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on 11 February 2011
An excellent, thoroughly researched biography of the young life of one of the most appalling tyrants of the 20th Century, the man who we have all come to know by his final pseudonym; J V Stalin. But before Stalin, there was Soso, and he lived an incredible early life. Montefiore describes a young man far removed from the dull, grey bureaucrat he is often dismissed as by both his contemporary (notably Trotsky) and more recent historians. Many fascinating details are uncovered here as we see the cobbler's son, little more than a peasant in an obscure backwater of the Tsarist empire, rise from precocious brat to one of the leading architects of the October Revolution.

What may shock latter day Leninists is the extent to which the grand old Bolshevik relied upon Stalin's services as a thug, gangster and bank robber in order to fund and protect the Party. Lenin realised on his deathbed that his favourite Georgian was also a skilful political operator determined to take over the Party. But it was too late.
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on 2 March 2010
I bought the paperback version of this interesting book. This is my second Montefiore book. I have already read and commented heavily on the writer in "The Court of Red Tsar". In spite of my heavy criticisms of Mr.Montefiore he has the resources and means to go on searching the subjects that I like. Stalin is one of them. The foundation of my criticisms was that The Court of the Red Tsar was very biased. I expected the same treatment from him but the extra knowledge I would gain from the book was far more important than that.

Bravo! An Ohranka (not Okhrana!) detective in the Tsarist Russia would have tailed Koba so efficiently I must confess. The reader follows the then unknown Koba everywhere he goes. His school days, his family and the youth years have been told perfectly. When you read his background it is seen that Stalin has a depth more than one can imagine. Of course everyone has vices but his belief for the revolution, his devotion to the party is boundless. He is like an icebreaker moving forward even in the worst conditions.

Young Stalin, takes the reader from Caucasus to Europe, from remotest regions of Siberia to Petrograd. While on the way the main characters of the Stalin era show up one by one. Kamo, Shaumyan, Kalinin, Ordjonikidze, Malinovsky, Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov and Molotov enter the arena.

Uncovering the unpublished memoirs (yet remain to be verified by other historians) of the era long gone Montefiore destroys the several myths that Trotsky has created after his fall from power. The exiled and once commander of the Red Army, Trotsky always describes Stalin as an unknown among Bolsheviks, a grey spot in the days leading to the October Revolution. Quite the contrary! Fiery, devoted and a perfect organiser from the Caucasus is very well known even before 1917. Lenin appreciates his qualities as he tries to wield a steel party from dedicated Bolsheviks. His hero is Stalin. He never goes after material gains, always lives among lowly classes teaching them marxism. Stalin organises strikes, May Day parades, bank robberies. He is the one who does not go hiding during the fatal July days in 1917. He is the one who stands up for the moderate Bolsheviks who want to hand over Lenin to Kerensky & Co.

After reading all the accusations against Stalin I wonder why one bothers to write a book about one he hates so much. Why visit different places, interview them, find unpublished memoirs and work for years? As for a history reader who had the chance to be in Gori, visit the Stalin Museum he could not fool me. What was in Stalin that he hated so much? After all, according to the story telling he was seldom on the wrong track. A loving, kind and caring husband yet a revolutionary always on the run. Brought up in a hostile environment, brilliant student and organiser. Stood up for what he thought right. This is not a villain in the making. On the contrary I would recommend to my son/girl to stand up and fight for his/her rights in life. So what is the reason that Mr.Montefiore took great pains for writing this book? Was it the radical ideas of Marx and Lenin that made Stalin so great a target for him? Does he want to discredit marxism and leninism as a thing of the past, a relic which belongs to the past not to be disturbed? (See his comments of the October Revolution) Alas, now this is out of bounds for you sir. You enter the realm of politics and you don't have a say in this arena. Capitalism vs Socialism. The fight is still going on...

As for Stalin, he did not seek wealth. Devoted and disciplined, he and his friends only did what they tought best for their people. Never gave up in the extreme conditions of frozen exile in the Arctic Cirle either. We see from the memoirs that he himself is aware that "Stalin" is just a name. He knows the burdens of being a leader yet behaves like an ordinary man. He sends money to long lost friends and welcomes them back when he visits Georgia.

