Simon Sebag Montefiore (2007) Young Stalin

Young Stalin was winner of the 2007 Costa Biography Award. You can imagine historian Simon Sebag Montefiore after his acclaimed biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, wondering what he would write next. Then hitting on the wheeze, I’ll write the same thing, but younger. It depends what you mean by young, of course. As Montefiore declares workers in the Baku oilfields, died around thirty-years old, on average. Young Stalin is around 39- years-old (he’s like our Queen with a moveable birthdate) when he’s taking part in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The ‘Old Man’, Lenin, is in his late-forties. The sclerotic, perhaps senile, Stalin died 5th March 1953, he was aged 74. Stalin’s remark at a conference in 1929 ‘the Party has made me in its own image’ is a truism.

Nine photographs of Stalin are on the back page and you can see the progression from boy to man: ‘Urchin’, to ‘Choirboy’, to ‘Student Priest’, to ‘Poet’, to ‘Lover’, to ‘Pirate’, to ‘Gangster’, to ‘Killer’, to ‘Commissar’. Not visible are his piercing honey-coloured eyes or his webbed feet, pock-marked skin from a smallpox epidemic that almost killed him, or the shortening of his left arm after being hit by a phaeton, which allowed him to avoid conscription into the Russian army, or the limp he developed. Stalin lived the charmed life of a cat that refused to die.

Montefiore lists Stalin’s Names, Nicknames, Bylines and Aliases on a separate page. Like many revolutionaries he adopted a nickname that marked him out as a strongman, (Stalin = steel, a name he didn’t use until around 1912,  Lenin, in contrast, took his name from a Russian river). Stalin’s father was Vissarion (‘Beso’) Djugashvili, a twenty-one year old Georgian cobbler, who married his seventeen-year-old bride, Ekaterina (‘Keke’) Geladze. Their first two sons died.

Josef  Vissaronovich Djugashveli, (‘Soso’) born 6th Decemeber 1878  ‘was so weak and caught every kind of bug,’ Keke promised God she’d make a pilgrimage if he lived.

From Urchin to Choirboy Keke had nine different places, where they lived, and a variety of different male protectors. Beso was jealous of the boy, he called a bastard and Monterfiore hints he may well have been. Beso thrashed him in an alcoholic fury. Keke also thrashed him, but only for his own good.  In Gori, everybody thrashed everybody else. In a culture of violence it won respect.  

Keke’s wiles was such that she was able to get Soso enrolled in the Gori Church School. He was a model student. He wrote verse, instead of letters to his friends and nobody remembered him scoring less than A grades. His singing teacher soon promoted him to sing solos. Stalin never forgot his singing teacher and sent him a gift late in life.  A schoolboy friend summed Soso up, ‘he was the best, but naughtiest pupil’. But his love of learning never left him. To the end of his life, he read voraciously and was still making notes, marginalia, often with drawings of wolves from his time in Siberia.

Keke, when her son was dictator of Russia, admitted she hoped he would become a priest. He became a priest of a different kind. His religion was Marxism. He found a mentor in Lenin he could follow, but Lenin needed him too. Stalin operated best in the shadows. In Baku, his robberies, kidnappings and extortion rackets kept the Bolshevik Party afloat. He also arranged the hijacking of ships to steal their cash cargo.   

Montefiore begins the book was an audacious bank robbery in Tiflis that led to worldwide-headlines because of the loss of life and the enormous sum of money the robbers got away with, over a million sterling in today’s currency.  Stalin planned it and smuggled the money abroad.

Stalin liked to tell a story about his exile in Kureika, Siberia. He fathered a child with a thirteen-year-old, native, orphan girl, which died and another child, a son, which lived. Stalin’s Siberian son had no contact with his father. The locals liked the foreigner, with his pipe and books. Fish and reindeer were their staples and their currency and the Pockmarked Oska learned how to hunt and fish from them. He noticed one time twenty men went out to hunt and only nineteen came back. The tribesmen seemed unperturbed. They explained their hunting companion remained, ‘out there’. Their rationale was similar to Stalin’s: ‘Why should we have pity for men? We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’

As a Commissar, Stalin presided over the deportation of 28 million to the gulags. Millions never returned. In comparison, between 1881 and 1904, a comparable period with Stalin’s decrees, 11 879 were sentenced by Tsarist courts to be deported.  Over twenty million died in famines. Over a million citizens were shot in 1938-39 alone. Stalin never tried to make a horse, he forged a nation that defeated Hitler’s armies. Stalingrad was the turning point; if Hitler reached the oil fields of Baku then the war was lost. Stalin, as a youth, liked to make notes on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. He must have known what was coming next, but he was always scheming and plotting against those that would plot against him. One step ahead of the wolves.  Young Stalin, like old Stalin, old Stalin, like Young Stalin. Monterfiore gets it right, read between the lines.

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