The Death of Stalin, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer directed by Armando Iannucci

I’ve read a couple of books on Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I get who he is, or was. Armando Iannucci concentrates on Stalin’s death and the scramble for power among his henchmen of torturers and mass murderers. It’s played out as farce. For example, in the opening scenes Stalin, who loved music (and books) rings a studio in Moscow and tells the presenter of the radio performance that he’d like a recording and he’ll send someone to pick it up in 17 minutes. You can’t say no to Stalin. The orchestra has to replay the concert and an audience rounded up to fill the theatre and clap at the appropriate moments. Then  it has to be recorded and sent to Stalin. Chaos has to be managed.

The apparently droll humour of Iannucci’s Yes Minister and The Thick of It translated into the grim Soviet era of 1953, Moscow. But I just don’t get that kind of stuff, and found it as funny as Benny Hill chasing after a Page 3 girl. I didn’t laugh once and switched over to Match of the Day before it finished. I guess these kinds of programmes aren’t made for the proletariat.  

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2007) Young Stalin

Young Stalin was winner of the 2007 Costa Biography Award. You can imagine historian Simon Sebag Montefiore after his acclaimed biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, wondering what he would write next. Then hitting on the wheeze, I’ll write the same thing, but younger. It depends what you mean by young, of course. As Montefiore declares workers in the Baku oilfields, died around thirty-years old, on average. Young Stalin is around 39- years-old (he’s like our Queen with a moveable birthdate) when he’s taking part in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The ‘Old Man’, Lenin, is in his late-forties. The sclerotic, perhaps senile, Stalin died 5th March 1953, he was aged 74. Stalin’s remark at a conference in 1929 ‘the Party has made me in its own image’ is a truism.

Nine photographs of Stalin are on the back page and you can see the progression from boy to man: ‘Urchin’, to ‘Choirboy’, to ‘Student Priest’, to ‘Poet’, to ‘Lover’, to ‘Pirate’, to ‘Gangster’, to ‘Killer’, to ‘Commissar’. Not visible are his piercing honey-coloured eyes or his webbed feet, pock-marked skin from a smallpox epidemic that almost killed him, or the shortening of his left arm after being hit by a phaeton, which allowed him to avoid conscription into the Russian army, or the limp he developed. Stalin lived the charmed life of a cat that refused to die.

Montefiore lists Stalin’s Names, Nicknames, Bylines and Aliases on a separate page. Like many revolutionaries he adopted a nickname that marked him out as a strongman, (Stalin = steel, a name he didn’t use until around 1912,  Lenin, in contrast, took his name from a Russian river). Stalin’s father was Vissarion (‘Beso’) Djugashvili, a twenty-one year old Georgian cobbler, who married his seventeen-year-old bride, Ekaterina (‘Keke’) Geladze. Their first two sons died.

Josef  Vissaronovich Djugashveli, (‘Soso’) born 6th Decemeber 1878  ‘was so weak and caught every kind of bug,’ Keke promised God she’d make a pilgrimage if he lived.

From Urchin to Choirboy Keke had nine different places, where they lived, and a variety of different male protectors. Beso was jealous of the boy, he called a bastard and Monterfiore hints he may well have been. Beso thrashed him in an alcoholic fury. Keke also thrashed him, but only for his own good.  In Gori, everybody thrashed everybody else. In a culture of violence it won respect.  

Keke’s wiles was such that she was able to get Soso enrolled in the Gori Church School. He was a model student. He wrote verse, instead of letters to his friends and nobody remembered him scoring less than A grades. His singing teacher soon promoted him to sing solos. Stalin never forgot his singing teacher and sent him a gift late in life.  A schoolboy friend summed Soso up, ‘he was the best, but naughtiest pupil’. But his love of learning never left him. To the end of his life, he read voraciously and was still making notes, marginalia, often with drawings of wolves from his time in Siberia.

Keke, when her son was dictator of Russia, admitted she hoped he would become a priest. He became a priest of a different kind. His religion was Marxism. He found a mentor in Lenin he could follow, but Lenin needed him too. Stalin operated best in the shadows. In Baku, his robberies, kidnappings and extortion rackets kept the Bolshevik Party afloat. He also arranged the hijacking of ships to steal their cash cargo.   

Montefiore begins the book was an audacious bank robbery in Tiflis that led to worldwide-headlines because of the loss of life and the enormous sum of money the robbers got away with, over a million sterling in today’s currency.  Stalin planned it and smuggled the money abroad.

Stalin liked to tell a story about his exile in Kureika, Siberia. He fathered a child with a thirteen-year-old, native, orphan girl, which died and another child, a son, which lived. Stalin’s Siberian son had no contact with his father. The locals liked the foreigner, with his pipe and books. Fish and reindeer were their staples and their currency and the Pockmarked Oska learned how to hunt and fish from them. He noticed one time twenty men went out to hunt and only nineteen came back. The tribesmen seemed unperturbed. They explained their hunting companion remained, ‘out there’. Their rationale was similar to Stalin’s: ‘Why should we have pity for men? We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’

As a Commissar, Stalin presided over the deportation of 28 million to the gulags. Millions never returned. In comparison, between 1881 and 1904, a comparable period with Stalin’s decrees, 11 879 were sentenced by Tsarist courts to be deported.  Over twenty million died in famines. Over a million citizens were shot in 1938-39 alone. Stalin never tried to make a horse, he forged a nation that defeated Hitler’s armies. Stalingrad was the turning point; if Hitler reached the oil fields of Baku then the war was lost. Stalin, as a youth, liked to make notes on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. He must have known what was coming next, but he was always scheming and plotting against those that would plot against him. One step ahead of the wolves.  Young Stalin, like old Stalin, old Stalin, like Young Stalin. Monterfiore gets it right, read between the lines.

