Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
May 13, 2007
YOUNG STALIN by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld £25 pp432
Stalin as a young man was a gangster and a skirt-chaser – and when nobody else was available, he did not hesitate to seduce girls below the legal age of consent. He also wrote poetry. He read voraciously, admiring the Georgian classics and Anton Chekhov as well as Karl Marx. Joining the Bolsheviks, he made up his own mind about their policies. Among the extraordinary figures in turn-of-the-century Russian Marxism, he was one of the few who never emigrated before the first world war.
Usually it is the second half of Stalin’s life that has been under the spotlight, and this is hardly surprising. He was a leading Bolshevik in their October 1917 seizure of power. Volatile and ambitious, he subsequently fell out so badly with Lenin that he would have lost office if Lenin had not fallen ill and died in 1924. Stalin guided the Communist party into a campaign for industrialisation at the end of that decade. He turned on almost the entire Soviet elite in the great terror of 1937-38. His name became synonymous with economic expansion, cultural transformation and mass violence. After the defeat of the Third Reich, he incarnated the victorious USSR in the world’s imagination.
Stalin used lethal methods to control what was written about him. He disliked any inquisitiveness about his early years. He was wary of any emphasis on his being a Georgian rather than a Russian. He hated stories about the disrespect shown to him while he strove to rise in the Bolshevik faction before the first world war. He was far from eager for anyone to know of his persistent unorthodoxy as a Leninist. He shared his party’s aversion to revealing intimate details of personal affairs – his schooling, first marriage and his extramarital love life. He was acutely sensitive about people who remembered the many sordid episodes of his career; and many such individuals disappeared behind the barbed wire of the gulag.
Simon Sebag Montefiore qualifies for the veteran-of-labour medal with his new book. He has a big guiding purpose. Without adopting a particular psychological school of thought for guidance, he argues (and I strongly agree with this) that those early years tell us a lot about the momentous second half of a murderous life. He goes on to propose that the key to understanding Stalin in the 1930s lies especially in the gangster activities of the early 1900s.
A lot of this has been said before but not in such detail. As a former correspondent in the Caucasus, the ebullient Montefiore has the skills and contacts to secure his access to rare archives. He is a good listener and has traversed Georgia and Abkhazia interviewing the surviving members of families that had contact with Stalin. He communicates his affinity for Georgians and Georgian culture. British visitors have described the people and the life as being typically Mediterranean. What they really mean is that this small corner of the Russian empire reminds them of places like Naples. (The Baedeker of Russia for 1914 got this brilliantly right.) Tbilisi, the capital, was proud of its literature, music and architecture. Under the skin of this splendour throbbed the musculations of crime and antigovernmental resistance. The central regime in St Petersburg was thankful that Georgians disagreed among themselves as much as they did with the tsar.
Stalin, born in 1878, was a maladjusted child from an impoverished Georgian family. The unpleasant side of his character was evident to his schoolfriends in the street gangs of his home town Gori. He fought hard and dirty. Leaving home as a youngster, he was prickly towards his fellow trainee priests in Tbilisi. After he abandoned his ecclesiastical vocation, he soon annoyed comrades among the Georgian Marxists, taking offence when they failed to take up his ideas or acknowledge him as their leader.
The book’s opening scene is the Tbilisi armed robbery of June 1907. This shows the author at his best. Stalin, hiding behind the scenes, was the organiser. Several Georgian revolutionaries of diverse political stripe organised groups to steal from banks and extort funds from industrialists. Such groups operated in friendly rivalry from Tbilisi’s back alleys and the Bolshevik heist in Georgia’s capital was more spectacular than any other. The robbers, dressed in stolen official uniforms, killed or wounded the guards before grabbing the crates of paper roubles. Stalin sped north to Finland with the proceeds and replenished the faction’s exchequer. Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, the authorities immediately published the serial numbers and arrests followed. What is more, the party as a whole denounced bank robberies for covering it in scandal. Thus Stalin won little renown for his feat; he kept quiet about it for the rest of his life.
The author argues that it should have come as no surprise that the Bolsheviks behaved liked gangsters after the October Revolution. He is right. But not all Bolsheviks operated criminally and immorally before 1917. Plenty of Bolsheviks and other Marxists at the turn of the century talked about the desirability of a class dictatorship. Few of them were literalists. It took the revolution and the ensuing civil war to show how much Lenin and Trotsky, as well as Stalin, exulted in terror. Most Bolsheviks, though, had expected to rule alongside the other socialist parties rather than to install a one-party despotism. After they seized power, they too came to endorse terrorist lawlessness. How and why they moved from rhetoric to practice requires further work on the collective ideological development of Bolshevism.
What Montefiore gives us is a richly and fluently documented study of the chief terrorist in the making. His chapters have an anecdotal exuberance and factual novelty. At the same time, he focuses the lens of his microscope over the blood-coloured fungus that grew from the spores of Stalin’s career. It is an impressive work of examination.
From Oddball Osip to an ogre
Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin tells the story of the Soviet monster's life as a daring gangster in pre-revolutionary Russia, says Peter Conrad
Sunday May 13, 2007
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25, pp496
Should the life of a black-hearted ogre, a mass murderer who was the wickedest of the 20th-century's monsters, be quite so entertaining? In this prequel to Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin is an almost amiable rogue, a professional twister and trickster whose venal malevolence is masked by his poems about budding roses, soaring larks and silvery full moons. The book ends before Stalin's institutionalised terror begins, so Montefiore is free to marvel at the man's 'Bedouin informality', his lack of scruple and his nimble skill at outwitting the police. If we didn't know what he became when he gained control of Russia and its empire, we might think him a beguiling, comic scapegrace, a younger, leaner Falstaff, his allure a little damaged by his chronic acne.
A Bolshevik colleague once denounced Stalin as an 'individualist': to remain autonomous and idiosyncratic in a society dedicated to the collective good counted as treason. Montefiore shows Stalin to be a compound of many individuals. He had as many selves as he had aliases and Montefiore lists dozens of these phony identities, from 'Oddball Osip' and 'Pockmarked Oska' to the baleful-sounding 'Organez Totomiants', which he adopted and discarded at will before finally settling on the identity of Stalin, the self-allegorised man of steel, impervious to the tender human feeling. Already in his childhood, he was a contradictory creature, living 'a Jekyll and Hyde existence: choirboy-cum-streetfighter, half-overdressed mummy's boy, half-urchin'.
The story Montefiore has told requires the psychological penetration and social omniscience of a great novelist. Dickens once or twice peeps over the biographer's shoulder. Stalin recruited Georgian 'caravanserai boys as a pre-pubescent revolutionary street-intelligence and courier service', which prompts Montefiore to liken him to Fagin. The shoemaker's workshop where he slaved 'in a half-flooded cellar amid the almost faecal reek of tanning leather' after being kidnapped by his brutish father inevitably recalls Dickens's blacking factory.
Only a naturalist such as Theodore Dreiser could do justice to the vile luxury of Batumi, the oil city on the Black Sea which was Stalin's first power base, with its 'reeking streets' and 'overflowing cesspools beside oozing refineries'. When Stalin gets to Baku, another blackened and debauched oil port developed by the Nobel family, who built their refinery on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian temple where magi once tended 'holy oil-fuelled flames', Montefiore is just about equal to the imaginative challenge. Here, the plutocrats built villas shaped like packs of playing cards or dragons (with the front door inside the beast's gaping jaws), while the workers were holed up in alleys littered with decaying meat and gutted dogs. Just offshore, the sea spontaneously combusted, as oil bubbled up in waves of fire. The scene makes a mute, incontrovertible case for a popular uprising.
