Tuesday, 27 January 2015

"Young Stalin", by Simon Sebag Motefiore

Trotsky famously dismissed Stalin as a "grey blur". This book shows just how wrong Trotsky was.

"Yong Stalin" is actually a prequel (horrible word!) to Montefiore's justly celebrated "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar", and covers the life of the future Soviet dictator up to the formation of the first Bolshevik government in 1917. It benefits from the vast amount of documentary evidence which has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reminiscences of people who were personally acquainted with Stalin.
     He was born Josef Vissarionavich Djugashvili, in Gori, a turbulent, half-civilized village in Georgia; the third son of a cobbler who deserted his family and was reduced to poverty by alcoholism, and an illiterate but strong-minded mother. Both his elder siblings died in infancy. Young Josef's birth language was Georgian, and he only learnt to speak Russian at school. He was an excellent student with a beautiful singing-voice, and with the help of better-off friends of his mother was able to win a place at the seminary in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, to train for the Orthodox priesthood. The thought of Stalin as a priest is astonishing, to say the least; but although his academic work remained excellent, he quickly rebelled against the stifling, tyrannical regime of the seminary, constantly got into trouble for reading banned books (originally the novels of Victor Hugo, and only Marxist literature later), and eventually left without graduating.
   Instead of seeking a normal job, he disappointed his mother's ambitions for him by joining the revolutionary underground. Georgia was a land of bandits, macho heroic drinkers and poets (the young Stalin wrote a number of romantic poems which were well-regarded by his contemporaries, many being reproduced here), and also of poverty-stricken nobles and venal policemen, many of whom were willing to co-operate with the bandits against their hated Russian rulers: in other words; an ideal place for revolutionary activity. Already the personal characteristics of the mature Stalin were emerging: a charismatic personality with a natural gift for leadership, a capacity for detailed and careful planning, and an absolute refusal to kowtow to anyone, coupled with total amorality and a monstrous egoism which made him utterly indifferent to the sufferings of others. The only time he was recorded as showing any emotion was when his young wife, known as "Kato", died of typhoid after less than eighteen months of marriage. He paid little attention to his baby son. Although he was soon a committed Marxist, and well-read in the Marxist canon, he seldom got on with the middle-class theorists who led the movement. He much preferred the company of criminals, like the psychopathic Armenian bandit Ter-Petrossian (nicknamed "Kamo"), who once asked Stalin, a-propos of an opponent, "Why don't you just let me cut his throat?"
   Armed with these qualities, the young revolutionary cut a swathe, not only in Tiflis but in the centres of Russia's burgeoning oil industry, Batumi and Baku; chaotic boom-towns of squalid slums next door to the vast palaces of the new plutocrats, brothels, gangsters and violent labour disputes. Here he printed Marxist propaganda and assembled teams of hitmen who carried out murders, hijackings and extortion rackets, all meticulously organized by Stalin himself. During the great revolutionary year of 1905 the Tsarist state almost collapsed, and law and order more or less ceased to exist south of the Caucasus, being eventually restored by means of massive violence from Cossack troops. Stalin's most spectacular heist was the great Tiflis bank robbery of June 1907, when Kamo led a gang of gunmen and bombers (including some young women) to ambush a coach carrying a huge shipment of roubles. Several people were killed, horses were maimed, and the gang got away with banknotes worth towards two million pounds. The robbery made world headlines. No-one was ever caught.
   Stalin admired Lenin's writings from when he first discovered them, and he made his few journeys abroad to meet the Bolshevik leader, including a few weeks in London in the spring of 1907. In return,Lenin defended Stalin's violent actions against the horrified criticism of many of his comrades. He also appreciated Stalin's writings,particularly on the question of the national minorities within the Tsarist empire. In 1912 Stalin was made a member of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee.
   The police never managed to pin any major crime on Stalin. He used a great number of different aliases (only settling permanently on "Stalin" around 1913), constantly changed his residences and was adept at spotting informers and police spies. He was arrested and exiled to Siberia, escaped and was arrested and exiled again, until finally in 1913 he was shipped out to Kureika, a tiny village on the edge of the Arctic Circle, thousands of miles from St. Petersburg, from where escape was impossible. He was only freed with the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. In exile he spent his time squabbling drearily with his fellow-exiles,and reading voraciously. But he was never without girl-friends, even in the remotest of areas. Sometimes these activities were combined: when one of his mistresses in exile, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, asked him for a present to remember him by, he gave her a book entitled "A Study of Western Literature". In his last exile his mistress was no more than 13: she bore him two children.
      He played no great part in the seizure of power in October 1917, and in the first Bolshevik government he was given only the minor post of Commissar for the National Minorities. Throughout 1917 he was overshadowed by the brilliant Trotsky, a man whom he hated at first sight. In return, Trotsky always underestimated Stalin, as did all the rest of Lenin's successors, until it was far too late.

So Stalin was far from being a "grey blur". He was a man of great abilities: a charismatic personality, a natural leader, a fine singer and a good poet, a hard-working  and widely-read student with a phenomenal memory. He could be delightful company when it suited him, but otherwise he was silent and morose. Later in life his skills as a negotiator greatly impressed Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. But at the same time he was cruel, vindictive, indifferent to others except insofar as they served his purposes, never forgetting or forgiving an insult (though he sometimes remembered and rewarded people who had helped him in his younger days). Montefiore portrays him as essentially a highly talented man of gangster outlook who went in for revolutionary politics. He would certainly have been a roaring success in Capone's Chicago!
     Montefiore wisely refrains from too much amateur psychological speculation about what made Stalin so monstrous, but surely the personality is psychopathic. The danger with revolutionary eras is that psychopathic personalities often come to the fore.

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