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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar Paperback – September 13, 2005
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“An extraordinary book. . . . For anyone fascinated by the nature of evil—and by the effects of absolute power on human relationships—this book will provide new insights on every page.” —Anne Applebaum, Evening Standard (London)
“The first intimate portrait of a man who had more lives on his conscience than Hitler. . . . Disturbing and perplexing.” —Richard Pipes, The New York Times Book Review
“Superb. . . . No Western writer has got as close. . . . A dark and excellent book.” —The New York Review of Books
“Terrific. . . . A deeply researched and wonderfully readable accomplishment—scholarship as a kind of savage gossip.” —Time
“Unprecedented in its intimacy and horrifying in its implications, not merely because it shows that the engineers of one of history’s greatest holocausts were depraved . . . but also because they emerge in these pages as surprisingly normal.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A marvelously well-researched book. . . . Montefiore has written a supremely important book about Joseph Stalin, a biography that other scholars will find hard to equal. This is sure to be one of the outstanding books of the year.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Ultra reader-friendly, lively, gossipy and packaged with revelations about the intimacies and intrigues of Stalin the man and his courtiers. Brilliant.” —Evening Standard Book Page
“A book that had to be written. . . . Montefiore’s biography is far different from anything in this genre. A superb piece of research and frighteningly lucid.” —The Washington Times
“Gripping and timely. . . . Montefiore has illuminated wider aspects of the history of the USSR. This is one of the few recent books on Stalinism that will be read in years to come.” —Robert Service, The Guardian (London)
“Montefiore combines his research among the primary sources and the fruits of his interviews into a focused, gripping story about a man, who, along with Mao, Hitler and Genghis Khan, has to be in the running for history’s greatest mass murderer.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[A] masterful and terrifying account of Stalin as seen within his close entourage. . . . Seldom has the picture been put in finer focus than by Montefiore.” —Alistair Horne, The Times (London)
“Horrific, revelatory and sobering. . . . A triumph of research.” —John le Carré, The Observer
“I loved the totalitarian high baroque sleaze of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin. . . . One of the 2004 Guardian Books of the Year.” —Simon Schama, The Guardian (London)
“A grim masterpiece shot through with lashes of black humor. . . . The personal details are riveting.” —Antonia Fraser, Mail on Sunday
“A well-researched and insightful book. . . . The narrative adroitly catches the atmosphere of the time.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“I did not think I could learn anything new about Stalin, but I was wrong. A stunning performance.” —Henry Kissinger
“Montefiore’s deft combination of biography and history brings Stalin alive, so that he becomes as complex and contradictory as any of the great characters in fiction.” —The New York Sun
“If you plan (wisely) to read only one book about Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, let it be Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Simon Sebag Montefiore, writing with the skill of a novelist . . . has based his highly readable biographical thriller solidly and factually not only on all of the preceding scholarly studies of the Soviet dictator but also upon newly available archival materials.” —The Seattle Times
“A large and ambitious overview—and under-view—of the Soviet leader’s life and epoch, drawn from an impressively wide array of Russian sources.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Spectacular. . . . An impressive and compelling work, using important new documents.” —The Spectator
“Sebag Montefiore has done a valuable service in drawing our attention to a hitherto little-studied aspect of Stalinism. As his Stalin demonstrates, the personal relationships of those who ran the Kremlin provided an essential dynamic for the development of the Stalinist system. Isolated from the masses, these members of the privileged elite depended on one another for emotional sustenance to an extraordinary degree.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
From the Inside Flap
Fifty years after his death, Stalin remains a figure of powerful and dark fascination. The almost unfathomable scale of his crimes-as many as 20 million Soviets died in his purges and infamous Gulag-has given him the lasting distinction as a personification of evil in the twentieth century. But though the facts of Stalin's reign are well known, this remarkable biography reveals a Stalin we have never seen before as it illuminates the vast foundation-human, psychological and physical-that supported and encouraged him, the men and women who did his bidding, lived in fear of him and, more often than not, were betrayed by him.
In a seamless meshing of exhaustive research, brilliant synthesis and narrative elan, Simon Sebag Montefiore chronicles the life and lives of Stalin's court from the time of his acclamation as "leader" in 1929, five years after Lenin's death, until his own death in 1953 at the age of seventy-three. Through the lens of personality-Stalin's as well as those of his most notorious henchmen, Molotov, Beria and Yezhov among them-the author sheds new light on the oligarchy that attempted to create a new world by exterminating the old. He gives us the details of their quotidian and monstrous lives: Stalin's favorites in music, movies, literature (Hemmingway, "The Forsyte Saga and "The Last of the Mohicans were at the top of his list), food and history (he took Ivan the Terrible as his role model and swore by Lenin's dictum, "A revolution without firing squads is meaningless"). We see him among his courtiers, his informal but deadly game of power played out at dinners and parties at Black Sea villas and in the apartments of the Kremlin. We see the debauchery, paranoia andcravenness that ruled the lives of Stalin's inner court, and we see how the dictator played them one against the other in order to hone the awful efficiency of his killing machine.
