“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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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 …