Stalin, however, was no revolutionary. Montefiore views him as a fixer and fund-raiser, not an ideologue. Trotsky teasingly remarked that he missed the revolution altogether because he was absent from the meeting in October 1917 at which the plotters co-ordinated their coup. Stalin described politics as 'a dirty business' and he relished the bloody ordure of the trade. Montefiore calls him a gangster and likens him to the godfather of a mafia family, specialising in shakedowns, counterfeiting, extortion and protection rackets, with propagandistic journalism as a higher-minded sideline. The man of steel had a chillingly corporate attitude to the lethal methods employed by his thugs: he saw violence, Montefiore comments, as 'a useful management tool'.
Luckily for Montefiore's narrative, the money-grubber once or twice indulges in acts of derring-do, criminal-terrorist 'spectaculars' like those which al-Qaeda's scenario writers continue to dream up - a bank raid in Tiflis (now Tblisi), which provides Montefiore with his equivalent of a pre-credits opening sequence, or the piratical seizure of a treasure ship on its way from Odessa to Batumi.
Cinematic analogies are inescapable: Stalin's psychotic crony Kamo rode to the Tiflis bank in his phaeton, 'reins in one hand and firing his Mauser with the other, like a cowboy in a western'. Montefiore may not be Dickens or Dreiser, but he does write a racy, vivid biopic. Stalin the bank robber resembles James Cagney at his most revved-up; Stalin the buccaneer has the courtly panache of Errol Flynn. After the captured ship's coffers were unloaded, he ordered the sailors to row him ashore and was so pleased with their prompt compliance that he handed out 10 rouble tips.
To be Stalin, also known as the Priest, the Milkman and the Staggerer, as well as Soso, which is Montefiore's pet name for his subject, was a great acting role. Living underground, he relied on his virtuosity as a shape-changer. Like a magician, he was able to make himself disappear: during a chase, he jumped from a moving cab into a snowdrift, which altogether effaced him. He also 'scarpered' (Montefiore's jokey word) from his wife's funeral, having identified policemen among the mourners. He outwitted the police by swaddling himself in bandages and pretending to be a bedridden invalid or got himself up in the garb of a Muslim woman, obscured by a coy veil.
Having definitively rechristened himself Stalin, he designed an appropriate costume, which he wore for the rest of his life: a military tunic accessorised by a worker's cap, despite the fact that he was neither a soldier nor a proletarian.
His effrontery is shockingly, shamefully irresistible. He sent a girlfriend to deliver some documents secreted in a coffin; the rendezvous was at the cemetery and he told her to pretend to be burying a dead baby with her bare hands. Montefiore's drama is often a muddled comedy of errors. During Stalin's visit to London in 1907, he and Lenin conferred in a Finsbury pub; a detective hid in a cupboard to eavesdrop, but had nothing useful to report since he spoke no Russian.
Fictional representations of the revolution proved more lethal than the real thing. The Winter Palace was looted, not stormed, and the Petrograd firemen conscientiously boozed their way through the stocks of Chateau d'Yquem in the tsar's cellar. The mood was 'carnivalesque'. Montefiore notes that more people were hurt when Eisenstein filmed the storming of the palace in October. The revolution became a tragedy; it began, however, as a chaotic farce, with Stalin as its nihilistically jolly master of ceremonies.
12 May 2007
A monster in the making
Simon Sebag Montefiore
One day in 1915, when Stalin was in exile in Siberia, he was eating dinner with a few other revolutionaries. Everyone had to say what his greatest pleasure was. Some said women, others — can this be true? — ‘earnestly replied that it was the progress of dialectical materialism towards the workers’ paradise’. Stalin, known then as ‘Soso’ or ‘Koba’, replied, ‘My greatest pleasure is to choose one’s victim, prepare one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There’s nothing sweeter in the world.’
In Number 10 and the White House there may be those who would like to slake their implacable vengeances, but — and for once I am grateful for our pipsqueak leaders — they cannot murder their rivals, old comrades and relatives. In the epilogue to this magnificent ‘prequel’ to his yet more wonderful Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore describes another meal. After 30 years of Soviet power Stalin, an old man now, but still Premier, Generalissimo, and Party General Secretary, is entertaining some of his (surviving) comrades at a mansion overlooking the Black Sea. There is plenty of Georgian food and red wine and Stalin, in nostalgic mood, recalls his two wives, his children by various women, his drunken father, and the escapades of the thugs and bank robbers with whom he had helped fuel Lenin’s plan for the revolution yet to come. Some of the guests murmur condolences for the death of Stalin’s son, Yakov. A mellow scene, indeed. Stalin tells a few anecdotes about certain Old Bolsheviks, not present. There is a slight frisson, ‘for they were people whom Stalin himself had wantonly murdered,’ some, he admits, ‘unjustly’. Over that meal, ‘the fearsome shadow of the Terror, the shameful human cost of the Revolution and the wicked price of Stalin’s lust for power, hung over them all,’ as it does over anyone who reads this book.
The story begins with Stalin’s birth in 1878 — he had at least three possible fathers and a rackety mother who raised her only son as a Freudian hero — and ends in 1917 when Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and a few others unexpectedly found themselves running a vast, disorderly country. As with his previous book about Stalin in power, Montefiore has cast his net wide. A master of Russian sources, he handsomely cites the fundamental earlier works, above all Alexander Ostrovsky’s (Russian-language only) Who Was Behind Stalin? He discovers people like the 107- year-old relative of Kato, Stalin’s much-loved first wife, who recalled the young mother’s funeral in 1907, when the despairing Stalin, Hamlet-like, attempted to fling himself into her open grave. He interviews Stalin’s granddaughter, nephews, adopted son, and the descendants of others who had once served the great monster and had perished, been tortured, or imprisoned at his whim.
I had always imagined that Stalin was a monster but, unlike Mao, a colourless one. How wrong I was and how fascinating he really was. He sang beautifully, wrote not-bad poetry (like Mao), read voraciously in great literature in several languages (Mao again), was a top student in school and at his seminary from which he might, just might, have become a priest, was playful with children, and despite his webbed toes, pockmarked face, and one useless arm was a magnet for women. In a rare falter, on page 177 Montefiore says ‘he was never a womaniser’; by page 178 he states that Stalin was ‘promiscuous’, and the text and the high-quality photographs are littered with the women of all ages, including a 13-year old, with whom Stalin had sexual relationships and with several of whom he had children. He ‘sucked the air from every room and wore down the weak without giving them emotional nourishment’. He was also ashamed of his defects, hiding his webbed toes and powdering his pockmarks.
Stalin grew up in a Georgian world of brutality, gangsterism, rape and bloodshed. In the oil-rich city of Baku, where it was said there were only ten honest men, ‘its moral ambiguities and duplicitous opportunities suited Stalin’s conspiratorial cynicism’. In that atmosphere of konspiratsia, a secret black world, above all Stalin feared betrayal. This fear drove his insane lifelong need to murder anyone he suspected of treachery or to summon them into his presence to remind them of what he could do if he felt like it.
Lenin admired Stalin’s intelligence, loyalty and ruthlessness, as well as the cruelty of the psychopath Kamo, whom Stalin loved, who would plunge a knife into his victims and tear out their hearts. Montefiore is very good on Lenin and Stalin. ‘They sacrificed millions at the pitiless altar of their utopian ideology, and ruled the imperium, between them, for the next 36 years.’ It was long supposed that ‘Stalinism was a distortion of Leninism.’ But Lenin was Stalin’s equal, Montefiore contends, in bloodletting and ferocity; his enemies were ‘bloodsuckers,’ ‘spiders,’ and ‘leeches’ who needed to be shot.
