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Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
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Young Stalin (2007)

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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This book would have more stars if it weren't so infuriatingly incoherent, jumping about from topic to topic and person to person with little warning or clear direction, leading me to cry "Who the hell are you talking about *now*?!!" several times. The depth of research is staggering, and lays to rest many myths about the man, generated by both his propaganda machine and his detractors. An essential read for students of Stalin, but very irritating. ( )
  sloopjonb | May 26, 2014 |
One day, when I was outside eating lunch and reading this book, someone asked me who "Stay-lin" (rhymes with Palin) is, and told me that he looks like Johnny Depp. What else can I say? ( )
1 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
The most remarkable thing about this fascinating biography, which essentially shows how "Soso" Djugashvili became Stalin, is the amazing use Montefiore makes of the incredibly rich resources of recently opened Soviet and especially Georgian and other Caucasian archives. From memoirs recorded(?) by Stalin's mother, to those of the friends of his childhood and his colleagues in his early days as a thug for Bolshevism, these documents reveal much about the young Stalin and his environment, and Montefiore weaves them into a history that reads almost like a novel.

From his earliest years, Stalin exhibited the kind of drive, cunning, contempt for others, sense of his own superiority, and willingness to commit violence, albeit on a smaller stage, that stood him is such bad stead when he came to power. He prided himself on his ability to sniff out spies (although, it turns out, he was often woefully wrong) and he was a master of saving his own skin and escaping from dangerous situations. The story of his childhood, with an ambitious (for him) mother abandoned by an alcoholic husband, and his "adoption" by other families who his mother felt could help him get ahead (specifically by going to a seminary for his education) is fascinating, as is his interest in revolutionary ideas and his affinity for thugs and crime. (While he was studying in the seminary, he read a lot and it was a little disconcerting to learn of his enthusiasm for books I also like, including Germinal and Toilers of the Sea.) For a while he helped finance Lenin's work through bank and other robberies in the Georgian region; he and members of other pre-revolutionary groups also basically extorted money from oil barons in the Caucasus to support their activities.

Another interesting aspect of this book was the insight into the effectiveness of the Okhrana, the Tsar's secret police. According to Montefiore, they were one of the best spy services of the era and had double agents very close to the top in the Bolshevik and other parties. Certainly, Stalin was arrested several times and sent into exile, from which he escaped every time except the last time, when he was sent to an extremely remote (and cold) area of Siberia. His experiences there, where he became friendly with some of the local tribespeople, are fascinating. It was at a dinner with fellow Bolshevik exiles in Siberia that Stalin, in a discussion of the greatest pleasures in life, said "My greatest pleasure is to choose one's victim, prepare one's plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There's nothing sweeter in the world." (p. 295) And Molotov said, "A little piece of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life." (p. 301)

Stalin was quite the ladies man. While in Siberia, he impregnated (twice) a girl who was initially 13 years old, and he was involved with dozens of women and girls over the years and abandoned them all. Early on, he married, but his wife died soon thereafter, and he ignored their son who remained in Georgia. By the end of this volume, in 1917, he had gotten involved with Nadya Alleiluva, who would become his second wife.

Stalin recognized that Lenin was the key to the revolution and to power, and increasingly sought to stay close to him and help him. Lenin, Stalin's opposite in background, recognized in him a kindred hard-liner and somebody who, with his coterie of thugs, could make certain things happen that his more intellectual hangers-on could not. After the Bolsheviks took over the Winter Palace in October 1917, Stalin and Trotsky were the only people allowed to enter Lenin's office whenever they wanted. The book presents a strong picture of Lenin as well, and makes the case that Leninism and Stalinism were aligned, not that Stalinism was a perversion of Leninism. Lenin is quoted as responding to a proposal by Kamenev and Trotsky that capital punishment in the army be abolished by saying, "What nonsense! How can you have a revolution without shooting people?" (p. 350)

Montefiore also argues that Stalin

"could not have risen to power at any other time in history; it required the synchronicity of man and moment. His unlikely rise as a Georgian who could rule Russia was only made possible by the internationalist character of Marxism. His tyranny was made possible by the beleaguered circumstances of Soviet Russia, the utopian fanaticism of its quasi-religious ideology, the merciless Bolshevik machismo, the slaughterous spirit of the Great War, and Lenin's homicidal vision of a "dictatorship of the proletariat." Stalin would not have been possible if Lenin had not, in the first days of the regime, defeated Kamenev's milder way to create the machinery for so boundless and absolute a power. That was the forum for which Stalin was superbly equipped. Now Stalin could become Stalin." (p. 353)

Finally, a word from Montefiore about his sources.

