Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Final Impressions of Young Stalin

Soooooo, I finally finished Young Stalin last week.  I took a few days off here and there since the story got a bit boring right around 1908-1913. Stalin had finished with his major bank robberies, leaving several years filled with short exiles, a long string of covert political party meetings, and an equally lengthy list of brief love affairs.  Hence, this section was riddled with unfamiliar Russian, Georgian and otherwise Slavic or Caucasian names that make my brain hurt.  I eventually persevered, and even if I’ve forgotten many of the details, this book taught me a great deal about Stalin’s personality and the events of his early life that poised him to become one of the world’s most brutal dictators.

Montefiore’s thesis in this book is that Stalin was far from the mediocrity that his Bolshevik peer Trotsky claimed; rather, he possessed a singular combination of incisive intelligence, quiet charisma, complete confidence in his own convictions, and utter lack of empathy that combined to propel him to the pinnacle of Soviet power for three decades.  The memoirs of his political peers (and rivals, many of whom would later fall victim to his targeted killing sprees of the 1930s) testify to his intellect, gravitas, and pigheadedness.  And, as an old man, Stalin himself reflected that there were only two people he really loved in life: his first wife, the dressmaker Kato (Ekatarina Svanidze) and his mother, Keke (Ketevan Geladze).  Once Kato succumbed to what was probably typhus, he stated that “with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” 

Keke Geladze (left) and Kato Svanidze.  The portrait of Keke is by Isaak Brodsky.

I find the role of Kato in his life particularly fascinating.  It fits neatly into the archetype of the prodigy turned evil by the death of his beloved (ala Darth Vader).  On the other hand, Stalin was wedded first and foremost to the revolution, and had committed violent atrocities in its name well before Kato died.  He might well have become the dictator Stalin even had his Kato survived.  Furthermore, his love for her didn’t stop him from later murdering most of her surviving immediate family, perhaps because they had expressed disapproval of him and even blamed him for causing Kato’s death through neglect.  Probably his disregard for the value of human life had deeper roots, extending all the way back to his abusive upbringing in a society full of belligerent drunkards.

Of course, bloodthirsty sociopaths can be found in all societies at all times.  One needs only look to serial killers and terrorists to find examples of this.  The only difference with Stalin was one of historical accident: he had the will and opportunity to enforce his psychosis on millions.  It’s interesting to note that more moderate Bolsheviks were also vying for power after the 1917 revolution – those that Lenin called the “tea drinkers,” the conciliatory intellectuals that wanted to unite with the opposing Mensheviks.  If these had gained power, perhaps the legacy of 20th century Communism/Socialism would have looked much different.

Moreover, Stalin could not have ascended to power without Lenin, his well-to-do mentor and colleague.  In contrast to the fatherly portrait some have painted of Lenin, Montefiore points out that at times Lenin was more extremist, less conciliatory, and more committed to underhanded gangster politics than Stalin.  In the young Georgian, Vladimir Lenin saw a man who could get the job done by whatever means it took.  And to both men, all means were justified in achieving their goal.  As Stalin told one Menshevik acquaintance, “a lie always has a stronger effect than the truth.  The main thing is to obtain one’s objective.”  In Stalin’s view, this clearly extended far beyond the world of words, as is revealed by his history of bank robbing, incitement of riots, and generally wanton killing that only accelerated late in his career.

Stalin (left) and Lenin (right) in 1919, a few years after the revolution.  They seem like nice guys, no?
Regarding the dictator’s atheism, Montefiore says little beyond the role it played in his early schooling at the theological seminary in Tiflis (Tblisi).  Stalin’s reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a teenager had a strong impact on him, and seemingly prompted his initial questioning of Christianity.  “We’ve been deceived,” he told one peer at the time.  His introduction to the works of Marx, Plekhanov and others would come later, along with his conversion of many of his classmates to the cause.  On my reflection, it seems the main role of his atheism was to prime him to reject his teachers’ authority and gradually replace the Christian dogma with that of Marxism (or at least his own version of it, imbued at first with Georgian nationalism and later with many of Lenin's ideas).  Would there have been a Stalin had the young Iosef not read Darwin?  It’s hard to say; clearly he was a voracious reader and probably would have come across Marxist writings in any case.  Still, ironically, had his mother not worked doggedly to support his seminary studies, Stalin would likely have worked as a cobbler in his father’s workshop, and Soviet history might have looked quite different.

I can’t conclude without mentioning his five-year exile in Siberia.  Stalin spent the time between 1912 and 1917 in the tiny village of Turukhansk, which consisted of three extended families living in small huts.  It was completely isolated from civilization; the only means of transit in winter was by reindeer-propelled sleigh on the frozen Yenisei river, and in summer, by boat on the same.  It was here that the 34-year-old Stalin seduced and married a thirteen-year-old girl (scandalous even at that time) named Lidia, who bore him a son that he promptly abandoned.  In any case, the frigid winters and self-reliant ways of life here had a lasting impact on Stalin.  Into old age, he recounted increasingly impressive tales of his hunting exploits there, and it is said that he retained the Siberian habit of snacking on bits of frozen fish for the rest of his life.

Turukhansk (A), where Stalin spent several years in exile. (Swiped from Google Maps).
All in all, Young Stalin provided a fascinating glimpse of the randomness of history.  It is incredibly ironic that a revolution that was supposed to give power to the proletariat only gave rise to a new monarchy, freshly imbued with a steel-hearted utopian vision to impose on the people it was supposed to represent.  Circumstance granted the megalomaniacal Iosef Dzhugashvili a window of opportunity, and he took it.  Sadly, such reigns of terror can and probably will happen again... all it takes is political instability and an opportunistic regime with the power to oppress its people.  Which makes me view the recent uprisings in the Middle East, as well as my own government’s steps towards tighter surveillance of communications, with greater anxiety.

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