Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

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Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography overing the early life of arguably one of the most evil persons in history within our generation, that goes a long way towards helping the reader understand how he became the man he did, and a book likely to remain essential reading on its subject for some years to come.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297850687

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If Hitler was the most evil person in history within our generation, Stalin ran him a close second. Yet as this biography of the latter's early years shows, he was a complex man of many facets. Born Josef Djugashvili in poverty in 1878 and known as Soso during his childhood, he was the only surviving child of his parents' marriage – if one chooses not to believe the rumours that he was born on the wrong side of the wedding ring to his promiscuous mother. His (presumed) father was a hard drinker who beat his wife and child. At 14 he was awarded a scholarship to the Georgian Orthodox Seminary of Tiflis, Georgia, where he wrote poetry, sang in the choir and at weddings – and became involved in the Marxist movement.

As the mastermind of kidnappings, bank robberies and murder of certain individuals unfortunate enough to get in his way, he soon showed himself as a man without mercy. Yet as the poetic and singing talents suggested, he was not without tenderness. When his wife died of typhoid in 1907 he was so miserable that at her funeral he threw himself into the grave with the coffin and had to be hauled out – notwithstanding his previous neglect of his wife and child, and Montefiore's comment that Bolshevism and family were incompatible. Perhaps this tragedy was the key to his development, or at least a major factor in the hardening of an already fanatical personality. He declared son afterwards that his life was shattered; Nothing attaches me to life except socialism. I'm going to dedicate my existence to that!

The narrative ends with the revolution of 1917, when Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin became in effect the joint arbiters of Russian's future. A fifteen-page epilogue takes us briefly through the remaining thirty-five years of his life and his death in March 1953. The book is basically a tale of Stalin's first thirty-nine years, with very little analysis to be had. It can however be argued that there is little if any analysis left to do regarding the man.

In a book which took around ten years to research, Montefiore succeeds in bringing this thoroughly dangerous man to life, in painstaking detail – possibly almost too painstaking. There is certainly more than enough for the average Russian history enthusiast, and there were times when I found my eyes were beginning to glaze over at the wealth of information. (In fairness to the author, might I point out that I was reading this book at what was a personally very difficult time for me). He also does posterity a service in demonstrating that Stalin's political organisational skills were vital to the Bolshevik movement, despite the best (or worst) efforts of his adversary Trotsky, who regarded him as a mediocrity.

I can't honestly say that this book changed my perception of or feelings for 'Uncle Joe'. There is no escaping the premise that like Hitler, he remains a fanatic of the deepest dye, albeit an extremely clever (and therefore probably more dangerous) one. Nevertheless Montefiore has written a biography that goes a long way towards helping the reader understand how he became the man he did, and a book which is likely to remain essential reading on its subject for some years to come.

For further reading we can recommend Killing Hitler by Roger Moorhouse

Buy Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore at Amazon.com.


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