The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Meet Stalin, not dreaded dictator but ‘a people person’

Los Angeles, May 27 (Reuters): He had a fine tenor voice and could be a warm and generous man, tucking children into bed, caring for a sick friend or ordering his chauffeur to pick up rain-soaked people at a bus stop.

He loved gardening, John Wayne movies, classic novels like The Last of the Mohicans and ordering the deaths of millions of people, from close friends to complete strangers.

Until British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote his monumental new biography Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, probably no author had ever made the case that dictator Joseph Stalin was in reality “a people person” who had climbed to the top of the Soviet totem pole through charm and unstinting service to others. Stalin is, after all, credited with killing an estimated 20 million people in purges and the gulag.

But Montefiore spent three years labouring in a vineyard few had ventured into before — the archives that had remained secret until the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a feverish period that he says brought him to collapse, the writer, who is fluent in Russian, read everything from the scribbles Stalin made on the margins of arrest orders to the dictator’s love notes and the intimate musings of scores and scores of his closest henchmen.

He spent hundreds of hours, often in tearful, emotional interviews, with survivors and descendants of the dictator’s entourage as he amassed details for what critics call the “first intimate biography” of the feared dictator. The book, first published in Britain, came out in the US in April.

When Montefiore asked one woman if she ever saw her father again after he was purged in 1937, she told him, “Only in my dreams”. Another woman, still a Stalinist, asked Montefiore if he was an enemy of the people because he seemed hostile.

Montefiore, whose earlier book on Russia dealt with Catherine the Great’s lover Prince Potemkin, said in an interview during a visit to promote the book that the whole project ultimately gave him nightmares — even as he discovered that the secret of Stalin’s success was his charm.

“Working on the book was the chance of a lifetime but I kept asking how I would behave if I was alive then. It was amazingly stressful work because I am sure that in Stalin’s time, I would have been killed very quickly. I need to recover so my next work is going back to 18th century Russia.”

Soviet expert Richard Pipes, in a laudatory review of the book in the New York Times, said Stalin’s life was so closely guarded in his lifetime that “he remained incomprehensible as a human being, a distant and shadowy apparition, a demigod”.

Montefiore fills in the details with all too human touches of a man growing old and cold, able to kill more and more as the years went on until his death in 1953 cut short what would have been a massive purge of Jews in the Soviet Union.

But Montefiore said: “Charm is how Stalin built his dictatorship. If he set his mind to charm you, he was irresistible.”

Stalin, said Montefiore, was accessible to his officials, cared for their wives and children, showered all with attention, even answered the phone himself.

“Stalin became absolute dictator much later than anyone realised. Stalin only became dictator with life and death powers in 1937; none of his inner circle were terrified of him until then. He set off the Great Terror because he felt he was special and not being given the deference he deserved, but he had been killing people since 1918 when he discovered the axiom, ‘One man, one problem. No man, no problem’.”

His toadies “studied Stalin like zoologists to read his moods, win his favour and survive”, Montefiore said.

They could tell his mood by the way he held his pipe: “if (it) was unlit, it was a bad omen. If Stalin put it down, an explosion was imminent.... If he stroked his moustache with the mouthpiece... he was pleased.”

“There were certain key rules which resemble the advice given to a tourist on how to behave if he is unlucky enough to encounter a wild animal on his camping holiday. The first rule is to look him straight in the eyes... but don’t look too much,” Montefiore said.

Above all, a visitor had to maintain calm at all times as panic alarmed Stalin.

Stalin’s biggest mistake was not to realise that his Nazi-Soviet pact partner Hitler was about to invade Russia.

Montefiore said that Stalin admitted he was wrong saying, “When you’re trying to make a decision, NEVER put yourself into the mind of the other person because if you do, you can make a terrible mistake.”

It made no sense to him to attack Russia when Hitler did. He expected him to wait until after he got rid of the British, that’s what Stalin would have done.

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