on 20 May 2007
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 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.
I've just read Simon Sebag Montefiore's book, Young Stalin and it is not often that one is forced so radically to alter one's entire view of someone so famous.
I am not saying that I came away from the book struck by how Stalin was actually just a regular guy, or that he was deeply misunderstood and not at all a monster. Anything but: the Stalin presented to us is quite clearly a case of the boy as father of the man.
But I - like just about everyone else in the West, I should say - had always fallen for Trotsky's version of events. I thought that Stalin's early life was that of a grey, dour, methodical man who ground his way to the stop through scheming, opportunism and a mastery of the processes of bureaucracy. I had a view of him as the methodical counterpart to Hitler's sub-artistic, charismatic leader of men: an impression gleaned in large part from Allan Bullock's great study of the pair.
In fact, it transpires that the young Stalin - or Soso, as he was known by many at the time - was by far the more glamourous, artistic and even charismatic. While Hitler daubed postcards, Stalin wrote poetry. And not doggerel: Stalin organised a huge bank robbery in Georgia - one reported around the world at the time - thanks largely to having someone on the inside. That insider helped Stalin because of his love of the young revolutionary's poetry: poetry written as a schoolboy which, nonetheless, was published widely long before Soso became Stalin. He was a beautiful singer, a dedicated and brilliant student, and a talented (if sometimes mercurial) teacher. The later cult of personality had much to work with.
This Stalin - despite the pockmarks of childhood disease, a limp and a crippled arm - leaves a trail of lovers and illegitimate children behind him. He is adored and feared. Ominously, he already has an obsession with betrayal by the time he is a seminarian training for the priesthood. In his teens, he beats and organises the ostracisation of a former friend who betrays one of his circle. By his early twenties, a police spy is murdered after Stalin (correctly) guesses at his pretense. He has potential recruits lead past him in the street, while he stands behind a window and watches. Some, he chooses. Others, he rejects as traitors. He believes he can tell a spy at a glance. And in Georgia, agents of the police are everywhere.
Was Stalin one of them? Montefiore certainly leaves us with the impression that Stalin played a double game, using the police to get rid of rivals and enemies. He was ruthless: that much is no surprise. He got a job at the Rothschilds' refinery in Batumi, and almost immediately had it set ablaze. The workers fight the fire, which entitled them to a bonus. But, as Stalin surely knew, the bonus was not paid, due to the suspicion of arson. So Stalin then uses that to call the workers out on strike, despite knowing that the managers' suspicions are right! Similarly, he organised a May-Day rally, personally encouraged the workers to attack, assuring them that the Cossacks would not shoot them, clearly despite knowing that the soldiers certainly would do just that. Then he uses the resulting deaths to his own ends. Stalin was already casual with the lives of others, in order to promote the cause.
He was also, unlike Hitler, a young man of repeated and successful action. Raising funds for the cause, he joins a pirate gang. Much successful pirating later, he kills his colleagues, takes the money, and takes it back across the Caucasus on donkey-back, quoting his own poetry as he goes. This Stalin appealed greatly to Lenin, who saw Stalin as a direct man of action, long before his rise to prominence in 1917. The directness Lenin meant can be seen in Stalin's right-hand man - Kamo - who would beg Stalin to let him slit the throats of victims, and who would literally cut out the heart of an enemy. Stalin was able to control such men and women - bandits, revolutionaries, psychopaths and conspirators alike - because they wanted to follow "the young man with the burning eyes". This is very unlike the Stalin I thought I knew.
Montefiore tells a tale, and does not spend a huge amount of time in analysis. The book really is very easily read, and never risks dryness or abstraction.
In summary, Montefiore's book paints a wicked young man, of great strength, a voracious lover, a leader of dangerous sociopaths, whose story is one of brawls, riots, robbery, escapes from the tundra, seductions and old-fashioned piracy, all steeped in the feuding, banditry and archaic traditions of the Caucasus. With the young Hitler, the trouble is often remaining awake. With the young Stalin, the issue is more one of avoiding a grudging admiration.
on 25 August 2008
This is a great biography. It's fast moving, full of action and Montefiore really brings the young Stalin to life as you flick from page to spell-binding page.
