Guest Book Review: Young Stalin

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This is a Guest Book Review by fiction writer Jessica Schneider who also writes for the highly visited site Cosmoetica, is Book Editor for Monsters and Critics and is the only contributor to her own blog.

Book Review: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

By Jessica Schneider

Because I was interested in learning some history behind Josef Stalin, I wanted to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin. As the title reveals, the book deals with Stalin’s early years and how he eventually evolved into a megalomaniac. Although I think this book would make an excellent film, actually reading it reminded me more of an encyclopedic read than an actually engaging story.

Yet having said that, I learned a great deal of facts about Stalin than I would not have otherwise. Because most books on Stalin deal with his later years and his rise to power, this book attempts to create a more intimate portrait of the man, building him up to what he later was to become.

For example, as a child Stalin grew up in a very rough and poor neighborhood in Gori, known for being “one of the most violent towns in the Tsar’s Empire.” His father, an alcoholic, used to beat him so much to the point that the boy suffered internal injury. And it was through these rough streets where the young Stalin learned his street fighting skills, became a gang leader, and also robbed banks. In fact, littered throughout the biography are photos of Stalin’s hometown, where just by looking at it one can see it was a ‘slum.’

The book also addresses the fact that Stalin was a poet, and a bad one at that. Before each section, one can read a ‘poem’ that Stalin wrote. It is also noted that Stalin was someone who was very jealous of anyone with actual writing talent. “Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for—and jealousy of—brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak,” Montefiore writes.

Perhaps he is overstating this, because any young male who practices poetry will often seem “obsessional” or “destructive” towards something in his work, be it a dictator like Stalin or a university gunman. For every one of those two there are a thousand or more who are just frustrated and suffering from angst and lack of talent. But there is no doubt that the Russians took poets and their poetry very seriously, and was something they were willing to die for, literally. And just to give a bit of a writing sample, which can be found at the beginning of part one:

Morning

The rose’s bud has blossomed out

Reaching out to touch the violet

The lily was waking up

And bending its head in the breeze

High in the clouds the lark

Was singing a chirping hymn

While the joyful nightingale

With a gentle voice was saying—

“Be full of blossom, oh lovely land

Rejoice Iverians’ country

And you oh Georgian, by studying

Bring joy to your motherland.”

Ho hum. Yet despite his lack of writing talent, Stalin earned good marks in school, was handsome, met a lot of women and had affairs with many of them. He eventually married, only to have his wife die at the age of 22 from Typhus. As a result, Stalin was deeply saddened by this, and he is shown as having had some compassion—at least when it came to his wife. In fact, in one of the captions below the photograph of his deceased wife, it even reads, “His tenderness died with her.” Yet it wasn’t long afterwards that he was seeking new female companionship.

The book tends to focus more on Stalin’s affairs with women and how he was also a letch (when older he got a 13 year old girl pregnant and the affair made him the product of a scandal) than on his relationship with Lenin and the intimate details behind the Bolshevik revolution. That is not to say these topics are not addressed—they are, but for some reason they are not as memorable.

As a narrative, this book reads more like a list of facts than a ‘story.’ And perhaps that is not a criticism since this is a historical biography, after all. Yet that does not save the book from suffering from dryness in parts. Personally, I believe that readers would benefit more if the book were written in a memoir like style because as is, reading this book will give the reader lots of facts about Stalin but not really an ‘in’ to the man.

Yes, he was an evil dictator. Yes, he was a megalomaniac. But what else was he? A thief. A bad father. A suspect on the run, etc. Perhaps that is why I believe this book, if falling into the hands of a talented filmmaker, could use these facts the author has presented and pull out a character that viewers will fear and yet understand.

Larded with photographs, they are fascinating to look through, and to see photos of the young and handsome Stalin, as well as reading some of his old letters. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about Stalin and what led to his rise to power to seek out this book. Because the book does deal with his early years, which is a different approach from most Stalin books, one can then approach his later years with a slightly different perspective.

Yet readers may find it as I did, a book rife with “facts” and less a picturesque scene told by way of narrative. And some may not. Readers will have the freedom to slant their opinions as they choose because Stalin himself is not around to punish anyone who thankfully disagrees with him.

