Sunday, June 6, 2021

Simon Montefiore, "Young Stalin"

Stalin in 1902, Police Photo

Young Stalin (2007) is the best biography I have read in years. Simon Montefiore is a terrific writer, Stalin is an astonishing character, and the story is enriched by the vast archive of formerly secret material that became available after the fall of the Soviet Union. I, former lecturer in European history, loved it, and my 18-year-old son also loved it. It is a rare achievement and I am baffled that it didn't win more prizes; perhaps people were just reluctant to bestow honors on anything to do with one of history's greatest criminals.

The Memoirs

Like many other historians, Montefiore threw himself into Soviet studies after 1991, feasting on the newly available records. This led to Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), a book about Stalin in power, which is now on my reading list. One of the discoveries that historians made in the Soviet archives was that the Bolsheviks had a passion for recording their own history. In the 1920s they sent agents out to contact everyone who had a role in the Revolution and get them to record their memories. The process of creating these "memoirs" is not always clear – written entirely by the memoirists? dictated by them and edited by communist archivists? – but the results provide a stunning array of perspectives on key events in Bolshevik history. There were also the files of the secret police in its various permutations. These last have now been restricted again by the Putin regime, which shows the wisdom of the historians who dove into them in the 1990s.

While the records in Petrograd and Moscow illuminated Stalin's rule, his early life had remained somewhat mysterious. It was obscured by his own mythmaking, plus the non-official sources about him were mainly bitter opponents who struck historians as not any more unbiased than Stalin's hagiographers. As he worked away in Moscow, Montefiore got to wondering if there were equivalent records in Georgia and Azerbaijan that would illuminate Stalin's early career. There were. In the 1930s agents contacted hundreds of people in Georgia and Baku who had known Stalin, including his close relatives, and recorded their memories. Some were circumspect, but others were honest to a degree that strikes one as dangerous. Statements critical of Stalin did not make it into his official biography, of course, but they were not destroyed, just buried in the files of the regional party, perhaps for use later should their authors become inconvenient.


Using this material Montefiore is able to narrate Stalin's life in detail, from his school days to the 1917 Revolution. Stalin (Josef Dzhugashvili is those days) grew up in Gori, a rough Caucasian town where masculinity was all bound up with fighting. Gori's young men staged those violent organized brawls that lie at the roots of football in its various permutations, and also had a passion for wrestling. Stalin imbibed this view of manhood but because of accidents and illnesses that gave him a withered arm, he was not able to participate fully. He did excel in school and wrote Romantic poetry in Georgian, some of which was published in newspapers. He idolized the revolutionary bandit heroes of the Caucasus, and at that point identified as a Georgian nationalist. Stalin's family caused my son to ask, "Do all future dictators have loving mothers and abusive, alcoholic fathers?"

Stalin was the brightest student Gori had seen in some time, so family friends got him a scholarship to the Tbilisi seminary to study for the priesthood. (One of the last things his mother ever said to him, in 1937, was "I wish you had been a priest.") Thanks to all those interviews, we know an astonishing amount about Stalin's schooldays. At first he was a troublemaker but in the normal high school way, and also the best student in his class, excelling in Latin, Greek, Russian, and history. He read voraciously – French and Russian literature, history, classics, philosophy. He especially loved the socially conscious left-wing authors like Zola, and it was through his reading that he was converted to atheism, socialism and revolution. He was punished over and over for bringing banned books into the school. Many of his youthful friends remembered times when everyone else was out having fun but Stalin was alone, reading. He gathered a group of like-minded boys around him and organized reading clubs and late night conversations about politics and religion. Already in those years he would accept no rivals. He insisted on being the leader of every group, and if there were some group he could not master he would quit and form his own, rival club. As he matured he started sneaking out of the school to attend the meetings of radical workers' groups, and his battle with the school administrators escalated to warfare, until he either left or was expelled just before his final year.


