After reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Court of the Red Tsar (See my comments in the Nov. 30, ’07 review if you want) about Stalin’s post revolution reign I didn’t want to read more. I think Montefiore’s writing is pedestrian and that he somehow made the story of the man who is arguably history’s most brutal and bloody dictator and of his alliances with the western world’s greatest mid-century leaders less than transporting work.
However, I have a neighbor who’s a glutton for this kind of thing, so I fell heir to a copy of Young Stalin, and here we are.
This one is infinitely more readable than the first, though it still doesn’t measure up to the lively novelistic quality that Henri Troyat achieves in his story of Catherine the Great, let alone of David McCullough. The difference here is that Montefiore tells a story as much as he presents his catalogue of facts, figures, and biographical sketches. I even caught myself rooting for the Bolsheviks over the Menscheviks during the short time in 1917 when the issue was in doubt.
Most important, I now think I know a bit about Stalin the inner man, how he got to be such a brute, and what, aside from position and savagery, gave him his power over others.
Stalin was the perfect combination of nature and nurture to become a brutal revolutionary. He was born into nearly bestial poverty with a probably-promiscuous mother and a drunken swine of a father (who may or not have been his real one). His mother wanted him educated (against daddy’s wishes) and sacrificed and begged and probably prostituted herself to get the money to send him to school and then seminary.
He was a born leader in a Georgian (not Russian–it’s different, I found out.) hamlet ruled by street gangs. So his training in thuggery and physical violence began early. The whole town ran that way. On holy days, the men would drink and brawl–starting with the three-year-olds–in the streets. It was just the way things were. Good training for resisting the cossacks who were sure to run another pogrom sometime soon.
He was naturally contemptuous of authority and as ruthless toward others as his parents were to him. He led rebellions (often connected with forbidden books. He was quite the reader.) in seminary, joined anti-establishment groups well before he knew about Marx. He became a Marxist, but dictatorship of the proletariat to him meant dictatorship over the proletariat by an oligarchy–headed by himself, of course. He had to be in charge. Just had to. Any political position he ever advocated was calculated for his personal advantage rather than to fulfill some philosophical premise. He despised as tea-talkers those who would rather talk than kill and steal for the cause. In addition to all that he was quite a competent poet, given to romantic versifying. Montefiore prefaces each section of the book with one of his poems, and they’re not half-bad in a conventional sort of way.
Most of his early youth was spent as a robber and brigand for “the movement,” sending stolen money to the exiled Lenin and Trotsky and getting arrested and sent to Siberia for his pains. Siberian exile in Czarist Russia meant not prison, but life in a small, cold village far from the lights of St. Petersburg, and most of the time he escaped well before his term was up. Then he’d get arrested again. He did serve out nearly all of his last four year term because they sent him so far up the river not even he could get out. He was saved by the WWI draft, for which he turned out to be ineligible once medically examined because of a right arm lame from a childhood accident. All of which brings us right up to the collapse of the Czar and the beginning of the revolution.
All during his criminal, underground life he was beset by spies from the Czar’s police. Of course, he had his own bribed moles inside the police as well. He also ran protection rackets that enabled him to live briefly in mansions of oil barons–including the Rothschilds and Nobels. However, he seldom stayed long anywhere or with anyone, seldom took money for himself. He was never acquisitive in that way. Eventually he built a number of villas and retreats, but they were as much for security as luxury. He had to keep his enemies guessing his whereabouts.
He had affairs right along–sex was apparently abundant among revolutionaries, and his charisma was particularly attractive. He sired some kids he neglected, and he buried a wife whom he had virtually abandoned. All in all, an intelligent, charismatic, ruthless, and despicable man whose historical timing was unfortunately just right to grab a big hunk of power.
He wasn’t born Stalin. He had to work his way to it. From Josef Vissrionovich Djugashvili through thirty or so aliases and bylines to Joseph Steelman. Lenin was just as bloodthirsty as Stalin. Some of the Bolsheviks in the beginning wanted to give some amnesty and he simply declared that without plenty of blood there was no such thing as a revolution. Stalin was his perfect agent. Trotsky gave nice speeches, but Stalin considered him a tea talker, kept him at a distance, and finally had him ice-picked in 1940.
Nature loves a vacuum and doesn’t seem to care how it gets filled. In this case, she filled the empty power space left by the Romanovs with a poisonous substance that killed 20-25 million people over the course of thirty-seven years. Quite a guy.