It always seems strange to encounter monsters as human beings. We want to keep the categories separated, yet at the same time when we pretend we don’t know the end of the story we eagerly latch on to the humanity of the great criminals in hopes that will somehow change their behavior. Reading Montefiore’s second volume of his “life of Stalin” project one comes face to face with the full measure of his depravity, from the liquidation of the kulaks in the early 1930’s to the Great Terror of the late ’30’s to his post-war paranoia about the “perfidy” of Russian Jewish Zionists. Yet the book begins with his second marriage and the tragic undoing of his wife, the domestic coziness of the Stalin family and the other Kremlin familiar families, and the hellish and the human coexist quite easily as the “Red Court” comes alive. This book tells us a lot about the mentality and the method of Stalin and his governance and leadership clique, driving home his blend of the ideological and the personal. The sheer enormity of the tasks he faced in the project of modernizing Russia one only glimpses, but that’s another book. This book paints a human face on to the behind the scenes location of totalitarianism.
Jewishly the book reminds us of the strange life of Jews under and inside of Bolshevism. A Georgian and former seminary student who adopted Russian nationalism, Stalin possessed his own acute sensitivity to ethnicity and religion, which included an intuitive, almost casual anti-Semitism. Yet he also had plenty of close Jewish colleagues, or close colleagues like Molotov’s married to Jews, and that seemed to matter little to him. Until the rise of Israel, that is. We see the two sides of the coin, two stories that seemed to energize each other. Molotov’s wife goes to the Moscow synagogue to meet Golda Meir, attends the funeral of the murdered Solomon Mikhoels, and in general seems to revisit her Jewishness in powerful personal ways. Aware of such feelings and moves, Stalin becomes evermore paranoid about Jewish disloyalty, and dramatically ratchets up governmental persecution of Jews, culminating in the arrest and murder of the Jewish writers, all of which likely reinforced a sense of Soviet Jewish identity, however cramped it remained under such circumstances. Peoplehood dies hard.