By Simon Sebag MontefioreKnopf
Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Stalin is a large and ambitious overview—and underview—of the Soviet leader's life and epoch, drawn from an impressively wide array of Russian sources. In particular the author has mined the rich memories and recorded the opinions of a number of the descendants of key historical figures—men such as Mikoyan and Khrushchev. Antonia Fraser, herself a fine biographer, called Sebag Montefiore's previous book, on the eighteenth-century Russian prince Grigory Potemkin, "a good racy historical read." Those words aptly describe his newest book as well, even though it makes no pretense of being a historical work, properly speaking. 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.
For example, newly uncovered high-level political documents from 1931 to 1934 finally destroy the argument, canvassed even quite recently, that there were no disputes in the post-1930 Politburo—that Stalin ruled unopposed. This is crucial to both historical and biographical insight: it confirms that Stalin's fight to retain power was not only a struggle against the people but also, and concomitantly, a struggle against any signs of independence, or even wavering, within his own apparat.
Sebag Montefiore's treatment of the greatest horrors of Stalin's rule—the terror-famine of 1933, the "Great Terror" of 1937-1938, and the postwar terrors, with their climax in the antiSemitic "Doctors' Plot"—likewise makes able use of newly available sources. At the time and for decades afterward the Soviet position on the famine was simply to deny it; merely to speak the word, even in the affected areas, was a crime. Soviet embassies and foreign sympathizers similarly averted their eyes from this and the other terrors. Historians were therefore in a strange position: before the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to learn what we could of its past from an accumulation of unofficial testimonials, against a background of official silence, distortion, or denial. A great deal of probable evidence was available, but much of it was rejected in the West as unreliable or indirect.
Matters changed dramatically in the late 1980s, with the gradual release of a mass of previously suppressed material. It was as though historians of an ancient empire, having been forced to rely on a handful of personal papyruses and a few royal inscriptions (think of the splendid reliefs on the walls of the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, or in the mortuary complex of Pepi II in South Saqqara, which give detailed but factually untrue accounts of the victories of these Egyptian rulers), had suddenly been handed a store of material by a conscientious time-traveler. During the past decade it became possible to assemble the various data and accounts of the Soviet era into a complete and verifiable whole. Our original, often tentatively accepted details, and the general reliability of our sources and estimates, could at last be checked.
Indeed, most of the indirect evidence from the Stalinist period has been confirmed by the recently released material, as have some old first-person accounts. One of the most significant of the latter is the 1953 book The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes, by Alexander Orlov, a high-ranking NKVD officer who defected to the West in 1938, during the Great Purge. Most of his direct observations seemed reliable, and the rest plausible, but they remained of necessity unproved. Now we can regard them as solidly in the record. Drawing partly on Orlov, Sebag Montefiore presents a full and highly readable account of Stalin's activities during the 1936 trial of his old rival Grigory Zinoviev. The trial was the first of three great falsified set pieces presented to the Soviet public during the purge.
Sebag Montefiore has no truck with defenders of the regime: using documentary research in conjunction with these anecdotal accounts, he presents the terrors clearly and unambiguously. Equally vivid is his handling of the first portion of Orlov's book that was confirmed by documents—the story that Abram Slutsky, the head of the International Department of the NKVD, who officially had "died at his battle post" after suffering a heart attack, had in fact been poisoned in the office of the ruthless deputy head of the service, Mikhail Frinovsky. We now have, as was not available to Sebag Montefiore, or to Orlov, the added detail that Slutsky was seized by Frinovsky's colleague, the equally notorious Leonid Zakovsky, whereupon the NKVD's poison expert ran in and administered the injection.
Sebag Montefiore is at his best when writing about the dramatic days just before and after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union—a story whose details come almost entirely from the new records and from the memories of crucial people in Moscow. The Nazi attack, in June of 1941, surprised and shook Stalin. After recovering from the shock, he again manifested his dictatorial strength. Some half a million Soviet soldiers had left the front. They were rounded up, and more than 10,000 were shot; the rest were formed into new units. This ruthlessness, which had the desired disciplinary effect, was accompanied by the execution of a group of experienced officers—and of the wives of previously executed officers.
The fate of the officers' wives was part of a widespread pattern—one to which Sebag Montefiore, with his interest in family matters, rightly calls our attention. According to a Soviet law written in 1935, the relatives of an accused person were also responsible for the "crime," even if they were ignorant of it. It soon became routine for wives, children, brothers, and sisters of terror victims to suffer equally dire consequences. Consider the stories, recently learned, of the wives of Marshal Vasily Blyukher, who died under torture in 1938: his first and second wives were shot, and the third was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp.