The Right Coast

August 14, 2004
News From The USSR
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Two fascinating recent books on the history of the Soviet Union: Anne Applebaum's "Gulag: A History", and Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar". Applebaum tells the story of the gulag camp system, in which ten million or more died. As a slave labour system, the gulag was a major factor in the economy of the USSR through many decades. The gulag was also fundamental to the political system in the USSR. Everyone in the country knew about the camps, knew what awaited at the slightest sign of disobedience, discontent, or lack of enthusiasm. Yet everyone knew that it was also forbidden even to mention the gulag aloud. Applebaum confirms the fundamental truths told by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, drawing on archives and other evidence that is available now but was not available to him.

Applebaum tells the story of Communism's tens of millions of victims in the USSR. Simon Sebag Montefiore tells the story of Stalin's inner circle -- his politburo and his family -- during the decades that he ruled the USSR. It is an absolutely fascinating story. Stalin based his dictatorship on mass murder, deployed on a uniquely vast scale. Yet he was also in many ways a skilful, and even an oddly personal, politician. He was the boss of what was essentially an organised crime syndicate which had taken over the world's largest country. A murderous lunatic, yet he also needed to understand and to charm his confederates, which he was very good at doing. So Stalin would personally visit the apartment that a new underling would be offered in Moscow, and decide whether it was good enough. He would personally prepare tea and sandwiches for Marshall Zhukov at a tense moment during World War II. Montefiore's book is full of stories like this. One of the horrors of a Stalin is that, in some ways, he was an exceptionally sensitive man, an acute reader of people. Evil on this scale has a horrible fascination. Montefiore has done brilliant research and tells the tale very well.

Applebaum and Montefiore are not academic writers: these books are free of the academic blindness to the horrors of Communism, a blindness that still persists among many of the hack "specialists". Read these books.