Interview: Simon Sebag Montefiore on Young Stalin
There is a chilling moment in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, the impressive biography of the young dictator and prequel to his award-winning 2004 biography Stalin. Not chilling because it betrays the violent repression that would mark his rule, but chilling because it challenges the assumption that the man who followed Lenin was a grey mediocrity who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party without a trace.
The incident happened long before the Revolution, at a party held by Alyosha Svanidze when Stalin was studying for the priesthood. As Stalin’s fellow young radicals became wildly drunk on melon juice and brandy cocktails, someone noticed he was lying on the veranda reading. “What are you reading?” his friends asked mockingly. It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s Memoirs. “It’s amazing what mistakes he made,” Stalin told his friends. “I’m making note of them.”
Even as a young teacher Stalin was cat-like, calculating when to pounce. “Yes, he’s just like T S Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat,” agrees Sebag Montefiore. It is hard to reconcile this fascination with Stalin, instigator of the Five-Year Plan and terrifying Great Purge, with the man seated in front of me, a picture of affable charm in jeans and taupe V-neck.
“Stalin is one of those subjects that one never gets bored with,” he explains. “He was incredibly complex and subtle, both diabolical and terrifyingly seductive.” He is also the subject of surprisingly few authoritative biographies when compared to his contemporaries, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler.
In part this is because until 1991, when the Soviet Empire collapsed, access to the Russian archives was impossible. Even now the archives in Georgia, where the dictator was raised, remain closed to all but the best connected.
Luckily for Sebag Montefiore he knows the president.
“When I was working on Stalin, I came across all this material like his love letters and things about his youth and I realised there was enough for another book,” the author explains. “Then I went down to Georgia. No one had worked in the Georgian archives and there was this amazing material, including incredible unpublished memoirs by members of his family. All of whom were writing in the 1930s and were shot for writing these books.”
It was an historian’s dream: among the gold Sebag Montefiore discovered was evidence of a brutal childhood, a criminal past and chaotic love life, as well as violent political activism aimed at destroying the hated Tsarist regime.
“He was half Osama bin Laden, half Tony Soprano,” laughs the historian. One of the most bizarre parts of the book is Stalin’s poetry, examples of which preface each section. “He was an extremely gifted poet, whose poems appeared in compendiums of classic Georgian poetry even before he was famous,” he adds, eyebrows raised.
Though the book is a detailed examination of Stalin’s childhood and youth, Sebag Montefiore resists any attempts to see it as a psychological explanation for the monster of later years. “My father is a psychiatrist, and sometimes people see a psychiatrist for 30 years and still don’t know who they are,” he says dismissively of Freudian histories that seek to explain a subject’s actions by their upbringing. “It’s ridiculous for historians to act as analysts.”
“Obviously he came from a really violent family and was brought up in the most violent city in the whole of Russia and was drawn to a violent underworld, but you don’t need to be Freud to know that.”
It is simplistic to see Stalin as a product of his upbringing, Sebag Montefiore believes. “Plenty of people have drunken fathers and bad upbringings, but very few become brutal dictators.”
It was not his past that made Stalin, Sebag Montefiore maintains, it was his personality. “Jung Chang, who wrote a very good biography of Mao, asked me if Stalin was always different. Because, she said, Mao was always different. And he was. He always stood out.”
He stood out in his mixture of erudition and thuggery. The son of Vissarion Dzhugashvili, a drunken sot of a shoemaker, and Ekaterina Geladze, a serf with dubious morals, Stalin was the subject of a violent tug-of-love that seemed only to feed rumours about his real paternity – there are three candidates, including a priest.
The toughness of his upbringing gave him a thick shell and a cynicism about human nature that led him to suspect everyone and trust no one. “He was one of those people whom no one can be close to, even if they think they are,” explains the author. “He was never so happy as when he was alone in Siberia,” he adds, recalling Stalin’s exile among the aboriginal people of the Russian wilderness during the early part of the First World War.
By the time he reached Siberia, Stalin had been a train robber, terrorist, and had managed with ruthless dexterity a band of revolutionaries – he had already shown he thought nothing of killing suspected spies, guilty of not.
He had also shown himself to be an able seducer of women. One of the many revelations about young Stalin in the book concerns Stalin’s first wife and subsequent lovers. His neglect of his wife was such that she died, leading to one of the few instances in which Stalin showed remorse: at her burial he threw himself into her grave.
Sebag Montefiore was helped in his research by a handful of survivors who knew the dictator. “One has to treat oral sources with a certain degree of scepticism,” he admits, “but it was interesting. The most amazing one was a 109-year-old relative of Stalin’s, who remembers his first marriage in 1906. She was very chatty and quite lucid. It was really bizarre to find someone who remembered his first wife, but then again they all live so long in Georgia.”
Given that he regards Stalin as a psychopath, and that Sebag Montefiore is well aware that knowing Stalin could be like signing your own death warrant, would he like to have met him? “I would love to have met him,” he says like a shot. “One of my great regrets is that I was born in 1965. Most of the people who knew him were still alive then – even in the 1970s there were major figures who were still alive, but I was too late.”