When I first learned to read, I thought there were three kinds of books: nonfiction, which gave instructions about how to do things like knit or make things out of papier mache; fiction, which told wonderful stories about imaginary amazing people; and biographies which told wonderful stories about real life amazing people.
Or maybe not so wonderful or amazing.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin tells the story of the ruthless dictator’s early days. Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, a history of Stalin’s reign of terror (have I used every Stalin cliché yet?), tries to walk a fine line in this book: make Stalin’s story exciting but don’t glamorize one of history’s cruelest leaders. Not surprisingly, the line gets crossed sometimes.
The book opens with a big action movie set piece describing the bombing of a town square by a bunch of revolutionaries. The bombs aren’t set off to make a political point, though; rather they are there to create confusion so a stagecoach carrying money to a bank could be intercepted and robbed. The robbery was planned by Stalin.
This Godfather like opening establishes Stalin’s gangster credentials and sets the stage for the tale of his childhood as the son of an alcoholic father and an ambitious mother. Young Soso—one of the eight million names he went by—is brilliant, an excellent student, but also a tough Georgian street kid. His mother begs a place for him at a prestigious seminary where his intellect, beautiful singing voice, and poetry writing set him apart from other students. However, instead of becoming a priest, as his mother intended, he undergoes a political awakening and rebels against the priests, God and his studies, eventually dropping out of school to become a professional revolutionary.
Being a professional revolutionary isn’t easy. There are arrests and exiles that interrupt the flow of business, never ending fundraising and recruiting, keeping an eye out for spies, dealing with constant fighting between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Fortunately, though, there are plenty of other perks: girlfriends, mistresses, wives, drinking, parties, the fun of beating up rivals and shaking down wealthy industrialists.
This is where things get murky—Sebag Montefiore details Stalin’s Scarface-like early life (that’s the Pacino Scarface, by the way, not the Paul Muni one) and ends up with a product somewhat like that movie: he’s telling the story of a criminal, but what people remember instead is the trashy glamour, the women, the bloody murders that come across not as inexplicable violence, but rather righteous displays of power.
Whether intentionally or not, Sebag Montefiore has trouble resisting the urge to paint Stalin as a cross between a rock star 1960s type of world-changing rebel (he goes out of his way more than a few times to note Stalin’s long hair, dating from his turnabout in the seminary when he “refused to cut his hair, growing it rebelliously long”), and a good time dandy, always wearing a fedora or an eccentrically fashionable “white hood,” who worked hard for his cause but always had time go out and party with his buddies (the word “party” as a verb gets a workout in this book). He is a charismatic leader who always has followers willing to do anything for him, notably the movie sidekick Kamo, who plays the role of the semi-psychotic dirty work doing friend, the kind of henchman who gets his way because his victims quickly realize he’s willing to blow himself up as well as them. He always has friends who hide him, cover for him, and let him stay at their houses. And he has an endless supply of women falling for him, from teenage girlfriends of his comrades to older wives of his comrades.
(He’s not the only one—pretty much every Bolshevik worth a paragraph or two in this book gets tagged with a description like “womanizer” or “ladies man.” This all begs the question of why these men wanted the Revolution to come, because life was so good just saying they were planning one.)
All this makes for enormously fun reading, but Sebag Montefiore does sometimes seem to have pangs of guilt, pulling back to show the dark side of Stalin. He will finish an anecdote by telling how the friend who is helping Stalin at this point in the story was later executed during the Terror. He notes that some event shows the true nature of the man who later ordered the deaths of millions. He acknowledges that while Stalin had all these funtime girlfriends and mistresses, he also left behind a string of illegitimate, uncared for children (however, while this would usually not be considered responsible parenting, the kids and their mothers were probably better off being more or less forgotten—being remembered by Stalin wasn’t always a positive). The reality is that while you can put Stalin’s youth into the present day context of words like thug and gangster, which have taken on an unintended appeal, he really was nothing more than a bully, his rise to power based on his willingness to follow through on a threat. This quality, combined with the circumstances of the time—the general upheaval, the desperation for some kind of leadership, the wear and tear of the Great War—allowed someone like him to become a murderous dictator.
All mixed feelings aside about how to present such a character—a villain who became that way by being a hero to some first—Sebag Montefiore deserves enormous credit for sorting through tons letters, diaries, and unpublished memoirs. He even finds and interviews a 109 year old relative of Stalin’s first wife. He does a good job explaining the rivalry between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (note: he does, however, overindulge in the much-loathed, overlong footnotes that I hate seeing clutter up a page—if some piece of information is so important that it takes a third of a page as a footnote to relate, it probably belongs in the text). And again, as noted, he does this all in a very readable, easy way, and manages as well as I suppose you can expect with such a difficult balancing act: trying to present a character readers will want to read about but also remind them every so often that he was a historically bad bad guy. After all, you can’t flagellate your readers at every turn, scolding them for actually being entertained by your book. But still, there's something vaguely uncomfortable about reading about the lighter side of Stalin—the cutesy postcards he sends his teen girlfriend, his poetry and singing, the little dog he loved? All the many sides of Stalin shown in this book would make for a wonderfully complex character in fiction, but alas, he’s not fiction, and perhaps that makes this kind of book rather complex for readers.