Biographer of Jerusalem: Simon Sebag Montefiore

April 26, 2012 • Elena Ragozhina, InterviewComments (0)416

Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore Biographer of Jerusalem: Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem: The Biography is the title of a new book by the acclaimed historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, known to Russian readers as the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin, and Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner. His latest book Jerusalem: The Biography tells about the history, often dramatic and bloody, of the Eternal City, through the lives of people who have inhabited it over the centuries. High­profile friends and admirers of Simon Montefiore include the Prince of Wales, David Cameron, and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Earlier this year, former President of the United States Bill Clinton picked Jerusalem as his favourite new book of 2011, pointing out that, unlike many other literary works, this book had not been written “from the perspective of Judaism or Christianity or Islam”. Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths. This book covers the period from the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the Israel–Palestine conflict; it is the epic history of 3,000 years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism and coexistence.

It tells how this small town became the Holy City, the “centre of the world”, and now the key to peace in the Middle East. Jerusalem: The Biography was named Book of the Year for 2011 by The Economist, and awarded the Jewish Book of the Year Prize by the Jewish Book Council (USA).

Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore 2 224x300 Biographer of Jerusalem: Simon Sebag MontefioreSimon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore is a British historian, journalist, and author of bestselling history books, published in 34 languages, several of which have been awarded prestigious literary prizes. His biography Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, for instance, won History Book of the Year at the 2004 British Book Awards. And another of his biographies, Young Stalin, was awarded the LA Times Book Prize for Best Biography in 2007.

One of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s forebears was the British financier and public figure Sir Moses Montefiore who gained prominence not only as a pioneering businessman, and founder of the first life insurance company in England and first street gaslight company in Europe but also as an eminent philanthropist who figured in the writings of Charles Dickens and James Joyce. The first Jew to be elected to the Royal Society in London, Sir Moses was knighted by Queen Victoria for his outstanding services to the country, and later received a baronetcy.

In the 1830s, Moses Montefiore became an active campaigner for the rights of Jewish people, was elected to Parliament and appointed to public duties without taking the oath of allegiance “on the true faith of a Christian”. Montefiore’s influence and prestige in England increased considerably because of his role in the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. In 1835, Moses Montefiore and Nathan Rothschild (brothers-in-law, married to two sisters) made a large loan available to the English Parliament with which to compensate plantation owners following the abolition of slavery. Montefiore twice visited Russia (in 1846 and 1872) where he was received by Nicholas I and Alexander II and given a number of pledges by the authorities in respect of Jewish issues which, however, remained unfulfilled.

Moses Montefiore’s name is renowned in Israel to this day. He did much to improve the economic conditions of the Jewish population in Palestine. His initiatives included setting up a census of the country’s Jewish community, in 1839; renting land for Jewish communities and organising agricultural study programmes for Jewish residents on a purchased citrus plantation near Jaffa. In the 1970s, the Israeli 10 pound note, and later one shekel coin carried Moses Montefiore’s portrait.

Simon’s father, Steven, a doctor, was the great-great-grandson of a sister of Sir Moses Montefiore who himself was childless. His mother, April, a novelist, hailed from an impoverished Jewish family who were uprooted from Kishinev by the bloody pogroms. Simon was educated at Harrow, and then read history at the University of Cambridge. He started his career in banking, and gradually moved over to journalism. As a columnist for major British and US newspapers – The Sunday Times, the Spectator, and The New York Times, he spent lengthy periods of time in the USSR, travelling to Nagorny Karabakh and Grozny, and was present in Moscow during the storming of Russia’s parliament building, and attempt to oust Boris Yeltsin.

Stalin is not the only political figure in his ancestral home country that Simon Sebag Montefiore has written about: his biography of the statesman and favourite of Catherine the Great, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, appeared in 2000. It was this book’s popularity among members of the Russian government that enabled Montefiore to gain access to state archival records that were to form the basis of his next book on Stalin. As Sebag Montefiore himself concedes, the Putin administration were unimpressed by his portrayal of Stalin, and the British historian and writer found his access to the archives terminated. Sebag Montefiore’s portrayal of Stalin is encapsulated in the sub-title of one of his other biographies: Monsters – History’s Most Evil Men and Women (2008). Stalin tops the historian’s list of the hundred most terrible maniacs, killers, and sadists in history. The book casts light on monsters in human form who led murderous lives at various times, such as Nero, Tamerlane, Himmler, Hitler, Pol Pot, Lucrezia Borgia, and, more recently, Slobodan Milošević, and Osama bin Laden. Montefiore’s novel Sashenka is also set partly in the Stalinist period. Its eponymous heroine attended the Smolny Institute, Russia’s first educational establishment for young girls. An aristocrat through and through, she becomes fascinated with communism and marries a communist party apparatchik.

Simon Sebag Montefiore lives in Kensington, London, in the house that he inherited from his father. He is currently working on a sequel to Sashenka, and also gathering material for a book about the Romanov dynasty.

Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore 3 Biographer of Jerusalem: Simon Sebag Montefiore

Your most recent book is called Jerusalem: The Biography. Seeing you come from a prominent Jewish background, weren’t you anxious about being criticised by Orthodox thinkers and academics?

I felt it was my destiny to write this book. And I wasn’t afraid of criticism – I had an academic training myself at Cambridge, where I read history. I don’t see the difference between academic historians and any other historians. And no one has really written the history of this city. There are books about Palestine and Israel, but none on the full history of Jerusalem.

