The Young and the Ruthless

Reviewed by Ronald Grigor Suny
Sunday, November 4, 2007


By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf. 460 pp. $30

For centuries travelers in Caucasia have depicted that mountainous land as a mysterious, enchanted place where the locals are savage and noble, the terrain majestic and wild, the rivers always turbulent. But exoticizing Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has had a dangerous side effect: a tendency, particularly pronounced among Russians, to demonize Caucasians as bandits, terrorists and cheats. Caucasia's most famous son was one of the greatest tyrants of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin. And so it was probably inevitable that biographers would look for some cultural link with the "wild East" to explain the ferocity of a man who at his zenith devoured millions of Soviet citizens.

British novelist and filmmaker Simon Sebag Montefiore has long been obsessed with Stalin and Caucasia. His initial foray into Staliniana was a comic novel, My Affair With Stalin, in which a malevolent 11-year-old adopts the dictator's tactics to dominate his schoolmates. Reborn as a popular historian, Montefiore wrote biographies of Catherine the Great's lover, Potemkin, and of Stalin at the height of his power. A prodigious researcher, Montefiore has found new archival sources, interviewed survivors and visited the haunts and homes of the great dictator to produce a prequel to his 700-page In the Court of the Red Tsar.

Montefiore enfolds even what is familiar about Stalin in a vivid narrative rich with new details and sensational revelations. The future revolutionary was born in the provincial town of Gori, the son of a shoemaker, Beso Djugashvili, and his stern, religious wife, Keke. Determined that her "Soso" should become a priest, Keke sent him to seminaries where the precocious boy displayed a talent for singing and poetry and shared the romantic Georgian nationalism of his compatriots. But as a teenager, embittered by the draconian regime of teacher-priests, Soso abandoned both church and nationalism and joined the fledgling Marxist movement.

Adopting the nickname "Koba" from a fictional Georgian outlaw, young Djugashvili soon became a militant activist, leading workers into a bloody confrontation with the police and organizing an armed terrorist band that knocked off enemies and staged daring robberies to finance the party. Stalin was repeatedly arrested and exiled to Siberia, only to escape and resume his work in the revolutionary underground. Rumors spread that he had ties to the tsarist police, but such speculations testify more to his continual intrigues than to any role as an agent of the infamous Okhrana.

Leading us through these obscure years of Stalin's revolutionary evolution, Montefiore focuses almost exclusively on his personal rather than political side. Young Stalin is already a "gangster godfather, audacious bank robber, killer, pirate and arsonist," a Marxist fanatic with a need to command and dominate. The Caucasus was the essential environment in which this "murderous egomaniac" was nurtured. The violence of the Russian Empire's southern periphery -- where rebellious workers, peasants, anarchists and Marxists vied for power despite the state's brutal reprisals -- shaped Stalin's conviction that bloodshed and terror were necessary means to his desired ends. "Only in Georgia," Montefiore writes, "could Stalin the poet enable Stalin the gangster." Even Koba's intimate relationships were perverse. He neglected his devout and devoted mother, subordinated his first wife to his revolutionary work, which led to her death, and took up with whatever woman, regardless of age, could satisfy his appetites. "Stalin," Montefiore claims, "was attracted to strong women, but ultimately preferred submissive housewives or teenagers."

Stalin as womanizer is a new angle on the man of steel, though the evidence for his sexual exploits, while tantalizing, is thin. In fact, Montefiore's portrait is often overwrought, and as an explanation of Stalin's path to power, it falls short, failing to deal adequately with his politics and thought. There is almost nothing in this book, for instance, on his intense involvement in the internal party squabbles among the Marxists or his role as a theorist of nationalism. Geography may be important, but it is insufficient context for a historian.

Growing up in autocratic Russia, where suppression of open political dissent convinced thousands of people that the only way out of backwardness and oppression was armed rebellion, Stalin was in one sense not very unusual. But in another he was unique. His particular talents and lack of scruples enabled him to climb rapidly up the ladder of party politics, to impress Lenin and to build a loyal following. In February 1917, Stalin was far from the action, still exiled in the bitter darkness of eastern Siberia. Yet he was well poised when the revolution opened opportunities for those prepared to seize them. For all its drama, Young Stalin leaves that deadly progression still a mystery. *

Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan, is editor of "The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. III: The Twentieth Century."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company