A fascinating, superbly written study of the Red Emperor Josef Stalin, “an energetic and vainglorious melodramatist who was exceptional in every way.”
Stalin, the one-time seminarian from Georgia, was at once a ruthlessly efficient administrator and a born outlaw (during the Civil War he funded his guerrilla activities by robbing banks), capable of commanding both fear and respect, though always preferring the former. He was careful throughout his long rule to surround himself with equally capable if easily intimidated lieutenants, whom the young British historian/novelist Montefiore (Enigma, 2001, etc.) characterizes wonderfully: Stalin’s favorite secret policeman, Genrikh Yagoda, “a ferret-faced Jewish jeweler’s son from Nizhny Novgorod with a ‘Hitlerish moustache’ and a taste for orchids, German pornography, and literary friendships”; Vyacheslav Molotov, the Marxist true believer, “small, stocky, with a bulging forehead, chilling hazel eyes blinking behind round spectacles, and a stammer when angry (or talking to Stalin).” They created an extraordinary terror state indeed, so terrible that Stalin’s iron-hard Bolshevik wife committed suicide after it became clear that he had thoroughly betrayed the revolution (and behaved monstrously toward her to boot). Yet there were some curious blind spots in Stalin’s total state, as well as in his understanding of the world: for all the evidence to the contrary, for instance, he could not believe that Hitler was planning an invasion of the Soviet Union, growling, “Germany will never fight Russia on her own” (and Germany didn’t: Hitler brought allies to the fight) and insisting that the German attacks of June 1941 were the work of renegade generals, not of Hitler himself. “The duel between those two brutal and reckless egomaniacs,” as Montefiore puts it, bled Russia dry and nearly brought Stalin’s government down; but the terror state would fall only with Stalin’s death in 1953, whereupon his surviving aides, “relieved to be alive,” were dumped into the ashbin of history.
There is much news here (including the fate of Hitler’s bones), and much to ponder. Altogether extraordinary, and required reading for anyone interested in world affairs.