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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Stalin: The Court of The Red Tsar' - Simon Sebag Montefiore

'My aim here was to simply write a portrait of Stalin, his twenty potentates, and their families, to show how they ruled and how they lived'

I start off with this quote for a valuable reason: few other reviews of Montefiore's book seem to have understood this very straightforward point, despite it being on the first page. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 2003 biography of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is aptly titled ‘the court of the red tsar’ – another illustration of his interest in portraying the lives and the people of Stalin’s ruling elite, Stalin’s life, and how he interacted with those around him. As is aforementioned, Montefiore quickly discloses the purpose of the book: not to go in-depth about foreign policy, or his youth, or other similar avenues, ‘it is a chronicle of his court’. He also describes his interest in ascending from the traditional, and utterly unenlightening, portrayals of Stalin (if you’re looking to see an annoying example of these sensationalist ideas, read Martin Amis’ ‘Koba the dread’). I believe that for the most part, he achieves these aims.

Montefiore’s writing style might not be to everyone’s tastes – on first reading, I must admit I was slightly off put by the pompous literary descriptions (the alliteration and similar techniques are a bit jarring alongside the subject matter). However, for the most part, it is incredibly readable. Due to a lesser focus on the details of Stalin’s policies, the book flows easily and without the hindrance of political jargon or statistical lists, giving it greater appeal to the average reader. Montefiore does not overwhelmingly shoe-horn testimonies or sources – instead, they naturally occur, without interrupting the narrative. It is more fast paced than many other biographies, beginning with one of the most exciting years of Stalin’s life in the prologue with his wife’s suicide, and is the product of good storytelling as well as scholarly research.

The ‘glossing over’ of Stalin’s childhood was mentioned in some reviews as a negative trait – but I see it as a wholly positive one. Of course, now one could go read ‘Young Stalin’ (Montefiore’s prequel of sorts) for such information, but I would like to emphasise how unnecessary this is. Whilst Stalin is incredibly interesting as a character, his young revolutionary years were somewhat stale – and mostly very personal. For the average person looking for an illustration of a political timeframe through the view of one person’s biography (to slightly simplify it) it’s far more advisable to read a biography of Trotsky during the revolutionary times – as his constant travel and refusal to join factions means he is a sure way to view the revolutionary landscape of the whole of Europe before the soviets came to power (Robert Service’s book is especially adept at this). Similarly, Soviet rule was extremely complex – and whilst some complain the lack of detail into the regime was a problem, they are unlikely to actually want to read through a whole book that covers these details, like Radzinsky’s.

On Montefiore’s ability to construct a character portrait that transcends the traditional oversimplifications and sensationalisations: I believe that he achieves this. I was glad to see the rejection of common gross accusations that cloud scholarly content. He does not entertain the annoying and entirely unfounded idea that Stalin killed his wife (something that Radzinsky sadly falls foul of) or abused her – it was a first for me reading about how volatile and equally insulting Nadya could be. He comes to a conclusion some disagree with, that Stalin was ‘super-intelligent’. This does show the flaws in not talking about Stalin’s rise to power, as, along with the intellectual character traits Montefiore shows throughout the book, it seems a fair conclusion (by this I’m referencing Stalin’s rise through his administrative genius). Some also like to forget the fact that Stalin’s ability to keep power throughout his entire reign, including up to his death, is a sign he must’ve been more than a violent oaf.

One of the most compelling features of the book is the focus of the ‘court’ of Stalin – the main figures surrounding him. A particularly entertaining one star review criticised Montefiore because the whole book was simply the debased actions of Stalin and his entourage – seemingly not having read the title before they bought it? I am still not entirely sure what they were expecting. To me, anyway, de-mystifying the idea that Stalin was the murderous ‘enigma’ by showing the culture of violence that pervaded the entirety of the Kremlin and those in government was a very important step, and something more people should realise. Montefiore struck a golden balance between keeping his focus on Stalin, as the most enticing of the subject matter, and fleshing out the counterparts that played such a big part in his rule. It still feels clearly like a biography of Stalin. Really, to understand the shadowy figures around him means to properly understand the dynamics of his reign – it is an interesting style that more biographies would benefit from. Oddly I found myself even rooting for these larger than life characters, like Molotov, or Kirov, that appear more and more endearing, which is a testament to Montefiore’s skill.

I enjoyed Montefiore’s biography of Stalin – as one of the first historical biographies I read, it was a wonderful addition to my interest in Russian history and the soviet era. I would say it struck me as a professionally written book that even those less focussed on the era or history in general would enjoy, as despite its size it was not an overly difficult read and was incredibly interesting. However, I would equally warn that I think my prior knowledge in the subject helped me understand it more, and people looking to develop a deeper understanding of Stalin or the Soviets would perhaps be better off beginning with Robert Service, which is not at all a criticism of Montefiore – rather a matter of preference. The 4/5 stars it seems to have acquired amongst most review apps seems fair – a solid and enjoyable read.


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