- 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.
The most substantial of his new themes concerns the impact on Stalin of the Caucasian revolutionary underground. Young Stalin begins with the story of the great Tiflis bank robbery of 1907, carried out on behalf of the revolution by the notorious Kamo (another Gori boy, of Armenian rather than Georgian descent), which Montefiore claims to have been masterminded by Stalin. This sets the scene for a portrayal of Stalin the gangster, formed in ‘that peculiar milieu where violence, fanaticism and loyalty were the main coinage’; a ‘pitiless cut-throat’ (though he ‘left what he called the “black work” – the killing – to his henchmen’), the creator of a ‘Bolshevik bank-robbery and assassination outfit which he controlled from afar like a Mafia don’.
Perhaps Stalin did mastermind the Tiflis robbery, but the main evidence seems to come from later memoirs by his sister-in-law, Sashiko Svanidze, who merely repeats what Stalin told her. Perhaps Stalin really was an intimate of criminals in Tiflis, but the only ‘gangster’ associates identified here are revolutionaries, not career criminals. Perhaps the killing of stool-pigeons in the Caucasus revolutionary movement was as common as Montefiore implies, but if so, he needs to give some examples. He has clearly been impressed by the Azerbaijani template of clan violence and killing recently put forward by the German scholar Jörg Baberowski, but it’s something of a jump to extend this to Georgians and Armenians. Of course, it is too much to expect Montefiore to have become an expert on the Caucasus for the purpose of this book, and the significance of the Caucasus background may become clearer when Ronald Suny’s study of the young Stalin as a Georgian appears.
This is an exuberant book, even in its discussion of sources. It’s clear that Montefiore had fun visiting sites, and interviewing surviving witnesses or (more often) their children. There’s a tremendous amount of archival and other research in the book, much of it presumably done by the Russian and Georgian scholars whose help Montefiore acknowledges, but he was the one who had to make sense of it all. It’s not a scholar’s book in the academic sense: Montefiore doesn’t have to ‘locate’ himself in the historiography (which has its advantages as well as its drawbacks), but he is under an obligation to tell a good story. Still, he is generous to academics in his note on sources: ‘masterly’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘magisterial’ are among his adjectives for a broad and disparate assembly of scholars, from Robert Tucker, Ronald Suny and Alexander Rabinowitch to Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest. His reading in secondary sources is broad, and includes s0me Russian and German.
It’s a lesser work in every sense than Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which came out first though it deals with a later period. The Court of the Red Tsar was a hard act to follow not only because of its popular success but because it was an eye-opener to scholars as well: it was the first biography to use the newly accessible Stalin archive to present Stalin among his circle – his family, friends and political associates. The absence of a milieu, or even a minimal sense of how he operated within the Politburo (Montefiore’s ‘court’), had been a glaring defect in earlier biographies. It would be hard to bring off such a feat twice, so it’s not surprising Montefiore hasn’t quite managed it. One of the striking things in The Court of the Red Tsar was his ability to process huge amounts of data and draw sensible conclusions. To be sure, there was a bit of overwriting, notably in the reiteration of a few colourful words – ‘killing’ and ‘paranoid’ among them – but the book was remarkably less sensational than might have been expected. In Young Stalin, Montefiore is not so sensible and does tend to inflate his material, which makes the occasional misdating and misunderstanding of Russian words more noticeable. Often, in the service of a good story, he goes further than his evidence warrants.
It’s interesting to return to the earlier book in the light of this new work on the Red Tsar in the making. The youthful affairs make Stalin more human but also throw into relief the personal isolation of his later years (he had no publicly acknowledged woman companion after his second wife Nadya’s suicide in 1932, though his devoted housekeeper, Valentina Istomina, may have filled this role in private). The Georgian nationalism of the young poet obviously didn’t last; indeed, for all his closeness to diasporic Georgians in Russia, Stalin as an adult showed little eagerness even to visit his mother, let alone revisit the scenes of his childhood. If he developed any nostalgia in his old age, it was for the Orthodox Church, or perhaps for Father Charkviani, the priest who helped him get into the Gori church school and the Tiflis seminary and served as a surrogate father. In the 1940s, Stalin had some extraordinary conversations with Alexander Vasilevsky, the army chief of staff and son of a Russian priest whom, for career reasons, he had had to renounce. According to Vasilevsky’s account, Stalin kept asking about his father, urging him not to neglect the old man, and finally, in a remarkable touch, disclosed that for the past few years he, Stalin, had been quietly sending Vasilevsky’s father money.
