrounding his lingering death.

One caveat for readers new to Soviet history. Montefiore's treatment focuses on the inner workings of Stalin and his court. He describes the historic events that take place outside the court in a manner that assumes a certain baseline familiarity with those events. As good as this book is, the reader new to Soviet history might be well served to start off with a general history before delving into Red Tsar. Having said that, Court of the Red Tsar is a wonderful treatment of the inner works of life under Stalin. It should be read and savored.
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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Horrifyingly Fascinating Account of Stalin, June 28, 2004
By A Customer
I must admit that I feel a bit of guilt for the compulsive manner in which I read this highly personal account of life in the court of Stalin. This well-told story is horrible, but fascinating.
Montefiore makes no effort to dissect the big geopolitical issues of the Stalin era, except to use them as a backdrop to the backstabbing, denunciations, groveling, and horror in which the senior leadership of the Soviet Union operated from the early 30s until the early 50s. Using in-depth interviews and newly-available archival information, including much of the correspondence between and among the senior leadership, Montefiore fleshes out what was going on under the surface, in particular the complex love-hate (mostly hate) relationship of Stalin to his court.
It's a wonderful account of a country run by leaders who viewed their role more as mafiosi than as leaders of a legitimate government. In a real sense, they were gangsters and that's the way they ran the country--including the way Stalin required the leadership to all participate in the Great Terror (he wanted all them to have blood on their hands and thus share in the collective guilt).
The author's behind-the-scenes view of the Great Terror is the centerpiece of the book. His portraits of Yeshov and Beria, the two most malignant monsters after Stalin, will now be etched into my memory.
But in the end, the book is a portrait of Stalin, a man who could turn on the charm, perform an act of kindness for an old comrade, then in the next moment sign the death warrants of hundreds of innocent victims. I disagree with other reviewers who criticize the author for treating Stalin too kindly. There's no question where Montefiore stands: he views Stalin was a monster, and Stalin's occasional human touches makes him even more so.
I've had long-term interest in 20th century Russian history, particularly trying to understand how a country could find itself in the hands of the personification of evil. This book helps answer the question.
A final point. Montefiore is an excellent story teller. I don't pretend to be in position to judge all his conclusions, but they have the ring of truth to them, and the author is good about telling the reader when he's departed from evidence into speculation.
I recommend this book. I only wish that in reading it, I lacked the guilty fascination that comes from watching an entire nation turned into a train wreck by a single evil man.
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83 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside Stalin, April 16, 2004
Any historical figure who has earned the suffix of an '-ism' has, most likely, long been shrouded in myth. Sebag Montefiore has dug deep into the archives and found an astounding amount of new material to chart the inner circle of Stalin's court, bringing the man out of the shadows and into the third dimension. You may well wish he'd stayed in the dark. STALIN makes for fascinating and often brutal reading. Most extraordinary is just what a closed and cosy court Stalin reigned over. Sebag Montefiore manages to recreate the lethal and intimate atmosphere that all who chose to be close to him were forced to endure. Most interesting are the early days, long before corruption had penetrated the Politburo. Here, the author uncovers the highest ranking officials taking trams to work, and Stalin's own wife begging 50 roubles off her husband for children's clothes. The descent soon begins, and Sebag Montefiore follows its course in excerpts from Stalin's own archives and interviews too numerous to mention. Every now and then, there is the tiniest slip. In one sentence, an official is described as both bald and red headed, but that is pure pedantry. It's hard to imagine a more fascinating biography hitting the shelves this year. Be warned, it's a 600 page hernia of a tome, but take comfort in the author's ability to keep the pages turning.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting look into the life of Stalin., September 5, 2004
Eventually it may come to pass that conventional wisdom among historians will be that there is no more influential or terrible figure in Russian history- outdoing even Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Catherine the Great- than Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvil who as a young Bolshevik took the name Stalin [Russian for steel]. The life of Stalin has been visited many times by historians, biographers, in memoirs by those who knew him. A picture emerges of a calculating, Machiavellian paranoid committed to a state enforced regime of communism but above all committed to the elimination of real and perceived `enemies' who stood in the way of his complete grasp of power.

Simon Montefiore has done an outstanding job in revisiting the life of Stalin viewed through the lens of his personal life. What emerges is a more human view [if one can use that term for a man responsible for the most deaths of the 20th century] of the life of Stalin. Montefiore shows Stalin the father, the husband and the in-law. And what an in-law he was. Traumatized by the suicide of his second wife Nadya, Stalin becomes increasingly morose and irritated by her family. To that end most ended up being arrested and dying within the Gulag system, rather than protecting them, their ties to Stalin and the intimacy that comes with it is responsible for their deaths.

