Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 23 May 2011
Before Joseph Stalin took on the name of Joseph Stalin, he was Ioseb Jughashvili, son of a cobbler from Georgia in the southern frontiers of the Russian Empire. Before he developed his cult of personality, he was a seminary student who had great talent singing in the choir. Before he was the leader of the Soviet Union, he was a terrorist, a bank robber, and a pirate. Author Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin was an in-depth study of the future dictator from his birth in 1878 to the October Revolution in 1917, a portrait of Stalin before he came to power.
With exhaustive research, the author presented many aspects of Stalin's younger days. Although his father was abusive, his mother played a vital role in making sure Stalin developed a habit with studying for school and preparing for whatever might come next in life. As he matured, however, he slowly outgrew religion despite daily contact with religion, and it was then that he discovered Marxism. His transformation into a ruthless brigand did not take long, and before he knew he had become a major financial provider for the communist revolutionaries in Caucasus region; despite the enormous amount of wealth he had raised largely through criminal means, Stalin kept little for himself, preferring his worn blouse and bumming off his comrades rather than living a life of luxury. Although he would later gain infamy as a mass murderer, Montefiore also presented a side of Stalin that was heroic and generous that was Robin Hood-like. Equally known as a habitual womanizer, he nevertheless took great care of his two wives, noting that the death of each of them were among the saddest moments of his life. To tell Stalin's story, the author expertly brought in a large cast of supporting characters, ranging from fellow Georgian revolutionaries to Stalin's many lovers, who all played a role in shaping the future dictator. What really set this work apart from other biographies of Stalin was the author's careful research into the documents at the Russian state archives, some of which had only been made available in recent years, making him the first author to use these new records to analyze Stalin's life and to support and debunk the many myths surrounding Stalin.
I had reviewed the book in its audio format. James Adams had done a good job with the reading, keeping my interest despite the length of the book. Having had a friend who had then recently immigrated from Georgia during my years in school, I thought Adams' pronunciation of Georgian names and places came pretty close to how I would imagine my schoolmate saying them to my otherwise untrained ears.
A small number of people of later WW2 importance came into play particularly in later chapters of the book. Vyacheslav Molotov, for example, was introduced as close comrade of Stalin's.
The epilogue was well written to bring the stories of the many characters major and minor who appeared in this book to closure. I especially appreciated the stories of Stalin's less-often talked about illegitimate children Konstantin Kuzakov and Alexander Davydov and gatherings of Stalin and his friends of these younger years during their final years as old men.
While Young Stalin was not a work directly relating to WW2, it provided clue to Stalin's mindset, which helped in the understanding of Stalin's war time decisions. I thought Montefiore had done a superb job compiling this biography of the dictator's early years, and would recommend it to those who are interested in seeing Stalin outside of the typical WW2 and Cold War angles.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945