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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
"Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Stalin is a large and ambitious overview — and underview — of the Soviet leader's life and epoch, drawn from an impressively wide array of Russian sources....[He] focuses on the human element (especially the family lives of the dictator, his associates, and his victims), generally treating the vast events of the era as scenery. Still, if somewhat incidentally, his research has yielded material that greatly improves our historical understanding." Robert Conquest, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
An unprecedented biography of the Soviet tyrant and of the men and women who sustained him in power for nearly 30 years — a seamless meshing of new and exhaustive research, brilliant synthesis, and narrative elan from a British historian of prodigious talents. There have been many biographies of Stalin, but none of them has done what Simon Sebag Montefiore accomplishes: illuminating the vast foundation — human, psychological, and physical — that supported and encouraged the dictator through the early days of Communism, World War II, and the years of the Great Terror, in which 10 million Soviets died in Stalin's purges and in his infamous Gulag. Exploring every aspect of the man's inner and outer life — from his doomed marriage and his mistresses, to his obsession with film, music, and literature, to his identification with the Tsars — the author reveals a Stalin perhaps no less brutal but certainly more human and complex than any we have encouraged before. A galvanizing portrait: razor-sharp, sensitive, and unforgiving.
"Montefiore (The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin) is more interested in life at the top than at the bottom, so he includes hundreds of pages on Stalin's purges of top Communists, while devoting much less space to the forced collectivization of Soviet peasants that led to millions of deaths. In lively prose, he intersperses his mammoth account of Stalin's often-deadly political decisions with the personal lives of the Soviet dictator and those around him. As a result, the reader learns about sexual peccadilloes of the top Communists: Stalin's secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, for one, 'craved athletic women, haunting the locker rooms of Soviet swimmers and basketball players.' Stalin's own escapades after the death of his wife are also noted. There's also much detail about the food at parties and other meetings of Stalin's henchmen. The effect is paradoxical: Stalin and his cronies are humanized at the same time as their cruel misdeeds are recounted. Montefiore offers little help in answering some of the unsettled questions surrounding Stalin: how involved was he in the 1934 murder of rising official Sergei Kirov, for example. He also seems to leave open the question of Stalin's paranoia: he argues that the Georgian-born ruler was a charming man who used his people skills to get whatever he wanted. Montefiore mainly skirts the paranoia issue, noting that only after WWII, when Stalin launched his anti-Semitic campaigns, did he 'become a vicious and obsessional anti-Semite.' There are many Stalin biographies out there, but this fascinating work distinguishes itself by its extensive use of fresh archival material and its focus on Stalin's ever-changing coterie. Maps and 24 pages of photos not seen by PW Agent, Georgina Capel. (Apr.) Forecast: With a 75,000 first printing, this is likely to draw in Slavophiles and history buffs." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Because of its extraordinary detail, this portrait of Joseph Stalin is as realistic as is currently historically possible....Montefiore has produced a landmark work that rounds out political biographies of the tyrant." Booklist (Starred Review)
"This haunting book gets us as close as we are likely to come to the man who believed that 'the solution to every human problem was death.'" The New Yorker
"A fascinating, superbly written study of the Red Emperor Josef Stalin....Altogether extraordinary, and required reading for anyone interested in world affairs." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] portrait of Stalin and the members of his court that is unprecedented in its intimacy and horrifying in its implications." Washington Post
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 élan, 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 and cravenness 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.
About the Author
Simon Sebag Montefiore, who was born in 1965, read history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He spent much of the nineties traveling through the former Soviet empire, particularly the Caucasus, Ukraine and Central Asia, covering their wars and turmoil, and writing widely on Russia, Georgia and Chechnya, especially for the Sunday Times, the New York Times, The New Republic and the Spectator. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin was published in 2000 and short-listed for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper and Marsh Biography prizes. The author of two novels and the presenter of television documentaries, he lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their two children.
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