Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Why I Read This Book
          There are several reasons why this book caught my eye.
            To begin with, in general terms early modern Europe is one of my pet historical interests, and this book (1878-1917) falls within that category.
            More specifically, however, I’ve always wanted to learn more about Stalin’s career as a young revolutionary.
            The Trotskyist version of history is that Stalin was not an ideologue, but a power hungry opportunist who destroyed the revolution for the sake of his own personal gain.
            Even if you’re not a Trotskyist (and I myself tend to agree with Chomsky’s critique of Lenin and Trotsky—LINK HERE), it still seems to be widely accepted that although Lenin may have been brutal and ruthless, he was brutal and ruthless for ideological reasons, while Stalin was just a power-hungry dictator masquerading as an ideologue.
            But political opportunists rarely side with the underdogs.  It makes sense that political opportunists would come out of the woodwork after the Bolsheviks came into power in 1917, but Stalin had joined the party way back in 1903, when it was not seen as a promising political career for an ambitious young man.  If Stalin was never a true believer in communism, if he was just a political opportunist all along, then why didn’t he follow the more traditional paths for young men seeking political power?
            Although I didn’t know the details of Stalin’s biography, I had known that in the years leading up to 1917 Stalin, like most of the Bolshevik leaders, had spent years working in the underground, constantly on the run from Tsarist police, and that he had also spent much time in prison and in Siberian exile.  That sounds more like the career of a dedicated ideologue than a political opportunist to me.
            But then, if Stalin had suffered so much for communism, why did he then destroy it when he came into power?  If he was so dedicated to the Bolshevik cause, why did he destroy the Bolshevik party by systematically executing all the old Bolshevik leaders during the Great Terror of the 1930s?
            Of course it could just be that Stalin abandoned his ideals once he got into power.  He would certainly not be the only former-revolutionary-turned-dictator to do so. Nor is this a phenomenon unique to socialism, as the careers of republican-revolutionaries-turned-tyrant like Oliver Cromwell and Robespierre demonstrate.  But I rarely hear Stalin’s life described as an idealist gone bad.  He’s usually regarded, in the Trotskyist tradition, as having been a bad apple all along.  But then, how to account for his early days?
            These questions had long baffled me, and for that reason I had long been curious to learn more about the life of the younger, pre-dictator, Stalin.  When I saw this book in the bookstore, it looked like exactly the kind of book I had been searching for all these years.

            The final selling point for me was all the positive reviews this book had gotten. Many reviewers praised Simon Montefiore’s skills as a historian who can write like a novelist.  Some reviewers compared this book with Conspirator: Lenin in Exile by Helen Rappaport, (or rather vice-versa, since Young Stalin was published first--see the New Statesman review HERE) and having enjoyed Helen Rappaport’s story telling qualities, that was praise enough for me.
            Thumbing through Young Stalin in the bookstore, I could tell at a glance that much of the book was written in an engaging story-telling style, and decided it would be an enjoyable read.  So I purchased it.

Readability and Enjoyableness

          Simon Sebag Montefiore is indeed a talented story-teller.  I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs to illustrate his writing:

            Here Montefiore is describing a bank stage-coach robbery carried out by Stalin’s gang:
            The Cossacks galloped into Yerevan Square, two in front, two behind and another alongside the two carriages. Through the dust, the gangsters could make out that the stagecoach contained two men in frockcoats—the State Bank’s cashier Kurdyumov and accountant Golovnya—and two soldiers with rifles cocked, while a second phaeton was packed with police and soldiers. In the thunder of hooves, it took just seconds for the carriages and horsemen to cross the square ready to turn into Sololaki Street, where stood the new State Bank: the statues of lions and gods over its door represented the surging prosperity of Russian capitalism.
            Bachu lowered his newspaper, giving the sign, then tossed it aside, reaching for his weapons. The gangsters drew out what they nick-named their “apples”—powerful grenades which had been smuggled into Tiflis by the girls Anneta and Alexandra, hidden inside a big sofa.
            The gunmen and the girls stepped forward, pulled the fuses and tossed four grenades which exploded under the carriages with a deafening noise and an internal force that disemboweled horses and tore men to pieces, spattering the cobbles with innards and blood. The brigands drew their Mauser and Browning pistols and opened fires on the Cossacks and police around the square who, caught totally unawares, fell wounded or ran for cover. More than ten bombs exploded. Witnesses thought they rained from every direction, even the rooftops: it was later said that Stalin had thrown the first bomb from the roof of Prince Sumbatov’s mansion. (p. 6-7)

