A monarch in the Kremlin

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; pages 693, 25.

The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy; Penguin; Allen Lane; pages 594, 25.

"STALIN, who died in 1953, i.e. more than 50 years ago, continues to influence Russia, Europe and the world as a whole. His tastes, habits and passions can still be considered as entire cultural stratum. The essence of Stalinist era culture is the conscious renunciation of revolutionary avant garde trends in favour of the grandiose classical forms of imperial Rome... . In politics, Stalin chose to be a radical, and as a Bolshevik, he destroyed all the monarchic traditions. However, the tyrant remained a keen monarchist as far as his cultural preferences were concerned... .

"In fact, Stalin had exquisite taste when it came to poetry and drama. He appreciated Boris Pasternak's poems and Mikhail Bulgakov's novels. However, he forced Russia to be something in between a giant culture park and an economic exhibition in which people themselves were only exhibits, and his main contributions to Soviet culture were grandiose display of victory. Stalinist heritage has continued to influence modern Russian culture even after his death and the collapse of the Soviet Union... .

"The horrors of the Stalinist period are exported by modern Russia, which brings revenues to the budget. Books about Stalin's outrages, Gulag, the adversities of the Bolshevik Revolution come out abroad in print-runs of millions and are as popular as Russian vodka or caviar."

The last petulant paragraph of Novosti's political commentator Anatoly Korolyov's intelligent critique (Tyrant and the Beauty, New Theme, April-June, 2004; Russian Embassy in New Delhi) reveals the embarrassment which Russians feel to this day when Stalin's crimes are recorded by others. They prefer to do that by themselves. This is understandable, but unjustifiable. Stalin was a phenomenon who poses a challenge to historians, political scientists and psychiatrists. It has yet to be met fully.

Korolyov's comments were provoked by the publication of this book, besides Ann Applehaum's Gulag, and are unjust to Montefiore's stupendous work. It is based on unrivalled, unprecedented archival research, extensive travel in Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia and interviews with the survivors of Stalin's close associates ("the magnates" as he calls them), his victims and others in the know. If the memoirs of Molotov, Mikoyan, Zhukov and others conflict on the time they met Stalin, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the author relies on the Kremlin Logbook. Stalin's diary of appointments is another source he cites. So also his letters and brief, even curt notes, including those by which he intervened to save somebody's life or lift a ban on a book, play or film.

This is not the traditional biography as we know it, or an analytical record of Stalin's domestic or foreign policies. It is a study of life in Stalin's Kremlin. "My aim here was simply to write a portrait of Stalin, his top twenty potentates, and their families, to show how they ruled and how they lived in the unique culture of his years of supreme powers. This does not pretend to be a history of his foreign, and domestic policies, his military campaigns, his youth or the struggle with Trotsky. This is a chronicle of his court from his acclamation as `the leader' in 1929 to his death. It is a biography of his courtiers, a study of high politics and informal power and customs. In a way, this is a biography of Stalin himself through his relationships with his magnates; he is never off-stage.

"My mission was to go beyond the traditional explanations of Stalin as `enigma', `madman' or `Satanic genius', and that of his comrades as `men without biographies', dreary moustachioed sycophants in black-and-white photographs. Deploying the arsenal of new archives and unpublished memoirs, my own interviews, and well-known materials, I hope Stalin becomes a more understandable and intimate character, if no less repellent. I believe the placing of Stalin and his oligarchs in their idiosyncratic Bolshevik context as members of a military-religious `Order of Swordbearers' explains much of the inexplicable. Stalin was utterly unique but many of his views and features, such as dependence on death as a political tool, and his paranoia, were shared by his comrades. He was a man of his time, so were his magnates."

This is not the kind of book one read during the Cold War. The author is fair to Stalin. Unlike some, he rejects the view that Stalin was responsible for his wife Nadya's suicide and records her neurotic tendencies. Nor does he hold Stalin responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a politburo member and Stalin's close friend.

