Volume 51, Number 8 · May 13, 2004

Master of Fear

By Ian Buruma

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf, 785 pp., $30.00

Dictators come in many forms. Some are religious maniacs, and some total cynics; some are mama's boys with a lust to dominate, and some are compelled by a higher cause or mission; some wish to be worshiped as gods, some just want to be feared, and most are probably a mixture of all these things. But they all have one quality in common: striving for absolute power consigns them to a world of lies. And one is tempted to assume that if a dictator such as, say, Mao Zedong really believed his own press—that he was the greatest genius who ever lived, the greatest statesman, general, scientist, poet, or whatnot—he would surely be a madman.

The Great Leader Kim Il Sung fashioned a kind of dictator's heaven (or hell), where his face was virtually the only image shown in public, and politics, arts, and science were distilled into a collection of books under his name. His life story, almost entirely mythical, became the subject of a sacred cult. If he thought all this was nothing but a ghastly hoax played on his subjects, his cynicism would have been so boundless as to constitute a form of madness too. And yet to assume that these monsters are mad is usually a mistake. It is to underrate the cruel lucidity of their will to power.

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was not a madman. But his true nature remains hard to pin down. He was a cynic, yet also a believer. He would betray any promise, any ideal, any moral or political principle, or anybody, even members of his own family, to maintain his grip on power, yet he also seems to have been driven by a quasi-religious millenarian zeal. According to Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador in Washington and later Leonid Brezhnev's foreign minister, Stalin only occasionally gave "way to positive human emotions." Yet he could be a man of great charm, and had a sentimental streak. It was not always easy for him to sentence an old friend to death, but alas it had to be done. The cause was greater than any human feeling.

So who was this man, who consigned tens of millions—including some of his closest comrades—to horrible deaths with a mere gesture to the minions who carried out the slaughter? Many books have been written on this question, and we still don't really know. Robert Conquest, whose classic The Great Terror is still one of the best books on the subject, describes the Vozhd (Leader) as a kind of capo di tutti capi, the boss of a huge crime syndicate. He compares Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin's hanging judge, to a "gangland lawyer,"[1] and likens the Soviet Communist Party to cosa nostra. He cites with approval the verdict of the Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas:

All in all, Stalin was a monster who, while adhering to abstract, absolute and fundamentally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success—and this meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination.

But Conquest also concluded that the personal side of Stalin's character "must remain to a large degree enigmatic."

Simon Sebag Montefiore's superb book offers a closer look at this personal side of Stalin and his top collaborators.[2] Indeed, no Western writer has got as close. He trawled through newly opened (and often subsequently closed) Soviet archives, which brought some astonishing material to the surface. Even more remarkable are his interviews with the relatives and offspring of Stalin and his entourage. Montefiore tracked them down in Moscow, Tbilisi, Western Europe, the US, or wherever else they may be, and recorded their stories, which were often told to him as excuses and justifications, but are no less terrifying, grotesque, or damning for that.

An excellent writer, Montefiore uses hundreds of vignettes to pull us right into the action. He reserves some of the best for his footnotes. Thus we learn how Stalin loved to attend performances of his favorite opera, Glinka's Ivan Susanin, "but only waited until the scene when the Poles are lured into a forest by a Russian and freeze to death there. He would then leave the theater and go home." Or how Stalin, Marshal Voroshilov, Anastas Mikoyan, and other Politburo members feasted on mountains of food, danced through the night, and sang Cossack ballads while millions were starving to death in the man-made famines of 1931. Or how Stalin had his bodyguard, Karl Pauker, reenact for the amusement of the Vozhd and his cronies the pathetic pleadings of Grigory Zinoviev, a Politburo member who was executed on Stalin's orders for disloyalty. Or how every leading Bolshevik family had its own "expunger," usually one of the children, whose task it was to purge family photo albums of pictures of friends and relatives who were arrested and shot as Enemies of the People. And so on and on it goes, one horrific scene after another, often played out in the heavy, puritanical, uncouth, and above all paranoid atmosphere of Stalin's many country houses, where the extreme boredom of the Leader's rambling monologues could instantly turn to panic at the smallest hint of his displeasure.

