0086 | Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar – Simon Sebag Montefiore


Context: Finished on the Trans-Mongolian Express as we headed from Irkutsk to Moscow.

This is stellar piece of research and the book, once you get used to Montefiore’s style, is an enjoyable read, if that’s the right adjective to use for a biography of one of the world’s greatest murderers. But something about the book didn’t feel quite right.

It’s quite apparent that Montefiore’s done his homework. The level of detail in this biography is such that large sections of it seem to have been narrated by him as a first-hand observer. His approach is also noteworthy. This is not the straightforward birth, life, death blow by blow description of the man you might expect. Instead, beginning with his wife’s suicide, the book focusses very much on the years Stalin was at the top of the political pile in Moscow.

This is all done in a style which was at first somewhat difficult for me to grasp. He spends a great deal of time describing how much fun Stalin had at home: how much he liked dancing, singing and how he threw parties and got everyone roaring drunk. At first I thought this was all rather trivial and was ready to consider ditching the book. But then I saw the genius of this approach. By describing this aspect of the dictator well, Montefiore has done good work in painting a stark contrast between the indulgent life of the Bolshevik leadership and the intense sufferings of the people under their rule. It makes Stalin starkly evil, flippant at the murder and suffering of millions.

And yet, this approach seemed to leave me wanting more detail. I’d just read about the setting up of the Gulag camp system but Montefiore makes hardly any mention of the rationale for this or why the camps were so important to Stalin. He’s too busy describing family holidays or picnics in the countryside around Moscow. Because of this, I felt Montefiore’s approach was a little too much of a good thing.

The best part of the book is its description of the Second World War Stalin. I was riveted here. Perhaps it was because he didn’t have time for parties and so Montefiore simply had to describe the leader at work where he virtually lived 20-hour days to defeat Hitler with Allied help.

So, a worthwhile read if you can understand his approach but not the definitive biography I was hoping it to be.

terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good > excellent > superb

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One Comment

  1. If you nurse any Jean-Jacques Rousseau delusions about the innate goodness of humanity, this book will certainly throttle them in their cradle. The full monstrosity of the Stalinist era is detailed without any of that ‘sympathy fot the Devil’ quality of Montefiore’s “Young Stalin” book. Really, this is a hard book to read for any long stretch. It’s not because of tedium or pedantry but rather because of the sheer inhumanity and insanity of the thing. Montefiore is more interested in people than policies and, on that level, his book is very finely researched. His portrait of Beria(“our Himmler,” said Stalin) is unforgettable and the depiction of the tension between Stalin and Mao is intriguing(as are Stalin’s repeated attempts to kill Tito). Thls book is not just about the evil Marxism has caused but the evil inherent in all of us. A sad, necessary book. Greg Cameron , Surrey, B.C., Canada

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