"The temptation has been to blame, all the crimes on one man, Stalin. There is an obsession in the West today with the cult of villainy, a macabre but inane competition between Stalin and Hitler to find the `world's most evil dictator' by counting their supposed victims. This is demonology, not history. It has the effect of merely indicting one madman and offers us no lesson about either the danger of utopian ideas and systems, or the responsibility of individuals. Modern Russia has not yet faced up to its past; there has been no redemption, which perhaps still casts a shadow over its development of civil society. Many modern Russians will not thank me for the intimate frankness of a history they would prefer to forget or avoid."

Montefiore was very fortunate in his timing. Thanks to the opening of a chunk of the Presidential Archive in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History in 1999, he was able to use a large amount of new, fascinating papers and photographs, containing the letters of Stalin, his entourage and their families, besides new military material in the Russian State War Archives and the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defence.

Pause here and reflect on the disgraceful secrecy which successive governments of India have followed in respect of opening its files to scholars. Even China is more liberal judging by the mass of material it has published lately. The fault lies entirely with "the generating" Ministries of External Affairs, Defence and Home in particular. Authorities at the National Archives, from Director Dr. Shitla Prasad to the most junior officials, are uniformly helpful. Will the Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh do something about it? This calculated digression must not end without a mention of historians of eminence whose voice carries weight. They should launch a concerted agitation and involve the media. The scandal of excessive secrecy must end.

If Korolyov's remark vindicates the author's comment on Russian embarrassment, Richard Overy's book validates his censure of "inane competition between Stalin and Hitler". Alan Bullock's book Hitler and Stalin (1998) was, as its sub-title indicated, a study of "parallel lives". Overy, also an historian, analyses the two dictators and their victims together. It is a painstaking work; but the analysis is fundamentally flawed and the comparison is laboured. It is absurd to say that Stalin and Hitler followed "similar political and social strategies". Stalin was widely read, not only in Communist classics but also European history. "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 up to Vladimir Putin, even including Lenin who was no mean intellectual himself and had enjoyed the benefits of a nobleman's education."

"He worked very hard to improve himself," said Molotov. His library consisted of 20,000 well-used volumes. "If you want to know the people around you," Stalin said, "find out what they read." His daughter Svetlana found books there from Life of Jesus to the novels of John Galsworthy, Oscar Wilde, Guy de Maupassant and later John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. His granddaughter later noticed him reading Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekov, Victor Hugo, W.M. Thackeray and Honore de Balzac. In old age, he was still discovering Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. He "worshipped [Emile] Zola". This, incidentally, reflects the author's objectivity. The vain Leon Trotsky was foolish to describe Stalin as a colourless bureaucratic mediocrity. Stalin, no less vain, was "an exceptional in every way". Lazar Kaganovich said: "I knew no less than five or six Stalins". Unlike Hitler, whom none could contradict, Stalin would be contradicted freely by Nadya and, now and then, by colleagues like Molotov and Mikoyan. But, had he lived longer, they would have paid the price.

Montefiore writes: "Beneath the eerie calm of these unfathomable waters were deadly whirlpools of ambition, anger and unhappiness. Capable both of moving with controlled gradualism and of reckless gambles, he seemed enclosed inside a cold suit of steely armour but his antennae were intensely sensitive and his fiery Georgian temper was so uncontrollable that he had almost ruined his career by unleashing it against Lenin's wife."

On Lenin's death he warned his widow Krupskaya that if she did not behave herself she would be replaced by another "widow". The demon in him became more over-powering with the passage of time. Time there was when he presided over the dinner table as head of an intimate collegium. Later drunken dinners became a torture for the invitees. They were forced to eat, get drunk and were ever exposed to ridicule and humiliation. The coarsening accelerated with each crisis. Triumph in the Second World War, which he did not expect, made Stalin insufferable.

The manner in which he despatched every single rival by playing off one against another - only to turn against the former ally - is well known as are the show trials and executions of former colleagues. But, in his last years, even subordinates came under threat. Unlike standard biographies this book does not record the details of collectivisation of farms or of the Great Terror that followed but of how every crisis affected life under Stalin.

Stalin once told Winston Churchill this was the most difficult time of his life, harder even than Hitler's invasion: "It was a terrible struggle" in which he had to destroy "ten million. It was fearful. Four years it lasted. It was absolutely necessary."

