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Rise of a Gangster

Young Stalin

by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Knopf, 460 pp., $30.00

1.

Stalin,” recalls the Menshevik politician Nikolai Sukhanov in his memoirs of the Russian Revolution of 1917, “gave me the impression…of a grey blur which flickered obscurely and left no trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.”1 Thanks to the writings of his more intellectual enemies, who deeply influenced the Western historiography of the early Soviet regime, we have come to see the young Stalin as a mediocrity, one of Lenin’s loyal henchmen, who emerged from the darkest shadows of his Party to seize power in the Soviet Union.

Nobody did more to shape this view than Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s arch-rival, whose History of the Russian Revolution, written in exile between 1929 and 1932, captured the imagination of the reading public in the West through its brilliant prose style. Regarding himself as Lenin’s natural heir, Trotsky portrayed his nemesis as an intellectual nonentity who had cleverly maneuvered himself into power through the manipulation of the Party’s proletarian elements for which he stood. In My Life (1930), Trotsky wrote of Stalin at the time of Lenin’s death in 1924:

He is gifted with practicality, a strong will, and persistence in carrying out his aims. His political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive…. His mind is stubbornly empirical and devoid of creative imagination. To the leading group of the party (in the wider circles he was not known at all) he always seemed a man destined to play second and third fiddle.2

As Isaac Deutscher once remarked, Trotsky’s view of Stalin “as villain ex machina” is by far the least convincing aspect of My Life. It is hard to see, Deutscher wrote, how such an “insignificant” figure could have been a serious antagonist to Trotsky, let alone how Stalin could have come “to dominate the stage of the Soviet state and of international communism for a full three decades.”3 In fact, Lenin in his Testament had described Stalin as “one of the two most able men of the Central Committee,” and, as Simon Sebag Montefiore demonstrates in this revealing new biography, only Lenin really knew how much his Party owed to the “dirty business” done by Stalin before 1917.

The literature on Stalin’s early years is relatively small—certainly compared to the industry of books on the young Hitler—although there is a superb book in Russian by Alexander Ostrovsky which draws from the newly opened archives and gives a solid base to Montefiore’s work.4 Stalin spent most of these years in the revolutionary underground, living on the run, in and out of exile, in various cities of the Caucasus, northern Russia, and Siberia, and he had a staggering forty different names, nicknames, bylines, and aliases at various times, so his biographer is in for a long shift of detective work in the archives. In this respect, Montefiore is in a class of his own. As he did for his earlier book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,5 Montefiore has unearthed an unprecedented range of evidence from archives in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, Gori, Batumi, Baku, Paris, London, Berlin, and California, and he has tracked down an astonishing range of witnesses, from the relatives of Stalin’s boyhood friends to his own aged relations, including the 109-year-old Mariam Svanidze, a relative of Stalin’s first wife, Kato, who still recalls her death in 1907.

Young Stalin is not without its weaknesses. Scholars may have reservations about its occasional lapses into semifictionalized narrative, while others will be driven mad by the endnotes, from which, in many cases, it is virtually impossible to find the sources for quotations in the text. But these are minor blemishes in this brilliantly researched book, which finally dispels the myth of the “grey blur” and reveals the true face of the violent revolutionary, bank robber, gangster, singer, poet, womanizer, pedophile, and ruthless murderer. The portrait of Stalin that emerges from these pages is more complete, more colorful, more chilling, and far more convincing than any we have had before.

Stalin was born Josef Djugashvili in the Georgian town of Gori in 1878. Thanks to the discovery of a memoir by his mother in the Georgian archives, Montefiore is able to provide a fuller picture of his early years. Stalin’s father Beso was a relatively prosperous cobbler, employing several apprentices, but in 1889 his business failed. Beso took to the bottle and often beat his son, who rejected him in favor of a series of paternal figures, including a merchant and a priest, either one of whom may possibly have been his real father. Stalin suffered from smallpox as a boy, which left his face badly marked. His left arm and both his legs were badly damaged in a carriage accident, leaving him with complexes about his body. His insecurities would have been exacerbated by the macho culture of Georgia, in which he had to fight in order to survive. Gori was a town where street battles were the main pastime. Little Stalin (“Soso”) boxed and wrestled with success. The leader of a band of ruffians, he ran through the streets with his slingshot and homemade bow terrorizing farmers and their cows.

Stalin’s mother was ambitious for her son. Hoping he would become a bishop, she got him into the church school in Gori, and then into the famous Tiflis (Tbilisi) Seminary, by persuading the same priest who was possibly her lover to register him as his son (tsarist seminaries and church schools were reserved for the sons of priests). Montefiore rightly emphasizes the seminary’s influence on the future dictator. “Stalin owed his political success,” he argues, “to his unusual combination of street brutality and classical education.” The Tiflis Seminary encouraged both. It was

an institution that more resembled the most repressive nineteenth-century English public-school than a religious academy: the dormitories, the bullying boys, the rife buggery, the cruel sanctimonious teachers and the hours in the detention cells made it a Caucasian version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

