It might seem strange to describe a book about Joseph Stalin and his entourage as a sheer pleasure, but that’s what Fitzpatrick’s book is. Simple, honest, and direct, but subtle in tone, it manages to convey what was human and complex about something stark and inhuman. Fitzpatrick reconstructs the relations among Stalin and the small circle of lieutenants who remained close to him—and, with varying intensity, to one another—over a remarkable 30 years. These men were not merely rubber stamps for a dictator’s autocratic decisions; they exerted force within the spheres of their responsibility. (Stalin, of course, always had the last word.) In the early days of the Soviet era, they were buoyant with revolutionary energy. Later, they were driven apart during the Great Purge in the late 1930s, reenergized by World War II, and ultimately able to hold the Soviet system together after Stalin’s death in 1953. All remained loyal to Stalin until the very end, even when subjected to his wrath, and they all genuinely believed that he had merits far greater than theirs. One comes away from this book with a far better sense of what it must have been like within the inner sanctum as it went about its business: sometimes heroic, all too often monstrous.