Stalin then threw himself into the underground world of Russian radicalism, organizing strikes, dodging the police, printing and distributing revolutionary pamphlets. One of Montefiore's main arguments is that the way the Bolsheviks ruled was a continuation of their earlier days in the underground. They were always obsessed with spies and double agents, and in fact they always were spied on, often by members of their leadership who were also in the pay of the Tsarist police. Stalin was betrayed many times and often had to dodge arrest. It was this spirit of Conspiritazione, of secrets, lies, murders, and betrayals, or always living in the shadows, that, says Montefiore, made the Bolsheviks who they were.

Stalin was dogged throughout his career by accusations that he had been a double agent in the pay of the Tsarist police; these accusations were especially prominent during the struggle for party leadership after Lenin's death. Montefiore shows convincingly that this was not true. Many people with access to the files of the Tsarist police looked for evidence of duplicity but never found it, and none has come to light in the newly opened archives. Some of these rumors started because of the multiple times Stalin was picked up by the police but then released. Montefiore argues that this was not because Stalin was a police agent, but because the police were incompetent. In one case they arrested Stalin but never figured out that he was the feared provocateur known as Soso until after they had already released him again. Stalin was actually convicted and punished three times. The first time he spent time in Tbilisi's prison, which he took over in the manner of an organized crime boss, finding allies among his fellow political prisoners but also among gangsters, crossing a boundary that most Bolsheviks had considered sacrosanct.

One of Stalin's main jobs in the early 1900s was to raise funds for the party. He did this in a variety of ways, but most spectacularly by robbery. His men staged a series of raids on banks, mail coaches, government offices, and ships, making off with hundreds of thousands of rubles. These were meticulously planned operations involving dozens of people operating in multiple teams, disguised in numerous ways, the sort of heists Hollywood would build a movie around. Some of those involved skimmed money for themselves, but not Stalin; he always worked to send as much as possible to Lenin in exile to fund the Bolsheviks' struggle. This made him one of Lenin's favorite Bolsheviks before they even met. Like many radical intellectuals, Lenin was mostly bored by other intellectuals and idolized men of action; it was as a terrorist and gangster who straddled the boundary between revolution and thuggery that Stalin rose to prominence. But his role in all of this was shadowy. The Russian Socialist Party, of which the Bolsheviks were part, had banned bank robberies, and Lenin had accepted the rule, so Stalin always had to insure deniability about these operations. The interviews cited by Montefiore show that he was really was in charge of this all along.

The next time Stalin was arrested he was sent into Siberian exile, but the mild sort, in a town near the railroad. After romancing a local woman – the sexual escapades of Stalin and the other Bolshevik radicals would fill a book in themselves – he escaped. As Montefiore notes, escaping from Siberian exile was a tradition as old as Siberian exile itself. This brings me to what I take to be Montefiore's second serious historical argument. He thinks the Tsars failed because they were too autocratic and violent to be loved, but too soft and incompetent to be feared. Nobody knew better than the Bolsheviks how the Tsars' sloppy lenience had allowed their enemies to continue plotting against them, and they resolved not to make the same mistakes. Very few people escaped from prison or exile under Lenin and Stalin.

But then in 1914 Stalin was arrested again and this time he was sent far into the Siberian wilderness, to a tiny community of Buryat reindeer herders. He stayed there until 1917, when the Tsar got so desperate for troops that he ordered all the exiles brought back and enlisted in the army. These years figure in Stalin's myth, in the form of stories about how he became a great hunter and woodsman. I always thought that was made up, but Montefiore shows it was not. Stalin really was a successful fisherman, spending days alone in a hut on the winter ice, waiting for a sturgeon to tickle his line. One year he spent months alone in a hand-made hut on a remote island, feeding himself by fishing and hunting. (He also found another lover, with whom he had a child; it seems you could not send to Stalin to any place so small or remote that he could not find a woman.) Molotov, who probably knew Stalin as well as anyone during his time in power, once said that Stalin carried a frozen bit of Siberia inside him for the rest of his life.


Of course rather than serving in the war, Stalin went to Petrograd and rejoined the Revolution. Petrograd was a seething cauldron of discontent, with the failing war effort as the first in a long list of indictments against the Tsar and his bizarre, Rasputin-intoxicated court. While Stalin was on his way there, the Tsar resigned and a provisional government took over. This was a halfway sort of regime, not loved by anyone, not able either to make peace or wage war effectively, and the Bolsheviks set about undermining it and fanning radicalism among workers, soldiers, and sailors. Then the German high command decided to speed Russia's collapse by transporting Lenin from his Swiss exile to Petrograd, and the rest is history.

