Uncle Joe is what many Americans called him, including my grandfather, I am told. After all, he was our ally, and the main force, according to Winston Churchill, that smashed the Nazis. But what an Uncle! If you want a chilling and intimate look at the man and his circle, read Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar. The book draws on the archives that have become available since the fall of the USSR, and the author takes a different tack on the subject. He is not covering the historical ground so well trod by others, Tucker, Cohen, Conquest, et al. He treats Stalin as a creature within a curious culture, the hyper-stressed, workaholic, dogmatic, cultish, messianic world of bolshevism. A world that interacted in strange and horrific ways with Joe’s internal mental world.
The two most striking aspects of the book so far are the portrait of Stalin as an intellectual and the narration of collectivization. Yes, Stalin was not a crude, brutish, dummy – not all the time! He was immensely well-read, had good literary instincts, was a gifted tenor, and a warm avuncular figure to children. He just never let these qualities get in the way of his political aims, even if it meant ‘liquidating’ a few (hundred, thousand…) people he actually admired.
And the kulaks! I’ve read of the famine in Ukraine, the deportations, the war on the peasant class, the requistioning of grain to feed the ravenous cities as the Tsarist backwater vaulted to the industrial forefront, but always from the ‘historical’ perspective. What happened, what were the real statistics on starvation, why, what did it accomplish, who was for, who against? In this book, we get some of the personal view from the cozy, incestuous, fanatical inner circle of the Soviet ‘magnates’ as they wage war on their countrymen to forge a new nation, a new ‘Soviet Man.’ It drove them apart, from one another, and was a key element in the splits that lead to the full flowering of Stalin’s mania and cold lust for blood.
We get the letters from the daughters, sons, and wives of bigwigs who rode through the country by train for this or that reason – luxury trains – and saw the devastation of the countryside. Saw the starving peasants begging for food or just lying by the road, dying. The burning villages, the burnt fields, the squads of macho, leather-jacketed bolshevik fanatics with Mausers, marauding the countryside, searching for hidden grain. The reaction of the observers was often shocked, horrified, what the hell was going on? And the responses: buck up, ends justify the means, required sacrifice for the necessity of history, enemies of our revolution…Or maybe, from those who would be doomed…maybe we should do something to stop this, him?