In April, 1937, Bronka Poskrebysheva, the glamorous wife of Alexander Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s chef de cabinet, arranged to meet Stalin alone at his dacha to plead for the life of her arrested brother. Stalin hated women begging for the lives of their relatives but he had a large court and, as the Terror expanded, such appeals became increasingly common.
Nothing is known about the meeting except that Bronka’s mission failed. Two years later, however, she decided to try again. This time, she called Beria and asked if she could come to discuss her brother. She was never seen again.
After Bronka’s arrest, Poskrebyshev begged Stalin to release his wife.
“Don’t worry,” Stalin supposedly replied, “we’ll find you another wife.” (p.319)
Bronka was shot in 1941 but her disappearance did not diminish Poskrebyshev’s dedication to Stalin. He even remained friends with Beria. The only awkwardness came when Beria hugged his daughter, Natalya, and sighed, “You’re going to be as beautiful as your mother.” Poskrebyshev turned green and, struggling to control his emotions, said, “Natalya, go and play.” (p.319)
The story of how Stalin’s chief of staff loyally served the man who murdered his wife is one of many recounted by Simon Montefiore in his engrossing biography, Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar. In 1999, the Russian government opened a section of the Russian Presidential Archive that contained the letters of Stalin, the members of his entourage and their families. These materials make up a large part of the source material for the book. Montefiore was also able to locate the children and grandchildren of many of the members of Stalin’s court and they shared their recollections and, in some cases, unpublished memoirs. The result is a portrait of Stalin and the members of his court that is unprecedented in its intimacy and horrifying in its implications not because it shows that the engineers of one of history’s greatest holocausts were depraved there has always been ample evidence of that but because they also emerge in these pages as surprisingly normal. This raises the possibility that, under the influence of the appropriate ideas and with the right career incentives, the crimes of the Stalinist regime could have been committed by people like ourselves.
Stalin is replete with personal details from the lives of Stalin and the members of his entourage; Stalin’s personal charm and consideration for his colleagues, Molotov’s devotion to his wife, Kaganovich’s sensitivity to anti-semitism, Khrushchev’s buffoonery and ruthlessness. Together, with their parties, intrigues, and drunken camaraderie, they might have comprised the leadership of any enterprise or government except that they were dedicated to achieving their purposes not through democratic consensus or even through selective repression but rather through the deliberate murder of a large percentage of the population.
Montefiore offers many examples of the human side of some of history’s greatest mass murderers, beginning with Stalin himself. Stalin was good with children and the wives of his colleagues (at least until he had many of them arrested or shot). He was a dedicated gardener and had a fine singing voice. He appreciated movies and the theater (he saw Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Days of the Turbins” 15 times) and he demonstrated both a huge capacity for work and phenomenal intellectual ability, continually mastering new fields of knowledge and reading an average of 500 pages a night.
His chief henchman, Beria, was similarly remarkable. A managerial genius whose organizational abilities were critical to the Soviet success in developing an atomic bomb, Beria was a devoted father, grandfather and father-in-law. None of this, however, prevented him from organizing mass executions, for example, the murder of the Polish officer corps in the Katyn Forest, or, for that matter, personally torturing victims to death and raping countless women whom he kidnapped off the streets in Moscow.
Perhaps the most haunting figure of all was Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD head, who organized the Great Terror, which is still referred to in Russia as the “Yezhovshchina.” Before he became the head of the NKVD, Montefiore writes, “Yezhov was actually liked by virtually everyone he met.” He was a “responsive, humane, gentle, tactful man” recalled one of his colleagues. (P. 168) Once he gained power, however, it was Yezhov who proposed order 00447 to the politburo according to which the Soviet regions were to receive quotas for persons shot and persons deported. It was this order that set in motion the meat grinder of the Great Terror in which 1.5 million persons were arrested and 700,000 shot.
The Stalinist enterprise consisted of the effort to remake the social system of a vast country on the basis of a utopian ideology.
In carrying out this task, Stalin and his henchmen, in many ways, resembled powerful bureaucrats anywhere but bureaucrats who were freed of all moral restraints. It was their role as functionaries that explained why the members of Stalin’s court not only enthusiastically fulfilled execution quotas but insisted on overfulfilling them. It also explains the remark of Martha Peshkova, Beria’s daughter in law, that, had Beria been born in America, “he would have risen to something like chairman of General Motors.” (P.510)
In Stalin, Montefiore has provided a wealth of detail about the personalities of the members of Stalin’s court and, ironically, demonstrated at the same time, why their personal qualities were absolutely unimportant. Stalin dreamed of making each Soviet citizen a cog in the machine of the state and he turned the members of his immediate entourage into cogs in the service of an ideology. To a degree, he did the same thing to himself.
In one episode, Montefiore recounts how Stalin walked up to one of his marshals who had been arrested and released.
“I heard you were recently in confinement,” he said.
“Yes, Comrade Stalin,” the marshal said, “I was but they figured out my case and released me. But how many good and remarkable people perished there.”
Stalin did not react. Instead, he left the room and walked into the garden. He reappeared holding a bouquet of roses that he presented to the marshal “as a weird sort of apology.”(p.525)