The Magazine

Little Soso

For Stalin, the child was father of the tyrant.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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Young Stalin

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf, 496 pp., $30

There's a grim irony in the fact that Joseph Stalin first made a name for himself--even if it was only one of his many pseudonyms--as a poet. It was the poets, after all, who understood him best:

But wherever there's a snatch of talk

it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,

his words like measures of his weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,

the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses

he toys with the tributes of half-men.

It cost Osip Mandelstam his freedom and his sanity to compose these lines in 1934, the year of Sergei Kirov's murder, which furnished the paranoid rationale for the purging of Old Bolsheviks ("he rolls the executions on his tongue like berries") and the establishment of a one-man dictatorship in Russia.

"Red Tsar" is how Simon Sebag Montefiore described Stalin in his previous book exploring the Kremlin mountaineer's sanctum sanctorum of terrified toadies and sybaritic lieutenants. Having thus expertly dealt with the adult years, the historian now sets out to capture the totalitarian in bloom. Young Stalin is ambitiously introduced as a "pre-history of the USSR itself, a study of the subterranean worm and the silent chrysalis before it hatched the steel-winged butterfly."

Well, we live in an age of prequels, and so a project like this surely tantalizes. It also succeeds, on the whole. Sebag Montefiore has given us the most detailed and comprehensive portrait of the mass murdering ideologue just as he was getting warmed up. And if the author occasionally elides one of Bertram Wolfe's principal injunctions for historical writing--not to fashion a prologue with the end always in mind--then this can be forgiven since Stalin was in many ways a prototype of the adolescent villain. We can't help but notice the monster evolving.

"Soso" Djugashvili, born in 1879, was abused by his alcoholic father, and he in turn abused animals and other children. Diminutive, sickly, and something of a mama's boy, he viewed the woman who bore him--as he later did his wives, lovers, friends, and offspring--as eminently dispensable in the pursuit of his own megalomaniacal goals. As a seminarian he suffered the torments of a repressive and obnoxious priest, nicknamed Father Black Spot, who chased down every "forbidden" text and wayward student, instilling in Stalin the importance of "surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings" (these are the dictator's own words) that would become the institutions of the Soviet state.

It's worth noting that Stalin's rhetorical style also took shape during his larval revolutionary period. He once exhorted a crowd: "Do you think we can defeat the Tsar with empty hands? Never! We need three things: one--guns, two--guns and three, again and again--guns!" Compare this reinforced troika with the methods Nikita Khrushchev claimed, in his 1956 "Secret Speech," that Stalin prescribed for investigators of the Doctor's Plot: "Beat, beat, and once again, beat!" The loss of a comrade during a bank robbery incited this pseudo-profound elegy from the sometime versifier: "What can we do? One can't pick a rose without pricking oneself on a thorn. Leaves fall from the trees in autumn--but fresh ones grow in the spring."

Pastoral shades of omelets and broken eggs.

Even as a star pupil of the Gori Church School, young Stalin could brook no rival for attention or physical prowess. He deadlegged a boy who danced the Georgian lekuri better and nearly drowned another by pushing him into the Kura River. When this second boy protested that he couldn't swim, Stalin told him, "Yes, but when you got into trouble, you had to learn to swim."

That this troglodytic Aesop won himself a small army of early admirers should teach us something about human frailty. Stalin knew that brutality captivates the ordinary man as much as it does the psychopath. He occupied a middle position between these two roles, and his great luck in life was to have been born with all the vestments of ordinariness--a "plebian without pose, uncommunicative by nature, even embarrassed by strangers," as the (sympathetic) journalist Emil Ludwig once described him. In a sense, then, it's quite easy to see why Stalinism became the opiate of 20th-century intellectuals: At bottom, the intellectuals envied its murderous, inscrutable figurehead, a man capable of doing what they could only rationalize away.