Montefiore sees Stalin less as a gangster boss than as a malevolent high priest of a sinister cult. Stalin's background as a seminary student in Georgia strikes him as significant. He writes about Stalin: "...Raised in a poor priest-ridden household, he was damaged by violence, insecurity and suspicion but inspired by the local traditions of religious dogmatism, blood-feuding and romantic brigandry." Again and again, Montefiore stresses the fanaticism of the early Bolsheviks. Stalin's zeal, he writes, was "quasi-Islamic," and this was "typical of the Bolshevik magnates." Montefiore points out that most of the old Bolsheviks "came from devoutly religious backgrounds." Stalin, Yenukidze, and Mikoyan were seminarists. Voroshilov was a choirboy. Kaganovich came from a devout Jewish family, and Beria's mother was so pious, she died in a church. "They hated Judeo-Christianity," writes Montefiore, "but the orthodoxy of their parents was replaced by something even more rigid, a systematic amorality." Nadezhda Mandelstam observed:

This religion—or science, as it was modestly called by its adepts—invests man with a godlike authority.... In the Twenties, a good many people drew a parallel to the victory of Christianity and thought this new religion would last a thousand years.

When Stalin was about to order the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in The Great Terror of 1937, he said the following to some of his oldest collaborators who were about to be swept away in the purges: "Maybe it can be explained by the fact that you lost faith." Here, writes Montefiore, "was the essence of the religious frenzy of the coming slaughter." In this scheme of things, Vyshinsky was less a gangland lawyer than a grand inquisitor. Then again, the two roles are not incompatible.

This is all perfectly plausible. It may be precisely their sincerity that enables mass murderers to use any means to achieve the ends they desire. And Stalin was only the chief among killers. His magnates had unlimited powers in their own domains. Montefiore quotes something Nikita Khrushchev, who was responsible for countless deaths in the Ukraine, said about a junior agronomist who crossed him during the Terror: "Well of course I could have done anything I wanted with him, I could have destroyed him, I could have arranged it so that, you know, he would disappear from the face of the earth."

But since the slightest suspicion of doubt or dissent could lead even Stalin's closest associates straight to the torture cellars, one should be cautious about taking any stated belief at face value. Top Party bosses, such as Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister, Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party boss, and even Beria, head of Stalin's secret police, the NKVD, lived in more or less constant fear. If the Leader told them to dance, they danced; if he tapped their heads with his pipe and declared their skulls to be empty, as Stalin did to Khrushchev in public, they laughed with him; and if he told them to kill thousands, they killed thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or whatever it took to keep the Vozhd happy and off their own backs.

They were quite right to be fearful. Pauker, the court jester who had entertained his master by mocking Zinoviev's pleas for his life, was shot for knowing too much. Molotov's wife was deported for alleged sexual debauchery and being part of a Jewish conspiracy. Kirov was murdered in Leningrad, in 1934, most likely on the orders of the NKVD. In 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, who disagreed with Stalin's war against the peasants, was sentenced to death in a show trial for being a Trotskyist spy, a wrecker, a terrorist, and for plotting to assassinate Lenin. His crippled first wife was interrogated and then shot. His second wife spent eighteen years in the Gulag. Montefiore claims that Bukharin was not tortured. This matches Robert Conquest's conclusion in his earlier editions of The Great Terror. But in the revised edition of his book Conquest writes that "methods of physical influence" were in fact employed, and that not only Bukharin's wife but their infant son was threatened as well.

Even Stalin's most ferocious butchers, the heads of his secret police, never felt safe, and again with good reason: all secret police chiefs know too much, and this makes them dangerous. Genrikh Yagoda, who built up the NKVD, was tried and shot in 1938 as a rightist and a Trotskyist spy. Nikolai Yezhov, the dwarfish architect of the Terror, a man who took personal pleasure in clubbing people to death, was arrested and executed in 1940 for being a British spy and plotting to assassinate Stalin. His successor, Lavrenti Beria, whose relish for methods of physical influence was as voracious as Yezhov's, survived Stalin's death, but was liquidated by Khrushchev.

How could each of these former bigwigs have believed the absurd accusations leveled against the others? And what did the magnates think when their best friends disappeared? Yezhov, who had tortured the most bizarre confessions out of numerous people, was obviously not a British spy, and indeed refused to confess, but it is possible that at least some Party stalwarts, betrayed by the very cause that they had served, still believed that the Party and its Leader were infallible and thus that their death sentences had in some sense to be deserved. This is one of the underlying themes of Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon. But Koestler also pointed out that at least some people "were silenced by fear" and "some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons...."

