An historian’s love/hate relationship with Uncle Joe

Simon Sebag Montefiore officially loathes the subject of his book, Joseph Stalin. Yet secretly, he also seems to find him – and the early revolutionary events he was involved in – entrancing and magnetic.

Guy Rundle

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The heist was exhaustively planned, but it nevertheless went awry.

The bank would soon be swollen with cash for wages and other payments for the thousands of workers in the filthy, dangerous oilfields that had turned the city into a boomtown. Twenty ‘soldiers’ of the syndicate known as ‘The Outfit’ were positioned in the square, outside the main branch of the bank, waiting for the signal to be given by a couple of teenage gangster’s molls, with guns hidden beneath their skirts.

People milling around the market square could tell that something was up – but there were plenty of horse-mounted cops to keep the peace. Yet, as the money carriage thundered into town, the ‘cops’ surrounded and diverted it down a side street, and the girls rolled four grenades underneath it. The bombs blew horses and people to pieces, but not all of them, and the gangster who had grabbed the sacks of money was surrounded – until the gang’s second-in-command rode in, guns blazing, and ferried the cash to a backstreet safe-house where it would be sewn into mattresses.

The second-in-command was Kamo, a Bolshevik and gangster who would later find fame for faking insanity for years at a time in order to avoid the death penalty. The boss was, of course, Stalin, and the raid was the 1907 ‘Tiflis (Tblisi) bank job’, famous in its day as a new low/high by ruthless Russian revolutionaries. It’s an event that was buried in history for some time – the official old left had expunged the more piratical methods from official history, and the right had bigger fish to fry – but it opens Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin in cracking form, and sets the tone for the whole book.

Having had full access to Moscow and Georgian archives opened in the wake of the Cold War, Montefiore has effected a staggering revision of the image of Stalin (1878-1953) as the ‘grey blur’, the characterless bureaucrat who rose without trace and hijacked the October revolution.

The image, another cliché that both the right and left had an interest in perpetuating, always looked dodgy, and Montefiore has rolled a hand grenade under it. Poet, lover, gangster, reader, writer, but above all a revolutionary, Joseph Djugashvilli was renowned long before he took the name ‘Steelman’ (both a Bolshevik superhero name – like Molotov, the ‘hammer’ – and also borrowed from an ex-girlfriend), an identity he adopted in 1912. Converted to revolutionary Marxism at an early age, he raged across the Caucuses, Europe and Siberian exile, building a network that spread from the most austere and precise Marxist intellectuals at one end through to activists, unionists and gangsters at the other. He organised tirelessly, imposed discipline with absolute ruthlessness, and kept the Bolshevik party going with a series of bank-raid ‘expropriations’, all the while capable of picking up a guitar and wooing a local girl with one of the Georgian poems (‘so lovely moon as before / glimmer through the clouds / pleasantly in the azure vault…’) he had published under the name ‘Soselo’.

But by the time he was famous enough for a biography, he was supreme leader Uncle Joe, in the ill-fitting party tunic, and the bohemian milieu in which he had once moved was an official enemy of the Party. The History of the CPSU written under his direction, or by him, or both, was intended to make the Bolsheviks/Communists look like a relentless and monolithic historical force, doggedly building a working-class movement, and then striking audaciously to infuse reality with reason, through revolution. Montefiore’s determination is thoroughly to revise that picture with as much new information as possible, while also avoiding easy psychologistic explanations for Stalin’s ultimate paranoia, ruthlessness and sadism. The result is a book that is by turns eye-popping, illuminating, irritating, and ultimately as one-sided and unreflective a portrait as earlier works canonising the party automaton. If nothing else, it is a study in authorial ambivalence, a 400-page internal struggle by an author who has to pull himself back, repeatedly, from a deep entrancement with a subject he officially loathes.

First, the good bits. Montefiore is a great pictorial writer, and he gives one of the best accounts of late Tsarist Russia and the wider revolutionary milieu in Europe. One crucial revision is that of the world in which Djugashvilli came to adulthood: the oilfields region of the Black Sea coast of Georgia. Far from being a drab monolithic peasant state, the place was in upheaval, as money – largely from the Rothschild and Nobel families – flowed in to create refinery facilities for the plentiful black stuff discovered in the 1880s.