Stalin might have remained a Georgian Comrade Big, exercising his hatreds and lusts in a venue where they seemed normal. But he needed a big scene. He had ‘the brains, confidence, intellectual intensity, political talents, violence, touchiness . . . charm, ruthlessness and sheer weird singularity. In 1917 he found the forum.’
At first I was put off by a characteristic of Montefiore’s writing, which is usually distinguished as well as eloquent. It is his use of certain words not in quotes: heist, for example, and scarper, hooker, swag, blag and ammo. But then I got it. This is the gangster argot of Stalin’s world, when he was a young, merciless bank robber and killer. He came to dangerous life in that world, and in the ten years that Simon Sebag Montefiore has been working on Stalin, the man with the deadly eyes, he has absorbed its lingo.
Last Updated: 0::0am BST -1/-0/2007
Antony Beevor reviews Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
This book is the prequel to Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, a rare event in the biography business. With the wisdom of hindsight, it might have been preferable for the two volumes to have appeared the other way round, but readers are unlikely to be disappointed. Young Stalin is a gripping read. The prose is a little breathless at times, especially at the ends of chapters, but Simon Sebag Montefiore's research, especially in the Georgian archives, is brilliant. The book provides a wealth of serious and scurrilous detail, creating a memorable portrait of one of the 20th century's greatest monsters.
It is worth quoting Montefiore's summary of the contrasts in this gangster-revolutionary:
"Inspired by a hunger for learning and an instinct to teach, he feverishly studied novels and history, but his love of letters was always overwhelmed by his drive to command and dominate, to vanquish enemies and avenge slights. Patient, calm and modest, he could also be vainglorious, pushy and thin-skinned, with outbursts of viciousness just a short fuse away... He cultivated the coarseness of a peasant, a trait that alienated comrades but usefully concealed his subtle gifts from snobbish rivals."
Trotsky, his most famous victim, despised him with disastrous consequences. He tried to dismiss Stalin as a bureaucrat, working away behind the scenes, but Stalin was no faceless official, and this book reveals an exuberance and charisma along with a pitiless, often sadistic cruelty.
Much has been written about the beatings Stalin received as a child from his violent father and adoring mother. The townspeople of Gori, where he grew up, were addicted to violent street fighting, and the seminary in Tiflis helped turn this autodidact and poet into a confirmed atheist and rebel.
Stalin soon became a natural revolutionary and terrorist, shamelessly relishing the organisation of hold-ups, raids to capture weapons, and protection rackets. Extortion was not always necessary. The Georgian revolutionaries were sometimes also funded by tycoons and nobles opposed to the Russian Tsarist regime.
Theirs was a world of konspiratzia, with police spies and double agents from the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. Stalin showed no scruples in killing anyone suspected of treachery, and many more innocent comrades were wiped out in the process than genuine spies. There were even kidnappings and a couple of cases of piracy, when revolutionaries took over ships in the Black Sea and the Caspian delivering pay chests. The vast bulk of the proceeds from these "expropriations" were sent to Lenin to finance the Bolshevik cause.
In 1905, the provincial bandit chieftain travelled to Finland on a borrowed passport and in disguise to meet Lenin for the first time. The future Bolshevik leader approved of his admirer's criminal activities and was grateful for the large sums of money. The following year, Stalin went to Stockholm where he met some of his future colleagues, most of whom he would later execute. And in May 1907, he attended the London conference, during which the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions quarrelled. Stalin hated the "Jewish" Mensheviks and for the first time came across the arrogant and flamboyant Trotsky. The Mensheviks passed a resolution condemning bank robberies. But then Stalin returned to Georgia to organise the biggest hold-up of all.
The great Tiflis heist, the ambush of a coach full of money in the main square, became a scandal reported all round the world. Attacking with bombs and guns, Stalin's gang produced 90 casualties, 40 of which resulted in death. It was a huge embarrassment for the Bolsheviks, but Lenin, who was just as unscrupulous as his Georgian acolyte, did not want the money to dry up. Stalin's insanely violent henchman, Kamo, left for Finland with the equivalent of £1.7 million, which he handed over to the cause. The Mensheviks, who received none of the money, set out to destroy both Lenin and Stalin. Lenin truly admired Stalin's ruthlessness. "That is exactly the sort of person I need," he said.
In his black fedora, Stalin was often arrested but usually managed to escape. Even from jail, he continued to direct his criminal empire. His gunmen were called Mauserists, after their favourite pistol, later the status symbol of Red commissars in the Civil War. Police spies inside Stalin's gang "The Outfit" led to more witchhunts. This prompted many to suspect that Stalin himself might be the chief Okhrana agent, yet Montefiore argues convincingly that he was almost certainly not a spy. The irony was that the Bolshevik central committee had exalted the Okhrana's chief spy, Malinovsky, to membership, and neither Lenin nor Stalin realised his guilt until after the revolution. Stalin's paranoia in the 1930s did therefore have a certain emotional logic, but the cruelty and the vindictiveness were all his own.
At a party with fellow Bolsheviks in their Siberian exile shortly before the revolution, everyone present was asked to name their favourite pleasures. Several mentioned the seduction of women, others chose more politically correct activities in the service of the proletariat. Stalin, who had just seduced and impregnated a 13-year-old girl in the village, chose what was for him a more intense satisfaction: "My greatest pleasure is to choose one's victim, prepare one's plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There's nothing sweeter in the world." His comrades did not take him seriously, which was to be their misfortune, to say nothing of the whole country's. This is an impressively objective book, considering that it covers the development of such an appalling tyrant.
Published 14 May 2007
Simon Sebag Montefiore Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 397pp, £25
Ten years ago, the journalist Simon Sebag Montefiore published a novel entitled My Affair with Stalin, a comic retelling of the Soviet dictator's life from the unlikely vantage of an English prep school. His next book was a hugely enjoyable portrait of Grigory Potemkin, the one-eyed factotum and lover of Catherine the Great. But then, in 2003, he returned to the Stalinist theme with The Court of the Red Tsar, a joint biography of the various murderers, sex objects, hangers-on and drunken buffoons who surrounded Uncle Joe in the Kremlin. Its singular achievement was to put a human face, often a laughing one, on an inhumane regime without trivialising the waste of 20 million lives, roughly the number of prisoners sent to the Gulag over a period of four decades.
Now Montefiore has written a kind of prequel devoted to the early life of a Georgian racketeer called Josef Djugashvili (alias Koba) who did not change his name to Stalin, or "Man of Iron", until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The rich and colourful backdrop of his native land, with its oriental codes of dress and honour, provides a welcome contrast to the bone-chilling monochrome of the Terror. It may also explain the future dictator's almost infinite capacity for cruelty. Historians have hardly dealt with the question of how the Soviet leaders were so easily able to enslave their own people. Montefiore plausibly suggests that, in the cases of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky - a nobleman, a Georgian and a Jew, respectively - the fundamental lack of ethnic or social identity helped to create a distance between themselves and ordinary Russians that was necessary for the perpetration of terror.
The style of Young Stalin is picturesque, like Georgia itself. Montefiore writes engagingly of the strangeness of Tiflis (now Tbilisi), a city of hot springs and bathhouses winding up the slopes of the holy mountain of Mtatsminda, halfway between the Caspian and the Black Sea. "If the showy, excitable Georgians resemble any other European people, it is the Italians," he observes of the folk from the Caucasus who wear traditional chokha, long-skirted coats lined with bullet pouches, and swagger up and down the streets, singing loudly. The resemblance in Stalin's case had a distinctly Sicilian flavour. Indeed, the book opens almost cinematically with a Mafia-style bank raid on the Russian Imperial Bank in Tiflis, a routine "expropriation" ordered by Lenin in 1907 to fill the party coffers, and led by Koba in a classic heist, involving guns and moneybags, that owed more to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than it did to Marx and Engels.
