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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Simon Sebag Montefiore

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To purchase Stalin

Title: Stalin
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Genre: Biography
Written: 2003
Length: 657 pages
Availability: Stalin - US
Stalin - UK
Stalin - Canada
Staline, la cour du tsar rouge - France
Stalin - Deutschland
  • The Court of the Red Tsar
  • With 32 pages of photographs

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Our Assessment:

A- : perversely fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 7-8/2004 Robert Conquest
The Economist . 26/7/2003 .
Foreign Affairs . 5-6/2004 Robert Legvold
The Guardian . 19/7/2003 Robert Service
Harper's . 5/2004 John Leonard
History Today A 2/2004 Clive Foss
The Independent . 19/7/2003 Lesley Chamberlain
The Nation . 27/9/2004 Ronald Suny
National Review . 3/5/2004 David Pryce-Jones
New Statesman . 28/7/2003 Terry Eagleton
The NY Rev. of Books A+ 13/5/2004 Ian Buruma
The NY Times . 16/4/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/4/2004 Richard Pipes
The Observer . 20/7/2003 Roy Hattersley
Salon . 5/5/2005 Andrew O'Hehir
The Scotsman . 19/7/2003 Marc Lambert
The Spectator A 19/7/2003 Philip Mansel
Sunday Telegraph . 14/7/2003 Orlando Figes
The Tablet A 16/8/2003 Robert Harvey
Time A 12/4/2004 Lance Morrow
TLS . 25/7/2003 Amy Knight
The Washington Post . 25/4/2004 David Satter
Die Welt A 12/11/2005 Alan Posener
Die Zeit . 10/11/2005 Gerd Koenen

  Review Consensus:

  Most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sebag Montefiore focuses on the human element (especially the family lives of the dictator, his associates, and his victims), generally treating the vast events of the era as scenery. Still, if somewhat incidentally, his research has yielded material that greatly improves our historical understanding." - Robert Conquest, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "His account does give one a start. It is much easier to read ghastly accounts of Beria's debauchery, or Stalin's paranoia, than anecdotes about children scampering happily through their parents' Kremlin offices, or of Stalin's punctilious habits in his personal correspondence, his bizarre flashes of kindness and decency or his extraordinary appetite for books. But Mr Sebag Montefiore's book is all the more valuable for the surprises it presents." - The Economist

  • "Stalin remains a monster, brutal in his politics and unspeakably indifferent to the suffering he caused. But he is also charming and a widely read autodidact, with a library that included Wilde, Maupassant, Steinbeck, and Hemingway." - Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

  • "Simon Sebag Montefiore's book is gripping and timely. (...) (T)his is a book based on extraordinary primary research. (...) Montefiore, by excavating and analysing the shards of evidence about daily life in his office and dachas, has illuminated wider aspects of the history of the USSR. This is one of the few recent books on Stalinism that will be read in years to come." - Robert Service, The Guardian

  • "Montefiore is best at sitting us down inside this head cold of a delusional system. (...) For the first 150 pages or so, Montefiore tries too hard to prime his pump with overwriting (.....) But he calms down as the news worsens. (...) What we have here is a social history of hell." - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "No summary can do justice to the wealth of this book, which leaves little to be desired. But it does sometimes risk making the dictator seem more sympathetic than he was. (...) Nevertheless, this work should be read by anyone interested in Stalin's life and times, or in the workings of a highly developed tyranny." - Clive Foss, History Today

  • "Sebag Montefiore's book is well-written; he evidently has a superb grasp of Russian, and can operate well in that still-difficult country. But which genre does his work belong to ? History with a novelistic dimension, I think." - Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

  • "Montefiore's massive volume is one of the first to delve deeply into the newly accessible facts of Stalin's family and friendships to give us the personal side of Stalin the man, the husband, the suspicious comrade, the stern father, as well as the public actor. Montefiore has recorded every rumor and whisper, bits of gossip, late-night table talk, each personal slight or suspicious sideways glance, and through them given us a portrait of the tyrant." - Ronald Suny, The Nation

  • "With easy mastery, he has assembled a mass of material from published and unpublished sources (.....) Vividly, with many telling anecdotes, he depicts Stalin and the myriad interactions of the courtiers and secret policemen who carried out his every order and whim. This stimulating and imaginative book illuminates how this small pockmarked man with a bad arm and a strange pigeon-toed gait and chronic tonsillitis was able to command the slavish obedience of his courtiers and so impose the nightmare of Communism." - David Pryce-Jones, National Review

