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on 22 November 2010
In this long and entertaining book, British author Simon Sebbag Montefiore tells the story of Stalin from the moment that his second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva committed suicide in 1932 until his death in 1953 (like many historians and many of his closest collaborators, Montefiore believed the death of his wife exacerbated the worst of his personality and turned him from a strong ruler to a brutal dictator, making the great purges possible). In a subsequent book (a prequel of sorts), Young Stalin, he recounted the life of the Soviet dictator from his birth in 1878 until the triumph of the Russian revolution in 1917. Left from these two books is an intermediate period of fifteen years, from 1917 to 1932, in which Stalin rose to power, and wasn't still a complete dictator: even after he became the Soviet nominal leader in 1924 after Lenin died, there was considerable opposition to his policies and he didn't have a completely free hand to govern. He would take care of these opponents (and then more) in 1937.
As Montefiore notes at the beginning, during the Cold War, Soviet top officials were routinely characterized in the western press as being grey, mediocre and dull. In fact, most of them had colorful, larger than life personalities: Yezhov, the manic and bloody dwarf responsible for the worst of the repressions, Beria an intelligent but cold blooded murderer who terrorized the leadership with his Georgian gang of criminals at the security services, Budyonny, the Cossack cavalry general famous for his moustaches who believed that tanks would never be a match for horses in warfare, Tukhachevsky the military intellectual who tried to modernize the Red Army and who would pay dearly for being in the wrong side of Stalin during the Polish Soviet war, Khrushchev, the Ukrainian peasant who far from a liberal, was one of the most bloody minded of the Soviet leaders, the fiery Ordzhonikidze, an old pal from Georgia and considered the "perfect Bolshevik" who killed himself in early 1937 apparently for sensing that he was next in the execution's list, Nikolai Bukharin, the vain intellectual and old friend of Stalin (but also opponent of many of his policies) who sensing his coming demise sent increasingly pathetic letters to the leader pleading for mercy, Mikoyan, the urbane Armenian who despite some momentary arguments with Stalin survived in the top leadership until the times of Brezhnev.
Top officials of the Soviet Union were a close knit group, they usually live next to one another, usually hanging with each other after work and on vacation. Some of them were even related by marriage (Stalin's daughter Svetlana flirted with Beria's son, but finally was married to Zhdanov's son; in an earlier time, Kamenev's was married to Trotsky's sister). Their familiarity made even more haunting the fact that many voted in Politburo's sessions for the death of their former friends.
Stalin obviously holds the greatest responsibility for the great terror, but he wasn't the only one: Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov signed most of the death sentences, and we have many documented cases in which they seemed to try to sincerely encourage the Soviet leader to repress and kill even more people. For these men, though, even being this close to Stalin didn't save you from the repressions: Kaganovich's brother Mikhail was one of the victims of the terror, and after the war, Molotov's Jewish wife Polina was imprisoned for several years in a labor camp during the campaign after rootless cosmopolitans (i.e. Jews). Even some members of Stalin's direct family were repressed: Alexander Svanidze, his brother in law from his first marriage and a top official of the Soviet State Bank, was executed in 1941 with the flimsy charges of being a German spy.
Stalin didn't mellow with age. In fact, he became more cruel and arbitrary as he got older and death got near. When around the time he turned seventy he started suffering the infirmities of age, he didn't blame nature, but (of course) a conspiracy by doctors. Many of them were Jews (and the recent birth of the state of Israel made him doubt whether Soviet Jews were loyal to the Soviet state), hence, the last campaign of repression (thankfully stopped short by the dictator's death, just before they were sent to camps in Siberia) were against Jews.
If you want to know what made Stalin tick, what were the roots of his remarkable but terrifying personality, Young Stalin is a better book. But this book, which is full of new information, is a very entertaining retelling of what became almost a surreal kingdom of fear, abject obedience and death.
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on 6 August 2013
Historical biographies don't come much better than this one. The author uses a great deal of original material newly released from the archives in Russia as well as his interviews with survivors and relatives. Far from being the "Grey Blur" of legend, Stalin comes across as having used considerable charm, intellect and humour in controlling those around him. His close and loving relationship to his daughter, Svetlana, is thoroughly explored (she was later to defect to the USA and denounce her father). There are fascinating anecdotes on every page, as Stalin comes across as a passionate believer of Marxism-Leninism holding `court' like a medieval monarch. Indeed, Bolshevism was Stalin's religion and the slightest sign of doubt anyone showed in their `belief' was justification for them to be arrested, tortured, killed or sent to Gulags. Nobody was safe including those closest to Stalin. Countless numbers of innocent people and their families perished in `the Great Terror' and this book deals particularly well with the circumstances around this terrible event. The book enables the reader to have a far greater understanding of what made Stalin and his perverse system of government tick. It covers Stalin's leadership in World War II and the aftermath of the war when the dictator became increasingly paranoid and unpredictable. The circumstances of the dictator's death reveal so much about the regime, as his henchmen were too scared to call a doctor for days (Stalin hated doctors, and was in the process of purging them). When doctors finally arrived they were shaking with fear so much they couldn't take a pulse! Although the details are horrific at times, I strongly recommend this book, especially to students of 20th Century history.
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on 4 September 2014
I have read a large number of biographies on political figures by the majority of the best known authors; I comfortably rate Simon Sebag Montefiore at the top of these. He includes plenty of detail and provides for an easier read by dint of not having the vast swathes of academic speak that sometimes bogs down and confuses other accounts. There is a more human feel to the style of writing as this author includes comment, comparison, and some amusing side-stories to his analysis. I have read a number of biographies on Stalin but this could be read as a stand alone account although I would recommend reading 'Young Stalin' first though, which is also by this author.
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on 1 June 2006
I share many of the comments of previous reviewers. Yes, it is a daunting size, and shorn of maps, photographs and references the narrative is still nearly 600 pages. Yes, it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who among the various magnates. Yes, sometimes the writing style is a little strange. Having said that, it is really worth persevering with. By having made great efforts to obtain first hand evidence, either from the archives, or by interviewing those still alive, Montefiori gives a new perspective on the lives of those in Stalin's closest circle.

