Again and again, Montefiore's book details the depravity and bloodlust just beneath the cozy Gemutlichkeit of the Kremlin's inner circle, as the wolves circle to get closer to Alpha-Predator Stalin, who becomes an avatar of his heroes Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and surprisingly, the two Poison Shahs, Nadir Shah and Shah Abbas, who ruled Georgia in the 18th c. and taught the natives the black arts of venomous court intrigues.
In the words of The New Yorker:
Any biography of a tyrant runs the risk of humanizing its subject to the point of appearing to mitigate his crimes. But Montefiore's intimate portrait actually throws the coldhearted murderousness with which Stalin pursued and defended power into sharper relief. The book—much of it based on fresh archival material—moves smoothly between detailed sketches of everyday life at the Kremlin and accounts of the paranoid and sanguinary scheming that determined Soviet politics. This juxtaposition captures the vertiginous quality of life in Stalin's court, where no allegiance was permanent. Just as strikingly, Montefiore shows how Stalin, a "master of friendships," used charm to win the support of members of the Party's inner circle (many of whom ended up regretting it). This haunting book gets us as close as we are likely to come to the man who believed that "the solution to every human problem was death."
Like I, Claudius or histories of the Borgias and Medicis, Stalin's era will persist as an emblematic icon of how human nature and great illegitimate power & secrecy invariably result in hidden murders and human suffering.