Portrait of the butcher as a young man
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Hardback: 496 pages
Rec. price: AUD$70.00
In his pioneering biography, Hitler: A Study In Tyranny, Alan Bullock famously wrote that “the gutter had come to power”. If “the gutter” means criminality, violence, bigotry and intrigue, the same could be said of Stalin. If it means an unsettled, anti-bourgeois poverty, raffishness and bohemianism, then that also describes pre-1917 Stalin. Hitler was the artist manqué
For some readers, this passionate and flamboyant Stalin will come as something of a surprise. The popular understanding of him takes the form of a remote, inscrutable and omniscient party secretary, operating behind the scenes and eschewing rhetoric and histrionics.
In these pages, however, Montefiore presents us with Stalin the Georgian bandit – cunning, clannish, vengeful, paranoid, bloodthirsty, and fond of wine, women and song. His politically motivated bank heists and factional murders, using hidden bombs, daggers and revolvers, come naturally to him. He is also Stalin the Scarlet Pimpernel, always on the move, mysteriously appearing and disappearing, and often in disguise (sometimes in drag!).
Four years ago, in a review of Montefiore’s earlier book on Stalin’s career 1929-53, Stalin: The Court Of The Red Tsar (see News Weekly, December 13, 2003), I wrote that Stalin could be “considerate, gregarious, chivalrous with women, funny with children”, but also “duplicitous, cruel, callous, manipulative, vindictive”. Exactly the same picture emerges in this second book on his life 1878-1917.
Stalin was an extraordinarily complex mixture of qualities, with no moral centre, no integrating ultimate vision beyond the acquisition and retention of power. It is sometimes said that the secret of success in business is to be clever enough to know the rules of the game, and stupid enough to think that the game is worth winning. The same could be said of Stalin and politics.
Stalin was the only child of a cobbler named Vissarion Djugashvili – a small businessman with employees (and therefore a kulak?) before he took to drink – and a pushy, ambitious mother.
After the disappearance of Djugashvili père, Mum exploited relationships with a number of male patrons to get her son a sound education in an Orthodox academy. The acolyte’s sacerdotal vocation was derailed by an adolescent renunciation of Christianity in favour of Marxism.
It is true that some have committed unspeakable crimes in the belief that they perceive God’s imprimatur on their atrocities. It is equally true, as Stalin’s subsequent career demonstrates, that far worse atrocities are perpetrated by men who believe that there is no transcendent moral law, and that they are answerable to nobody and nothing except the will to power.
Stalin’s pre-revolutionary life was punctuated with arrests, exiles and escapes. In fact, his success in eluding the tsar’s secret police was one reason for the rumour (Montefiore scotches it) that he was an Okhrana agent.
Stalin’s good luck came to an end in 1913, when he was sent to Siberia. This was the farthest that you could get from Georgia in the Russian empire, both geographically and culturally; but Stalin fondly reminisced about the experience for the rest of his life.
For four years he lived in a tiny settlement on the Yenisei, wearing reindeer-fur clothing, and fishing and hunting with illiterate tribesmen who followed a shamanistic religion. His incarcerational territory was as big as England, France and Germany combined, with a population of 12,000 and a nine-month winter when temperatures went down to minus-60 degrees.
Whatever the rigours of imprisonment and exile under the tsars, they were nothing compared to those of their Soviet successors. The same is true of the tsarist secret police when compared with the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/ KGB.
When it comes to Stalin’s relationship with Lenin, there is no joy in this story for either Stalin’s apologists (there are still one or two around) who see him as the Elisha to Lenin’s Elijah, or his left-wing detractors, such as Trotskyites.
On the one hand, Montefiore shows that Stalin frequently differed with Lenin. For example, he was far keener than Lenin on a rapprochement with the Mensheviks. On the other hand, he shows that Stalin was the fulfilment, not betrayer, of Leninism (which Montefiore exposes as the thoroughly ruthless and murderous ideology that it was), and also that Stalin was actually very close to Lenin during October (Old Calendar) 1917, and played a leading role in the crucial events of that month’s coup d’état.
Young Stalin contains elements of the picaresque (the colourful rogue caught up in a succession of adventures), the Dickensian (a gallery of grotesques drawn from all strata of society) and even the Miltonian (the incorrigible megalomaniac who would rather rule in hell than serve in Heaven).
If the story were not true, it would be dismissed as what used to be called a “penny dreadful”. It is too sensational for a film script; better to stick with something credible, like Star Wars. Montefiore writes well, but the occasional inappropriate colloquialism (ammo, innards) jars.
If the prime elements of a bestseller are violence, sex and humour, then Young Stalin hits the jackpot.
Violence? Stalin never left a slight (real or perceived) unavenged, or a suspicion of treachery undealt with, although it sometimes took him decades. Even his oldest acquaintances and his closest colleagues – Stalin called gratitude “dog’s disease” – along with their spouses and children, were never free from the possibility of sudden arrest, imprisonment, torture or execution.
The ill-starred Kamenev once asked a group of drunken Bolsheviks to declare their greatest pleasure. Stalin’s was “to choose one’s victim, prepare one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There’s nothing sweeter in the world.”
These words are so similar to Genghis Khan’s famous credo (“Man’s greatest joy is to slay his enemy … see the tears of his loved ones”) as to remind us once more that, historically, the cliché should run “to the left of Genghis Khan”.
Sex? Stalin engaged in numerous affairs with females ranging from a 13-year-old Siberian peasant orphan, to married women with families. By 1917 he had produced a legitimate son and at least three illegitimate children.
Jokes? Two, at least. The first is Stalin’s editorship of Pravda, a Russian word meaning “truth”. The other is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pensée on Stalin’s training as a priest. “Do you suppose”, FDR mused, “it made some kind of difference in Stalin? Doesn’t that explain part of the sympathetic quality in his nature that we all feel? Perhaps it was the priesthood that taught Stalin the way a Christian gentleman should behave.”
With any luck, we might eventually get a third volume out of Montefiore, dealing in detail with Stalin’s rise from Lenin’s sidekick during the 1917 putsch, to de facto dictator in 1929, taking in along the way the Civil War, the New Economic Policy, the Bolshevik gleichschaltung, the death of Lenin, and the struggle with Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev.
Let’s hope so. Bookshop shelves groan under the weight of works about Nazism, which is popularly perceived as sexier than Stalinism. The tens of millions of communism’s victims are rapidly disappearing into oblivion. We need all the whistle-blowing – make that foghorn-blowing! – descriptions of the Soviet and Maoist hecatombs that we can get.
In the meantime, we have Young Stalin. Acquire, read and revel. Never has history been more rip-roaring.