I once glibly cited Koestler's description of true believers going to their deaths to Leo Labedz, the brilliant Polish intellectual who helped to found Encounter magazine. Labedz reminded me that most men will say anything once their bodies and spirits are broken by torture. And even those who died as convinced Bolsheviks probably did so, as it were, faute de mieux. Conquest cites Bukharin's last plea in 1938:

For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while I was in prison I made a revaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself: "If you must die, what are you dying for?"—an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented.... And when you ask yourself, "Very well, suppose you do not die; suppose by some miracle you remain alive, again what for?" Isolated from everybody, an enemy of the people, an inhuman position, completely isolated from everything that constitutes the essence of life.[3]

Of all Stalin's cohorts, Beria was perhaps the most ruthless but also the most lucid. Montefiore sums him up like this: "This deft intriguer, coarse psychopath and sexual adventurer would also have cut throats, seduced ladies-in-waiting and poisoned goblets of wine at the courts of Genghis Khan, Suleiman the Magnificent or Lucrezia Borgia." In the early years of his ascent to the highest ranks, Beria "worshipped Stalin." "Theirs was the relationship of monarch and liege." He treated the Leader "like a Tsar instead of the first comrade." And Beria became "less devoted to Marxism as time went on."

As soon as Stalin died in 1953, Beria proposed to liberalize the regime and free East Germany, which shows that even monsters can have the right policies. Montefiore claims that Beria's new liberal enthusiasm so alarmed the magnates that Khrushchev had him arrested and swiftly executed. But Khrushchev, who was probably more of a true believer than Beria, was hardly acting solely out of idealism either. This was a power play in the Soviet cosa nostra. The magnates knew their man: they took no chances and got Beria before he could get them. But this still leaves the question of Stalin himself: gangster boss, tsar, or Bolshevik grand patriarch?

Stalin has often been compared to Hitler. This makes a certain sense. Stalinism was in many ways an inspiration to the Führer, and the Vozhd was fascinated by Hitler. Again Montefiore offers a telling anecdote. After Hitler had murdered potential rivals in the Nazi movement in the Night of the Long Knives, Stalin observed to Mikoyan: "Did you hear what happened in Germany?... Some fellow that Hitler! Splendid! That's a deed of some skill!"

But in some ways Stalin had more in common with Mao. Both were provincial men who fancied themselves as thinkers. They were fascinated by artists and intellectuals, and deeply suspicious of them. Stalin, like Mao, was a voracious reader, with a special taste for history. (His granddaughter said she saw him reading Balzac and that he "worshipped" Zola.) Mao liked to identify himself with the Qin Emperor, a savage tyrant in the second century BC who was known (insofar as we know anything for sure) for burning Confucian scholars as well as their books. Stalin, we learn from Montefiore, saw himself in the mold of Ivan the Terrible, his "teacher." "The Russian people," he said, "are Tsarist." "The people need a Tsar, whom they can worship and for whom they can live and work." When it wasn't Ivan who served as his historical mirror, it was Peter the Great, or Alexander I, or the Persian shahs.

This would seem to be a long way from the theories of scientific socialism. But Stalin shared with Mao one conviction that does fit the logic of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, namely the belief that society was a tabula rasa, that man could be remade, from scratch, given superior will and a sufficient degree of ruthlessness. Nature could be safely ignored. That is why both appear to have been sincerely taken in by the crackpot science of Trofim Lysenko. "Lysenkoism," or "creative Darwinism," promised a new kind of agriculture in which hitherto unheard-of varieties of Soviet wheat would be created that would solve all the food problems in Stalin's empire. The experiments in Soviet wheat were as disastrous as, a few decades later, Mao's high-yield Chinese wheat (planted in such wholly unsuitable soil as the highlands of Tibet), but these failures were blamed on "saboteurs" and "bourgeois scientists," many of whom were killed, even as people were dying of hunger in far greater numbers than ever. Such things might not have happened if Stalin and Mao had been complete skeptics. But they were gullible as well as cynical, and that is why millions had to die.

What makes a tyrant like Stalin especially terrifying, however, is that one could never be sure what he thought at any given time. Reality, like Soviet Man, was endlessly malleable; it was what the Vozhd said it was. Stalin also used capriciousness as a political tool to keep his subordinates constantly guessing: orders would suddenly be reversed; men and women would be wined and dined one night and tortured the next; you could be praised for doing something and then punished for it; Stalin's NKVD chiefs, like the egregious Yezhov, would be unleashed like savage dogs on enemies, and then themselves shot for going too far. This tyrannical whimsy got worse as Stalin felt death's chill on his own neck. In the last year of his life, he believed, or said he believed, that Jewish-Crimean-American plots were threatening his empire. Jewish poets were arrested as American spies. Jewish doctors were tortured by Semyon Ignatiev, Stalin's last secret police chief, for being "terrorists" and "saboteurs." No one was above suspicion in this insane universe. Molotov, whose wife was Jewish, was nicknamed "Molotstein" by Stalin.

