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 �lan, 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.
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September 11, 2005
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Excerpt from Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Georgian and the Schoolgirl
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," n�e 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."