Montefiore highlights how the inner circle of Russia's leadership strove to guess and to carry out their leader's policies. Stalin, the master manipulator, played his inner circle against each other. To be within the leadership was an honor and a dangerous place. One's fate and the fate of his family was tied to Stalin's mercurial attitude. On several occasions his sycophants wives were arrested [Malenkov, Proskrebychev] and kept in confinement or shot with their husbands remaining on with Stalin continuing with their work. It was not uncommon for high ranking members such as Beria, Malenkov and Kruschev to inquire with Stalin's repulsive secretary Proskrebychev on his mood before entering his office in order to brace themselves for his outbursts, outbursts that could lead to one's demise if not handled correctly. In one well-known story a famous Russian pilot and Air Force general responded to an outburst with a drunken accusation that it was Stalin's fault that planes were unsatisfactory. Within a week he was arrested and perished within the NKVD [secret police] headquarters.

What Montefiore draws is a man who acts much like a vindictive Georgian clan leader. His inner circle are expected to keep the same excrutiating hours as he did- going to bed daily at 6 am- to feast with him at 2 am [Kruschev called these dinners hell] and as he grew older, to drink heavily. No one was excused and no one wanted to allow the others much time alone with Stalin. The irony is he kept those around him in such a state of fear that when he suffered a stroke his guards were too afraid to even enter his home to inquire about why he had not ventured out all day.

This is an excellent study into his personal affairs and Montefiore did his homework, interviewing family members, reading correspondence and official documents. This isn't the first Stalin biography one must visit, others by Ulam, Tucker and Deutcher are recommended. But it does illuminate these political biographies and is certainly less `gossipy' then the entertaining Radzinsky biography of Stalin.

Highly recommended.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A multi-faceted Stalin: sometimes tender, always terrifying, January 5, 2005
Simon Sebag Montefiore has written perhaps the greatest chronicle of the life of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Djugashvili to anyone who dared), his cabinet, their relationships with Koba and each other, their fears, power struggles, double and sometimes triple sidedness, with the utmost academic integrity and sensitivity.

It is easy to look back at Stalin and call him a devil, a Mephistopheles with no redeeming qualities, no hope for a better person struggling to escape from deep within his crippled body, no regrets for the crimes he commited. As Kruschev later said about himself, that applies doubly to Stalin: "I am up to my elbows in blood." Stalin often doubted himself, thought himself vicious and even cruel, had outbursts of sensitivity (the death of Nadya, for example) that make him seem all too human. But, with Stalin, these moments are underscored with very dark intentions. Did he murder Nadya himself in a fit of rage? Did he order the murder of Sergei Kirov, essentially paving the way for killing millions in the Great Purges? Why did he let a family member kill himself in a German concentration camp rather than agree to swapping him for a captured German general? It is easy to say it was out of some twisted malevolence, some psycopathic murderous rampage without reason, a hyperbolic shooting spree, but that is too easy. Montefiore does not paint Stalin in a sympathetic light, nor does he paint him in a Mesphistophelian one, he paints him in what I believe is a balanced and, for all intents and purposes, true one.

Though beware: before you plunge into this book be at least reasonably well versed in the general events and lingo of World War II. This isn't a historical recollection of the principle events of World War II: there is more time dedicated to the affairs of Politburo members and the sadistic rape-sprees of NKVD chief Beria than there is information about the fall of Berlin, the death of Hitler, or the Battle of Stalingrad. The War is over in a paragraph, Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated in the span of a sentence. Furthermore, Montefiore does not dare (I'm sure he is able to) come to general conclusions at the end of what are information dense chapters, which can prove to be frustrating. The books lacks a definite "spine": some information - complicated information - such as the intermarriage of Politburo sons and step-sons and daughters and step-daughters that appear in all their complicated glory for a couple of pages, only to disappear into obscurity never to be mentioned again. I poured over these sections trying to get the order right only to find it had little to do with anything. The book certainly needed another editor to get rid of these points that may only prove interesting to hardcore chroniclers. The general reader or even the student reader will find no use for them.

With these flaws in mind, it must be said that Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar is a triumph of post-Communist Soviet scholarship. The prose, although sometimes amateurish (some of his grammar is clunky and his structure unnecessarily complicated), is more often strong and powerful. Forceful even, with strong emotional impact. The fate of Sergo, the Rykovs, Kamenev and Zinoviev, Bukharin, are tragic events in the life of an increasingly paranoid, dangerously unstable, vicious, chilling tyrant that so often resembles nothing short of a tragicomedy.