The killings, the farcical trials and the executions were surely all well known, besides Stalin's crimes of later years when contents of Nikita Khruschev's famous secret report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on February 24-25, 1956, became known. While Communists were stunned, Jawaharlal Nehru was hopelessly confused: "I confess I do not understand this sudden change in regard to Stalin... I cannot understand why it was considered necessary or desirable to blacken Stalin's reputation in so many ways. Perhaps there was already a strong feeling in the rank and file to which the leaders thought it wise to give expression." He proceeded to provide a couple of other explanations, no less absurd. Nehru's letter to the Chief Ministers (April 3, 1956) could not have added to their considerable expertise in world affairs.

Mao Zedong resented Khruschev's speech. It figured prominently in Sino-Soviet polemics later (vide "On the Question of Stalin"; Peking Review; September 20, 1963). Well before it split in 1964, the Communist Party of India (CPI) tried to explain matters to the party's ranks. In 1959 it published Stalin and His Work from the 50th volume of the Soviet Encyclopaedia. Suffice it to say that Khruschev failed to win unanimous support. The debate continues: Was Stalin a dedicated Communist, an ideologue, or a dictator with chauvinistic, imperial aspirations? His self-image provides a clue.

He once said: "The people need a Tsar, whom they can live and work." He had always believed the "Russian people are Tsarist". At various times, he compared himself to Peter the Great, Alexander I and Nicholas I, but this child of Georgia, a Persian satrapy for centuries, also identified with the Shahs. He named two monarchs as his "teachers" in his own notes. One was Nadir Shah, of whom he wrote: "Nadir Khan. Teacher."

But he regarded Ivan the Terrible as his true alter ego, his `teacher', something he revealed constantly to comrades such as Molotov, Zhdanov and Mikoyan. "When, years later he met his mother and she asked him "Joseph, what exactly are you?", Stalin replied: "I'm something like a Tsar". He was, revealingly, delighted when she remarked: "You'd have done better to become a priest." This Tsar was also an ideologue.

The author is fair to hold that Britain and France were not sincere in negotiating with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to form a front against Hitler. The chief of the British Military mission to Moscow was Admiral Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Erule-Erle-Drax, author of Handbook on Solar Heating. The quadruple-barrelled worthy came without the credentials. "When Sir Reginald proudly read out his official titles and arrived at this noble order, the Soviet interpreter declaimed: "Order of the Bath-tub". Marshal Voroshilov, displaying both his overwhelming characteristics - childlike naivety and heroic bungling capacity - interrupted to ask: `Bathtub'? `In the reign of our early kings,' Drax droned, `our knights used to travel round Europe on horseback, slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in distress. They would return home travel-stained and grimly and report ... to the King (who would sometimes offer a knight a luxury... A bath in the royal bathroom'." The author writes: "The Western democracies could not deliver the `price' of a Soviet alliance, namely to back up the Polish guarantee and deliver the Baltic states into Stalin's sphere of influence. Perhaps they were right since this would still not guarantee stopping Hitler, while there seemed little point in saving Poland from the Huns to deliver her to the Tatars."

This is reading 1939 in the light of 1945. In 1939 the West was stronger and the Soviet Union had not suffered millions of lives in Germany's aggression. Stalin was remarkably consistent in his objectives. He signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, partitioned Poland, and acquired the Baltic states and slices of Finland and Romania; a buffer zone from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

When Molotov visited Berlin in 1940 he asked for the Balkans. Hitler offered - India. The USSR should move south "in the direction of the Indian Ocean", a draft secret protocol of November 15, 1940, offered. On November 26, Stalin asked for withdrawal of German troops from Finland, control over the Turkish Straits, a security pact with Bulgaria and "the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf." All this was to be part of a deal with Japan and Italy as well. On December 18, Hitler signed the Directive on Operation Barbarossa: the army must "be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign even before the conclusion of the war against England." It speaks for Stalin's strategic objectives that no sooner had the Second World War concluded than he renewed these very demands against Turkey and Iran.