            (I know that’s a little bit confusing because I took those paragraphs out of context, but you get the idea hopefully.)

            Seems like it should be a really interesting book to read, right?

            However, in spite of how well the book is written, I’ve got to admit I had a hard time getting through it.

            In theory, the story of a revolutionary seems like it should be interesting reading: the stunning exploits of revolutionary bravado, a life constantly on the run, the cat and mouse games with the police, the cloak-and-dagger spy world, et cetera.
            Despite all these elements, however, the book started to bore me halfway through.  The endless cycles of running from the police, being arrested, escaping, and running from the police again all started to get repetitive.
            The detail of this book is surprising.  I had thought that Stalin’s early life would be mostly undocumented because of the secret nature of the revolutionary conspiracy, but it turns out this is not the case at all.  From a variety of sources (including newly opened archives) Simon Sebag Montefiore actually knows exactly where Stalin was and what he was doing for most of his revolutionary period.
            In the end though, for me personally, it was more detail than I wanted, and I got bored with the story.
            (This may well be more indicative of my limitations as a reader than any inherent problems with the book.  Take my opinion with a grain of salt.)

            Another factor is that Stalin, even in his younger days, was not a particularly pleasant character, and I just found it a bit depressing to spend 394 pages reading about him.  (Again, this may just be me.)

            For that reason, this book languished half-read on my bookshelf for a long time.  I got about 200 pages into it, and then my reading just kind of tapered off as I got distracted by other books.  Eventually, I did come back to the book and force myself to finish the last 200 pages, but by that time almost a year had gone by.
            For that reason, as I type these words now, some of the early parts of this book are not fresh in my memory—perhaps yet another reason why you should take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Understanding Stalin
          Although I picked up this book hoping to understand Stalin’s psychology more, most of the questions I posed at the beginning of this review are actually outside the scope of this book. 
            The author is primarily interested just in recording Stalin’s early life, not psycho-analyzing it.  As he states in his introduction: “My approach avoids much of the psycho-history that has obscured and oversimplified our understanding of Stalin…. As I hope this book shows, Stalin was formed by much more than a miserable childhood, just as the USSR was formed by much more than Marxist ideology” (p.xxxi)

            Nonetheless, there are definitely hints here about how Stalin the dictator was formed.  His miserable childhood, with a violent alcoholic father, seems to have mentally scared him, and perhaps caused him to lose his ability to empathize with others.
            And the violent street fighting culture of the Caucuses, where Stalin grew up, caused him to learn to be belligerent.

