Friday, August 08, 2014

Book Notes: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montifiore

Having recently read Simon Sebag Montifiore's excellent book about Stalin's reign as leader of the Soviet Union, (Stalin: In The Court of The Red Tsar) I was pleased to discover that the same author had followed it up with another volume about the notorious dictator. For the second volume of his work on Stalin, Montifiore has delved into the early life of Joseph Djugashvili, (or Soso, or Koba) the man who would come to the world's attention under his 'stage name' : Stalin, the, "Man of Steel".

Like the first of his books on Stalin, this is an astonishing read. While meticulously researched with access to many newly accessible sources from Stalin's youth; this is no turgid academic accumulation of data; nor an esoteric polemic about minor matters of dispute amongst professional historians. Rather it is a readable and compelling - if at times scarcely believable tale of an extraordinary individual living in, and formed by extraordinary times.

Perhaps unusually, the back-cover of the book is worthy of special mention as it so neatly summarizes the content! Each adjective on the back is accompanied by an archive photograph of Stalin from this period, and it displays him as successively an Urchin, Choirboy, Student Priest, Poet, Lover, Pirate, Gangster, Killer and then as a post-revolutionary Commissar. Stalin the Commissar, as one of Lenin's sidekicks 1917-21, is perhaps the most well-known of these images. His background in the seminary is also referenced often (sometimes rather stupidly by New Atheists who try and lay his atrocities at the door of the church!).

In these pages, the reader is exposed to a wide range of Stalin's stages of development. His wrangles with his alcoholic father, his complex relationship with his mother; his hatred of the church and seminary where she sent him, and his discovery of Marx and his formation into a Georgian revolutionary. Many chapters begin with translations of his youthful dreamy and romantic poetry - which comes as a surprise to anyone who has only read of the "Five Year Plans for Industry" or the "Liquidation of the Kulaks".

The book traces his numerous affairs, his first marriage, his revolutionary and intellectual development and his discovery of Leninism and the internationalisation of his initially Georgian Marxism; until he became Lenin's specialist on 'The Nationalities Question' in the Russian Empire. Some of the most incredible chapters concern his period as Lenin's chief fundraiser, (ie gangster/pirate/bank robber), and his periods spent in Siberian exile.

Yet for all the dashing heroics, the poetry and the romance, Montifiore also traces the trail of blood which accompanied Stalin through every stage of his journey. From very early on, people were disposable assets to Stalin - an outlook which when coupled with an anti-individualistic Marxist creed, made persons of no value except as instruments of class-struggle, and then of the proletarian state; became virulently toxic. Montifiore does not engage in simplistic pop-psychology in seeking to explain Stalin's natural malevolence, he merely charts its development and notes repeatedly that it was always accompanied by great charm, huge charisma, and not a small dose of sentimentality.

This book is as informative, as it is brilliant as it is chilling. History written this well is powerful stuff.

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