Joseph Stalin liked to keep his private life private, and so it remained when he was alive. But he had the bad luck to live in an age obsessed with information storage, so platoons of scholars are now sniffing along the paper trail he left behind. Simon Sebag Montefiore, a British journalist, recently emerged from the Soviet archives with bundles of fresh facts that he's assembled as a new kind of Stalin biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf). This time, explanations of war and politics are set aside while we examine the life of the dictator.
Sebag Montefiore offers the kind of detail we expect today from People magazine. Despite his awkward style and the lack of a good copy editor, he takes us closer to Stalin than we have been before. It's a disquieting experience, because he makes the old monster human. He doesn't deny that Stalin committed many horrendous crimes, but after about 100 of the 785 pages, we grasp the point: This mass murderer, in private, was much like the contemporary North American tycoon as described in magazine profiles.
He illustrates Hannah Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil. He enjoyed billiards, liked playing games with children, flirted with the wives of colleagues, drank too much, had a weakness for bananas. He was an avid gardener, proud of his roses and lemons. He loved to screen John Ford westerns and It Happened One Night. And when he wanted to charm, he charmed.
While he was consolidating his power, Maxim Gorky, the most admired of left-wing Russian writers, was in Italy, having been repelled by Lenin's brutality. Stalin sent him long letters expressing deep love for Gorky's books. This barrage of flattery was persuasive, and soon Gorky returned as Stalin's pet. Stalin renamed Gorky's home town after him, as well as Moscow's main street and the Moscow Art Theatre. He provided him with handsome residences in Moscow, in the nearby countryside, and in the Crimea, staffing each with servants who were also police spies. Privately, Stalin explained: "Gorky's a vain man. We must bind him with cables to the Party."
It worked. Gorky supported slave-labour projects, took Stalin's side in the mass extermination of the farmers in Ukraine and elsewhere, and in 1933 invited 50 leading writers to his mansion to hear Stalin announce that all new writing should be Socialist Realism, depicting the USSR "moving to socialism."
Sebag Montefiore provides unusually detailed accounts of Stalin's chief henchmen, notably Georgi Malenkov, Andrei Zhdanov and Vyacheslav Molotov. In the early years they all lived like an extended family in a compound, constantly dropping in on each other in their apartments around the Kremlin.
Several of them recalled the late 1920s and early 1930s as the happiest years of their lives. Happiness required that they ignore the millions of peasants who were dying because the Kremlin was stealing their grain, a process Stalin's circle endorsed (the grain was traded for foreign currency, to be spent on machinery to build a socialist future). Another recently published treasure from the archives, The Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl 1932-37, by Nina Lugovskaya, proves that in 1933 this 14-year-old, daughter of a minor official in Moscow, knew all about the piles of dead, the people eating bark, the cannibalism, the empty villages deserted by peasants who had gone off to hunt for food. (Four years later the secret police, searching the family apartment for evidence of her father's disloyalty, found her journal, sent her to jail, and deposited her diary in their archive.)
The euphoria of the Kremlin dwellers ended in December, 1932, with the suicide of Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Stalin was furious ("How could she do this to me?") but also remorseful. Their daughter Svetlana assumed her mother did it to punish him for his coldness. Some who knew him say he grew crueller after 1932. The murders of many former friends followed within a few years.
In this narrative, what makes the strongest impression is the moral environment that Stalin called into being. He realized every crazy egomaniac's dream of happiness. He created a culture of petty grovelling, a cringe society. Actors playing tsars would walk across the stage with Stalin's pigeon-toed gait, as if to say that this is the way all great men walk. When Stalin incorrectly pronounced a word, everyone who spoke after him took great care to make the same mistake.
Even his sense of humour smelt of tyranny. He transformed his colleagues into frightened toadies, then amused himself by ridiculing their eagerness to please. And he found it amusing, during the Great Terror of the later 1930s, that people often confessed, under torture, to crimes which they could not have committed. Sebag Montefiore tells an anti-Stalin joke: The leader loses his trademark pipe, complains about missing it, then finds it under a sofa. Lavrenti Beria, head of the police force and chief liquidator, says "This is impossible! Three people have already confessed to this crime!" What makes the joke more than a joke is that Stalin loved to tell it.'