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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar Paperback – September 13, 2005
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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.
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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
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Mr. Montefiore obviously put a great deal of time and effort in researching Stalin. For this thank you and well done.
Simon Sebag Montefiore demonstrates in this book is that yes there is still more ground that previously had been uncovered. Focusing on interviews with survivors, recently published memoirs, and combing the Russian archives, Montefiore manages to paint a picture of what life with Iosef was really like. To be sure the basic outline of Stalin's life is unchanged from previous attempts. What Montefiore does do is provide an unprecedented degree of detail on what really went on behind the Kremlin walls. This is a remarkable achievement not only in what it brings to the understanding of Stalin's life, but also in capturing some of the material from the survivors. While I did thoroughly enjoy Montefiore's previous book on Potemkin, I am extremely impressed with his efforts here in a totally different area. He is to be commended for his efforts.