In the Bedroom (With Stalin)
The Unknown Stalin of the Medvedevs tells much the same story as Montefiore, but it is a different kind of book. Made up of discrete essays by one or the other brother, the book is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces about Stalin, primarily about science and foreign policy, with something here about Bukharin, something there about Stalin's mother. It has much interesting material, culled from memoirs, personal experience and published materials, but there is no consistent theme or compelling organization of its contents. Well-written, easy reading, the text adds little to what is available elsewhere, though for a Stalin buff it has its own fascination. Chapters cover episodes like the making of the Soviet atomic bomb, Khrushchev's "secret speech" of 1956 and Stalin's intentions to make Mikhail Suslov his heir. There is an exploration of the "riddles" surrounding Stalin's death that concludes there was no plot to kill him. The Medvedevs' account of the succession differs from Montefiore's in some details. Whereas they give Khrushchev and Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin the major role in forming the post-Stalin government, Montefiore sees Beria as the chief operator at that fateful time.
With Montefiore's bedroom revelations, one would think we have reached the bottom of the barrel. Where to go next? Into the bathroom? Indeed, he has a scene of Stalin defecating by a railroad track with his traveling companions looking on! There are moments in both books where the grandeur of the decisions made by petty and vicious men elevates the story. The drama of the war years, when Stalin managed to pull himself together and act on the world stage as generalissimo and statesman, is brilliantly told by Montefiore as a tale of small men rising, reaching beyond themselves against the backdrop of heroic sacrifice on the part of millions. But for Montefiore great ideas or grand visions are less what the "Red Tsar" was about than insecurity and intrigue. Deadly intraparty politics had been Stalin's training ground, and it contributed both to his unsentimental, realist appreciation of international power politics and to a paranoia that foreclosed certain opportunities. The two books together give us a picture of the banality of politics at court. Whether the court is led by the son of a cobbler or the son of a president, politics up close looks far less like the pomp of costume pictures and more like a meeting at the Bada Bing. However finely they dress in public, emperors really have no clothes.