Book Review: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 12/16/07


  Because I was interested in learning some history behind Josef Stalin, I wanted to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin. As the title reveals, the book deals with Stalin’s early years and how he eventually evolved into a megalomaniac. Although I think this book would make an excellent film, actually reading it reminded me more of an encyclopedic read than an actually engaging story. Yet having said that, I learned a great deal of facts about Stalin that I would not have otherwise. Because most books on Stalin deal with his later years and his rise to power, this book attempts to create a more intimate portrait of the man, building him up to what he later was to become.

  For example, as a child Stalin grew up in a very rough and poor neighborhood in Gori, known for being “one of the most violent towns in the Tsar’s Empire.” His father, an alcoholic, used to beat him so much to the point that the boy suffered internal injury. And it was through these rough streets where the young Stalin learned his street fighting skills, became a gang leader, and also robbed banks. In fact, littered throughout the biography are photos of Stalin’s hometown, where just by looking at it one can see it was a ‘slum.’

  The book also addresses the fact that Stalin was a poet, and a bad one at that. Before each section, one can read a ‘poem’ that Stalin wrote. It is also noted that Stalin was someone who was very jealous of anyone with actual writing talent. “Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for—and jealousy of—brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak,” Montefiore writes. Perhaps he is overstating this, because any young male who practices poetry will often seem “obsessional” or “destructive” towards something in his work, be it a dictator like Stalin or a university gunman. For every one of those two there are a thousand or more who are just frustrated and suffering from angst and lack of talent. But there is no doubt that the Russians took poets and their poetry very seriously, and was something they were willing to die for, literally. And just to give a bit of a writing sample, which can be found at the beginning of part one:




The rose’s bud has blossomed out

Reaching out to touch the violet

The lily was waking up

And bending its head in the breeze


High in the clouds the lark

Was singing a chirping hymn

While the joyful nightingale

With a gentle voice was saying—


“Be full of blossom, oh lovely land

Rejoice Iverians’ country

And you oh Georgian, by studying

Bring joy to your motherland.”


  Ho hum. Yet despite his lack of writing talent, Stalin earned good marks in school, was handsome, met a lot of women and had affairs with many of them. He eventually married, only to have his wife die at the age of 22 from Typhus. As a result, Stalin was deeply saddened by this, and he is shown as having had some compassion—at least when it came to his wife. In fact, in one of the captions below the photograph of his deceased wife, it even reads, “His tenderness died with her.” Yet it wasn’t long afterwards that he was seeking new female companionship.

  The book tends to focus more on Stalin’s affairs with women and how he was also a letch (when older he got a 13 year old girl pregnant and the affair made him the product of a scandal) than on his relationship with Lenin and the intimate details behind the Bolshevik revolution. That is not to say these topics are not addressed—they are, but for some reason they are not as memorable. As a narrative, this book reads more like a list of facts than a ‘story.’ And perhaps that is not a criticism since this is a historical biography, after all. Yet that does not save the book from suffering from dryness in parts. Personally, I believe that readers would benefit more if the book were written in a memoir like style because as is, reading this book will give the reader lots of facts about Stalin but not really an ‘in’ to the man. Yes, he was an evil dictator. Yes, he was a megalomaniac. But what else was he? A thief. A bad father. A suspect on the run, etc. Perhaps that is why I believe this book, if falling into the hands of a talented filmmaker, could use these facts the author has presented and pull out a character that viewers will fear and yet understand.

  Larded with photographs, they are fascinating to look through, and to see photos of the young and handsome Stalin, as well as reading some of his old letters. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about Stalin and what led to his rise to power to seek out this book. Because the book does deal with his early years, which is a different approach from most Stalin books, one can then approach his later years with a slightly different perspective. Yet readers may find it as I did, a book rife with “facts” and less a picturesque scene told by way of narrative. And some may not. Readers will have the freedom to slant their opinions as they choose because Stalin himself is not around to punish anyone who thankfully disagrees with him.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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