The book is not a history of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the great issues faced by the nation during his reign are not dealt with in detail. That, however, is not the purpose of the book. Much has already been written of the Ukrainian famine, the destruction of the Kulaks, the Terror and Stalin as a war leader. The book concentrates on Stalin's court, a microcosm of the appalling brutality occurring on a wider scale in the nation. In this respect, at least it could be said that the soviet leaders shared the hardships of their subjects, living in constant fear of Stalin's mood swings, which could see them demoted, sent to the Gulag or executed. Nor did it stop with them. The families of the soviet magnates were equally liable to capricious destruction, and even children were imprisoned or killed.

They were able, however, to live in some splendour in the dachas and apartments of the former ruling class. This was true for Stalin, as it was for his underlings, and the book explodes the myth of his ascetic lifestyle.

The fascinating postscript for the book shows that even amongst those who suffered first hand from his cruelty, who were forced to divorce or be divorced from loving spouses, and be separated from children, and who saw on a daily basis the destruction of close friends and their families, there are still committed Stalinists. The importance of this book is that it leaves no doubt that Stalin was one of the great mass murderers of history. It should be standard reading in Russian schools to prevent a resurgence of admiration for a man every bit as evil as Hitler.
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on 27 August 2003
This book is both a confirmation and a revelation as it looks into the politics and intrigue at the court of the Red Tsar. Stalin is shown to be the paranoid, manipulative, tyrannical ideologue history has portrayed him as and additionally it is revealed how through cunning and political mastery this blood stained fanatic manages to get hold of and retain an ever increasing grip on power. We are also told the stories of the various toadies and their families who danced with the devil as they jousted for influence, prestige and survival. The courtiers in this bleak drama are nearly as evil and ruthless as their master or else simultaneously revering of and intimidated by him. The pulsating core spreading the poison is Stalin himself as he proceeds to kill all his enemies, real or imagined, and it has to be remembered that all the friends and acquaintances he sent to the torture chambers and death were merely the top of a pyramid of millions. Like Hitler, the man is driven by the logic of his delusions and he probably managed to kill more people. The fawning sycophants both encourage and act upon his malicious instructions as they denounce and threaten each other with levels of menace apportioned to their current state of favour with the tyrant. Such favouritism was usually short lived after which it was a battle for survival that was rarely won. As this jostling went on in the bear pit these cold-hearted bureaucrats were enacting the cruel, pitiless will of Stalin on the long suffering population of the Soviet Union.
There are many tales about the monstrous Yeshov and the chilling Beria, who was not a committed communist at all, and how unrestrained they could indulge in their sadism and depravities. Both came to bad ends. The story of Molotov is told and how his wife was exiled by Stalin and then re-united with her husband after the dictator's death. Molotov and his wife only survived because of Stalin's demise. Kruschev is another court crony who is far from unblemished. There are many insights into how these bureaucratic murderers were often kind and tender to their wives and children, yet so desperate when out of favour with the leader that they would betray their families, sometimes, in a supreme irony, in order to save them but always to try and save themselves. The book teems with anecdotes revealing the reactions of the courtiers when caught in Stalin's glare of hate.
The author does a commendable job at emphasising the dangers of tyrannical power and ideological fanaticism. He shows how the power and weakness of human nature in all its blood feasting lust and incredible displays of kindness and sympathy always prevails against ideology, both thwarting it and diminishing it. This beautifully written work is an excellent example of the many historical analyses that show how ideologues can only enforce their narrow, bigoted promises of some false nirvana through force and terror. It also shows how lunatics and evil come to power on the back of apologists, ideological sympathisers, cynical careerists and people who look the other way until the dark forces gain an unstoppable momentum that can usually only be ended by the death of the tyrants or war, often at the cost of the lives of millions of innocents.
The last chapter, simply a postscript, is surprising as it relates the attitudes of courtiers who survived and their descendants to the homicidal dictator. It is amazing to think that some of these sad victims can still make excuses for one of mankind's biggest killers. This has many parallels with the woolly, muddled and blind opinions we can still hear today in defence of vicious murdering tyrants. Stalin's useful fools indeed. The book is impeccably researched and the sources include living descendants of the players in the nightmare, Russian archives and other letters, documents and histories. The last 100 or so pages attribute these sources. It is very hard to fault this book but perhaps the editing is a little loose in places and some of the content could have been a bit tauter but apart from these extremely minor criticisms the book can be recommended wholeheartedly.
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on 25 April 2012
At almost 700 pages, 'Stalin: the court of the red Tsar' is the culmination of years of research on the part of the author, Simon Sebag Montefiore. Montefiore has travelled widely in the former USSR and interviewed survivors and descendants of Stalin's circle.

Stalin was an incredibly complex and multi-faceted individual and certainly not the boorish Philistine of Orwell's Animal Farm. The real Stalin was cultured and highly-educated with a sense of humour and even able to laugh at himself. This monster who has the blood of millions on his hand was a loving dad to his daughter Svetlana and objected to sex and kissing in movies. This aberration who used forced starvation and deportation to impose Bolshevik rule on the Soviet peoples was a talented musician, enjoyed canoeing holidays and was a keen gardener. At dramatic moments in the story, such as the assassination of Kirov, and Stalin's rather comic double-act routine with Churchill at the Yalta conference, the writing style is close to historical fiction.

