Joseph Vissarionovich and the People Who Loved Him

Because some of them undoubtedly did, even people who knew him quite well. In his heyday, millions professed their love, sang his praises. Even those he had condemned in show trials, or in no trials, wrote to him of their devotion, wrote of their faithfulness, wrote of their belief. Perhaps they meant it, perhaps it was the only hope they had to continue living.

One person who does seem to have loved him in something like the normal sense of the word was his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Perhaps that is why she shot herself.

Simon Sebag Montefiore opens Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar with a private party to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The party was held at the Kremlin apartment of the Defense Commissar, Voroshilov, and the very inmost of the Party elite was there.

They ate well, though not as lavishly as would later become the court custom. They toasted, they drank copiously, they danced and sang and flirted. The upper reaches of the Bolsheviks were tightened by kinship, by conspiritorial years together and by numerous affairs. Nadya, as Stalin’s wife was known, danced with her godfather, “the official in charge of the Kremlin who was already shocking the Party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.” Stalin, in Montefiore’s account, was busy with his own flirtation with the wife of a Red Army commander. Stalin and Nadya quarrelled, loudly, visibly at the party. Eventually, Nadya stormed out, returning in time to their apartment. Sometime in the night, she took a small pistol her brother had given her and shot herself in the heart.

Accounts differ about what Stalin did in those hours. He may have gone to one of his dachas, where he may have pursued a dalliance. He may not have done either, and returned to the apartment to sleep in his separate bedroom.

“Stalin was poleaxed. This supremely political creature, with an inhuman disregard for the millions of starving women and children in his own country, displayed more humanity in the next few days than he would at any other time in his life.”

It would not be right to say that everything changed after Nadya’s death. Famine gripped the Ukraine before she died, and after. Stalin sent close comrades to their deaths before and after. He was ruthless, bloodthirsty and calculating before and after.

Yet Montefiore chooses the incident as the crux of his biography because there were discernible differences, magnified two years later by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Kirov, who might reasonably be described as a friend of Stalin.

The book is an intimate portrait, based on access to archives and interviews with the few survivors of the inner circle of that period. It captures the Bolshevik ethos, the continuous conspiring, and the servility of true Stalinism. His intimates’ power and total dependence are clearly on display, perhaps most clearly in the careers of the heads of the secret police. Yegoda succeeded by Yezhov succeeded by Beria, each pushing the previous master out of power and into the grave. Beria survived Stalin, but was shot within a year.

Those poisonings and shootings are but a snippet. Very few of the people who appear in the books pages die natural deaths. Anastas Mikoyan is remarkable in the Politburo for having served from Ilyich to Ilyich–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. Millions die off-stage, in the terror famine, in the gulag, in the war. Stalin knew and approved of it; much of it he directed himself.

One particularly chilling chapter details how Stalin proceeded to have the wives of his close comrades either executed or sent to the gulag. Molotov was practically the only one who stood up even a little for his spouse.

The cruelty on a personal level, the industrial scale of murderousness, the amount of torture and death are almost enough to make one favor the invading Germans. Except that their victory would probably have been even worse.

One good aspect of the book is its thorough coverage of Stalin after the War: his pursuit of the bomb, the dangerous game of succession among the Soviet magnates, and his final purges. It’s a period that I didn’t know much about, and one that often seems a bit of a blank in other histories. Another strong point is its 30-page index, a model of the art. Finding almost anything in the 660+ pages of text is a breeze.

Montefiore give a sense of the personalities of the people closest to Stalin, the intimate details of their holidays, their habits, their jealousies. He portrays a convincing Stalin and lays bare the logic of the regime. It captures the small and the sweeping. It’s a gripping, sickening, astonishing work.

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