And I thought I had a repulsive idea of the horrors of the USSR before? Well, this book certainly made me realize how little I really knew. Stalin was capable of kindness and humor with family and friends and yet boundless, sadistic cruelty. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes a fantastic, detailed and gruesome portrait of one of the most prolific murderers of the 20th C. In about 670 breathless pages, we see the rise of the dictator, the terror of the 30’s, the negotiations with Hitler, the near-success of Operation Barbarossa, the comeback at Stalingrad and the post-war horrors in Russia. There are way too many names for my head to recall but the portraits of Beria, Molotov and Krushchev were particularly chilling. There were moments during the forced starvation of the Five Year Plan or during the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad and particularly during the nearly constant torture of friends, enemies, accomplices and the vast majority of innocent bystanders in the labyrinth of the Lubyanka. I recall walking next to this horrible prison (which now sports a children’s clothing store of all things!) and almost getting sweat running down my back. And this before reading this book and more fully appreciating the depth of violence that men sunk to in there. The other damning evidence that I found hard to digest – apart from the many anti-Semitic purges and pogroms – was the excesses of Stalin’s magnates in rape and theft particularly during and after the war. The world’s religions – and here I include Bolshevism high on the list – all thrive on an egalitarian message for the masses and yet rich bounty for those at the top. Stalin’s minions were just as bad as those in the Vatican or TV preachers in the American heartland. And yet, they stooped at nothing to destroy others by accusing them of “Western values”.
If you wish to have a better appreciation for this particularly somber, hopeless piece of human history including one of the three greatest human slaughters in history (aside from Hitler’s and Mao’s of course), this is probably an excellent place to start. It is well-written, incredibly well-researched and seeps in detail upon detail. That being said, if you are in a depressive mood, this is probably not the book for you because you will definitely hit bottom at least a few times – I did in any case. Biggest lesson learned by me: the adage Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely never rang more true than with this particular monster.