Young Stalin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

“Stalin still enjoyed partying.”

Indeed he did, at least the young Stalin, and this is an observation made by Simon Sebag Montefiore on the Crazy Soso of 1915. Young Stalin was, with the pun in this case less intended than duly noted, a party animal. He enjoyed drinking, singing, dancing, telling jokes, and fucking, all in addition to politics. About how many other nascent dictators can that be said?

Certainly not Young Hitler, his contemporary and fellow giant of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Montefiore has a chapter on the “wonderful Georgian” and “the Austrian artist” both living in Vienna at the same time in 1913. Perhaps the closest they ever came to meeting was during their walks in the park outside Emperor Franz-Josef’s Schönbrunn Palace. But it was unlikely they would have fallen in with one another. It was not just that they moved in different circles (Hitler at the time had yet to embark on his career as a revolutionary). They were two very different personality types. Hitler never enjoyed partying.

Perhaps because Hitler never had a lot of personal charm. He was good in front of a crowd but had no friends. Stalin had friends but was without charisma. And he did well at school, which is a trick Hitler never learned.

Until his expulsion Stalin was an A-student (as well as the “finest choirboy”) at the church school and seminary he attended, and by all accounts highly thought of by his educators. In the end he was only dismissed after an instance of open rebellion; before that all of his infractions seem to have been winked at. Still, Montefiore makes the usual connection between Stalin’s school days and his later career, that they “turned him into an atheist Marxist and taught him exactly the repressive tactics – ‘surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings’ in Stalin’s own words – that he would recreate in his Soviet police state.”

The more interesting psychological question goes deeper than tactics though. To what extent did Marxism replace Stalin’s religious training in the construction of his world view? Stalin proved himself in later life to be every bit as dedicated a scholar of Marxist literature as he was a student of the teachings of the Church. Montefiore even uses adjectives like “devout” and “fanatical” to describe his commitment to the revolutionary gospel, his “messianic fervor” for the “amoral Bolshevik faith.” But did he believe in any of it? Was he, as has sometimes been said of Hitler’s nationalist/racist fanaticism, “convinced of his own rectitude”? Or was it all just a cynical ploy to gain personal power? The very name “Stalinism” (“not a distortion but a development of Leninism” in Montefiore’s judgment) suggests the latter. “His Messiah-complex led him to believe that anyone opposed to him was an enemy of the cause.” But if one is the Messiah – the Stalin of Stalinism – then one is the cause.

“Above all,” Montefiore concludes, Stalin “believed in himself and in his own ruthless leadership as the only way to govern a country in crisis and to promote a mere ideal to a real utopia.” But there is little here that gives us reason to think young Stalin had any faith in a “real utopia.” Instead one gets the sense that he became the party don of the Caucasus because that was what he truly enjoyed and was good at, not because it helped pay the bills or advanced any cause. The peasantry and proletariat were social classes he despised and wanted to distance himself from as much as possible. His father’s attempts to drag him out of school and off to the shoe factory were only the rising boy’s fear of falling back into the muck made physically real.

Perhaps it was this sense of childhood insecurity that grew into the monstrous paranoia of the dictator’s later years. Montefiore doesn’t speculate. Nor does he effectively dramatize. He is not a fluent, graceful writer, even when describing colorful set-piece episodes like the famous Tiflis robbery. Instead his account is bolted together out of heavy dollops of quotations and footnotes, testament to extensive original research though not conducive to narrative drive or freestyle interpretation and opinionating.

But while sometimes a clunky read, Young Stalin adds considerably to our knowledge and understanding of the man and the time. And if it leaves questions unanswered or matters unexplained at least some of this has to be ascribed to “the sheer weird singularity of the man” and the tragic opportunities of history.

Review first published online July 17, 2007.

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