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 Иосиф Виссарионович Сталин



The Other Monster

A cascade of new books examines Stalin and his terror.

By Andrew Nagorski

May 30 issue - As Russia prepared for its lavish commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II earlier this month, there were predictable calls for the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. After all, the Orel city legislature pointed out in its bid to put up monuments to the Soviet leader, he had led the country to victory over Nazi Germany. But the provincial lawmakers didn't stop there. They argued that it's never been proved that Stalin was responsible for the millions of people who were murdered either by firing squads or in the Gulag during his rule.

The fact that many Russians are still in denial about the monstrosity of Stalin's crimes—and that much of the world dismisses their behavior in a way that it would never shrug off Holocaust deniers—is one good reason to welcome the cascade of new books about the Soviet dictator. As Donald Rayfield points out in "Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him" (541 pages. Random House), a thorough examination of the terror apparatus headed by the secret police, Stalinism remains "a deep-seated infection in Russia's body politic." He adds that Vladimir Putin's regime "does not so much deny as set aside Stalin's holocaust, by celebrating Stalin instead as the architect of victory [in World War II] and the KGB as Russia's samurai."

But that is not the only reason for Stalin's current literary popularity. The glasnost era of the late 1980s triggered an outpouring of documents, personal recollections and histories of the Stalinist era that spilled over into much of the 1990s. Western authors are tapping into that pool of new information—even as they are discovering that, under Putin, some of the archives are becoming more secretive again. In part, too, the new focus on Stalin is a result of the flood of Hitler books a few years ago. Two tyrants stood out among all the others in the 20th century, and there was an imbalance in the amount of attention paid to them.

Just as in Hitler's case, though, the primary motivation is fascination with a man and a system so evil that it defies easy explanation. The authors grapple with the core personality of their subject. "His was a complex mind," Robert Service writes in "Stalin: A Biography" (715 pages. Belknap Harvard), which offers the most detailed account of his life, career and beliefs. "He was not a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet he had the tendencies in the direction of a paranoid and schizophrenic personality disorder." But Rayfield and others point out that Stalin, like Hitler, was accompanied by a huge band of willing—even ghoulishly eager—torturers and executioners. In "The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia" (849 pages. Norton), Richard Overy examines the parallels and the differences in the two men's lives. As he and several other authors note, their trappings of power—and terror—were strikingly similar. And each was intrigued by the other. "Together with the Germans, we would have been invincible," Stalin once wistfully declared.

Which leads to the deadly game Stalin and Hitler played during the war—first as allies during the nearly two years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then as mortal enemies when Hitler invaded Russia. In "What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa" (310 pages. Yale), David E. Murphy, a former CIA operative, offers chapter and verse on how Stalin wilfully disregarded an avalanche of warnings from his spies that Germany was about to attack. "Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front" (326 pages. Houghton Mifflin) by Constantine Pleshakov, the one Russian author in this mix, spells out the disastrous consequences for Soviet forces at the start of the invasion: staggering losses and the collapse of entire military units as the Germans benefited from the element of surprise they never should have had—all brought to life in a colorful narrative full of harrowing individual stories.

Eventually, of course, Stalin and the Red Army recovered and pulled the country back from the brink of defeat. But 27 million Soviet citizens died in the process, many of them needlessly—and some of them at the hands of the machinery of terror that Stalin kept running even as he fought the Germans. As these new books make clear, Stalin wasn't just a monster; he was a disaster for his country and the world.


April 18, 2004

'Stalin': Up Close and Personal


The Court of the Red Tsar.

By Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Illustrated. 785 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $30.

There are literally hundreds of books about Stalin, the dictator who for a quarter of a century tyrannized the Soviet Union and kept much of the world on tenterhooks. But because his private life was so closely shielded, the vast bulk of this material concentrated on his domestic and foreign policies rather than on his person. As a consequence, his image was blurred: an immensely powerful historic figure, he remained incomprehensible as a human being, a distant and shadowy apparition, a demigod.

''Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,'' by the British journalist and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore, reverses this approach: it pays minimal attention to Stalin's politics and concentrates on the man and his immediate associates. This was made possible by the author's access to previously secret private documents, including Stalin's notes and messages, as well as by interviews with the surviving offspring of his closest companions. In addition, Montefiore has made an exhaustive study of the published literature. The result is the first intimate portrait of a man who had more lives on his conscience than Hitler and yet, according to opinion polls, is regarded by Russians even today as a giant, the fourth greatest human being in world history.

The picture that emerges from ''Stalin'' is both disturbing and perplexing. In the early chapters of Montefiore's narrative Stalin is already the unchallenged ruler of the Soviet Union, surrounded by toadies ready to carry out his every whim. His youth and rise to power are disposed of in a mere 12 pages. Barely mentioned are the industrialization program, which drove Soviet living standards to unparalleled lows, or collectivization, which re-enserfed Russian peasants, causing millions of deaths from starvation.

What we do learn is that Stalin had an unexpected human side to his personality. He could sentence thousands of innocent people to death with a stroke of the pen and then go to his private cinema to enjoy an American cowboy movie, yet he could also display affection and tenderness. The book opens with a prologue describing the suicide of his wife in 1932, a tragedy that, according to Montefiore, shattered him for life. There are numerous examples of Stalin's affection for his children and friends of his youth. And he looked after his associates, making sure they took good care of themselves. Once, when Artyom Mikoyan, designer of the MIG aircraft, ''suffered angina and was put to bed, he was aware of someone coming into his room and tenderly laying a blanket over him. He was amazed to see it was Stalin.''

These manifestations of humanity are supplemented with evidence that Stalin had intellectual aspirations. He displayed a passionate interest in history; at the height of World War II he spent his spare time reading about ancient Greece. After the war, as he was about to leave on vacation, he ordered a library of books that included volumes of Shakespeare, Herzen, Goethe's letters, ''Poetry of the French Revolution'' and a history of the Seven Years' War.

How to reconcile such manifestations of humanity and intellectualism with the persistent sadism, clinical paranoia and debauchery that fill so many of the pages of this book? For life at Stalin's court was a kind of Grand Guignol, dominated by the unpredictable and irrational behavior of the leader -- with his ''swarthy pock-marked face, gray hair, broken stained teeth and yellow Oriental eyes'' -- who kept his entourage in constant dread of his outbursts. People were expelled from his presence for no apparent reason, sometimes simply demoted, sometimes arrested and tortured. In 1937 he had the Politburo formally authorize physical torture of ''enemies of the people,'' and he would add the words ''Beat, beat!'' next to a victim's name.

His cronies learned to anticipate his moods in diverse ways, even from gestures he made with his pipe: ''Stalin was always pacing up and down. There were various warning signals of a black temper: if the pipe was unlit, it was a bad omen. If Stalin put it down, an explosion was imminent. Yet if he stroked his mustache with the mouthpiece of the pipe, this meant he was pleased.''

Perhaps the explanation for the contradictions in his character is that the savage tyrant needed to calm his conscience, to assure himself that he was really a decent human being. His cruelties were necessary, he had to believe, to safeguard the Communist cause that he embodied.

The most fascinating chapters in this fascinating biography deal with Stalin's actions during the war with Germany. The motives behind his 1939 deal with Hitler are not delved into, but there is ample evidence of his unwillingness to believe a steady stream of intelligence, Soviet as well as Western, that his Nazi partner was about to attack him. Afterward he privately admitted that he had been wrong: ''When you're trying to make a decision, NEVER put yourself into the mind of the other person because if you do, you can make a terrible mistake.'' Apparently he had reasoned that if he were in Hitler's shoes he would not have invaded a country that assured him of a stable Eastern front, while supplying him with the raw materials he needed for his assault on Britain and its empire.