This is a highly recommended book. If you have a decent knowledge of basic War-time Europe and the principle events then this is a must have. My advice is to slog through the perhaps extraneous bits, because the moments of brilliance you get along the way are well worth it. The postscript is marvellous.

I'd say enjoy this book, but enjoy is the wrong word. There isn't much enjoyable about mass murder and the systematic destruction of friends and family. Rather than enjoy this book, consider it. Consider all its themes, all its messages. Consider it and you will come out with an altered perspective on history and the judgement of the great personalities.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Koba the Dread, May 11, 2004
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Stalin, Koba to his friends (did he really have any?), has obviously been the focus of many historical works over the years; this new book, however, focuses on his private life and inner circle. Benefiting from newly released archival information as well as interviews, memoirs and new research, "The Court of the Red Tsar" is well written and almost compulsively readable for people like myself who have have been both fascinated and repelled by this astonishing and terrible man. For me, it serves as a sort of compendium of all the stories and anecdotes one might hope to read about the bizarre menagerie of misfits, sycophants and sociopaths with whom Stalin seemed to feel most at home, all living (and often dying) together in an environment that would have seemed very familiar to Caligula himself. And yet Stalin was no Caligula; he was horribly sane and chillingly far sighted, willing to wait years before striking down a perceived rival. That he was so successful, and ruled for so long, is a sobering testament to the power of evil in statecraft and human relations. Read this book for its unforgettable portrayal of the inner circle and their crimes, but don't expect too much by way of a broader historical context. The author's focus is unabashedly local, and the book is much more like Suetonius than Gibbon.
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This charming tyrant and mass murderer, April 13, 2004
By 
pnotley@hotmail.com (Edmonton, Alberta Canada) - See all my reviews
The dictator was an autodidact who read exhaustively, while envious of his more intellectual colleagues. He liked Steinbeck and Galsworthy and he admired Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable films. Surprisingly, he had a good singing voice while less surprisingly he had "a hangman's wit." Although he became the unrivaled leader by 1929, well into the thirties he had to show respect, deference and charm to his fellow Politburo members. During the years of collectivization he frequently had to write letters of apology to the leading party members whose sensitivities had been bruised. At the same time he could write to one colleague "I could cover you with kisses in gratitude for your actions down there." The atmosphere in the early thirties was rather different from what one would think. The elite lived comfortably but not (yet) luxuriously and they would still have problems with money. Many of the children remember the dictator's fondness towards them. The elite would go into each others apartments to talk, to chat, to ask if they had extra food or sugar. The dictator himself had only one or two bodyguards until the assassination of Kirov...
Welcome to Simon Sebag Montefiore's history of Stalin and his inner circle. As a work of history it is based on the most extensive archival research yet, the most recent scholarly research as well as intensive interviews with the survivors of the elite and their families. The result is a fascinating, disturbing work that details the life of Stalin and incidentally of the country that he ran. We read such tense passages such as the Revolution Day parade in 1941 held while the Germans were only fifty miles away. The work is full of interesting facts. The secret policeman Yagoda had a 165 pornographic pipes and cigarette holders while his successor Beria had eleven satin teddy bears (presumably because twelve would be just too much). We get to see a picture of a shirtless Molotov (of all people) playing tennis (of all things). In one of the very few good things one can say about him, Molotov still laid a place at the table for his arrested and imprisoned wife. (They were eventually reunited, unlike millions of other Soviets). Stalin's daughter apparently had a serious crush on Beria's son. Babel, Sholokhov and Yezhov all slept with the same woman (Yezhov's wife). Stalin was shocked at the fall of France: "Couldn't they put up any resistance at all? Now Hitler's going to beat our brains in!" He also described Hiroshima as "super-barbaric."
More to the point Montefiore discusses Stalin's personal life. His wife almost certainly did commit suicide (and was not murdered as others suggested). Montefiore points out that she appeared to have been genuinely manic-depressive. Being married to Stalin obviously didn't help this, but it didn't cause it either. Montefiore leans against the idea that Kirov was murdered on Stalin's order. Like the burning of the Reichstag and the assassination of John F. Kennedy this probably was the act of a single individual. Maxim Gorky's death was probably the result of natural causes. As Montefiore goes on he points out that the purges was not just the result of one's man evil (his colleagues and lower level bureaucrats eagerly participated and made their own lists.) Oddly enough, the doctor's plot, the sinister anti-Semitic "conspiracy" that was apparently supposed to launch Stalin's final purge, had a basis in fact: apparently Zhdanov's doctors had hastened his death by incompetence. We learn more about Beria; on the one hand he was a sadistic torturer, a man who murdered and poisoned with his bare hands, a vile rapist. But on the other hand he was an effective bureaucrat, married to a beautiful woman who was loyal to him to the end of her days, and was surprisingly liberal. And so we read about how Stalin moved from the purges through the war to the cold war and became an absolute dictator. And so we read how no-one was safe: Molotov's wife, Kaganovich's brother, Kalinin's wife, Mikoyan's son, Khruschev's daughter in law and several of Stalin's own-in-laws all faced imprisonment or death.
