Sunday, October 21, 2007

Moss reviews Montefiore, Young Stalin, for Moscow Times

Young Stalin (Knopf) by Simon Sebag Montefiore is reviewed for the Moscow Times by Walter G. Moss, Eastern Michigan University. Moss writes:
Controversy about Josef Stalin and about how historians should depict his years in power continues to divide Russians. Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book "Young Stalin" does not deal directly with Stalin's reign -- his previous book, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," did that -- but it does provide new insights into how Stalin became the man he was by the end of 1917, still a decade before he ousted Leon Trotsky in the battle for post-Leninist leadership....

Starting with a prologue entitled "The Bank Robbery," which dramatically recounts an infamous 1907 Tiflis crime directed by Stalin, the book is full of vivid details and new revelations and analysis. Stalin was probably responsible, according to Montefiore, for numerous other robberies on trains, stagecoaches and ships, accumulating today's equivalent of millions of dollars for the Bolshevik cause....

More flamboyant and less cautious in his prose than most academic historians, Montefiore frequently depicts Stalin in the Caucasus as a "terrorist" and "gangster," or "expert in gangsterism," and as "an arsonist, killer, bank robber ... [and] seducer." The author is fond of using such vernacular terms as "hit men" and "female gunslingers." He refers to future show-trial prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky as Stalin's "sidekick" who "organized terrorist gangs and [had] become a hit man." He tells us that "Stalin was unusual -- as adept at debating, writing and organizing as he was at arranging hits and heists," and that he was the "godfather of bank robberies in the Caucasus."...The author refutes some of the most slanderous charges against Stalin, such as that he once acted as a tsarist police agent, and at the end of the book we read of Stalin's generosity to old friends.

By then, however, Montefiore has indicated how, despite some redeeming qualities, Stalin had developed into the man who would later take millions of innocent lives. By 1917, a year in which he played a greater role than Trotsky admitted, his personality had been shaped by many influences -- parents who often beat him; a Georgian boyhood that furnished many examples of violence and vengeance; an Orthodox seminary education that taught him (in his own words) "surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings"; an "amoral" revolutionary subculture; and years in Siberian exile, which contributed to his sense of isolation and self-containment. Already while in exile, Stalin said, "My greatest pleasure is to choose one's victim, prepare one's plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There's nothing sweeter in the world." Montefiore also contends that, by early 1917, Lenin and Stalin essentially "shared the same sentiments and favored identical methods." Overall, this vivid and significant book tells us more about the young Stalin than we have ever known before.

The full review is here.