I have been hugely fortunate in finding new sources, often unpublished or partly unpublished, and barely previously used by historians. Archival sources are more reliable than oral histories, but of course they too have their dangers and must be analysed carefully. But the anti-Stalinist histories often turn out to be just as unreliable.

Many of the archives used in this book, for example, were recorded by official Party historians . . . Therefore, one must be constantly aware that they were recorded under constant pressure to present Stalin in a good light. At all times, one has to be aware of the circumstances and try to penetrate the Bolshevik language to see what the witnesses are really trying to tell us.

Yet those recorded before the Terror in 1937 are often astonishingly frank, tactless, or derogatory about Stalin: a derogatory story about Stalin in an official memoir is almost certainly true. Many of the witnesses were so naive or honest that their memoirs were unusable at the time, or only usable in small sections. Such memoirs were not destroyed, but were simply preserved in the archives. Many were edited, then copied and sent to Stalin's Moscow archive, so there are differences between versions. But the originals usually survived in the local archive."
(p. 385)

He goes on, but this gives a flavor of his approach. He also conducted many interviews with descendents of key people. The effort that went into telling this story is remarkable.

This is a compelling and chilling portrait, and I am eager to read Monefiore's sequel, [The Court of the Red Tsar (which he actually wrote first).
8 vote rebeccanyc | Feb 15, 2013 |
After hearing rave reviews of [Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar], I added it to the list, but decided to read his subsequent book [Young Stalin] first for a chronological view. When I saw a copy on a bookstore table, I was immediately drawn to the pictures. I have never seen so many photos of the young Stalin, and they are fascinating. Using material from newly opened archives in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Batumi, as well as those in 20 other cities in nine countries, Montefiore gives a look at the early years of Stalin that no one has been allowed to see. It took the author ten years to do the research, and it shows.

Yet despite being meticulously documented and footnoted, the book reads like a novel. The characters are so unusual and captivating and the setting so well evoked that I was drawn into a world I scarcely could imagine. Raffish young men racing through Tbilisi with swords drawn and handmade bombs exploding, robbing banks and sending the money to Lenin to fund the upcoming revolution. A Muslim highwayman smuggling printing presses through the rugged mountains on donkeys, so that the communists could continue to spread their message. Kamo, Stalin's childhood friend and devoted murderer, flamboyant and cocky, surviving intense and prolonged torture to return to Stalin's side, insane but useful. And Stalin, the most intelligent, secretive, and manipulative of them all: throwing himself in graves, escaping pursuit dressed in drag, organizing the most daring and wild plots, causing riots in the prisons whenever he was caught and escaping exile whenever Lenin called. But Stalin was also a published poet, passionate lover, voracious reader, and one-time seminarian. The author pieces together not only the true story of Stalin's actions up to the time he outmaneuvered Trotsky for power in 1917, but the type of boy and young man that Stalin was and the influences that made him that way.

One such influence was the deprivation and family life in which Stalin grew up. Prey to near-death illnesses and accidents, Soso (as his mother called him), was maimed and sickly as a child, and his mother babied him to the extreme. Yet Soso has also a handful, running children's street gangs, and so she also beat him. Stalin remained faithful to her, although she may not have always been faithful to her husband. Beso was so insecure about the rumors surrounding Soso's parentage, that alcoholism and violence turned him mad. Keke relied on the protection of powerful men such as the wealthy Koba Egnatashvili (whose first name Soso used for a while) and the Gori police chief, Damian Davrichewy, who did the young Stalin many favors. There were even rumors about Keke and the local priest who took an unusual interest in the boy's welfare. Montefiore takes all of this uncertainty, violence, and poverty surrounding Stalin's youth and creates a psychological profile of the boy and young man that brings the disparate accounts together and explains many of Stalin's later actions.

