Reviewed by Michael S. Gant
As Monty Python quipped, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition." And just as unexpected are history's major monsters, from Genghis Khan to Hitler and Stalin. No amount of biographical detail can really account for the combination of "what ifs" that transform seemingly ordinary men into mass murderers, but we have to keep trying. Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, who wrote Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, about Stalin's power years, takes a look at Uncle Joe's youth up to the Bolshevik revolution, with help from the recently declassified archives in the former Soviet Union. Born in Georgia in 1879, Josef "Soso" Djugashvili was rumored to be an illegitimate child, which is why his father, nicknamed Crazy Beso, often beat him; even his mother used her fists on him. But that was hardly out of the ordinary parenting for late-19th-century Gori, a "liberated and violent place dominated by drinking, prayer and brawling." On these mean streets, Soso learned to assert his will with charismatic force. A stint in a seminary introduced him to radical thought; the students often hid copies of Marx in their bibles. Perversely, as Montefiore notes, the seminary "taught him exactly the repressive tactics ... that he would re-create in his Soviet police state." The young Stalin was an accomplished singer and wrote poems marked by "delicacy and purity of rhythm and language," but he also immersed himself in a roiling stew of socialist rebellion that included rampant assassinations and terrorist bombings. Stalin's life as a young revolutionary reads like a romantic epic (if only we didn't know how it ended). He organized daring bank robberies, outran the clutches of the police by donning clever disguises and seduced most of the women who crossed his path. He may even have been a double agent for the Tsar's secret police—although the evidence on that theory remains sketchy. Far from the mediocrity that Trotsky called him, in those early years Stalin was a ruthless, skilled revolutionary busy learning "the very skills that would prove invaluable in the political jungle of the Soviet Union." With hindsight, one can only wonder how and why Stalin escaped so many turning points at which he might have been deflected or killed—history is a cruel muse. (By Simon Sebag Montefiore; Knopf; 459 pages; $30 hardback)
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