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


There is a little more going on in this passage than might at first appear. Montefiore drops little touches in to bring the scene to life: Nikolaev is ‘a dark-haired young man’ (the colour of his hair is not particularly significant but helps us envisage the scene); Nikolaev does not just follow Kirov, he ‘trailed along behind him’ – a more evocative image of an animal stalking his prey; Borisov, Kirov’s bodyguard, doesn’t just run up but ‘staggered up breathlessly’; Kirov’s body is not dead but ‘lifeless’, his head ‘lolling’. There is nothing remotely implausible about any of these images, but they do reflect how the historian’s choice of language is every bit as important in conveying a picture of the past as is his or her use of the source material. Sources
Although there are plenty of footnotes through the book, there are none for this particular section. However, there are references to Montefiore’s sources, some direct, others by inference. In the second paragraph he refers to the ‘conflicting evidence’ of the different witness statements, as in the exact position of the gun; indeed, it would be difficult to imagine constructing such a detailed reconstruction of events, even down to the exact way Kirov’s cap lay on the floor, without such statements to draw on. The third paragraph, about the doctors, is clearly also based on their evidence and notes: it is difficult to see otherwise how Montefiore could have known the exact time when they stopped giving Kirov artificial respiration.

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