Young Stalin, Up Close and Personal

In following up on an earlier book about Stalin's adult life, this new biography on the early years of the 'Red Czar' reverses the temporal rules of biographies, but it doesn't offer anything new.

"Young Stalin" by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 397 pages, $25

Anyone interested in biographies has undoubtedly noticed that the genre's popularity has been on the rise in recent years, and that biographical tomes are growing increasingly thick. It is rare today to find a writer who issues a biography in one volume: Most biographies these days take up to two or even three volumes, which appear over several years.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a respected and highly accomplished biographer; like his colleagues, he writes long and extremely detailed biographies. But in his latest effort, which has earned him much praise and success, Sebag Montefiore has done something unusual: He switched around the temporal order, first publishing his acclaimed book about the adult Joseph Stalin a few years ago, and just a few months back, he published what ought to have been the biography's first volume: the essay recounting the life story of "Young Stalin."

This unique temporal division into two volumes did no small damage to the study's integrity. In the volume on Stalin as a dictator, Sebag Montefiore on occasion had to refer the reader to details and events from his youth. And vice versa: In the new volume, on the young leader's formative years, he repeatedly refers readers to the previous volume for details on the rest of the story. The reader cannot help but ask: What were the biographer's reasons for deciding to begin at the end?

Two possible explanations immediately come to mind. The first belongs to the realm of "exploiting success": The biographer discovered that there was great demand for his book, and that its subject generated interest, and decided to milk it some more with another volume. The second explanation is more "substantive": Only when he wrote the chronicles of the dictator Stalin did Sebag Montefiore realize the impossibility of understanding the elder Stalin and his regime without an extensive discussion of his early years. In other words: The gigantic and cruel monster already disclosed signs of "monstrosity" in its youth. Therefore, this is where we must go to shed more light on his character.

Abandoning Trotsky

The basic assumptions of "Young Stalin" are evident. First, as in the previous volume, Sebag Montefiore's most striking claim is that Stalin was misunderstood until now, since the historical viewpoint tended to view him through "Trotskyite" eyes. Leon Trotsky, a talented writer, managed to imprint his mind-set on an entire generation of scholars and historians, but to fully understand the horrific Soviet leader, one must abandon the distorted portrait sketched by Trotsky. Contrary to the image Trotsky sought to give his sworn rival, Stalin was not an uneducated dimwit, a sort of terrifying monster without feeling and reason. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, Joseph Stalin was a critical and educated intellectual, whose knowledge was both broad and comprehensive.

The writer's second working assumption stipulates that the Trotskyite image of Stalin took root during the Cold War; it was convenient for the West to adopt a distorted perception of the Soviet leader, which absolved it of the need to confront the idiosyncrasy of the Kremlin dictator. Stalin, according to the version the West adopted, was a mass murderer, bloodthirsty and unconscionable.

But the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, says Sebag Montefiore, put an end to this need to demonize Stalin; gone was the West's fear of Moscow and its expansionist intentions. It no longer needed the spectacle of a dictator. Besides, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, its archives were opened, allowing researchers to read and revise Stalin's satanic image.

It should be said that both in this volume, and in the earlier one, Sebag Montefiore does not try to completely eradicate Stalin's monstrous image; his Stalin is not "nicer" than the Stalin of previous biographers, but he is certainly more interesting, multifaceted and complex.

The crux of Sebag Montefiore's findings comes from archives in Georgia and the Caucasus, where Stalin grew up; most of the facts presented to the reader are already known, if not in detail, then in a more general outline. We already knew that the young Stalin dabbled in what party jargon termed "expropriation" - a euphemism for robbery and theft, occasionally involving violent armed assaults - to fill the party's empty coffers. But in the new book we learn how precisely he organized that activity, what his role in it was, how much money was obtained and the degree to which Stalin was prepared to pull the trigger to secure his objectives.

The story is interesting, sometimes even fascinating, but for the most part does not alter the general impression we had until now. The reader is not convinced that the tremendous effort that went into researching the lost documents and vanished testimonies indeed bore fruit in the form of an innovative masterpiece that utterly transforms our view of the Soviet leader.

One of a kind

In this volume, as in its predecessor, all the research invested has a declared purpose; all the complex and complicated stories included in the tome are designed to confirm its fundamental claim: Stalin was unique. We've had educated and knowledgeable revolutionaries before, we've had bloodthirsty and deranged revolutionaries before - but Stalin was one of a kind, because he combined two characteristics not found in the ordinary Bolshevik: He was a fabulous and unique combination of gangster and intellectual - and indeed, throughout his book, Sebag Montefiore resorts time and again to the term "Mafia," in all its affiliations. In order to prove how worthy this comparison is, he even invites readers to take note of the similarities between the Italian society that brought the Mafia into the world and the Georgian society and culture that nurtured this Soviet don.

If there is a difference between the classic mobster and Stalin, it is that Stalin was never a romantic. In addition to the characteristics of Italian mobster and Caucasian killer, his character also included a sort of Prussian composure and Prussian striving for precision. His unromantic nature is also evident in his manner of justifying his Marxist belief: He never resorted to arguments that invoked justice and injustice; what drew him to Marxist ideology was its absolutism. He believed that Marxism was a substitute for the religion he had abandoned along with seminary studies for the priesthood.

Stalin was also no romantic when it came to the women in his life, and Sebag Montefiore deals with this subject extensively. Here, too, the salient points were already known: His first wife and son Yakov, born to her; the women who were involved with Stalin at various stages in his persecuted revolutionary's life. In the 1960s there were rumors about a tryst with a 13-year-old girl, with whom he had lived on the eve of the revolution, and who even gave birth to a boy who disappeared. Although the book confirms all the rumors, it must nevertheless be said that the picture that emerges from the author's labored research is not substantially different from what was known to date.

Sebag Montefiore refers to his method of researching Stalin as "intimate biography." Thus he tries to justify to his readers, and perhaps also to scholars of Soviet history, his near-obsessive interest in the dark and hidden aspects of Stalin's life. As mentioned above, this preoccupation has a clear purpose: We cannot understand the adult Stalin if we sever him from his youthful surroundings. While it is true that in the final years of his life, Stalin showed increasing signs of pathological paranoia, his cruelty, his murderous proclivities and his love for settling scores should not be pinned on the growing illness. Instead the root for these characteristics should be sought in what he absorbed and adopted throughout the formative years of his life: the battered child, whose environment was rife with rumors about the identity of his real father, the seminary student reading subversive Western texts in the dark, the gangster who does not hesitate to murder to achieve his goal, became the leader of a great empire. Upon reaching the pinnacle, he didn't recant what he had learned in his youth. He founded a cruel and tribal regime, with particular notions about honor and duty, a regime that sees an enemy lurking in every corner and knows only how to destroy and eliminate.

This opening claim of the biographer is reasonable and credible, and the reader does not hesitate to set out with him on the exhausting, document-laden journey, whose entire purpose is to persuade us that there is "another" Stalin, more interesting and complex than the image held in the West until now. Along this lengthy quest the reader is spellbound by the discoveries revealed to him, bowled over by the sheer ability of the investigating biographer, and finds interest and magic in the exciting adventures of cops and robbers.

But at the journey's end, after the plethora of bloody tales presented to him, the reader cannot but ask himself whether Sebag Montefiore indeed succeeded in making good on his promise, and has explained - in a completely convincing manner - the sources for the birth and growth of the "Red Czar."

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is the editor-in-chief of the Ofakim series, published by Am Oved.