Batumi, the port where the expelled ex-seminary student and pub-poet ‘Soso’ (Stalin’s childhood nickname) was brought up, was divided into instant slums knee-deep in oil muck, and mansions built, Vegas-style, as literal copies of French chateaux. From adolescence on, Soso, the son of a violent, abusive cobbler and a doting mother, had shown a capacity for leadership, ferocious intelligence, and a total lack of inhibition about using violence. The secular reading that had got him thrown out of the seminary had led him to Marxism by his late teens, and his bohemian rebelliousness appears to have fused with a fervent belief that Marxism provided a true picture of the world, and a guide to action. Already a talented organiser, in Batumi he took a job with the Rothschild refinery, shortly before the warehouse he was assigned to caught fire, which provoked a strike that broke the cosy relationship whereby local police would prevent trade unionisation. This early triumph was soon interrupted by arrest, and Soso/Stalin’s first Siberian exile.

From there, it was two decades of politics, escape, violence, a couple of marriages, and a string of affairs, culminating in the tumultuous events of 1917. Here, the book starts to pall, at least for anyone interested in more than the picaresque. Montefiore is strong on the atmosphere of the European revolutionary underground, but weak on the intellectual and political currents driving these people to difficult and dangerous lives. Most histories of the Russian Revolution err on the side of dryness – Bernstein, the Menshevisk-Bolshevik split, the collapse of Second International, and so on – but Montefiore has pushed these momentous events to the very limits of his narrative, and never really draws them into the centre of the people’s lives that he is writing about.

By the third time that Soso had escaped from the cops, dressed in the copious skirts of the tearful female he had promised to come back for, I was desperate for some greater insight and discussion into the issues that the Bolsheviks were debating. It is true that Stalin’s personal ruthlessness was not matched by a theoretical fanaticism; during the Bolshevik doldrum period of 1907-14, he was arguing vociferously for reunification with the Mensheviks and was scathing of the wilder flights of debate about ‘God-building’ and empirio-criticism amongst the exiled Bolsheviks. Yet it is not as if there is no record of his thoughts – most of Stalin’s life in this period was taken up with writing and publishing, leading up to his editorship of Pravda in 1917. Much of it is propaganda for immediate consumption; but even this, if read in a certain way, can reveal certain underlying attitudes, dispositions, approaches. Montefiore is better than most on Stalin’s writings on nationalism, but this is the only work that gets any sustained attention or interpretation.

This is characteristic of the book’s limits as a whole – limits which most critics, bamboozled by the phenomenally readable story, haven’t really picked up on. Central to this is Montefiore’s lack of interest in exactly why a violent individualist like Joseph Djugahsvilli would become a Marxist in 1890s Georgia. It cannot have been self-interest or the will to personal power; if that had been the case, he would have simply become a local gangster, aiming for the faux-chateau on the hill above the oil slick. It would be another two decades before the idea of permanent and uninterrupted revolution, driving straight through bourgeois liberalism to socialism, would become a plank of Russian Marxism – all that the party offered at the close of the nineteenth century was the chance to nudge Russia to a revolution that the bourgeoisie lacked the will to prosecute, with poverty, imprisonment and death as a reward.

These were the years when to choose Marxism over anarchism was to choose the boring gradualist work of movement-building over the propaganda of the terrorist deed. Stalin was more amenable to bank raids and the occasional assassination than most, but a lot of his life was spent in an editor’s chair, trying to find new words to say the same thing for the nine-thousandth time, the expense of powers on the ‘flat ephemeral pamphlet’ as Auden had it. What is most interesting, and what Montefiore never explores, is why this rogue, by turns ebullient and thuggish, would bend his life to the small rewards and large frustrations of party work.