The basic facts of Stalin's early career, as a backwoods bandit who did Lenin's dirty work, have been known since the 1940s, and even before that they were long suspected both in Russia and the west. The originality of Montefiore's account lies in the connections he makes between the various episodes - the great leaps forward, as it were, from a solitary brooding childhood through a fugitive youth to a grown-up life of crime and revolution. Born in 1878, the third child (but the only one to survive) of Vissarion Djugashvili, a cobbler, and his wife Keke, formerly a serf, the future tyrant was known as "Soso" in his hometown of Gory, an out-of-the-way place in which life revolved around drinking and fighting and prayer.
Montefiore integrates the gory details into a broader theory about the origins of the Stalinist regime. Life was humdrum, in other words, until Soso fell ill with smallpox at the age of seven. His face was badly scarred by the disease and he later had photographs retouched to make the pockmarks less apparent - but the experience of isolation seemed to mark him out in other ways, too. Briefly he dreamed of becoming a priest and even went so far as to enroll at a local seminary known as the Stone Sack, one of many religious schools in tsarist Russia "notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval pedagoguery, and law of the fist", according to Trotsky.
The oddest chapter in Montefiore's book describes what Koba did next, abandoning the priesthood in favour of poetry. In 1895, Stalin took his verses to the office of the famous newspaper Iveria (the word means "Georgia"), where the country's greatest poet, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, hailed the "young man with burning eyes" and his teenage lyrics. The five poems that appeared in Iveria under the nickname "Soselo" were widely read and became minor Georgian classics, reprinted in anthologies before anyone had heard of "Stalin". One doesn't have to be blind to the faults of "Morning", for example, with its derivative rhymes and stock romantic imagery, to regret the young man's later switch from poetry to politics:
The rose's bud had blossomed out
Reaching out to touch the violet
The lily was waking up
And bending its head in the breeze
Montefiore describes the secret life of Stalin the romantic and makes the point that, right until the end, the dictator respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill party hacks instead of brilliant poets. When Osip Mandelstam was arrested in 1938, as an enemy of the people, Stalin sent orders to "isolate but preserve" the poet, who died a few months later in a prison camp in Vladivostok. It seems that a kind of nostalgia for his own artistic past made Stalin want to protect his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes by telephoning and encouraging them, at other times by denouncing and impoverishing them.
But there is one secret that even Montefiore's wonderfully readable book cannot divulge, and that is the real nature of Stalin's love-struck hero-worship of Lenin. He describes vividly their first meeting in Finland, in 1905, under the gaze of tsarist spies, and a shared trip to London two years later for a congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Yet treachery was the very fabric of their relationship, and one of the reasons that Stalin never mentioned the jaunt to England may have been a feeling of guilt as he had already been recruited by the tsarist security service, the Okhrana. For the next five years, he played a double game, selling information to the tsar's secret police about his party comrades in the underground - until, in 1912, the young man with burning eyes burned his bridges, so to speak, and threw in his lot with the Bolsheviks.
13-May-07 11:03 BST
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £25
'THE truth," Stalin told his remarkably long-lived comrade Molotov, "is protected by a battalion of lies." Josef Dzhugashvili, an expert in conspiracy, dissimulation and double-cross, and object of calumny from every quarter, throws down a formidable challenge to any biographer. But Simon Sebag Montefiore, following on from his excellent Court Of The Red Tsar, rises to it, with a vivid account of the formative years of Lenin's "wondrous Georgian".
Many elements of Stalin's life between his birth in 1878 and the October Revolution are already familiar. His violent and alcoholic shoemaker father and devout and doting mother seem to explain both his infectious self-confidence and, once the fists fought back, his belief in the redemptive power of violence. Stalin's time at the Theological Seminary in Tiflis, persecuted by a priest nicknamed Black Spot, explains his conversion to atheistic Marxism and adoption, when in power, of techniques of secrecy, surveillance and violation of private life. His agitation in the cosmopolitan hubbub of Tiflis, Batuma and Baku reinforced belief in class struggle, as well as a Georgian inferiority complex and suspicion of the Jews.
However, by tracking down family descendants and previously unseen documents across the former Soviet Union and beyond, Montefiore builds up a picture of Stalin which is far from the "grey blur" sneered at by Trotsky and other doomed Bolshevik intellectuals."Young people," said Stalin, "are all the same." This is difficult to believe when confronted with someone who, even as a small, pockmarked, crippled schoolboy, frightened and fascinated his classmates. Stalin (alias Koba and The Milkman, among other codenames) is the thinking man's street-fighter: a brawling connoisseur of Zola, Hugo and Thackeray, putting his body on the line for a copy of Darwin, devouring Napoleon's memoirs in raucous drinking parties, pumping out incendiary tracts while organising piracy on the Black Sea and spectacular heists, one of which, in 1907, hit the front page of the Daily Mirror.
A mixture of street brutality and classical education seems to equip Stalin for the political jungle of the USSR. His outlaw life at the head of a Red Battle Squad in the Caucasus mountains anticipates the cowboy movies which he and his allies would watch in between liquidating the kulaks.
It is Montefiore's style to paint an intimate portrait of his subject. The author painstakingly traces Stalin's private life: the affairs and illegitimate children he left in his wake on a revolutionary Grand Tour which took in Stepney, Stockholm and the Arctic Circle. Stalin was, we learn, "attractive to women", with honey-coloured eyes and a feline manner. "He was beautiful," sighed the cuckolded Molotov. Even his scruffiness and infirmity brought out the maternal.
Stalin was wary of liberated Bolshevik women, preferring malleable teenagers and buxom peasants. However, he also ranked women low in his priorities, well below revolution, egotism, intellectual pursuits and drinking with the lads. His quest as Bolshevik Knight of the Grail put paid to lasting relationships, and drove his two wives to early graves.
The plethora of intimate detail in this book could be seen as typically Anglo-Saxon in its prurience. However, it is important for debunking the widespread and absurd idea that to be "young" means to be obsessed with sex and uninterested in politics. Stalin could easily be both, and some. It also suggests, beyond clichés about the "banality of evil", that love and fanaticism are made for each other. Unsurprisingly, one of the best French love poets of the 20th century, Paul Eluard, wrote an ode to the 'Little Father Of The Peoples'.
Stalin's prolific love life also deepens the contrast between him and the neurotic loner Hitler, with his pornographic fantasies about sleazy, sybaritic Jews. Although Montefiore speculates that they may just, in 1913, have crossed paths in a park in Vienna, their youths are far from "parallel". Certainly, as Martin Amis has said, both came from the peripheries of empire, both had abusive fathers and doting mothers, both were choirboys, and both grew to only five feet, four inches tall. But by the age of 30, Stalin was a hardened politician, expert in konspiratia, and man of the world; at that age, Hitler turned to politics out of desperation.
Another difference is that, although Hitler manifestly failed as an artist, and channelled his Wagner fixation into modern German history, Stalin was an accomplished poet. At the age of 16, his work was accepted by the foremost Georgian poet of the time and would be widely anthologised under the penname Soselo. But this Caucasian Rimbaud, with "young burning eyes", devoted his energies to revolution.
Nevertheless, until his death in 1953, he would take a keen interest in the queen of the arts. At the height of the Terror, the likes of Boris Pasternak owed their survival to Soselo's respect for "genius". That said, despite their delicacy and purity of rhythm and language, Stalin's poems, with their tragic outcasts in a world of glaciers and divine providence, do not bode well.
