Anyone who approaches Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin hoping for light to be cast into one of history’s darkest corners may be as disappointed as I was. Mostly, Montefiore confirms the popular image of Stalin as a ruthless slaughterer of millions. I didn’t know the numbers (28 million or so) or the full cast of characters, but I came away after 650 grueling pages feeling not particularly knowledgeable about how he attained and kept power. Maybe there’s not that much to know. Montefiore’s Stalin is the image of a Hollywood godfather. Clever, cruel, charming, and manipulative, playing his minions off against one another. But he’s still basically a street thug who just had more going for him than the other thugs. He read a lot, but only to confirm his Leninist view of things. Thinking? That was for Trotskyites–discredited and massacred intellectuals. The difference between him and Marlon Brando was scale. Brando’s influence may have reached back to Sicily. Stalin’s covered the world.
Those who fell into his sphere lived “life in a closed jar with intriguers fighting one another to the death.” People tattled on one another to save their lives, then found their own tale-telling used to send them to prison or death. Tell Stalin about a famine, and you got everyone from the local farmers to the agriculture minister fired, tortured, even slaughtered. If a general lost a battle, he and his whole staff risked being shot. Et cetera. And, oh, by the way, the families were subject to the same treatment. I guess that’s why they called it “The Terror” instead of just “The Slaughter.”
His unique management style involved all night business banquets with lots of booze and practical jokes (overripe tomatoes in your pocket. Ha-ha.) He seemed to live his live between early afternoon and early morning, which wore everyone else out and destroyed many livers. And you didn’t dare turn down the invitations, of course. If you weren’t at dinner, you were probably out plotting. He didn’t amass great wealth and luxury. He had several country homes, but they seemed as much for security as for comfort. When everyone’s gunning for you, you need to keep moving.
I didn’t know Kruschev was so close to Stalin. I didn’t know that the Molotov Cocktail wasn’t invented by Molotov, but was devised and named by Finnish resistors who concocted it as a weapon against the tanks he commanded during WWII.
Montefiore has a lot of apparently new material here, gleaned from first-time looks into Stalin’s personal papers, but I felt the load of material subsumed the story he was trying to tell. I was often lost in the narrative, wasn’t sure which year I was in, which characters were playing which roles at any particular time. I can get the facts of a situation from a synopsis. I want to read the story to grasp the experience of the situation and to understand how and why what happened happened. I knew, for example, that Stalin charmed the pants off Roosevelt and took eastern Europe as much by cleverness as by militarism. However, I don’t even now understand more about how he did it. Placed against such works as Troyat’s Catherine The Great, in which the author turns a mountain of fact into a stirring tale, Stalin reads like a dull monograph. Disappointing.