Book review: “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore

While reading Young Stalin, I was struck by the very human and, at times, very attractive portrait that Simon Sebag Montefiore paints of Joseph Stalin.

Montefiore- stalin

At various points in the narrative, Montefiore describes Stalin as someone who could be (a) gentle with children and (b) the singing-laughing life of a party and (c) irresistible to women and (d) an intrepid hunter in the winter wastes of Siberia and (e) a self-taught philosopher and (f) a vociferous reader and (g) an anthologized poet.

The lavish use of photos in this 2007 book adds to the perception of Stalin as someone who could fit well into a circle of friends — even the mug shots.

stalin on cosmoIndeed, the mug shot used on the book jacket has been circulated around the Internet under the words “Young Stalin was hot,” and sparked one webpage of parody images of the young Communist that included a faux Cosmopolitan cover and an image titled “He’s fabulous…but he’s evil.”

A Facebook image

The most arresting image, for me, is opposite page 302. It shows a 26-year-old Stalin with dancing eyes and a wide smile, standing next to Soren Spandarian, his best friend.

Spandarian is described as “a well-educated Armenian playboy,” but, in this photo, he looks to be a bit of a slob. Or maybe just a tad drunk.

Stalin is probably also somewhat in the bag. Yet, change the clothes on these guys and get rid of the cigarette, and this is one of those party photos that are routinely posted on Facebook.

Stalin and Spandarian --- no caption

So, here’s this attractive, fun guy….who just happens to have been one of history’s monsters.


monsters - comboThat’s the title of another book in which Stalin is prominently featured: History’s Monsters: 101 Villains from Vlad the Impaler to Adolf Hitler, also in print as Monsters: History’s Most Evil Men and Women.

It was published a year after Young Stalin — and written by the same author, Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Well, what gives? Was Stalin a fun guy or a monster?

Young Stalin is a strong book because Montefiore is willing — and courageous enough — to show both sides of this complex, multi-talented and driven man.

I have to admit that, as a reader, it was disconcerting to find myself rooting for Stalin as he tried to avoid capture by the Tsar’s police and as he plotted yet another bank robbery. Even as he gave orders for dealing with — i.e., murdering — yet another suspected traitor in the Party.

“An aberrant master of human misery”

montefiore --- stalin --- court of red tsarBecause this book covers Stalin’s life through 1917 when the Bolsheviks gain power, it ends before he obtains total power and becomes who he became. That’s covered in yet another Montefiore book, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, published in 2003.

Even so, Montefiore doesn’t pull any punches in Young Stalin. For instance, in the book’s Epilogue, he writes about the end of the dictator’s life:

Soso [one of Stalin’s boyhood nicknames] was old, sclerotic and forgetful, yet until his death aged seventy-four, on 5 March 1953, the ageing choirboy remained the peerless politician, paranoid megalomaniac and aberrant master of human misery on a scale only paralleled by Hitlerite Germany. Responsible for the deaths of around 20 to 25 million people, Stalin imagined he was a political, military, scientific and literary genius, a people’s monarch, a red Tsar.

That 18-page Epilogue chronicles what happened to the people with whom Stalin spent the first four decades of his life — his friends, colleagues, lovers, children and allies.

Most did not fare well.

Indeed, many met their end with a bullet to the head. Many.

“Diabolical randomness”

Montefiore writes, “The case of three of Soso’s closest Georgian acquaintances reveals how differently things could turn out in the universe of diabolical randomness.”

Abel Yenukidze, the godfather of Stalin’s second wife, often holidayed with the older Stalin.

However, in 1936 Stalin selected Yenukidze as the first of his inner circle to be liquidated, even though he had never been a member of any formal opposition. He was arrested and shot in 1937.

On the other hand, Sergo Kavtaradze often opposed Stalin’s policies. Yet, the tyrant continued to protect and promote him.

Sergo Ordzhonikidze was one of Stalin’s top aides through his first two decades in power.

He and Stalin were inseparable, living in the same building, writing each other cozy notes, holidaying together. But in 1937 they clashed. Sergo committed suicide in the Kremlin.

Joseph Stalin's Mug Shots“Elusively feline grace — and menace”

The roots of Stalin’s stony-hearted cruelty, blunt-edge violence and “diabolical randomness” are fully examined in Young Stalin.

Here, for instance is Montefiore description of Stalin in his late-20s:

The Stalin of 1907 was a small, wiry, mysterious man of many aliases, usually dressed in a red satin shirt, grey coat and his trademark black fedora…

Attractive to women, often singing Georgian melodies and declaiming poetry, he was charismatic and humorous, yet profoundly morose, an odd Georgian with a northern coldness. His “burning” eyes were honey-flecked when friendly, yellow when angry….

Indefatigable in action, he bubbled with ideas and ingenuity. Inspired by a hunger for learning and an instinct to teach, he feverishly studied novels and history, but his love of letters was always overwhelmed by his drive to command and dominate, to vanquish enemies and avenge slights….

One of the first professional revolutionaries, the underground was his natural habitat, through which he moved with elusively feline grace — and menace. A born extremist and conspirator, the Man in Grey was a true believer, “a Marxist fanatic from his youth.” The violent rites of Stalin’s secret planet of Caucasian conspiracy would later flower into the idiosyncratic ruling culture of the Soviet Union itself.

“Command and dominate”

A fun guy?

Well, no. Except when he was singing or writing love notes or reciting his poetry.

A monster?

I think the source of who Stalin became in power can be found in that moroseness and coldness that Montefiore mentions.

Stalin could present himself as a fellow well met. Yet, behind that public face, there was something missing.

Raised by an over-doting mother and a drunk of a father (who, according to loud local gossip, might not have been his father), Soso, it seems, never learned empathy or intimacy. Or, for that matter, a sense of morality.

Unburdened by these considerations, he was freer than the rest of us to pursue his agenda. And that agenda was “his drive to command and dominate.”

He was the perfect revolutionary — and the perfect tyrant.

Patrick T. Reardon

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