A book worth reading yet can be hard to follow if you lose track of the names that enter the scene. (Also interesting are the photos in the book. One that I like most is about an English daily paper that announces the arrival of the Russian revolutionaries to London for an underground meeting) If you are interested in the subject better start with a more general viewer, I recommend Carr and Wolfe. If you want depth in pre-1917 era Russia and Koba (Stalin) this is the book. Try also the next book by the same author, but he is biased. You have been warned!
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on 2 April 2015
I found this extremely difficult to read . There isn't any order to the writing it jumps from date to date and back again. The expanded notes on each page are a terrible idea as you jump from the main story to the notes and back again. The order of the photo pages dont correspond to the chapters you have read. If you wanted Stalins story without having some detailed knowledge beforehand this wouldn't be suitable in my opinion.
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It is well known that Trotsky for a long time fatally underestimated Stalin, whom he thought colourless and plodding. The flamboyant Trotsky was for years more famous than the laconic provincial from Georgia, but if he had familiarized himself with Stalin's early career, he would have realized, as Lenin did, that Stalin was ruthless and efficient. This book documents Stalin's early career in great detail. It shows the charisma, leadership qualities, toughness and ambition that he had displayed from his schooldays onwards; how he was hardened by the brutality of his drunken father and by the violent nature of Georgian society; what a genius he had for organizing strikes, the burning of oil refineries, murderous bank raids and piracy, protection rackets and kidnappings, while himself not taking a direct part. Sebag Montefiore says that Stalin's involvement in some of these crimes has never been conclusively proved; but he has little doubt that they all bore his stamp. Stalin frequently used disguises and aliases, and several times escaped from prison or from exile.

The frequent inefficiencies of the Okhrana and the Tsarist police emerge strongly in this account; but it was not always inefficiency: Stalin had many informers inside the security forces, just as they had many informers inside all revolutionary parties - so much so that some have suspected Stalin himself of at times having been a Tsarist agent, which Sebag Montefiore does not believe. But Stalin did have many people murdered whom he suspected of being agents for the security forces, sometimes perhaps because real agents planted such suspicions in his mind. The worst traitor was Roman Malinovsky, a man whom Stalin trusted implicitly, but who was instrumental in getting him sent to the worst of his exiles in 1913 and then betrayed Stalin's attempts to escape from there also. Malinovsky's treachery was exposed in 1914. Sebag Montefiore says that Stalin's future suspicions of even his closest comrades was rooted in this experience.

The book is a prequel of the author's The Court of the Red Tsar, and, as in that book, Sebag Montefiore pays little attention to ideology. He consistently calls Stalin's followers gangsters, and some of them indeed were no more than that: Stalin certainly made use of the criminal underworld. But he himself and many of his followers (women as well as men) were more than simply gangsters. Of course they believed - as do the followers of Bin Laden today - that the ends justify the most brutal and ruthless means; but the ends were ideological. Stalin fought for Bolshevism when among the Georgian (Marxist) Social Democrats, the Mensheviks were in a majority; he was prepared to challenge (successfully) even his hero Lenin when Lenin thought the Bolsheviks should take part in the elections after the 1905 Revolution. He was not interested in personal enrichment, and the bulk of the proceeds of the bank-raids he organized went to Lenin or to the Bolshevik cause in the Caucasus, keeping back only a little to celebrate each successful heist in a wild party.

We see Stalin becoming the leading Bolshevik inside Russia while Lenin was abroad: he joined the Bolshevik Central Committee in 1912 with special responsibility for Bolshevik policy on nationalities; he edited Pravda (where he sometimes took a different line from Lenin's and indeed turned down forty-seven of articles Lenin sent in!) But then he was sent into exile, and the description of his four years (1913 to 1917) near the Arctic Circle is one of the most graphic parts of the book. In October 1916, with the war going badly, the exiles were conscripted. Before they had left Siberia, the Tsar had fallen, and the Kerensky's government ordered their release, March 1917, and Stalin returned to Petrograd.

