I found a copy of Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed For Him by Donald Rayfield at my local library two weekends ago. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, so I checked it out and eagerly dove into it. And then I stopped reading it because I just didn’t like it. What little I read of it was very disappointing because it didn’t have a proper respect for the subject matter.
I know that last sentence makes me sound like a Stalinist, but I don’t mean a lack of proper respect for Stalin. I mean a lack of proper respect for the history of the Russian Empire as a whole. Observe these offenses I found in just the first few chapters.
- Rayfield writes this about Alexandra, the last tsar’s wife: “a woman far more willful than he [her husband, Tsar Nicholas] and just as stupid” (page 33). I love anything and everything relating to the Romanov family, so this didn’t go over well with me.
- In his arrogant, contemptuous tone that characterizes the entire beginning of the book, Rayfield is appalled that not everybody in Russia believes that the Katyn massacre was committed by the NKVD, but rather by the Nazis: “Some authors, like Iuri Mukhin, even assert that the Katyn forest massacres were carried out by the Nazis” (page xv). Yes, Mr. Rayfield, it’s shocking that people in the world actually hold different viewpoints from yours, isn’t it? Of course, he does not mention that for years, everyone in the West thought this. Mukhin is hardly the only person to hold such a view.
- Rayfield criticizes George Bush and Tony Blair for “drinking beer with Putin.” And why does he find this objectionable, you ask? Because Putin is basically an evil dictator since under his rule “the Russian carries on Beria’s genocidal work in Chechnya” (page xiii). Of course, he does not mention why the Russians have gone to war in Chechnya or the specter of Chechen terrorism that hangs over Russia even today. As for genocide, the only genocide being committed in Chechnya today is actually against ethnic Russians, who have fled the region in droves since the fall of the Soviet Union.
- As an overall impression while reading this book, I got the idea that Rayfield simply doesn’t like Russian people or Russian history all that much. Which begs the question: why devote your life to writing about it? Simon Sebag Montefiore is another British scholar who writes extensively on Russia, but not only is his work better written, but you can easily sense that he loves his subject matter. Reading something written by someone who doesn’t like the subject, especially when you, the reader, do, is very unpleasant.
Though I was looking forward to learning about Stalin and his henchmen, I shall have to wait for another time to do so, because this book is getting returned to the library this weekend. If I’m going to read books, my enjoyment of them is a requirement for reading them to the end, and that’s that.