            For whatever it may or may not be worth, his conversion to Marxism appears to have been genuine.  So it’s impossible to write him off purely as an opportunist.  (Nor does Simon Sebag Montefiore believe the Trotskyist accusation that Stalin had been a Tsarist police spy all along.)
            Like the rest of the socialists in Tsarist Russia, Stalin experienced a certain amount of self-sacrifice for the cause—he gave up a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for the life of an outlaw.  But this self-sacrifice had a trade-off.  None of the revolutionaries appeared to have given up their ego.
            Stalin was a megalomaniac, but he was in good company.  Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolsheviks (and for that matter the Mensheviks as well) are all portrayed as having huge egos.  (During the 1917 Revolution, Trotsky is described as “speaking almost nightlight at the ‘packed-out’ Cirque Moderne, where he was often carried to the stage’ by the crowd. He was, noted Sukhanov, ‘intoxicated by his popularity’” (p. 332))
            Reading this book, I was reminded of a joke I used to hear back in my activist days, when I was hanging around the Media Mouse crowd.  In reference to the over-bearing personality type that seems disproportionately attracted to leftist politics, the joke went: “some of the most dictatorial people you’ll ever meet are anarchists.”  Stalin and Lenin, of course, were never anarchists, but perhaps the same principle applies—the idea that people are sometimes attracted to leftist politics not purely out of a concern for the world’s downtrodden, but also as an outlet for their own egos.
            Even from his younger days, Stalin was very overbearing with his fellow revolutionaries.  In exile in Siberia, Montefiore describes an incident that portrays Stalin already behaving as a dictator even in 1913.
            Soso [Stalin] was assigned to stay in Miroedikha, a hamlet to the south where he soon made himself felt. An exile name Innokenti Dubrovinksy had drowned in the river that summer, leaving an impressive library. Exile etiquette decreed the sharing of the libraries of the dead, but typically Stalin ‘expropriated’ the books, refused to share them and started to read them ravenously. The life of the exiles rotated around just this sort of petty quarrel which Stalin was so expert at provoking. The other exiles were outraged—they complained, and blackballed him. Philip Zakharov, a Bolshevik, confronted the book-thief, but Stalin treated his impertinent visitor ‘like a Tsarist General would receive a private soldier who had the insolence to appear before him with a request’. Stalin behaved like the Khoziain, the Master, long before he was dictator of Russia—indeed he had done so since childhood (p. 286).

            In addition to the personality defects Stalin had inherited from childhood, there were other psychological scars he would pick up in the course of his revolutionary career that would also cause him to be such a ruthless dictator.
            One of the central dramas of the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik story is that of Malinovsky, a Tsarist police spy who so completely infiltrated the Bolshevik leadership that he utterly fooled both Stalin and Lenin.  Both Stalin and Lenin refused to believe Malinovsky could ever be a police spy, even when others tried to warn them.  (The story of Malinovsky is also told in Helen Rappaport’s book on Lenin).
            The final revelation that Malinovsky had in fact been a police spy all along made Stalin even more paranoid than he already was.
            Malinovsky’s strongest defenders in the Party had been Lenin—and Stalin. ‘Lenin must have known,’ Malinovsky said later, but he was wrong. Lenin would not believe the truth. But he weighed up the kudos won by Malinovksy in the Duma and his help in defeating (or removing by arrest) the Conciliators (including Stalin) to conclude, ‘If he is a provocateur, the secret police gained less from it than our Party did.’
            Stalin, paranoia personified, did not suspect the greatest traitor of his political career. The Malinovsky case played its role in making him—and his comrades—obsessively paranoid. Malinovsky entered the Bolshevik consciousness. Like Banquo’s ghost, he haunted Soviet history. Henceforth, in the Bolshevik world of konspiratsia, nothing was too outlandish. If Malinovsky could be a traitor, why not the Soviet marshals, why not the entire General Staff, why not Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and most of the Central Committee, all shot as spies during the 1930s on Stalin’s orders? (p. 294)

            There is also a hint that the solitude of Stalin’s Siberian exile drove him a little crazy: “Kureika [where Stalin was sent] was a freezing hellhole, the sort of place where a man could believe himself utterly forgotten and even lose his sanity: its desolate solitude and obligatory self-containment were to remain with Stalin throughout his life. (p. 291)
            If Stalin hadn’t already come to the conclusion that human life was cheap, he might have learned it (or had it reinforced) in Siberia:
            [T]he tribesmen were accustomed to losing men on their fishing expeditions. “I remember in spring at high water, thirty men went out fishing and in the evening when we came back, one was missing,” Stalin recounted. They casually explained that their companion had ‘remained out there.’ Stalin was puzzled until one said that ‘He drowned.’ Their nonchalance perplexed Stalin, but they explained: ‘Why should we have pity for men? We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’ Stalin used this in a 1935 speech to illustrate the value of human life….(p. 303)

