- Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Weidenfeld, 397 pp, £25.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 85068 7
Stalin was a ‘grey blur’ in the opinion of Nikolai Sukhanov, the Menshevik-Internationalist chronicler of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky thought him a faceless ‘creature of the bureaucracy’, even in power. These must be among the most misleading descriptions ever to capture the fancy of generations of historians. There was one notable exception among the scholars: Robert Tucker put a dashing young revolutionary – someone who might have stepped out of the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Weathermen – on the cover of Stalin as Revolutionary (1973). But the ‘grey blur’ remained, no doubt partly in reaction against devotional Soviet characterisations of the Great Leader, Teacher and Father of Peoples. Scholars who had to wade through the turgid prose of his theoretical writings concluded that Stalin was poorly educated and probably not too bright, except as a backroom organiser. As for physical attributes, his short stature, pockmarked face and damaged arm were frequently noted. The consensus was that in the line-up of totalitarian dictators, Hitler was the one with charisma.
This started to change around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives. In his 1988 biography, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, the first to be based on archival research, Dmitri Volkogonov presented both a real person, capable of emotional reactions and contradictions, and, more surprisingly, a real intellectual who remained a serious, wide-ranging reader all his life. Later biographies followed this up; the theme of high intelligence and intellectual achievement was particularly prominent in Robert Service’s biography of 2004. The first volume of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004), dealing with his life and milieu in power, granted him a certain charisma and even had a chapter headed ‘The Charmer’. Still, it was not the charm but the ‘deadly whirlpools of ambition, anger and unhappiness’ that were most evident.
Montefiore’s new book on the young Stalin seems to want us to think in terms of a whole new level of charm and charisma, the charm ‘feline’ and occasionally ‘leonine’, powerfully felt by men and women, the yellow/honey-brown eyes often described as ‘burning’. This new Stalin has physical grace (despite the limp and the webbed feet) and a ‘detached magnetism’. He is a Caucasian, exotic and mysterious, as a man of secrets should be; a romantic poet of some achievement; a natural actor, who could win anybody over when he was in the mood. A man of affairs in all senses (women throng the pages of Young Stalin), this Stalin is a dangerous man with connections to the criminal world that added to his glamour in the eyes of well-born revolutionary intellectuals like Lenin and Krasin. ‘The underground was his natural habitat, through which he moved with elusively feline grace – and menace.’
The new preoccupations of Young Stalin have to do with Stalin as a man of the Caucasus (and, more specifically, a Caucasian gangster), his early promise as a Georgian poet, and his activities as a lover. As far as the Caucasus is concerned, the message is that this was non-Europe, the Russian imperial frontier. We get a vivid picture of Gori, Stalin’s birthplace near the mountains and the turbulent Kura river, ‘a liberated and violent place dominated by drinking, prayer and brawling’, half Georgian and half Armenian in population, with the obligatory Russian garrison. The Djugashvili family in the 1870s fits this picture. Beso, the cobbler who was (probably) Stalin’s father, did the drinking, the schoolboy Stalin the brawling, and his lively mother, Keke, benefited from the liberation: when Beso became a drunkard and failed to support her and her only surviving son, Joseph (Soso), she found an array of patrons and protectors in Gori’s small society (a priest, Father Charkviani, with whom she and Soso lived for a time; a merchant; the local police officer), provoking some whispering but apparently no real loss of reputation.
Tiflis, where Stalin moved at 15, is evoked in the tradition of British Orientalism (‘Water-carriers, street-traders, pickpockets and porters delivered to or stole from the Armenian and Persian bazaars, the alleyways of which more resembled a Levantine souk than a European city. Caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded with silks and spices from Persia and Turkestan, fruit and wineskins from the lush Georgian countryside, ambled through the gates of the Caravanserai’). But for Stalin, Tiflis meant a stern seminary education and, running parallel to this, his induction, first into the world of literature forbidden by the seminary, from Zola and Victor Hugo to Tolstoy and Saltykov-Shchedrin, and then into the world of revolution.
While Stalin was still a seminarian (he dropped out at the age of 20), and before he became known as a revolutionary, he made something of a reputation as a poet, writing under the name of Soselo. Five of his poems were published by one of Georgia’s leading poets, the romantic nationalist Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, who later remembered Soselo as ‘the young man with the burning eyes’. These poems, in which moons, mountains and harps abound, were to become ‘minor Georgian classics’ and provide evidence that the 17-year-old Stalin had, however transiently, imbibed a healthy dose of Georgian romantic nationalism. Montefiore prints one poem at the beginning of each of the five sections of his book.
On a personal level, Stalin was anything but romantic. After his first wife’s death in 1907, and particularly in his years of Siberian exile during the First World War, he turns out to have had many lovers – fellow revolutionaries, wives of fellow revolutionaries, landladies – but the relationships broke up without difficulty when he moved, and he rarely kept in touch, even when children were born. Women are a new topic in Stalin biography, thanks to the post-Soviet flood of sensational (but evidently factual) revelations in the Russian press, and it’s interesting to find that the long-standing rumours about an unacknowledged illegitimate son are true, twice over (both sons, Aleksandr Pereprygin and Constantine Kuzakov, were fathered on Russian women during his Siberian exile; Stalin’s affair with Lydia Pereprygina, started in 1914 when she was only 13, caused a scandal among the revolutionaries and trouble with her brothers and the local police). Rather surprisingly, the list of mistresses – around fifteen – included a couple of Bolshevik women from the Russian intelligentsia, one of whom (Ludmilla Stal) may have inspired his pseudonym.
Fifteen affairs in two decades of mainly unmarried life in a free-living revolutionary milieu hardly qualifies Stalin as a womaniser, and Montefiore admits as much, noting that ‘women ranked low on his list of priorities, far below revolution, egotism, intellectual pursuits and hard-drinking dinners with male friends.’ Yet the space Montefiore gives to the affairs implicitly contradicts this.