How did you feel while you were writing the book?

It was the most daunting, challenging and exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s really the history of the world concentrated in the life of one city – any writer would say that such a project is hugely ambitious. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Thank God, it’s over, it’s published. I haven’t slept in months! It’s got stuff about Russia, Britain, and the history of many other countries. It’s short enough (it’s over 600 pages – Ed.) for a regular reader to read but a lot of scholarship and research went into writing it.

It’s taken almost three years. The original concept was to make it about the people who made Jerusalem. I wanted to make it very easy for people to read so I divided it into small sections, and each section is a person, so that’s why it’s called a Biography.

You’ve written a lot on the subject of anti-Semitism. It used to be very strong in the former USSR, but have you ever experienced anything similar in the UK?

In England it has never been as strong as in Russia. I am very grateful to England for always protecting us. I hope the book will improve people’s understanding of Palestine and Israel. You can read it as an interesting saga of poets, kings, priests, prophets, but also as a history of empire, religion, holiness. It shows that both sides have excellent claims to Jerusalem and both sides should respect each other.

You were only 12 when you became interested in Stalin. How could a child find Russian history and Stalin interesting?

I was a strange, unusual little boy. Stalin always fascinated me as a figure. I always wanted to write a history of Stalin when I grew up.

As a journalist I spent a lot of time in Russia. I was in the Caucasus. I was at Ostankino (television centre – Ed.) when it was stormed by Yeltsin, I was in Grozny, in Karabakh, in Sukhumi. I’ve had many adventures in Russia.

Why did you decide to write a book about the Russian statesman Potemkin?

I noticed that no biography had ever been written of him. It’s rare to come across such a subject – a giant statesman of such standing who hadn’t had a biography written about him for a century. He was a perfect subject to study. The book is about the political partnership of Potemkin and Catherine the Great. It was written in order to rehabilitate them both. She is largely known a nymphomaniac, and some people consider him a sort of a pimp. In effect, they were too big as subjects to treat so cheaply. I think they were the greatest rulers Russia has ever had – intelligent, humane, liberal. Potemkin was a great hero. And what’s more, it’s essentially a political study – no one has used those archives before. Working with them was very exciting.

How hard was it to read those archives?

I learnt some Russian for that. And I used some help when I needed to, especially with the Stalinist period. Also, the official documents of the post-revolutionary period were easy to read – they were typed and all in quite simple Russian. So I was able to read them. I also used some help with Stalin’s handwriting. But most of the documents were easy to read. They weren’t in complicated Russian. Have you ever seen these memorandums? The Politburo wasn’t made up of Pushkins, so I was able to understand a lot and select essential documents and get them translated. Catherine’s written archives were harder to comprehend.

You were really lucky you got access to the archives in Russia and Georgia – they were only open for a short time, and now it’s become hard again to get access to them.

I really was lucky. I’d written the Potemkin book, then Putin came to power in 2000, and it turned out that the members of the new government really liked the book on Potemkin, so I was given access to the archives. It all coincided. I was lucky. Nobody besides me was that taken by Potemkin’s papers, whereas Stalin’s documents were of immense value to twentieth-century historians. So The Court of the Red Tsar came about – an anatomy of Stalin’s inner circle. Getting access to those documents was simply wonderful.

He’s fine material for a historian to write about – he’s never boring, no hero but an extraordinary man. He’s interesting to study. He still captivates my imagination I’ve spent so much time in his company...

Were Russian historians critical of your view of Stalin?

My analysis of Stalin coincides with Oleg Khlevnik’s – a leading historian in this field. My opinion is very similar. None of the people who know his work criticised mine, as it’s based on the same documents, and we reach identical conclusions.

So you disagree about Stalin being a secondary figure, and not at the forefront during the revolution...

All the information is there in the documents. So many people are still writing about the myths and clichés. I didn’t start my research with any preliminary plan. The biography Young Stalin mentions the cliché about Stalin being an insignificant, shadowy figure but it’s not true. It’s a rumour that was spread by the opposition.

When you write about a country, you have to understand its soul. And it’s to be found not just in the documents. Many things determine a nation’s mentality. Like, say, the story of Catherine and Potemkin.

You have to figure it out yourself. Of course, I read a lot of literature. I spent a lot of time in Russia. But you need to comprehend not only a country’s mentality, but the spirit of the time in question as well.

I think my books revealed the Russian soul – to some extent. It’s impossible to do so entirely. I received many letters from people whose parents lived through the Stalinist repressions. Many wrote that the books about Stalin were very accurate. And lots of people write to me on Facebook... Of course, I had to deduce a lot myself – I wasn’t there, after all. But I spoke with a great many children of the party bosses in those days and asked them questions they’d never been asked before.

Did you ever meet Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva?

Sadly not. I really wanted to but by the time I was writing she was a bit mad, a bit paranoid, a bit tired of talking about her father. And she really did know a lot. But no one ever asked her the right questions, while I would have known what to ask, and it’s a shame I didn’t manage to.

What are you working on now?

I’m about to write a book on the Romanovs, a book about a great dynasty, a study of Russian power. I’m going to connect their story to the figure of Kerensky, and trace how power has developed to Putin’s days. Also, I’m working on a sequel to Sashenka – I’ve just started . It’s a very exciting project, as I do so prefer writing fiction to history.

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