The Court of the Red Tsar
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York (USA), 1st edition, 2004 (2004)
785 pages

There is nothing here yet but a few quotes.

Messianic and murderous nature of Bolshevism since its early days, prior to Stalin himself.

"A revolution without firing squads", Lenin is meant to have said, "is meaningless". He spent his career praising the Terror of the French Revolution because his Bolshevism was a unique creed, "a social system based on blood-letting". The Bolsheviks were atheists but they were hardly secular politicians in the conventional sense: they stooped to kill from the smugness of the highest moral eminence. Bolshevism may not have been a religion, but it was close enough. Stalin told Beria the Bolsheviks were "a sort of military-religious order". When Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, died, Stalin called him "a devout knight of the proletariat". Stalin's "order of sword-bearers" resembled the Knights Templars, or even the theocracy of Iranian Ayatollahs, more than any traditional secular movement. They would die and kill for their faith in the inevitable progress towards human betterment, making sacrifices of their own families, with a fervour seen only in the religious slaughters and martyrdoms of the Middle Ages —and the Middle East.

(p. 85)

Party's attitude towards the intellectuals, the beginning of a strategy that would later be applied for decades. The figure of the fellow traveler.

"... Gorky's a vain man. We must bind him with cables to the Party", replied Stalin. It worked: during the kulak liquidation, Gorky unleashed his hatred of the backward peasants in Pravda: "If the enemy does not surrender, he must be exterminated". He toured concentration camps and admired their re-educational value. He supported slave labour projects such as the Belomor Canal which he visited with Yagoda, whom he congratulated: "You rough fellows do not realize what great work you're doing!"

(p. 95)

Playing ominously with a pearl-handled penknife and now suddenyl "stern", with a "taste of iron" in his voice, Stalin proposed: "The artist ought to show life truthfully. And if he shows our life truthfully he cannot fail to show it moving to socialism. This is, and will be, Socialist Realism". In other words, the writers had to describe what life should be, a panegyric to the Utopian future, not what life was. Then there was a touch of farce, as usual provided unconsciously by Voroshilov: "You produce the goods that we need", said Stalin. "Even more than machines, tanks, aeroplanes, we need human souls". But Voroshilov, ever the simpleton, took this literally and interrupted Stalin to object that tanks were also "very important".

The writers, Stalin declared, were "engineers of human souls", a striking phrase of boldness and crudity —and he jabbed a finger at those sitting closest to him. "Me? Why me?" retorted the nearest writer. "I'm not arguing".
"What's the good of just not arguing?" interrupted Voroshilov again. "You have to get on with it".

(p. 96)

High speed industrialization of Russia by means of forced labor and a highly centralized structure.

In January 1933, Stalin delivered a swaggering Bolshevik redomontade to the Plenum: the Five-Year Plan had been a remarkable success. The Party had delivered a tractor industry, electric power, coal, steel and oil production. Cities had been built where none stood before. The Dnieper River dam and power station and the Turk-Sib railway had all been completed (built by Yagoda's growing slave labour force). Any difficulties were the fault of the enemy opposition. Yet this was Hungry Thirty-Three when millions more starved, hundreds of thousands were deported.

(pp. 119-120)

The Terror years starting with Kirov's assassination and the blood baths of 1937 as a way to purge the Party and keep everyone on his toes.

The killing would be deliberately random: There will be some innocent victims in this fight against Fascist agents", Yezhov told them. "We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly".

(p. 218)

The aim was "to finish off once and for all" all Enemies and those impossible to educate in socialism, so as to accelerate the erasing of class barriers and therefore the bringing of paradise for the masses. This final solution was a slaughter that made sense in terms of the faith and idealism of Bolshevism which was a religion based on the systematic destruction of classes. The principle of ordering murder like industrial quotas in the Five-Year Plan was therefore natural. The details did not matter: if Hitler's destruction of the Jews was genocide, then this was democide, the class struggle spinning into cannibalism. On 30 July, Yezhov and his deputy Mikhail Frinovsky proposed Order No. 00447 to the Politburo: that between 5 and 15 August, the regions were to receive quotas for two categories: Category One —to be shot. Category Two —to be deported. They suggested that 72,950 should be shot and 259,450 arrested, though they missed some regions. The regions could submit further lists. The families of these people should be deported too. The Politburo confirmed this order the next day.