That life decision makes no sense unless it is understood as a categorical ethical act – as a refusal to accept the world as it is, and a determination to change it. Montefiore, whose previous works have focused on Russian court life, is good on the carnivalesque details of turn-of-the-century Georgian life, the wrestling competitions and louche street life, but he can’t really bring to life the world in which revolutionary Marxism came to be the obvious and only answer for so many.

This was, after all, the era of high imperialism, of the Belgian Congo, of Chinese famines, of a European mining industry with a 10 per cent mortality rate, of everywhere the streamlining of human commodification. An oil boomtown would be a great lesson in that: fantastically unsafe drilling operations essentially treated the worker as an extension of the drill-bit. Coming out of the earth, the drill could whip chaotically, killing in an instant. The workers’ slums were so crowded together that typhoid and cholera ripped through them. Children lived and died, covered in tar. What better lesson could there be that something had to be done? Montefiore is one of the first biographers to make clear that Stalin grew up in a centre of capitalism, rather than in some archaic Tolstoyan backwater, but he can’t provide any meaningful insight into it.

That failure, not of empathy but of interpretation (which is a more serious defect), predisposes the book to a permanently unsettled attitude to its subject. Thus we get a rambunctious account of the Batimu strike, which ended in a police massacre, and Stalin’s subsequent exhilaration. Montefiore writes: ‘“Today we advanced several years!” Stalin told Kachik Kazarian. Nothing else mattered. “We lost comrades but we won.” As in many other campaigns, the human cost was irrelevant, subordinate to its political value.’

Thanks for that helpful observation, Sebag. This is the worst aspect of the book, its repeated determination to sound like an anti-Communist B-movie from the 1950s. This approach kicks in every time the authorial voice loses itself in the material, and the danger looms that we may see things from Stalin’s point of view, or become lost, as the author appears to sometimes be, in the man’s obvious magnetism (according to a 2007 Daily Telegraph profile, Montefiore – a child of East European exiles – was writing from the age of 10 and his first work was a novel titled ‘I Was Stalin’s Lover’).

The closer we get to the October revolution, the more this cautionary attitude dominates the book. The portrayal of the revolution is a travesty, the events being described as a ‘farce’. Though they were as chaotic as any such action tends to be, farce usually describes a comic failure of action, which the October revolution most certainly was not. But Montefiore’s identification with the ancien Tsarist regime is so total that he simply cannot bear to admit that the events of the October revolution were anything other than a ‘coup’, even while he is dutifully noting that tens of thousands of Bolshevik soldiers were advancing on Moscow.

Montefiore usefully dispels the myth that Stalin essentially missed the revolution, pointing out his key role as Pravda editor, at the same time as he distorts Lenin’s famous quote about not wanting to listen to Beethoven because it ‘makes you want to stroke the heads of people who can make such hell in this world, when what you have to do is smash them’. Montefiore leaves out the bit about ‘making hell in this world’, to make it look as if Lenin gave up music because it interfered with random biffo. It’s a small but telling moment where the responsible historian is overwhelmed by the vengeful exiles’ child.

Montefiore has written a much better book than June Chang’s Mao, where the man who won China is assessed as having less personal qualities than, say, Charlie Brown; but he has nevertheless been tempted away from real history to play to the bien-pensant gallery of tut-tutting that passes for debate on the politics of revolution these days. In several ways, the book is indispensable; for example, it has the most authoritative account yet of charges that Stalin was an agent for the Ohkrana (it dismisses these charges). And it avoids the penny-psychoanalysis of Alan Bullock’s dual biographies of Stalin and Hitler (violent alcoholic fathers, doting mothers, etc). Yet it cannot help but read back the Gulag into every time Stalin was a bit of a jerk to his girlfriend. Which leaves the question – is this authorial voice so insistent because the facts are so obviously appalling, or because they aren’t? Is the old-retainer author conscious that the young revolutionary’s determination and resolve, so expertly conveyed, may act not as cautionary tale, but as an inspiration to some? That whatever Stalin may have become – a dictator who crushed dissent – there was something valuable in the earlier revolutionary stirrings that swept up this young Georgian and so many others?

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor and the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Election. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published by Phoenix. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


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