Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
A review by Robert Conquest
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. In particular the author has mined the rich memories
and recorded the opinions of a number of the descendants of key historical figures men
such as Mikoyan and Khrushchev. Antonia Fraser, herself a fine biographer, called
Sebag Montefiore's previous book, on the eighteenth-century Russian prince Grigory
Potemkin, "a good racy historical read." Those words aptly describe
his newest book as well, even though it makes no pretense of being a historical
work, properly speaking. Sebag Montefiore 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.
For example, newly uncovered high-level political documents from 1931 to 1934
finally destroy the argument, canvassed even quite recently, that there were
no disputes in the post-1930 Politburo that Stalin ruled unopposed. This
is crucial to both historical and biographical insight: it confirms that Stalin's
fight to retain power was not only a struggle against the people but also, and
concomitantly, a struggle against any signs of independence, or even wavering,
within his own apparat.
Sebag Montefiore's treatment of the greatest horrors of Stalin's rule the
terror-famine of 1933, the "Great Terror" of 1937-1938, and the postwar
terrors, with their climax in the antiSemitic "Doctors' Plot" likewise
makes able use of newly available sources. At the time and for decades afterward
the Soviet position on the famine was simply to deny it; merely to speak the
word, even in the affected areas, was a crime. Soviet embassies and foreign
sympathizers similarly averted their eyes from this and the other terrors. Historians
were therefore in a strange position: before the collapse of the Soviet Union
we had to learn what we could of its past from an accumulation of unofficial
testimonials, against a background of official silence, distortion, or denial.
A great deal of probable evidence was available, but much of it was rejected
in the West as unreliable or indirect.
Matters changed dramatically in the late 1980s, with the gradual release of
a mass of previously suppressed material. It was as though historians of an
ancient empire, having been forced to rely on a handful of personal papyruses
and a few royal inscriptions (think of the splendid reliefs on the walls of
the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, or in the mortuary complex of Pepi
II in South Saqqara, which give detailed but factually untrue accounts of the
victories of these Egyptian rulers), had suddenly been handed a store of material
by a conscientious time-traveler. During the past decade it became possible
to assemble the various data and accounts of the Soviet era into a complete
and verifiable whole. Our original, often tentatively accepted details, and
the general reliability of our sources and estimates, could at last be checked.
Indeed, most of the indirect evidence from the Stalinist period has been confirmed
by the recently released material, as have some old first-person accounts. One
of the most significant of the latter is the 1953 book The Secret History
of Stalin's Crimes, by Alexander Orlov, a high-ranking NKVD officer who
defected to the West in 1938, during the Great Purge. Most of his direct observations
seemed reliable, and the rest plausible, but they remained of necessity unproved.
Now we can regard them as solidly in the record. Drawing partly on Orlov, Sebag
Montefiore presents a full and highly readable account of Stalin's activities
during the 1936 trial of his old rival Grigory Zinoviev. The trial was the first
of three great falsified set pieces presented to the Soviet public during the
Sebag Montefiore has no truck with defenders of the regime: using documentary
research in conjunction with these anecdotal accounts, he presents the terrors
clearly and unambiguously. Equally vivid is his handling of the first portion
of Orlov's book that was confirmed by documents the story that Abram Slutsky,
the head of the International Department of the NKVD, who officially had "died
at his battle post" after suffering a heart attack, had in fact been poisoned
in the office of the ruthless deputy head of the service, Mikhail Frinovsky.
We now have, as was not available to Sebag Montefiore, or to Orlov, the added
detail that Slutsky was seized by Frinovsky's colleague, the equally notorious
Leonid Zakovsky, whereupon the NKVD's poison expert ran in and administered
Sebag Montefiore is at his best when writing about the dramatic days just before
and after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union a story whose details come
almost entirely from the new records and from the memories of crucial people
in Moscow. The Nazi attack, in June of 1941, surprised and shook Stalin. After
recovering from the shock, he again manifested his dictatorial strength. Some
half a million Soviet soldiers had left the front. They were rounded up, and
more than 10,000 were shot; the rest were formed into new units. This ruthlessness,
which had the desired disciplinary effect, was accompanied by the execution
of a group of experienced officers and of the wives of previously executed
The fate of the officers' wives was part of a widespread pattern one to
which Sebag Montefiore, with his interest in family matters, rightly calls our
attention. According to a Soviet law written in 1935, the relatives of an accused
person were also responsible for the "crime," even if they were ignorant
of it. It soon became routine for wives, children, brothers, and sisters of
terror victims to suffer equally dire consequences. Consider the stories, recently
learned, of the wives of Marshal Vasily Blyukher, who died under torture in
1938: his first and second wives were shot, and the third was sentenced to eight
years in a labor camp.
