Stalin, the essence of evil: the peril of true believers

Hellish, hated, fiendish from birth, sending small children screaming on sight.

Evil should have but one loathsome face, and then perhaps we could recognize it, and contain it, and obliterate it.


We could warn our children off. We could jail it and bomb it and revile it, because all of us would see it, and know its essence.

Evil, however, proves to be clever. It is charming, and sometimes handsome and even eager to please. It loves opera and literature. Small children are happily dandled on its knee.


It cloaks itself in the commonplace. Hannah Arendt, observing the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, called it banal (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963). The evildoers of the SS forced the long procession of Jews onto the trains and into the Holocaust. Bland, anonymous faces made sure those trains ran on time.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf, 768 pages, $30), a tale of consummate evil, opens on a warm note of family life. Nadya Alliluyeva and Josef Stalin had been married for 14 years but had known each other since Nadya's childhood, their families joined by Bolshevism. They were, often, a loving couple.

He had been born in Gori, a village closer to Baghdad than St. Petersburg, in the romantic mountains of Georgia, to a woman who cherished church and priests. This man, a dutiful and respectful son, trained to become a priest, and went on to become a cruel killer. Most of his henchmen, too, came from religious families.

Bolshevism took the place of their parents' religion; those ruthless and fanatic enough to kill and die for Marxism-Leninism rose with Stalin. Generations later, the Soviet system would collapse, helped along by the weight of cynicism over communism. But these men, and women, believed, worshipping the Party, proclaiming its infallibility.

Stalin was a powerful personality, vindictive, finding pleasure in revenge. First he charmed his fellow Bolsheviks. Then he manipulated them, dominated them and finally terrorized them.

And he led them to murder -- millions of ordinary people, and then each other. They killed out of fear and to prove their loyalty, and then simply to kill.

Working from archives opened only in 1999, Montefiore, a British journalist, tells an extraordinary story. Stalin would set off unspeakable chains of bloodletting during the day, then return to his Kremlin apartment to hug and spoil his small daughter Svetlana.

He would take children on his knee, fix gentle golden eyes on them, and chat affectionately. He sang, in a beautiful tenor. Women adored him and flirted endlessly. His henchmen could return home after a day of torturing, a spatter of blood on the sleeve, to cuddle their children and lovingly nuzzle their wives. At festive dinners, Stalin could joke about how easy it was to make anyone confess to anything.


The Bolsheviks were accustomed, from the Revolution and the Civil War, to solving their problems by killing off anyone who stood in their way. Anyone not with them was against them and must be swept aside. Everything was personal. Stalin would come to feel at his best when he had an enemy to destroy.

They were sworn to create a powerful, modern, industrial empire out of the backward, tattered ruins of the czarist past. Nothing would stop them. The grain that once fed the people would be confiscated and sold to build the new empire. If the people starved, well, that was a cost of the march to the bright future.

In 1932, Stalin's policies brought famine to Ukraine, with perhaps 10 million dying as the state seized their grain for the money required to build smelters and to manufacture tractors.

The deaths had only just begun. The Bolsheviks had designed a perfect society; thus the only possible explanation for any kind of failure or lagging was that it was the work of "wreckers." The wreckers would be found and killed. The blood let loose jealousies and grudges, which were resolved in yet more blood. The death count rose and rose. Everyone could be found guilty of something.

By 1937, death quotas were established as if they were agricultural or industrial quotas ordained in the latest Five-Year Plan. Between Aug. 5 and 15 of that year, each region was ordered to shoot at least 72,950 and arrest 259,450. Unlike the harvest quotas, these were over-fulfilled. Once achieved, enthusiastic local officials asked for still higher numbers. They got them.

The numbers rose. The influential and the obscure -- anyone could be caught up, tortured, sent off to the Gulag, shot.


No detail of life in the empire was too small for Stalin's attention. He watched over the editing of the Soviet encyclopedia. He answered letters from Young Pioneers. He went to the ballet and oversaw the opera.

Artists, Stalin said, were the "engineers of human souls." Shostakovich and Stalin: The Extraordinary Relationship Between the Great Composer and the Brutal Dictator, by Solomon Volkov (Knopf, 336 pages, $30), reminds how, in 1936, an editorial apparently written by Stalin criticized the composer's opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, plunging Shostakovich into a misery of self-doubt, fearing death if his music struck another wrong chord.

Through it all, Stalin's life was full of parties and love affairs, tender notes to children at home, sweet letters to lonely wives from murderers touring the countryside -- and drunken revels.

When Nadya committed suicide in 1932, Stalin lost a restraining influence. In the years that followed he became utterly alone and ever more paranoid. Even his in-laws would be murdered.

Perhaps this evil would not have taken hold without Stalin to guide it, but he was surrounded by those with the stomach for it. Once Stalin grew beyond challenge, he need only cast a suspicious glance at one of his allies, and the others were on the scent. One whiff of weakness, and packs of informants began yelping. A former ally would fall, followed by his family, then their friends.

No one was safe. Vyacheslav Molotov, a steadfast Bolshevik from the beginning, a leader of the Revolution, Soviet premier and foreign minister, appeared to be Stalin's chosen successor by 1945.


(Molotov, says Montefiore, was the only man to shake hands with Lenin, Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Roosevelt and Churchill -- and, of course, with Stalin.)

Molotov made a mistake, suggesting at a reception that the Soviet Union might loosen the strict censorship of foreign correspondents. Stalin was furious, and Molotov saved himself with an abject apology. The wife he loved deeply was not so lucky.

Stalin ordered Molotov to divorce Polina Molotova, who was Jewish and had spoken too enthusiastically to Golda Meir, the Israeli ambassador. The obedient Bolshevik obeyed.

Polina disappeared into prison, and then exile in Kazakstan. Every night, Molotov would have the maids set Polina a place at his Moscow table, not knowing whether she was alive or dead. Every morning he would go off to work among the men who had wanted to destroy her.

In March 1953 Stalin died. "Return Polina," Molotov demanded of Lavrenti Beria, the dreaded secret policeman, that day. Beria would be executed soon after. Molotov and Polina would die natural deaths, still in love, still believing in Stalin and in Bolshevism.

Stalin, Mao and Hitler grew monstrous, fortified in the absolute certainty of their ideas. Saddam Hussein, a great admirer of Stalin, lost sight of his ideology along the way, and crumbled.


Evil is unpredictable. It rises here, it rises there. It promises everything, especially goodness.

Doubt saps it. Light withers it. Dissenters contain it.

Our critics, it turns out, save us.

Kathy Lally, deputy foreign editor of The Sun, was the newspaper's Moscow bureau chief for eight years, from 1991 to 1995 and from 1997 to 2001.