Writing on the Red Tsar

15 February 2008

Acclaimed novelist and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore talks to Oliver Barton about his latest book, Young Stalin

In May your latest book, Young Stalin, comes out in paperback. What motivated you to write a second book about Stalin, this time about Stalin’s early life before he was in power?

The reason why I didn’t write a book about this in the first place was because, like everyone else, I didn’t think there was material about it. When I was researching Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar I started to find so much new material I thought I could actually write a book about it.

In your book you mention that many of your sources were memoirs written by contemporaries of Stalin’s, how were you able to gain access to read them?

There were quite a lot of these memoirs in Moscow in Stalin’s archive but then I found there were a lot more down in Georgia which had never been looked at before. The archive down there was all closed but I managed to get Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saaskashvilli, to sign off on me using it and it turned out there was a real treasure chest there.

How were you able initially to gain access to the Stalin archives given the current difficulties with President Putin?

My first book on Russian history was Catherine the Great and Potemkin and that book went down very well in Russia, especially with the Kremlin. I’m pretty sure Putin read it and because the book was about rehabilitating a pair of great Russian statesmen it was very well received. So when I said I wanted to write about Stalin orders came down from the top that I was to have access to everything. At the time the Catherine the Great prototype was one that Putin was keen to link himself with as an authoritative and enlightened leader. By the time I published Stalin that wasn’t true anymore.

Do you feel you would have been able to do that project today?

No I don’t think I would.

Were you conscious of writing for a specific audience, whether that be popular or academic, and did this affect the way you went presenting it?

When I am writing I am thinking of an audience because I don’t just want it to be read by academics, I really want it to be read by ordinary readers. In the rarefied academic corridors people are really writing books for each other and these are only read by about a hundred people. I think that’s ridiculous; anyone can write an unreadable book.

Do you think there is a difference between academic and popular works or is it simply the case that popular books sell and academic ones don’t?

No there really is a difference, a huge difference, but not a difference of quality; it’s a difference of how inclusive these things are. I think history should be inclusive and read by lots of people and have something democratic about it.

At several points you mention contemporary analogies to help your reader understand. You mention, for example, how in the 1900s the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) were planning a 9/11 style attack on the Tsar’s Winter Palace; how important do you think such analogies are to making history more accessible?

I think they can be dangerous actually. I hope I do it very carefully because first of all they can become out-dated very quickly. Many events at the time can seem all-conquering and I think 9/11 will be one of those events that turns out to be pretty seminal, but there are things that people get obsessed about for years, like the European Union in the 1990s, which in retrospect turned out to be very minor and now we can’t imagine why anyone was interested in it. It can be very dangerous to cite these things, but I think 9/11 is okay and also I tend to put these things in footnotes which don’t involve my script too much. But I think this book is in one sense about Bolshevik terrorism and I think the modern prototype of how a terror cell works with these very small groups of people using clandestine methods and so on and planning these big spectacular events was really created by the SRs and the Bolsheviks at that time and it’s not that different now. Obviously now they have internet and mobile phones, but it’s still not that dissimilar.

Do you think there is a responsibility for historians that their work be in some way ‘relevant’?

No, I think learning and knowledge are their own reward first of all. I love reading about the most obscure topics and when I’m not writing I’m always reading about the Albanians or the Ethiopians or something and I take a certain joy in that. Nothing has to be relevant; nothing has to be for anything. If it’s interesting and rewarding then it is its own prize. But my book is quite relevant not only because of the terrorist stuff but because there are also primitive Stalinist regimes today, like Ba’athist Syria and North Korea.

Both are very much based on a Stalinist mixture of socialism and nationalism. But of course it’s Russia that makes it especially relevant.

What lessons can be learnt from your books?

Certainly to understand modern Russia people should read my book.

What motivates you to write history?

I really just write books that I would enjoy reading myself. I think that’s the only true motivation really.

Turning to your new projects, the next book you’re signed up to write is called Jerusalem: The Biography.

Yeah, I’m sort of exhausted by Russia and archive fatigue.

The other place I’m most interested in and know the most about is the Middle East and I’d like to write about it in a new way. I’m not really concentrating on Jerusalem in the last fifty years or in a three-faiths-one-city kind of way, but instead look at the history of the last 4,000 years. It will have a lot of archaeology but it won’t have much archives.

I’ve also written a novel called Sashenka, which is about a Russian Jewish family through the course of the twentieth century, sort of a historical novel in that there are some historical characters like Stalin. It goes all the way up to the oligarch era, but it’s really an intimate family story and that’s out on the 30th June.