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76 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely not a "grey blur", October 19, 2007
This review is from: Young Stalin (Hardcover)
This book gave me back my faith in the art of biography, that something new can be found about even the most heavily referenced figures. Although I've read many Stalin biographies, in most of them the Vozhd's early years failed to come into focus. We learned little about the family other than papa Beso's drunken brutality and about mama Keke's resourcefulness and pride.

Yet, even in this most studied of lives, there is plenty of gold to be found by those who know where to look. Montefiore takes us back to the almost Mediterranean splendor of the Caucasus, a land of fierce feuds and vendette, of revolutionary nobles and passionate women, where everything (the weather, the clothing, the food, the tempers) is as un-Russian as can be. Stalin was definitely a Caucasian. He was proud and violent, but also very sharp and able to behave with unexpected generosity. He was extremely bright and amazingly well read. It is easy to see why Stalin was offended by the poet Mandelstam's celebrated line in his "Ode to Stalin", about "His fat fingers" "slimy like slugs". Stalin surely regarded himself as an intellectual and this description as a dim-witted vulgarian could only wound him deeply. In his pictures as a young man he is curiously good looking, and one can imagine the attraction this bright young rebel might have had for all sorts of women. In this Stalin was very unlike Hitler, for whom fleshly pleasures were repellent, and rather like Mussolini who was to the end a ladies' man.

Stalin's friends come alive in this book. Sure, they felt no compunction about cutting an enemy's throat, or blowing up an oil refinery, or bombing a police station, but they were also able to have fun, to drink, to joke, perhaps like many rebels of our day. It is to me a mistery how such a fanatic as Stalin, whose faith in revolutionary communism was boundless, could also enjoy all sorts of social and physical pleasures. Perhaps the explanation might be in his mother's example. Keke Geladze, as religious a woman as ever lived, was not above drinking or taking up lovers.

Stalin's environment also becomes completely understandable. Georgia was also much like the American far West, a violent borderland where strong men imposed their will on others and insults where washed away in blood. Many Georgian notables supported the rebels not because they sympathised with socialism but because they saw them as nationalists fighting against the Russian invaders. It is a tragedy that Stalin ordered the murder of so many of his former backers, and that he came, in time, to be even more Russian than the Tsar ever was. Far from being a social outsider, in Georgia Stalin was known to everyone in his hometown, and he was very close to the local nobility, magnates, clergy, intellectuals and criminals. Stalin was uniquely Georgian, which might explain to some extent his current popularity there.

These are just a few of the surprises this book has in store. It includes several surprisingly good poems by Stalin as a young man. It is a pity that in later years he would dedicate himself to writing leaden treatises on subjects such as linguistics, when in fact he was a light, luminous poet. It has some wonderful pictures of a few of the Vozhd's girlfriends, and they are also surprisingly good looking. But its greatest triumph is that it shows how Josif-Soso-Koba-Ivanovitch became Stalin. You take a boy of many gifts (bright, curious, brave, strong) and with a few but very great defects (proud, spiteful, fanatical) and subject him to violence and brutality during his early years, then allow him to develop his intellect while leaving his morality stunted, place him in an environment where he might become a negative leader without being punished for it, add in social ferment and revolution in the air, and then a mighty conflagration. The boy is father to the man. Stalin was not a wolf or a beast in human shape, as many said, he was just that same boy Soso, but now inmeasurably powerful, and with history on his side. The son of a cobbler and a washing woman ended up as one of the two most powerful men in the world.

Stalin's enemies dismissed him as "the man who missed the Revolution", "a grey blur", a nonentity who sidelined Lenin's true heirs through bureaucratic wiles. But although he was a terrorist and a sociopath since youth, Stalin was no "grey blur": he was one of the most fascinating personalities yet encountered, a colourful bundle of contradictions, intellectual and man of action, womanizer and ascetic, political fanatic and cynical pragmatist. Far from having usurped a role reserved to other revolutionaries such as Trotski or Bukharin, Stalin was Lenin's true heir, which is not meant to be a praise. Lenin admired Stalin precisely because of his ruthlesness and obduracy rather than in spite of them. One doesn't need to be sympathetic to Stalin or to Communism to enjoy this, a brilliant book, with enormous cinematic potential. It begs to be made into a movie.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 24, 2007 12:31:42 PM PDT
Mombam says:
THANK YOU!! MUCHISIMAS GRACIAS! for this enlightened review. If I had any reservations about buying this second book on Stalin by Montefiore, you dispelled them...I'm going to get the CD unabridged version so I can listen in my car!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2007 3:24:56 PM PDT
P.K. Ryan says:
What a fantastic review Antonio. You certainly have a gift for writing. I'm certainly no fan of Stalin, but you've convinced me that he was far more interesting than I previously supposed.