Once he had overcome his shock, Stalin took personal charge of the war effort, bullying and cajoling everyone including his generals but, unlike Hitler, in the end always acquiescing to their advice. Montefiore's biography leaves no doubt that his leadership was essential to Soviet victory both in organizing Russia's defenses and in sustaining public morale. But it was a victory that, in good measure, was gained by the unstinting expenditure of Red Army lives. Stalin emerged from the war utterly exhausted and more than ever convinced of his infallibility. In his last years he became inordinately capricious, suspecting everyone and ready to jettison on trumped-up charges even his most loyal followers. He spent much time vacationing in his lavish palaces. He indulged in drunken orgies, where he would force his ministers to dance for his amusement: ''He made the sweating Khrushchev drop to his haunches and do the gopak that made him look like 'a cow dancing on ice.' '' The Polish security boss, Jacob Berman, was made to waltz with Molotov. Stalin hated it if anyone disagreed with him, yet he admired the courage of those who did: ''Having created an environment of bootlicking idolatry,'' Montefiore writes, ''Stalin was irritated by it.''

His paranoia toward the end of his life centered on the Jewish population, which he came to suspect of being more loyal to Israel and the United States instead of the Soviet Union. He ordered the murder of a number of leading Jewish personalities and was about to give the signal for the mass deportations of Soviet Jews when death intervened.

This is what Simon Sebag Montefiore concludes about Stalin from his meticulous researches: ''It is no longer enough to describe him as an 'enigma.' . . . The man inside was a superintelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches. . . . This lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia . . . who believed the solution to every human problem was death.''

I am not entirely persuaded that Stalin was either ''a superintelligent'' politician or an ''intellectual.'' But however one interprets the evidence Montefiore has so assiduously collected and vividly presented, no future biography of Stalin will be able to ignore this intimate portrait.

Richard Pipes is a professor emeritus of history at Harvard and the author, most recently, of ''Vixi: The Memoirs of a Non-Belonger.''



Ordinary Monsters
When mass murder was a business with its own bureaucrats and memoranda.

Reviewed by David Satter

Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page BW10

STALIN: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf. 785 pp. $30

In April 1937, Bronka Poskrebysheva, the glamorous wife of Alexander Poskrebyshev, Stalin's chef de cabinet, arranged to meet Stalin alone at his dacha to plead for the life of her arrested brother. Stalin hated women begging for the lives of their relatives, but he had a large court, and as the Terror expanded such appeals became increasingly common. Nothing is known about the meeting except that Bronka's mission failed. Two years later, however, she decided to try again. This time, she called Lavrenty Beria, head of the Russian secret police, and asked if she could come to discuss her brother. She was never seen again.

After Bronka's arrest, Poskrebyshev begged Stalin to release his wife. "Don't worry," Stalin supposedly replied, "we'll find you another wife." Bronka was shot in 1941, but her disappearance did not diminish Poskrebyshev's dedication to Stalin. He even remained friends with Beria. The only awkwardness came when Beria hugged his daughter, Natalya, and sighed, "You're going to be as beautiful as your mother." Poskrebyshev turned green and, struggling to control his emotions, said, "Natalya, go and play."

The story of how Stalin's chief of staff loyally served the man who murdered his wife is one of many recounted by British biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore in his engrossing new book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. In 1999, the Russian government opened a section of the Russian Presidential Archive that contained the letters of Stalin, as well those of the members of his entourage and their families. These materials make up a large part of the source material for the book. Montefiore was also able to locate the children and grandchildren of many members of Stalin's court, and they shared their recollections and, in some cases, unpublished memoirs.

The result is a portrait of Stalin and the members of his court that is 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 -- there has always been ample evidence of that -- but also because they emerge in these pages as surprisingly normal. This raises the possibility that, under the influence of the appropriate ideas and with the right career incentives, crimes like those of the Stalinist regime could be committed by people like ourselves.

Stalin is replete with personal details from the lives of the dictator and the members of his entourage: Stalin's personal charm and consideration for his colleagues, Molotov's devotion to his wife, Kaganovich's sensitivity to anti-Semitism, Khrushchev's buffoonery and ruthlessness. Together, with their parties, intrigues and drunken camaraderie, they might have composed the leadership of any enterprise or government. But they were dedicated to achieving their purposes not through democratic consensus or even through selective repression but rather through the deliberate murder of a large percentage of the population.

Montefiore offers many examples of the human side of some of history's greatest mass murderers, beginning with Stalin himself. He was good with children and the wives of his colleagues (at least until he had many of them arrested or shot). He was a dedicated gardener and had a fine singing voice. He appreciated movies and the theater (he saw Mikhail Bulgakov's "Days of the Turbins" 15 times), and he demonstrated both a huge capacity for work and phenomenal intellectual ability, continually mastering new fields of knowledge and reading an average of 500 pages a night.

His chief henchman, Beria, was similarly remarkable. A managerial genius whose organizational abilities were critical to the Soviet success in developing an atomic bomb, Beria was a devoted father, grandfather and father-in-law. None of this, however, prevented him from organizing mass executions -- for example, the murder of the Polish officer corps in the Katyn Forest -- or, for that matter, personally torturing victims to death and raping countless women whom he kidnapped off the streets in Moscow.

Perhaps the most haunting figure of all was Nikolai Yezhov, Beria's predecessor as head of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. Before he became the head of the NKVD, Montefiore writes, "Yezhov was actually liked by virtually everyone he met." He was a "responsive, humane, gentle, tactful man" recalled one of his colleagues. Once he gained power, however, Yezhov proposed Order 00447 to the Politburo, according to which the Soviet regions received quotas for persons to be shot and those to be deported. It was this order that set in motion the meat grinder of the Great Terror, in which 1.5 million persons were arrested and 700,000 shot. Russians still refer to the Great Terror as the "Yezhovshchina," or "Yezhov affair."

The Stalinist enterprise consisted of the effort to remake the social system of a vast country on the basis of a utopian ideology. In carrying out this task, Stalin and his henchmen in many ways resembled powerful bureaucrats anywhere, but these were bureaucrats freed of all moral restraints. Their role as dutiful functionaries explained why the members of Stalin's court not only enthusiastically fulfilled execution quotas but insisted on overfulfilling them. It also explains the remark of Martha Peshkova, Beria's daughter-in-law, that, had Beria been born in America, "he would have risen to something like chairman of General Motors."

In Stalin, Montefiore has provided a wealth of detail about the personalities of the members of Stalin's court and, ironically, demonstrated why their personal qualities were absolutely unimportant. Stalin dreamed of making each Soviet citizen a cog in the machine of the state, and he turned the members of his immediate entourage into cogs in the service of an ideology. To a degree, he did the same thing to himself.

In one episode, Montefiore recounts how Stalin walked up to one of his marshals who had been arrested and released. "I heard you were recently in confinement," he said.

"Yes, Comrade Stalin," the marshal said, "I was but they figured out my case and released me. But how many good and remarkable people perished there."

Stalin did not reply. Instead, he left the room and walked into the garden. He reappeared holding a bouquet of roses that he presented to the marshal "as a weird sort of apology." •

David Satte is the author of "Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State."



In the Kremlin 'Village'

A Stalin biography paints a chilling personal portrait

By Andrew Nagorski

May 3 issue - He could ooze charm, plying his comrades with food, booze and anything else they wanted, inquiring about their wives and children, or even phoning his ex-mistresses for soothing chats. He also enjoyed surprising his subjects with random acts of absolution—but only to emphasize the absolute nature of his power. For Joseph Stalin, power was everything. And that meant any favors bestowed could be snatched away at a moment's notice, replaced by mind-numbing horrors. By the time Stalin died in 1953, notes Simon Sebag Montefiore in "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" (785 pages. Knopf), 20 million people had been killed and 28 million deported—18 million of whom ended up in the Gulag. It was no accident that Stalin admired Ivan the Terrible, although he made the legendary tsar look almost benevolent by comparison. 

