A simply superb account of Stalin's early years, with an unparalleled depth of research. I had thought that Edward Ellis Smith's 'The Young Stalin' would be near-impossible to beat, but Sebag Montefiore has made important and revealing discoveries, not just in Moscow archives, but crucially in Georgia too. For the first time, Stalin's pre-Revolutionary career as a professional revolutionary-cum-gangster, organising robberies - including the famous Tiflis one of 1907 - extortion, arson, piracy and murder is comprehensively laid out. But the author also shows that Stalin's political organisational skills, his importance to Lenin and to the Bolshevik movement - and the reasons for them - have been underplayed by enemies like Trotsky, who called him a 'mediocrity', so we get a more fully-rounded view of the young Stalin than was available previously, and one that helps explain his subsequent rise to power. The author states that the book is the result of almost ten years of research, and he has truly found astonishing new sources. For example, memoirs about Stalin collected in Russia before the Terror in 1937 were often found to be surprisingly frank, tactless or derogatory - but they were not destroyed. They were simply preserved in the archives, and they have survived. Stalin's attractiveness to women, and an impressive love-life - even when on the run - is laid out too, right down to the secret 1956 KGB investigation into Stalin's seduction and impregnation of a 13-year old girl during one of his Siberian exiles. The author's interviewees even include a 107-year old woman relative of Stalin's first wife Kato, who told of the young couple's married life, how Stalin's in-laws blamed him for her early death at 22, and how Stalin lost control at the funeral and threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The style is immensely readable too, never losing sight of the human factors amidst the detail, with well-written, compact chapters. I enjoyed the author's previous work on Stalin : 'The Court of the Red Tsar', and would recommend both books to anyone interested in the subject matter. (I am also amazed that no televison company seems to have seen the potential to use the books as a basis for documentary programmes.)
I read Catherine the Great and Potemkin by Sebag Montefiore and loved it. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to read also his Young Stalin, a subject that in other circumstances wouldn't have attracted me. I found an excellent book. Sebag Montefiore's style, that was so harmonically tuned to the historical narration of a multilayered relationship (among Catherine the Great and Potemkin) in 18th Russia, here has changed. It is now the end of 19th century, the subject is Stalin, and the author's style this time, is dry, synthetic, and virile. The book starts in an explosive way, just like Stalin's life. The author gives a complete, amazingly detailed picture of the years of Stalin's life until the revolution, thanks to an immense archival research, interviews to people that had contacts with Stalin or their descendants, Sebag Montefiore is able to talk about him in an objective way, not a common thing to find, in one way or another. We all read about Stalin either as a monster or as a great leader. Reading Young Stalin, we get to know him as a boy, son of a violent father, young poet, smart street urchin, young man who loved his mother dearly, lover, friend, ruthless man fiercely committed to his cause, regardless of anything. With his compelling in-depth research, Sebag Montefiore also clears some doubts of historical relevance. The narration is eloquent, the story is captivating, the descriptions evocative. I cant' wait to read next Sebag Montefiore's history book to see how he will approach it!
I preferred this to Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar as it seemed more real & human if you can say that about Stalin but he did try to show you the person behind the dictator. Biased as Simon is a friend of my brother's from Gordonstoun. I've also read Monsters which is about exactly what it says - & they were! A gloomy read.
I was really surprised by my reaction to this book. Like pretty much any sane person I consider Stalin to be one of the great tyrants of history. A brutal murderer; paranoid, violent and cruel. However, reading the story of his early years I often found myself rooting for him in his struggles with the Tsarist police, brutal teachers and violent father.
He comes across, at least to start with, as a romantic character. He was an excellent writer and poet, and was loyal to his friends and his women. He saw injustice and fought against it with all his strength. But over time his brutal upbringing and his resulting lack of trust in others began to take over. In the end the sympathetic traits are consumed by paranoia and hatred, and this book is a wonderful description of how this transformation happened.
A really exciting story and a brilliant case study in the formative events of a unique criminal psychopathology.
This book is full of entertaining, if mostly trivial, anecdotes about Stalin's youth. Unfortunately to get at them one has to endure Mr Montefiore's prose, which would be better suited to a romantic novel or to 'Hello' Magazine. It is undeniably interesting to read the opinions of people who knew Stalin, but the author's own opinions have little intrinsic merit, even when stripped of the bathos and clumsiness with which they tend to be expressed. For example:
'...the cast of twentieth century titans in Vienna that January 1913 belongs in a Tom Stoppard play. In a men's dosshouse on Meldemannstrasse, in Brigettenau, another world from Stalin's somewhat grander address, lived a young Austrian who was a failed artist: Adolf Hitler... The two nascent dictators shared a Viennese pastime: both liked to walk in the park around Franz-Josef's Schőnbrunn Palace, close to where Stalin stayed. Even when they became allies in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they never met. Those walks were probably the closest they ever came.'