Posted on Oct 25, 2007 1:06:04 PM PDT
duimovochka says:
Thank you for a very enlightening review! Based on your review I decided not to buy the book. I definately don't need to read another screech glorifying one of the bloodiest monsters of the XX century. If I understand you correctly, the author is fascinated with Stalin's romanticism and joie-de-vivre. He admits that young S. was a terrorist, but... Well, the author is mistaken. S. had never any joie-de-vivre, he was a paranoiac, and he matured into a power maniac and a sadistic killer. And he tried to gloss over his Georgian roots, to appear more Russian than a real Russian, so that real Russians don't think they are being governed by a foreigner. Don't kid yourselves: S. suppressed a publication of stories about his childhood, not because they were not flattering enough, but because they stressed his Georgian roots too much. He did not want his subjects to know that his childhood nickname was Soso, because it sounds funny to a Russian ear ("sosat" means to suck). However, this is my impression of the book based on the 2 reviews available (by A. Nunez and graham h). I have not read the book myself, so I am ready to apologize for my misunderstanding of the author's intentions. But, like I said, I'll wait and see, and won't rush to spend money on something I am not sure about.

Posted on Oct 31, 2007 8:46:33 PM PDT
I rarely make this kind of post, but I just wanted to say I could not have said it any better myself. I think you expressed exactly how I felt about this book. A very, very impressive and enjoyable book. Great review.

Posted on Nov 10, 2007 4:15:04 PM PST
thanks for your review -- i'm looking forward to the movie

Posted on Nov 12, 2007 1:18:10 PM PST
I am surprised how little the reviewer understood the book, Montefiore and Stalin. The book, 2nd by Montefiore on Stalin, is about the largest killer in the human history, Hitler being pale in comparison. 12.5 mlns in prisons and camps in 1952 alone, about 20 mln killed in repressions with no shadow of guilt at all; 27 mln killed in the war where the soldiers were sent to clean mine fields with their bodies; the leader of the economic disaster that annihilated the agriculture and the healthy peasantry, the destroyer of his own family, a pirate, a bank robber, an agent of the Tsar's political police - and the reviewer is fascinated with his poetry, calls him an intellectual, beningly compares him with the villains of the America West - he has understood nothing and has no symphaty for the enrmous human suffering. "Stalin was not a wolf or a beast in human shape, as many said, he was just that same boy Soso, but now inmeasurably powerful, and with history on his side" - I've never read such nonsense. Fortunately not, history was not on Stalin's side. My father, who spent 17 years of his life in Stalin's camps and exile, once told me: "Even if that revolution will eventually bring happiness and prosperity to the world, it will never justify those rivers of blood that have been spilled for this goal." Father did not live to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse without glory, happiness and prosperity, of the regime that throughout of its existence had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat " (Churchill's words said in another occasion).

Posted on Dec 25, 2007 6:21:26 PM PST
Pravda says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2007 6:22:04 PM PST
Pravda says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 25, 2007 6:22:26 PM PST
Pravda says:
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Posted on Apr 4, 2009 5:42:10 PM PDT
Very interesting review but...There are number of issues I disagree on. Stalin was not Lenin's heir, nope. He was indeed very sharp and smart and clearly occupied place of leader through administration. He never been thinker like Lenin or Trotsky and that is why those guys as well as other intellectuals have been giving him inferiority complex. If consider who he surrounded himself with and who he eliminated it would give you best feel on it. Psychopath/sociapth - absolutely yes and initially he had trouble with it but gradually he found other way to compensate. Of course, he was very interesting persona (in rather negative way, however). I am not feeling on going on all of the details but unfortunately you describing Stalin in much nicer and softer light then he deserved. Georgian background is another interesting topic. Again, it was not quite like that. It was not nationalistic movement. Georgians always felt being part of Russia. Nationalism in Georgia was not of rebellian type. Anyway, thank for taking time trying to understand it. Do not decorate Stalin however, things wer much simpler than that.
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