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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar Paperback – September 13, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Montefiore (The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin) is more interested in life at the top than at the bottom, so he includes hundreds of pages on Stalin's purges of top Communists, while devoting much less space to the forced collectivization of Soviet peasants that led to millions of deaths. In lively prose, he intersperses his mammoth account of Stalin's often-deadly political decisions with the personal lives of the Soviet dictator and those around him. As a result, the reader learns about sexual peccadilloes of the top Communists: Stalin's secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, for one, "craved athletic women, haunting the locker rooms of Soviet swimmers and basketball players." Stalin's own escapades after the death of his wife are also noted. There's also much detail about the food at parties and other meetings of Stalin's henchmen. The effect is paradoxical: Stalin and his cronies are humanized at the same time as their cruel misdeeds are recounted. Montefiore offers little help in answering some of the unsettled questions surrounding Stalin: how involved was he in the 1934 murder of rising official Sergei Kirov, for example. He also seems to leave open the question of Stalin's paranoia: he argues that the Georgian-born ruler was a charming man who used his people skills to get whatever he wanted. Montefiore mainly skirts the paranoia issue, noting that only after WWII, when Stalin launched his anti-Semitic campaigns, did he "become a vicious and obsessional anti-Semite." There are many Stalin biographies out there, but this fascinating work distinguishes itself by its extensive use of fresh archival material and its focus on Stalin's ever-changing coterie. Maps and 24 pages of photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Any biography of a tyrant runs the risk of humanizing its subject to the point of appearing to mitigate his crimes. But Montefiore's intimate portrait actually throws the coldhearted murderousness with which Stalin pursued and defended power into sharper relief. The book—much of it based on fresh archival material—moves smoothly between detailed sketches of everyday life at the Kremlin and accounts of the paranoid and sanguinary scheming that determined Soviet politics. This juxtaposition captures the vertiginous quality of life in Stalin's court, where no allegiance was permanent. Just as strikingly, Montefiore shows how Stalin, a "master of friendships," used charm to win the support of members of the Party's inner circle (many of whom ended up regretting it). This haunting book gets us as close as we are likely to come to the man who believed that "the solution to every human problem was death."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400076781
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400076789
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (207 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Sebag Montefiore's bestselling, prize-winning books are now published in over 45 languages. A historian specializing in Russia and the Middle East, Dr Montefiore's next major book is 'The Romanovs 1613-1918', a full political, cultural and personal history of the 19 tsars of the dynasty that ruled Russia for over 300 years and an analysis of the nature of Russian empire, to be published in 2016.

'Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner' was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. 'Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar' won the History Book of the Year Prize, British Book Awards. 'Young Stalin' won LA Times Book Prize for Biography (USA), the Costa Biography Award (UK), the Kreisky Prize for Political Literature (Austria) and Le Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique (France). Both Stalin biographies were bestsellers internationally. 'Jerusalem: the Biography' won the Jewish Book of the Year Prize in the USA and was number one non-fiction bestseller in the UK and an international bestseller.

He is also the author of two novels. 'One Night in Winter' won the Best Political Novel of the Year Prize in Britain and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize. His thriller-love-stories set in Russia - 'One Night in Winter' and 'Sashenka' - are both in paperback.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Visiting Professor at Buckingham University, he is the presenter of three BBC tv series, Jerusalem(2011); Rome (2012) and Istanbul/Constantinople -'Byzantium: a tale of 3 cities'(2013). He was educated at Harrow School and Caius College, Cambridge University where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy.
Twitter: @simonmontefiore
For more information: www.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

195 of 208 people found the following review helpful By Leonard Fleisig VINE VOICE on August 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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59 of 62 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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84 of 92 people found the following review helpful By Newton Munnow on April 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Virgil on September 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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