As the book goes on some weaknesses become clearer. The notes are somewhat awkward and it is not always clear which fact refers to which source. There are certain slips such as when Montefiore writes that Jews did not make up 6% of the party but were a majority of the government (which was what exactly?) At one time Montefiore says that Stalin was "more paranoid and more confident" which does not exactly explain things. More and more there is emphasis on the striking detail and the horrific anecdote, as opposed to sustained analysis. And so we get two pages on how Stalin went about getting a new national anthem, five pages on his first meeting with Churchill, two and a half pages on his daughter's relationship with a much older man. But the battle of Kursk only gets a paragraph, and it is not clear how the Soviet Union survived to stop Hitler. There is little on economic planning, while nationalities policy is only discussed when deportations come up. By the postwar years the narrative is the grim, familiar horrific account of endless, bullying banquets with Stalin's colleagues in deadly fear for their lives, and Soviet history is too much reduced to Stalin's whims (this particularly weakens his discussion of the cold war). But overall this is an important book that tells us much that we didn't know about the man whose victims ran into the eight digits.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essay on human fear, June 9, 2004
By 
J. Martens (Winnetka, IL USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
"The injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge." That's what Nicolo Machiavelli advised 16th century rulers in The Prince and he further evoked the subject of fear, devoting a chapter to the question of whether it's better for a ruler to be feared or loved by his subjects. Machiavelli had a glimmering that people quickly bend to fear and that rulers could take advantage of this weakness.
Joseph Stalin proves to be history's real master of fear. He understood how fear paralyzes people. His use of fear makes Machiavelli's guidance tentative, weak and quaintly squeamish.
Montefiore's biography of Stalin describes how the Soviet dictator mastered the political use of fear in ways never imagined by Machiavelli. No longer should we view Stalin as a paranoid. Bolshevism proved a useful ideology for acquiring and justifying the power Stalin needed to create fear. He sought to unleash total fear. His actions aimed at this end, not at counteracting imagined threats.
Montefiore promises to go "beyond the traditional explanations of Stalin as `enigma,' `madman,' or `Satanic genius' (to create) a more understandable and intimate character." He succeeds admirably. Previous descriptions of Stalin necessarily relied on rather limited sources, many of which centered on the Soviet press. Stalin became a rather wooden Communist Party leader, obsessing over ideological fine points and hunting down heresies. Montefiore's Stalin is flesh and blood, preying on human weakness. Seeking to dominate people by fear, he meted out torture, death and prison to nameless workers, peasants, family members, friends, generals, intellectuals, bodyguards and secret policemen. The author deftly weaves together vignettes gleaned from diaries, newly available archival materials, recently published Russian memoirs, and interviews to create breathing portrayals of the victims and their tormenters.
Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar is organized chronologically, with a heavy emphasis given to the 1930s and 40s. Montefiore conducts a tour of the major events of Stalin's life, both private, such as the suicide of his second wife, and political. Mercifully the book contains a "List of Characters," a quick look-up reference to the members of Stalin's court. It's an invaluable crutch. The list's groupings are revealing of the author's focus: family, allies, generals, enemies and former allies, and engineers of the human soul. In describing Stalin's life, Montefiore adds the color of the surrounding internecine feuds, court marriages, drunken orgies, warped personalities and family scandals.
Books of this scope often raise puzzling questions. In July 1936 the penultimate draft of the new Soviet Constitution contained no reference to a People's Commissariat for Defense Production; yet, only several weeks later, the new Constitution created this organization. In the same month the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Soviet Union was indirectly warring against Nazi Germany. Stalin must have pondered war with Hitler, a rabid anti-Bolshevik, for quite some time. Facing war, Stalin unleashed a wave of total fear, murdering old friends, fellow revolutionaries, generals and regional party officials. None of the new Russian sources, however, reveals anything substantial about Stalin's thoughts on Nazi Germany prior to July 1936. Was this subject never whispered about among his cronies? In this reader's mind, that's a strange gap that at least deserves some explanation.
Another puzzle is the immediate post-war period. Montefiore tersely admits, "the post-war years remain the murkiest of Stalin's reign" (p. 537). It would be instructive to hear his views on what are the remaining historical puzzles and what blocks our way to gaining a better understanding of them.
Montefiore's revelations of how Stalin mastered people with fear should be unsettling to all of us. We should recognize our universal susceptibility to such control. This biography gives us insights far beyond Russia's history. Stalin, unchecked by moral and legal institutions, exploited a deep human instinct. One wonders how strong our democratic institutions would be against a leader so skillful in playing on human fear.
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34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stalin liked to play billiards, Kaganovich played tennis, October 27, 2004
I had never read a biography of Stalin and chose this book. It was not what I was after. The book is for the reader that has a good grounding in Stalin's life and accomplishments (and Russian history) and is looking for the more day-to-day intimate or trivial details of the man's life. Below is an example of a typical page:

