Historians have often deplored the lack of information available regarding people and events in the Soviet Union, especially about the early life of Joseph Stalin. The gap was filled with myths and speculations, some provided by Stalin’s enemies (Leon Trotsky foremost among them) and some by Stalin himself. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Simon Sebag Montefiore had access to police records and political archives in Russia and Georgia, and to prepare Young Stalin he was able to interview persons previously unreachable or unwilling to talk.
It is surprising that Stalin survived his childhood. He was born with two toes webbed together, suffered numerous bouts of illness, was twice badly injured by carriages racing down the narrow streets of his hilly hometown, and was periodically beaten by his father. These left him with a pock-marked face, a slight limp, and a crippled arm. Nevertheless, he had impressive physical strength and even more powerful psychological skills that made him the center of whatever group he entered.
His mother was important in many ways but not those normally associated with mothering. Her voracious sexual appetite undoubtedly hurt her husband’s self-esteem, worsening his tendency to drink excessively and to beat her. Seeing that her son was exceptionally bright, she determined that he would be more than a cobbler like his father. Believing that he might even become a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, she sought his admission into a seminary; since entry was reserved for the children of priests, she arranged for one of her lovers to claim Stalin as one of his illegitimate children. Later, Stalin benefited from the aid of another of his rumored fathers.
This background prepares readers, in a way, for Stalin’s own sexual adventures. Not up to Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin’s standards, perhaps, but in both macho Georgian culture and the world of radical politics, lax standards were accepted and expected. Stalin indulged himself freely, laughingly taking away the mistresses of close friends, using them, abandoning them, then indulging in high-spirited drinking bouts with both the women and the men. There were no hard feelings, and no thought of caring for the illegitimate children.
The one exception, to the extent it was an exception (his gangster politics always came first), was his wife, Ekaterina Svanidze Dzhugashvili, known as Kato. He was so distraught at her death that he threw himself into her grave for a last embrace of her coffin. He ignored his son so completely that even when Yakov was captured by the Nazis, he refused to contemplate any kind of exchange. No one doubts that Stalin, a master of underhanded and secretive maneuvers, could have arranged something discretely.
One of the most enduring stories of Stalin’s early life is that he was a police spy. Montefiore sorts through the contradictory evidence to refute the rumors in their baldest form, but since Stalin was trying to infiltrate the police himself, he undoubtedly had close ties to many policemen. It is easy to imagine that he used these contacts to dispose of rivals, just as they sought to have him arrested. This would not be the only time in world history that gangsters and policemen have made mutually comfortable arrangements.
His personal life was irregular. He kept in contact with his mother, his former lovers, and his friends, but Marxism always came first. In a world of transitory relationships, only the inevitable triumph of the revolution could be counted on.
He sometimes dressed like a dandy, sometimes like a bum, but he always enjoyed having his photo taken, especially with groups of revolutionary friends. He moved around the Caucasus easily, avoiding arrest, extorting capitalists and encouraging kidnappings, setting fires, robbing banks, and perhaps even taking over ships carrying money. Unlike other political gangsters, he did not take much for himself, only enough for one lavish party. Then it was back to...
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