Claiming seniority, he resumed the editorship of Pravda and was the most dominant Bolshevik until Lenin arrived in Russia three weeks later; then he aligned himself with Lenin's determination to fight the Provisional Government. In July, afer a failed Bolshevik uprising, Kerensky's government struck at the Bolsheviks. Trotsky, Kamenev and other leaders were imprisoned; Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding. Stalin, for some reason left at liberty, was once again briefly in charge. In September the imprisoned leaders were released when Kerensky needed their help against General Kornilov; and then began the struggle inside the Bolshevik Party between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin on the one hand who now wanted an immediate uprising, and `the Waverers', Kamenev and Zinoviev on the other who thought it too dangerous. But Lenin had his way, and the Bolsheviks seized power. Sebag Montefiore enjoys himself describing some of the farcical elements of the take-over: `the reality of October was more farce than glory. Tragically, the real Revolution, pitiless and bloody, started the moment this comedy ended.'
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on 22 October 2008
I loved this book. This gave a completely different aspect of Russian history and the key figures of the Bolshevik coup. Too often, the Revolution is taught only from the perspective of Trotsky and Lenin as the great leaders, with Stalin being the shadowy figure who somehow dethroned Trotsky and famously re-wrote and manipulated history. This biography was enlightening and frightening - a masterpiece. i found the writing style fine, in fact very readable. Yes there are a lot of names and events that sometimes need consolidation, but the author can't babysit us. At the times my history wavered, I checked the internet for the facts and to help contextualise.
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VINE VOICEon 11 February 2010
A marvellously readable account of Stalin's early years, the political and the personal. This is a perfect companion volume to his Court of the Red Tsar. My only complaint, as with the earlier book, is that the main footnotes and references are not included in the paperback edition, only in the hardback edition and online.
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on 18 December 2010
It almost seems wrong that a book about such a terrible man as Stalin should be so enjoyable.
It also gives a great insight into life in Georgia at the time and the revolutionary moment. I was surprised to find out that he was such a genuinely accomplished poet.
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on 23 April 2016
A fascinating book. I had no idea about what Stalin was like as a young man and, while some things aren't surprising - hard case, bank robber, ladies man, others are - promising poet, for instance.
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on 25 December 2009
If you fancy a good adventure story, written at a galloping pace, then this is for you. If you fancy a serious biography, then it is not.

The chapter headings will give you an idea of what to expect e.g. "Louse Racing, Murder and Madness - Prison Games", "Two Lost Fiancées and a Pregnant Peasant" etc.

Young Stalin is presented as a daring gangster, running crime in the Caucasus, organizing and taking part in bank robberies, hijacking ships, ordering murders, a master of disguise, constantly escaping the Inspector Clouseau-like cops hounding him.

How about this: "Once when police surprised a meeting there, he hid within the wide skirts of a female comrade. At another gathering, surrounded by Cossacks, Stalin pulled on a dress and escaped in drag."

Even when he is captured and sent into exile, Stain manages to escape almost immediately but not before seducing every girl and woman in sight and leaving a trail of illegitimate children.

The author claims to have uncovered "new" material. Maybe he has but the value is questionable. What about this: "On the way to Tomsk, somewhere near Vologda, Stalin encountered Boris Nikolaevsky, the Mensheviks' Baku investigator. Soso (i.e. Stalin) gave nothing away but borrowed Nikolaevsky's treasured blue tea mug, which he then pinched." The Epilogue in which the writer rounds off the lives of many of those mentioned is also a waste of space.

Finally, can I put on record my distaste for the self-indulgent "Acknowledgements" we readers have to put up with nowadays? This writer not only makes gushy references to his family, friends and colleagues but even thanks his personal "trainer" whose website he mentions.
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on 7 May 2014
The book helped me to fill in understand this early period in the history of the soviet union and the part Stalin played
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