You find yourself at turns liking the passion and charisma of the protagonist, and then repelled by his nascent cruelty and emotional coldness.
This book really explodes the myth that Stalin was simply a "grey blur" before he began to seize power in the 1920's. He was a competent, intelligent and experienced revolutionary, who was important to Lenin and popular with the party grass roots. His drive and personal magnetism are awe-inspiring, and Sebag Montefiore's book is an exercise in demonstrating how true greatness is born.
I can't wait to read the author's book on Stalin's later life, "The Court of the Red Tsar".
on 23 July 2009
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...
Having just finished Tim Jeal's excellent biography of Stanley I stated that that was the best biography I had read for years. I immediately started on this one and three days later am pleased to announce that THIS is the best biography I have read for years. I could resort to cliches (OK I will resort to cliches)this is a virtually unputdownable, page turner. A boys own adventure - well perhaps a bit brutal to be boys own, but in all seriousness, if someone came to a publisher with this as a work of fiction they'd be laughed out of court at the sheer improbability of it. But having said that, the rip-snorting action packed nature of this work allows the prose to flow in a fictional "style" as it were, making this a slightly better "read" than the same author's "The court of the Red Tsar" about Stalin's years in power
I'm not going to repeat a lot of facts and snippets from the book that have become apparent since the opening of the Russian archives, all I'm going to do is urge you to read this book. You will definitely not regret it.
A topic I would never have thought could be so very interesting. The early years of the black hearted Red Tsar and what made him become so dogmatic and ultimately wicked. A fascinating blockbuster of a story, with qualities that keep you reading to the end. Interspersed with photographs and even poems by 'Soso' the 'romantic'.
Joseph did not have much going for him in his early life with an alcoholic, shoe maker father and headstrong and angry mother and I admired his thirst for knowledge and ambition in his youth, always trying to gain an education where so little was available. He ruthlessly strived to achieve his aim to become the leader of the USSR and in my opinion regardless of his charming manner, good looks and high intelligence he seems to have had the symptoms a psychopath. His ability to encourage sympathy from people for himself at any opportunity and his cause whilst hiding a completely hard heart is evidence of that.
A great book for anyone interested in the former USSR and understanding the present situation and the Russian people.
on 27 September 2008
This is a well-researched, well-written, very depressing, and very important book. Those who were reluctant to admit the enormity of Stalin's crimes tried to comfort themselves, when it became impossible to deny them any longer, with the illusion that Stalin was somehow an aberration, an opportunistic bureaucrat who happened to be in the right place at the right time to steal the Marxist Revolution from Lenin and Trotsky. This book demonstrates how Stalin was in fact the model Leninist activist, who played important roles in the Bolshevik project from the earliest stages. As Lenin's principal "fundraiser", his techniques were those of the gangster: protection rackets, bank robbery, even piracy. The tragedy of Young Stalin is how easily a talented young man is corrupted by an evil ideology that draws him from romantic poet to revolutionary to terrorist to gangster: the boundaries are not as clear as some prefer to believe. Finally, the same characteristics he develops as a successful gangster turned him into a successful statesman - and one of the biggest mass murderers in history. Most depressing of all is learning that Young Stalin was not without his attractive side, that he was an energetic charmer with a surprising gift for poetry, and one wonders what he might have achieved if the negative side of his character had not been exploited by a corrupt dogma. As it was, he became a truly horrible man, and a timely warning to young people today of how the superficial attractions of violent politics exploit and destroy naive ideals.
on 14 July 2012
Thoroughly enjoyable book but my advice is to buy the paperback rather than the Kindle edition which is full of the usual Kindle typesetting errors.
on 3 November 2009
You could not make this up. This book is living proof that fact is stranger than fiction. Meticulously researched and beautifully written it is un-put-down-able. A must for anyone with an interest in Russian history or wanting to know how the development of the 20c proceeded as it did.