My main criticism of The Red Tsar is its prolixity and inclusion of dozens of minor anecdotes which drag the book out for about 200 pages more than it could have been. The book is not a history of the Soviet Union in the Stalin era, but, rather, a study of Stalin's character, his relationships with his tragic wife Nadya and his grotesque, blood-thirsty Politburo subordinates. It would be of minimal use, therefore, to students of Soviet history. It is also not recommended if you are at all squeamish - there are some graphic descriptions of torture and human suffering. Above all, 'The Court of the Red Tsar' leaves the reader shattered and wondering how on Earth such a monstrosity could have been allowed to live for so long.
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on 26 July 2009
This is a fascinating and at times magisterial portrait of Stalin, and his court he held sway over through more than two decades of Russias most turbulent recent history.
Using a huge range of sources of both official and personal reminiscences, Sebag continues where he left off with Young Stalin. Sebag is intellectually honest enough not to attempt psychologically profiling this enigmatic and extraordinary human figure.
What emerges is a man of iron-willed determination to ascend to power in a time of immense social upheaval.
Stalin was hugely well read- an autodidact for life- with a library of 20,000 books This was the Dictator, Writer and Literary Critic. Humanising elements of his character are frequent throughout his life. Small acts of kindness and often spontaneous acts of generosity to his suffering citizens, coupled with a calculated determination to mercilessly exterminate his enemies. The destruction of Zinoviev and Kamenev is macabre high theatre. The build up to the Great Terror is facilitated by the calculating Political murder of Kirov, which acts as a trigger for a wide ranging annihilation of Political opponents.
What emerges from the portrayal of the Kremlin, is an incestuous tight knit group of radicals, whose qualities were extraordinary and often seemingly incongruent. Loving family men, loyal friends, and yet as political animals and government officials, sadistic, perverted and utterly ruthless.
The state stage emerges as an experience through which its leaders would emerge warped beyond all human recognition, slaughtering as they did millions of their own citizens.
Danger was ever present at the court, which full of intrigue, Sebag chronicles pacily and with lucidity, such that survival for most of the principle characters was inordinately difficult. Indeed most of the original Politburo were purged.
These were men who spent months virtually sleepless, drank ferociously, were afflicted with illness and ever likely to be sucked into the destructive maelstrom of the regimes gaping maw they had created.
This book gives a fascinating behind the scenes look of many of these relationships, the characters and attributes of this sizeable body of men who bludgeoned and brutalised Russia into industrial modernity.
Stalin emerges as an immensely complex and exceptional figure of genius in many of his attributes. His political machinating is considered carefully, with his excellent insights in human behaviour making him the undoubted supremo.
Under this blanket term of dictator, tyrant or despot, Sebag has uncovered a living breathing suffering man. Cruel, ruthless and cold, yet also charming, talented and with elements of genius.
This book deserves deserves its place on the shelf of anyone seeking insights into the minds and mentalities of these key Soviet figures. Sebag with a light touch allows the story to speak for itself, without prejudice or undue authorial interference.
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on 6 May 2015
The sequel to 'Young Stalin' starts when Stalin succeeded in reaching top positions in the world of political criminals known as Bolshevists. In control of the full might of the Bolshevist state, he was able scale up from the small-time terrorist acts in which he used to indulge as a youngster, to mass slaughter.

