Tyranny and the attraction of power

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of Stalin is subtitled The Court of the Red Tsar. It’s not a biography in the usual sense and not a history of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership but is a study of the men and women who surrounded Stalin. The author sees Stalin as a tyrant in the way that the tsars were and the behaviour of those around him as the same as royal courtiers. The book follows their lives and fates as well as those of their families up to Stalin’s death. I listened to the audiobook version which was narrated by Jonathan Aris.

Although I have a working knowledge of the events of the twentieth century I didn’t know very much about Stalin as a man. He was self-taught and adored books owning a huge library. He was in awe of people of learning and supported poets, writers and artists although he wanted to dictate their subject matter. He drank a colossal amount and insisted that those around him did the same. He was married but his wife died by what was probably suicide but could have been murder. He had a number of affairs and a few children, most of whom were a disappointment to him.

Stalin gathered his ministers and their families to live together in apartments in the Kremlin and he knew them all. Friends turned quickly into enemies and he was cruel as often as he was kind. Family members would be arrested or disappear accused of disloyalty and often be subjected to torture. He saw betrayal and enmity everywhere. His companions and those around him were so frightened of him that when he had a stroke he was left alone on the floor of his room in stained pyjamas because no one would take responsibility for doing anything.

The author doesn’t try and explain why Stalin was a tyrant. He also doesn’t try and explain why so many people gathered around him and wanted to be part of what was going on despite the risks that he might turn against them. What is described is the cruelty and corruption of this “court”, how they turned against one another and how they all lived day to day keenly aware of the risk that Stalin, or others, might plot against them.

This is an interesting book although I did occasionally lose track of who some people were. I would need to read more about the period and Stalin himself to have a better understanding of what was going on and how it related to events in the country as a whole but this was a good introduction to a man and his cronies.

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