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At Zubalovo, their country house near Moscow, the Stalins and the other top families enjoyed idyllic weekends. Here Stalin comes in from the garden, carrying Svetlana.

Stalin built his power slowly, informally and charmingly—despite the rigid façade of Party Congress, Central Committee and Politburo. The real business took place behind the scenes in the Kremlin’s smoky corridors. Here in 1927, Stalin chats at a Party Congress with allies Sergo Ordzhonikidze and (right) Premier Alexei Rykov. But Rykov soon opposed Stalin’s harsh policies—and paid the supreme penalty.

Stalin had been the dominant Soviet leader since the mid-twenties—but he was not yet dictator. Many of his magnates were powerful in their own right. Here at a Party Congress, Stalin holds court among his grandees: Sergo Ordzhonikidze (front left) and Klim Voroshilov turn to face him; Kirov (standing, to right of Stalin) laughs, while Kaganovich and Mikoyan (far right) and Postyshev (second from left) listen.

After her tragic death, Nadya lay in state. Stalin never recovered from her suicide and avenged himself on those who he believed had encouraged her. “She crippled me,” he said. He sobbed when he saw her in her coffin. “Don’t cry, Papa,” said Vasily, who was holding his hand.

Nadya’s funeraclass="underline" Stalin walked for a while behind the surprisingly traditional coffin, but then he drove on to the cemetery. His chief of personal security Pauker, a Jewish former hairdresser from the Budapest Opera, arranged the orchestra that can be seen on the right.

Stalin leaving the Kremlin’s Great Palace with two of his closest allies: Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the flamboyant, irascible and emotional scourge of his enemies, who was said to be “the perfect Bolshevik,” and to resemble a “Georgian prince,” stands in the middle. Mikhail “Papa” Kalinin (with walking stick), the Soviet Head of State, was a genial, womanising ex-peasant. Kalinin opposed Stalin—he was lucky to survive. Sergo confronted Stalin and found himself cornered.

Lazar Kaganovich, a brawny and handsome Jewish cobbler, was Stalin’s coarse, energetic, cruel and intelligent deputy in the 1930s. Here during the famine that accompanied collectivisation, he personally leads an expedition into the Siberian countryside to search for grain hidden by peasants. The pace of Stalin’s campaigns was punishing: Kaganovich (below, in middle) falls asleep afterwards surrounded by his officials and secret policemen.

The magnates were so close they were like a family: “Uncle Abel” Yenukidze (left) was Nadya’s godfather, Stalin’s old friend, a senior official and a sybaritic bachelor with a taste for ballerinas. Stalin came to resent his familiarity. Voroshilov (on the right), dapper, good-natured, stupid, envious and brutal, made his name in the Battle of Tsaritsyn and, in 1937, supervised the massacre of about 40,000 of his own officers.

In 1933, the first year after Nadya’s death, Stalin’s holiday was recorded by the secret police in a special private album given to him afterwards: it shows the surprising intimacy and informality of his life during the holiday months. Stalin particularly enjoyed picnics. Here he and Voroshilov (in braces) go camping (above). Stalin adored gardening, weeding at his Sochi dacha (left)—he loved roses, but mimosas were his favourites. He was less keen on hunting, but (below) sets off with (from left) Budyonny, Voroshilov and his Chekist crony Evdokimov.

Holidays were the best time to get to know Stalin: there was frantic networking among the grandees—even the most trivial activities were politically significant if they brought the courtiers close to the Boss. Young Lavrenti Beria, Georgian leader and vicious sadist, offered to help weed the gardens: placing an axe in his belt (above), he told Stalin that there was no tree that he would not chop down. Stalin understood.

Stalin with Lakoba and Kirov, embarking on a fishing and shooting trip on the Black Sea which was to end in a mysterious assassination attempt—did Beria arrange it? Stalin inspects the fishing catch.

Molotov, Premier during the 1930s, was the second most important leader after Stalin, who enjoyed teasing him. He was dominated by his wife Polina, to whom he wrote passionate love letters. Here on holiday he plays tennis with his family; in winter, he pulled his spoilt daughter on her sledge. But this Soviet Robespierre believed in terror and never regretted signing the death warrants of the wives of his friends. Stalin nicknamed him “Molotstein”—or more fondly, “our Vecha.”

This is how Stalin ruled his empire: with his family and friends around him, sitting out in the sun at the Sochi dacha, reading hundreds of pages and writing his orders in red crayon, while his henchmen fight brutal duels for his favour. Beria stands like a guard behind him, having already fallen out with his patron Lakoba (right), while Svetlana (who called Beria “Uncle Lara”) plays around them. Within five years, Lakoba and his entire family were dead.


Stalin’s friendship was suffocating. After Nadya’s death, Sergei Kirov, the handsome, easygoing Leningrad boss, became Stalin’s closest friend—here, he holidays with Stalin and Svetlana at Sochi. But there was tension when Kirov became dangerously popular. Did Stalin arrange his death?

Even before Kirov’s assassination, Andrei Zhdanov, ebullient, burly yet frail, pretentious, self-important and ruthless, became Stalin’s favourite—the only other magnate who qualified as his “fellow intellectual.” Here Zhdanov joins the family, probably at the Coldstream dacha (from left): Vasily, Zhdanov, Svetlana, Stalin and Yakov. Right: On the same occasion, Stalin and Svetlana.

The Court of the Red Tsar in the mid-1930s. Stalin is surrounded by his male comrades and the circle of outspoken, bossy women who ultimately became over-familiar and paid the price. On 21 December 1934, still reeling from the assassination of Kirov, the courtiers, family and grandees gathered for Stalin’s birthday at his Kuntsevo dacha and were photographed by General Vlasik. Lakoba and Beria arrived late. (Back row standing, from left): Stan Redens; Kaganovich; Molotov; Alyosha Svanidze; Anna Alliluyeva Redens; Vlas Chubar; Dora Khazan (married to Andreyev); Andrei Andreyev; Zinaida Ordzhonikidze; Pavel Alliluyev. (Middle Row): Maria Svanidze; Maria Kaganovich; Sashiko Svanidze; Stalin; Polina Molotova; Voroshilov. (Front row): unknown, possibly Shalva Eliava; Lakoba; possibly Lakoba’s wife; Sergo Ordzhonikidze; Zhenya Alliluyeva; Bronislava Poskrebysheva; unknown; and (at the bottom front) Beria; Mikoyan and Poskrebyshev.

Stalin’s women: his beaming mistress Zhenya Alliluyeva sits at his feet in her lace collar; she said what she liked to Stalin and it made her enemies. Pretty Bronislava Poskrebysheva sits to the right of Zhenya. Bronislava’s daughter claims her mother was also Stalin’s mistress. Nonetheless she was liquidated.



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