Courts can be a tool for understanding the present as well as the past. The behaviour patterns of courts and courtiers are often a better guide to the workings of modern regimes than constitutions or ideologies. In The Last Days of Hitler, Hugh Trevor-Roper analysed the government of the Third Reich as a ‘cannibal court’.
In his spectacular new work Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore does the same for the Soviet Union under Stalin. He analyses the lives and ‘informal power and customs’ of the top 20 men in the Soviet leadership, as well as Stalin himself, in the years from the suicide of Stalin’s wife Nadya on 8 November 1932 to his death on 5 March 1953. Sebag Montefiore, author of a brilliant life of the most successful courtier of Catherine the Great, Prince Potemkin, presents the Soviet leadership as a court of magnates, fawning and intriguing around the ‘red Tsar’. Personalities, emotions, and the cult of ‘strong leadership’, are considered more important than Marxist ideology: proximity to Stalin, a better guide to power than rank in the ‘CC’ (central committee). As in any court, material rewards were also important.
Sebag Montefiore describes the distribution of cars, extra food rations and secret ‘pakets’ of money, as favours among the elite (including Maxim Gorky); the size of the Stalin portrait in their residence often indicated the degree of their power in the government. The leaders lived beside each other ‘like a family’, both in the Kremlin ‘village’ and on holiday. Sebag Montefiore devotes many pages to the ‘frantic networking’ on holidays, in Georgia as well as in dachas around Moscow (for the devotee, Stalin’s dacha at Kuntsevo, where much of the action in this book took place, has been restored to its condition in his day, down to his shaving brushes and gramophone): ‘more careers were made, more intrigues clinched on those sunny verandahs than on the snowy battlements of the Kremlin’, writes Sebag Montefiore. Magnates such as Malenkov or Beria, like bosses in the Third Reich, built up their own patronage empires, with favourite writers and artists, as well as ministries. In a crisis, official channels were abandoned for personal connections: ‘Everyone goes to see someone, there’s no other way’, wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam.
The principal social, in some cases policy-making, occasions under Stalin, according to Sebag Montefiore, were his drunken, protracted dinners, some of which lasted 12 hours. In Stalin’s residences, many of which the author has visited and photographed, the dining-room was always the largest room. Drinking contests were orchestrated by the leader; guests were dragged vomiting from the table; Zhdanov and Bulganin became alcoholics.
Sebag Montefiore shows that traditional patterns of behaviour could reappear behind the fa