6 Comments

  1. Montefiore is a puzzling quantity, as Jessica’s review indicates.

    For anyone interested in Stalin, Montefiore’s earlier “Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar” is probably the best biography on Stalin currently in existence.

    Montefiore has managed to access Soviet archival material that previous Kreminologists have only dreamed of. Yet, as JS suggests with his book above, stylistically there are enormous problems…and Montefiore clearly is in need of a decent copyeditor.

    Readers would be interested to note Stalin’s fascination with and admiration of Hitler. For example, there is an account of one of the frequent drinking parties among Stalin’s inner circle in the days after the Night of Long Knives – when Hitler purged the SA and executed Rohm and others – at which Stalin expressed admiration of Hitler’s lightning swift removal of threats to his power.

    As you might imagine, everyone in the room nervously agreed with Stalin. Two years later, the only members of that drinking party still alive were Molotov and Stalin.

    The Nazi-Soviet Pact shocked the world in 1939. Yet, Montefiore’s book reveals why those in Stalin’s inner circle were far from surprised by Stalin’s agreement to ally himself with a fascist whom superficial commentators believed to be his hated adversary.

    Perhaps more than his poetry, Stalin’s doodles on notepaper during Politiburo meetings are highly revealing of his character. Invariably, he would draw mocking images of his fellow members in the margins…such as Bukharin as a fat pig…with wolves being a constant motif. His doodles from the 1920s are revealing of his attitudes to Trotsky and others who would eventually fall before him.

    Thus, I would agree with JS’ conclusions. Montefiore’s work is marked by a stunning amount of research – much of it unparalleled – together with extensive stylistic problems. Odd that. Still, important work for anyone remotely interested in the Soviet Union and Stalin.

  2. I would use extreme caution in reading Montefiore’s stuff. Like most intellectuals with an axe to grind, he is frequently his own worst enemy. He is prone to playing fast and loose with his sources (as was amply documented by Professor Alfred Reiber in a review of *Young Stalin* in the August 17th *TLS*). This leads not only to his asserting the demonstrably false (Stalin never impregnated a 13 year old girl), but to caricaturing any historical character not to his liking. Like Robert Conquest and Martin Amis, whose own works have long been discredited by serious historians, Montefiore’s books are propaganda traps for the unwary, the literatry equivalent of Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” which have wreaked so much havoc on the welfare of our American republic, far in excess of anything Stalin himself contemplated.

  3. “the literatry equivalent of Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” which have wreaked so much havoc on the welfare of our American republic, far in excess of anything Stalin himself contemplated.”
    ——————–

    Anyone making such a comparison between Bush and Stalin can’t have the vaguest notion of what Stalin contemplated and actually did.

    Few things bring me to defending Bush, but this ludicrous statement is one of them.
    I’m sure the victims of assasination, torture and exile who stood in Stalin’s way would not agree with this view.

  4. A sidenote about Stalin’s poetry:

    I wouldn’t take his love of the muse as a distinct persoanl trait. Admiration for this type of overblown verse was,IMO, very common in Russia and the territories it controlled. It’s part of the national character, like vodka and gypsy music.

    It’s an example of Stalin being typical , rather than extraordinary.

  5. domajot objects to the comparison between Bush and Stalin, but there were some similarities (other than that neither cared much for domestic issues); Bush’s actions have led to the “extraordinary deaths” of up to one million Iraqi civilians, and wasn’t it Stalin who was alleged to have said that a single death constituted a “tragedy” while millions were, instead, merely a “statistic”? The very stuff of history.

  6. Louis C –

    I opposed the Iraq war from the first day it was mentioned as a possibility, during the Gulf War.

    However, the Iraq war is a WAR.
    By your death count, then, WWII was the biggest crime of all, Should it not have been fought?

    In contrast, much of Stalin’s wrath was visited on civilians ON PURPOSE, and many of those civilians were his own people. If you want to find similarites, there are many, and more legitimate ones, between Stalin ad Saddam Hussein.
    We try our GIs when accusations of rape or wanton slaughter surface.
    For Stalin’s forces, rape and wanton brutality were so commonplace as to be de rigeur.

    Clearly,anyone who doesn’t appreciate the difference has never lived in a war zone and makes these illogical comparisons from a comfortable chair.

    Having been in Stalin’s war zone, I’m offended by these facile argumentations.

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