Saturday, 31 May 2008

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

One of the unexpected consequences of the Soviet Union collapse is the exposure of a reality hidden away in dusty files and failing memories. Simon Sebag Montefiore with “The Court of the Red Tsar” and now “Young Stalin”, the Winner of the 2007 Costa Biography Award, reveals the messy realities behind the manipulated legends. Read books in the past, and the “truth” was the betrayal of great Trotsky and Lenin vision of Socialist Russia by the grey mediocrity of a bureaucratic opportunist. As ever was life so simple. In reality, his shadowy Party work was, only known to a few and suppressed after the Revolution to ensure his national role in the Party. Not known by him, Trotsky who wrote well, created in defeat the picture of Stalin we know. Stalin was in fact a dangerous but effective mixture of classically trained intellectual, poet, singer, effective organiser, street gangster and conspirator per excellence, who was cruel, ruthless, brave, cold, paranoid, witty, calculating. You could enjoy his company but be swimming with the fishes as he wept with your relatives in the morning.
Simon Senag Montefiore uses unpublished, censored 20’s and 30’s memoires and interviews with surviving eyewitnesses to make clear where the man and the cut of the age clash to create Stalin and the USSR. Soso, short for Joseph, suffered an appalling childhood of a drunkard father and a domineering, suffocating mother. Yet his mother’s various lovers protected him so he gained a middle class intellectual education. He was born and reared in a long vanished Georgian culture where Russians, Persians, semi pagan Mountain tribes, Jews fought, loved and traded. A popular annual festival was the town brawl when any active man from three fought each other to a standstill. It was also a world in which in Georgia, that had held the Ottoman Empire at bay for centuries, fall in to deeply resentful annexation by the Russian Empire a generation earlier. To grasp his early days think of Italians crossed with Spanish gypsies living to a code of honour and revenge that would make the Mafia a bunch of boy scouts.
He rose up the Party by being the man who could rob and steal to bankroll Lenin’s political ambitions as well as organise mass strikes. More importantly, he unlike Trotsky and Lenin was active in Russia with the regular members of the party. As we say now, he could talk the talk and walk the walk. Trotsky was clearly important in the 1917 revolution and in the later civil war but was vain and a snob, a great orator but mistrusted by many activists because of that. Stalin was not a showy speaker but knew how to play the simple plain worker to these crowds. This created adoring followers (many of which he killed in the 30’s) who enabled him to take control of the party when being in the Government had more status.
The book tackles the view that Stalin was a double agent traitor. He was clearly a double agent working on Party orders but examples given of his double-dealing fall flat. In reality, riddled with spies and traitor, the Party was monitored daily by the Tsar’s Secret Police. So Stalin betrayed by a double agent Party cadre spent 4 years in bitter Siberian exile. The traitor when exposed in 1918 shook the party to the core as it was akin to discovering that J.F.K (for our American cousins) or Atlee had been a communist double agent. And, if he could be a traitor so could anyone so paving the way to the show trials of the 30’s.
I must confess I am a sucker for anything about the rise and fall of the Communist Party as a long term Marxist. My interest came from my involvement in the revolutionary Left in the 70s and 80’s where the Trotsky-Stalin battles were still alive and kicking. Fear not American reader, I would clearly have been shot in the first days as one of those Quaker-Papist socialists who babble about the sanctity of human life. One of the few things that Trotsky and Stalin agreed on!. Hence, I have read in and around the ideas and history of this period for many years from the actions of the mule-headed Court, the oppressed peasantry and workers and the struggle of the intellectuals over the 19thcentury to make the political ideas of the West live in Russia. But the book is well researched and clearly written. It would appeal to anyone trying to understand the period or wanting an insight into a complex man you would be foolish to slight in any way. Yet you can see it was his iron will that made the USSR and caused it eventual failure.

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