I have reread the above passage several times and its sheer exuberant pointlessness still delights me. Most biographers tend to limit themselves to writing about what their subjects did, said and wrote, and only mention encounters with third parties that actually took place. A lesser writer might have indulged in the kind of counterfactual historical speculations that have recently become popular, and told us what might have happened had they bumped into each other in the park. Mr Montefiore is made of stronger stuff and quite properly limits himself to pointing out that the two ‘nascent dictators’ never met. My only regret is that he has limited himself to nascent dictators. In 1913 the population of Vienna was about two million. No doubt many of these people nearly met Stalin too, and some may even have shared a Viennese pastime or two with him. Obviously, for reasons of space, it would have been impossible to list them all, but I would have liked to know how close Stalin probably came to meeting some of them too.
As Mr Montefiore trots enthusiastically from one cliché to the next it is impossible not to warm to him, albeit not for the reasons he would wish. Bukharin is 'witty' and 'puckish', Molotov a ‘solid and bespectacled Bolshevik' and Yezhov a ‘poison dwarf’. We are told of Trotsky's 'dandyish suits and plumage of mane-like tresses carefully bouffed' and of Siberia’s ‘inconceivable remoteness and wild vastness’. We are even solemnly informed that the Great Terror was 'ghoulish’.
At the end of the book he announces in a moment of sublime obtuseness that 'the fate of Stalin's Bolshevik comrades was tragic, never mind the fate of the Soviet people.' It is hard to be sure exactly what he means by ‘never mind’ in this context, but whatever he is trying to say it does not withstand much scrutiny. It would make as much – or as little – sense to claim that the fate of Hitler’s comrades in the Night of the Long Knives was also tragic, never mind the fate of the Jews.
Mr Montefiore certainly has a way with words, usually an unfortunate one. Even in his more lyrical moments he is sadly more of a Pooter than a Proust, although some passages recall Dame Barbara Cartland at the height of her powers. If you think that you would enjoy reading a book about a monster written by a mediocrity I would advise you to go out and buy it at once.
A must read. Stuffed with hidden, longlost references, notes letters and quotes, personal family interviews and reference to memoirs including recently revealed FSB documents. Stalin is revealed as likely the most extraordinarily capable and brilliant of dictators in world history. A complex, often cold and taciturn man with hot Caucasian temperament, yet mainly lacking in expressive human warmth. A young man with a burning, all consuming conviction in his own destiny. Reared in brawling Gori in Georgia, this brilliant childhood academic nicknamed 'Chopura', the 'pockmarked one' spent years in a Seminary as a ravenous teenage reader, capable poet, enthralled by the Bolshevik ideology that eventually drew him out, or got him thrown out of the Seminary. Embarking on Georgian Revolutionary activities, he was always surrounded by Thugs and Psychopaths for friends, traits his Communist Party Colleagues would show in abundance years later under his leadership. These were men of unbridled, though well planned violence. His astonishing appetite for learning ultimately ensured a well read library of 20,000+ books. An blend of intellectual and terrorist ideologue, he suffered permanently from childhood injuries. A brachial plexus avulsion must have caused his withered left arm, that amongst other features, left him a sullen and touchy man in constant pain. Yet attractive to woman, though limited emotionally and with infrequent expressions of affection, (by contemporary European as a pose to Caucasian expectations of male behaviour), he sired several children with a lusty appetite. His highly analytical, and deeply well read mind versed in Religion, Philosophy and Politics and profound grasp of Literature and Literary Criticism, and his capability in action made him first master of the Caucasus, and then indispensible to his one lifelong constant source of admiration- Lenin.
Stalin, or Soso, Soselo or Beso was an extraordinarily gifted, brilliant and complex man. A man that in different times may have offered the world something very different to the Stalinist Nightmare that is his legacy. The times Stalin lived in were intense, and intensely hard. Dictatorship is not the preserve of men like Stalin alone. It is everywhere in small seemingly innocuous packets. Marriage, parenthood, the workplace, society. Stalin managed to inject the totalitarian state into all of these aspects with the demonic energies of a man who spent a full 20 years in exile, prison and on the run in the Pre-Revolutionary years, prior to even coming near power. Montefiore brings, or rather allows to life this restless angrily burning young man who has indeed fulfilled his own prophecies, and who history will judge one day on a Par with Chingiz Khan, Alexander the Great. Great men of great terror...