The shadowy journey from obscurity to power of the Georgian cobbler's son who became the Red Tsar--the man who, along with Hitler, remains the modern personification of evil: a merciless psychopath who was, as well, a consummate politician, the dynamic world statesman who helped create and industrialize the USSR, outplayed Churchill and Roosevelt, and defeated Hitler? Historian Montefiore tells the story of a charismatic, turbulent boy born into poverty, of doubtful parentage, scarred by his upbringing but possessed of unusual talents. Admired as a romantic poet and trained as a priest, he found his true mission as a fanatical revolutionary. A mastermind of bank robbery, protection rackets, arson, piracy and murder, he was equal parts terrorist, intellectual and brigand. The paranoid criminal underworld was Stalin's natural habitat, and murderous banditry and political gangsterism, combined with pitiless ideology, enabled Stalin to dominate the Kremlin--and create the USSR in his flawed image.--From publisher description.
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].
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.
Simon Senag Montefiore uses unpublished, censored 20’s and 30’s memoires and interviews with surviving eyewitnesses to make clear where the man and the cut of the age clash to create Stalin and the USSR. Soso, short for Joseph, suffered an appalling childhood of a drunkard father and a domineering, suffocating mother. Yet his mother’s various lovers protected him so he gained a middle class intellectual education. He was born and reared in a long vanished Georgian culture where Russians, Persians, semi pagan Mountain tribes, Jews fought, loved and traded. A popular annual festival was the town brawl when any active man from three fought each other to a standstill. It was also a world in which in Georgia, that had held the Ottoman Empire at bay for centuries, fall in to deeply resentful annexation by the Russian Empire a generation earlier. To grasp his early days think of Italians crossed with Spanish gypsies living to a code of honour and revenge that would make the Mafia a bunch of boy scouts.
He rose up the Party by being the man who could rob and steal to bankroll Lenin’s political ambitions as well as organise mass strikes. More importantly, he unlike Trotsky and Lenin was active in Russia with the regular members of the party. As we say now, he could talk the talk and walk the walk. Trotsky was clearly important in the 1917 revolution and in the later civil war but was vain and a snob, a great orator but mistrusted by many activists because of that. Stalin was not a showy speaker but knew how to play the simple plain worker to these crowds. This created adoring followers (many of which he killed in the 30’s) who enabled him to take control of the party when being in the Government had more status.
The book tackles the view that Stalin was a double agent traitor. He was clearly a double agent working on Party orders but examples given of his double-dealing fall flat. In reality, riddled with spies and traitor, the Party was monitored daily by the Tsar’s Secret Police. So Stalin betrayed by a double agent Party cadre spent 4 years in bitter Siberian exile. The traitor when exposed in 1918 shook the party to the core as it was akin to discovering that J.F.K (for our American cousins) or Atlee had been a communist double agent. And, if he could be a traitor so could anyone so paving the way to the show trials of the 30’s.
I must confess I am a sucker for anything about the rise and fall of the Communist Party as a long term Marxist. My interest came from my involvement in the revolutionary Left in the 70s and 80’s where the Trotsky-Stalin battles were still alive and kicking. Fear not American reader, I would clearly have been shot in the first days as one of those Quaker-Papist socialists who babble about the sanctity of human life. One of the few things that Trotsky and Stalin agreed on!. Hence, I have read in and around the ideas and history of this period for many years from the actions of the mule-headed Court, the oppressed peasantry and workers and the struggle of the intellectuals over the 19th century to make the political ideas of the West live in Russia. But the book is well researched and clearly written. It would appeal to anyone trying to understand the period or wanting an insight into a complex man you would be foolish to slight in any way. Yet you can see it was his iron will that made the USSR and caused it eventual failure.
The book begins with an excellent "hook," describing a sensational bank robbery Stalin perpetrated in Tiflis, Georgia. It's also very well researched, with lots of endnotes and footnotes (but no so many footnotes as to distract from the text). Even better, it's written in such a way that the characters, even the peripheral ones, come alive. I had no idea there were so many colorful characters in the dying Russian Empire! Surprisingly, many passages were excruciatingly funny, such as the description of Stalin's "pet psychopath" Kamo, feigning insanity to the point where he actually became insane.
I would HIGHLY recommend this book, even if you're not all that interested in Stalin or Russia. (After all, I wasn't.)
Dictator Fact of the Day: Did you know Stalin used to be a weatherman?