  • "Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar, as its mildly sensationalist subtitle might suggest, is not too strong on political ideas and historical forces. (...) A kind of newsreel history drifts in and out of Montefiore's text (...), but the focus is firmly on the despot himself and his gaggle of debauched sycophants. (...) Montefiore's book, then, belongs as much to the "Inside the Mafia" genre as to the highbrow lineage of Isaac Deutscher and Alan Bullock. Even so, it is formidably well researched, and tells its lurid tale with gripping immediacy." - Terry Eagleton, New Statesman

  • "Clearly, Mr. Montefiore has set out to provide a more narrowly focused, personal look at Stalin, but the failure to leave the reader with a full understanding of the shocking sweep of Stalin's crimes and the historical forces he unleashed is a serious shortcoming, and in this respect, The Court of the Red Tsar is best read as a sort of companion piece to books like The Great Terror, by Robert Conquest." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "I am not entirely persuaded that Stalin was either "a superintelligent" politician or an 'intellectual." But however one interprets the evidence Montefiore has so assiduously collected and vividly presented, no future biography of Stalin will be able to ignore this intimate portrait." - Richard Pipes, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Simon Sebag Montefiore's superb book offers a closer look at this personal side of Stalin and his top collaborators. Indeed, no Western writer has got as close. (...) An excellent writer, Montefiore uses hundreds of vignettes to pull us right into the action. He reserves some of the best for his footnotes." - Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

  • "Apologists for the old Soviet Union, if there are any left, will regard the slightly forced brio as evidence that Sebag Montefiore is incurably biased against communism in theory and practice. I suspect that to be true. For he writes about the excesses of Stalin's regime with uninhibited relish. But the prejudice neither invalidates the truth of his story nor diminishes the clarity with which it is told. The references are exact and the sources are impeccable." - Roy Hattersley, The Observer

  • "In this fascinating account of the dictator’s reign, based on new archival research, letters and interviews, Montefiore provides a riveting portrait of the man and his ruling circle. (...) The result is a much finer and nuanced understanding of the Bolshevik phenomenon than we have had before." - Marc Lambert, The Scotsman

  • "This is an impressive and compelling work, using important new documents, including the Kremlin log-book and communists’ love letters, from a variety of Moscow archives (.....) With 583 densely printed pages of text, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is very long. Particularly in the first half of the book, the number of officials mentioned is likely to confuse those new to the corridors of the Kremlin." - Philip Mansel, The Spectator

  • "Despite its title, his book is not a biography of Stalin, although the tyrant's sinister presence can be felt on every page. Sebag Montefiore has written something rather more interesting and original -- an intimate account of daily life in Stalin's entourage. (...) Stalin has its minor faults (the footnotes, for example, are inadequate, which is regrettable for a book with so much new material). But its extraordinary revelation of the evil -- the complete amorality -- at the heart of the dictator's court will change the way historians approach the great historical questions about the Stalinist regime." - Orlando Figes, Sunday Telegraph

  • "To anyone with the slightest interest in twentieth-century history, this is essential, utterly compelling, page-turning reading. (...) The book is a masterpiece of horror. It could not possibly be true -- except that it is." - Robert Harvey, The Tablet

  • "Montefiore's portrait of Stalin and his circle is a deeply researched and wonderfully readable accomplishment -- scholarship as a kind of savage gossip, history as a grisly Barbara Walters special, its sensationalism redeemed by Montefiore's deep grounding in the facts. It is a brilliant stroke, in any case, to describe Stalin and his immense crimes, the blood of millions, with the sardonic contempt and tabloid brio to which Montefiore's scholarship entitles him." - Lance Morrow, Time

  • "Sebag Montefiore has done a valuable service in drawing our attention to a hitherto little-studied aspect of Stalinism. As his Stalin demonstrates, the personal relationships of those who ran the Kremlin provided an essential dynamic for the development of the Stalinist system. Isolated from the masses, these members of the privileged elite depended on one another for emotional sustenance to an extra-ordinary degree" - Amy Knight, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The result is a portrait of Stalin and the members of his court that is unprecedented in its intimacy and horrifying in its implications, not merely because it shows that the engineers of one of history's greatest holocausts were depraved -- there has always been ample evidence of that -- but also because they emerge in these pages as surprisingly normal." - David Satter, The Washington Post

  • "Auch nachdem man das Buch ausgelesen und weggelegt hat, verfolgen einen einzelne Szenen bis in die Albträume hinein. (...) Simon Sebag Montefiore hat mit diesem großartigen Buch das Böse als Objekt der Geschichtsschreibung rehabilitiert." - Alan Posener, Die Welt