Both books, then, are studies of milieus: of the Caucasian revolutionary underground, with Tiflis and Baku as its centres; and of Stalin’s post-revolutionary ‘court’, centred in the Kremlin and dacha settlements around Moscow. The differences in geographical and social location are obvious, but there were also important continuities and connections. In the first place, Stalin’s social circle in Moscow after the Revolution (which included much of his political circle) was predominantly Caucasian, if you include Caucasus-dwelling Russians like his Alliluyev in-laws along with the Georgian Svanidzes and Ordzhonikidzes and the Armenian Mikoyans. Montefiore’s term for Stalin’s political associates is ‘magnates’, a rather misleading word, given that these Politburo members and Central Committee apparatchiki were not possessed of great estates, wealth or regional power. Of varying social backgrounds, they had in common that they were all former revolutionaries, often active in the Caucasus, who with the success of the Revolution had made it into the big time. Stalin clearly remained socially part of a Caucasian diaspora, at least until the Great Purges: whether this means that he retained the Caucasian kin-based ‘honour and loyalty culture’ that Montefiore ascribes to him is more doubtful. Surely such a culture would have led him to try to protect his own family (the Svanidzes and the Alliluyevs) in the Purges, as Ordzhonikidze tried unavailingly to protect his. But for Stalin, on the contrary, not protecting his own when he had the power to do so seems to have been part of a private code of honour derived not from the Caucasus but from the revolutionary movement. He followed the same code when he refused to bargain with the Germans after his son Yakov, an artillery officer, was captured during the Second World War.
Montefiore doesn’t give us much about the transition from the young man who identified with Georgia to the older one who apparently identified strongly with Russia (the main theme of Robert Tucker’s biography), other than to remark that Stalin’s later Siberian exile ‘made him more of a Russian. Perhaps Siberia froze some of the Georgian exoticism out of him.’ Perhaps it did, but Montefiore is so interested in the Oriental exoticism of the Caucasus that he doesn’t notice the significance of its status as a part of the Russian Empire; ambitious young men from the periphery, including ambitious young revolutionaries like Stalin, were always likely to move to the bigger pond.
Neither anti-semitic nor having much acquaintance with Jews in his youth, Stalin became a raging anti-semite in his old age; and Montefiore suggests that when he set out to Russianise himself (first as a member of the broader revolutionary movement from 1907, when he attended the London conference, and later as an exile in Siberia), a fairly casual anti-semitism was part of the package. Montefiore also thinks it relevant that the branch of Russian social democracy Stalin embraced in 1907 was the ‘Russian faction’ – Lenin’s Bolsheviks – rather than the ‘Jewish’ Mensheviks. However, as Stalin was also an opponent of the Mensheviks who dominated social democracy in Georgia, the Jewishness of the Menshevik faction in Russia was probably not the crucial determinant of his attitude. In The Court of the Red Tsar, Montefiore made the same point about Stalin’s anti-semitism being ‘more a Russian mannerism than a dangerous obsession’, noting also that in the 1920s and 1930s he was much more notably Polonophobic than anti-semitic, and that he protected his Jewish colleague Kaganovich from anti-semitic jokes. The outright anti-semitism of Stalin’s last years he attributes (correctly, in my opinion) to his sense of the threat posed by the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel, which, as quickly became evident, was being drawn into the American camp in the Cold War, and the feeling was only exacerbated when he saw how enthusiastically supposedly assimilated Soviet Jews welcomed the new Jewish homeland, and welcomed Golda Meir when she arrived in Moscow as the first Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union.