            It’s tempting to use these biographical glimpses of Stalin to explain how the idealist could become such a monster.
            But there’s another angle as well—unlike the traditional Trotskyist explanations, Montefiore does not view Stalinism as a perversion of Leninism, but simply as its natural continuation.  As Montefiore writes: “It is still widely believed that Stalinism was a distortion of Leninism. But this is contradicted by the fact that in the months after October [1917] they were inseparable.  Indeed for the next five years Lenin promoted Stalin wherever possible. Lenin singly-handedly pushed the Bolsheviks to frenzied bloodletting on orders that have recently been revealed in the archives….He knew what he was doing with Stalin, even though he acknowledged that ‘that chef will cook up some spicy dishes’. Stalinism is not a distortion but a development of Leninism (p.369)
            My Trotskyist friends would strongly disagree with the above statement.  (For example as Trotyskyist Mark Steel points out, with typical British understatement, the fact that Stalin had all of the old Bolsheviks executed during the 1930s might be some indication of an ideological disagreement at some level SEE MARK STEEL LECTURE HERE).
            But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Russian revolution, it’s that every ideology has their own version of the facts.  So as a non-expert, I’m not going to try and parse through who’s right and who’s wrong.  I’ll just quote some of the arguments Montefiore uses to support his case.
            According to Montefiore, Stalin was not more hardline than Lenin was.  In fact, it was often the reverse.  For example, Stalin wanted to conciliate with the Mensheviks in the Russian Duma (parliament) to Lenin’s fury.  Also, “Stalin felt that Lenin’s insistence on ‘European civil war’ was over the top, talk of ‘dictatorship’ impolitic, and demands for ‘land mobilization’ insensitive to peasant hopes” (p. 332)

            And elsewhere: When Kamenev and Trotsky decided they wanted to abolish capital punishment in the army, recalled Stalin later, Lenin overheard them. ‘What nonsense!’ he barked. ‘How can you have a revolution without shooting people?’ Lenin meant it. (p. 367)
            And: He [Lenin] told another acquaintance: ‘We’re engaged in annihilation. Don’t you recall what Pisarev said: “Break, beat up everything, beat and destroy! Everything that’s being broken is rubbish and has no right to life! What survives is good.”’ Lenin’s handwritten notes demanded the shooting, killing, hanging of ‘bloodsuckers…spiders…leeches.’ He asked, ‘How can you make a revolution without firing squads? If we can’t shoot White Guard saboteurs, what kind of revolution is this? Nothing but talk and a bowl of mush!’ He demanded they ‘find tougher people’.  But Stalin and Trotsky were tough enough. ‘We must put an end once and for all,’ said Trotsky, ‘to the Papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’ (p. 369)

Connections With Other Books I’ve Read
          Tom Brown’s Schooldays gets name-dropped briefly in this book.
            From page 53: The boy of sixteen from Gori, accustomed to the freedom of fighting in the streets or climbing Gorijvari, now found himself locked for virtually every hour of the day in an institution that more resembled the most repressive nineteenth-century English public-schools than a religious academy: the dormitories, the bullying boys, the rife buggery, the cruel sanctimonious teachers and the hours in the detentions cells made it a Caucasian version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
            I’ve noticed my British friends will occasionally refer to Tom Brown’s Schooldays as a shorthand to describe a brutal boarding school experience.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore is British.)

            Also Victor Hugo’s 93 apparently had a big influence on Stalin.
            From page 61: Stalin discovered the novels of Victor Hugo, especially 1793, whose hero Cimourdain, the revolutionary-priest, would become one of his prototypes.  But Hugo was strictly forbidden [at the seminary.]….Inspector Father Germogen caught Stalin with Hugo’s 1793, and ordered that ‘he be punished with a prolonged stay in the punishment cell’.

Other Notes

* One of the more humorous parts of this book is the adult Stalin’s relationship with his mother. During his years as dictator anyone who criticized Stalin would be killed, but of course he could never liquidate his own mother.  So, much to his irritation, she got away with saying things no one else could, and in her later years irritated Stalin by publically musing, “I wonder why my son was not able to share power with Trotsky.” (p. 383)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Vs Trotskyist
And Jon Stewart Class Warfare

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