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review 2016-10-12 22:05
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore's history of Jerusalem happened to be the first book I reviewed on Booklikes and I was happy to revisit the author with another one of his works. It seems that every time I pick up a history book in a book shop it is endorsed by Montefiore, he's clearly very passionate in his pursuit of historical knowledge. 


This book centres around Stalin and his changing inner circle. It's an odd blend of details of dinner functions, Stalin's character in calm times and the chronicles of the terror and his political brutality. It's a fascinating glimpse into the sycophantic fervour he fostered amongst his magnates and the cunning, horrific nature of his paranoid mind. I've given it five stars, because probably fittingly, after Kershaw's Hitler this is simply the best biography of a historical leader that I have read. 


Anyone who harbours any romanticism or flirts with the hard left I advise to read this and recognise the dangers of unswerving idealism, the dangers of being an illiberal bent on realising a utopia for humanity in the future at any cost to the people of this life. I had always thought that Stalin wasn't overly ideologically motivated, yet this book seeks to dispel that notion comparing the avidity of Stalin's belief in Marxism to that displayed in radical Islamists. 


Something touched upon in the book and spoken about in debates by Christopher Hitchens is the idea that the Tsar in Romanov times was the voice of God himself, understand that and you may be able to understand the cult of personality that Stalin was able to engineer and take advantage of. The idea of a strong, powerful leader was ingrained into Russian society and it is an interesting feature of the revolution, that despite its attempts to turn society on its head with the ultimate goal of Communism, the aura of leadership remained steadfast. 


It fascinated me that the sons and daughters of some of those murdered and tortured beyond repair on Stalin's orders still regarded him as a great leader. It is unfathomable to me that it is possible to inspire such unswerving loyalty amongst people. This is ultimately what draws me to these immensely flawed and yet ridiculously charismatic characters. There seems to be men and women who pop up from time to time under varying banners of ideology, be it religious/political who manage to cultivate vast followings and impact the course of human history through their actions.


And so I came to the end of the book having lived within the court of the red tsar through the eyes of his vicious inner circle and I was struck again by the surreal nature of it all. How terrifying is it? If you place enough power into the hands of the wrong person you can end up with a society in which an innocuous comment could result in years of torture and imprisonment or a painful death. How is it that a man so well read and intelligent as Stalin, uses that intelligence to create a cut throat, savage society in which even those closest to him are not safe from assassination? 


I guess my curiosity will never be sated.

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review 2016-04-30 05:08
An American Diplomat in Bolshevik Russia - Dewitt Clinton Poole

The Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War which followed are two of the most momentous events of the 20th century. This book - whose author was an eyewitness to both events in his capacity as a U.S. diplomat of consular rank - is an absolute gem. It is a memoir that Poole (the author) had crafted in a series of oral interviews he gave months before his death at age 67 in September 1952. Any scholar of the Cold War and U.S.-Russian history will find much to admire about this book, which has been introduced and annotated by the historians Lorraine M. Lees and William S. Rodner. Footnotes populate this book, which for me, as a laymen, I found especially useful in enhancing my understanding of the history and personalities of these long ago events.


Poole arrived in Russia in September 1917 during the last months of the Provisional Government, which had assumed power there in March 1917 after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. It kept Russia in the war on the Allied side. But this government proved unsustainable as the Russian Army failed to defeat German forces in a last gasp offensive, while contending with the Bolsheviks yapping at its heels.


Two months after Poole's arrival, the Bolsheviks seized control of the government and over the next 2 years sought to consolidate its power in Russia while fighting for its very survival against counter-revolutionary and Allied forces. Poole played an active part "in implementing U.S. policy, negotiating with the Bolshevik authorities, and supervising American intelligence operations that gathered information about conditions throughout Russia" inclusive of "monitoring anti-Bolshevik elements and areas of German influence" prior to the armistice that ended the First World War in November 1918. By this time, Poole was no longer residing in Moscow because it had become increasingly dangerous for him to remain there. He left the city the previous September for Petrograd (St. Petersburg). From there, he crossed the frontier to Finland, where he spent a short time before going on to Norway.


Poole returned to Russia early in 1919. He was now a Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in Archangel, a city in the north (not far from the Arctic Circle) which was under Allied control. Both British and U.S. forces had been in Northern Russia since June 1918 to act as a possible buffer against German efforts from Finland (which was newly independent and host to a German division) to seize the nearby Murmansk-Petrograd railway, the port of Murmansk, and Archangel itself which had stockpiles of Allied war material. Now, with Germany defeated, there seemed to be little purpose in maintaining an Allied presence in Northern Russia -- unless a decision was made to align with anti-Bolshevik forces and overthrow Lenin's government. Poole shares with the reader the challenges he had to face, not just from the Bolsheviks, but also in curbing dissension among soldiers in the U.S. force who felt like they had been put on a fool's errand by Washington and simply wanted to go home. Indeed, he goes on to state that "[n]early all the American troops were evacuated in June [1919] in two transports. I had hoped to have leave when I came out from central Russia in September, 1918. The winter at Archangel hadn’t been too strenuous, in one sense, but it had been a strain, and now I asked for leave which was granted. I went to England on one of the troop ships, turning over the embassy to my very able colleague, Felix Cole."


There is more to Poole's story, which eventually takes him to Washington. But I will leave it to any curious reader of this review to find out for him/herself by reading this truly remarkable eyewitness account of two historical events that rocked the world.

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