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In the Bedroom (With Stalin) | The Nation

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In the Bedroom (With Stalin)

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The picture drawn by Montefiore is a dark one of court intrigues, debauched satraps vying for the emperor's ear. Alcohol was the drug of choice among the Soviet elite, and many died of alcoholism. While his henchman Lavrenti Beria's proclivities for young women, who either satisfied his needs or ended up in prison, are well-known, the level of sexual promiscuity that Montefiore reports will be new to most readers. Bolsheviks have conventionally been renowned for their puritanism (Stalin did not like kissing in films), and the most durable of Communists, like Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan, were dedicated family men. But Montefiore, whose most frequently used word appears to be "womanizer," documents the sexual adventures of other magnates. Stalin himself, the object of attention of many women, appears to have been moderate in his sexual appetites. ("Stalin was no womanizer: He was married to Bolshevism and emotionally committed to his own drama in the cause of Revolution.") Montefiore maintains that Stalin's greatest personal suffering came with the loss of his beautiful Nadya. He grieved alone for days, wept bitterly at her funeral and threatened to resign from his high office. His greatest affection was directed to his daughter, Svetlana, though even she could be brusquely excluded from his company. When the young girl found affection from an older man, the film writer Alexei Kapler, Stalin flew into a rage, had Kapler sentenced to five years in the notorious Vorkuta camp and banished Svetlana for months.

About the Author

Ronald Grigor Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History and the director of the...

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Stalin's rage in this case was not simply that of a patriarchal Georgian upset at his daughter's relationship with a married man. Kapler was Jewish, and Stalin shared the general prejudices of his countrymen. Stalin's view of peoples stems from a belief in national character based in culture and social environment (Jews were considered a separate nationality in the USSR). Such ideas were difficult to reconcile with a Marxism that views social determination as prior to cultural, the nation as a product of a definite stage of history, and ethnicity as situational and malleable. The Soviet state had been from its earliest days a place where many Jews had flourished. Although Zionists and religious Jews were persecuted, the pre-World War II USSR legislated against expressions of anti-Semitism and sponsored mass demonstrations against Hitler's persecutions of Jews. The Soviet Union was among the first states to grant de jure recognition to the state of Israel, even before the United States. Yet, whether positive or negative, stereotypical views of Jews and other nationalities were part of Soviet discourse. By the late 1940s Stalin was convinced that the "rootless" Jews were a global danger to the Soviet Union, and he turned on Soviet Jews with a vengeance. In his last years he presided over purges of Jewish intellectuals, personally ordering the murder of the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, engineering the blatantly anti-Semitic "Anti-Cosmopolitan" campaign and prodding his torturers to obtain confessions from the victims in the completely fabricated "Doctors' Plot."

When it came to state terror, Stalin was at the center. Here the strengths and weaknesses of Montefiore's approach to history are most evident. Like Robert Conquest before him, Montefiore sees Stalin as indispensable to the Terror, though he maintains that the killing began with Lenin and "reflected the village hatreds of the incestuous Bolshevik sect where jealousies had seethed from the years of exile and war." Terror is an intrinsic part of Bolshevism for Montefiore. He makes no effort to distinguish the scale and purpose of the Great Terror from the far less murderous Red Terror of the Civil War days, when White killings far outstripped Red ones in the midst of a fratricidal war. In the 1930s the regime turned on its own for reasons that remain unfathomable to many historians. Montefiore piles on possible explanations in addition to the nature of Bolshevism: Stalin was replicating Ivan the Terrible's campaign against his boyars, strengthening and centralizing his state as his admired predecessor had done; he was dealing with the corruption of the old elite and making way for a new Soviet-trained elite; he was curbing regional lords, removing the threat to his power from the generals, eliminating the last remnants of political opposition, while creating scapegoats for economic and social disruptions caused by the regime's own policies. Too many explanations are almost as bad as none. What does emerge is what most historians have always proposed--that Stalin ordered, directed, propelled forward and ultimately called a halt to the Terror largely from a Machiavellian fear of actual and potential opposition to his consolidation of autocratic power. In the great bloodletting of the late 1930s, three-quarters of a million people were executed and countless hundreds of thousands tortured, imprisoned or exiled. Just days after Stalin died, the imprisoned doctors, at least those who had survived, were released, and within months an amnesty freed both criminal and political prisoners. Terror was replaced by a more familiar police state, in which arbitrary arrest on trumped-up charges was no longer systemic.

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