These two books raise the curtain on Stalin's inner sanctum, describing in stunning detail how Stalin and those around him thought, talked, played, betrayed, bowed, and scraped. Sebag Montefiore covers the period from Stalin's rise to power in 1929 to his death in 1953 and expressly deals with the entourage as a social circle. Khlevniuk, a senior Russian archivist, and Gorlizki, his British colleague, confine themselves to the postwar period but provide a more coherent and systematic portrait of political decision-making in Stalin's last eight years. Both books make excellent use of never-before-seen archival material as well as of interviews with surviving family members and others who witnessed events firsthand.
In Sebag Montefiore's book, not only Stalin and his wife Nadya Alliluyeva, but also Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrey Zhdanov, Lazar Kaganovich, Nikolay Yezhov, Lavrenty Beria, their various wives and mistresses, and an extended cast of others assume personalities simply absent from all previous histories and biographies. Stalin remains a monster, brutal in his politics and unspeakably indifferent to the suffering he caused. But he is also charming and a widely read autodidact, with a library that included Wilde, Maupassant, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. Khlevniuk and Gorlizki describe a dual political order -- sycophantic and personalized in certain key spheres (such as foreign policy) and orderly and institutionalized in others (such as economics).