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Books: Not Your Average Joe

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin’s personal movie library expanded. His army liberated Joseph Goebbels’ film collection. On movie nights in the old winter garden of the Great Kremlin Palace, Stalin and his gang (a revolving cast of Bolshevik thugs and survivors) would watch Charlie Chaplin or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable. Stalin particularly liked gangster and cowboy films; sexual content offended him.

Stalin–tyrant and village primitive–yammered all through the double feature, talking down the stars onscreen. At about 2 a.m. he would propose, as if spontaneously, “Let’s go and get something to eat.” No one said no. Everyone would ride 10 miles to Stalin’s dacha at Kuntsevo and begin another of the booze-fogged, terror-soaked marathon predawn dinners that the Minister of Cultural Terror, Yury Zhdanov, had convinced Stalin were the equivalent of the symposia of the ancient Greeks. “These vomit-flecked routs,” the British biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore observes in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf; 785 pages), “were the closest [Stalin] came to cabinet government.”

The captive boyars of the Politburo discussed literature, made policy, denounced colleagues and drank like fish to numb the fear of being led away at dawn. Often, Montefiore records, the dinner “sank to the level of a Neanderthal stag night.” Stalin would get so drunk, Nikita Khrushchev remembered, that “he’d throw a tomato at you.” Lavrenti Beria liked to slip tomatoes into the old Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan’s suit pockets and push Mikoyan against a wall so that they exploded.

Montefiore’s portrait of Stalin and his circle is a deeply researched and wonderfully readable accomplishment–scholarship as a kind of savage gossip, history as a grisly Barbara Walters special, its sensationalism redeemed by Montefiore’s deep grounding in the facts. It is a brilliant stroke, in any case, to describe Stalin and his immense crimes, the blood of millions, with the sardonic contempt and tabloid brio to which Montefiore’s scholarship entitles him.

The author had access to Russian state archives, opened in 1999, which “meant I was able to use a large amount of new, fascinating papers and photographs, including the letters of Stalin, his entourage and their families.” Montefiore interviewed scores of family members of the “magnates” who made up Stalin’s court and read a number of unpublished memoirs by those who were there. At age 38, Montefiore seems to know as much as anyone else alive about the appalling tale.

The old story of Utopian Marxist ideological dream turned into brutal, malevolent history becomes, in this telling, an exploration of personality. Here we have Victor Abakumov, Stalin’s head of secret police: “Abakumov … was another colorful, swaggering torturer, amoral condottiere and ‘zoological careerist’ who possessed all Beria’s sadism but less of his intelligence. Abakumov unrolled a bloodstained carpet on his office floor before embarking on the torture of his victims in order not to stain his expensive Persian rugs.”

The presiding mystery was Stalin–cultivator of lemon trees and roses, author of sweet, private kindnesses, a man who proudly displayed his piles of fresh, clean underwear (which he boasted he changed every day!). After Hiroshima, Stalin reflected, “War is barbaric, but using the Abomb is a superbarbarity.” This from the man whose Ukrainian famine killed some 10 million, the impresario of the Great Terror, the man who, after Russian soldiers had raped some 2 million women across East Prussia and Germany, asked, “What is so awful about [a soldier’s] having fun …?”

Montefiore’s Stalin, seen with unprecedented intimacy, is a character even stranger, more three-dimensionally mysterious, than the one we have known. A great reader, Stalin once said to the Yugoslav Milovan Djilas, “You have of course read Dostoevsky? Do you see what a complicated thing is man’s soul?” Even Dostoevsky could not have invented this Stalin.

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