Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

No one expects an approving biography of Joseph Stalin any more than they do the Spanish Inquisition. He is a murderous monster, a devil from a horror tale, for most people who have heard of him. But Montefiore has filled in the charge sheet with voluminous detail by an epic plundering of the archives. This is a prodigious work, widely recognised as an outstanding intervention in the historical debate over Stalin’s early life, personality, developing political attitudes and role in the Marxist-Leninist party that organised the Bolshevik revolution, or ‘coup’. of 1917. 

That date is Young Stalin’s end point, with Stalin having secured the favourable recognition of Lenin among the Bolshevik big cheeses. Nine pages of accolades from reviewers and critics precede the table of contents. The Guardian’s 2007 review by Peter Conrad of the hardback edition is headed ‘From Oddball Osip to an Ogre’, which fairly summarises the drift of Montefiore’s assessment.  In his view, Stalin was always Stalin, though equally a ‘Jekyll and Hyde figure’, or even, as Henry Jekyll himself foresaw, ‘a polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens’ – awkward and unruly child, seminarian, poet, holdup man, near-Byronic Lothario, enforcer, activist, strike leader, cunning plotter, studious roughneck who ‘devoured’ books, ultimately a member of Lenin’s inner circle, more surprisingly his successor. But always trouble. 

What he was not, unlike Lenin and Trotsky, was a cultivated Russian from a bourgeois background. He was a low-born Georgian from the turbulent eastern reaches of the tsarist empire, and Montefiore’s Prologue introduces him as the instigator on Lenin’s orders, in 1907, of a bank robbery for party funds – not a slickly orchestrated undercover Hollywood heist but a devastating public bomb attack in a ‘seething central square of Tiflis’, an internationally reported atrocity. It strikes the keynote of ruthless brutality that became Stalin’s hallmark, and identifies him not as the dull, bureaucratic non=personality the way Trotsky disdainfully typecast him but as ‘a hard worker utterly dedicated to politics…[who] worked in an eccentric, structureless, almost bohemian style’ that shaped his early career and subsequent rise through the Soviet hierarchy. With equal dedication Montefiore pursues the evidence of his youthful brigandry with a patient accumulation of data from multiple sources. ‘Soso’ (a youthful alias of Stalin’s, one of many, but the author’s preference) hustled for the revolution with dynamic energy and a commanding presence, a tireless, illegal fighter against an absolutist régime. His inevitable reward was arrest, imprisonment and a long Siberian exile, but also a growing reputation as the principled and fearless pivotal figure of a grassroots revolutionary cadre. 

Conspiracy and violence were practically unavoidable tactics for a party with no constitutional path to power, and in Montefiore’s picture of him Soso seems to have taken to them like the proverbial duck to water. Suggestive of a warped, psychopathic nature? Perhaps, but there is a chicken-and-egg knot in that equation: do harsh, abusive circumstances deform individuals, or attract those already pathological? Stalin certainly remained Stalin in exile. He fished a lot on the fringes of the Arctic Circle but he didn’t waste much time. Networks had to be created and organised, there were periodic escapes and returns, plus at least one conference of the exiled. He continued to have a highly active libido, apparently a raffish outsider with a dark sexual magnetism like a hard-hearted Heathcliff, and his intellectual life foregrounded the preparation of his thoughtful position paper on the issue of nationalities in the multi-ethnic Russian empire. It was this that conclusively won over Lenin, whom he travelled to St Petersburg to hook up with in the 1917 after Russia’s defeat by Germany in World War One and the consequent fall of the Tsar. From that point his fortunes rose and rose, feeding a virulent paranoia. He could only be deposed posthumously.

The author has charted Stalin’s youth with impressive thoroughness, offering the reader a storehouse of information barely digestible at a single sitting, while not disguising his own strong antipathy to Soviet Communism. The October Revolution – the seizure of power by Lenin – was a master stroke of heretical Marxism that audaciously ‘leapfrogged the dialectic’. Like the French Revolution of 1789, which had always been a historical model for the Bolshevik leadership, it bred bitter internal dissensions in which the revolution devoured its children.

Stalin may have few adherents now, but he casts a long shadow. Russia today, clipped of its satellites, is a gangster state dominated by a belligerent strongman performing on the world stage all the dirty tricks of his former trade as a secret policeman. Spot the difference; there is a woeful continuity in Russia’s rulers.  Montefiore’s similarly detailed account of Stalin as a member of a single-party government, and ultimately an all-powerful dictator, is available in what might be termed a sequel, or companion volume, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar. Many readers of  Young Stalin will be spurred to read this as well.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020). 978- 1474614825, 442pp., paperback.

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