"On December 29, 1940, eleven days after Hitler signed Directive No.21 on Operation Barbarossa, Stalin's spies alerted him to its existence. Stalin knew the USSR would not be ready for war until 1943 and hoped to delay it by frantic rearming and aggressive brinkmanship in the Balkans - but without provoking Hitler. The Fuhrer, on the other hand, realised the urgency of his enterprise and that he had to secure the Balkans before he could attack Russia." Yet, till the very end Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would attack the USSR. When he did, Stalin simply collapsed - for the third time in his life.

First, when his wife Nadya committed suicide in 1932; next, in 1940 when the Finns resisted the Red Army. Hitler launched his invasion on June 22, 1941. As his forces sank deep into Soviet territory, "Stalin uttered his first words of truth since the war began: `Everything's lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we've f----d up.' `Lenin left us a great heritage and we his successors have shitted it all up... .' " The "we" was meant to include all of them. Stalin said he could no longer be the leader. He resigned. He shut himself away receiving nobody and refused to answer the phone.

"The magnates" knew better than to take him at his word. They decided to go to him and beg of him to return to leadership. "When he saw the seven or so politburo members entering, Stalin `turned to stone'. In one account, Stalin greeted them with more depressed ramblings: `Great Lenin's no more... if only he could see us now. See those to whom he entrusted the fate of his country... . I am inundated with letters from Soviet people, rightly rebuking us... May be some among you wouldn't mind putting the blame on me.' Then, he looked at them searchingly and asked: `Why've you come?'

"Stalin `looked alert, somewhat strange,' recalled Mikoyan, `and his question was no less strange. Actually he should have summoned us himself. I had no doubt: he decided we had arrived to arrest him'."

Stalin returned to the Kremlin. It was long before fortune smiled on him. The author records two overtures to Hitler, meanwhile. In July 1941 "he and Molotov ordered Beria to sound out the Bulgarian Ambassador, Ivan Stamenov. Beria gave the job to the assassination/intelligence specialist Sudoplatov, who told the story in his semi-reliable memoirs: his instructions were to ask why Germany had violated the Pact, on what conditions Hitler would end the war, and whether he would be satisfied with the Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova and the Baltica, a second Brest-Litovsk? Beria told Sudoplatov this was to win time. Sudoplatov met Stamenov at Beria's favourite Georgian restaurant, Aragvi, on July 25 but the Bulgarian never passed on the message to Berlin."

On October 7, 1941, as Marshal Zhukov entered Stalin's room he heard Stalin "ordering Beria to use his `Organ' to sound out the possibilities of making a separate peace with Germany, given the critical situation... . Stalin was probing German resolve but there was no moment when Hitler was less likely to make peace than when Moscow seemed to be falling. Beria is said to have arranged a second probe, either using a Bulgarian `banker' or the Ambassador again but with no results... " The author adds: "In 1966 when Zhukov's memoirs were published in Moscow, this was regarded as too dangerous to be included. It was only in 1990, when the full version was published, that this account appeared."

In May 1942 when Foreign Minister Molotov visited Churchill "Stalin instructed him to win a promise of a Second Front - and to clinch recognition of the Soviet borders of 1941, including the Baltics... When he learned the Second Front was out of the question, Molotov refused to discuss Eden's proposal of a treaty that did not mention the Soviet borders." Molotov immediately reported this to Stalin who relented on the Treaty of Alliance with the remark: "It gives us a free hand. The question of borders will be decided by force" (emphasis added, throughout).

Stalin doggedly revived the issue at the Teheran summit with Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1943. He demanded "the northern part of East Prussia" and confirmation of the line partitioning Poland in 1939. Stalin had never flown before and "was terrified when the plane hit an air pocket". He brought along a large security guard. "Turbaned Sikhs with tommy guns" protected Churchill.

Conversation at the table verged on the ridiculous at times. "Stalin stressed his need for the Second Front before Roosevelt established a rapport by undermining the British Empire. India was ripe for a revolution `from the bottom', like Russia, said FDR, who was as ill informed about Leninism as he was about the untouchables. Stalin showed that he knew more about India, replying that the question of castes was more complicated." Churchill and Stalin discussed Polish borders using a map torn out of The Times (London).