(p. 228)

Stalin was surprisingly open with his circle about the aim to "finish off" all their Enemies. He could tell his cronies this quite openly at Voroshilov's May Day party, as reported by Budyonny. He seems to have constantly compared his Terror to Ivan the Terrible's massacre of the boyars. "Who's going to remember all this riffraff in ten or twenty years' time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one... The people had to know he was getting rid of all of his enemies. In the end, they all got what they deserved.

(p. 231)

The NKVD thugs apply torture in the good old Inquisition style. Yet, for some reason many of the high ranking Communist officials still belive the fake confessions signed by their victims.

Staling and his magantes often laughed about the NKVD's ability to get people to confess. Stalin told this joke to someone who had actually been tortured: "They arrested a boy and accused him of writing Eugene Onegin", Stalin joked. "The boy tried to deny it... A few days later, the NKVD interrogator bumped into the boy's parents: 'Congratulations!' he said. 'Your son wrote Eugene Onegin'". Many of the prisoners were beaten so hard that their eyes literally popped out of their heads. They were routinely beaten to death, which was registered as a heart attack.

(p. 246)

The atmosphere had become so unbreathable and treacherous that Yezhov had collected evidence on Stalin himself, who was suspected of acting as a double agent during the old Tsarist days. He might have thought that this evidence could save his life when the boss finally turned against him.

The search of Yezhov's apartment revealed bottles of vodka, empty, half-empty and full, lying around, 115 counter-revolutionary books, guns and those macabre relics: the flattened bullets, wrapped in paper, labelled Zinoviev and Kamenev. More importantly, the search revealed that Yezhov had collected materials about Stalin's pre-1917 police record: was this evidence that he was an Okhrana spy? There was also evidence against Malenkov. The papers disappeared into Beria's safe.

Stalin was now so omnipotent that when he mispronounced a word from the podium, every subsequent speaker repeated the mistake. "If I'd said it right", Molotov reminisced, "Stalin would have felt I was correcting him". He was very "touchy and proud".

(pp. 296-297)

Negotiations and shifting alliances before the war.

Europe in early 1939 was, in Stalin's own words, a "poker game" with three players, in which each hoped to persuade the other two to destroy one another and leave the third to take the winnings. The three players were the Fascists of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, the Capitalists of Neville Chamberlain's Britain allied with Daladier's France —and the Bolsheviks. Though the Georgian admired the flamboyant brutality of the Austrian, he appreciated the danger of a resurgent Germany militarily, and the hostility of Fascism.

(p. 302)

Stalin's anti-Semitism.

Stalin was an anti-Semite by most definitions but until after the war, it was more a Russian mannerism than a dangerous obsession. He was never a biological racist like the Nazis. However, he disliked any nationality that threatened loyalty to the multinational USSR. He embraced the Russian people not because he rejected his own Georgian origins but for precisely the same reason: the Russians were the foundations and cement of the Soviet Union. But after the war, the creation of Israel, the increased self-consciousness among Soviet Jews and the Cold War with America combined with his old prejudice turned Stalin into a murderous anti-Semite.

(p. 304)

Stalin collapses after Hitler attacks the Soviet Union by surprise. The Soviets had been warned over and over again, but the Vozhd kept refusing to accept the reality.

So had Stalin really suffered a nervous breakdown or was this simply a performance? Nothing was ever straightforward with this adept political actor. The breakdown was real enough: he was deppressed and exhausted. It was not out of character: he had suffered similar moments on Nadya's death and during the Finnish War. His collapse was an understandable reaction to his failure to read Hitler, a mistake which could not be hidden from his courtiers who had repeatedly heard him insist there would be no invasion in 1941. But that was only the first part of this disaster: the military collapse had revealed the damage that Stalin had done and his ineptitude as commander. The Emperor had no clothes. Only a dictator who had killed any possible challengers could have survived it. In any other system, this would have brought about a change of government but no such change was available here.

Yet Molotov and Mikoyan were right: it was also "for effect". The withdrawal from power was a well-tried pose, successfully employed from Achilles and Alexander the Great to Ivan. Stalin's retreat allowed him to be effectively re-elected by the Politburo, with the added benefit of drawing a line under the bungles up to that point. These had been forgiven: "Stalin enjoyed our support again", Mikoyan wrote pointedly. So it was both a breakdwon and a political restoration.