What more can be said about a tyrant who has already been the subject of countless biographies? As Montefiore proves, the answer is "a lot." The British author mined the archives and published as well as unpublished memoirs, and interviewed the surviving wives and children of Stalin's henchmen. The result is an incredibly rich, detailed portrait of the man and the members of his inner circle that dwells less on politics than personal behavior that knew no bounds. It's as chilling for its glimpses of ostensible normalcy—Stalin as the concerned father or friend—as for its excruciating descriptions of terror.

Beginning with life in the Kremlin "village," where Politburo members and their families dropped in on each other, partied, gossiped and shamelessly curried favor with the boss, Montefiore chronicles Stalin's routine—his penchant for late-night dinners and movies, his preoccupation with arranging vacations for his entourage and his obsession with destroying "traitors." "Death solves all problems," Stalin said. But he insisted that his army of willing torturers extract confessions first, taking a morbid interest in the agonies of his victims, especially in their final moments. Stalin wasn't an aberration of Bolshevism, but simply took it to its logical extreme. As Montefiore points out, his victims were killed "not because of what they had done but because of what they might do." By that logic, anyone could be next on the list.

And almost everyone was. Along with Ukrainian peasants, "class enemies," writers, the military and the party faithful, Stalin targeted members of "the court," often starting with their wives. The longer he lived, the more his inner circle felt threatened—and he reveled in their fear. At a reception for visiting French leader Charles de Gaulle in late 1944, he toasted one Politburo member by saying he'd be shot if he didn't make the trains run on time, and his Air Force commander by saying he'd be hanged if he didn't do his job properly. "People call me a monster, but as you see, I make a joke of it," he explained to his appalled guest. Ha, ha.

Stalin may have helped speed his own death. When he collapsed from a stroke, his Jewish doctors weren't there to help since they were under arrest for their role in the infamous "doctors' plot"—another product of his frenzied imagination. His personal doctor's crime: suggesting his patient should rest. Luckily for the remaining members of his entourage, the great leader, as always, knew better.


A dictator and his world
2 books look at Joseph Stalin, his inner circle and his role in shaping Soviet cultural policy

By Andrew Wachtel. Andrew Wachtel is director of Northwestern University's Center for International and Comparative Studies, and chair of the school's department of Slavic languages and literatures
Published June 20, 2004

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 785 pages, $30

Shostakovich and Stalin
By Solomon Volkov, translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis
Knopf, 313 pages, $30

It has been a bit more than 50 years since Joseph Stalin, the all-powerful dictator of the USSR, died of a stroke, and more than a decade since the final collapse of the Soviet empire he did so much to fashion. Yet the figure of Stalin continues to exert an inexorable fascination in Russia--where pollsters find that a surprisingly high percentage of the population has a positive opinion of the bloodthirsty former leader--and in the West. Two new books devoted to the man whose decisions led directly or indirectly to the deaths of some 35 million people from 1927 to 1953 evidence the Western absorption with his reign and his legacy.

Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" is an old-fashioned, personality-focused biography whose central subject is the intricate and deadly interrelations between Stalin and his inner circle. In "Shostakovich and Stalin," by contrast, Solomon Volkov concentrates on the dictator's curious and mercurial role in shaping Soviet cultural policy. Both books make extensive use of archival material that has appeared since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But although they fill in pieces of the Stalin puzzle, neither book leads to an extensive re-evaluation of the man or his state.

Stalin was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili to an impoverished Georgian family in 1878 and received his early education at church schools. By 1899 he had been expelled from the seminary and become a professional revolutionary under the nom de guerre Koba. In these fluid years, as the Russian czarist state was collapsing under its own weight, Stalin became a terrorist and a supporter of Vadimir Lenin, the most uncompromising of the Social Democratic leaders hoping to overthrow the state.

The czarist secret police were aware of the revolutionary activities of Stalin and others, employing a large number of double agents to infiltrate the movement. In the view of Montefiore, the atmosphere of conspiracy that the young Stalin breathed in these revolutionary years had a major formative influence on his character. Throughout his career he would favor discussion and decision-making among a closed and carefully vetted group of trusted companions, while always fearing that his circle had been penetrated by traitors. The young Stalin also possessed a remarkable ability to absorb enormous quantities of information through autodidactic reading, which made up to some extent for his limited formal education.

During the revolution of 1917 and the three-year civil war that followed, Stalin (who had by now taken up his ultimate nom de guerre, derived from the Russian word for steel) played a significant but not crucial role. Most important was his violent suppression of a rebellion in the city of Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad). Here, as Montefiore notes, "Stalin grasped the convenience of death as the simplest and most effective political tool" This was a lesson he would never forget. It was also during the fighting around Tsaritsyn that Stalin met Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budyonny, who would remain part of his inner circle to the end.

After the victorious conclusion of the civil war in 1921, Stalin seemed destined to a second-rank position among the Bolshevik leadership. But through ruthless and clever political machinations after Lenin's death in 1924, he managed to outwit his main competitors for power and to assume a position of leadership by 1927. As Montefiore points out, however, although the Bolsheviks ruled the USSR dictatorially in this period, Stalin himself was not yet a dictator. Instead, decisions were made by an inner circle of oligarchs, whose members could and did disagree with Stalin.

This circle and its members' complex interrelationships form the center of interest of Montefiore's book. Indeed, it would be reasonable to say that his most significant contribution may not be the portrait of Stalin himself, but rather his carefully chiseled descriptions of the courtiers who surrounded the "Red Tsar." Included among them were, in addition to Budyonny and Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Scriabin (who took the nom de guerre Molotov from the Russian word for hammer), Anastas Mikoyan, Nikolai Bukharin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze. Slightly later, the group was augmented by the affable buffoon Nikita Khrushchev and the terrifying head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria. Most of these men would survive the Stalin years, though Bukharin and Ordzhonokidze were not so fortunate. Included in the group as well were their wives and children, all of whom are described by Montefiore as living in a cozy Kremlin cocoon through the beginning of the 1930s. To be sure, life in the Soviet Union outside the cocoon was not so ideal, particularly after the decision had been made by Stalin and his inner circle to collectivize Soviet agriculture in order to destroy the Russian peasantry once and for all and to free up surplus grain and workers for the enormous push that would make the USSR a modern industrial state.

The glaring weakness of Montefiore's Stalin biography can be seen precisely in his treatment of collectivization and the terrible famine that ensued in its wake. The reader is never given an adequate explanation of what Stalin and his inner circle were thinking about when they decided to go ahead with this program. And although a few figures about how many kulaks were shot and how many deported are provided, the book fails to provide a convincing sense of what actually happened in the country as a whole. Finally, there is no assessment of the results--that is, was collectivization necessary to allow for the industrialization of the country as Stalin and his henchmen believed, or was it a senseless policy undertaken primarily to destroy? Instead, the reader sees everything through the eyes of Stalin and his chief henchmen, who are described writing back and forth to each other in a Bolshevik bureaucratese that functions largely to hide what was occurring. Montefiore is, to be sure, writing a biography of Stalin, not a history of the USSR. Still, readers who are not experts on Soviet history may find it difficult to connect the wonderful portraits of Stalin and his courtiers to any larger picture.

In Montefiore's view, Stalin as the leader of a group of Bolshevik oligarchs came to be replaced by Stalin the dictator after the suicide in 1932 of his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva. Indeed, the suicide is so crucial for Montefiore's view of Stalin that he places the dramatic incident as the first episode in the biography, the only event not considered in chronological order. And though he eschews any overt attempt to psychoanalyze his central subject, it is clear that Montefiore considers Alliluyeva's death to be the trigger that pushed Stalin into the paranoia that led to the great terror of the late 1930s and the disastrous strategic errors that characterized the beginning of World War II for Russia. These errors, the panic that ensued after Adolf Hitler's surprise invasion of 1941, and Stalin's rebound to repulse and ultimately destroy the invaders have been recounted frequently, and Montefiore does not add all that much to what we know about Stalin in this period. Where the book really shines, however, is in the description of the dictator's declining years.

