I was quite interested in Adolf Hitler as a youth. I read and reread books about him. With the advent of the History (aka. Hitler) Channel, Hitler is even more fascinating to people. My theory is that much of this interest springs from the occultic and Wagnerian theatrics of his early dictatorship captured by Leni Riefenstahl. It’s the juxtaposition of the gas chambers with the candlelight vigils, the swastika, the salute, and massive demonstrations of spartan order, all done with a painter’s eye. I still remember a high school friend’s funny imitations of a fanatical Rudolf Hess.

Stalin and Hitler shared many attributes. Both had alcoholic fathers. Both were involved in underground subversion. Both were eccentric, fanatical, paranoid, cunning, ruthless criminals. And yet, for all their shared traits, I think Hitler was, at core, a nut. Stalin was not a nut. And that perhaps explains his enduring fascination for me, perhaps more than any other non-Biblical historical figure.

Robert Conquest’s standard The Great Terror is a good starting point to learn about Stalin. There are the biographies of Volgonokov, Radzinsky, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Rayfield’s Stalin and His Hangmen, Animal Farm, Darkness at Noon… the worthwhile books go on and on. Solzhenitsyn’s rapier-like Gulag Achipelago, especially volume 1, provides revealing insights into The Friend of the Working People’s character, as does a keen chapter from The First Circle describing an encounter between the old dictator, circa 1950, and his secret police chief Abakumov. Victor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom is a harrowing and sadly forgotten journey of a Soviet technocrat through collectivization and terror. Malcolm Muggeridge’s upward journey from leftism began with his own experiences in early 1930s Russia, recollected in his riotous autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. David King’s sadly out-of-print coffee table book, The Commissar Vanishes, is an Orwelllian look into the dangers of owning even pictures of Enemies of the People. It also shows ongoing falsification of photographs and history itself (for example, this infamous photo of Stalin, Molotov, and “the bloody dwarf” Yezhov). Imagine being part of the team who brushes out a body and replaces it with background! There are some great photographs in the book, including a particularly sinister NKVD group photo entitled “Murderers.”

On a lighter note, there is the singular East Side Story, a slow but truly odd 1997 documentary on the genre of Eastern European musicals. It includes vignettes from several American-inspired Soviet musicals of the 1930s, including Stalin’s favorite movie, the happy-go-lucky Volga Volga (I have the full version– alas, no subtitles!). Released at the height of the Great Terror, it is said that Uncle Joe saw it a hundred times and even gifted a copy to FDR.

If they appear on Turner Movie Classics, don’t miss the dreadful Mission to Moscow and North Star. These wartime films were created by major studios at FDR’s behest as tokens of friendship toward our Soviet allies. Both are among the worst things Hollywood ever released. The first is just a wonder to behold; the falsehoods are astounding. It even pleasantly spins Stalin’s loathsome prosecutor Vyshinsky, he of infamous lines like “I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot – every one of them!” Meanwhile, North Star, written by Lillian Hellmann (who is skewered in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals), features a happy, well-fed collectivized village. The depredations of Ukrainian villages fresh in his memory, the defector Kravchenko said that the film “drove me to helpless despair.” “Why, why,” he asked, “did these Americans insist on fabricating a paradise and locating it in my tortured country?”

None of these works, though, answered questions I’d long pondered about Stalin. How did a man sign off on thousands of executions of innocents and then attend the cinema that same evening? How does he send millions to dreadful camps, destroying lives and families? How could he lovingly prune his roses and sing along to musicals and yet casually deport entire civilizations? How could he imprison and shoot members of his own family? His charm was considerable (he charmed even enemies like Churchill). That he charmed the dilettante FDR is no surprise. Nor was his appeal to leftists, including Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Paul Robeson. The ongoing fascination of leftists with Utopian thugs from Stalin to Mao to Che is well-chronicled — hilariously by Muggeridge and in more scholarly fashion by writers like Paul Hollander. (It’s hard to imagine now, but pre-WWII Russia was admired by progressives and the avant-garde. Fellow travelers went to faraway Siberian towns to build socialism. The motherland supposedly offered equality to all races. And if a few million were crushed by the Bolshevik bulldozer, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.) Furthermore, Trotsky and his followers said that Stalin was a clever politician but an intellectual lightweight. But how did that explain the mordant wit of his epigrams? His diabolical cleverness is seen in this exchange with the Spanish war correspondent Mikhail Koltsov:

Stalin: “How do they address you in Spanish? ‘Miguel’ or something?”
Koltsov: “Miguel.”
Stalin: “Don Miguel, we honorable Spaniards thank you for your excellent report.”
Koltsov: “I serve the Soviet Union, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And do you own a revolver, Comrade Koltsov?”
Koltsov: “Yes, I do, Comrade Stalin.”
Stalin: “And you are not planning to shoot yourself with it?”
Koltsov: “No, Comrade Stalin. I never even thought of it!”
Stalin: “Well, that’s excellent, Don Miguel! All the best, then, Comrade Koltsov.”
(Koltsov was afterward arrested and shot.)