I could go on about Stalin's exploits, love affairs, betrayals, and political development, but I don't want to retell the book. I hope I have given you enough to whet your appetite and encourage you to pick up the book for yourself. It's the best book on Stalin that I have read, and I look forward to [Court of the Red Tsar]. ( )
8 vote labfs39 | Dec 7, 2012 |
In Young Stalin, Montefiore looks at Stalin’s life from the 1880’s to the 1920’s – the story of which is picked up in his The Court of the Red Tsar. The story is involving and the portrait of society and the institutions of the time – the underground organizations, the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, prisons and exiles – was well-drawn. Montefiore is usually clear about his sources and he makes use of some that were previously unknown or unpublished. He often examines the Stalin myths floating around – Stalin was an Okhrana agent, his father was someone else, his second wife, Nadya, was his daughter – and mostly debunks them. Sometimes Montefiore provides almost too much detail and he has a habit of referring to everyone by occasionally shifting nicknames. As in Red Tsar, the focus is on Stalin and his relationships so sometimes the political and historical background is rushed or only lightly covered.

Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina “Keke” Djugashvili was overbearing and sometimes violent but she always put her son first and had high ambitions for him. His father Vissarion, a cobbler, eventually became a violent drunkard who abandoned the family. They were poor but Keke made sure her son had a good education. She was able to get multiple wealthier or well-placed men to help them either through sympathy for the poor abandoned mother and her intelligent son or through relationships. Montefiore examines possible fathers for Stalin, and the evidence, but says most likely Vissarion was his biological father. Various influences are also suggested though not in a heavy-handed manner, one being the brawling culture of the Georgian town of Gori where Stalin grew up. In the seminary, Stalin devoured forbidden books and started dabbling in political movements. Even as an adolescent, he always had to be the leader of his groups and would undermine those who opposed him or weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic. Dropping out of school, he disappointed Keke but started getting more seriously involved in the underground Georgian socialist groups. In this section, I did speculate several times – when his illnesses or accidents were described – what would happen if he had died, hadn’t gone to the seminary, had become a cobbler or had his life changed in a major way.

Stalin led a peripatetic life – staying with friends, on the move to avoid the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. After inciting arson at the Rothschilds’ refinery and leading some violent strikes, Stalin became a wanted man and was arrested, imprisoned and exiled, just the first of many. Stalin escaped, as he would several times, and went back to the underground. He had amassed a number of followers and was in contact with a number of notable Bolsheviks including Lenin. He also met various people who would be his friends, family and in his administrations – the Alliluyevs, family of his second wife Nadya (there was a speculated affair between Stalin and Nadya’s mother, though the rumor that Nadya was his daughter was clearly untrue), Abel Yenukidze, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the Svanidzes – family of his first wife.

Montefiore provides a counter to Trotsky’s assertion that Stalin spent 1905 scribbling uselessly – he was the leader of a Bolshevik faction that engaged in terrorist acts, protests and strikes and extortion for financing. Even with concessions by the tsar, he still promoted violence. Still, he was always writing articles, printing and distributing leaflets and participating in public debates between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin’s group held the town of Chiatura, but Mensheviks prevailed in most of Georgian. The Menshevik-Bolshevik relationship would go back and forth - sometimes alliances were formed, sometimes deadly enmity prevailed. Stalin himself would often be more conciliatory than Lenin, suggesting that they join forces with other Marxist groups. He met Lenin in person for the first time at a Bolshevik conference, the start of a long relationship. Stalin and Lenin would clash on many points though he quickly became important to Lenin as someone who could raise money, was brutally effective and loyal and also, despite views to the contrary, had intellectual weight.