Having killed off most of those who had once surrounded him, the old man desperately attempted to connect on a human level with his terrified cronies. As Montefiore puts it in his description of Stalin's insomniac parties:

"One thing united virtually all his guests: the desire to escape this strange nervy old man with his alternation of vicious, dangerous explosions, self-pitying regrets and excruciatingly boring reminiscences. Their frantic and creative efforts to find excuses to leave their all-powerful but super-sensitive host, without causing offence, provide a comical theme to these long nights."

These unpredictable drunken evenings, which began with movie screenings (Hollywood and Soviet features) and concluded with Georgian banquets, would continue right up to Stalin's death in March 1953, a death that Montefiore describes in great detail. Most chilling is his description of Stalin's courtiers surrounding the deathbed. Beria arrives, glances at the corpse and calls for the car to take him back to the Kremlin. The rest of the government officials hasten after him, terrified that Beria would take power immediately and order them all killed. "The colossus had vanished, leaving only the husk of an old man on a sofa in an ugly suburban house."

Montefiore's biography is complemented by Volkov's "Shostakovich and Stalin." Volkov has a somewhat easier task than Montefiore, for he does not need to provide a full biographical canvas for his two central figures. Rather he focuses on their complex relationship, one that he sees as paradigmatic for Russian culture under the Stalinist regime. Volkov, who was born in 1944 (making him 20 years older than Montefiore), first became known in the U.S. with the publication of "Testimony" (1979), which he presented as an autobiography dictated to him by dying Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. That book generated enormous controversy not merely because it portrayed Shostakovich as a closet dissident rather than as the loyal Soviet citizen he was perceived to be in the West and the USSR, but also because serious questions regarding the authenticity of the "memoir" were raised and never adequately answered. Although Volkov does not state so openly, "Shostakovich and Stalin" is his polemical response to those critics who questioned the portrayal of the composer in "Testimony."




Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

There have been many biographies of Stalin, but the court that surrounded him is untravelled ground. Simon Sebag-Montefiore reveals the vast network of victims, unwilling accomplices and collaborative hate-figures who kept him in power during his worst excesses.

Reviewed by Simon Heffer

History has had it - so far - that the genocidal maniac Adolf Hitler was the past century's most vile dictator. I say 'so far' because this magnificent book by Simon Sebag Montefiore is sure to help strip some of the remaining veneer of decency from Hitler's closest rival, Joseph Stalin.

When one has read the catalogue of mass murders, arbitrary exercises of evil and sheer paranoia that were the everyday products of 'Uncle Joe's' court, it becomes astonishing that anyone could ever whitewash this monster again.

The author rushes over the first 40 or so years of Stalin's life, then deals, in meticulous detail, with every aspect of Stalin's everyday life as he seizes power in the Soviet Union and seeks, by ruthless means, to hold onto it.

There are superb pen-portraits of all the other main hate figures: Moltov, Kaganovich, Khruschev and Mikoyan. Stalin's own appalling character drives a young wife to suicide; he then proceeds to exterminate a substantial proportion of a whole nation.

Mr Montefiore takes Nadya Stalin's suicide - with a pearl-handled revolver given to her by her brother as a souvenir of a trip he had made to Berlin - as a turning point in her husband's warped life. He had not been exactly benign before it: after it he became a psychopath. In this real-life version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Stalin has a police state searching for 'enemies' everywhere. He starves a whole class - the Kulaks - to death because their entrepreneurial farming was deemed a threat to collectivism. He decides that a large proportion of officialdom, fromt the Politburo downwards, are spies and wreckers. When dissatisfied by the stream of executions of those his paranoid mind thinks he can identify, he then sets quotas of executions. Innocents are inevitably killed, but a revolution without blood is, apparently, worthless.

By the time of the Second World War, this reign of terror has subdued all possible opposition to him. With his evil and sadistic secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, doing his bidding, no one is safe. Even the wives of Politburo members are carted off to their deaths on the spurious grounds that they are 'enemies': and so terrified are their husbands that, in most cases, they simply say nothing and marry again.

Those who serve Stalin loyally are every bit as likely to end up with the executioner's pistol at their necks, after prolonged and violent torture, as those who dislike him. It was a culture of sycophancy, unreason and downright insanity, and the gossipy style in which the author presents his painstaking research brings the poisonous atmosphere home to the reader vividly.

Mr Montefiore has left nothing to chance in writing what will become an authoritative text on the life of this monster. As well as reading extensively in files opened to the public only in recent years, he has interviewed the widows and children of those who were at the Red Tsar's court.

Having also had access to unpublished memoirs, he provides a remarkably fresh and exciting account of one of history's blackest periods. This really is an astonishingly good and important book, and should serve to convince all but the most hardened communists that in the contest of the evil dictators, the result was really too close to call.



As a teenager, Stalin wrote odes to violets
(Filed: 10/10/2004)

Andrew Roberts reviews Stalin: a Biography by Robert Service.

Joseph Stalin was a poet, although you wouldn't know it. Here are some of the lines written by the greatest mass murderer in human history: "The pinkish bud has opened / Rushing to the pale-blue violet / And, stirred by a little breeze / The lily of the valley has bent over the grass." Fluffy verses of the "Hello, sun! Hello, sky!" variety that would shame even Fotherington-Thomas poured from Stalin's pen when he was 16 and 17, before he embarked on his better known careers of revolution and genocide.

Robert Service believes that Stalin's poetry is helpful in understanding the romantic side to his temperament. Indeed, he is at considerable pains to portray Stalin as much more than just a dour but murderous backroom bureaucrat. In the course of this engrossing and well-researched book, Stalin emerges as a fascinating, complex figure.

Service humanises Stalin. He says the Russian dictator was "charming", "modest", "hardworking", "a real leader", "a voracious and active" reader and "an intellectual whose literary and editorial craft was substantial". The dictator also "achieved a lot: urbanisation, military strength, education and Soviet pride. He left the USSR as a world power and an industrial colossus with a literate society."

Yet Service, the distinguished historian and acclaimed biographer of Lenin, has not somehow been suborned into an Eric Hobsbawm-like apologist view of "Uncle Joe"; all he is attempting to do is proffer the positive points before demolishing them under an avalanche of moral denunciation. "Stalin thought he had surpassed the mistakes of Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible," Service writes. "He was wrong. He had repeated such mistakes in an exaggerated form."

Using declassified documents in the Central Party Archives in Pushkin Street in Moscow, Service has identified the "gross personality disorder" that drove Stalin to behave the way he did. "In politics, he was exceptionally suspicious, vengeful and sadistic," Service writes, before investigating how Stalin "derived deep satisfaction" from degrading, tormenting, torturing, and finally murdering his victims. Although he never killed any of them himself, he enjoyed hearing from their executioners how they had died.

Yet Service does not blame Stalin so much as Bolshevik ideology for the charnel house that Russia became by the 1920s and 1930s. "The institutions, practices and ideology he inherited were ones which allowed him to give vent to his chronic viciousness," Service states. The Bolsheviks were motivated by class hatred, an obsession with power and a lust for vengeance, never by a love of equality and fraternity. Service argues convincingly that inherent in Bolshevism – deep inside the Communist DNA – there was a pining need for political mass murder.

Stalinism was therefore not an aberration of Marxist-Leninism but the inevitable next step of its metamorphosis. Stalin thus did not betray Lenin's legacy; he fulfilled it. Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon might make one pity the old Bolsheviks about to be shot at the Lubyanka prison, but they were frankly only getting their just desserts after years of massacring innocent Russians.

The reason that Stalin was underestimated by the other Bolshevik leaders, by Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and the many other contemporaries whom he outmanoeuvred and eventually liquidated, was – ironically for Communist leaders – their snobbery. They, and indeed Lenin, who only tumbled to Stalin's real character when he was having a debilitating stroke, showed disdainful hauteur towards this ill-educated, rough Georgian. His humour was crudely masculine, and he couldn't even speak French like the rest of them. By the time they came to recognise the superior political talents of the General Secretary of the Party, it was too late.

