Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Young Stalin

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Young Stalin

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 496 pages
    Oct 2008, 528 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Little Known Facts About Stalin

  • Born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili in 1878, Stalin had as many as forty names, nicknames, bylines and aliases throughout his life. He did not start to use the name Stalin, meaning man of steel, until 1912.
  • Stalin began writing poetry while at school (mainly in a romantic-pastoral style that was the convention for Georgian poets in the 1890s), and continued to write until his death at age 74 in 1953. The dictator was also a keen gardener, growing lemons, tomatoes, roses and mimosas.
  • Hitler and Stalin both had abusive fathers.
  • Stalin's wife, Nayda, committed suicide at age 31 (1932) and son, Yakov, committed suicide at age 36 (1943).
  • In his early years, Stalin often avoided arrest for bank robberies by dressing in drag. In 1913 a secret policeman spotted Stalin's big shoes under a long dress, resulting in four years exile in Siberia, where winter lasts nine months a year with temperatures as low as -65°C (-85°F).
  • By 1939, Stalin had over 1.5 million people incarcerated in Gulags, mostly in Siberia; by the time Nikita Khurshchev's denounced Stalinism in 1954 it is estimated that 1.6 million people had died in Gulag's while Stalin was in power, and conservative estimates put the total number who died as a result of his rule at well over 20 million. For more about the Gulags, see the BookBrowse review of Martin Amis's House of Meetings.
  • When Lenin appointed Stalin the People's Commissioner of Nationalities in 1917, it was the first real job Stalin had since his days as a weatherman at the Tiflis Observatory seventeen years prior.
  • One of Stalin's underlings was a cook who had served not only Rasputin in the early days, but also Lenin; his name was Spiridon Putin - grandfather of President Vladimir Putin.
  • Young Stalin was published almost ninety years to the day after the start of the October Revolution (Oct 26, 1917) that led to Stalin's "Reign of Terror", beginning when he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee in 1922, and ending with his death in 1953.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian of Russia whose books have been published in twenty-seven languages. Young Stalin is the prequel to Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar which received the History Book of the Year Prize at the 2004 British Book Awards.

In an interview with Danuta Kean, he says, "When I was working on Stalin, I came across all this material…it was a historian's dream… like his love letters and things about his youth. No one had worked in the Georgian archives and there was this amazing material, including incredible unpublished memoirs by members of his family. All of whom were writing in the 1930's and were shot for writing these books."

Montefiore says further, "It is ridiculous for historians to act as analysts .. it is simplistic to see Stalin as a product of his upbringing…It was not his past that made Stalin, it was his personality."

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, novelist and television presenter, Montefiore lives in London with his wife, the novelist, Santa Montefiore, and their two children.

Article by Vy Armour

This article was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the October 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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