(p. 377)

It was obvious that Kiev would have to be abandoned but on 29 July, Stalin summoned Zhukov to discuss all fronts. Poskrebyshev ominously said the meeting would not begin until Mekhlis [the chief political commissar] had arrived. When "the gloomy demon" appeared with Beria and Malenkov, the Chief of Staff predicted, under the Medusan glare of this grim trio, that the Germans would crush the South-Western Front before turning back to Moscow. Mekhlis interrupted to ask, threateningly, how Zhukov knew so much about the German plans.

"What about Kiev?" asked Stalin. Zhukov proposed abandoning it.

"Why talk nonsense?" bawled Stalin.

"If you think the Chief of Staff talks nonsense, then I request you relive me of my post and send me to the front", Zhukov shouted back.
"Who gave you the right to speak to Comrade Stalin like that?" snarled Mekhlis.

"Don't get heated", said Stalin to Zhukov, but "since you mentioned it, we'll get by without you". Zhukov gathered his maps and left the room, only to be summoned back forty minutes later to be told that he was relieved as Chief of Staff, a blessing in disguise, which allowed this fighting general to return to his natural habitat. Stalin soothed him: "Calm down, calm down". Shaposhnikov was recallaed as Chief of Staff. Stalin knew he was ailing, but "we'll help him". Zhukov asked to leave but Stalin invited him for tea: Stalin was drawn to Zhukov. The unfolding disaster around Kiev soon proved the wisdom of his "nonsense".

(pp. 380-381)

From then on a small Politburo was to lead the war efforts: Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Malenkov and Beria. Many of the old Bolshevik leaders had been excluded from the group in what would be interpreted as a victory for Beria. The effects of the previous purges was dramatically felt. The professional officers were not listened to at the very beginning, during the bad months of the war. Mekhlis, the political commissar, was free to go around threatening everyone with an instant execution. The old Bolsheviks still saw Hindenburg as their role model and believed in the usefulness of the cavalry in the battlefield. Could have they resisted without the Communists' ruhtlessness at the helm? We, in the Western world, like to idealize our own struggles and the citizens' capacity to sacrifice it all in the name of freedom and democracy but it is far from obvious that Great Britain itself would have resisted had the Nazi troops been about to conquer London.

After Stalingrad, and through Count Bernadotte of the Red Cross, Hitler offered exchanging Yakov, Stalin's son, for Marshal Paulus. Stalin refused, and this was often used later as evidence of his ruthlessness and lack of love for his own kids.

The refusal to swap Yakov has been treated as evidence of Stalin's loveless cruelty but this is unfair. Stalin was a mass murderer but in this case, it is hard to imagine that either Churchill or Roosevelt could have swapped their sons if they had been captured —when thousands of ordinary men were being killed or captured. After the war, a Georgian confidant plucked up the courage to ask Stalin if the Paulus offer was a myth.

(p. 445)

Yes, Stalin was without a single trace of doubt a mass murdered, a ruthless tyrant. Yet, we cannot ignore either that he was truly admired, some would even say loved, by hundreds of thousands if not millions of his own subjects. Most portraits of Stalin as a monster, which he nonetheless was, simply miss the fact that he also had personal charm. It was precisely this personality trait that made him an undisputed leader for so many years. The human side.

After meetings, Stalin frequently asked Vasilevsky to stay behind to discuss whether he was tempted by the priesthood: "Well, well, I didn't want you to be", laughed Stalin. "That's clear. But Mikoyan and I wanted to be priests but were rejected. Until now, I can't understand why!" Then: "Did your religious education do anything for you?"

"No knowledge is entirely wasted", Vasilevsky replied cautiously: "Some of it turned out to be useful in military life".

"The thing priests teach best is how to understand people", mused Stalin, who once said his father was a priest. Perhaps he sometimes thought about his own paternity, for around this time, he told Vasilevsky: "One shouldn't forget one's parents". On a later occasion he asked him: "When did you last see your parents?"

"I've forsaken them", replied the General, worried that this was a test. "My father's a priest, Comrade Stalin".

"But is he a counter-revolutionary?"

"No, Comrade Stalin, he believes in God as a priest but he's not a counter-revolutionary".

"When the war's quieter, I think you should take a plane, visit your parents and ask for their forgiveness". Stalin did not forget Vasilevsky's father: "Did you ever fly and see your parents and ask their blessing?" he asked later.

