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Stalin himself

LAURENCE REES: And what’s interesting from your own work on Stalin’s personality is that Stalin seems to lack conventional charisma.

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: No, he’s not conventional. He’d come to power as the anti-charismatic charismatic ruler, in the sense that there were always people like Trotsky who were these brilliant speakers and flamboyant, but no one trusted them and they were very un-Russian. Though a Georgian he came across as the sort of Russian candidate and he cultivated a sort of gentleness and a sort of quietness, a lack of showiness which people trust, but also he was very charismatic in a sort of feline way. I mean, you only have to look at Roosevelt’s relationship with him to see how charming he could be, how fascinating, and that was his hold on the Russian leadership, it wasn’t just terror.

When he started to run the war, particularly after the early period when the whole thing was in free-fall and he really was out of his depth, he really did become a superb organiser of war materials. I mean even in the Battle of Moscow, which was the key battle of the war, his grasp of the material of war was astonishing, the fact that he had the number of tanks of the entire Soviet Army in a little notebook on his desk. This was very impressive to people, and it’s easy when we know about the colossal disasters, which he cared little about, to forget this. I mean, victory was important, and losses of large numbers of troops was, up to a point, not a big problem in the way he saw the world. But his grasp of organising victory, the detail of everything, was astonishing.

LAURENCE REES: And then, of course, in October 1941 Stalin makes the decision to stay in Moscow rather than go. How important was that in this history, do you think?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Very important. That was a key moment. Had he gone I think the whole thing would have fallen apart. I think there’s a moment when he actually goes to the station and walks up and down the station, but certainly it was an amazing time that, when his own home was dynamited, his library was in a train and all the leadership were ready to go, already they were running. And he had a great sense of theatre which was another part of this sort of charisma which is hugely underestimated. He decided not to go, and then followed a series of moves that showed that he was a master propagandist. He was his own Goebbels in that sense and, again, he had a real sense of how to present these things. The November Revolution Day parade in Red Square was  really a sort of Churchillian masterpiece which actually, in propaganda terms, was worth several divisions. To hold that parade with the Germans just outside Moscow, the courage of doing it, and he organised it absolutely. That’s why his people respected him, he told no one about it, it was only on a need to know basis.

He arranged everything, even what to do if they actually came under fire, if the Germans actually bombed the mausoleum where he was standing. It was all arranged, and then to give the speech and to hold it in the underground, in the metro, I mean, all of this was very clever and everybody in Russia listened to that. You know in those speeches, again his un-showiness, people trusted it. And it wasn’t that dissimilar to Churchill’s grim message, and at that point he was no longer just saying, well, I think we’re winning victory on every front, he was also saying that this is going to be tough but we’re going to win.

LAURENCE REES: Do you think that if Stalin had left Moscow in October 1941 then that might have been the end of it?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Yeah, I do. He was such a key figure that Russia really depended on his authority, and that’s why in June-July they kept him and he wasn’t overthrown. They realised that they really needed him, and for the same reason not leaving in October ’41 was, I think, totally decisive because Russia was collapsing. There was no doubt about it.

LAURENCE REES: So then with Churchill and Roosevelt, there’s a sense that when they come and meet Stalin, they find he wasn't the person they'd expected. What’s going on there?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: You know, he was just always this great actor. Kaganovich, one of his closest people, was asked what Stalin was like, and he said there were five or six Stalins. Kruschev who also knew him intimately, said Stalin was an actor, a man of faces who could play many roles. They were all real, they were all him, but he was never an Idi Amin character, he was never a Saddam Hussein sort of tyrant, he was always, despite his very small town beginnings, his Georgian background, son of a cobbler, and despite his often brutal coarse crudeness, he was a sophisticated player at the same time. He really was sort of half subtle scholar or half subtle man of letters, half complete thug and lout, and these two halves he just played when he needed them. And with Lenin all those years ago he played the impressed pupil, while at the same time being the person that’s then entrusted to get the dirty work done, getting people knocked off, raiding banks, that sort of thing. And he played those two things all the way through his life. He was really trained as a priest, he was someone who took reading and thinking very seriously. He was someone who just lived for reading books. It just happened that he regarded human lives as at best, useful, and at worst, as utterly expendable in colossal numbers. So he was a very complex figure, and when he met these westerners he learnt to handle them extremely well and he listened to them gently. He played the part, which was part of his personality, the pipe smoking little father of Russia.

LAURENCE REES: And also, from the minutes of these meetings, it seems he is also someone with an extraordinarily dry and powerful sense of humour.