Although the story is familiar, the inside perspective that Sebag Montefiore provides is utterly fascinating. The picture of Stalin's close surroundings is a rather bleak and chilling one, with his henchmen and even family relatives having to live in fear as much as the population at large - of course his fellow communists were a bit more deserving of such a fate than the poor people. I will never forget the image of Stalin 'inviting' his cronies to what must have been rather exhausting soirees of movie-watching (they had to watch the same movies over and over again & pretend to like them), heavy drinking and childish humiliations, with every one in constant fear of any hints from the boss's side that he was fed up with them (resulting in imprisonment, torture and a miserable death in a far-away concentration camp). An absolute pageturner.
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on 26 August 2003
This is the most enjoyable book I've read about Stalin so far. It is more readable than Volkogonov and Ulam, not as speculative as Radzinski, more detailed than Conquest and Bullock. For the nonacademic reader it distills all the knowledge about the Vozhd, and adds to this store by judicious use of newly released archives and interviews with a few survivors from the Stalinist era, and with the descendants of key member's of the red court. It also condenses (sometimes not as successfully as one would have hoped) recent books about some of these key members, such as Taubman's on Stalin, Knight's on Beria and Kirov, Jansen's on Yezhov, Sergo Beria's on his father, Molotov's conversation with Chuev, inter alia. So, if you want to know all that's key about the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era, this is the book to read. This is not just a book about personalities, but also a real history book, Just because it's fun doesn't mean it's not history.
Sebag Montefiore's contention is that leadership in the Soviet Union was fairly collegiate up to the time of the suicide of Stalin's second wife in 1932, and that all the key drivers for the Great Purge in 1937-1938 were already in place before Kirov's assassination in 1934. After that, Stalin's power grew absolute, never more so than a few days after operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), and in fact he decided virtually everything, squirreling away in his vast memory all key facts that would allow him, years or even decades earlier, to launch yet another purge or send yet another apparatchick to meet the firing squad. But even at the very end, Stalin had to think carefully before demoting his powerful barons, such as Zhdanov, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khruschev or Beria.
This is was easy for him to do because he had a powerful intellect, boundless energy and a remarkable talent for mischief. He wasn't a gambler like Hitler or Mussolini, but rather a chess player who wasn't above oportunism when it suited him.
Sebag Montefiore's Stalin is truly awe inspiring in the catholicity of his interests. He decides everything, from the titles and sizes of Pravda articles, to the poems and novels that can be published, to the movies that may be shown, to the operas and plays that may be played, to the names of towns, factories and streets, to all construction projects, large and small, to the names of those that would perish on the various Terrors that he and his minions unleashed, under his orders. I don't believe I know anyone, not even famed King Philip II, who was able to run a huge empire spanning many time zones, while intervening in such detail. His hunger for acknowledgement was seemengly bottomless. He wanted to be the country's first intellectual, its first military leader, its first political chief, its chief aesthete and its only real free man. However, he was never truly free, because his immense gifts were overshadowed by a suspicious nature bordering on the paranoid, and an inability to love anyone. For him, people were really abstractions, who only became real because of their interactions with him. The entire Soviet Union, and indeed the entire world, were, in his mind, mere extras to a colourful pageant that he ran all by himself. He might have launched a second holocaust against the Jews if he had lived a few years longer, as might