Stalin funneled money to Lenin – money his gang obtained through robberies. They hit banks, public institutions, ships. Even though Stalin organized these attacks (he didn’t always participate) he had no actual military experience which Montefiore highlights several times – he was critical of Stalin and his amateurs during WWII in Red Tsar. One robbery in particular would trouble Stalin after his rise to prominence – in one of the conferences, robberies were banned and Stalin was denounced by members of the party in Georgia. Lenin was not bothered by this but Montefiore describes many things that Stalin did that could have been used against him. He often details whether these facts were known, were distorted, were rumored to be true or were discovered by the opposition or Stalin’s henchmen and what happened after (for example, the fate of a Stalin publication that put his views closer to Mensheviks – the author details how Stalin sent his men to collect copies or execute those who had one).

Stalin eventually tried to distance himself from his illegal past and moved on to Bolshevik politicking. He traveled to conferences, around Europe, met with Lenin and other Bolsheviks and continued writing and agitating. Stalin wrote one of his important works on the question of nationalities though I don’t think his thoughts were really summarized much. He spent the war in a long exile in Siberia. Stalin interacted with more of those close to Lenin, who would eventually become his victims – Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev – as well his friends – Molotov and Voroshilov. Montefiore describes the Bolshevik seizure of power but makes it sound rather weak and pathetic (Lenin running around in a poor disguise, for example).

One of the most influential factors in shaping Stalin’s personality and methods was the underground life of konspiratsia, where anyone could be a spy and double or triple crossing occurred regularly. The surveillance methods of the head teacher at seminary acted as an early education in paranoia for Stalin. In all his groups, he was overly concerned with traitors of all kinds. He eventually registered on the list of the Okhrana and they began following him around. Another of the more persistent rumors is that Stalin was a tsarist double agent. Montefiore points out aspects of Stalin’s life that fueled that rumor but generally dismisses them. Stalin was frequently arrested. His stay in prison and exile was cushy compared to his own Gulag system. The exiles often seemed like reading holidays and boredom was one of the main concerns. Stalin would often accuse people in the Georgian party and while on occasion he was right, he also picked innocent people. A particularly significant double agent was Roman Malinovsky, who was close to Lenin and Stalin for a long time and even elected as a Bolshevik representative to the Duma. He regularly betrayed his friends to the Okhrana but surprisingly no one suspected him, even defending him from accusations of being a spy. Once he was in power, Stalin never stopped thinking with the mindset of konspiratsia.

Montefiore looks at Stalin’s many affairs, engagements and marriages. In The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin’s relationships were positively tame compared to his cronies, some of whom were over-the-top womanizers or were perverse and debauched. However, in his early days he amassed a large number of ex-girlfriends, often his married landladies or the girlfriends of his fellow Bolsheviks. He also had several illegitimate children and a string of never-fulfilled engagements though in one case he seemed to want to marry but was transferred while in prison. Stalin was always on the run or in prison so he frequently abandoned relationships. His first marriage, to Kato Svanidze, was not always happy though he looked back on her with fondness. Montefiore, as well as Kato’s family, blames Stalin for bringing Kato to the city of Baku and leaving her in poor and unhealthy conditions. She died soon after and Stalin neglected to see their son Yakov for years. Probably one of the worst relationships occurred during Stalin’s longest exile in Siberia. He had an affair with a 13-year old girl, impregnated her twice and abandoned the second son who survived. However, that Siberian exile remained one of Stalin’s fondest memories. He was friendly with the guard assigned to watch over him and bragged about his hunting and fishing exploits. Likely he was bored and wanted to be where the action was (this was during WWI) but Montefiore suggests that it was one of the happiest periods of his life. He describes why Stalin’s dog, Tishka, was the perfect companion – “they provided selfless affection and passionate admiration yet never betrayed their masters (nor became pregnant by them), and yet they could be abandoned without guilt”. Stalin ends married to Nadya Alliluyeva but Montefiore hints at problems to come.

A very informative look at the younger Stalin; if I hadn’t already read The Court of the Red Tsar I would definitely want to after reading this one. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Oct 7, 2012 |
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Examines the turbulent early years of a man who would become the personification of twentieth-century evil, detailing his poverty-stricken youth, religious training, role as a fanatical revolutionary, many love affairs, and evolution into a murderous tyrant.… (more)

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