A charming despot

Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar

Simon Sebag Montefiore <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 693pp, £25</em

One of the tragic ironies of the 20th century was that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary. It was needed most in wretchedly impoverished countries; but these, precisely because of their poverty, lacked the material infrastructure, educated populace, civic institutions and liberal traditions without which socialism is almost bound to wither into tyranny. It is hard to redistribute non-existent wealth. It is equally hard to extend democracy from the ballot box to the economic and everyday spheres if you have no ballot box in the first place. Socialism involves mass participation, a tricky business if men and women need to spend their time in back-breaking labour simply to survive.

In such regions, there are likely to be great swathes of icon-clutching, conservative-minded peasants who see nothing for themselves in the socialist project, and who may well do their best to scupper it by clutching on to their crops as well as their icons. Beginning socialism in such premodern spots may not be so much of a problem, precisely because the state tends to be highly centralised and civil society fairly sparse. This means that you can seize power simply by seizing the state, as did the Bolsheviks. But the very lack of civic culture that makes it easier to kick-start the revolution also makes it harder to keep it going. If you don't have Rupert Murdochs to deal with, it is partly because you have millions of illiterate men and women who need to be organised and educated. Meanwhile, as the masses are struggling to catch up, the vanguard that seized the state will have to stand in for them, with the risk that one autocracy may give way to another. You may simply have set the stage for a left-wing megalomaniac rather than a right-wing one, a move that has little to commend it beyond its novelty value.

Socialists believe in democracy, not bureaucracy, but it is hard to dispense with bureaucracy if several million citizens don't have shoes. The socialists believe in a democratically managed economy, not a state-controlled one; but if you are forced to develop production from a very low level, the state will almost certainly have to step in and do the job itself. One reason for this is that men and women, being the moderately hedonistic creatures they are, are unlikely to pitch into this unpleasantly laborious business of their own free will. They may well do so under capitalism but this is because there is something in it for them, known as private profit.

The best way of building socialism, then, is to inherit a thriving economy from your capitalist predecessors and harness it to the ends of social justice. For Marx, it is the capitalist class that is generous-mindedly laying the material basis for future socialism simply by pursuing its own greedy instincts in the present. No Marxist before Stalin imagined that socialism could thrive in any other way. If you do not have wealthy ancestors, or if well-heeled neighbours do not come to your aid, you are almost bound to end up with what Marx called "generalised scarcity". You will find yourself undermining the political structures of socialism in the very act of trying to lay down a material basis for it.

Such reflections are far too cerebral to fit easily into Simon Sebag Montefiore's study of Stalin. Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar, as its mildly sensationalist subtitle might suggest, is not too strong on political ideas and historical forces. One does not go to this book for a historical analysis of Stalinism, any more than one goes to St Teresa of Avila for a historical analysis of sodomy. A kind of newsreel history drifts in and out of Montefiore's text ("The Bolsheviks could storm any fortress. Any doubt was treason"), but the focus is firmly on the despot himself and his gaggle of debauched sycophants. English readers, with their Anglo-Saxon aversion to ideas, love nothing better than peering voyeuristically at everything from poems and pogroms to the flesh-and-blood individuals behind them. That there are no flesh-and-blood individuals who are not historical beings is conveniently passed over, as is the fact that ideas are what real-life men and women live by.

Montefiore's book, then, belongs as much to the "Inside the Mafia" genre as to the highbrow lineage of Isaac Deutscher and Alan Bullock. Even so, it is formidably well researched, and tells its lurid tale with gripping immediacy. It presents Stalin and his henchmen as a coterie of rapists and sadists, exotic Georgians with sumptuous dachas, psychopaths, alcoholic cringers and secret police pornographers poring over sizeable collections of ladies' lingerie. Those who might think twice about ploughing through a thesis on land collectivisation may feel no such qualms in laying down their £25 for this anatomy of degeneracy.

There are one or two superficial surprises. Stalin himself emerges as a bit of a charmer, with a taste for classical literature - a "people person", as the author puts it in his customary pop prose. But the same might be said of many a political barbarian. Hard-headed politicians are much given to sentimentalism, since that is the only kind of feeling which those unaccustomed to feeling can manage. We would be surprised, but not incredulous, to learn that Pol Pot was a finer impressionist than Rory Bremner. Montefiore records an anti-Stalin joke of the period, in which the great man loses his favourite pipe, only to report later that he has found it under a sofa. "This is impossible!" retorts Beria. "Three people have already confessed to this crime!" The interesting point is that it was Stalin who told the joke.

Stalin: the court of the Red Tsar is couched, for the most part, in biographese, a racy idiom in which at least two graphic adjectives must be yoked to every proper name. Thus we have the "oval-faced and brown-eyed wife of the Bolshevik General Secretary", along with Stalin's "almost Oriental, feline eyes" that "flashed a lupine yellow in anger". Someone else is "devious, short and balding . . . with a taste for French wines and sex toys". A murderer with an interest in gardening is, predictably, a "green-fingered killer".

This is, in short, history postmodern style: "personalised", sexed-up, short on ideas, and intent on what some reviewer is bound to call "bringing history vividly alive". The only problem is that the actual history threatens to get lost in the process, buried behind portraits of louche, sandy-haired godfathers and long-legged, green-eyed wives. No one could accuse the handsome, bushy-haired Montefiore of skimping his homework, but his 70 pages of meticulously documented endnotes make for an odd contrast with the faintly tabloid quality of the text.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Figures of Dissent (Verso)