Young Stalin, Apprentice Brute

On June 26, 1907, a stagecoach convoy 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." Of course, the mastermind of that bloody heist, which took about 40 lives, was the man the world would later come to know as Joseph Stalin.

Montefiore'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 of that biography: it's a full-length portrait of the young man. In this case "young" means right up till 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 as complex and morbidly fascinating as his previous work. 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 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 would have been dramatically different if the father had prevailed. Instead the father dropped out of his life, and Stalin became a star pupil. He then entered the seminary, but he quickly switched his focus from religion to revolution. "Stalin owed his political success to his unusual combination of street brutality and classical education," Montefiore points out.

Even as he was writing poetry and singing in a "beautiful, sweet, high voice," as one of his teachers put it, Stalin was learning about street fighting. He then moved up 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 missed the biggest real agent planted in the Bolshevik leadership. That only fed his paranoia—and insatiable thirst for revenge—which would know no bounds once he took power.

Stalin reveled in conspiracy, assuming 160 aliases during the time he was organizing heists, in and out of tsarist prisons or internal exile, 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, finding numerous women to bed both when he was free and in internal exile. Among them was 13-year-old Lidia Pereprygina, when he was dispatched to her hamlet on the Arctic Circle at age 34. She would give birth to one child that 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 the conspiracies of the Caucasus during the twilight of the tsarist era, his stints out 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's 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 turbulent early life, Stalin—"the man of steel"—would emerge. Montefiore has performed the prodigious feat of tracing that terrifying emergence step by bloody step.