People later tried to say that Stalin "missed the Revolution," but that is nonsense. He was from the beginning one of Lenin's two top men. The other was the intellectual Trotsky, whose main job was to keep the faithful fired up with impassioned speeches. Stalin, no orator, with a thick Georgian accent, was not the man for such work. Instead he edited the party newspaper, keeping its presses going despite government raids, and worked behind the scenes to organize a revolutionary army and the bones of an administration.

As always the most amazing thing to me about those years is the singular character of V.I. Lenin. Compared to Lenin, even Stalin and Trotsky seem weak and vacillating. Stalin took the name, but Lenin was the real man of steel. When Lenin arrived the Bolsheviks had been trying to from a revolutionary coalition with less radical parties; there were, after all, only a few thousand Bolsheviks in all of Russia, and they commanded the loyalty of only a few regiments of troops. But Lenin said, no, we're going to launch our revolution now, just us, and once we seize power the Mensheviks and the rest will either join us or die. At first even Stalin and Trotsky thought it was crazy, but he won them over with his passionate certainty.

And it worked.

The second thing is that even though Revolution succeeded, it was a completely amateurish, almost farcical affair, nothing like one of Stalin's bank robberies. The Provisional Government was based in one of the Tsar's old palaces, and on the night of their coup the Bolsheviks sent men to seize the building and arrest the ministers. But the palace also contained the Tsar's wine cellar, full of expensive vintages. The men got drunk instead. So more men were sent. Who also got drunk. So they sent a company of troops from one of their most loyal regiments. Who also got drunk. So they called in the city fire brigade, full of communists, with orders to fill the cellar with water. They got drunk instead. They then chose an old, highly loyal Bolshevik and appointed him Commissar, then their highest rank, and sent him to take charge of the situation. He got drunk. The palace was not secured until two days later.

(Here's an interesting side note on all those fantasies of the Purge; when the government of Petrograd disappeared, people didn't kill each other; instead they stole wine and all got drunk together.)

And yet in that moment of complete uncertainty and chaos, amidst the ruins of a corrupt old regime that nobody loved or feared, the Bolsheviks were the best organized force, the only ones who knew exactly what they wanted. So they won, and the compromisers and conciliators were swept, as Trotsky put it, into the dustbin of history.

The Origins of Stalin

Stalin's crimes mostly came later, but Montefiore succeeds brilliantly in setting the stage. He gives us a Stalin who combined academic stardom with a streetfighter's love of violence and a Caucasian thirst for vengeance; who never acknowledged any superior but Lenin, one of history's hardest men; who began his career as a hunted fugitive, repeatedly betrayed; who turned his Siberian exile into a self-taught course in wilderness survival, spending months alone in the woods meditating on who knows what bloody dreams; who thrived in the underground, in the shadows, honing the suspiciousness that would later wreak such horror on the world. 

Young Stalin is a masterful book. It is also full from beginning to end of marvelous anecdotes and tales you can hardly believe, with the evidence laid out so you can decide for yourself which ones are true. Magnificent.


G. Verloren said...

Disaffected young men, living in societies run by inept and complacent rich old men, has always been a potent recipe for disaster on an apocalyptic scale.

David said...


On Purge fantasies, in general I think you're right that early 21st-century people are too ready to assume that a war of all against all is the default human state that reappears if social institutions weaken just a bit. But the Russian Revolution isn't necessarily the best place to look for arguments against that view. At least, Orlando Figes in A People's Tragedy depicts the revolution as an orgy of savage, anarchic violence. He's got lots of anecdotes about mobs setting on children, old folks, women; innovative, sadistic tortures of personal enemies; and atavistic peasant cruelty. A lot this was, of course, fueled by alcohol. But I wouldn't get too confident about the revolution as a brotherly drinking bout.

(The famous Murray-Hill Riot is another, unrelated example.)