Joseph Vissarionovich and the People Who Loved Him

Because some of them undoubtedly did, even people who knew him quite well. In his heyday, millions professed their love, sang his praises. Even those he had condemned in show trials, or in no trials, wrote to him of their devotion, wrote of their faithfulness, wrote of their belief. Perhaps they meant it, perhaps it was the only hope they had to continue living.

One person who does seem to have loved him in something like the normal sense of the word was his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Perhaps that is why she shot herself.

Simon Sebag Montefiore opens Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar with a private party to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The party was held at the Kremlin apartment of the Defense Commissar, Voroshilov, and the very inmost of the Party elite was there.

They ate well, though not as lavishly as would later become the court custom. They toasted, they drank copiously, they danced and sang and flirted. The upper reaches of the Bolsheviks were tightened by kinship, by conspiritorial years together and by numerous affairs. Nadya, as Stalin’s wife was known, danced with her godfather, “the official in charge of the Kremlin who was already shocking the Party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.” Stalin, in Montefiore’s account, was busy with his own flirtation with the wife of a Red Army commander. Stalin and Nadya quarrelled, loudly, visibly at the party. Eventually, Nadya stormed out, returning in time to their apartment. Sometime in the night, she took a small pistol her brother had given her and shot herself in the heart.

Accounts differ about what Stalin did in those hours. He may have gone to one of his dachas, where he may have pursued a dalliance. He may not have done either, and returned to the apartment to sleep in his separate bedroom.

“Stalin was poleaxed. This supremely political creature, with an inhuman disregard for the millions of starving women and children in his own country, displayed more humanity in the next few days than he would at any other time in his life.”

It would not be right to say that everything changed after Nadya’s death. Famine gripped the Ukraine before she died, and after. Stalin sent close comrades to their deaths before and after. He was ruthless, bloodthirsty and calculating before and after.

Yet Montefiore chooses the incident as the crux of his biography because there were discernible differences, magnified two years later by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Kirov, who might reasonably be described as a friend of Stalin.

The book is an intimate portrait, based on access to archives and interviews with the few survivors of the inner circle of that period. It captures the Bolshevik ethos, the continuous conspiring, and the servility of true Stalinism. His intimates’ power and total dependence are clearly on display, perhaps most clearly in the careers of the heads of the secret police. Yegoda succeeded by Yezhov succeeded by Beria, each pushing the previous master out of power and into the grave. Beria survived Stalin, but was shot within a year.

Those poisonings and shootings are but a snippet. Very few of the people who appear in the books pages die natural deaths. Anastas Mikoyan is remarkable in the Politburo for having served from Ilyich to Ilyich–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. Millions die off-stage, in the terror famine, in the gulag, in the war. Stalin knew and approved of it; much of it he directed himself.

One particularly chilling chapter details how Stalin proceeded to have the wives of his close comrades either executed or sent to the gulag. Molotov was practically the only one who stood up even a little for his spouse.

The cruelty on a personal level, the industrial scale of murderousness, the amount of torture and death are almost enough to make one favor the invading Germans. Except that their victory would probably have been even worse.

One good aspect of the book is its thorough coverage of Stalin after the War: his pursuit of the bomb, the dangerous game of succession among the Soviet magnates, and his final purges. It’s a period that I didn’t know much about, and one that often seems a bit of a blank in other histories. Another strong point is its 30-page index, a model of the art. Finding almost anything in the 660+ pages of text is a breeze.

Montefiore give a sense of the personalities of the people closest to Stalin, the intimate details of their holidays, their habits, their jealousies. He portrays a convincing Stalin and lays bare the logic of the regime. It captures the small and the sweeping. It’s a gripping, sickening, astonishing work.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

7 thoughts on “Joseph Vissarionovich and the People Who Loved Him

  1. The Kirov murder seems to have served as a pretext for a lot of repression, but I had always had the impression that it was Stalin himself who had had him done in, as one of his potential rivals.

  2. Thanks Scott!

    Edward, I’ll have to go back and look exactly at what he says about Kirov. There are a lot of resemblences to the Reichstag fire: an unbalanced person who was looking to do something for his own reasons, but whose path was made much easier because the man at the top didn’t mind at all if it happened.

  3. Uncle Joe is part of Russia’s tragic history and bygones are forever bygones. The present question is why the recent reports about Russia relapsing back to old authoritarian ways as though that is the only sustainable form of governance. But then Russia sadly isn’t the only European country to exhibit the tendency. Stalin lies a-mould’ring in his grave but his soul goes marching on.

    To many appearances, the European authoritarian tradition runs wide and deep: why else these calls now for “unification” and “harmonisation”, which have all the resonance of historic sounds of the steady tramp of boots marching in lockstep? After all, with the surely miserable progress for the EU’s Lisbon agenda of 2000 to make Europe the most competitive region in the global economy by 2010, it stretches credibility to claim the European social model is much of a beacon for us all to follow. Flexibility allows learning from the experience of diversity.

    It is surely remarkable that in consequence of the revolutions across mainland Europe in 1848, Karl Marx was hounded into seeking asylum in Britain where he settled with family in a few modest rooms in Deane Street, part of the Soho district of central London, from where he made regular sorties to the British Museum’s Library. At much the same time, Prince Metternich, chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, also sought asylum in Britain, settling in rather more capacious accommodation in Hove, Sussex. The historic split between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party came at the party’s conference held in London 1903. It seems that both Lenin and Trotsky were here. The pity is that Marx didn’t spend more time reading John Stuart Mill, an approxiate contemporary:

  4. Stalin – An unknown portrait

    I can also recommend the above, and less well known book. Montefiore reviewed the volume in December 2003 and was very complimentary; the FT review at the link was written by him.

  5. Edward, Montefiore plumps for not proven in the case of Kirov. Certainly Stalin was capable, and capable of doing it without leaving any traces. And there are plenty of suspicious circumstances. On the other hand:

    “Yet much of this appears less sinister on closer analysis. The lax security around Kirov proves nothing, since even Stalin often only had one or two guards. The gun is less suspicious when one realizes that all Party members carried them. Stalin’s deteriorating relationship with Kirov was typical of the friction within his entourage. Stalin’s swift reaction to the murder, and his surreal investigation, did not mean that he arranged it. When, on 27 June 1927, Voikov, Soviet Ambassador to Poland, was assassinated, Stalin had reacted with the same speed and uninterest in the real culprits. … The Bolsheviks always regarded justice as a political tool. The local NKVD, desperate to conceal their incompetence, may well have arranged Borisov’s [Kirov’s bodyguard] murder. So much can be explained by the habitual clumsiness of totalitarian panic.”

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