On June 26, 1907, a stagecoach guarded by Cossacks and carrying the equivalent of about $3.4 million to the State Bank in the Georgian city of Tiflis (today called Tbilisi) ran straight into an ambush. Heavily armed gangsters, including two young women, unleashed a frontal assault, complete with multiple explosions and a barrage of gunfire. Grenades "exploded with a deafening noise and an infernal force that disemboweled horses and tore men to pieces, spattering the cobbles with innards and blood," writes Simon Sebag Montefiore in his new book, "Young Stalin." The mastermind of that bloody heist, which took about 40 lives, was the man the world would later come to know as Joseph Stalin.
It was the start of a not-so-beautiful friendship between Stalin and a long line of "amoral, unbounded psychopaths" who would carry out his every twisted wish, Montefiore points out. The British author's earlier masterful biography of the Soviet tyrant, "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," focused on his years in power. "Young Stalin" is much more than an expansion of the first chapters in that biography: it's a full portrait of the young man. In this case, "young" means right up until the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when he was almost 40.
Once again tapping into a rich vein of material from previously closed archives in Russia and Georgia, Montefiore has produced a portrait of the young Stalin that is complex and morbidly fascinating. In this age of terror, it's also a timely reminder of the terrorist origins of the Bolshevik revolutionaries who would soon unleash mass murder on a previously unimaginable scale.
The son of a drunken cobbler and a strong-willed mother, Josef Djugashvili, as he was originally called, was raised in conflict. At home, the struggle was between his parents, who soon went their separate ways. His father, known as "Crazy Beso," vented his fury on both his wife and his son. "Undeserved beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as the father himself," a schoolmate of the young Stalin recalled. The father wanted him to learn his trade and work with him in a shoe factory, while his mother insisted that he go to school. The history of the last century might have been dramatically different if the father had prevailed. Instead, his father dropped out of his life, and Stalin became a star pupil—"the best and the naughtiest," according to the schoolmate. He then entered the seminary, but quickly switched his focus from religion to revolution. "Stalin owed his political success to his unusual combination of street brutality and classical education," Montefiore writes.
Even as Stalin was writing poetry and singing in a "beautiful, sweet high voice," as one of his teachers put it, he was learning about street fighting. He soon moved into the shadowy world of gangsters, revolutionaries and tsarist secret agents. Conflicting loyalties could be regional, political or mercenary—or all of those. "A Georgian upbringing was the ideal training for the terrorist-gangster," Montefiore writes. Stalin was quick to accuse the innocent of betrayal, but, in his early days working under Lenin's leadership, he managed to miss the biggest real agent planted in the Bolshevik leadership. That only fed the paranoia—and insatiable thirst for revenge—that would know no bounds once he took power.
Nor would his cynicism. His "battle squads" staged endless robberies to fund Lenin's party or buy more guns, even if that meant holding up a train carrying miners' wages—the very workers the party claimed it was defending. Stalin, who knew how to talk to both the rich and the poor, also skillfully played the wealthy industrialists in his region. Those who naively harbored sympathies for the revolutionaries gave willingly, thus aiding the agents of their future destruction. After a short chat with Stalin, others soon learned that it was best to offer similar "donations." Otherwise, anything could happen: thefts, assaults, arson, even the kidnapping of their children.
Stalin reveled in conspiracy, assuming 160 aliases during the time that he was organizing heists, rotating in and out of tsarist prisons or internal exile (and escaping several times), or flitting across Europe to cities like Cracow, Vienna and London for meetings with Lenin and other Bolsheviks. He also found time to marry, sire a legitimate son and probably two illegitimate children, and bed numerous women both when he was free and in internal exile. Among them was 13-year-old Lidia Pereprygina, whom he met when he was dispatched to her hamlet on the Arctic Circle when he was 34. She would give birth to one child who died and another, a son, who survived. Stalin learned about his existence only later—but never acknowledged him.
If Stalin was shaped by the violence and conspiracies of the Caucasus during the twilight of the tsarist era, his stints in Siberia also determined his character. "He brought the self-reliance, vigilance, frigidity and solitude of the Siberian hunter with him to the Kremlin," Montefiore concludes. Or, as Stalin sidekick Vyacheslav Molotov would put it, "A little piece of Siberia remained in Stalin for the rest of his life." From all the components of his early turbulent life, Stalin—"the man of steel"—would emerge. Montefiore has performed the prodigious feat of tracing that terrifying journey step by bloody step.