The Tiflis Seminary produced more atheists and revolutionaries than any of the empire’s other schools. Its monks “were determined to squeeze any hint of Georgianness out of their proudly Georgian boys,” Montefiore writes. As a teenager, Stalin was a proud Georgian (when and how he moved away from these patriotic sentiments and embraced the Russian nationalism that would become such a feature of his dictatorship remains unclear). A gifted singer, he was often hired to sing Georgian songs at weddings. He revered the poems of the Georgian nationalist Prince Raphael Eristavi, and knew Eristavi’s Khevsur’s Motherland by heart. Stalin wrote his own Romantic verses in emulation of Eristavi, which were published in anthologies of Georgian poetry and widely known before anyone had heard of him as a revolutionary. One of Stalin’s poems, written at the age of seventeen, tells the story of a lonely prophet betrayed by his own people. Cited by Montefiore in a translation by Donald Rayfield, it already gives a hint of the paranoid mindset of the future dictator:

Over this land, like a ghost
He roamed from door to door;
In his hand he clutched a lute
And sweetly made it tinkle;
In his dreamy melodies,
Like a beam of sunlight,
You could sense truth itself
And heavenly love.
The voice made many a man’s heart
Beat, that had been turned to stone;
It enlightened many a man’s mind
Which had been cast into uttermost darkness.
But instead of glorification,
Wherever the harp was plucked,
The mob set before the outcast
A vessel filled with poison…
And they said to him: “Drink this, o accursed,
This is your appointed lot!
We do not want your truth
Nor these heavenly tunes of yours!”

2.

While still the seminary’s finest choirboy, Stalin began to show an interest in the plight of the urban poor. “At prayers,” Montefiore writes, “the boys had the Bible open on their desks and read Marx or Plekhanov, the sage of Russian Marxism, on their knees.” Stalin was inspired by Alexander Kazbegi’s forbidden novel The Patricide, which told the story of a Caucasian bandit called Koba who fights against the Russians, sacrificing everything for his country, and then takes a terrible revenge against his enemies. Stalin adopted Koba as his revolutionary pseudonym. According to Montefiore:

The name meant a lot to Stalin—the vengeance of the Caucasus mountain peoples, the ruthlessness of the bandit, the obsession with loyalty and betrayal, and the sacrifice of person and family for a cause.

Montefiore writes extremely well about the Caucasus, Tiflis in particular. He describes a world of goat farmers and small workshops, horses, mules, and camels, sheepskin hats and fezzes, bazaars and brothels—a world suddenly and radically transformed by the arrival of international capitalism (feeding off the oilfields of Baku) and the expansion of the railways. Stalin found a ready audience for his simple revolutionary rhetoric in the mainly Russian “workers” circles that sprang up in the workshops and railway depots of Tiflis.

In 1899, Stalin was expelled from the seminary—for Marxist propaganda, he later claimed, though Montefiore has found evidence to suggest that he was involved in a sex scandal (he had got a girl pregnant) which the seminary covered up by expelling him, along with twenty others, for revolutionary activities. Stalin soon became the leader of a gang of expelled seminary boys (forty more were dismissed in 1901). They ran protection rackets and controlled the streets in the workers’ districts of Tiflis. Stalin was the main conspirator; his sidekick “Kamo,” Simon Ter-Petrossian, the first in a long succession of psychopathic killers who did Stalin’s dirty work, was the chief organizer of the gangs.

After a demonstration by the Tiflis workers was put down by the police and Cossacks in 1901, Stalin fled to Batumi, a small town on the Georgian Black Sea coast turned into a major international port by the construction of an oil pipeline and refinery by the Rothschilds. Within three months of his arrival, the refinery mysteriously caught fire, an act of arson almost certainly organized by Stalin (then employed there) to intimidate the Rothschilds, win a pay raise for the workers, and demand protection money from the oil barons, according to Montefiore, who cites evidence of Stalin’s secret dealings with their management.

In 1902, Stalin was arrested, charged with organizing the disturbances in Batumi where seven thousand workers had clashed with mounted Cossacks, and imprisoned while he awaited sentencing. He soon became the boss of the whole city jail, “dominating his friends, terrorizing the intellectuals, suborning the guards and befriending the criminals,” in Montefiore’s words. It was significant, and a sign of things to come, that Stalin, by his own admission, preferred the company of criminals to that of revolutionaries, “because there were so many rats among the politicals.” He always had a loathing and mistrust of revolutionary intellectuals; he suspected them of treachery, kept them at a distance from himself (or simply wiped them out), and relied instead on criminals whose loyalty he could easily manipulate. “In power,” Montefiore writes, Stalin “shocked his comrades by promoting criminals in the NKVD [the political police], but he had used criminals all his life.”

  1. 1

    N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record, edited, abridged, and translated by Joel Carmichael (Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 230.

  2. 2

    Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (London: Penguin, 1988), pp. 527–528.

  3. 3

    Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky: 1929–1940 (Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 222.

  4. 4

    Kto stoial za spinoi Stalina? (Moscow: OLMA, 2002).

  5. 5

    Knopf, 2004; reviewed in these pages by Ian Buruma, May 13, 2004.

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