Some weeks ago, you may recall, I read the Lenin biography by Dmitri Volkogonov, the former director of the Soviet archives, who described Lenin in much more vicious terms than many previous biographies had, portraying him as an extraordinarily brutal and insensitive, one-dimensional and (obviously) dangerous fellow. But one who had been so idolized during the Soviet years that, by reputation, he was set apart from Stalin and other later Soviet leaders, men who had distorted Leninism and turned into a despotic Stalinism. It was the intent of Volkogonov to challenge this myth and portray Lenin as he really was.
Intrigued by this biography, I decided to read a biography of Stalin. I chose not to go to Volkogonov’s earlier Stalin biography (during the research of which he first got clues of the true Lenin), but instead to a well regarded biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, published in 2007.
I realized, as I started this book, that although I had read and studied a fair amount about the Soviet years, and although I knew (for example) a fair amount of the childhood and adolescent years of Lenin, I really knew virtually little about the young Stalin (the name of Montefiore’s book is “Young Stalin”). I knew he was from Georgia……but not much else, which surprised me when I thought about it. It was time to learn more.
I am not sure what I expected. The early years of Lenin were not so exciting – middle class (in our terms) background, good student, brother executed for anti-tsarist acts, Lenin himself somewhat radicalized by his brother’s death, university student turned radical and rebel. I guess I expected much of the same about Stalin. But was I wrong.
Stalin was a peasant, the son of a drunken father and an overly doting mother, who grew up in the Georgian town of Gori, a mid-sized town that made the wild west look much too tame. Not only were fights between neighbors common, but the children and teenagers will divided into gangs who fought in the streets constantly and, more than that, the town’s big holiday included a citizen’s brawl, where all sorts of people would fight each other in the central square. This was the big sport. Fighting. And young Josef Djugashvili was one of the best. He teen age years were spent in Gori, in the capital of Tiflis (now Tblisi), and in Baku, another out of control town, on the Caspian Sea, where oil magnates lived in mansions with beautiful views, but where poverty and air pollution set the tone of the city. In all of these towns, Stalin became a leader of the youth, a radicalized Bolshevik, and the coordinator of a Bonnie and Clyde series of crimes, to raise money for Communist activities – bank robberies, train robberies, you name it. Very soon, he developed a big reputation as someone to be feared, but because he did everything using a number of aliases, and sometimes in disguise, he was hard to track down. He often lived in hiding, often lived here and there with friends, having no fixed address of his own, and never stayed in one place too long. He was, from time time, arrested, spending time in local jails. None of this is the type of behavior that Lenin ever engaged in.
And while Lenin was largely one-sided in his personality and intensity, Stalin, to my surprise, was anything but. He was, for a while, quite religious and attended religious schools. He was a musician, a dancer, and especially a singer, specializing in the folk songs of the Caucasus. He was very bright from the beginning – a surprising intellectual, a voracious reader of not only political books, and economic books, but of literature. He was a poet, and known as such. He was (no surprise here) a womanizer. He was a charmer, and a natural born leader. He got along very well with children. He was very, very brutal.
He eventually got involved with the higher echelons of the Bolshevik movement, spending time not only in St. Petersburg but abroad in Europe – he lived for a while in Vienna, and traveled throughout the continent, generally on political business. He was married twice – his first wife, the love of his life, died very young shortly after giving birth to a child, and he married years later in Petersburg. In between he had any number of romantic liaisons, fathering at least two children, whom he basically ignored the rest of his life. He was exiled to Siberia and other places several times, but each time was able to escape. He became known as an escape artist, and was finally sentenced to spend four years in the far east and north of Siberia, where no escape seemed possible, and where he did remain for quite some time, until shortly before the revolution.
The book also deals with doctrinal differences, and with the general chaos that was taking place in the country in 1917. Lenin was considered the ultimate leader of the Bolsheviks, but Stalin was very prominent as well, although after his latest escape from Siberia, he was forced to operate in disguise and in hiding. But there were differences between these two men (and others, whose names are also familiar, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Molotov, Vishinky), as Lenin wanted to push for a rapid takeover, and the others wanted to go a bit slower and work with other anti-tsarist factions, including the Mensheviks, for a while). Of course Lenin won, and Stalin and the others worked right along with them.
Clearly, Stalin was heartless. But Montefiore describes Lenin as equally so, making the eventual Stalinist purges not surprising, although there are hints of a deep paranoia in Stalin than may not have existed in Lenin, and which deepened over time.
The book ends with the revolution, except for a short epilogue. Combined with Volkogonov’s book on Lenin, it gives a new perspective (to me, at least) as to the personalities of the first two leaders of the USSR. I’d recommend both books highly.