Stalin: the court of the red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Will this compelling portrait of Stalin as domestic monster distract us from his wider crimes? Lesley Chamberlain considers the vogue for history as gossip
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The Independent Culture

Reading this magisterial new biography of Stalin is like looking at a familiar object from an unfamiliar perspective. Mantegna's Foreshortened Christ comes to mind, a painting in which greatness becomes visible feet first. Mantegna's picture at first disconcerts, but finally confirms Christ's humanity. Simon Sebag Montefiore's portrait of Stalin seems designed to work the other way round.

Think of this man as your neighbour, your brother-in-law, your husband. Hear the jokes he told, taste the soup he enjoyed, share the well-being he feels wearing old clothes. Sit on his shoulders, and see what he saw. And then remember what he did.

Peasants with swollen bellies ran alongside the trains, begging, but Stalin didn't see them. The man the Russians worshipped as their vozhd - Russian for Führer - starved a generation in his campaign against the peasants he branded kulaks. According to Robert Conquest, 11 million died prematurely between 1929 and 1933. Another 3.5 million were arrested and died in camps.

Back in the Kremlin, despite an intimate atmosphere Sebag Montefiore likens to an Oxford college, Stalin had no compunction about having rivals and yesterday's men tortured and shot. He is quoted as having said: "No man, no problem." His paranoid suspiciousness shaped a terrifying regime of purges and show trials.

Stalin, self-made "man of steel", presided over the Gulag terror and, with it, an epoch of dubiously applied "socialism". Lenin, before Stalin, was a beast, and the Politburo pusillanimous and morally degenerate. Sebag Montefiore paints pictures of a fornicating nomenklatura, comparable to Ancient Rome. Stalin was a monster to beat them all, "a thin-skinned neurotic egotist on his Messianic mission" and a practitioner of "proletarian machismo".

Sebag Montefiore clearly indicts him. Yet there are problems with this "life", and in these mainly psychological verdicts, which must make us wonder where our culture is going. The biographer has culled a wealth of domestic detail from the newly opened archives to make a new picture of "Tsar" and court, but does the result do the moral trick for the reader? My feeling is it becomes harder, not easier, to reach a dispassionate judgement of moral guilt when the picture is crowded with detail.

When I read half of this 600-page tome at one sitting, I spent the rest of the evening haunted by visions of the sexual depravity of Stalin's henchman, Yezhov. Returning to the blight of Stalinism on the 20th century, I would rather have been laid low by the horror of mass suffering, to have felt anew the devastating impact of a chronicle like Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago; to have had a clear picture of that venal, calculating aberration from rational humanity whom Alan Bullock painted in Hitler and Stalin. I want to condemn this man. I don't want to be wondering what he was like in bed.

Sebag Montefiore makes some interesting new assertions about Stalin's psychology. One is that Stalin's power over the Party was a matter of charm rather than fear. Joseph Vissarionovich, the streetwise kid from Georgia, could make anyone feel special and cared for. He delivered personal rewards of cars and money to needy colleagues. He was attentive to children. He had a wonderfully sweet voice.

But I'm not sure any of this amounts to charm. Equally as Party leader and party-goer, Stalin was a bloody bully, who "charmed" children because they were easy. He kept handwritten lists of where the cars and money went so he could call in his debts. Gratitude was dismissed as "a dog's disease". At Politburo meetings he never spoke first, forcing colleagues to make themselves vulnerable.

Above all, Stalin had no respect for human dignity. He was a typical peasant tyrant, tiresomely dominating over the dinner table, compensating for his defective arm and pockmarked skin, not charming at all. We also hear some rather striking declarations that he was a consistent and passionate Marxist, and an intellectual. To that, all I can say is that the value of Stalin's alleged Marxism and intellect have passed me by, and Sebag Montefiore cannot persuade me anew because his focus on the domestic man leaves little space for the public man and his speeches. Also, real intellectuals don't boast of reading 500 pages a day.

The most interesting aspects of this book are two images or paradigms which help guide and justify its exhaustively personal format. The first, a loving marriage, is Sebag Montefiore's original choice. His narrative opens with the night Stalin's second wife, Nadya, committed suicide. The paranoid Stalin cried: "How could you do this to me?" The other leitmotif is the incomparable achievement of Shakespeare in capturing the life of tyrants. Think of how you might set King Lear in Stalinist Russia.

Sebag Montefiore's book is well-written; he evidently has a superb grasp of Russian, and can operate well in that still-difficult country. But which genre does his work belong to? History with a novelistic dimension, I think. The novel is supposed to bring the subject alive; to sex up the factual report; to add entertainment to analysis. Portions of direct speech taken from comments on documents do that here, although not half so well as a real novel would.

Then there's character and bedroom behaviour (the latter hard to come by in Stalin's case). Stalin was a clumsy wooer of women, a prude afraid of his daughter growing up, a macho show-off incapable of love. Plenty of women will know what's going on here. But is the implicit reference to a more loving partnership, the kind "ordinary" men and women desire, enough to give us the measure of Stalin's crimes? I don't think so.

Come back to the Shakespearean theme. The plays dealing with monsters are great because we get the close-focus psychology within an artistic form rigorous enough, rational and universal, to carry the moral judgement. Here we don't have the moral form, only something like the artist's notebooks. The preference for life over art is one we live with these days. One of its effects - which can be seen very clearly here - is to lessen the impact of moral horror by burying it under a weight of more obvious nastiness and filth.

Lesley Chamberlain's new novel, 'Girl in a Garden', is published by Atlantic