Young Stalin - Simon Sebag Montefiore Oh, the "what ifs" of history - if only Stalin had obeyed his mother's wishes and become a priest (or his father's and become a cobbler). But Simon Montefiore's Young Stalin explores why he didn't.

Young Stalin fills in the period from Stalin's birth in 1878 to the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917, only touched on in Montefiore's earlier biography, The Court of the Red Tsar. The book attempts to explain from whence the brutal megalomaniacal dictator of both Soviet and Western myth emerged, and (I think) succeeds pretty well.

Stalin was a complicated man. At one moment, a vicious thug; at another, a serious intellectual; and at another, a creditable romantic poet (Montefiore prefaces each section with one of Soselo's (one of Stalin's many aliases) poems). He was also an unrepentant womanizer, neglectful and tyrannical father, and an uncompromising true believer in Marxism and Lenin. Montefiore is quite good at recreating the Georgian milieu where Stalin grew up and the dysfunctional family he was born into. The Caucasus was a tribal culture steeped in machismo, honor and violence. Home was dominated by an abusive, alcoholic father and an abusive, smothering mother. Conditions only exacerbated by the equally abusive environs of Tbilisi's streets and the seminary where Stalin studied.

Most would have ended up as many of Stalin's friends did: dead or eventually middle-aged men who held down working-class jobs, married and raised another generation. Unfortunately for millions, Stalin was too intelligent, too ambitious and too able to be satisfied with that destiny, and he found an outlet for his energies in the revolutionary groups that flourished in Tsarist Russia.

I'm still not sure why Stalin became a Marxist. Montefiore focuses on a straight narrative of events without indulging in too much psychoanalysis regarding motives and inspirations. Admirable in many ways but I would have welcomed a bit more speculation (as long as it's clearly identified as such).

The reader should also be aware that they'll need a pretty good background in late Tsarist history or they'll get lost and frustrated amid all the Russian, Georgian, Ossetian, et al., names, not to mention the larger background history that Montefiore largely assumes is known to the reader. Fortunately, I'm not entirely ignorant of the period but, even so, I've been motivated to hunt up the Service and Conquest bios of Stalin and Lenin so I can get a better appreciation of the period.

With that in mind, I would definitely recommend this work to the interested.