An issue from The Court of the Red Tsar on which Young Stalin is particularly illuminating is the rampant paranoia of the Great Purges. That the roots of the Soviet obsession with conspiracy are to be found in the pre-revolutionary underground is a truism. What Montefiore does is to make a more precise connection with the impact on the early 20th-century revolutionary movement of the zubatovshchina. In 1902, Zubatov, chief of the Moscow department of the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, introduced a new policy according to which, in Montefiore’s words, ‘double agents not only penetrated the “internal life of the revolutionary organisations” but also sometimes directed them. The Okhrana even set up their own revolutionary groups and trade unions. And their very existence was designed to inspire a cannibalistic frenzy of suspicion and paranoia among the revolutionaries.’ As indeed it did. The discovery that the Bolshevik revolutionary Roman Malinovsky, whom both Lenin and Stalin had trusted, was a police spy is only one of many such instances in the world of the revolutionary underground, where accusation and counter-accusation of betrayal were rife. Stalin, who was head of the Party’s intelligence and counter-intelligence in Baku and prided himself on his ability to sniff out spies, was in the thick of all this (indeed, in 1902 and again in 1909, he himself was accused of being a police spy, though Montefiore – following the work of the Russian researcher Aleksandr Ostrovsky – acquits him). In Montefiore’s words, ‘Stalin orchestrated a cannibalistic inquisition in Baku to find traitors, real and imagined, just as he would across the entire USSR in the 1930s. The difference is that in Baku the Party really was infested with police spies.’ That is not only a significant difference but also an important clue as to how Stalin – and for that matter all the other Bolsheviks who were surprisingly sympathetic to the premise that purging was necessary – could have found it plausible that the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, like the revolutionary underground in the 1900s, was riddled with spies. If the clumsy old Okhrana could do it, why not the much more sophisticated Western intelligence agencies of the 1930s?
The nature of the relationship between Stalin and Lenin is a preoccupation of all historians of the Soviet Union. In Montefiore’s version of the story, Lenin welcomes the advent of Stalin, his ‘wonderful Georgian’, mainly because of his connection with the ‘expropriations’ (that is, the bank robberies and other illegal money-making activities in the Caucasus) and hence with the health of the Bolshevik Party treasury in the hard years after 1905. Others have argued that Stalin’s expertise on questions of nationality was a large part of the appeal; on Lenin’s urging, he made his debut as a Party theorist by writing ‘Marxism and the National Question’ in 1913, but Montefiore relegates this to footnotes. In line with the general thrust of the argument of Young Stalin, he wants Lenin to respond to Stalin not as an intellectual but as a Caucasian ‘gangster’, rather like Kamo.
Socially, Lenin and Stalin were very different, Lenin a Russian noble as well as an intellectual, long resident in Europe and conversant with foreign languages. Whether they were alike politically is harder to judge, because the theoretical differences that preoccupied the émigré revolutionaries have been almost entirely expunged from Montefiore’s narrative. On the old question of whether Stalin, once in power, was Lenin’s true disciple or a betrayer of his revolution, one might at first conclude that Montefiore is on the side of betrayal: if Stalinism was a product of ‘the violent rites of Stalin’s secret planet of Caucasian conspiracy’, it would seem as if Lenin and Leninism didn’t have a lot to do with it. But then again, ‘when Lenin seized power and, beleaguered on all sides, ran his government like a conspiratorial camarilla, Stalin was . . . in his element’; so perhaps they did have a lot in common after all. Moreover, Montefiore tells us that Lenin’s vision of proletarian dictatorship was a necessary prerequisite for Stalin’s dictatorship, which seems to beg more questions than it answers. Montefiore’s bottom line is that, once in power, Lenin’s Party developed ‘the taste for extreme bloody solutions to all challenges’, and Stalin was ‘the patron of these brutal tendencies’ – meaning that he encouraged them in others? – and also ‘their personification’.
Stalin’s relationship with the Party’s émigré intellectuals, excluding Lenin, was often rocky. They tended to underestimate him, and he regarded them as ‘pretty but useless’ (an early characterisation of Trotsky, whom he also described as a ‘noisy phoney champion with fake muscles’). It was not, as has erroneously been thought, that he was significantly less well educated than these members of the Russian intelligentsia, many of them Jewish or from the Russian nobility, but rather that he felt socially ill at ease and was inclined to behave truculently in their presence. In Siberia, he annoyed his fellow revolutionary exiles (Montefiore identifies them as ‘Jewish’, as many were, but they were also and more importantly intellectuals) by consorting too much with ‘criminals’ among the exiled population (‘there were some salt of the earth fellows among them and too many rats among the politicals’). Stalin’s inferiority complex surely had something to do with foreign languages: he struggled all his life to master English and German (the seminary taught only Latin and Greek, in addition to Russian, the language of instruction), while many of the others had learned these languages in the gymnasium (the Russian academic high school) or when in exile.
