Kent's Reviews > Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
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Apr 22, 2008

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Read in February, 2009

I don't envy the historian his job. It must be excruciatingly tedious to wade through government archives, personal letters, diaries, unpublished memoirs, minutes of bureaucratic meetings, departmental reports, military inventory lists, etc., in search of the telling detail. The dreariness of the task might account for the arduous, musty tone of so much academic writing. Happily, Simon Sebag Montefiore does not write like an academic. Sadly, Simon Sebag Montefiore is a really bad writer.

A niggling complaint, perhaps, when you consider the thoroughness of his research, the groundbreaking nature of which is trumpeted in the effusive blurbs on the book jacket. As I'm formidably unread in Soviet history, I'll have to take the praise on faith. And undeniably, this account of Stalin's life following the death of his second wife is exhaustive (though it's also undeniably exhausting).

Yet why cavil? Cavil because it's difficult to read and boring when it needn't be. Again and again, I had to reread passages in search of pronoun antecedents. I didn't always find them. The organization of the material--particularly, in the first half of the book--is clumsy at best. SSM often has trouble maintaining unity in a single paragraph, much less a chapter. Acronyms and diminutives introduced and used once will pop up a second time 80 pages later, demanding of the reader either a photographic memory or frequent recourse to the index. And then there's the awkward and sloppy language.

"The suicide of a spouse usually affects the surviving partner..."

"Abakumov looted Germany with Goringesque extravagance, sent planes to Berlin to commandeer Potemkinesque quantities of underwear..."

"Molotov was ill..., thinking of his Polina whom {sic} he hoped was alive in exile."

"The squalidity of this sacred thuggery beggars belief..."

"The `two scoundrels` played for only the highest stakes: death. But Stalin himself was always ready to scythe down the tallest poppies--those gifted Leningraders--to maintain his own paramountcy."

"...the 62nd Army under General Vasily Chuikov, spiky-haired, snub-nosed, gold-fanged, clung on to the Volga's west bank, commanding from dugouts and fighting in the skeletal ruins of an apocalyptic industrial landscape, supplied only by ferryboats that crossed the burning Volga in which the destiny of Russia was reflected."

Although Stalin is not gold-fanged, he's repeatedly described as "pockmarked", especially when he's performing some dastardly act. It's almost as though the author were warning us that severe adolescent acne might be an early sign of egomaniacal sociopathy.

The impression I'm left with is that SSM, having gathered an impressive amount of information, struggled to make it all fit into a cohesive narrative. Consider this introductory paragraph to Chapter 35.

"Stalin controlled every aspect of the battle, keeping a list of men and tanks in his little leather notebook. `Are they hiding guns from me again?` he asked Voronov. As early as 3 August, he had secretly ordered the creation of a special tank reserve for Moscow: these tanks were `to be given to nobody,` he specified. But visitors were amazed `by Zhukov's tone`: he spoke to Stalin `in sharp commanding tones as if he was the superior officer and Stalin accepted this.`"

Where's he going with this? Who are "they"? What visitors? Is the reader to expect a description of Zhukov's relationship with Stalin, or is this about Stalin's control-freak paranoia? I'm not saying that the paragraph is difficult to understand, but it points the reader in different directions. And almost every paragraph is like this. I found it very off-putting and had a lot of trouble maintaining interest. The later sections seemed a bit more coherent, whether because I became inured to his writing style or because they were reworked by more competent copy editors.

If you can plod through this muck, you'll be rewarded with a fascinating story of monstrous depravity. You might be better off, however, waiting for the HBO miniseries.
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