This meticulous volume adds to the endless, and probably futile, debate on what makes a dictator. But more interesting is the question of why so many people were prepared to revere the Great Leader. After all, you can't be a dictator if you can't dictate. Stalin probably never committed a murder in his life: others were keen to do the dirty work for him. The most engaging, and terrifying, character in this story is Kamo: half-knight and half-outlaw, an organiser of spectacular bank robberies who would rip out the throbbing hearts of his victims and beg Stalin: "Let me kill him for you!" In order to protect his comrades, Kamo spent five years in the dungeon of a psychiatric prison, feigning insanity "as only a madman could". He was, Stalin later reminisced, "an amazing character". Lenin was also a fan.
Indeed, there is also little here to cheer Trotskyists and other varieties of Communists who consider Stalinism to be a monstrous aberration. From their first encounter, Lenin appreciated Stalin as a skilful and independent politician, dedicated journalist and, not least, a gangster who kept roubles flowing into the Party coffers. In 1917 Petrograd, Trotsky might have daily wowed the Cirque Moderne, but, behind the scenes, Stalin kept pumping out Pravda and preparing for power.
Trotsky, of course, would have his brains gouged out as he wrote the biography of his nemesis. But there was nothing particularly "psychopathic" about Stalin. In the year he declared that "the idea of a concentration camp is excellent", Lenin said "we are engaged in annihilation", and Trotsky enjoined "we must put an end, once and for all, to the Papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life".
In the far-from-sympathetic Black Book Of Communism, Stephane Courtois concludes that Stalin was "the greatest politician of the 20th century, who succeeded in hoisting the small USSR of 1922 up to the rank of world superpower, and imposing for decades Communism as an alternative to capitalism". Even today, opinion polls regularly show that a majority of young "New" Russians have a positive opinion of the boy from Gora. This is a youth which has difficulty passing.
Before the terror
As a precocious teenager, Stalin had a surprising talent for romantic poetry, a passion that endured throughout his life. Simon Sebag Montefiore asks how the youthful scribbler became a ruthless tyrant
Saturday May 19, 2007
Before he was a revolutionary, Stalin was known as a poet. In 1895, aged 17 and studying for the priesthood in Georgia, a province of the tsarist empire, he took a selection of his poems to show to the country's most famous editor and national hero, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze. The prince was deeply impressed with both the poems and the poet, whom he called that "young man with the burning eyes". After looking through the verses, he chose five to publish in Iveria (an archaic name for Georgia), Russia's most fashionable and prestigious literary journal. It took someone of the young Stalin's ambition and colossal self-confidence to walk into the prince's office and offer his poems for publication.
When printed, they were widely read and much admired. They became minor Georgian classics, to be published in anthologies and memorised by schoolchildren until the 1970s (and not as part of Stalin's cult; they were usually published as "Anonymous").
The poems do not fit into the category of Hitler's badly drawn postcards. Perhaps they are closer in standard to Churchill's prose style. Stalin's singing - he was a lead adolescent tenor at the seminary - was said to be good enough for him to go professional. Here, he showed a certain talent in another craft that might have provided an alternative to politics: "One might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin's switch from poetry to revolution," suggests Professor Donald Rayfield, who has translated the poems into English.
Stalin was no Georgian Pushkin. The poems' romantic imagery is derivative, but their beauty lies in the rhythm and language. Poetry remained a part of Stalin's life right up to and even during his three decades as tyrant, leading him to protect some poets and destroy others.
Chavchavadze, Stalin's patron, was a Georgian aristocrat, literary aesthete and respected writer, a romantic believer in an independent Georgia ruled by an enlightened nobility. The teenage student of the priesthood, then known as Josef "Soso" Djugashvili, was a cobbler's son from a notoriously violent provincial town who had overcome paternal beatings, street fights, several almost fatal accidents and illnesses to enter the Tiflis seminary, one of the finest educational establishments south of Moscow. It was an oppressive boarding school offering a classical and Orthodox education, not unlike an English Victorian public school. Intellectually precocious, the 10-year-old Stalin wrote verses instead of letters to his friends.
Startlingly handsome yet pockmarked, strong yet with a withered arm and webbed feet, charming and charismatic yet ruthless, he was a clever student and voracious reader yet a viciously vindictive enemy. Soso was already Stalin in the making: an atheist in the process of embracing Marxism, already at war with other students, and locked in a duel of wits with a hated priest at the seminary. The one thing he shared with the prince was a romantic vision of Georgia.
He was raised, like all Georgians, on the national epic, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin" by Shota Rustaveli, which he knew by heart. As a child, Stalin immersed himself in all the popular poems, especially those by two other aristocrats and national heroes, Prince Rafael Eristavi (his favourite poet) and Akaki Tsereteli. As an ageing dictator, he still talked endlessly about these influential literary giants. Chavchavadze, he said, "was a great writer"; while "my generation learned the poems of Tsereteli by heart and with joy ... beautiful, emotional and musical, he was rightly called the nightingale of Georgia". Once he learned Russian, he adored and memorised the poems of the radical poet Nekrasov with similar passion. At a congress in Stockholm in 1906, he burst into the room of his comrade, and later Politburo henchman, Kliment Voroshilov and energetically recited an entire Nekrasov poem.
At the seminary, the would-be priest worked on his romantic poems until he was confident enough to show them to Chavchavadze. The chosen five soon appeared in Iveria, published under his nickname "Soselo". Soselo was admired as a poet before anyone had ever heard of "Stalin", the name he did not coin until 1912. Deda Ena - the popular children's anthology of Georgian verse - included Stalin's first published poem, "Morning", in its 1916 edition, where it remained (sometimes ascribed to Stalin, sometimes not) up to the days of Brezhnev. The scans and rhymes of "Morning" work perfectly, but it was Soselo's fusion of Persian, Byzantine and Georgian imagery that won plaudits.
His next poem, a crazed ode called "To the Moon", reveals more of the poet: a violent, tragically depressed outcast, in a world of glaciers and divine providence, is drawn to the sacred moonlight. In the third work, he explores - as Rayfield puts it - the "contrast between violence in man and nature and the gentleness of birds, music and singers".
The fourth is the most revealing of all: Stalin imagines a prophet not honoured in his own country, a wandering poet poisoned by his own people. Now 17, Stalin already envisions a "paranoic" world where "great prophets could only expect conspiracy and murder". If any of Stalin's poems "contained an avis au lecteur", argues Rayfield, "it is this one".
Dedicated to Eristavi - if any of Stalin's colleagues had dedicated a youthful poem to a prince, it would have been used against them in the terror - Stalin's fifth poem was, with "Morning", his most admired, and appeared in the Socialist weekly Kvali (The Plough). Entitled "Old Ninika", its heroic sage requires both the harp to inspire and the sickle to kill. The poem affectionately describes the old hero who "dreams or tells his children's children of the past" - perhaps an idealised vision of an old Georgian like Stalin, who himself ended up sitting on his Black Sea veranda regaling youngsters with his adventures.
When, 10 years after these works were published, he was a top Bolshevik, a political god-father running a gang of hitmen and bank robbers to fund Lenin's faction, he was still proud of his poetry. An unpublished memoir from the 1905 revolution recalls a pistol-toting Bolshevik boss leading packhorses bearing guns and stolen banknotes over the mountains, cheerfully declaiming his own poems to his companions.
By 1907, he was looking to pull off a spectacular bank robbery, but he needed an "inside man". In the streets of Tiflis, he bumped into an old schoolfriend, now working as an accountant in the state bank, who declared himself a passionate fan of Soselo's poems, particularly the one dedicated to Eristavi. Stalin charmed and cultivated this admirer until he agreed to reveal the arrival by stagecoach of a million roubles. Using this information, Stalin set up the Tiflis bank robbery in which 40 people were killed and a huge sum stolen for Lenin. This secured Stalin's reputation with Lenin, who declared he was "exactly the type I need". Only in Georgia, where poetry was read passionately, would a banker risk his life and career to arrange a bloody bank robbery because he loved a man's poetry.
