Book review: “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

death toll betterIt might be helpful to think of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar as akin to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

Except that, when Abraham Lincoln wanted to get someone out of his cabinet, he moved the guy somewhere else, like to the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Stalin wanted to remove one of his inner circle of toadying confidantes, he had the guy killed.

Like a Russian novel, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar has a seeming cast of thousands. There are really great photo inserts in the book, but I found it even more helpful to prepare my own handy bookmark-size collection of mugshots of 18 of Stalin’s closest aides.

By the end of this long book and Stalin’s long reign as the Red Tsar, nine of the 18 were dead. Only two of those succumbed to natural causes. The rest were killed in some way or forced to commit suicide.

And, of course, that doesn’t include the dozens of other less exalted leaders who were exterminated, often with their families. And the millions of bureaucrats, scientists, military men and people from just about every other walk of life who were purged (i.e., killed). And the tens of millions of everyday citizens who died of starvation and disease because of failed Communist experiments on a nationwide scale.

The two bullets

There is the tale of two bullets that may give an insight into these men and their brilliant and brutal leader.

It was August, 1936, when two former high-level leaders — but not members of Stalin’s inner circle — were executed, each shot through the back of the head: Lev Borisovich Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Organizing the execution was Genrikh Yagoda, head of the hated and feared NKVD (the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). Montefiore writes:

montefiore --- stalin --- court of red tsarThe bullets, with their noses crushed, were dug out of the skulls, wiped clean of blood and pearly brain matter and handed to Yagoda, probably still warm…..Yagoda labelled the bullets “Zinoviev” and “Kamenev” and treasured these macabre but sacred relics, taking them home to be kept proudly with his collection of erotica and ladies’ stockings.

“Like holy relics…”

The story doesn’t end there, however.

A bit more than a year later, in early 1938, it was Yagoda who’d run afoul of Stalin. (This was an occupational hazard for the head of Stalin’s security forces. He wanted them to be strong and bloodthirsty. But, then, because of their strength and bloodthirst, he feared them.)

Yagoda had been the mentor of an up-and-coming technocrat Nikolai Yezhov. That didn’t mean anything, though, when push came to shove. I.e., when it became clear that Stalin wanted Yagoda out.

Yezhov “discovered” that Yagoda had tried to poison him by spraying mercury onto the curtains of his office. It later emerged that Yezhov had faked this outrage. Nonetheless, Yagoda was arrested at his Kremlin apartment, even before the Politburo had given the order.

Montefiore writes that searches of Yagoda’s residences found a huge pornography collection as well as a veritable lingerie and women’s clothing store for Yagoda’s many amours.

Finally there was the macabre fetishism of the two labelled bullets that had been extracted from the brains of Zinoviev and Kamenev. Like holy relics in a depraved distortion of apostolic succession, Yezhov inherited them, storing them in his office.

“Wrapped in paper”

But the story doesn’t end there.

In his turn, Yezhov was appointed to head the NKVD, was cruel and brutal in killing Stalin’s enemies and then — was anyone surprised? — found himself identified as one of those enemies, and arrested.

The search of Yezhov’s apartment revealed bottles of vodka, empty, half-empty and full, lying around, 115 counter-revolutionary books, guns and those macabre relics: the flattened bullets, wrapped in paper, labelled Zinoviev and Kamenev.

A little less than two years after Yagoda’s execution, Yezhov took a bullet in the back of his head.

The bullets apparently became the property of Yezhov’s replacement as NKVD head, Lavrenti Beria. He lasted 13 years and outlived Stalin. But he, too, took his own fatal bullet.

Beria was stripped to his underwear, hands manacled and attached to a hook on the wall. He frantically begged to be allowed to live, making such a noise that a towel was stuffed in his mouth. His eyes bulged over the bandage wrapped around his face. His executioner — General Batitsky (later promoted to Marshall for his role) — fired directly into Beria’s forehead.

Taking the lives

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is exhaustively researched. It is written by Montefiore with clarity and verve. It has 657 pages of text, plus nearly 100 more pages of notes.

It took me a long, long time to read — not because it was boring, but because Montefiore is telling the parallel stories of literally dozens of people. At its start, the book provides a four-page list of more than 100 main characters.

So, in writing about the two bullets, am I disrespecting the book and Montefiore’s herculean effort?

I don’t think so. The story of the two bullets is illustrative of the brutality, debauchery, fear, craziness, threat, drunkenness, power and warped humanity that characterized the people around Stalin.

Looking at my account of the two bullets, you might say: Well, where’s Stalin?

In this story and everywhere in this book, whether on the page or not, Stalin is in the background, pulling the strings, giving the orders and taking the lives.

Patrick T. Reardon

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