So these were all vexing questions. But then this decade saw the release of two magnificent books by Simon Sebag Montefiore that have finally begun to answer them. The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) is a fascinatingly detailed look at the intricacies of Stalin’s court after his ascension to power. Young Stalin (2008) covers his early period through the 1917 revolution.

Born in Georgia of the southern Caucasus, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili ended up in religious schools. The teenage boy was a promising poet who abandoned his Orthodox faith at Tiflis seminary (though he fondly sang Orthodox hymns with his cronies once in power). He went underground around 1900, and never truly resurfaced until 1917. It was during this time that he took his revolutionary name Stalin (man of steel). Young Stalin was always on the run, working his network of terrorists, criminals, sympathizers, party members, and lovers. Two illegitimate children resulted. It was one long period of robberies, agitation, and executions, always matching wits against Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) agents. As young Joseph put it: “To choose one’s victim, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed.” It was said that Stalin had an uncanny knack for instantly knowing Okhrana spies. Periods of exile interrupted this existence (such relative Tsarist leniency would not characterize the Bolshevik regime). One such exile was a four-year interval in the netherworld of the sub-Arctic Siberian taiga, where he could catch fish in the bitter cold and break off frozen, raw bits of flesh to melt in his mouth. It was perhaps the happiest time of his life.

Montefiore argues persuasively that Stalin never left the paranoid world of the criminal underground after the Revolution. He shared Lenin’s pitilessness. Lenin would send his Georgian disciple to the areas most in need of vicious repressions in the Civil War, whereupon the shootings would soon begin. After Stalin rose to power, war was continued against “rich” peasants and supposed double agents, industrial “wreckers,” and “hostile party elements.”

Aided by the archives, Montefiore explodes the idea that Stalin was an intellectual non-entity. He was a crucial figure in Bolshevik circles long before the revolution, and indeed was Lenin’s right-hand man for a time after it. He was a man of action with a will to power, a man after Lenin’s heart. Stalin was a voracious reader and autodidact. His preparedness and intelligence intimidated even his smartest underlings. Ruthlessness and brilliance is a bad combination.

Soviet Russia of the 1930s was one of the most bizarre and horrific periods in all of history. Peasants were herded into collectivized farms, with millions killed in the displacement (food was still exported during the resulting famine). The political show trials in the Hall of Great Columns featured witnesses and defendants who were beaten to ensure that all went smoothly. The Western press at the time predictably bought the lie. These sham trials featured those the maestro most despised; many were left pathetically groveling for full communion again with their beloved party. (Solzhenitsyn noted that at Yagoda’s trial, when he begged his life, “a match flared in the shadows behind a window on the second floor of the hall… and while it lasted, the outline of a pipe could be seen.”)

The revolution devoured its children during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Longtime allies were rounded up and shot, including Stalin’s own in-laws. Former paramours were imprisoned along with the wives of his magnates. He executed the wife of his devoted attache. Scores were settled with old Bolsheviks like Kamenev and Bukharin who patronized or offended the young Stalin. Even most of his secret policemen were tortured and killed after serving their usefulness.

The gulags swelled with untold millions throughout the thirties. These chains of inhuman labor camps, the “sewage disposal system” to use Solzhenitsyn’s term, were put in place by Lenin just as Solzhenitsyn said long ago, back when it was still commonly said that Stalin had corrupted “pure” communism. As the archives show, this is completely false. Lenin was worse than his detractors thought. (As a sidenote, the ruthless Molotov knew both Stalin and Lenin well, and thought Lenin the more severe of the two. For example, a letter from Lenin to Molotov shows how Lenin used the famine of the early 1920s… “Now and only now, when people are being eaten in famine-stricken areas, and hundreds, if not thousands, of corpses lie on the roads, we can (and therefore must) pursue the removal of church property with the most frenzied and ruthless energy and not hesitate to put down the least opposition. … [P]ass a secret resolution of the congress that the removal of property of value, especially from the very richest lauras, monasteries, and churches, must be carried out with ruthless resolution, leaving nothing in doubt, and in the very shortest time. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and the reactionary bourgeoisie that we succeed in shooting on this occasion, the better because this “audience” must precisely now be taught a lesson in such a way that they will not dare to think about any resistance whatsoever for several decades.”)

Montefiore has summed up the dictator up this way: “Stalin is one of those subjects that one never gets bored with. He was incredibly complex and subtle, both diabolical and terrifyingly seductive.”

Mr. Montefiore needs to finish off a trilogy with a biography of the (underserved) 1917-1929 years!