Eventually on October 9, 1944, in Moscow Churchill and Stalin carved up their respective spheres of influence in Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Bulgaria. Stalin kept his word and left Greece to the British, displeasing Marshall Tito. By the time the trio met at Yalta on February 5, 1945, the fate of the Balkans had been decided exactly as Stalin had predicted in May 1942 "by force". Churchill had been thwarted by FDR. His aim was to reach a settlement with Stalin before their armies reached Germany. In this he failed, disastrously.

No Tsar would have acted with greater determination in expanding the frontiers of Russia. But Stalin was an ideologue, no less. He was genuinely surprised that "the German working class" did not welcome the Red Army. After the war Stalin reviewed his conquests on a map. "Using his pipe as a baton, he said, `Let's see what we've got then; in the north, everything's all right. Finland greatly wronged us, so we've moved the frontier farther from Leningrad. The Baltic states, which were Russian territory from ancient times, are ours again, all the Belorussians are ours now. Ukranians too, and the Moldavians are back with us. So to the west everything okay.' But he turned to the east: `What have we got here? The Kurile Islands are ours and all of Sakhalin... . China, Mongolia, all as it should be.' The Dunhill pipe trailed round to the south: `Now this frontier I don't like at all. The Dardanelles... . We also have claims to Turkish territory and to Libya.' This could have been the speech of a Russian Tsar - it was hardly that of a Georgian Bolshevik.

"Molotov shared this mission: `My task as Foreign Minister was to expand the borders of our Motherland. And it seems Stalin and I coped.... quite well... . Yes I wouldn't mind getting Alaska back,' he joked. But Molotov understood that there was no contradiction between Bolshevism and empire-building: It's good the Russian Tsars took so much land for us in war. This makes our struggle with capitalism easier". Thus were the Tsar and the Communist blended into one in Stalin. Ideology did not inspire his moves; but it shaped his outlook. He imposed a blockade on Berlin in June 1948 thinking that the West would quit. He believed that war with the West was inevitable and ringed Moscow with anti-aircraft missiles. "As his own campaign inspired fear of an American attack, he even discussed it with his bodyguards".

The book recounts the details of Stalin's paranoia in his last years no less than the misdeeds of his magnates. Beria was a serial murderer and a serial rapist. Others were little better. Towards the end Stalin contemplated the "physical destruction" of Molotov and Mikoyan and possibly Beria as well. At one of his last meetings he ordered "another assassination attempt on Tito". The facts about "The Doctors' Plot", "the Leningrad case" and the anti-Semitic campaign are well known. The author provides the details of the intrigues surrounding them. Assertions are backed in over 70 pages of "source notes".

When Stalin took gravely ill, the four - Beria, Malankov, Khruschev and Bulganin - delayed calling a doctor. "It is most likely that the denial of medical care made not the slightest difference. But Beria clearly thought it had: "I did him in," he later boasted to Molotov and Kaganovich. `I saved you all!' Recent research has suggested that he perhaps spiked Stalin's wine with a blood thinning drug such as warfarin, which, over several days, might cause a stroke. Perhaps Khruschev and the others were accomplices, hence the cover up suited them all."

As Stalin lay on his deathbed Beria rushed to the Kremlin to seize his files. He dreamt of succeeding Stalin and acted as if he was the chief. It was Khruschev who took the lead in plotting his ouster. On June 25, 1953, he was called to a special meeting of the Presidium. The next day he was arrested and put in prison. Beria was shot in December 1954. It was a tortuous course that history took since.

Stalin had his admirers. Saddam Hussein was one of them. The author wrote recently in an article in International Herald Tribune (July 3, 2004) that apart from Khruschev, Stalin's crimes "were even more explicitly exposed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet, to many, Stalin remains more legitimate as a Russian leader than anyone since.

"Such tyrants are accomplished actors. Stalin, a cobbler's son, recreated himself as czarist `Little Father', remote and tough, but good. He resuscitated Russian literature (Pushkin) and Russian heroes (Ivan the Terrible). He also won a war and conquered an empire.

"And his image has been helped by Russia's downward slide. The reputations of dictators thrive amid poverty and instability. According to a poll released last year, 26 per cent of Russians would vote for Stalin if he were alive today."

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