- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 10, 2004


By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf, $30, 768 pages, illus.


This is a book about monsters, human monsters — all male — who, as they condemned hundreds of thousands of people to torture and death and arranged the Moscow frame-up trials, received the plaudits of famous intellectuals, statesmen, socialists and other Marxists.

These Soviet monsters, headed by the Monster in Chief, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, are the subjects of “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.” It’s a book that had to be written, whatever one’s personal reaction is to its startling contents.

My personal reaction to this major work of 20th-century history was that it made me feel sick, as if I were reading about the horrors of Auschwitz and the camp commandant’s happy home life with wife and kiddies.

The author, who is bilingual in English and Russian, has not only had access to Stalin’s personal archive but has also been able to interview survivors of the Stalin decades of murder and treachery. He has had the wit not to summarize, but to quote, what they said and wrote to each other. It is history in the raw — the rawest of the raw.

In the Stalin era, the Soviet Union was run as a family business where you could go bankrupt at any time. Death could strike anywhere, against anyone including your whole family, small children not being exempt from proletarian revenge.

Today, you were Stalin’s buddy; tomorrow you were being blackjacked into a confession of conspiring against him. It’s all there in the archives which Mr. Montefiore has opened for all to see.

We’ve all known a lot of this. Robert Conquest laid it out four decades ago without the archival access but with masterly deductive scholarship. But what we didn’t know in lurid detail until now was the daily give-and-take, the who’s-up-and-who’s-down scorecard among the monsters. In one sense reading this book confirms Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the banality of evil.

The Monster in Chief, as the author makes clear, was not only a dictator who ruled by paranoid whim and conspiratorial ingenuity. He was a dictator with many personae: Chief Executive and Executioner, Chief Planner, Chief Ideologist and Theoretician, Chief Justice, Chief Lover (yes, Stalin had a sex life, it seems), Chief Musician (yes, he supervised Shostakovich and other composers), Chief Editor (yes, he supervised novelists, editorialists, commentators, film producers, radio broadcasters), Chief Policeman, Chief Conspirator, Chief Everything.

Whatever he said, whatever he ordered was done, sometimes even before he said or ordered it. It helped you to stay alive, if you could anticipate on Monday what Stalin might want on Tuesday.

As the author shows, Stalin turned Russia into a nation of stool-pigeons, each one engaged in a battle for survival. And what gave this terror its justification (even human monsters need justification for their monstrousness) were the words of a lame-footed, 5-foot-tall Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD (Soviet secret police) from 1936-38 and presumably executed in 1939: “Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.”

How reminiscent of the disgusting Bertholt Brecht, the German communist playwright, who when challenged that thousands of innocents had been sent to the gulag by Stalin, replied, “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.”

What makes this book so sickening is that if one forgets the Great Terror or the Stalin-induced famine in Ukraine, these jungle monsters were leading normal lives with their families, their holidays, their dinners with each other. Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chieftain, is described by the author as “a sadistic torturer, loving husband, warm father, and priapic womanizer.”

Mr. Montefiore says that while Stalin was the mastermind of the Great Terror, one cannot blame it on just one man; he was helped. That is a half-truth. Of course, he was helped. He needed testicle-crushers and assassins to help out. In 1984, Milton Himmelfarb wrote an essay in the journal Commentary, with the theme: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” And I would extrapolate that finding to read: No Stalin, No Terror.

Had Lenin lived he might have expanded his own terror; after all, he began the gulag. But he also knew when retreat was necessary as in the NEP (New Economic Policy), which he introduced in 1921.

Such retreat was not for Stalin. He created a world of ingenious capitalist fiends (some of them supposedly hidden in his own entourage) seeking to destroy in a class war the dream of a Marxist utopia built on the bones of capitalism. In that world he defined who was a capitalist and who was a Trotskyite or a fascist spy, and there was no appeal from his verdict.

There have been other books with close-ups of Stalin. (I am thinking of Milovan Djilas’ “Conversations with Stalin.”) But Mr. Montefiore’s biography is far different from anything in this genre. It is a superb piece of research and, despite some psychobabble, it is frighteningly lucid.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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