July 2013 Print

Book Review: Young Stalin By By Simon Sebag Montefiore

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s description of Joseph Stalin’s life from his birth to the Bolshevik Revolution commences with two paragraphs so ingeniously constructed that they merit quotation in full.

“At 10:30 a.m. on the sultry morning of Wednesday, 26 June 1907, in the seething central square of Tiflis, a dashing mustachioed cavalry captain in boots and jodhpurs, wielding a big Caucasian saber, performed tricks on horseback, joking with two pretty, well-dressed Georgian girls who twirled gaudy parasols—while fingering Mauser pistols hidden in their dresses.

“Raffish young men in bright peasant blouses and wide sailor-style trousers waited on the street corners, cradling secreted revolvers and grenades. At the louche Tilichpuri Tavern on the square, a crew of heavily armed gangsters took over the cellar bar, gaily inviting passers-by to join them for drinks. All of them were waiting to carry out the first exploit by Josef Djugashvili, later known as Stalin, to win the attention of the world.”1

Moments later, masked by a barrage of bombs and gunfire which left more than 40 people dead, Stalin’s crew robbed the State Bank of nearly half a million rubles and transformed the Bolshevik Movement into a power to be reckoned with.

For a nonfiction work, Mr. Montefiore’s opening bears surprising similarities to a novel. This is not a work of fiction, however, but rather a meticulously researched historical reconstruction. During more than a decade of research in Russia and Georgia, Mr. Montefiore has tracked down and compared the memoirs of Stalin’s mother, his school friends, fellow seminarians, mistresses, and his many terrorist followers. He has also compared these memoirs against reams of Tsarist secret police documents. Then, he presented to the world nothing less than the pre-history of the Soviet dictatorship.

Many traditional Catholics have spent many years believing conspiracy theories and will not wish to be confused by historical truth. Others will be horrified by the gravity of the sins being described. For those of us with strong enough stomachs to withstand his revelations, however, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s research cannot be overestimated.

Mr. Montefiore has not only revealed the true brutality of both the Bolsheviks and their Tsarist enemies, he has also issued one of the most potent indictments of Marxism known to this reviewer. The test of any ideology rests in the moral character of its adherents. Therefore, the narcissism, clannishness, and paranoia epitomized by Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky should make anyone think twice about embracing the teachings of Karl Marx. For this reason, traditional Catholics owe their deepest thanks to Simon Sebag Montefiore.


Josef Djugashvili was born on December 6, 1878, in the village of Gori in the modern Republic of Georgia. His father, an alcoholic known as “Crazy Beso,” routinely abused Josef and his mother. Despite her husband’s obsession with making his son a shoemaker, the future dictator’s mother desired to see Josef educated for the Orthodox priesthood. Unfortunately, Gori possessed very few good examples for a future priest.

In Gori, Orthodox feast-days combined religious piety with drunken brawls and gang violence in which even the priests took part. Sins of the flesh were a mark of pride for men of all ages. It is no surprise, therefore, that an increasing number of Georgians were falling away from Christianity altogether. Tragically for millions of innocents, Josef Djugashvili would be among them.

After reading Charles Darwin’s, The Origin of Species, a teenaged Josef concluded that God did not exist.2 While attending an Orthodox seminary in Tiflis, he smuggled in forbidden books underneath his cassock and passed them from hand to hand. Despite routine raids on the boys’ lockers and excessive corporal punishment, the seminary priests were helpless to stop Josef. After being expelled, he plunged headfirst into terrorism and murder.

Even when they disagree on ideology, terrorist organizations share many traits in common. Among them is the tendency to finance their armed struggle by aping the tactics of organized crime. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were a prime example of this. In the files of the Tsarist secret police, Stalin was described as the Bolshevik Party’s primary financier. His tools for raising money included bank robberies, extortion, piracy, and kidnappings for ransom. Policemen, corporate executives, and Tsarist officials who stood in Stalin’s way were routinely murdered.

Despite being one of the most wanted terrorists in the Russian Empire, Stalin also found time to seduce scores of women. All, even those who became pregnant, were ultimately abandoned. For his entire life, Stalin remained married to the cause of Socialist Revolution. As a result, a young Stalin routinely dropped romances, engagement, friendships, and familial ties as soon as they became an obstruction to his revolutionary career. After seizing power, Stalin mercilessly destroyed countless friends and relations whom he suspected of betraying the Revolution.

As the book climaxes with a myth-shattering account of the October Revolution, one cannot help but ponder the mixture of brutality and farce which characterized the Bolshevik seizure of power. The tragedy is compounded by how easily Lenin’s coup could have been prevented. Only their foolhardy continuation of the Great War destroyed first the Romanovs and then the Provisional Government, which had vowed to make Russia an American-style Republic.

On October 26, 1917, a small army of Bolsheviks surrounded the Winter Palace and prepared to arrest the Provisional Government’s Cabinet, which was meeting inside. As soon as an ultimatum was delivered, the soldiers defending the Palace deserted their posts rather than fight for a government they despised. Furthermore, the Palace’s doors were left unlocked. One memoirist wrote without exaggeration that the Neva River washed the Provisional Government’s power away.

After running up and down the corridors, the attackers at last located and entered the room wherein the Ministers were meeting. Upon being asked the reasons for his visit, an incredibly unkempt Bolshevik named Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko replied, “In the name of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, I declare all of you…under arrest.”3

As the Cabinet Ministers were taken to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress for imprisonment, Antonov-Ovseenko lost all control over his men. After locating the former Tsar’s wine cellar, the Bolsheviks launched into a drunken bacchanalia which soon infected the entire city.

Meanwhile, Stalin, who had been charged with drafting an appeal to the Russian people, fell asleep at his typewriter. In the same room, Lenin and Trotsky bedded down for the night upon a pile of newspapers. Turning to Trotsky, Lenin sighed, “You know, it makes one’s head spin to pass so quickly from persecutions and living-in-hiding to power.”4


At the end of his memoir, Conversations with Stalin, the Yugoslavian ex-Communist Milovan Djilas declared, “Every crime was possible to Stalin, for there was not one he had not committed. Whatever standards we use to take his measure, in any event—let us hope for all time to come—to him will fall the glory of being the greatest criminal in history. For in him were joined the criminal senselessness of a Caligula with the refinement of a Borgia and the brutality of a Tsar Ivan the Terrible.”5

The last word is best left to Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. In a chapter later excised from his adventure novel, The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin proved that the Soviet State was lying by trying to paint him as a proto-Communist. He wrote, “God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless. Those who plot impossible upheavals among us, are either young and do not know our people or are hard-hearted men who do not care a straw about their own lives or those of [others].”6

Brendan D. King

1 Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 3.

2 Ibid., p. 49.

3 Ibid., p. 346.

4 Ibid., p. 349.

5 Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1962), p. 187.

6 The Poems, Prose, and Plays of Alexander Pushkin, selected, edited, and with an Introduction by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), p. 741.