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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 6th, 2004


 

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

by

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 purge.

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 the injection.

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 officers.

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 czarist regime.

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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