Thursday, April 14, 2005

Highly Recommended

I love this book! Montefiore knows quite well he's dealing with perhaps the greatest monster of the 20th century, and yet at times the circumstances of the story make Papa Joe and his entourage almost sympathetic; despite the piling corpses there is wit and humor aplenty in this thick tome.

Montefiore's account of the absurd days before Hitler's betrayal of the USSR is a case in point: Stalin knows Hitler is gaming the Soviets with his phony non-aggression pact, and yet Papa Joe is convinced the Fuhrer will wait until 1942 to invade. When signs of an imminent German attack are reported in June of '41, Stalin gets furious and has his intelligence officers shot and replaced because he's sure they're falling for British attempts to get the USSR into the war. When the Germans do attack, none of the Politburo want to inform Stalin the invasion is underway because they're afraid they'll look disloyal, and the earlier Terror--in which Stalin mercilessly killed nearly everyone--has them trembling to intrude actual reality onto the Premier's. Stalin resigns immediately when the shit hits the fan, but no one knows for sure if his resignation is real or if he's simply testing the other Soviet leaders' loyalty--and the actions of the other players in this grotesque drama (Molotov, Khrushev, Beria, Kaganovich) both fascinate and disgust.

As German Panzer divisions are closing in on Moscow the media busy themselves broadcasting stories of the mighty Red Army throwing the Fascists back into Germany--sounds like Saddam's desperate pronouncements as the US army entered Baghdad! I know this history, and yet Montefiore's narrative whisks along and I find myself cheering on beleagured General Zhukov, one of the few to escape the Terror, as he runs from battle to battle pulling Stalin's chestnuts out of the fire, all the while wondering why I should care who wins this battle of monstrous regimes.

Who was Stalin? A literary expert of some critical gifts, a gifted baritone who sung opera arias and Russian and Georgian folk tunes, a paranoid murderous bastard, a man who delighted in children and who loved film and read widely in history, an expert political manipulator and a bumbling fool. This is not a biography, but a portrait of the workings of the top echelon of Communist Party bosses during Stalin's reign. I think it's magnificently informative and entertaining.