The pre-Revolutionary Bolshevik Party has been analysed in terms of various dichotomies. The dichotomy of intellectuals and workers (the one I have just been using) is probably the most popular. Another is émigrés, arguing about revolutionary theory in the cafés of Europe, and underground revolutionaries in Russia, known respectively as committee men (komitetchiki) and practicals (praktiki). Lenin and Trotsky were in the first category, Stalin in the second. These dichotomies are useful for understanding the pre-Revolutionary and early Soviet situation. But one inference that could be drawn from the two Montefiore books is that the dichotomy of Jews and Caucasians, and their respective patronage networks, may have been equally important, at least after Lenin’s death. The gradual exclusion of the ‘Jewish’ group within the Bolshevik leadership, following the defeat of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev in the struggles after Lenin’s death, has often been noted: it is less often remarked that, with Stalin’s ascent to power, it was the Caucasians who won. Contemporaries noticed this, however: the anonymous hate mail received by official Soviet bodies in the 1920s and 1930s, includes complaints that Russia was being run both by the Jews and the Caucasians (led by their ‘Caucasian Prince’).
Two groups whose importance Montefiore underrates are Russians and workers. The former have walk-on parts; the latter go almost unmentioned. Despite the occasional passing reference to strikes in Young Stalin, you could read the whole book without knowing that stirring up workers in factories and oilfields (in the Caucasus, these workers included many ethnic Russians as well as Caucasians) was the main aim of the revolutionary movement and its activists. Marxist theory identified the industrial proletariat as the revolutionary class. But you would scarcely know this from Montefiore’s account, which dismisses Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ with a passing, if remarkable, one-word characterisation, ‘homicidal’, and leaves the impression that the Revolution was carried out by a handful of repentant Russian noblemen, Jewish intellectuals and exotic Georgian ‘gangsters’.
It’s true that Montefiore is writing a biography of Stalin, not a history of the Revolution. But Stalin was a Marxist, and the issue of the workers mattered to him. Agitation among the workforce and organisation of the workers are hardly mentioned in Young Stalin but the lacuna is even more significant in The Court of the Red Tsar. Workers were not just supporters of the Revolution: they were also party activists who after the Revolution became full-time ‘cadres’ – administrators and managers in the new Soviet state. This meant that they mattered politically as well as intellectually to Stalin: the allegiance of the ‘proletarian’ element in the Bolshevik Party (meaning primarily cadres who had been workers, soldiers and peasants in 1917) was crucial in the leadership struggle of the 1920s, and Stalin – clearly urban lower-class, though, as the son of an artisan cobbler, not strictly proletarian – was the man who won it. In the post-Revolutionary context, Stalin’s social inferiority to the Party intellectuals was a trump card that he knew how to play. Indeed, he even managed to turn the dying Lenin’s criticism of him as ‘crude’ (in connection with an instance of rudeness to Lenin’s wife) into a political advantage. A few years later, he launched a massive campaign of proletarian ‘affirmative action’ (vydvizhenie) that sent tens of thousands of young workers to higher education and promoted even larger numbers directly into management, thus simultaneously creating a new ‘worker and peasant intelligentsia’, Russifying the new Soviet elite (workers, even in the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union, were still likely to be Russian at this point) and earning the beneficiaries’ lasting gratitude.
There are occasional echoes of all this in The Court of the Red Tsar, but they are so fragmentary as to be incomprehensible. From time to time, Stalin worries that there are not enough workers in the Party leadership, but it is not clear why this should bother him. He has similar worries about Russians, and these Montefiore understands better, as he can see that keeping the Russians happy was important in a state that, however revolutionary, was the successor to the Russian Empire. The relative invisibility of workers and Russians can be explained partly in terms of Montefiore’s focus on the very top of the Soviet political hierarchy (‘the court’, meaning the Politburo and others with direct access to Stalin), where both groups were much less well represented in the prewar period than at the next level down (ministers and deputy ministers, regional party secretaries and so on). But even at court, Russians are overshadowed in Montefiore’s account by the colourful Caucasians. There’s Molotov, Stalin’s right-hand man, but Montefiore finds him as boring as the ‘bug-eyed’ Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s (Russian) widow; there’s Bukharin, but he’s a loser; there’s Andreev, a working-class Russian, but he’s uninteresting; there’s Ezhov, another working-class Russian, who is interesting, but mainly as a miniature murderer; and finally there’s Khrushchev, a Russian worker from the Ukraine who has gone down in history, perhaps because of his choice of shirts, as a Ukrainian peasant.
Montefiore isn’t wrong to stress the prominence of the Caucasian diaspora in The Court of the Red Tsar. But we need to keep the other elements in mind too, if only to appreciate the magnitude of Stalin’s achievement in winning the Bolshevik ‘proletarian’ vote in the 1920s without being proletarian and, in the Second World War, successfully identifying with the cause of Holy Russia without being a Russian. Not bad for a Georgian boy, a failed priest, from faraway Gori.