Friday, March 28, 2008

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Earlier this week I finished Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I seem to be on an unplanned (or semi-planned) Stalin-related reading-spree these days, with some more books on this theme on my TBR-pile and my current reading Tali, The Miracle of Chegem, also set in the Stalin-era.

Young Stalin is a biography of Josef Stalin from his birth in 1878 till the October Revolution in 1917. It covers his youth in the Caucasus republic of Georgia (at that time part of the Russian Empire) and his failed studies at the seminary in Tbilisi. Believe it or not, one of the greatest dictators of the twentieth century was on his way to become a priest when he got distracted by revolutionary activism and politics. The book goes on to describe Stalin's road towards becoming one of the leaders of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 besides Lenin and Trotsky. This is a history of violence, womanizing, fathering children out of wedlock, exile in far-away corners of Siberia and revolutionary activism. A very readable history, that is.

Parts of the book almost read as an action novel. One the one hand, this is a plus, but on the other hand I found it annoying at times, especially in the earlier parts of the book. After reading the Prologue (there's an excerpt here) - which describes a bank robbery complete with bombs, dead and wounded in Tbilisi in 1907 that caused headlines worldwide - for a little bit I was even unsure whether I wanted to continue. My main problem was with some of the words used to describe people and events. I'll give you one example. Three young women were members of Stalin's revolutionary group (or criminal gang) in the early 1900s. They participated in the bank robbery as well and are mentioned a couple of times in the earlier parts of the book. Apparently, these girls knew how to shoot, they could handle guns. Every time they were mentioned, some adjective reminding us of their shooting-skills was used to describe them: the "shooting", "gunwhielding" girls, you get the drift. I don't think they were ever mentioned without some such adjective. There was also lots of "swashbuckling" going on in the book. At times it almost felt as if the author was glorifying the "bandits", "gunslingers", etc. This eventually started to get on my nerves, but I decided to just ignore it. In the end, after finishing the book, I even realized that despite this somewhat annoying use of language, I found the first part of the book set in Tbilisi and Baku, the most interesting.

Other than that, the book is, as I said, extremely readable. Sebag Montefiore obviously did extensive research in Russian and especially in Georgian archives, using many memoirs and documents that had never before been used to document Stalin's life. I think that this is exactly where the strength of the biography lies and what makes the book an addition to existing literature about Stalin - the extensive use of newly discovered sources. Sebag Montefiore depicts Stalin convincingly as a self-obsessed man, prone to the use of violence from his early years on, increasingly paranoid. He shows clearly how events from Stalin's earlier years influenced his way of leadership of the Soviet-Union in later years and especially the Great Terror he unleashed in the 1930s. Which is not to say that these events were exclusively the result of events in Stalin's younger years, but they certainly formed his character and seemed to have influenced his reaction to certain people, behavior, and events.

I found it very interesting how the author would frequently mention in a footnote how certain parts of Stalin's life were changed or entirely eliminated from his official biography while he was still alive. His active participation in robberies for example, or his role in the revolutionary year 1917 or the children he fathered when he was in exile in Siberia. Certain blemishes were obviously not permitted in the biography of the Great Leader and Revolutionary Stalin.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Young Stalin and I learned a lot about the man Stalin, who he was, where he came from, how he became who he was in later years. I certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in Russia and Russian history.

Crossposted at my own blog The Armenian Odar Reads.

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