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Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

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It might be thought that there would be little new to add to the vast array of books written about Stalin. However, until the adventStalin: The Court of the Red Tsar of the policy of glasnost (openness) brought in by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbechev, who took power in the former Soviet Union in 1985, the archives of the Soviet Union were closed to scholars; there was therefore a scramble to get into the archives to read papers that had been kept hidden from any but the most subservient communist academics. Inevitably this process forced scholars to revise judgements which had had to be made in the absence of corroboration from Soviet sources. For example, the opening of the archives occasioned an often angry debate about the precise numbers killed in Stalin’s purges; the figures suggested that the true figure was considerably more than the estimations of left-wing western historians, especially those still politically sympathetic to Stalin, but that they still fell far short of the huge figures that had been given by more hostile historians. Simon Sebag Montefiore decided to use the archives to take a slightly different approach to Stalin from the norm. Instead of producing a political biography, he looked more at Stalin as an individual, at how he passed his time and how he balanced his leisure time with his running of the Soviet Union – often, indeed, the two overlapped. The result was not a biography in the normal sense of the term: rather it was a portrait of Stalin among his entourage. It was Sir Ian Kershaw, himself a former medievalist, who described Hitler’s style of government as like that of a royal court, with the king at the centre surrounded by courtiers absolutely dependent on his good favour. Montefiore portrays Stalin’s style of government in much the same way; indeed, the book itself talks of the ‘court of the red tsar’.

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