In the Bedroom (With Stalin)
Stalin biographies, like the classic work by Isaac Deutscher, have usually emphasized the great political decisions of the vozhd (leader), the forces that shaped his choices, the social and economic constraints that dictated a particular path. When they dealt with his personality, as in the psychohistorical account by Robert Tucker, it was usually to emphasize how the brutality of his father and the poverty from which he rose forged a hard, steely character driven in equal measure by ambition and suspicion. The inner workings of Stalin's mind remained a deep mystery, as few personal letters, diaries or memoirs of those close to him were available. 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.
Montefiore's Stalin will not surprise most readers. The brute is familiar to us. But in the relentless detail, the mood-setting descriptions of the leader's surroundings, the sketches of the people around him and in Stalin's own words, pranks and tempers, Montefiore gives us not only the most intimate view of the general secretary that we have to date but a rounded and complex portrait of a man who could go from charming to lethal in the space of a few seconds. Montefiore's Stalin is first of all a Bolshevik, which for the author means a disciplined, ruthless person ready to use violence whenever necessary. "War was the natural state of the Bolsheviks and they were good at it." (There is, astonishingly, almost no discussion in the book about Marxism or the history of the Social Democratic movement in Russia, no serious engagement with the complexities of inner party disputes about doctrine and practice, and Bolshevism is reduced to what it became under Stalin.) The man himself had the requisite qualities to succeed almost unimpeded in the competitive world of party politics. He possessed both an indomitable will and supersensitive antennae attuned to the political airways. Emotionally stunted, incapable of true empathy, indifferent to the suffering that he caused, he was, nevertheless, occasionally able to extend a kind and generous gesture to a victim. Though he had been damaged as a boy by the violence in his family, and remained insecure and suspicious to the end of his life, he was a "people person," a "master of friendships," and ruled as much through charisma as through raw fear. He was abnormal like most politicians, Montefiore says, with a totally obsessive character that fitted Marxism. Like other members of the Bolshevik elite, he suffered from an inferiority complex, had a chip on his shoulder and exploded in irrational tempers. Yet he inspired trust, and even deep love, from those around him (even from those whom he had imprisoned and tortured!). His simplicity, personal asceticism, feigned modesty and mocking humor attracted people, especially women, to him. But throughout his life, especially after the suicide of his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, in 1932, and increasingly toward the end, he was lonely. He desperately required people around him and forced his courtiers to indulge in long nocturnal banquets that stretched into morning and ended up with the drunken Kremlin denizens staggering into their limousines.
It is no accident that biographies are among the bestselling books dealing with history. Personalities, especially of celebrated figures, offer readers apparently easy access to dense and difficult questions about politics. But the emphasis on personality, so essential in a biography, can lead to an overemphasis on the determining effect of the person and a neglect of context and social forces. Certainly, Montefiore gestures toward the contribution of "vast political, economic and diplomatic forces," like those that led to the Great Terror of the late 1930s, but he is far less concerned with those forces than with more mundane, quotidian matters and personal relations. It can certainly be argued that when a politician accumulates the degree of power that Stalin did, in a system without institutional restraints on it, his personal whims and preferences take on a power comparable to great economic and social forces. Nevertheless, even absolute monarchs or totalitarian dictators are constrained by forces beyond their control. The level of development of the country or the strength of other states confronting the ruler's state make some moves possible and others not. Moreover, once certain choices are made, certain paths chosen, others are precluded.
The large historiographical questions that have puzzled professional historians--notably, whether Stalinism was a continuation or a bloody perversion of Leninism--are not addressed. Was the revolution doomed from its onset, as conservative scholars have argued, or were there choices that might have led to a different outcome? Stalin had various options at decisive moments, but they were limited. The Soviet Union was in his time a relatively poor country, backward by European standards, whose population was largely made up of impoverished, uneducated peasants living in isolated villages. And it was faced by powerful adversaries--imperial Britain in its first decade, Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early '40s, and the United States after 1945--that limited his options. At the same time, Stalin's own actions--declaring war on his own peasantry in the collectivization campaigns of the early 1930s, employing massive terror against his own party, the intelligentsia and, most disastrous for the security of the state, the military--determined what in that new environment the dictator could do and how others would react. Eerily, at certain moments, Stalin turned to one or another of his policemen and asked about a certain comrade that he wanted for a certain job only to be told that that person had been executed.