Thursday, 30 November 2006

Stalin: the court of the red tsar

Listening to:

Richard Strauss, Four last songs, no. 4: Im Abendrot (“At sunset”), sung by Anne Schwanewilms, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

Just read:

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar.

This is an interesting biography of Stalin, focussing on the period from 1932 (when Stalin’s wife, Nadya shot herself) to 1953 (when he died). His earlier career (i.e., 54 years) is summed up in about 100 pages, and then the remaining 570 pages go over 21 years in great detail.

In 1932, Stalin is the Soviet Union’s top politician and leader, but he is not yet the all-powerful Great Dictator. This transformation happens in the early ’30s, and is a fascinating process. It’s also a horrifyingly bloody one. Stalin was paranoid and quite willing to see anyone killed if he thought they were a threat. Given the stranglehold he had on power, it’s hard to imagine how he could think anyone might be any sort of threat. But he’d got that far by being ruthless, so when he had the werewithal to be even more ruthless, he was.

And he is operating in an environment that really is quite court-like, making the book’s sub-title quite appropriate. He is top dog, but he works with a Politburo full of ambitious revolutionaries and politicians. None of them can afford to offend him, but he does rely on them in the formulation and implementation of policy. Most of them end badly, but at least one, Molotov, demonstrated that it was possible to start and finish your career with Stalin. The courtiers’ stories are very interesting, not least the consternation that envelops them when Stalin goes into a coma and eventually dies.

Finally, this is a very interesting period of global history. Stalin concludes evil deals with Hitler (partitioning Poland, for example), but has to go with war with him just a few years later. During the war he holds summit meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt. Then he drops his “Iron Curtain” over Europe and avidly pursues atomic weapons for the USSR. This book’s basic angle on this, centred on Stalin’s life as an individual, is fresh and engaging, but I imagine readers might best come to it with a basic grasp of those global events.