"Yes, Comrade Stalin", replied Vasilesvky.

"It'll be a long time before you pay off your debt to me". Stalin then opened his safe and showed him some papers. They were money orders in Stalin's own name that had been sent to Vasilevsky's father throughout the war. The son, amazed and somewhat moved, thanked Stalin profusely. Now, Vasilevsky's special responsibility was Stalingrad.

(pp. 430-431)

Churchill's integrity when compared to Stalin's reckless disregard for human life, a contrast between Bolshevism and Western democracy itself:

That night, it was Stalin's turn to host a banquet in the usual Soviet style with an "unbelievable quantity of food". A huge Russian "waiter" in a white coat stood behind the Supremo's chair throughout the meal. Stalin "drank little" but got his kicks by needling Churchill, exchanges in which Roosevelt seemed to take an undignified pleasure. Stalin sneered that he was glad Churchill was not a "liberal", that most loathsome of creatures in the Bolshevik lexicon, but he then tested his severity by joking that 50,000 or perhaps 100,000 German officers should be executed. Churchill was furious: pushing his glass forward, knocking it over so brandy spread across the table, he growled: "Such an attitude is contrary to the British sense of justice. The British Parliament and public would never support the execution of honest men who had fought for their country". Roosevelt quipped that he would like to cmopromise: only 49,000 should be shot. Elliott Roosevelt, the President's ne'er-do-well son who was also present, jumped tipsily to his feet to josh: wouldn't the 50,000 fall in battle anyway?

(pp. 469-470)

Nothing further from this chievalrous attitude of the British Premier than Stalin's approach to war. When the Yugoslavian Communist Milovan Djilas complained about the behavior of the Red Amry soldiers in his country (which included the most despicable murders and rapes of the civilian population, not to talk of simple robbery and many other excesses), the Supremo did not think twice before justifying their behavior:

You have of course read Dostoevsky? Do you see what a complicated thing is man's soul...? Well then, imagine a man who has fought from Stalingrad to Belgrade —over thousands of kilometres of his own devastated land, across the dead bodies of his comrades and dearest ones? How can such a man react normally? And what is so awful about his having fun with a woman after such horrors?

(p. 479)

No matter the differences though, Stalin presented his Western allies with a fait acompli at the end of the war. It was clear that Churchill and Roosevelt would not be able to stop the Soviet expansion throughout Eastern Europe, and Stalin was well aware of this. While Churchill, always the severe, faithful and convinced politician who truly believed in the values of Western democracy nearly at any cost, kept trying to shortchange the Communist leader, Roosevelt had a more pragmatical approach and was more willing to understand that they had little say over Stalin's sphere of influence.

Stalin had virtually all he wanted from the Allien and this is usally blamed on Roosevelt's illness and susceptibility to Stalinist charm. Both Westerners stand accused of "selling out Eastern Europe to Stalin". Roosevel'ts courtship of Stalin and discourtesy to Churchill were misguided. FDR was certainly ill and exhausted. But Stalin always believed that force would decide who ruled Eastern Europe which was occupied by 10 million Soviet soldiers. He himself told an anecdote after the war which reveals his view of Yalta. "Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin went hunting", Stalin said. "They finally killed their bear. Churchill said, 'I'll take the bearskin. Let Roosevelt and Stalin divide the meat'. Roosevelt said, 'No, I'll take the skin. Let Churchill and Stalin divide the meat'. Stalin remained silent so Churchill and Roosevelt asked him: 'Mister Stalin, what do you say?' Stalin simply replied, 'The bear belongs to me —after all, I killed it'". The bear is Hitler, the bearskin is Eastern Europe.

(p. 484)

Stalin respected Hitler nonetheless.

After the war, during a late dinner on the Black Sea coast, Stalin was asked whether Hitler was a lunatic or an adventurer: "I agree that he was an adventurer but I can't agree he was mad. Hitler was a gifted man. Only a gifted man could unite the German people. Like it or not... the Soviet Army fought their way into the German land... and reached Berlin without the German working class ever striking against... the Fascist regime. Could a madman so unite his nation?"

(pp. 491-492)

Needless to say, this bears little ressemblance to the official position maintained by the Socialist establishment of Eastern Germany after the war. Obviously, Stalin was intelligent enough not to believe his own propaganda.