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Simon Sebag Monefiore won the British history book of the year with his portrait of Stalin and his followers. They were always one step away from being shot, tortured in the Lubianka, and beaten to death. Their families facing the same fate, or being sent away to the gulags. Stalin only wanted true believers in Stalinism, in Marxism, in Leninism, in his leadership to a mythical Bolshevik and true socialist revolution. Self-taught, a voracious reader of books and men. Stalin saw plots and conspiracies everywhere. If they didn’t exist he would invent them. Yet when Hitler betrayed him and his troops invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin refused to believe he’d been duped, despite countless reports telling the Communist leader the day, Sunday 21st June 1941, Operation Barbarossa would take place. The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Leaders termed it, had begun and because its dictator refused to believe, the Soviet Union was unprepared.

The Soviet Union paid in blood. Around 27 million war deaths in the USSR, compared to less than 5.5 million German war deaths. British and American casualties of less than half a million. Around two million German women raped in the advance to Berlin.   

Montefiore gives us other rough figures of Stalin and his henchmen’s tyranny. Two famines, constant hunger, ‘perhaps 20 million killed, 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the gulags.’

‘Yet,’ Montefiore notes, ‘after so much slaughter, there were still believers’.

When what Churchill termed ‘the iron curtain’ had descended, the Allied nations that had won the war had split, Truman was in the Whitehouse, Labour were in power in Britain and Churchill like his country and the British Empire was bankrupt. America had the atomic bomb they had used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet spies had made copies of their plans and the USSR was the second nuclear power with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Two world powers stood nose to nose.

True believers, then, as now, with Putin, suggest all this bloodletting and suffering was necessary. That the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been able to industrialise and mechanise in constant five-year plans and drag a largely rural nation in a short amount of time to face the existential threat of fascism and Hitler’s subjugation of what the Nazi leader thought of an inferior breed of Slavic people.  

Stalin, with his pock-marked face, false teeth and birth to a Georgian drunken father that beat him, and a mother that beat him even harder, would have fitted into the Nazi category on inferior. As it did to the Tsarist forces of Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, before his abdication, 15th March 1917 and the rise of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Montefiore deals with this in a chapter termed, That Wonderful Times, Stalin and Nadya, 1878-1932. And Montefiore despite the over 600 pages here, deals with it more fully in his book Young Stalin.   

These of course, weren’t wonderful times for all Soviet Citizens. The Politburo’s war against the kulaks, Stalin compared to Ivan the Terrible’s  culling of the boyars. Grain deliveries were taken from the peasants and millions such as those in Ukraine, the former grain basket of Russia, starved and mothers ate children. Montefiore focus is not on this, but in the semi-cult like activity of those close to Stalin, physically close; they lived beside each other and were in and out of each other’s apartments. Stalin allocated each family a car and an allowance. They held elaborate parties and some women dressed in the latest fashions from Paris. George Orwell got it pretty much right in his book, Animal Farm, with the red court of Stalin mimicking that of the late Tsar’s.

In 1922 Lenin effectively appointed Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death, the threat to Stalin’s power came from Leon Trotsky. He didn’t forget or forgive. Laverenti Beria’s present to Stalin was to send assassins to Mexico and on August 1940 they finally succeeded in murdering him.

Beria was ‘one of the talented dirty trick specialists in quiet and quick deaths’. But he was also head of the NKVD, KGB, and SMERSH. He was prepared to torture, rape and murder in person, but also like Stalin to give others their head before torturing and killing them in turn. Stalin trusted no one. He deified his wife Nadya who committed suicide. He’d know her as a three-year-old girl, but courted and married her when she came to work for Lenin. A culprit had to be found and punished for her death.  Incestuous relationships between members of the Politburo were commonplace. Beria’s son, for example, almost married Stalin’s daughter, Svetlania, who called Beria, ‘Uncle Lara’.  

The oafish Nikita Khrushchev who outwitted Beria to become party leader, but was thought be Stalin to be so dumb as not to present much of a threat to his leadership. Stalin sometimes made him dance for his amusement. Stalin slept little and conducted much of the Party business at all night parties where the Politburo members were forced to attend and drink vodka and other spirits. Some became alcoholic. Stalin held meetings in the darkened  ‘Little Corner’ outside his office where he paced and would dictate policy, head to head, no records. Here he orchestrated search for ‘Rightists’, which led to the purging of the old Bolshevik guard and the Moscow Show Trials. Doctors, Jews, Foreigners, there was always another Rightist around the next corner, ready to be denounced in the Little Corner. Khrushchev was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

At the Court of the Red Tsar all members had blood on their hands. And in a note from history the current Tsar, President Vladimir Putin’s grandfather worked as a chef in on of Stalin’s many houses. Before that he’d worked for the Tsar and served Rasputin. He’d served food to Lenin and then Stalin. A former Russian KGB officer is the new Tsar, much like the old Tsar, spreading disinformation and intent on keeping Russia’s place in the sun. Trusting no one is always a good place to begin. Social isolation, monomania, madness. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The saviour destroys what he tries to save. But he can never be proved wrong. World will tumble before that happens. Stalin died aged 73, his courtiers stood outside, waiting, too scared to intervene, to save him.