Stalin's early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature, as well as his reverence for - and jealousy of - poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. In 1934, Mandelstam wrote a scabrous poem attacking Stalin. The words and influence of this "Kremlin crag-dweller" and "peasant-slayer" on literature were, Mandelstam wrote, "leaden", his "fat fingers ... greasy as maggots". Stalin's rage against Mandelstam for this brave and brilliant attack was probably redoubled because it was in poetry. But ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge and taste. Mandelstam was right when he said, referring to Stalin's interest in poetry, that "in Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it".
The ex-romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism, but promoted socialist realism, his distorted version of romanticism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He mused about the Georgian poets of his childhood. During the terror, he released a famous Georgian intellectual from prison in order to translate Rustaveli's "The Knight in the Panther's Skin" into Russian. He then edited it himself and delicately translated some of the couplets, asking modestly: "Will they do?" His translations were surprisingly fine, but he refused to be given credit for them.
Stalin also respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam's arrest, he ordered: "Isolate but preserve." He preserved some of his favourites, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at others denouncing and impoverishing them. Once he called Pasternak and asked about Mandelstam: "He's a genius, isn't he?" Mandelstam's tragic fate was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse, but also by Pasternak's failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was sentenced not to death, but to hard labour in the gulag. Yet Stalin did save Pasternak, saying revealingly: "Leave that cloud-dweller in peace."
Stalin never publicly acknowledged his own poems. Why did he stop writing them? One answer is that, gifted as he was at poetry, he was superbly qualified for revolutionary politics in every way: Marxism was to be his religion and his poetry. As importantly, he would be a Russian statesman as well as a world revolutionary, while his poetry belonged in a small imperial province, Georgia, a parochial backwater, in a minor language. As he later told a friend: "I lost interest in writing poetry because it requires one's entire attention - a hell of a lot of patience. And in those days I was like quicksilver."
In 1949, for Stalin's official 70th birthday, the Politburo magnate and notorious chief of secret police Lavrenti Beria, a fellow Georgian, secretly commissioned the best translators of poetry, including Pasternak and Andrei Tarkovsky, to create a Russian edition of the five poems. They were not told who the author was, but one of the poets thought "this work is worthy of the Stalin Prize first rank" - though probably he had guessed the identity of the young versifier. In the midst of the project, they received the stern order, clearly from Stalin himself, to stop work. Stalin wished to be remembered by history as the supreme leader of world Marxist revolution and the ruthless Red Tsar of the Russian imperium, not as a teenage poet from Georgia.
· Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25)
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 17/05/2007
Michael Burleigh reviews Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Most biographies of Josef Djugashvili, the drunken Georgian cobbler's son who would become 'Soso', 'Koba' and finally 'Stalin', dwell on the violence of his father, 'Crazy Beso', at the expense of the ambient cultures that made Beso's boy a higher order of homicidal maniac. One of the many achievements of Simon Sebag Montefiore's thrilling portrait of Stalin's youth is to evoke the clannish 'Wild South' beyond the Caucasus mountains - where in 1879 Djugashvili was born in the small town of Gori - and the 'Wild East' of Kureika, just below the Arctic Circle in Siberia - where the 34-year-old spent his final period of internal exile. Both of these wildly contrasting places framed and shaped Stalin the man and they give life to this remarkable book.
In addition to using revealingly new archival materials, mainly from Georgia, Sebag Montefiore has a literate traveller's eye that reminds one of Patrick Leigh Fermor and he uses it well. Gori, for example, was a rough place where drunken Orthodox priests regulated the mass brawls, culminating in ferocious bouts between colossal Georgian and Chechen wrestlers.
Djugashvili was a ragamuffin who escaped the violent rages of his father by leading one of the town's violent street gangs. He was also bright and gifted at acting, poetry and singing, talents that led to his enrolment aged 15 at the seminary in Tiflis. Various patrons helped out Keke, Stalin's impoverished seamstress mother.
An early reading of Darwin apparently corroded his religious beliefs, which were rapidly replaced by Marxism. Most of Djugashvili's energies went into petty power struggles with an autocratic priest nicknamed 'Black Spot'. In 1899 Djugashvili was expelled, and he started the one and only legitimate job of his youth when he joined the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, a cover for his burgeoning activities as a revolutionary agitator in the manner described by Dostoevsky in The Devils. Djugashvili began to dress the part; beard, long greasy hair, a black satin blouse and dirty shoes.
He was never some play-acting student rebel, and although he was intelligent in an inarticulate, quiet sort of way, he despised professional 'intellectuals', many of whom he would later have shot. Very rapidly, Djugashvili submerged himself in the revolutionary underground, bringing strife and mayhem to the oil towns of Baku and Batumi. Having probably started a fire in the Rothschild's Caspian and Black Sea Oil Company in 1902, Djugashvili used a strike to extort money so that arson would not become endemic.
In succeeding years he graduated from extortion to murder and armed robbery, using some 39 aliases, ranging from 'Joe Pox' to 'Oddball Osip', and employing several psychopathic associates, notably the baroquely vicious Simon 'Kamo' Ter-Petrossian.
Sebag Montefiore gives a brilliant account of the great 1907 Tiflis heist, when Stalin's gang held up a convoy delivering roubles: the resulting scenes of mayhem were worthy of the De Niro and Pacino film Heat, although here the bullets and bombs flew amidst armoured wagons and mounted Cossack guards. These robberies were essential to the funding of Lenin's exiled Bolshevik Party.
Anyone venturing on such a life has to reckon that the law will catch up with them. It did, several times, in Stalin's case, the penalty being a few years in hardly onerous provincial exile that resembled an undergraduate reading party rather than the gulags. Exiles lodged with local families - enabling the pockmarked Georgian Lothario to snuggle up to other people's wives and daughters - and when they were in funds, routinely escape back to civilisation.
Stalin's luck ran out when he was betrayed in 1914 and shipped to an icy waste on Siberia's Yenisei river. Apart from his irritating Jewish co-exile Sverdlov and the 13-year-old daughter of the house whom he got pregnant, Stalin's closest companions there were howling wolves (which he would draw doodles of for the rest of his life) and aboriginal Ostyak and Tungus hunters. Stalin made a virtue of necessity, learning how to fish through ice holes and going missing for weeks on lonely hunting trips with his rifle.
In one of his many astute characterisations, Sebag Montefiore remarks: 'Perhaps Siberia froze some of the Georgian exoticism out of him'. Stalin's sycophant Molotov also recalled: 'A little bit of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life.' That's Stalin alright, the Mafioso from the hot-tempered Caucasus, with icy malice lurking behind those smiling honey-coloured eyes.
One final ambient circumstance made Stalin the man. As Sebag Montefiore shows again and again, the revolutionary opposition was riddled with Okhrana secret police spies. Their chief agent, Roman Malinovsky, was a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and one of its two deputies to the Duma, the Tsarist parliament. It was Malinovsky who persuaded Stalin to go to a fund-raising ball, where, despite quickly switching into drag, Stalin was arrested, the event that led to his exile in Siberia.
If such a senior figure could be a traitor, then why not all those 'Trotskyite-Fascist-Japanese wreckers' among his comrade generals and industrialists whom Stalin had shot in the 1930s? Why not the NKVD officers who had arrested, tortured and killed them? In fact, why not many of the people Stalin had grown up with, including so many of the characters in Sebag Montefiore's book?
Many ghosts from Georgia hung about the old man as he tended his lemons and tomatoes at the Villa Coldstream in Georgia, with that little piece of Siberian ice still in his heart.
