From time to time, the account of horror is only an aside: 'Before he turned wantonly to kill another of his friend's wives...' But that is how Stalin lived. His story is, unavoidably, a tale of continual slaughter. He, not Sebag Montefiore, is guilty of excess. There is violent death on almost every page because that is the defining characteristic of life 'at the Court of the Red Tsar'.
Some of the henchmen took pleasure in the butchery. Beria 'distinguished himself by personally performing the torture of Lakobas's family, driving his widow mad by placing a snake in her cell and beating her children to death'.
But Stalin seems motivated only by the desire to seize and hold on to power. Of course he claimed to be driven forward by his passionate belief in communism. When Lenin's widow tried to exploit her status, he demanded to know if, 'because she used the same toilet' as the Father of the Revolution, she imagined herself 'to understand Marxist-Leninism'. Stalin understood it perfectly well. Sebag Montefiore leaves the reader in no doubt that the monster had brains. But the philosophy - though perhaps once genuinely respected - became a front. In the end, all he wanted was power.
It was very nearly denied him. A few weeks before he died, Lenin dictated a secret 'Testament' which not only wanted to rob Stalin of the succession but actually called for his dismissal. Sebag Montefiore does not explain which quirk of Russian temperament or Politburo convention made it necessary for the denunciation to be revealed only after Lenin's death. Whatever the reason, the delay was crucial. By the time that the truth was out, Stalin had organised Lenin's funeral in a manner more appropriate to an 'Orthodox saint', and convinced the people that he was the rightful heir.
And the power brokers had agreed, in a major error of judgment, that the potential tyrant against whom they had to organise was 'Trotsky, the revolution's preening panjandrum'. 'Preening panjandrums' is an example of alliteration for alliteration's sake. There are many better descriptions of Trotsky than that little conceit.
Apologists for the old Soviet Union, if there are any left, will regard the slightly forced brio as evidence that Sebag Montefiore is incurably biased against communism in theory and practice. I suspect that to be true. For he writes about the excesses of Stalin's regime with uninhibited relish. But the prejudice neither invalidates the truth of his story nor diminishes the clarity with which it is told. The references are exact and the sources are impeccable. The obvious, open contempt for the regime which he describes allows him to write with an ?lan which would be impossible for an observer weighed down with regret that a noble idea had been so corrupted.