  • "Zum ersten Mal gewinnen die Figur Stalin und seine Satrapen Farbe und Kontur und mit ihnen das ganze, eigentümlich familiäre Milieu der Macht, das sie über ein Vierteljahrhundert ausgebildet haben. (...) Bei allen Schwächen hat dieses Buch eines nicht verdient: die miserable Übersetzung, in der es präsentiert wird. Dass der elegante, zuweilen extravagante Stil Montefiores völlig verloren geht, ist schon bedauerlich genug. Schwerer wiegen unmotivierte Auslassungen von Wörtern, Sätzen oder ganzen Absätzen." - Gerd Koenen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin is an unusual biography. For one, the first fifty-some years of the subject's life are treated in less than a hundred pages (in a book that's almost 700 pages long) -- and much of that is given to describing not what might be considered his formative years but rather the one event that Montefiore has chosen as defining: the suicide of Stalin's wife Nadya Alliluyeva in 1932. For Montefiore this one tragic event changed -- and made, in some senses -- the man.
       It's not the worst approach. Stalin does cover the most important years, when Stalin was the dominant figure in the Soviet government, and a good deal of the focus is on Stalin's "court", the politicians close to him (some only temporarily). And the same in-depth approach to the first fifty years of Stalin's life would likely have overwhelmed readers (or necessitated a two-volume division of the book). Montefiore also does give a general idea of how Stalin came to be where he was in 1932; still, given the fascinating insights offered in this book about his later years one can't help but wish for a similar behind-the-scenes account of his childhood and his career until he reached the heights of power.
       (The early years clearly deserve more attention: Montefiore only devotes a few lines to the fact that Stalin was not born on 21 December 1879, as it was always celebrated, but rather on 6 December 1878. Not everyone seems convinced: the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data provided at the beginning of the American edition lists this as a biography of: "Stalin, Joseph, 1879-1953".)
       Montefiore's approach is one of immediacy: proximate history, tightly focussed on Stalin, with important events seen largely from Stalin's own (often limited) vantage point. Montefiore has had access to material that was unavailable until recently, including vast amounts in Russian (formerly Soviet) archives, and he relies especially on letters and diaries from participants and observers. He uses a great deal of conversation and dialogue in his text, relying on the minutes from Central Committee Plenums as well as diaries, memoirs, and his own interviews. (He assures readers he has: "applied rigorous standards to this material", and the book is well-documented (though it's a bit hard to follow the attributions, given the oddly bunched endnotes, references not made one by one (perhaps understandably -- there are thousands) but grouped together).)
       It's a largely successful approach: the dialogue and descriptions put readers at the scene, listening in on history unfolding -- and offering glimpses of the man behind the acts. There are limitations: focus on the good bits of dialogue sometimes leads to only cursory mention of significant events (for which Montefiore perhaps did not find similarly good source-material), making for an oddly balanced book. But overall it seems worthwhile: this is, indeed, Stalin as you've never seen him (certainly not to this extent).

       In focussing on the man behind the monstrosities Montefiore begins with some jarring statements, including the claim that Stalin was "a super-intelligent and gifted politician". Aspects do surprise: "Literature mattered greatly to Stalin", Montefiore notes: he was a discerning and voracious reader ("claiming a rate of five hundred pages daily"), and Montefiore believes:

His hunger for literary knowledge was almost as driving as his Marxist faith and megalomania: one might say these were the ruling passions of his life. He did not possess literary talents himself, but in terms of his reading alone, he was an intellectual, despite being the son of a cobbler and a washerwoman. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that Stalin was the best-read ruler of Russia from Catherine the Great to Vladimir Putin, even including Lenin who was no mean intellectual himself and had enjoyed the benefits of a nobleman's education.
       (One more nail in the coffin of the quaint notion that reading is edifying and that a love of literature (or the arts generally) suggests moral superiority.)
       A bit less convincing is a brief discussion of Stalin's film-fascination, Montefiore awkwardly describing Stalin as:
Joseph Goebbels combined with Alexander Korda, an unlikely pair united by love of celluloid, rolled into one.
       Still, it is these details about everything from his meddling in what films could be shown to the public (Stalin personally vetted them all), as well as which he enjoyed in private, and other glimpses of his personal conduct -- the parties, the meals, all the way to the ruthless treatment of those who fell into disfavour -- that are fascinating (if, surprisingly, not always that revealing). Stalin could apparently be a great charmer, but the reasons for his success and firm grip on power remain enigmatic.
       The supporting cast of characters also gets a good deal of attention, as Montefiore relies on sources throughout the inner and outer circles (including family members and the like). The personal sacrifices -- including divorces, or invented admissions of guilt to spare (or at least try to spare) a loved one -- are remarkable, if for no other reason than they were so widespread. The rise and fall of so many individuals -- dozens who rose high and generally fell hard -- is also fascinating to follow, as is the fact that so much seemed to hang on whims and chance. Sudden turnarounds -- lastly, but certainly not leastly, Beria's quick plummet after Stalin's death -- are frequent and often staggering.
       Section after section chronicles the incredible carnage Stalin was responsible for. Part four, dealing with the years 1937-8, Montefiore simply calls "Slaughter". The Terror swept through the Soviet Union in those years, and it's an odd mix of individual tragedies and huge numbers of anonymous casualties. Montefiore describes: "ordering murder like industrial quotas", death reduced to an abstract to those who ordered it. It's barbarity on a near-unimaginable scale, and no matter how well known the facts it's difficult to convey the extent of it: the numbers by themselves are merely numbing, the personal toll, like all mass murders (far too popular a sport over the past hundred years), something that would overwhelm us. But Montefiore does his best, and does give a sense of many of the small tragedies in this one enormous one.
       World War II, which afforded Stalin his greatest triumphs, was also conducted at an enormous cost, with mistakes that cost millions their lives. Montefiore doesn't rush through things, but there are so many high- (and low-) points, so many things that happened that much is fairly quickly treated. Still, many of the glimpses he offers -- from Stalin's indecisiveness in the face of the massive first German assault (he could not believe Hitler meant to attack) to how close he came to giving up Moscow -- are as gripping as any history writing.
       Stalin's encounters with foreign leaders -- Roosevelt, Churchill, Truman, De Gaulle (not taken quite as seriously), the hilarious and painfully long Mao visit to the Soviet Union -- and his diplomatic flair are fascinating (and how very troubling it is to see how international relationships are handled). Much history is only addressed in a cursory manner, from the building of the Soviet atomic bomb to the Soviet Union's early role in the United Nations (with the reminder of the odd role Stalin played in the establishment of Israel), some essentially not at all (such as the establishment of the Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe).
       From the domestic lives of the governing elite to the odd power politics (domestic and international), Stalin is a consistently gripping read. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to comprehend how Stalin was able to wield power (and do so so indiscriminately and destructively) for so long; with the focus on the elite (and a few of the servants and family), there's little explanation of how Soviet society, industry, and even the military actually functioned. (The ruthless treatment of the military -- officers, even generals, shot when there was any failure, troops ordered to fire on any of their comrades that dared retreat, etc. -- suggests one method, but it's hard to see how this could be consistently implemented in all facets of Soviet life, especially when the threat of random slaughter always seemed to hover near.) The irrationality behind much of Stalin's (and others') conduct continues to baffle -- as does the willingness even of those who fell out of favour and were tortured for their imagined crimes to return to the fold and again help the great leader.
       Montefiore does focus a good deal on the personal details, rather than focussing on policy and how and why it was made (though he repeatedly mentions that Stalin was a wily leader, and Stalin's success -- in holding onto power and doing what he wanted -- seems to suggest he was doing something right). Stalin's friendships and his relationship with his children are covered fairly well, though surprisingly, while he does manage to dredge up some good dirt on many of the Soviet elite, he never really offers much about Stalin's sex life. The wild drinking and eating, especially of the later years, is entertainingly described. (Things certainly seem to have gotten out of hand on those late nights: one quote -- "Mikoyan started to bring spare pairs of trousers to dinner" -- should suffice to convince of that.)
       Montefiore manages to form all this material into a compelling narrative, though there are a few times he gets carried away. A few examples stick out: of Anna Akhmatova he writes that she: "wrote verses with a searing emotional clarity which still shines through that twilight of humanity like beams of heart-rending honesty", while he describes Bronislava "Bronka" Poskrebysheva and her friend Yevgenia Yezhova as "giggly and flighty glamour pusses". But these are the exceptions, and when he sticks to plainer description and weaving in the many quotes the text is convincing and readable.
       Overall, Stalin is an impressive success, and a considerable addition to the already extensive Stalin-literature available. Fascinating history, and a very good (though often troubling) read. Certainly recommended.

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Stalin: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Simon Sebag Montefiore was born in 1965. He has reported extensively from the former Soviet Union, written two much-lauded biographies, and dabbled in fiction.

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