In 1925, there were only 1,025,000 Party members out of a total Russian population of 147 million, so Stalin had to work with a proportionately tiny cadre of revolutionaries to impose his will. "He had a paranoiac streak," says Service, "but most of the time he did not seem insane to those around him. Stalin was not certifiable as psychotic." If only Stalin knew what was going on, was a frequent cry heard by Russians at every new atrocity. This book makes it perfectly clear that Stalin knew precisely what was going on. Indeed, his mania for control extended to absurd levels: Stalin lied about his age – making himself out to be a year younger than he was – and even censored the fact that Lenin's great-grandfather had been Jewish.

Service believes that by understanding Stalin as a human being we might be able to spot future totalitarian dictators and beware. With communism now dead almost everywhere in the world, the new threats will come from elsewhere, but an admiration for Stalin will always be a dead giveaway. Saddam Hussein, for example, had a lifelong fascination for the vozhd (leader) and a large library of books by and about him.


The ice in Stalin's heart
(Filed: 10/10/2004)

Michael Burleigh reviews Stalin: A Biography by Robert Service.

Robert Service is the Stakhanov of British historians of Russia - producing weighty volumes at the epic rate that the Soviet miner Stakhanov hewed coal. Service has a talent for using recently opened archives to cast new light on his subjects. He subtly amends received opinion in a way that does not shout its claims to novelty. He also has the moral sense to identify the cant that seeks to displace Stalin's responsibility for mass murder on to anodyne social processes.

Service also, however, has a flatly functional style - disappointing to those familiar with the grace and precision of Robert Conquest's shorter 1991 biography of Stalin - and his psychological insights are unremarkable: Stalin was "an oddball" or "a human explosion waiting to happen", although apparently not psychotic.

Service uses the metaphor of ice hardening in Stalin's heart as the basis for his characterisation. This process commenced during Joseph Dzhughasvili's (as Stalin was born) childhood in Georgia: his father did not earn the sobriquet "Mad Beso" for nothing. The boy combined the intellectual abilities necessary for entrance to an Orthodox seminary with a viciousness derived from belonging to juvenile gangs in a Caucasian culture where feuds were unexceptional.

Dzhughasvili abandoned Christianity and the seminary for the alternative certainties of a professional Marxist militant. In 1911 Lenin remarked that: "People like him are exactly what I need." Lenin's patronage did not, however, win Stalin (as Dzhughasvili styled himself from 1912 onwards) the respect of other leading Bolsheviks. He was seen as a coarse "Asiatic", whose inarticulacy did not impress the Europeanised Marxist "theorists" who dominated the Party.

With Lenin's help, Stalin became an expert on Soviet nationalities questions and distinguished himself during the Revolution and Civil War by adopting a level of violence that only Trotsky eclipsed. In 1922 Lenin levered Stalin into the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party, although within a few months the mortally ill Lenin realised his mistake.

It was the widespread fear among Bolshevik leaders that Trotsky was a potential "Bonaparte" which enabled the apparently more containable figure of Stalin to survive the disapprobation of the dying god. Stalin promoted Lenin's cult until he felt confident enough to edge his mentor into the background. Dreary dogma, which Service has read in abundance, was assiduously authored by Stalin himself and his apparatchiks to boost his claims as a theorist.

Stalin promoted his own gang within the Party to outmanoeuvre his rivals. He then embarked on the epic task of making the Bolshevik regime "denser and irreversible", as Service puts it. The cost of reckless industrialisation was paid with the lives of millions of small farmers who were forced into collective farms or into the expanding gulag.

As food was siphoned off to the towns, six million people perished in the famine that ensued in the Ukraine. Those wishing to learn about the human impact of Stalin's policies are better served by Conquest's classic Harvest of Sorrows and Anne Applebaum's recent Gulag than by this account.

Service is, however, much more solid on the steady petrification of Soviet culture, academic life and science. Here cowardly Stalinist mediocrities connived at excluding people of originality and talent from any kind of advancement.. Service gives a good account too of "The Great Terror", which cost three quarters of a million lives: "Stalin and nobody else was the engineer of imprisonment, torture, penal labour and shooting." Tellingly, Stalin's preferred historical exemplars changed from folksy 19th-century Georgian bandits to Ivan the Terrible.

Although Service does not mention Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium, he argues that Stalin was like a medieval hunter of heretics or witches, whose mind was obsessed with imaginary demons. Surely the author should have treated Marxism itself as a form of ideological eschatology, whose inherent logic led to cheery milk maids populating heaven while, despite their forced confessions, the unreconstructed damned were shot in basements or consigned to a living Arctic hell? The very idea of "confessions" at show trials requires greater exploration than it receives here.

Stalin reached the zenith of his power on the June 24, 1945, when his troops hurled the massed standards of the defeated Wehrmacht at the base of the Lenin mausoleum upon which Stalin stood basking. Russia's outer empire now reached into Germany, while Poland's president, Boleslaw Bierut, had to visit Stalin in order: "to check on the correctness of our evaluation of the political situation in the country".

Such was Stalin's power that when he collapsed in March 1953, his bodyguards trembled to disturb him and the only medical experts who might have saved him had to be consulted in the Lubyanka prison where they languished as part of the "Doctors' Plot". Hundreds died in the crush to see his corpse.

Michael Burleigh is on the Academic Advisory Council of the Institute of Contemporary History, Munich.


Institute for Historical Review

Journal of Historical Review

Book Review

Stalin's War

Reviewed by Dennis Nayland Smith

Can there be any real doubt who was the prime mover in the tumultuous events of 1933-1945? From the vast majority of professional historians to Joe and Sue Sixpack glued to their boob tube, the answer is, "Hitler, of course." According to this universally accepted view, Hitler, joined by Mussolini and the Japanese warlords, cunningly orchestrated the political and military incidents which led to the outbreak of the Second World War.

But even this truism is now coming under attack by Revisionists. Prominent among those questioning the role played by Hitler is Ernst Topitsch, whose book, Stalin's War, has just appeared in English translation in the United States, published by the respected St. Martin's Press.

Topitsch is a graduate of the University of Vienna, a member of the Paris Institute of Philosophy, and a professor at Graz University in Austria. Simply stated, his well-argued thesis is that Stalin, not Hitler, was the central figure of the war. The author summarizes the evolution of his thinking on these matters at the outset of his study:

In line with prevailing opinion, for many years I considered Hitler to be the main character in the drama of the Second World War, and held his policy of violent expansion and aggression to be the most important cause of its outbreak. Yet a more thorough analysis of the interplay of the main events has led me to the conviction that at the very least this viewpoint needed a radical modification. It became more and more apparent that Stalin was not only the real victor, but also the key figure in the war; he was, indeed, the only statesman who had at the time a clear, broadly based idea of his objectives.

Following the end of the First World War, Lenin concluded that the war had been just a prelude to further imperialist wars, which would eventually lead to the final victory of socialism world-wide. In a speech given in 1920, Lenin outlined how Germany and Japan could be used to provoke another war within the "capitalist camp."

Stalin pursued Lenin's strategy. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 -- which granted Hitler cover by the Red Army on the Eastern Front -- was intended to encourage Hitler to open hostilities. Stalin was delighted with the German invasion of France. The "imperialist war" had finally broken out in earnest; Stalin stepped up deliveries of raw materials to Germany. Topitsch observes that, "In the Kremlin it was at first expected that there would be long-drawn-out battles with a heavy rate of attrition -- as in the First World War -- in the course of which the two sides would go on destroying each other until general exhaustion brought about a revolutionary situation." However, Germany's stunning victory over the Low Countries and France -- within a matter of weeks -- came as a real shock.

A new situation now presented itself to Stalin if the German Army were defeated, the Soviets could be masters of Europe. As the author points out, given the inaccessibility of Kremlin archives, "it cannot be stated exactly when the decision was made to embark on this strategy." Topitsch is convinced that Stalin set out to provoke Hitler to attack the Soviet Union, just as Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered Japan into "firing the first shot."