MAY 26, 2007
WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON £25 (397pp) £22.50
The idea that a psychopathic tyrant may also be complex, atttractive and intelligent is counter-intuitive. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in his earlier biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the dictator has been misinterpreted by his enemies and apologists alike. In western Europe, the historical figure is only gradually emerging from demonology on one hand and cod psychology on the other. In Russia, worryingly, the bloated old icon appears to be reviving under fresh whitewash.
The product of the classic dictator-breeding childhood Stalin may have been, but the primary insight of this study is that the Georgian culture of blood-feuds, "honour", nationalism and banditry shaped his character as surely as his parents, the drunken, brutal "Beso" and adoring "Keke". A Jesuit education added further ingredients, and a unique grounding in conspiracy, surveillance and the classics.
Lenin, too, had a hand in Stalin's creation: the favourite stereotype of the wishful-thinkers, in which Stalinism is a corruption of the more civilised Leninism, is firmly repudiated. The main narrative of Young Stalin concludes as Stalin is appointed People's Commissar of Nationalities in the revolutionary Bolshevik government. By this point he seems to have travelled an inevitable, if tortuous, route to his ultimate post as paranoid, mass-murdering dictator, aka the Engineer of Human Souls.
He was a man of many pseudonyms, from the "Soso" of childhood to the "Koba" of political self-invention. In Sebag Montefiore's dramatic prologue, he is "the Man in Grey", the 29-year-old mastermind of a successful heist in which Bolshevik funds are seized from the Bank of Tiflis. This chapter brilliantly establishes Stalin's milieu and character (anything but grey), and demonstrates the almost cinematic instinct that will enable the author to marshal shelf-loads of evidence into an engrossing popular history.
The opening of the Russian state archives in 1999 yielded rich material for the earlier book. This new volume benefits from the further release of information, and from Georgian family archives. The so-far unpublished memoirs of Ekaterina Djugashvili - Keke herself - are particularly quotable, frank and vivid. By no means always slavish towards her brilliant son, Keke wrote her account in defiance of his wishes, and presumably in secret, shortly before her death in 1935.
Soso the street bully was a genuine intellectual. He ran a library of books banned by his seminary, charging five kopeks for a fortnight's loan of Das Kapital. Charles Darwin seems to have triggered his atheism, but he read Chekhov with equal devotion.
His teenage poetry was anthologised, and ranked by literary commentators among the minor classics of Georgian literature. In fact, one Tiflis heist conspirator helped him only because he admired his poems. Poetry and bloodshed - as the author points out, a distinctly Caucasian brew.
Stalin abandoned poetry as he did his mother tongue, but often protected " his" geniuses while hounding them: "isolate but preserve", he notoriously said of Mandelstam. In an inspired gesture, Sebag Montefiore prefaces each section with one of the poems (translated by Donald Rayfield) - innocuous lyrics with such titles as "To the Moon" and "Old Ninika". Here the writing of "Soselo" seems graceful and occasionally original. Sebag Montefiore surprisingly describes "To the Moon" as a "crazed ode". In fact, its expression of teenage angst ("I shall undo my vest/ and thrust out my chest to the moon" ) seems reassuringly ordinary.
The hype-detecting historian has an eye for the human comedy, as when quoting Sverdlov's description of the Tungus tribesmen who visited Stalin during his Turukhansk exile (cramped, cold, but libidinously merry). The fur-clad men "sat down and kept silent for half an hour before standing up and saying, 'Goodbye, we've got to go'". More people, we're told, were hurt on the set of Eisenstein's film than in the actual storming of the Winter Palace, when the mayhem owed much to the Tsar's wine cellars as wave after wave of revolutionary reinforcements succumbed to Bacchanalia.
Sebag Montefiore shapes his material seamlessly, concluding with an epilogue which finds the septuagenarian dictator gardening and reminiscing. Some slight overlap with the narrative of the previous book is inevitable, but this is negotiated skilfully, and familiar material is transformed with fresh depth and detail. The photos, many newly discovered, are revealing. Those of Stalin depict a "Caucasian rogue", but a dashing one. His numerous relationships with women and girls (a varied cast that this study treats with generous sympathy) testify to personal charisma as well as forcefulness.
We glimpse that Yeatsian "terrible beauty" - both of the terrorist and his terrorism. Implicitly, this book connects "Osip" and Osama bin Laden. That is another reason to read it. While magnificently entertaining, it reveals the complexity of historical conditions that forge revolutions and their leaders. We are reminded how much the West has to learn to attain the proper conduct of any "war on terror".
Carol Rumens's 'Poems 1968-2004' is published by Bloodaxe
May 26, 2007
Weidenfeld, £25; 496pp
HAD JOSEF DJUGASHVILI been shot during the daring bank raids or pirate attacks that the young revolutionary organised; had he succumbed to the widespread disease among the poor in the filthy Baku oil fields where he incited strikes and riots; or had he been stabbed in jealous rage by the comrades he cuckolded as he seduced their wives, many would have mourned.
The poor, pockmarked son of a drunken and violent Georgian cobbler had proved himself a gifted, self-taught intellectual, a precocious poet whose verses had been published to widespread acclaim, a singer with a voice so fine that he was much in demand at weddings, and a trainee priest devout – for a while – in his attendance at mass and assiduous in his seminary studies. But when Josef Stalin, the last of his aliases, died in 1953, an entire cowed nation wept.
How did Soso (Stalin’s childhood nickname) evolve from a fearless revolutionary despised as an uncouth provincial by the snobbish Bolshevik elite into the nemesis of all those early communists who once looked down on him?
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magnificent biography traces the evolution of this slight, partially handicapped, cossetted only son from a quarrelsome street brawler into a disciplined, dedicated ideologue, who let nothing – not romance, drink, danger or friendship – deflect him from the path to absolute power.
The man who could take merciless advantage of human weakness, who could mask his emotions, hide his intentions behind a beguiling persona and exploit the trust of those less cunning or suspicious than himself impressed all those who fell under the sway of the Bolshevik visionary with the burning eyes: women were captivated, Georgian nationalists and intellectuals impressed, tsarist intelligence agents wrongfooted.
Soso, the quick-witted autodidact who devoured Shakespeare, Zola, Plato (in Greek), Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov and, above all, Marx, was also the thug who preferred the company of gangsters to intellectuals, who plotted murders and ordered shootings to eliminate rivals and impress the only man whose approval he sought – Lenin.
Young Stalin is a masterpiece of detail. Sebag Montefiore has unearthed documents long lost in Georgian archives, found the descendants of Soso’s friends and co-conspirators, weighed the evidence of detractors and Soviet hagiographers and produced a vivid psychological portrait of this dangerous, alluring, enigmatic man who, like Macavity, could vanish from the scenes of the outrages he masterminded – as he would, years later, when plotting the purges.
There is so much so surprising about the young Stalin. He was a tender and passionate lover, who bitterly reproached himself for his neglect of Kato, the wife who died in his arms, pitifully young and ill from typhus, after a brief, happy marriage and one son.
He travelled incognito to Western European capitals as a Bolshevik conspirator, including a three-week spell in dank, foggy London where he was beaten up by East End dockers and attended a soiree in Chelsea where Ramsay MacDonald toasted the Russian revolutionaries. Though often morose and prudish, he was as forgiving of sexual pecadillos in others as he was vengeful in repaying ancient slights.
The book moves with pace and authority: inevitably, there are too many walk-on characters and muddling Georgian names – but even the footnotes are packed with anecdotes deserving a whole chapter.