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Yeah. He did have a strong sense of humour and he was actually a people person. One of the things about his rise to power which is odd about Stalin is that we’re so used to the Cold War version of him as this kind of complete monster, terrifying, and an inhuman sort of golem like creature, but in fact he was always superb with people and again and again people thought that they were indispensable to him, even despite the obvious evidence that everyone was dispensable.

LAURENCE REES: And then when Churchill comes to Moscow, Stalin seems to have this way of manipulating the meetings by suddenly changing his moods. Does he deliberately orchestrate this?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Yes. Absolutely. This is the way he handled people, because all over his career he handles people with this kind of mixing, good cop/bad cop.

LAURENCE REES: So he’s both?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: He’s both good cop and bad cop and he’s constantly claiming that he’s not really in power at all, he’s got this public opinion or these leaders and he can’t quite control it and he basically uses everything, I mean, he’s both subtle and ruthless and incredibly winning with these people, and they all fall for it. But in a way they’re not falling for something, it’s not so much he’s tricked them; that is Stalin. All through his life he’s made people trust him, it’s just that he always has the ability to walk away and destroy them too.

LAURENCE REES: Stalin admits to Churchill that he killed the Kulaks, so at no point does Stalin try to hide his brutal nature. Yet Churchill and Roosevelt seem to some extent charmed by him.

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: I think the Churchill conversation is a fascinating night, when he takes him back to his apartment and they kind of make it up after this incredibly disastrous beginning when Churchill literally thought about just leaving and going back to London. It just wasn’t going well and Stalin was so unpleasant, accusing the Royal Navy of cowardice and all that stuff, but he also sees hints of other Stalin. You know, there’s the Stalin that, when you look at the notes, you find out that he’s done some research on Marlborough, Churchill’s great ancestor, which is interesting. And he’s teasing Churchill. We talked about his sense of humour, he starts saying that Marlborough was quite impressive but Wellington was surely the greatest soldier, the greater man.

You see this sort of playfulness; this man had actually spent time reading about this stuff, and that’s the sort of reading that Stalin would have done himself. Also you see he has the touch where he has his daughter come in and she was very annoyed to be sent out, but the point is that you saw Stalin the man. But on the ruthless stuff, on the Kulak conversation, it is fascinating because Stalin is quite open about it. And that’s the interesting thing about the dealings with Stalin, as he never hid what he was like. He never hid that revolution was incredibly ruthless and cost millions of people, and yet he presented himself as quite a moderate voice.

His was a personality that could present itself as if without side. You know, here I am, I’m fighting this desperate war, I’ve done ruthless things, but of course I am indispensable to you. And that was the essence of the relationship really, you know, however charmed or un-charmed Churchill and Roosevelt were, Stalin was fighting the war and was winning the war. World War Two was really Stalin’s war.

LAURENCE REES: At the beginning of 1942 Churchill replied to Eden’s suggestion that perhaps Stalin should be allowed to keep Eastern Poland at the end of the war by saying, never will a government of mine agree to anything like this. And then of course by November ’43 at the Tehran conference, Churchill is suggesting Stalin should keep Eastern Poland. So something quite extraordinary is changing here.

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: I think the personal thing is hugely important. I think that Stalin the feline charmer is irresistible. It’s virtually impossible to find anyone who spent time with him who didn’t come out trusting him and thinking that they could do business with him, thinking that he was a two-dimensional character, not just a bloody monster but also an ex-priest, someone who’d read a lot and could listen. These things were extraordinary as well with foreigners because he could show warmth to people and show enormous care and he did this with his entourage, so it’s not just with foreigners.

With his entourage he took immense personal trouble with people in a way that was irresistible. There’s the story I remember reading about Beria, his hideous secret police chief. When he moved to Moscow, Stalin went round and inspected his apartment, tucked his son into bed and literally read him a story. And that’s not a unique example. With every one of his leaders he went to their houses and checked the heating was good enough, literally. Here’s a man who wrote out by hand what car every family of the top 25 leaders had, and I’ve seen the documents where he decided it. So there’s an incredible attention to detail about things that mattered to people.

And, as we all know, those little things are things that matter to people, so he was brilliant at handling people high and low, and that’s a huge talent. But then you’ve also got the fact that the West really needed Russia, and Russia was against the massive proportion of the Wehrmacht, and huge numbers of their allied armies were fighting there, and actually there was nothing else happening at that point, it was just the Red Army. And if the Red Army collapsed….so we really needed them.

And the third thing was that they really were fighting an astonishing war by then, especially from 1942 - from the disasters of early ’42 to the triumph of Stalingrad the whole of the war is changing and they are winning it, at enormous cost. But it was quite clear that the entire Russian nation was really valiantly fighting, and I think that moved everybody in a way; that people could see a Stalinist Russia, and they could see that the Russian people were really fighting.