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  • E.G. Maladroit

A Critique of 'inside a monsters mind' - Hattersley's disastrous non-review

When researching the acceptance of ‘Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar’ (Montefiore) for my previous review, I found an article from 2003 (the year it was published) which struck me greatly – though not positively. In this review, written by Roy Hattersley, I found one of the most monotonous and one-note interpretations of Montefiore’s great novel. To me, this review seemed so utterly preoccupied with its own morality and righteousness that it failed to achieve anything – especially not actually reviewing the book. I plan to go point by point with my issues, following the layout of the actual review.

I start this review with the disclosure that I am not inclined towards supporting Stalin. I am a big supporter of calling the Holodomor a genocide, and do not wish to defend the purges. However, I feel that simply saying ‘Stalin is bad’ is neither a book review nor anything particularly worth writing. Mass murder is naughty? Wow, I could have never known. The only positives to this article are the few times it actually bases what it says on facts and stops its virtue signalling. This is not a common occurrence.

‘Inside a Monsters mind’

This title within itself seems to miss the entire point of Montefiore’s book – trying to illustrate an image of Stalin which avoid the total polarisation of deciding he is either a madman monster or an enigma. This trait continues throughout the article, despite its lack of application to what the article is meant to be covering. One of the final lines: ‘Thanks to Simon Sebag Montefiore, there is no longer the slightest justification for thinking of Joseph Stalin as anything other than a monster.’ Reinforces Hattersley’s utter misinterpretation of the novel and its purpose. On top of this, did it really take Montefiore’s novel to prove this? Not the dozen or so others that actually focussed on his policies rather than just his court? It seems Hattersley aims to attribute achievements to Montefiore that Montefiore never signed up for.

‘The leaders of the interwar Soviet Union, for whom killing was an instrument of policy’

This seems an entirely useless remark. Incendiary remarks please the crowd, but they are thoroughly transparent. Killing was certainly a consequence, but that is quite different from an instrument – this is not just semantics, I promise. For instance: a harsh policy of political repression means what is considered a traitor means the instrument is political repression. The consequence of this means more people will be accused of being traitors: meaning these people will killed. This is a consequence. One could defend his point if he were referencing the show trials, where people were framed of crimes: killing was used as an instrument to scare others. However, these show trials were in 1936 – not ‘interwar’. There may be some defence to his statement, somewhere, but his inability to reference a policy means it is incredibly hard to defend. As an aside: if you consider killing traitors to be an policy that uses killing as an instrument, Britain is guilty of the same thing – we had big trails, with executions, convicting traitors (read Rebecca West, ‘the meaning of treason’, if you are interested in this – they could also be considered a form of show trial, due to how public they were, and there for instrumentally using death to scare the public into compliance).

[he continues on with some facts and figures about the terror and suchlike executions – all perfectly valid, but also not particularly the focus of the novel – as he himself acknowledges, ‘sometimes he generalises [about the purges]’]

‘When Lenin's widow tried to exploit her status, he demanded to know if, 'because she used the same toilet' as the Father of the Revolution, she imagined herself 'to understand Marxist-Leninism'.’

‘Lenin’s widow’ implies this was after Lenin’s death, which is factually incorrect as this conversation happened December 23, 1922, before Lenin died. Similarly, the implication that she was trying to ‘exploit her status’ is incredibly insulting. At the time she, Krupskaya, was assisting her husband stay in touch with politics – something Stalin maliciously wanted to block him from so that Stalin could steamroll in his own policies and take control. She was being incredibly brave and strong willed, and protecting her husband and what she believed were the best interests for Russia. Similarly, the insult of demoting her simply to ‘lenin’s wife’, and greedy – trying to ‘exploit’ – is incredibly grotesque, considering she was an incredible revolutionary, who thoroughly dedicated herself to the cause of communism, and was at the forefront of the female empowerment movement in Russia. She worked hard her whole life, staying dedicated to the cause and assisting her husband even through his horrible sexual and romantic infidelity.

‘Contempt, mixed with disbelief, is the only decent reaction to the discovery of what Stalin did. It was beyond any sort of justification.’

This kind of emotional pandering seems to me incredibly righteous and like blatant virtue signalling. How brave of Hattersley to call Stalin bad and say mass murder is repulsive or indefensible – the average reader must be told this, less they cannot work it out for themselves.

‘Uncle Joe, our great ally, was ready to surrender. Why not? He had signed a pact with the Führer, and the two men had much in common.’

This seems an unfair condemnation to make of Stalin – that he agreed on a pact with Hitler – as this implies he should not of, and his debased morals made it possible. Stalin originally tried to join a pact with Britain and France, and offered many troops to help entice this, and was denied. SO whose fault was it? Also, how different is a ‘non-aggression pact’ to what Britain did – which was simply to ignore Hitler till it was too late, to choose non-aggression, simply not officially agreed upon?

Thanks to Simon Sebag Montefiore, there is no longer the slightest justification for thinking of Joseph Stalin as anything other than a monster.

Perhaps I’m ending on a nit-pick for this one. However, I this did thoroughly amuse me so it’s only fair to include it. Did it really take Montefiore, in 2003, to let people know this? Was Edvard Radzinsky’s biography – which included firsthand experience of Soviet Russia, his home country, and had a tone of bitter dislike towards Stalin – not enough? Also, to end on a bad note, again the polarising labels – is this really necessary?

Overall, I have been rather scathing. I feel harsh, as I understand the repulsion some may have when first confronting a figure in history they have not yet encountered, or only encounter through an extremely specific viewpoint – morality. I do feel there has been a major misinterpretation, and many pretty well-known bits, such as Stalin’s insulting of Krupskaya, being wrongly presented is not entirely defensible, but at least it was made with good intentions.

For a deeper look at the Soviet non-agression pact:

The insult experience with Krupskaya:


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