Joe Stalin, gang-banger.
In this superb prequel to his Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004, etc.), novelist, historian and UK television personality Montefiore observes that there have been many character studies of Adolf Hitler, but fewer on his semblable. Stalin, as Montefiore shows, took pains to hide the facts of his youth—which in some ways lasted until he was nearly 40, when the Revolution broke out—and to make it difficult for him to be seen as anything but a great man. As Montefiore’s groundbreaking work shows, there was much to hide. Though Stalin was a man of keen intellect and quite bookish, he was also a thug who styled himself a descendant of a “Caucasian bandit-hero called Koba,” whence his familiar nickname. He wore a thick beard and long hair, committed crimes ranging from petty theft to extortion to bank robbery and inducted fellow young people into the pleasures of reading Emile Zola’s Germinal. His fondness for brigand antics made his more moderate comrades in the underground think of him as “a muddled young comrade,” but he acquired new discipline in the tsar’s prisons, where, even if he “preferred rogues to revolutionaries,” he also made himself into an indispensable authority on Marxism, ready to cite chapter and verse in any discussion. A gift from a fellow revolutionary of Machiavelli’s Prince set him on a different course, and soon he would be in a position to revise his past to make it seem as if he had been at Lenin’s side the whole time. “At heart, he was too intelligent not to appreciate that many of the paeans to his youth were ridiculous,” writes Montefiore, who has scoured the archives to make this book. Nonetheless, Stalin insisted on those paeans all the same.
Essential to understanding one of the 20th century’s premier monsters and the nation he wrought.