Debauchery of secret police:

An inventory of his desk after his later arrest revealed his interests: power, terror and sex. In his office, Beria kept blackjack clubs for torturing people and the array of female underwear, sex toys and pornography that seemed to be obligatory for secret-police chiefs. He was found to be keeping eleven pairs of silk stockings, eleven silk bodices, seven silk nighties, female sports outfits, the equivalent of Soviet cheerleaders' costumes, blouses, silk scarves, countless obscene love letters and a "large quantity of items of male debauchery".

(p. 505)

After the war, Stalin's tsarist tendencies became even more pronounced. He enjoyed territorial gains that were virtually unknown in Russian history prior to him, was idolized as the Generalissimo (a new title invented just for him), savior of the Russian people, savior of Communism, savior and great father of all peoples of the earth... the list goes on and on. It is hard to see the connection between this authoritarian figure and the people's republic Lenin had supposedly stood for back in 1917. His parties became more and more banal, his power more and more arbitrary even than during the days of the terror. At the beginning, the clique formed by Stalin himself, Molotov, Beria, Mikoyan and Malenkov was clearly in charge, but the divisions would soon start and Stalin would try to expand this ruling inner circle with the additions of people like Zhdanov, Voznesensky, Bulganin and Kuznetsov. Some of them would have a horrible end in the internal purges that would again characterize Stalin's last days. He had always controlled the intelligentsia very closely, and never doubted to offer direct advise to the artists. Now, that fatherly behavior increased even more in this statesman who was praised by everyone as the Father of the Communist Motherland. He called Sergei Eisenstein to tell him how to improve his latest installment of Ivan the Terrible. It is certainly not difficult to see in his advise that Stalin considered himself some sort of reincarnation of the historical figure.

"Historical figures", added Stalin, "must be shown correctly... Ivan the Terribe kissed his wife too long". Kisses, again. "It wasn't permitted at that time". Then came the crux: "Ivan the Terrible was very cruel", said Stalin. "You can show he was cruel. But you must show why he needed to be cruel." Then Zhdanov raised the crucial question of Ivan's beard. Eisenstein promised to shorten it. Eisenstein asked if he could smoke.

"It seems to me there's no ban on smoking. Maybe we'll vote on it". Stalin smiled at Eisenstein. "I don't give you instructions, I merely give you the comments of a viewer".

On how the Soviet officers plundered Europe during the war, looting and raping without any remorse. There was little difference between their debauchery and that of other courtesan from absolutis monarchies. Yet, was all of this attributable to their atheism? Cannot we said somethign similar of so many "Christian" courts?

Zhukov was not alone in his "museum" of gold and paintings. Corruption is the untold story of Stalin's post-war Terror: the magantes and marshals plundered Europe with the avarice of Göring, though with much more justification after what the Germans had done to Russia. This imperial élite cast aside much of their old "Bolshevik modesty". Yet "Comrade Stalin", foreign visitors were told, "cannot endure immortality" though he had always believed that conquerors could help themselves to some booty and local girls. He laughed about the luxuries of his generals with their courtesans and batmen yet his archives overflow with denunciations of corruption which he usually filed away for later.


The soldiers reached the treasures first but it was the Chekists who enjoyed the best swag. At Gagra, Beria pursued and impressed female athletes in a fleet of plundered speedboats. Abakumov drove around Moscow in Italian sports cars, looted Germany with Göringesque extravagance, sent planes to Berlin to commandeer Potemkinesque quantities of underwear, assembling an antique treasure trove like a department store. He flew in the German film star and international woman of mystery, Olga Chekhova, for an affair. When actress Tatiana Okunevskaya (already raped by Beria) refused him, she got seven years in the Gulags. Stalin's staff were mired in corruption. Vlasik, the vizier who ran a luxurious empire of food, drink and mansions, entertained his courtesans at official rest homes with a crew of raffish painters, thuggish Chekists and sybaritic bureaucrats. Limousines delivered the "concubines", who received apartments, caviar, tickets, to Red Square parades and football games. Vlasik seduced his friends' wives by showing them his photographs of Stalin and maps of Postdam. He even pilfered Stalin's own houses, stripping his villa at Postdam, stealing 100 pieces of porcelain, pianos, clocks, cars, three bulls and two horses, transported home in MGB trains and planes. He spent much of the Postdam Conference drinking, fornicating, or stealing.

(pp. 549-550)

Entertainment factor: 5/10
Intellectual factor: 6/10