At the weekend, I was nearing the epilogue of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin (2007) when I put the book down to read the latest issue of the Radio Times.
BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt wrote an article (pp. 35, 37) about his latest Four Wheels programme, this one about Russia, which airs tonight, Monday, January 20 (BBC2 9:30 p.m.) and Wednesday, January 22 at that same time.
He describes touring Stalin’s holiday home near Sochi (emphases mine):
… I could poke my nose where I pleased. I even tried on the leather trench coat I found hanging in the corner of his perfectly preserved office …
Seven hundred hard miles from Sochi I visited the scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history: the battle of Stalingrad. The city is now named Volgograd, after its mighty river …
I had the privilege of meeting two veterans of Stalingrad, old men who had helped defeat the Nazis and turn the tide of the Second World War. But later that day I was surprised to meet younger Russians, a new generation, who were campaigning to change the city’s name back to Stalingrad. In the West we may remember Stalin as a tyrant, but many Russians regard him as a saviour.
In his Secret Speech of 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Khruschev denounced him, his policies and his ‘cult of personality’.
Khruschev’s government renamed Stalingrad — originally Tsaritsyn — Volgograd in 1961. The city is allowed to call itself Stalingrad on six days a year:
February 2 (end of the Battle of Stalingrad), May 9 (Victory Day (9 May)), June 22 (start of Operation Barbarossa), August 23 (start of the Battle of Stalingrad), September 2 (Victory over Japan Day), and November 19 (start of Operation Uranus).
Khruschev was no angel but at least he had the bottle to call Stalin out for what he was.
Montefiore’s Young Stalin explains what a complex, cunning and demonic character he had from childhood. Lenin appreciated him greatly, because Stalin could be relied on to organise criminals, radicals and the insane to throw hand-held bombs (‘apples’), murder and rob banks. Stalin collected protection money from companies in Baku, where he also organised Muslim workers. The millions of roubles the robberies and extortion brought in delighted Lenin because he could finance the Bolsheviks with the proceeds.
Stalin was a combination of gangster, community organiser, teacher, partier, womaniser and priest. He approached Leninism as if it were a religious way of life.
Even as a young man, Stalin cultivated his own cult of personality which lured men and women to him. He lived solely for his political cause; no one else mattered unless they advanced it or gave him some degree of pleasure on his terms.
His first wife died of typhus; he rarely saw her even though he knew she was ill. She had been hemorraging internally for so long that her skin was turning black. Stalin didn’t pole up until the last minute. On their train journey to her family home to take their young son there, she drank contaminated water and died soon after.
He neglected his sons. One of them tried to commit suicide. Stalin jeered that the young man couldn’t even shoot straight. An illegitimate son from Stalin’s time in exile was given a job with the Party but was ordered by another higher-up never to divulge his origins. The young man and Stalin were inches away from each other one day; he said that Stalin looked at him as if to say something then walked on by.
His second wife Nadya committed suicide in 1932. Living with him had aggravated her bipolar condition which, until then, had been under control.
His Wikipedia entry makes him look like a rather decent cove, no different from any other head of state. Sure, there were killings, it suggests, but not that many and likely below Hitler’s total. One wonders. Robert Service, it says, estimated around 20m dead. Another historian says the number was far fewer.
Therefore, this downplaying of atrocities explains why Justin Rowlatt enjoyed trying on his leather coat. Personally, I wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole.
As far as the Battle of Stalingrad is concerned, yes, George VI gave the city a bejewelled sword for the people’s courage. An Englishman wrote in a comment on Montefiore’s Court of the Red Tsar that it was a pity they were our allies.
There was not much difference between Stalin and Hitler and, given his nearly three decades in office, Stalin was worse. People feared him, Montefiore says, even those who were his friends. Similarly, he feared that someone was out to get him. He had a food taster, a old friend of his, called The Rabbit who shared many a dinner with him and was in charge of the NKVD catering department.
So, it’s fine for leftists to poke fun at conservatives about finding ‘reds under the bed’, but few people were as paranoid as Josef Stalin. He saw Jews as being too intelligent; too many of them had entered the medical profession. His final planned purge was called the Doctor’s Plot:
The “Doctors’ plot” was a plot outlined by Stalin and Soviet officials in 1952 and 1953 whereby several doctors (over half of whom were Jewish) allegedly attempted to kill Soviet officials. The prevailing opinion of many scholars outside the Soviet Union is that Stalin intended to use the resulting doctors’ trial to launch a massive party purge. Some historians have argued that Stalin was also planning to send millions of Jews to four large newly built labor camps in Western Russia using a “Deportation Commission” that would purportedly act to save Soviet Jews from an enraged Soviet population after the Doctors Plot trials. Others argue that any charge of an alleged mass deportation lacks specific documentary evidence.
… Regardless of whether a plot to deport Jews was planned, in his “Secret Speech” in 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stated that the Doctors Plot was “fabricated … set up by Stalin”, that Stalin told the judge to beat confessions from the defendants and had told Politburo members “You are blind like young kittens. What will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies.”The plot is also viewed by many historians as an antisemitic provocation.
On March 1, 1953, Stalin, having hosted one of his customary cinema and dinner parties the night before for interior minister Lavrentiy Beria and future premiers Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, did not emerge from his room.
Everyone’s fear of him was such that if he gave an order it had to be followed. He had told his guards he did not wish to be interrupted:
At around 10 p.m. he was discovered by Peter Lozgachev, the Deputy Commandant of Kuntsevo, who entered his bedroom to check up on him and recalled the scene of Stalin lying on his back on the floor of his room beside his bed wearing pyjama bottoms and an undershirt with his clothes soaked in stale urine. A frightened Lozgachev asked Stalin what happened to him, but all he could get out of him was unintelligible responses that sounded like “Dzhhhhh.” Lozgachev used the bedroom telephone where he frantically called a few party officials telling them that Stalin may have had a stroke and asked them to send good doctors to the Kuntsevo residence immediately. Lavrentiy Beria was informed and arrived a few hours afterwards, and the doctors only arrived in the early morning of 2 March in which they changed Stalin’s bedclothes and tended to him. The bedridden Stalin died four days later, on 5 March 1953, at the age of 74, and was embalmed on 9 March.
Even the New York Times, in reviewing Montefiore’s book, admits:
Stalin thrived on violence, subterfuge and dark conspiracy. He fully subscribed to the Leninist ideal of the Marxist revolutionary as a man outside normal society and moral law, a pitiless instrument of the working class. The “black work” that Stalin made his métier became standard operating procedure for the Soviet government. Stalin, like his fellow Bolsheviks, never left the shadow world of spies, double agents and criminal conspiracy.
Not a man whose coat I’d try on — nor was he anyone’s saviour.
I highly recommend Young Stalin — it is a true page-turner. Buy it for yourself or your children. It should be required reading in every secondary school.
Montefiore spent nearly ten years researching it and was able to speak with a few people who remembered the man, including a 109-year old with a sharp memory. He was also able to gain unprecendented access to recently-opened archives.
I’m now thinking of buying his Court of the Red Tsar. In the meantime, you can find out more about the book on my blog in a week or two.