Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar
By Simon Sebag Montefiore
By Anne Applebaum
It isn't easy being a dictator. Stalin heartlessly deported and caused the death of millions of his citizens, but after his depressed wife's suicide, he became a lonely old insomniac addicted to American westerns.
His social circle was confined to his Politburo toadies and their brilliant Jewish wives. To vary matters, he moved them, his cook and servants from dacha to dacha.
How he eventually broke up happy couples like the Molotovs is told in Simon Sebag Montefiore's fascinating Stalin - The Court of the Red Tzar (Knopf), which also offers a probing portrait of another cruelly ambitious Georgian, Lavrenti Beria. How Beria, the moment Stalin stopped breathing, reunited Molotov with his exiled Jewish wife is just one of a myriad of fascinating anecdotes about murderers who had a human side.
It was Beria who first tried to make sense, particularly economic sense, of the Gulag, where millions were worked to death. Beria realized that death wasn't economical, but even he failed to make sense of the system. This is carefully explained in the mammoth Gulag by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday), now also out in paperback.
In a definitive historical survey that dates back to the 1920s, Russian-speaking Applebaum shows how Stalin first thought of using slave labor to pioneer the development of Russia's
great outback, but most of the work went to waste, with everyone concerned cheating on both the labor and the bookkeeping. Early on, housing, machinery and even tools were unavailable, so prisoners sometimes built camps or dug canals with their bare hands.
One of the unlikely heroic figures to emerge from this tragic account is a 19th century sabra named Naftaly Frenkel, an auto-didact who rose from simple prisoner to become director of huge Gulag projects; his brilliant talents as an organizer kept him alive.
Applebaum reminds us that unlike Hitler's camps, the various Gulag projects and camps were not intended to be killing machines; scientists and technicians were arrested just so their talents would be made available. But a mix of inhumanity, incompetence, corruption and lack of food and medicine caused innumerable casualties; Applebaum's informed estimates, though cautious, are staggering.
The writer is a veteran journalist at The Jerusalem Post.