Topitsch contends that regardless of what Hitler did, Stalin was preparing to attack Germany, most likely in 1942. He is not alone in suggesting that Stalin was planning a military offensive against the West. Grigore Gafencu, Romania's sometime foreign minister and ambassador to the USSR during the war, felt that Stalin had secretly provoked Germany into attacking. More recently, Brian Fugate, in a revision of his University of Texas doctoral dissertation, published as Operation Barbarossa: Strategy and Tactics on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Presidio Press, 1984), makes the case that Soviet armaments production and military dispositions facing western Europe are a sure sign that the Soviets were intending to launch an offensive against the West

While "Operation Barbarossa" -- as Hitler's assault on the Soviet Union was codenamed -- did not catch Stalin unawares, the German military victories during the summer and fall of 1941 were unexpected and thwarted Stalin's ambitious plans for a rapid counterattack to the west. The war dragged on, and the British and Americans established themselves in Western Europe before the Red Army could reach the English Channel. If Stalin's aspirations were not fully realized, the outcome of the war does not detract from Topitsch's theory that "the Second World War was only a phase -- though an important one -- in the realization of Lenin's grand strategy to subjugate the capitalist or 'imperialist' nations -- in other words, all those which had not yet undergone the process of Sovietization."

Topitsch's book is not without its flaws, particularly in A. and B.E. Taylor's translation. On page 23, one encounters the odd formulation "Faced by the notorious dwindling of party funds during the war ... " in connection with Hitler's turning for donations to "nationalist, conservative, and 'capitalist' circles." Clearly by "war" the end phase of Hitler's struggle for political power in Germany is meant, not the Second World War, as an unsuspecting reader might reasonably conclude. One also wonders if the author believes that fascism is "the most extreme form of capitalism" (p. 27). The translators' capricious usage in anglicizing German and Russian names is bothersome as well. For "Moldavia and Wallachia" we read "Moldau and Wallacheit while the Vistula and Narew Rivers are rendered as "Weichsel" (German) and "Narev" (?). Transliteration of Russian names generally straddles proper German and English usage, so that the reader encounters, instead of "Zhukov" or "Schukow," the translators' "Schukov." There are an irritating number of typos as well such as "Nersky" for "Nevsky" and "Frisch" for "Fritsch."

Nevertheless, Stalin's War provides new and significant insights into our political understanding of World War II. Most followers of this journal will find it provocative reading.

Death and the Dictator

Reviewed by Leon Aron

Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW03


A Biography

By Robert Service. Belknap/Harvard Univ. 715 pp. $29.95



The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

By Donald Rayfield. Random House. 541 pp. $29.95

Villains fascinate, and mass murderers doubly so. From Herod to Pol Pot, Genghis Khan to Hitler, Ivan the Terrible to Saddam Hussein, we have been drawn to the edge of the abyss for a glance into the bottomless and cold darkness of Great Evil. What for? To confirm our own humanity? To learn, and guard against, the warning signs of advancing savagery?

Even in this gallery of mega-rogues, Joseph Stalin stands apart. Although second to his imitator Mao Zedong in the absolute numbers of the compatriots killed (shot, tortured to death in prisons, starved in villages, murdered in concentration camps) and to Pol Pot in the proportion of the country's population exterminated, Stalin may be unmatched, at least in modern times, in the number of people his policies affected -- in his impact on the contemporary world.

Had it not been for those policies, promulgated and enforced by a Comintern completely subservient to Moscow, Weimar Germany's left would not have been split by the Communists' relentless attacks on the Social Democrats ("social fascists," Stalin called them). The two parties, which together commanded far more votes than Hitler's National Socialists (and initially more muscle as well), could have almost certainly prevented Hitler's rise to power and, with it, World War II. Built to strict ideological specifications, the totalitarian state -- whose construction Stalin completed and perfected and which took almost four decades after his death to dismantle -- could not but be aggressive and expansionist in its struggle to the bitter end with "world capitalism." Hence, the forced and violent Sovietization of Eastern and Central Europe, with its own tsunami of death, destruction, suffering and daily indignities; the nuclear arms race; the global Cold War; and more death in local hot wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

Given the subject, then, one hesitates to call Robert Service's biography a labor of love, but the expression seem to fit the years (perhaps decades) this massive book must have taken to produce, filled with the relentless and arduous search for facts. A fellow of the British Academy and St. Antony's College at Oxford and the author of an earlier biography of Lenin, Service has written an unhurried, richly detailed and rigorously researched book, anchored in hundreds of sources -- a vast but cleanly structured text, polished, fluent and brisk.

As fine biographies of political leaders so often are, this one too is an inside version (as it were) of grand history, a new perspective on well-known facts and larger themes. In the case of Stalin, these touchstones comprise many of the 20th century's defining moments: the rise of Bolshevism; the 1917 October Revolution, the Civil War and the foundation of the Soviet state and the world communist movement; the 1928-32 "revolution from above," which completed the construction of the world's first modern, industrialized and militarized totalitarian state by robbing and enslaving the peasants who made up 80 percent of the Soviet Union's population; and the Great Terror of 1936-39, which left Stalin in possession of probably the most -- and surely the least challenged -- power of anyone in modern history.

Following his declared goal of eschewing stereotypes and looking at his subject afresh, Service gives us a portrait of a paranoid and murderous despot, not a one-dimensional, cartoonish baddie. In villainies of such a scale, there is never a single smoking gun. Yet while falling short of the impossible -- a complete explanation for the behavior of the man at the root of one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in history -- Service greatly advances our understanding by deftly fusing the tale of the man with that of the doctrine to which he was fanatically beholden and the ethos and practices of the tiny underground party.

Iosif Dzhughashvili became editor of Pravda in 1912 and changed his party alias from the Georgian "Koba" (after the legendary 19th-century robber whom young Iosif emulated) to "Stalin," or "man of steel," a translation of his last name into Russian (dzhuga is steel in Georgian and stal its Russian counterpart). He was a difficult loner, crude and vulgar, increasingly unbalanced and suspicious, but also strong, determined, capable and effective, thirsting for knowledge and widely read. The only surviving child of a doting mother and a drunken cobbler father who beat them both mercilessly, Iosif grew up in a sleepy Georgian town named Gori. Resentful of his deformity (his left arm was permanently damaged in an accident), he was vengeful, never forgetting (let alone forgiving) a slight. According to his boyhood friends, Iosif "coddled grievances for years," and, in Service's words, saw "malevolent human agency in every personal or political problem he encountered." He joined the fledgling party at the age of 20, having left the Tiflis (Tbilisi) Theological Seminary a few months before graduation in 1899. His first wife, Ketevan Svanidze, died in 1907, a year and four months after they were married. His second, Nadezhda Allilueva, committed suicide in 1932. He was never close to his three children.

What we learn from Service about the man plausibly explains the young Stalin's easy and unwavering choice of Bolshevism from among at least half a dozen leftist parties and movements in the anti-czarist underground. He was drawn to the party's conspiratorial zeal, intolerance of dissent, obsession with control, and its mix of doctrinal dogmatism and tactical flexibility.

Stalin seems to have internalized, then embodied and built on the most truculent, pitiless and aggressive components of Lenin's credo. The connection between Bolshevism and Stalinism and between Lenin and Stalin -- the nature and extent of which used to be hotly debated by scholars and the world's left -- emerges here as something natural and organic. The only man other than Lenin whom Stalin was ever reported to have genuinely admired was Hitler. "What a great fellow!" Stalin told a fellow Politburo member after learning of the 1934 purge of the Nazi brownshirts known as the Night of the Long Knives: "How well he pulled this off!" (When we both were college students in Moscow in the 1970s, Khrushchev's grandson Alexei Adzhubei told me of his grandfather's reminiscences about a high-level Nazi delegation arriving in Moscow in the late 1930s to learn more about setting up and running concentration camps.) Three years later, after painstaking preparation, Stalin launched his own vastly wider and bloodier internal war for total supremacy. Within the two years of what would be called the Great Terror, at least 1.5 million people were arrested and at least half of them executed -- mostly party and state leaders, engineers, intellectuals and military officers down to the regiment level.

