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Stalin; The Court of the Red Tsar. By Simon Montefiore. Knopf, 2005, paper

April 18th, 2012 · No Comments · Book Reviews

Simon Montefiore has used the Stalin archives to look at the nature of Bolshevik leadership in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s through Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. He argues that the “magnates” constituted a court – hence courtiers – and infers that it resembles Russia’s pre-revolutionary tsarist regime. Buttressing that structure was the terror unleashed by first the collective leadership of the Bolshevik Party and then by the late 1930s, Stalin himself.

Montefiore details Stalin’s villainy; he also presents him as interesting. Stalin appreciated the arts: novels, plays, dance, and particularly film. It has been said that power is the best aphrodisiac; women found him attractive. He had a sense of humor, often ironic. He liked clever digs. He was not a heavy drinker himself but found nights of carousing an easy way to socialize with the Soviet elite. At times he appeared shy and lacking confidence.

That elite bore the brunt of his suspiciousness and grudges. They didn’t know when they were offending him, so they worried about any and all interactions. Although he said he wanted them to be frank and critical, they rarely contradicted him.

I was curious to see what Montefiore’s account of the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany in August 1939. What was Stalin thinking? He was suspicious of both the Western capitalist powers, Britain and France, and the fascist regime in Germany. He understood the danger of a rearmed Germany, but on the other hand, Russia was ill-prepared to confront the German military machine.

In 1939 Britain sent a delegation to Moscow to explore an agreement with Russia that would give teeth to their Polish guarantee, bestowed without consulting the Russians. The delegation was headed by Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Drax, a minor official in the Admiralty. Plunkett-Ernle-Drax’s claim to fame was a handbook on solar heating. Stalin viewed Britain’s unimpressive negotiating team as a stalling tactic.

Germany then sent a high-powered delegation headed by its Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. His instructions were to ascertain what Russia wanted by way of territorial compensation for agreeing to Germany’s occupation of western Poland. Germany agreed to restore tsarist Russia’s position in Baltic States, Eastern Poland (Belorussia), and the Rumanian province of Bessarabia. Their non-aggression pact thus allowed Germany to avoid a war on two fronts and cleared the way for the German drive through the Low Countries and France.

Stalin assumed, Montefiore maintains, that Russia would not face a German invasion until the summer of1942 and possibly 1943. He believed that German victory in the West would take much longer than proved to be the case.

It has often been argued that Stalin succeeded in buying time to prepare the Russians for Operation Barbarossa. Montefiore shows that in fact, Stalin complicated that preparation with his continued war on the old Bolsheviks. The decimation of his military leadership after Finnish successes in 1940, did not, as is sometimes claimed, clear the way for more qualified generals. Stalin’s over-confidence in his own ability to direct the Russian army was partly responsible for the success of Hitler’s armies in 1941.

Montefiore argues, however, that Stalin’s decision not to abandon Moscow in October 1941 was “world-shattering.” It proved to be the right decision, but risked a major Russian encirclement. As the Wehrmacht approached the western suburbs of Moscow, Stalin disappeared for a few days. Montefiore suggests that he had a panic attack that he did not want his magnates to witness. Fortunately for the eventual success of Russian arms, Stalin decided to consult with his generals.

Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD and perhaps Stalin’s most likely successor, has earned a reputation, mostly well-deserved, of being even more sinister than Stalin. Montefiore argues that even Stalin was frightened of this policeman. Beria managed the waves of terror that began in the 1930s and lasted through the war and after Stalin’s death in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev, who came to dominate the collective leadership following Stalin’s death, had Beria arrested, tried, and shot.

Montefiore does not deny the truth of Beria’s reputation. But he argues that Beria, while the cunning syncopate in the court of the Tsar, had aspirations beyond being a policeman. He might, Montefiore speculates, have turned out to have been in the Mikhail Gorbachev mold. One of the reasons that Khrushchev was able to topple Beria was that Beria was advocating “freeing” East Germany from Soviet domination. He his recognized the need to reform the Soviet system, now facing the formidable power of the Western capitalist democracies that Stalin had so often mocked. As Stalin lay dying from what appears to have been either a heart attack or stroke, Beria made clear to everyone his deep hatred of Stalin

This is no apology for either Stalin or Beria, but Simon Montefiore leaves us with a more nuanced view of both Russians.

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