Text by Ian Mitchell
Four years ago, Simon Sebag Montefi ore published a ground-breaking book, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar. In it he described Stalin’s entourage, his domestic environment and as much of his personality as can be gleaned from looking at the record which still exists. This was very different from the traditional Kremlinological studies which, hitherto, had treated Stalin as a part, if the most important part, of a wider story, namely the attempt to create the world’s fi rst socialist state on the ruins of the Russian Empire. Mr. Montefi ore’s approach was quite different and, frankly, far more illuminating.
Stalin was seen as a person rather than a political phenomenon. Some people think it is wrong to treat murderous individuals as human beings. But to condemn an individual absolutely is to act like Stalin himself. Anti-Stalinism demands that even Stalin be given a fair hearing. This is what Mr. Montefiore did. Each reader must make his or her own assessment of the man and his extraordinary regime. But whatever judgement is arrived at, one overwhelming fact shone through Mr. Montefi ore’s narrative: the man and the political phenomenon were for all practical purposes the same thing.
By the early 1930’s, the Soviet system was a vast extension of the personality of the man at its head. Its methods, its strengths and weaknesses, were Stalin’s methods, Stalin’s strengths and weaknesses. The longer it endured, the more closely the identifi cation of the USSR with the Red Tsar became.
If the story of the USSR was to a large extent the story of Stalin, it is only natural to ask how it was that he came to be as he was. Much of the answer to that question lies in Stalin’s childhood and youth. Mr. Montefi ore’s first book started with the suicide of the Great Leader’s beautiful, sensitive and intelligent wife, Nadezhda in 1932, when many people think the iron really entered Stalin’s soul. Montefi ore then covered Stalin’s life up to that point in less than thirty of his seven hundred pages.
With this new book, Young Stalin, Mr Montefiore has gone back to Stalin’s youth, and has told the story of how the intelligent, poetically-sensitive Georgian boy turned into a fearless thug, and how he worked his way up the revolutionary hierarchy while the Bolsheviks were not only not in power but, as even Lenin conceded as late at 1915, had no hope of ever achieving power in their lifetimes. Stalin was not along for the ride. He really was serious about climbing to the top. Young Stalin describes just what it was he meant to achieve and what drove him to do almost anything to achieve it.
Readers who enjoyed Mr Montefiore’s earlier should definitely read this one.
It is not as good, mainly because the principle virtue of the first, its level of detail, becomes a vice when the events described are so remote and most of the personalities so deservedly forgotten. The other regret is that this book stops with the Revolution in 1917. For myself, therefore, I await a third book, which I hope will complete the series by telling us in as great detail as the first book did, how it was that the idealism which moved so many Russians in 1917 turned to the cynical, mega-political nightmare of the 1930’s.
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978 0 297 85068 7
Mayak (The Lighthouse)
Text by Sophie Larder
Georgian director Maria Saakyan says of her 2006 film The Lighthouse “It’s a history of the many people of my generation who have been taken from their homes and scattered throughout the world.” This art house and beautifully shot film stars a mixture of Georgian, Armenian and Russian actors, some like Sos Sarkisyan instantly recognizable, others relative newcomers. They tell the story, in pictures, expressions and gestures more often than in words, of Lena, a young woman returning to her village from the relative safety of Moscow. Her birthplace is a small, war ravaged Caucasian village evocatively captured by Saakyan’s sensitive lens and eye for detail. Pastoral life, centuries old, is portrayed in the headscarved women wringing out washing, cows bellowing in the fields and rustic wooden verandas. The war that has killed Lena’s father intrudes in minor details breaking through the ever present atmospheric mist that encircles their village like a boundary. Black helicopters circle menacingly, at nighttime their sleep is disturbed by bombs and machine gun fire, the poignant innocence of children is punctuated by the grim reality of war; dead bodies float down the river. News of war intrudes only in sporadic grainy TV images or through the crackling radio. Only in the scenes of the frantic rushes for the one train that arrives do we catch a glimpse of the true horror of the ordinary person in war. The despair of the refugee, the dreamlike memories of the village and life they’ve left forever. In this sense Saakyan’s film becomes more like a documentary, with grainy images of real people interspersed with the despairing expressions of her actors. The metaphorical and beautifully evocative shots of birds taking flight through the mist contrast with the earth and luggage burdened prosaic despair of the refugee. Saakyan’s film is shot in Russian with English subtitles but this should not put you off. Words come second to expressions and images, with the film containing perhaps only half the usual amount of dialogue. The cinematography deservingly fulfills the old adage; ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and this is never truer than in Saakyan’s film of the truly human costs of war.