This rate of elite extermination was not to be repeated, but the systematic mass terror that started with the birth of the Soviet state would continue unabated until Stalin's death. Millions more were arrested, imprisoned, tormented in the gulag or shot. Nor was the Great Terror the single most intense slaughter in Soviet history, as Donald Rayfield estimates in Stalin and His Hangmen, his searing and beautifully written chronicle of state-sponsored murder. That grisly distinction belongs to the 1929-33 "peasant Holocaust," when between 7.2 million and 10.8 million villagers died during "collectivization," or the elimination of personal ownership of land, tools and livestock and the forcible pooling of these into a "collective" property held de facto by the state -- a process aimed in particular at the class of formerly well-off farmers known as kulaks. (Stalin later told Churchill that collectivization cost 10 million lives.) Families were arrested, herded into cattle cars, driven for days without food or water, then unloaded in the frozen tundra or swamps and left to die without food or shelter. Other kulaks were simply evicted from their homes in the middle of winter -- men, women, nursing babies -- and wandered until they froze or starved to death, with everyone else forbidden, on pain of sharing their fate, to give them a blanket or a crust of bread. Most victims perished in the famine that followed the requisition of grain for sale abroad.

The stages of this gruesome period are known: the "red terror" unleashed after an attempt on Lenin's life in 1918; the Civil War killings, when captured "White" officers who fought the "Red" Bolsheviks were loaded on barges and drowned; the "pacification" of villages suspected of giving support to the Whites; the killing of "class enemies" chosen from the Moscow phone book (including all the Boy Scouts and the Lawn Tennis Club); the show trials of "wreckers" of the new society, including engineers, agronomists, veterinarians and historians; the extermination of peasants; the arrests, executions and mass exiles from Leningrad following the murder of the Leningrad party boss (and Stalin's potential rival) Sergei Kirov in 1934; the Great Terror; the 1940 killing of some 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn forest; the genocidal exile of the "traitor nations" (including the Chechens) after World War II; and, in the last months of Stalin's life, the "Doctor's Plot," which was rumored to be the prelude to public hangings on Red Square and a country-wide anti-Semitic pogrom, to be followed by the exile of more than 2 million Soviet Jews to the Far East.

Yet as he gives us stomach-wrenching details of these torments and portraits of the men who engineered them (beginning with first-rate essays on Stalin and the founder of the Cheka secret police, Feliks Dzierzynski, the son of a Polish nobleman, a fanatical Bolshevik and hollow-cheeked ascetic who subsisted on the diet of tea and bread to which he became accustomed as a prisoner in czarist jails), Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London and the author of a very fine biography of Chekhov, manages to make this abstract and often unimaginable evil feel close and real. Layered with subplots and striking vignettes and filled with voices (both the victims' cries for help and the commissars' orders for more killing), the horrid saga acquires texture, color and an immediacy that will mesmerize readers almost despite themselves. One marvels at the sheer mastery of craftsmanship that has made this relentlessly depressing, often repugnant material into such a compelling tale. •

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.





Nadya and Stalin had been married for fourteen years but it extended deeper and longer than that, so steeped was their marriage in Bolshevism. They had shared the formative experiences of the underground life and intimacy with Lenin during the Revolution, then the Civil War. Stalin had known her family for nearly thirty years and he had first met her in 1904 when she was three. He was then twenty-five and he had been a Marxist for six years.

Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili was not born on 21 December 1879, Stalin's official birthday. "Soso" was actually born in a tiny shack (that still exists) to Vissarion, or "Beso," and his wife Ekaterina, "Keke," née Geladze, over a year earlier on 6 December 1878. They lived in Gori, a small town beside the Kura River in the romantic, mountainous and defiantly un-Russian province of Georgia, a small country thousands of miles from the Tsar's capital: it was closer to Baghdad than St. Petersburg. Westerners often do not realize how foreign Georgia was: an independent kingdom for millennia with its own ancient language, traditions, cuisine, literature, it was only consumed by Russia in gulps between 1801 and 1878. With its sunny climate, clannish blood feuds, songs and vineyards, it resembles Sicily more than Siberia.

Soso's father was a violent, drunken semi-itinerant cobbler who savagely beat both Soso and Keke. She in turn, as the child later recalled, "thrashed him mercilessly." Soso once threw a dagger at his father. Stalin reminisced how Beso and Father Charkviani, the local priest, indulged in drinking bouts together to the fury of his mother: "Father, don't make my husband a drunk, it'll destroy my family." Keke threw out Beso. Stalin was proud of her "strong willpower." When Beso later forcibly took Soso to work as a cobbling apprentice in Tiflis, Keke's priests helped get him back.

Stalin's mother took in washing for local merchants. She was pious and became close to the priests who protected her. But she was also earthy and spicy: she may have made the sort of compromises that are tempting for a penniless single mother, becoming the mistress of her employers. This inspired the legends that often embroider the paternity of famous men. It is possible that Stalin was the child of his godfather, an affluent innkeeper, officer and amateur wrestler named Koba Egnatashvili. Afterwards, Stalin protected Egnatashvili's two sons, who remained friends until his death and reminisced in old age about Egnatashvili's wrestling prowess. Nonetheless, one sometimes has to admit that great men are the children of their own fathers. Stalin was said to resemble Beso uncannily. Yet he himself once asserted that his father was a priest.

Stalin was born with the second and third toes of his left foot joined. He suffered a pock-marked face from an attack of smallpox and later damaged his left arm, possibly in a carriage accident. He grew up into a sallow, stocky, surly youth with speckled honey-coloured eyes and thick black hair-a kinto, Georgian street urchin. He was exceptionally intelligent with an ambitious mother who wanted him to be a priest, perhaps like his real father. Stalin later boasted that he learned to read at five by listening to Father Charkviani teaching the alphabet. The five-year-old then helped Charkviani's thirteen-year-old daughter with her reading.

In 1888, he entered the Gori Church School and then, triumphantly, in 1894, won a "five rouble scholarship" to the Tiflis Seminary in the Georgian capital. As Stalin later told a confidant, "My father found out that along with the scholarship, I also earned money (five roubles a month) as a choirboy ... and once I went out and saw him standing there:" 'Young man, sir,' said Beso, 'you've forgotten your father ... Give me at least three roubles, don't be as mean as your mother!'

"'Don't shout!' replied Soso. 'If you don't leave immediately, I'll call the watchman!'" Beso slunk away. He apparently died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1909.

Stalin sometimes sent money to help his mother but henceforth kept his distance from Keke whose dry wit and rough discipline resembled his own. There has been too much cod-psychology about Stalin's childhood but this much is certain: raised in a poor priest-ridden household, he was damaged by violence, insecurity and suspicion but inspired by the local traditions of religious dogmatism, blood-feuding and romantic brigandry. "Stalin did not like to speak about his parents and childhood" but it is meaningless to over-analyse his psychology. He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive. He was abnormal but Stalin himself understood that politicians are rarely normal: History, he wrote later, is full of "abnormal people."

The seminary provided his only formal education. This boarding school's catechismic teaching and "Jesuitical methods" of "surveillance, spying, invasion of the inner life, the violation of people's feelings" repelled, but impressed, Soso so acutely that he spent the rest of his life refining their style and methods. It stimulated this autodidact's passion for reading but he became an atheist in the first year. "I got some friends," he said, "and a bitter debate started between the believers and us!" He soon embraced Marxism.

In 1899, he was expelled from the seminary, joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party and became a professional revolutionary, adopting the nom de revolution Koba, inspired by the hero of a novel, The Parricide, by Alexander Kazbegi, a dashing, vindictive Caucasian outlaw. He combined the "science" of Marxism with his soaring imagination: he wrote romantic poetry, published in Georgian, before working as a weatherman at the Tiflis Meteorological Institute, the only job he held before becoming one of the rulers of Russia in 1917.