With stunning attention to detail, Montefiore documents the crimes, small and large, of all the members of Stalin's court. And he traces the intricate and shifting web of their relationships as the relative warmth of Stalin's rule in the early 1930s gives way to the Great Terror of the late 1930s, the upheaval of World War II (there has never been as acute an account of Stalin's meeting at Yalta with Churchill and Roosevelt) and the horrific postwar years when he terrorized his closest associates as unrelentingly as he did the rest of his country.
"Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar gives an unprecedented understanding of Stalin's dictatorship, and, as well, a Stalin as human and complicated as he is brutal. It is a galvanizing portrait: razor-sharp, sensitive and unforgiving.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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This book does a marvelous account at portraying those around him including his family.
I have read this book twice, and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.
No book has given such a lucid, descriptive, and fascinating account of the man, his closest so circle and the country at the time. I also like the fact that unlike many other biographies it does not preach or lecture on the negatives of socialism ad nauseum. It merely tells the facts
This book has been derided as gossipy but the author goes to lengths to contemplate how personal relationships affected more important things like the course of Soviet history. It is true that the focus is clearly on personalities rather than grand historical events (about which much more ink has been spilled in any case) and there are certainly trivial details like what people wore. However, I think the trivia add color without detracting from the scholarly value of the work. A lot of research went into this book and it shows (not least in the length of the footnotes). You learn a great deal about the constraints Stalin operated under--he was surely a dictator, but his actual level of dictatorial power varied (reaching its height during the purges, I think). And there were certainly times that he altered his behavior or decisions because of contradictory subordinates (especially generals) and/or the likely reaction of the Politburo.
Other reviewers have commented on how Arendt's "banality of evil" applies to Stalin and his cronies, but I was also reminded of a line in the film Amelie wherein the protagonist's friend questions her love interest. She asks him to complete a series of proverbs and states that "a man who knows all his proverbs can't be all bad" the essence of this meaning, as I interpreted it, that someone who engages with their heritage comes away with a positive effect on him or herself. There is also Anne Frank's statement that there's good in all people. Court of the Red Tsar more or less takes this to its furthest extent: We see Stalin ordering the murder of Poskrebyshev's wife and his trusted bodyguard Pauker (both things I was curious about "why"--and Montefiore more or less answers them as best as they can be answered), the arrest or murder of many others (though he sort of leaves Lakoba's and Pavel Alliluyev's deaths unexplained--the former was surely murder, but the extent of Stalin's responsibility is unknown; the latter is ambiguous), and generally turning on his friends and family in a most lethal way. All this on top of his already well documented leadership of purges, etc--the author frequently identifies attempts to blame Beria, Yezhov etc (monsters in their own right) for things that ultimately roll up to Stalin.
All the while, he is writing letters to help the most random people such as the tsarist cop who guarded him in exile (vouched for because he wasn't very hard on the younger Stalin), enjoying cultivating roses in his garden, humoring someone who writes to him asking to be his brother, reading a huge variety of literature from around the world, fretting that he wasted Lenin's "legacy" by not preparing for the German invasion (which is rich on multiple levels, but it is hard to fathom in context why he would say it in an insincere way), and perhaps most incongruously, caring for a houseguest who had passed out by putting a blanket over him. (In a similar vein, cronies like Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Zhdanov, and even Beria are shown going out of their way to intercede on behalf of people and correct injustices of the Soviet system from time to time, despite their overall role in perpetuating the Stalinist regime).
Indeed, it would be difficult for some Western readers to get through all the positive anecdotes (I kid you not, there are many in this book) and still be willing to call Stalin a monster. But Montefiore does it, and rightly so. If anything, the takeaway is that when it comes to morality, there comes a point when the good cannot cancel out all the bad: you can enjoy learning and culture and genuinely care about/for others and still be an evil person overall. When the blood of millions is on your hands, there's not much you can do to make up for it even if you try--and the impression is that Stalin didn't exactly try as much as he simply had occasional outbursts of common decency. Montefiore seems aware of this, and charts a very sensible course that is non-polemical without striving pointlessly for artificial objectivity.
This book requires a reasonable level of familiarity with the subject matter to get the most out of it. For instance, the Cheka/OGPU/MGB/KGB are basically all the same organization, but the narrative uses each one according to what the agency was known as in the timeframe being discussed. There is one footnote explaining the term "Chekist" but otherwise you just have to know this from elsewhere. Still, if you're willing to stop reading to look things up it's entirely accessible to a general audience.