New Biography Shows The Wild West Underground Education of Future Dictator Joseph Stalin
In 1939, the Russian literary giant Mikhail Bulgakov was starting to get phone calls from Joseph Stalin. At the height of the Great Terror, such calls were always mixed blessings. Stalin-frequently called by his nickname "Soso" in Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin (Knopf)-wanted the writer to pen a romantic play about the Soviet leader's early days as a gangster/revolutionary in Baku. Bulgakov accepted the assignment, a no-brainer, and set to work. The result was a play called Batumi. Before production, it was given to Stalin for approval. Although he said he liked the play, the dictator told the director to put a hold on it. Not that he had to give a reason, but he offered one anyway, in typically cryptic terms: "All young people are the same, so why write a play about the young Stalin?"
You can only guess what the result would have been had Bulgakov been given the green light to answer that question. For the moment, the closest we'll come to is Montefiore's book, which covers the rise of Stalin from 1878 to 1918. But Montefiore doesn't let plodding chronology get in the way of a good story. This biography of the young, hungry Soso opens with swashbuckling dramatic flair that describes the young leader as a rising mob boss, engineering the robbery of a stagecoach loaded with millions in Czarist rubles:
Raffish young men in bright peasant blouses and wide sailor-style trousers waited on street corners, cradling secreted revolvers and grenades. At the louche Tilipuchuri Tavern on the square, a crew of heavily armed gangsters took over the cellar bar, gaily inviting passers-by to join them for drinks. All of them were waiting to carry out the first exploit by Josef Djugashvili, aged twenty-nine, later known as Stalin, to win the attention of the world.
The only thing missing here is the opening credits. Montefiore's flair is matched by his scholarship, however. He documents his sources painstakingly, with 50 pages of source notes and footnotes. To assemble this biography, he's spent about a decade poring through sources and interviews made available in newly opened archives in Georgia and Russia. Paranoid chief executives the world over should take note: They are at their best when they're operating in the shadows, and that's what people want to read about.
Montefiore avoids indulging in psychobabble about Stalin's troubled childhood, but he provides the basics. Djugashvili was born in Gori, Georgia, in December 1878 to a 22-year-old Georgian cobbler (who went by the nickname "Beso") and his wife Ekaterina ("Keke"). Montefiore avoids child psychology and sticks to the facts: The father was a drunken lout and wife beater; the mother was devoted but caustic and sharp-tongued. Thanks to Keke, Stalin was saved from the life of a tradesman and wound up getting his early education in a Georgian seminary. Promising, devout, and intellectually curious, he appeared headed toward the priesthood until, in his 18th year, he was exposed to the writings of Karl Marx, along with Sergei Nechaev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and other Russian radicals. Stalin was also, interestingly enough, a promising author of verse who managed to get a few of his works in Georgian literary anthologies by the age of 18.
So how does he make the leap to dictator who ultimately sent millions of his own countrymen to their death? Montefiore goes lightly on ideology and parenthood as formative to Stalin's development. Using his access to archives in Georgia, he digs into the shadiest portion of Stalin's life, as he hones his organizational skills in turbulent turn-of-the-century Georgia.
Montefiore paints a panoramic version of a Georgian Wild West that gave Stalin his real postgraduate education in the years 1905-'17. It's a chaotic, lawless area divided by ethnic hatred, rival gangs, and economic forces. Baku, for instance, flooded with oil, stands out as a Caucasian version of an American gold-rush town; the bizarre marriages of convenience initiated there include one between the Rothschilds and the Bolsheviks. As Stalin manipulated alliances and hatreds in that area, he learned to operate at the party's base, a sharply different approach from Lenin (the son of Russian nobility), Trotsky (the Jewish intellectual), or the many squabbling ideological factions that divided the radical revolutionary elite.
It's an underworld that we haven't been exposed to in previous Stalin biographies. It also gives us a portrait of a leader whose tactician skills put Tony Soprano and Don Corleone to shame. For most of us, Stalin's the brutal avatar of Socialism in One Country. Montefiore turns the spotlight on a leopard who constantly changes his spots: In addition to becoming a priest, Stalin is shown to be a lady's man, a weatherman (literally), a voracious reader, a good singer, a promising poet, and a cross-dresser (whenever pursued by the police). Most important, he's a monomaniac preternaturally energized by power.
Young Stalin concludes with the Bolshevik ascent to power in 1918. By then, thanks to Stalin, Montefiore has taken us there through the back door and punctures a few popular myths. Our vision of the Communist seizure of power is frequently colored by Lenin's dramatic return to St. Petersburg or Trotsky's charismatic street-corner orations. With Young Stalin, however, that should change. Stalin, operating in the shadows, is engaging in Machiavellian power plays that truly shaped the Soviet Union as a paranoid, closely knit, authoritarian state. That model appears to be alive and well today.
On a more universal level, Montefiore makes a compelling argument that the most ruthless dictators aren't conquerors or charismatic leaders. They are dividers who thrive in small, intensely secretive coteries and manage to use paranoia and distrust as seeds for their own power base. In concert with The Court of the Red Czar-Montefiore's excellent chronicle of Stalin's years at the top, published in 2004-it turns this into a remarkable documentation of that chilling transformation from representative government to oligarchy. ★
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