"Koba" was convinced by the universal panacea of Marxism, "a philosophical system" that suited the obsessive totality of his character. The class struggle also matched his own melodramatic pugnacity. The paranoid secrecy of the intolerant and idiosyncratic Bolshevik culture dovetailed with Koba's own self-contained confidence and talent for intrigue. Koba plunged into the underworld of revolutionary politics that was a seething, stimulating mixture of conspiratorial intrigue, ideological nitpicking, scholarly education, factional games, love affairs with other revolutionaries, police infiltration and organizational chaos. These revolutionaries hailed from every background-Russians, Armenians, Georgians and Jews, workers, noblemen, intellectuals and daredevils-and organized strikes, printing presses, meetings and heists. United in the obsessional study of Marxist literature, there was always a division between the educated bourgeois émigrés, like Lenin himself, and the rough men of action in Russia itself. The underground life, always itinerant and dangerous, was the formative experience not only of Stalin but of all his comrades. This explains much that happens later.

In 1902, Koba won the spurs of his first arrest and Siberian exile, the first of seven such exiles from which he escaped six times. These exiles were far from Stalin's brutal concentration camps: the Tsars were inept policemen. They were almost reading holidays in distant Siberian villages with one part-time gendarme on duty, during which revolutionaries got to know (and hate) each other, corresponded with their comrades in Petersburg or Vienna, discussed abstruse questions of dialectical materialism, and had affairs with local girls. When the call of freedom or revolution became urgent, they escaped, yomping across the taiga to the nearest train. In exile, Koba's teeth, a lifelong source of pain, began to deteriorate.

Koba avidly supported Vladimir Lenin and his seminal work, What Is to Be Done? This domineering political genius combined the Machiavellian practicality of seizing power with mastery of Marxist ideology. Exploiting the schism that would lead to the creation of his own Bolshevik Party, Lenin's message was that a supreme Party of professional revolutionaries could seize power for the workers and then rule in their name in a "dictatorship of the proletariat" until this was no longer necessary because socialism had been achieved. Lenin's vision of the Party as "the advance detachment" of the "army of proletarians ... a fighting group of leaders" set the militarist tone of Bolshevism.

In 1904, on Koba's return to Tiflis, he met his future father-in-law Sergei Alliluyev, twelve years his senior, a skilled Russian electrical artisan married to Olga Fedorenko, a strong-willed Georgian-German-Gypsy beauty with a taste for love affairs with revolutionaries, Poles, Hungarians, even Turks. It was whispered that Olga had an affair with the young Stalin, who fathered his future wife, Nadya. This is false since Nadezhda was already three when her parents first met Koba, but his affair with Olga is entirely credible and he himself may have hinted at it. Olga, who, according to her granddaughter Svetlana, had a "weakness for southern men," saying "Russian men are boors," always had a "soft spot" for Stalin. Her marriage was difficult. Family legend has Nadya's elder brother Pavel seeing his mother making up to Koba. Such short liaisons were everyday occurrences among revolutionaries.

Long before they fell in love, Stalin and Nadya were part of the Bolshevik family who passed through the Alliluyev household: Kalinin and Yenukidze among others at that dinner in 1932. There was another special link: soon afterwards, Koba met the Alliluyevs in Baku, and saved Nadya from drowning in the Caspian Sea, a romantic bond if ever there was one.

Koba meanwhile married another sprig of a Bolshevik family. Ekaterina, "Kato," a placid, darkly pretty Georgian daughter of a cultured family, was the sister of Alexander Svanidze, also a Bolshevik graduate of the Tiflis seminary who joined Stalin's Kremlin entourage. Living in a hut near the Baku oilfields, Kato gave him a son, Yakov. But Koba's appearances at home were sporadic and unpredictable.

During the 1905 Revolution, in which Leon Trotsky, a Jewish journalist, bestrode the Petersburg Soviet, Koba claimed he was organizing peasant revolts in the Kartli region of Georgia. After the Tsarist backlash, he travelled to a Bolshevik conference in Tammerfors, Finland-his first meeting with his hero, Lenin, "that mountain eagle." The next year, Koba travelled to the Congress in Stockholm. On his return, he lived the life of a Caucasian brigand, raising Party funds in bank robberies or "expropriations": he boasted in old age of these "heists ... our friends grabbed 250,000 roubles in Yerevan Square!"

After visiting London for a Congress, Koba's beloved, half-ignored Kato died "in his arms" in Tiflis of tuberculosis on 25 November 1907. Koba was heartbroken. When the little procession reached the cemetery, Koba pressed a friend's hand and said, "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for people." He pressed his heart: "It's desolate here inside." Yet he left their son Yakov to be brought up by Kato's family. After hiding in the Alliluyevs' Petersburg apartment, he was recaptured and returned to his place of banishment, Solvychegodsk. It was in this remote one-horse town in January 1910 that Koba moved into the house of a young widow named Maria Kuzakova by whom he fathered a son. Soon afterwards, he was involved in a love affair with a schoolgirl of seventeen named Pelageya Onufrieva. When she went back to school, he wrote: "Let me kiss you now. I am not simply sending a kiss but am KISSSSSING you passionately (it's not worth kissing otherwise)." The locals in the north Russified "Iosef" to "Osip" and his letters to Pelageya were often signed by her revealing nickname for him: "Oddball Osip."

After yet another escape, Koba returned to Petersburg in 1912, sharing digs with a ponderous Bolshevik who was to be the comrade most closely associated with him: Vyacheslav Scriabin, only twenty-two, had just followed the Bolshevik custom of assuming a macho nom de revolution and called himself that "industrial name" Molotov-"the hammer." Koba had also assumed an "industrial" alias: he first signed an article "Stalin" in 1913. It was no coincidence that "Stalin" sounds like "Lenin." He may have been using it earlier and not just for its metallic grit. Perhaps he borrowed the name from the "buxom pretty" Bolshevik named Ludmilla Stal with whom he had had an affair.

This "wonderful Georgian," as Lenin called him, was co-opted by the Party's Central Committee at the end of the Prague conference of 1912. In November, Koba Stalin travelled from Vienna to Cracow to meet Lenin with whom he stayed: the leader supervised his keen disciple in the writing of an article expressing Bolshevik policy on the sensitive nationality question, henceforth Stalin's expertise. "Marxism and the National Question," arguing for holding together the Russian Empire, won him ideological kudos and Lenin's trust.

"Did you write all of it?" asked Lenin (according to Stalin).

"Yes ... Did I make mistakes?"

"No, on the contrary, splendid!" This was his last trip abroad until the Teheran Conference in 1943.

In February 1913, Stalin was rearrested and given a suspiciously light exile: was he an agent of the Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana? The historical sensationalism of Stalin's duplicity shows a naïve misunderstanding of underground life: the revolutionaries were riddled with Okhrana spies but many were double or triple agents. Koba was willing to betray colleagues who opposed him though, as the Okhrana admitted in their reports, he remained a fanatical Marxist-and that is what mattered.

Stalin's final exile began in 1913 in the distant cold north-east of Siberia, where he was nicknamed "Pock-marked Joe" by the local peasants. Fearing more escapes, the exile was moved to Kureika, a desolate village in Turukhansk, north of the Arctic Circle where his fishing prowess convinced locals of magical powers and he took another mistress. Stalin wrote pitiful letters to Sergei and Olga Alliluyev: "Nature in this cursed region is shamefully poor" and he begged them to send him a postcard: "I'm crazy with longing for nature scenes if only on paper." Yet it was also, strangely, a happy time, perhaps the happiest of his life for he reminisced about his exploits there until his death, particularly about the shooting expedition when he skied into the taiga, bagged many partridges and then almost froze to death on the way back.

The military blunders and food shortages of the Great War inexorably destroyed the monarchy which, to the surprise of the Bolsheviks, collapsed suddenly in February 1917, replaced by a Provisional Government.