In this regard it is instructive to compare the Stalinist epoch with that of
the czars. For example, in the earlier period the execution of Lenin's brother
on genuine grounds of treason (he participated in a terrorist plot) did not
affect Lenin's academic career, much less result in his own execution. The decline
in the government's humanity is remarkable. So is the difference between life
in Stalin's gulag, whose inhabitants were starved and sweated, and the relatively
comfortable "exile" to Siberian villages imposed on offenders by the
The impact of the terrors on Party members and other elites has long been known.
Our most substantial gain in understanding the Stalinist era concerns how and
to what extent they struck at the general population. This is now decisively
documented, in papers signed by Stalin and specifying quotas for death and imprisonment
by category and locale; these decrees resulted in nearly 770,000 executions
in 1937-1938. In addition, over the whole of his career Stalin signed 44,000
individual death sentences. The "anti-Soviet elements" targeted included
former kulaks, former officials of the czarist state and army, former members
of non-Bolshevik parties, religious activists, and "speculators" a
wide swath of society. Those carrying out the orders were required to send "albums"
of the victims to Moscow, to confirm that the quotas had been met.
There is no longer much serious dispute about what the terrors unleashed, or
about the extravagant falsification practiced by the regime. If anything is
still missing in Western understanding, it is a full recognition of the mental
degradation inflicted by the regime. The entire population was forced to accept
a supposedly all-explaining dogma, along with the notion that it was living
in a social and political utopia when what it actually experienced, of
course, was the opposite. A Russian academic told me recently that many Westerners
he meets still don't realize how horrible and psychologically exhausting a life
it was. Much of the new evidence speaks directly to this point. For example,
we now have official reports of meetings at secondary schools in which young
Komsomols would harangue their classmates about parents who had turned out to
be "enemies of the people" after which the children of those
arrested would have to come forward and join in the denunciations.
One aspect of the Soviet experience whose aftereffects are still manifest was
the progressive lowering of mental standards. The attack on the intelligentsia
is well known: from writers to scientists, they perished in droves. At the same
time, society experienced, at every level, a loud and insistent influx of the
narrow, the hysterical, and the untrue. Stupidity reigned at the highest levels evidenced,
for example, by the propagation of pseudo-science, the chief instance of which
was the biologist Trofim Lysenko's uninformed doctrines of agricultural genetics.
And members of the apparat class proper, including the political elite, were
mentally so constricted and desensitized that they were largely unable to operate
intelligently. The intellectual mediocrity of Leonid Brezhnev and the clumsy
activism of Nikita Khrushchev were direct legacies of Stalin's rule.
The most remarkable thing about the Soviet phenomenon, however, was not its
complete control over the minds of Soviet citizens but its extraordinarily successful
effort to instill its falsifications in the minds of many abroad, who were under
no compulsion to accept them. Although this is not Sebag Montefiore's concern
per se, a full view of Stalinism can hardly fail to note the worldwide propagation
of its ideology and myths.
The Western misreading of the Soviet system was largely the product of a simple
reflex. The Soviet order indeed, the practice of communism everywhere was
seen as a form of "progressive" hostility to established Western politics
and, particularly, economics. It seemed to represent a new system that had rid
itself of the market, of exploitation. Whatever its doubtless temporary or
invented faults (so the thinking went), the Soviet ideology stood for a
better world. Thus many Western writers, including Lion Feuchtwanger, Henri
Barbusse, and even Romain Rolland, the sensitive follower of Gandhi, spoke out
in defense of the purges. In the United States a number of authors, poets, professors,
and artists, including Theodore Dreiser and Corliss Lamont, signed a manifesto
attacking the Dewey Commission a body formed in 1937 to examine the charges
against Leon Trotsky, and whose findings were an unsparing, irrefutable indictment
of the realities of the Soviet system. From 1939 to 1941, Soviet sympathizers
went so far as to oppose the effort to stop Hitler. After Hitler attacked the
Soviet Union, Stalinist devotees in the West simply switched their stance on
Nazi Germany. Even today some of their survivors imply that their anti-fascism
was never interrupted.
The Holocaust stood clearly as a monstrosity from the start. The communist
record was more blurred, more polymorphous; and for a long while it retained
remnants of its initial luster (something that National Socialism never enjoyed
outside Germany). As a result, many Western intellectuals, though no longer
approving, remained nonjudgmental for many years.
There will probably always be an alienated intelligentsia, especially in tolerant,
democratic societies. But the extent to which this stratum was penetrated, misled
about reality, and to some degree fanaticized by Moscow's manipulations is striking.
William James wrote that philosophical opinion is largely a matter of temperament.
This applies to political and other types of opinion as well. The sort of temperament
we have seen during the twentieth century, combining at its worst a blend of
zealotry and unteachability, can be found in earlier eras. It will doubtless
always be lying in wait for us. Knowledge of its recent embodiments, although
useful, will not eradicate it. The evil will, alas, simply take new forms.
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