One comes away attracted and repulsed. Soso, brave, clever, morally and politically ambigious (was he also a tsarist agent?) is, by 1918 at the end of the book, Stalin: Lenin’s indispensible fellow revolutionary and the megalomanic rival of Trotsky, that other self-appointed Marxist messiah.
Later, came absolute power – in a chilling epilogue, Montefiore details the terrible consequences, for old friends, party colleagues, family and a country that paid the price with 20 to 25 million dead.
The TlS n.º 5446, 17-8-2007
Fun with my buddy
Simon Sebag Montefiore
978 0 297 85068 7
US: McArthur. $ 34.95
978 1 55278 646 8
Few "great men" of history have taken such pains as Stalin to conceal, distort or destroy evidence of their early life. Stalin was a tall teller of tales about himself, engaging throughout his life in a process of self-invention. Memoirs of contemporaries, many written long after the events, are also unreliable and self-serving. Simon Sebag Montefiore acknowledges the pitfalls of working with these sources. But in his racy biography, Young Stalin, he cannot resist a good story. The result is a readable but highly coloured portrait of Stalin from his birth to the October. Revolution which largely disregards the author's own warning signs. Sebag Montefiore has gone to great pains to find new sources, particularly in Georgia, where he worked in archives and interviewed survivors of Stalin's early years and family members. What they contribute mainly, however, is another layer of stories to the Stalinist myth. The author's main aim is to show Stalin as a more active and influential figure in the Bolshevik movement in the Caucasus than the older and by now discredited accounts of Trotsky and the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov would have had us believe. Biographies by Robert Tucker and, especially, Robert Service have already revised that perception. To go beyond them requires Sebag Montefiore to exaggerate Stalin's political awakening and his direct participation in and leadership of strikes and bank robberies that provided funds for the Bolshevik Party.
Sebag Montefiore speeds up Stalin's coming to Marxism, in which he actually lagged behind many of his contemporaries. Although Stalin was a disobedient student in the Tiflis Seminary, he did not openly challenge authority like his comrades, and was expelled only because he did not show up for his exams. Others were made of sterner stuff. A few months later, forty-odd students boldly resigned in a collective protest. Sebag Montefiore has Stalin joining the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party at its inception in 1898; but the Tiflis committee was only formed in 1899, and Stalin was co-opted in 1901. Soon after, he left under a cloud for Batumi, the oil port on the Black Sea. There, Sebag Montefiore has him turning the city "upside down". The evidence here is highly circumstantial, and the picture of Stalin spreading "blood and fire" ignores the fact that the workers had something to do with the strike movement.
As for Stalin the bank robber, it has long been known that he was involved in planning and perhaps guiding several "heists", as the author likes to call them. But that is not enough for Sebag Montefiore. He relies heavily for colour, dialogue and fact on the memoirs of Josef Davrichewy, published posthumously in France in 1979 under the suggestive title, "Ah What Fun We Had with My Buddy Stalin". An adventurer, Davrichewy claimed, among other things, to be Stalin's half-brother. Sebag Montefiore acknowledges that Stalin subsequently led a "shadowy" career in Baku, but in a short chapter called, typically, "Boss of the Black City" he portrays Stalin as running protection rackets and kidnappings. The problem with evaluating the evidence is that the author offers three footnotes; the second lists thirty-one different sources, some archival, some secondary. There are many smoking guns in this account; the question is who is holding them. There is no question that Sebag Montefiore has control over his sources; the details give an overwhelming impression of verisimilitude. But all too often the dubious becomes possible, the possible probable and the probable certain within the space of a single episode. In discussing Stalin's role in 1917, Sebag Montefiore admits, "Stalin flourished in the shadows", yet in his descriptions of Stalin in Batumi and Baku he has him operating in the full light of day. In a curious way, Sebag Montefiore's picture is a mirror image of the official Stalinist myth, minus some of the less savoury aspects: Stalin as the precocious Marxist, the youthful leader of strikes and revolutionary activity, the "Lenin of the Caucasus". When all the flamboyant memoirs and official Stalinist hype are set aside, what remains is a devious, manipulative, deceitful figure, brutal and coarse to be sure, but posing as a man of action who was most effective operating out of the limelight.
Sebag Montefiore is not much interested in Stalin's politics or his ideas. He relegates a discussion of Stalin's most famous theoretical work, on the nationalities question, to a footnote in the text. As a result he misses the main reason for Lenin's interest in Stalin. Terrorists and bank robbers were a kopek a dozen in the wild South Caucasus (and the Armenian Dashnaktsutiun Party, barely mentioned by Sebag Montefiore, carried out far more assassinations than the Bolsheviks, let alone "Stalin's gangs"). By contrast, there were very few members of the Bolshevik faction who recognized the importance of winning support from the non-Russian nationalities without granting them full autonomy within the movement. Stalin was one of these. His real contribution to the revolutionary cause in Baku was to cultivate the Muslim radicals organized into Himmat (Sebag Montefiore errs in stating that Stalin was one of the founders of the Party), which later in 1919 merged with the Azerbaizhan Communist Party.
Instead Sebag Montefiore is more interested in the salacious details of Stalin's sex life. But this leads him into his most egregious mishandling of sources. He reproduces a document from the Party archives in Moscow purporting to prove that while in Siberia Stalin seduced and impregnated a thirteen year-old girl, an act "so outrageous as to be legendary". But the photocopy proves nothing of the sort. It is a report of the KGB to the secretariat of the Central Committee exposing as a forgery a document published in Life magazine identifying Stalin as an agent of the tsarist secret police. A correct description of the document appears elsewhere in the text, but the misreading cannot help but raise doubts in the mind of the reader about other possible misattributions. More reassuring is Sebag Montefiore's dismissal of the old rumours of Stalin as a police agent, although he keeps referring to them as if he is reluctant to let the issue die. Dealing with Stalin in 1917, Simon Sebag Montefiore adheres closely to the standard interpretations and provides no surprises. For the reader who enjoys a highly spiced biography with an emphasis on Stalin as gangster and lecher, this is the book. Readers seeking more serious fare will need to look elsewhere.
The TLS n.º 5447, 24 Agust 2007
Letters so the Editor
Sir, – I was baffled by the key mistake in Alfred Rieber’s review of my book Young Stalin (August 17). I have no problem with criticisms of my “readable” and “racy” book by the distinguished author of The Politics of Autocracy (1965), provided they are valid. But his only criticism of any substance is of a picture caption: “this leads him”, writes Professor Rieber, “to his most egregious mishandling of sources”, which “cannot help raise doubts in the mind of readers about other possible misattributions”. But I fear this use of a picture caption is, to borrow a word, an “egregious” mistake on the part of your reviewer. My picture section contains the photocopy of the first page of a KGB memorandum to Khrushchev which, writes Professor Rieber, “he reproduces, purporting to prove that while in Siberia, Stalin seduced . . . a thirteen-year-old girl. But”, he writes gleefully, “the photocopy proves nothing of the sort. It is a report of the KGB to the Central Committee exposing as a forgery a document published in Life Magazine . . .”. Then Rieber oddly confesses that “the correct description of the document appears . . . in the text” – so why mention it at all?
But in fact, it is worse than that, because the caption is not wrong in the first place, it is the right memorandum. Naturally, I am aware that the first page of the document covers the Life Magazine story: I used the first page to show the addressees and the actual signatures of Khrushchev and the Politburo which are more relevant to English readers than a typed page of Russian in the middle of the memorandum. In fact, Khrushchev commissioned KGB Chairman Ivan Serov to investigate both the Life Magazine story and the Siberian seduction, and the same memorandum covers both – apparently unbeknownst to Rieber, who has thus built the climax and the foundation of his entire review on a totally flawed cornerstone.
SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE
c/o Capel and Land Literary Agency, 29 Wardour Street, London W1.