Montefiore asks: "Did Stalin really believe it all?" His answer: "Yes, passionately, because it was politically necessary, which was better than mere truth. 'We ourselves will be able to determine,' Stalin told Ignatiev, 'what is true and what is not.'"[4] The result, of course, is paranoia, indeed a form of madness. A dictator, no less than his collaborators, has to live in a self-made palace of lies, where no one can ever be trusted. Mao Zedong's doctor, Li Zhisui, observed of Mao's court that the Chairman and many of his satraps suffered from chronic stomach cramps, a classic symptom of nervous tension. (Himmler had the same complaint, which only his masseur, a massive Balt named Kersten, affectionately known as the Fat Buddha, knew how to alleviate.) In the case of Stalin's court, alcoholism and strokes were the most common afflictions.

Paranoia, then, perhaps more than sadism, explains why Stalin had to go on constant murder sprees, in the country at large, and among those clustered around him. Stalin told Beria that "an Enemy of the People is not only one who does sabotage but one who doubts the rightness of the Party line. And there are a lot of them and we must liquidate them." Since the Party line was made up and constantly changed by Stalin himself, this meant no end of liquidations. If you disturbed Stalin's picture of reality at any given time, you had to be killed. Not only doubters had to be murdered but even potential doubters. This is indeed a form of religious persecution, and in the hands of a vengeful and capricious God. Montefiore relates a story about a hysterical old woman in Kiev who recognized Enemies of the People by the look in their eyes. Her public denunciations sent thousands to their deaths. Stalin praised her.

Millions of Soviet citizens had to pay a terrible price for the Leader's paranoia, not only in the form of terror and purges, but in catastrophic blunders made by Stalin. Before the German armies swept into the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin had received several clear warnings that this was about to happen. But he dismissed all such intelligence reports as lies and provocations. For he had decided that Hitler would never attack the Soviet Union, and thus that any information to the contrary—that German battleships were swarming around Riga, or German war plans revealed an imminent invasion—was a malicious lie. When a Communist from Berlin deserted from his German army unit to inform the Soviets of German battle orders to attack, Stalin had him shot "for his disinformation."

It has become customary to credit Stalin for his ultimate victory over the Nazis. But if he had spent more time preparing for the German invasion and less on torturing his best generals to death for criticizing the state of Soviet defenses, countless lives would surely have been saved. In the end, Hitler's armies were defeated less by Stalin's genius than by the vastness of the land to be conquered, the tenacity of Soviet soldiers and citizens, Hitler's tactical blunders, and the bitter Russian winter.

Stalin's magnates, Montefiore's true subject, paid a special price for their leader's paranoia, apart from being shot. Too terrified to contradict Stalin, most of them tried desperately to pander to all his whims. This allowed the Vozhd to have all manner of sport with them: making them dance together, or forcing them to drink until they dropped—the kind of thing enjoyed by many strongmen and quasi-macho monarchs. But it is probable that in the ghastly loneliness of his despotic throne, Stalin knew his power rested on a pack of lies, and though he demanded their subservience, he despised his most loyal courtiers for it. If he did not already, this was reason enough to loathe mankind.

Sometime in the 1930s, Stalin told the following joke to a man who had actually been tortured. "They arrested a boy," said Stalin, "and accused him of writing Eugene Onegin. The boy tried to deny it.... A few days later, the NKVD interrogator bumped into the boy's parents: 'Congratulations!' he said. 'Your son wrote Eugene Onegin.'" Stalin and his gang found this hilarious. Of all the awful stories recounted by Simon Sebag Montefiore in his dark and excellent book, this is surely one of the most unnerving.

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[1] The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 15.

[2] It is actually hard to know what to call these brutal, frightened, scheming, unscrupulous, power-hungry, but also, in some cases, fanatically idealistic men. They were neither politicians, nor bureaucrats in the conventional sense. What then? Courtiers? Henchmen? Satraps? Paladins? Montefiore prefers "magnates."

[3] The Great Terror, p. 118.

[4] One is reminded of the Viennese mayor Karl Lueger, who, when asked why he had some Jewish friends, despite his known animosity to Jews, replied that he would decide who was a Jew.