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Lives, Cities And Letters
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Simon's new book, Jerusalem: The Biography offers a hitherto unseen perspective to the most fought-after city in the world." I have been visiting Jerusalem since I was a child," he says. There have been hundreds of books on Jerusalem, then why a new one? "In many ways, Jerusalem is once again the centre of the world. It is more than ever the fulcrum of all that is happening across the world. For instance, secularism versus fundamentalism, Israel versus Palestine, Iran versus America and, so on," he says. In fact, the very first line of the book, from the preface, reflects his points: "The history of Jerusalem is the history of the world." His eyes sparkle as he says this.
Spread over 696 pages, Jerusalem is not an easy read. But each page has something that will amuse you. "This is the book I wanted to read on Jerusalem. I had searched for it, but as I could not find the one I wanted. Then I decided to write it," he says. Jerusalem is an array of surprises. In spite of its Holy tag, the city has always been "a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry". In fact, the city has no strategic value, yet multitudes of men fought for it. It was the "desire and prize of empires" and housed many sects, each claiming their ownership of the Holy Land. That, along with many such curious pieces of history, makes Jerusalem a unique city. "It has become a template for every city in the world," says the author. That's one reason why it needed a biography, like the story of a human being. As Walt Whitman put it, a great city is that which has the greatest men and women. And Simon's book tells the story of the people that made the city possible, and impossible, depending on which epoch in history you look at it from.
"In the Old Testament, Jerusalem was referred to as a beautiful woman, a princess and so on. So I liked the idea of the city being a woman. One with a biography," says Simon. "I read many books on Jerusalem, but all were about dusty pillars built by kings, and about crusaders, massacres and so on. But I wanted to show Jerusalem as a living being, the people who made it. I wanted talk about the people and how they lived. So a biography was a natural choice for me to cover that." "More than that, the main challenge was to make something accessible which lay in many languages, so many religions – Syrians, Christians, Jews, Babelonias, et al. And I wanted to do it through people. So my book is a biography of the city as well as a collection of biographies of the people," explains Simon. The book's prose is refreshingly different, something that reflects the celestial and terrestrial characters of the subject. Was this a deliberate attempt? "No," says Simon. "There was no such preparation. It's just natural." He is humble.
Unlike several others of his ilk, biography is one genre that Simon likes the most. "It helps you tell stories through people and helps people understand history," he says. "But one has to be obsessed with one's subject to achieve a good book." When you know that his subjects included mighty likes of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Queen Catherine, you realise the enormity and complexity of the exercise.
Those Many Stalins
Simon has, in fact, written two biographies of Stalin. While the first, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar has focussed on the personal traits of the communist ruler, unlike dozens of earlier tomes on Stalin, the second book, Young Stalin reveals so much of what was hidden from public scrutiny. Stalin himself had denied public access to this information, which Simon with much difficulty got access to decades later. Both the books took the literary world by storm for their meticulous detailing and hot revelations. Simon scanned thousands of archival pieces to unearth fascinating, surprising and shocking vignettes from Stalin's personal life. And many of these ancedotes were not music to the ears of Stalin's fans. "I was fortunate to find Stalin's mother's memoirs in Georgia, and it had amazing revealtions," says Simon.
I tell him that I come from a place where one can find at least two ‘Stalin's in each village. "Bengal?" he is curious. "Nope. Kerala." ‘Ah! I see!" One is sure that his portait of Stalin will disturb many in the state which houses millions of Stalin fans (apologies to all Stalins). But Simon is accountable only to the truth-seeker in him. And he has tried to be impartial to facts and history. Both of his works on Stalin stand testimony to this spirit.
I ask him his most favourite anecdote from Young Stalin's life. "All of them," pat, comes the reply. Looking at my dispassionate face, he adds: "The bank robbery (where Stalin and team rob a bank to fund Lenin's Bolshevik group)." Days earlier, in Berlin, and then in London, Lenin had secretly met with Stalin to order the big heist, even though their Social-Democratic Party had just strictly banned all "expropriations", the euphemism for bank robberies. But Stalin's operations, heists and killings, always conducted with meticulous attention to detail and secrecy, had made him the "main financier of the Bolshevik Centre (Young Stalin, 2007).
Getting access to the Soviet archives was not easy for an outside like Simon. In the course of his writing these two books on Stalin, Simon go to see the "warm Sun over Kremlin" as well as the "cold winds of Tundra". The regime was cooperative in the beginning and turned tough by the time his books were published. "My first book was about Russian empress Catherine the Great and her lover Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin. And when it was published, Russia was undergoing a lot of churns and Vladimir Putin had come to power. And they were looking for a liberal-despotic combination. And he was looking at the period of Catherine as the basis for that. So they liked my book. When I went there for my research on a history of Stalin's rule, it just happened that they were opening the presidential archives in that time. I got full access to it. They even gave me a private room for my research on Stalin's papers. And that came out to be a dream come true," says Simon.
The Kremlin archives were a gold mine. "You could find all kinds of fascinating material. Death lists carrying thousands of names. Even some where Stalin put a blank remark, "shoot all of them" and so on." But they also revealed the other side of the dictator as well. "There were instances of Stalin writing lyrics for popular musicals. For many, Stalin remains as the great monster, the great psychopath. The archives show his wife Nadezhda was depressive and schizophrenic. Both had terrible times together but there are also love letters between the two." For obvious reasons, this biography was not received well. The book offered rare glimpses into the life of Stalin. "When I published the book, Putin hated it. And I was blacklisted. They felt the book showed Stalin as a gangster boss. So when I wrote Young Stalin, I went to the same archive, I met the same woman I used to associate with at the archives and asked for my room. And she asked," Simon pauses, "what room?"
What he realised about Stalin was he did not become a dictator overnight. Many of the letters he found during the 1920s and 1930s showed that Stalin was a people's person. "When Stalin showed interest on you, he would shine his charisma on you. He was quite an irresistible person," says Simon. So it was indeed a really tough task to get into the soul of the character as a biographer. And that is the challenge Simon enjoys the most. But isn't it an eerie experience to ‘live with these people' at least during when you write their biographies? How does he cope with that? "Yes. They get into your skin. When I was writing the Stalin books, I used to dream of the instances I came across in the Kremlin archives. There were instances of people begging to Stalin to shoo themselves instead of their dear ones. Most of these instances were really heart-breaking." It is indeed a tough task to be impartial and get on with your job as a biographer here.
But Simon Sebag Montefiore's biographies will tell you he has successfully mastered the art. In fact, his very first book, Catherine the Great and Potemkin, shows his championship. "I think this book is the best of your biographies. It is a story of love, deceit and lust," I tell him. "Of course! It's my first book and should be the dearest," he laughs, quickly responding to my request for an autograph on the cover of the beautiful work. The evening thickens gamely inside Diggi Palace as we sign off.