"Nadya played tennis with the immaculate Voroshilov, when he was sober, and Kaganovich, who played in his tunic and boots. Mikoyan, Voroshilov and Budyonny rode horses donated by the Cavalry Inspectorate. If it was winter, Kaganovish and Mikoyan skied. Molotov pulled his daughter in a sledge like a nag pulling a peasant's plough. Vjoroshilov and Sergo were avid hunters. Stalin preferred billiards."

This is not what I was looking for or even care about. Events in Russian history, like the Great Terror, leap into the text without warning as a kind of background to much more intimate details. I was looking for an explanation of these events within some historical context, not what deserts Stalin preferred after dinner while they were going on.

In addition, I thought the prose lacked any sense of drama, and the time frame jumped around so often it was difficult for me, being a novice of Russian history, to have any sense of place.

This book would have value if the reader had a firm footing in Russian history and a previous knowledge of Stalin's life. Then the intimate revelations of this work would flesh out the image of the subject.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Family-values & the psychosis of a dictatorship, June 14, 2004
By 
Nils Young (Medway, OH USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I was seven years old when Stalin died. His mythic spirit hovered over my childhood in the 50s revolts in Hungary, my parents subdued fear of Senator McCarthy's pogrom & jingoism and the nuns' ceaseless telling of how horrible life would be under Communism & its denial of God. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen's angels cleaned his blackboards on national television, a program we watched "religiously," since it added to our misunderstandings of the Iron Curtain. And I have been ever since fascinated by the lives and minds of history's beasts.
This strange book reveals a chummy and quaint family of violent & explosive personalities. It is the story of a society that some may find strangely resonant with today. Bolshevism promised a new dynamism for a new world. Lives passed back and forth across tables and mattresses, in and out of dachas, but without any of the half-baked tenderness of the heydays of hippiedom. Any such comparison falls flat when the center of this dynamism always refers back to Stalin.
Montefiore makes it quite clear early on that this is no family-values story. All the love letters, children and garden-tending cannot cover up the gut-wrenching tyranny that allowed Stalin to arrest & do away with families of his co-conspirators and then use that sway to eventually do away with his henchmen. Montefiore gives it to us straight: this was a murderous gang of thugs, a kleptocracy of the hell-bound, a celebration of mean-spiritedness & connivance.
By the time I got to the last pages & my memories of my life as a "Cold War" child finally caught up with circumstances in the book, I could relax. When Stalin's death came to the pages, I realized that I had survived more than just reading the book. I had survived that time myself. Somewhere between my seventh year and today, everything that the author describes has touched my life, one way or the other.
I was reminded of watching TV coverage of German citizens on both sides of the Berlin Wall taking history into their own hands. I could think only of lives cut short and brutalized, lives that weren't long enough to see the end of what Lenin and certainly Stalin had begun.
This is a well-written, seriously documented book. The author has taken great pains to collect & organize this extremely important piece of history, far too late in the telling. It's more than a shopping list of the dead, the show trials, the shootings, hangings & pre-arranged automobile accidents. It's the story of one life that cut short 20 million others. It's a story that should be known today, when once again, as Montefiore notes, "'terrorism' simply signified 'any doubt about the policies or character of'" the Great Leader himself.
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Stalin. Simon Sebag Montefiore
Stalin. Simon Sebag Montefiore by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Paperback - February 1, 2012)
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