When people describe the sins of a modern dictator, such as Saddam Hussein, they often compare him to Adolf Hitler as the worst of monsters. And another of the worst, according to British author Simon Montefiore, was Josef Stalin.
"Hitler and Stalin should be considered the joint beasts of our history," said Montefiore, who has written a monumental new Stalin biography, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar." "Stalin was very complex, but he was unquestionably a great monster."
Yet, he was also "a charming man, a superb manager of men, a manipulator who used charm to build his power," Montefiore said by phone from Washington, D.C. "He could be very seductive when he wanted to be. According to a survey taken by the New York Times, 26 percent of Russians today would vote for Stalin if they could. It makes you understand how people feel about authoritarian leadership."
Montefiore, who traveled Russian provinces during most of the 1990s in search of Stalin's history, said he wanted "to write a book for people who normally would not read a book about Stalin, one that would catch the color and fiber of the time — and of this strange life. Yet, I wanted it to be scholarly.
"This is the first intimate biography of Stalin and the women who were close to him. Most biographies have called him 'an enigma,' one they never understood — but now we know a lot about him personally."
That is because Montefiore gained access to "hundreds and hundreds of new documents" which he found remarkable — including Stalin's papers and his warm, handwritten love letters. Only the KGB archive remains closed.
In his research, the author discovered "many fascinating and subtle things about him" — such as Stalin being something of an intellectual, a man of broad and prolific reading tastes. "He read James Fenimore Cooper's 'The Last of the Mohicans' as well as the works of Victor Hugo and Ernest Hemingway. He annotated all the books he read. He was an intellectual in the sense that he was learned and that he read and debated voraciously. Of course, he had no literary talents, but he had political gifts that helped him draft speeches and decrees."
Stalin loved beautiful new cars from the 1930s, especially Packards, Buicks and Rolls-Royces. "He rewarded his close associates by providing them with cars, so most of Stalin's henchmen drove Packard limousines. He made up nicknames for his political associates, who considered it part of his 'folksy charm.' He was fascinated by movies. He wrote words to jazz music, and he drew funny pictures of his friends."
Montefiore also found that Stalin was "a sweet father to Svetlana. That doesn't make the crimes he committed less damning. He wiped out vast numbers of people at random to create a perfect workers paradise later. He could be so civil, but he lacked empathy for his fellow man, making him a deadly foe.
"When his wife committed suicide, it was a blow to Stalin's self-esteem. He wanted to resign and commit suicide himself, but he recovered quickly, and he never forgot anyone's role on the night of the suicide. It made him more suspicious of women. He talked about her suicide until the end of his life."
The author believes that many people today tend to single out Stalin as a monster whose associates did nothing wrong. Quite the contrary. "Seemingly normal people can do terrible things. Bolsheviks were a tiny, idiosyncratic sect when Stalin took power. During Stalin's 'Terror,' he ordered millions of people killed at random, and his followers obeyed him. It was a method of solidifying power and instilling fear."
Montefiore describes how Stalin gave "quotas" to kill huge numbers of people to his henchmen who ruled over Soviet districts. Certain people were "denounced" by their friends. Everyone was expected to look for spies. Ambitious lieutenants, such as Nikita Krushchev, always killed more than their quota. "Georgi Malenkov was despicable. Levrenti Beria, head of the KGB, was a sadist and a sexual pervert. They were killers, and they were happy to do it.
"Ronald Reagan called the Soviets 'an evil empire.' He was right about that, and it remained an evil empire after Stalin's death."
Among his interviews with the families of Soviet leaders was one with Beria's daughter-in-law, who agreed he was a monster but noted that he was always very kind to her. "She said Beria was the kind of man who, if he lived in the United States, might very well have become chairman of General Motors."
Montefiore remembers visiting the "beautifully appointed homes" of the Bolsheviks, including Stalin's, located on the Black Sea. "I asked the man who was showing me the houses how many people had seen them. He said 'very few,' but then he especially remembered showing 'an Arab gentleman' through the houses. 'His name was Saddam Hussein.'
"It was later discovered that Saddam worshipped Stalin. He read biographies of Stalin in Arabic. Saddam said, 'Stalin learned to how to keep power all his life and then die peacefully in his own bed.' "