have easily happened. He was on the verge of purging the entire leadership. The jury is still out on whether he would have launched a nuclear attack. At the end of his life, when he was scarcely rational, he might have done if there had been an excuse in Europe to do so. Yet he also had all sorts of peculiar preferences. Who knew that he had a good singing voice, and that he particularly liked religious hymns, which he enjoyed singing with Malenkov, a former choir boy? Who knew that he favoured a certain politician from the Caucasus, simply because he had the same name as a priest that he had befriended in the early twentieth century? Come to think of it, who knew that Beria loved westerns, that everyone loved Pauker's imitations of Kamenev and Zinoviev, that Zhdanov was a prude and that Kalinin was a ladies' man?
The key test here is Samuel Johnson's on Paradise Lost: Does one wish Red Tsar were longer. Well, I did. So will you, perhaps.
Although Sebag's coverage of Stalin is matchless, he was not so successful with a few of the barons of his Court. Some of them, like Beria, Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, Kirov or Molotov do come alive, surprisingly in the latter's case (who knew old "iron arse" was actually a tender husband to Polina Zemzushina? Who knew of his romantic, and even sensual letters to her?). Other, like Malenkov or Khruschev or Bulganin or Zhukov could have had more air time. Khruschev is particularly shortchanged, given Taubman's excellent biography, which Sebag quotes here. He was surely not just a glutton and a vulgarian as he appears in this book. A few virtual unknowns (to me), such as Mekhlis (the "shark" or "gloomy demon") and Andreyev, would have borne greater detail. Especially the former's almost animal voracity is horrifying to witness, providing the frisson that one looks for in this type of literature (it is surely not wrong to admit it?). Perhaps another book, with sketches about key members of Stalin's Court, and especially interesting episodes or transcripts of Mr Sebag Montefiore's best interviews used in the bookis in the works? Mr Sebag Montefiore: I would buy such a book and am sure there is a market for it. Stalin and his men deserve the same sort of detail that we have about Hitler and his.
Most of the good stories one has read, or heard about Stalin are here, which will also make this an excellent reference book. The real test is Samuel Johnson's concerning Paradise Lost. Do I wish Sebag Montefiore's book had been longer? I do. That is the hallmark of a memorable book.
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This makes a great follow up to Simon Sebag Montefiore's superb 'Young Stalin', albeit there's some overlap in content. If you want to really know about the rise of the young Stalin - and it's fascinating - then read the other title, as this hefty tome, whilst including enough background to set the scene, concentrates as the title suggests on Stalin's time in power.

I find a lot of current history books tend to be rather heavy going, often as a result of their desire to be as comprehensive as possible. In this respect, Montefiore comes up trumps, being both highly readable - the adjective compelling is much overused (esp. on book jacket hype) but is totally apt here - and also very detailed.

This book is itself massively hyped, in a chorus of critical approval that is, fortunately, very well founded. One thing many comment upon is that, rather than just rehashing the Stalin-as-monster line, we get a very rounded picture, showing how he could charm and disarm, as well as decimating any and all in the more familiar tale of power-drunk paranoia.

With a central cast of characters that range from the wives to the cronies and henchmen, dominated of course by 'Uncle' Stalin himself, and a 'supporting cast' of faceless millions, death hovers over all.

Ultimately it's almost impossible to discern whether Stalin was just a Georgian gangster writ large, or an ideologue who dug a monomaniac furrow though history in pursuit of a Socialist utopia like a juggernaut over mountains of dead, or a bit of both. But what is certain is that this is a fascinating and deeply compelling story, adroitly told by a gifted historian and storyteller.
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