Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Genesis of a Tyrant: Young Stalin

I am not a history buff.  Frankly, I never really saw the point.  Sure, there is the standard defense that it gives us perspective, that knowing the past gives us insight into the future.  But even a cursory glance at the past several hundred years of history seems to validate the quote attributed to Hegel, that “We learn from history that we do not learn anything from history.”  It’s difficult to derive any inspiration or hope from stories of war upon war, conquest after conquest, and the replacement of one form of oppression with another.

So, I’m branching out a bit with the audiobook Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  I chose Stalin’s particular tale for a few reasons.  First, in contrast to the other great tyrant of the 20th century, I know next to nothing about Stalin.  This is not surprising, since my K-12 curricula gave me a solid foundation in American history but emphasized world history too little (really only in the context of a single class on Western Civilization in 7th grade).  Second, and for the same reasons, I don’t know much about the history of Russia, which seems very alien and exotic to me.  When I hear terms like Bolshevik and Gulag thrown around, a fog of ignorance creeps over me.  Third, as I often hear religious conservatives cite Stalinism as the inevitable endpoint of liberal secularism, I want to understand for myself the relationship between Stalin’s political philosophy, his religious beliefs and upbringing, and the horrid brutality of his regime.

After listening to the prologue and the first couple of chapters, I’m already learning all sorts of interesting tidbits about the future dictator’s early years.  For instance, I never knew that he had grown up in Georgia, the same country that Russia invaded in 2008 – indeed, some of his relatives were from the very South Ossetia region upon which the 2008 conflict centered.  Or that his surname at birth was not Stalin, but the very Georgian name Dzhugashvili. Or that his father was a handsome and successful cobbler-turned-drunkard who savagely beat the young Iosif (Joseph) and his mother in fits of jealous inebriated rage, allegedly desensitizing Iosif to violence and teaching him to hate at a very young age (NOTE: My subsequent reading of Steven Pinker's work, particularly The Blank Slate, calls this heavily nurture-ist perspective into doubt).  Or that his mother dearly cherished him after losing her first two babies to illness, yet exerted a stern disciplinary hand (i.e., she beat him to keep him in line... apparently, it didn't work).  Or that he grew up in a culture rife with gang violence and male bravado, influenced by militant revolutionaries and romantic tales of righteous despoilment of the ruling class.

I'm just scratching the surface, though.  It will be interesting to see how a sensitive, flower-loving little boy was transformed into such a brutally oppressive dictator.

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