For the love of Lenin

<strong>Young Stalin</strong>

Simon Sebag Montefiore <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 397pp, £25</em>

Ten years ago, the journalist Simon Sebag Montefiore published a novel entitled My Affair with Stalin, a comic retelling of the Soviet dictator's life from the unlikely vantage of an English prep school. His next book was a hugely enjoyable portrait of Grigory Potemkin, the one-eyed factotum and lover of Catherine the Great. But then, in 2003, he returned to the Stalinist theme with The Court of the Red Tsar, a joint biography of the various murderers, sex objects, hangers-on and drunken buffoons who surrounded Uncle Joe in the Kremlin. Its singular achievement was to put a human face, often a laughing one, on an inhumane regime without trivialising the waste of 20 million lives, roughly the number of prisoners sent to the Gulag over a period of four decades.

Now Montefiore has written a kind of prequel devoted to the early life of a Georgian racketeer called Josef Djugashvili (alias Koba) who did not change his name to Stalin, or "Man of Iron", until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The rich and colourful backdrop of his native land, with its oriental codes of dress and honour, provides a welcome contrast to the bone-chilling monochrome of the Terror. It may also explain the future dictator's almost infinite capacity for cruelty. Historians have hardly dealt with the question of how the Soviet leaders were so easily able to enslave their own people. Montefiore plausibly suggests that, in the cases of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky - a nobleman, a Georgian and a Jew, respectively - the fundamental lack of ethnic or social identity helped to create a distance between themselves and ordinary Russians that was necessary for the perpetration of terror.

The style of Young Stalin is picturesque, like Georgia itself. Montefiore writes engagingly of the strangeness of Tiflis (now Tbilisi), a city of hot springs and bathhouses winding up the slopes of the holy mountain of Mtatsminda, halfway between the Caspian and the Black Sea. "If the showy, excitable Georgians resemble any other European people, it is the Italians," he observes of the folk from the Caucasus who wear traditional chokha, long-skirted coats lined with bullet pouches, and swagger up and down the streets, singing loudly. The resemblance in Stalin's case had a distinctly Sicilian flavour. Indeed, the book opens almost cinematically with a Mafia-style bank raid on the Russian Imperial Bank in Tiflis, a routine "expropriation" ordered by Lenin in 1907 to fill the party coffers, and led by Koba in a classic heist, involving guns and moneybags, that owed more to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than it did to Marx and Engels.

The basic facts of Stalin's early career, as a backwoods bandit who did Lenin's dirty work, have been known since the 1940s, and even before that they were long suspected both in Russia and the west. The originality of Montefiore's account lies in the connections he makes between the various episodes - the great leaps forward, as it were, from a solitary brooding childhood through a fugitive youth to a grown-up life of crime and revolution. Born in 1878, the third child (but the only one to survive) of Vissarion Djugashvili, a cobbler, and his wife Keke, formerly a serf, the future tyrant was known as "Soso" in his hometown of Gory, an out-of-the-way place in which life revolved around drinking and fighting and prayer.

Montefiore integrates the gory details into a broader theory about the origins of the Stalinist regime. Life was humdrum, in other words, until Soso fell ill with smallpox at the age of seven. His face was badly scarred by the disease and he later had photographs retouched to make the pockmarks less apparent - but the experience of isolation seemed to mark him out in other ways, too. Briefly he dreamed of becoming a priest and even went so far as to enroll at a local seminary known as the Stone Sack, one of many religious schools in tsarist Russia "notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval pedagoguery, and law of the fist", according to Trotsky.

The oddest chapter in Montefiore's book describes what Koba did next, abandoning the priesthood in favour of poetry. In 1895, Stalin took his verses to the office of the famous newspaper Iveria (the word means "Georgia"), where the country's greatest poet, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, hailed the "young man with burning eyes" and his teenage lyrics. The five poems that appeared in Iveria under the nickname "Soselo" were widely read and became minor Georgian classics, reprinted in anthologies before anyone had heard of "Stalin". One doesn't have to be blind to the faults of "Morning", for example, with its derivative rhymes and stock romantic imagery, to regret the young man's later switch from poetry to politics:

The rose's bud had blossomed out

Reaching out to touch the violet

The lily was waking up

And bending its head in the breeze

Montefiore describes the secret life of Stalin the romantic and makes the point that, right until the end, the dictator respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill party hacks instead of brilliant poets. When Osip Mandelstam was arrested in 1938, as an enemy of the people, Stalin sent orders to "isolate but preserve" the poet, who died a few months later in a prison camp in Vladivostok. It seems that a kind of nostalgia for his own artistic past made Stalin want to protect his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes by telephoning and encouraging them, at other times by denouncing and impoverishing them.

But there is one secret that even Montefiore's wonderfully readable book cannot divulge, and that is the real nature of Stalin's love-struck hero-worship of Lenin. He describes vividly their first meeting in Finland, in 1905, under the gaze of tsarist spies, and a shared trip to London two years later for a congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Yet treachery was the very fabric of their relationship, and one of the reasons that Stalin never mentioned the jaunt to England may have been a feeling of guilt as he had already been recruited by the tsarist security service, the Okhrana. For the next five years, he played a double game, selling information to the tsar's secret police about his party comrades in the underground - until, in 1912, the young man with burning eyes burned his bridges, so to speak, and threw in his lot with the Bolsheviks.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?