Gas Week

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Terrorist of the Week: Joseph Stalin; a combination of Tony Soprano and Osama bin Laden

Posted by gasweek on 26 September, 2007

Written as a prequel to Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the book “Young Stalin” begins on the fringes of the Russian empire in “the sing-song, wine-flavoured lushness of Georgia”, as un-Russian a world as you could imagine, wrote James Jeffrey in The Australian (22/9/2007, p.11). It is here, in conversation with Stalin’s contemporaries and relatives (the oldest is 109) and strip-mining the riches of the Georgian archives (hitherto overshadowed by the dam-burst of the Russian archives), that Sebag Montefiore has objectively turned back years of Leon Trotsky’s propaganda that painted his rival as a grey blur, a provincial nobody and base thug who inexplicably, almost magically, floated to the top of the Bolshevik ranks.

Fatal mistake of not taking Stalin seriously: Trotsky wasn’t the only one to make the fatal mistake of not taking Stalin seriously. At a party in Siberia on the eve of the first of the 1917 revolutions, the one that ended the tsarist order and paved the way to the Bolshevik one, Stalin and his fellow exiles played a game, describing what they most enjoyed.

Nothing sweeter in the world: “My greatest pleasure,” Stalin eventually announced to much merriment, “is to choose one’s victim, prepare one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance and then go to bed. There’s nothing sweeter in the world.”

Bomb-laden robbery in the Georgian capital: Few of them would survive the purges. One person who wouldn’t have seen the joke was Vladimir Lenin, who had singled out Stalin 10 years earlier as “exactly the kind of person I need”. What convinced Lenin was when Stalin pulled off a bomb-laden robbery in the Georgian capital of Tiflis (now Tbilisi) that succeeded in killing 40, injuring 50, making the front pages of newspapers across Europe and netting the young Bolshevik party the equiva­lent of $4 million. Other revolutionaries were outraged, but Lenin knew he’d found his man.

Mess of broken homes, dead or abandoned wives: Stalin was enough of a good looker and charmer to draw a constant procession of women, but his quasi-religious fervour for the Bolshevik cause meant his life’s path was a mess of broken homes, dead or abandoned wives and girlfriends, and dumped children.

Magnetic, single-minded and authoritative: He was also sufficiently magnetic, single-minded and authoritative to attract psychopaths, tycoons, workers and noblemen alike to the revolutionary cause: the Russian empire excelled at throwing up such contradictions in its decay. As Sebag Montefiore put it in an interview, Stalin was like a combination of Tony Soprano and Osama bin Laden. Naturally, Stalin also attracted the attention of the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. While it would never come close to matching either the omnipresence or the brutality of its Soviet counterparts, the Okhrana was a vast and well run organisation. (Sebag Montefiore tartly notes it was more capable and imaginative than the CIA and FBI a century later.)

Secret agents, double agents and triple agents:The Okhrana infiltrated Stalin’s groups and it was in this world of secret agents, double agents and triple agents that Stalin truly blossomed, rooting out traitors (often imagined) and causing the deaths of innocents, spreading paranoia among his acolytes and playing them off each other, even making some suspect he was a double agent himself.

Peace among the silent Tungus tribesmen:Stalin was finally dispatched to a Siberian speck on the Arctic Circle. There was no escape from there, but there was correspondence with fellow revolutionaries. Even in letter for every slight, real and imagined, was stored away in Stalin’s long memory for future use. He also passed the time by impregnating a 13-year-old girl (which even by the more relaxed standards of remote Siberia was scandalous) and finding, briefly, the closest thing he’d know to peace among the almost silent Tungus tribesmen.

Reference: James Jeffrey is an author and a journalist with The Australian. His book, Paprika Paradise, was published last month. ‘Young Stalin’ By Simon Sebag Montefiore, Hachette Livre, 397pp, $65

The Australian, 22/9/2007, p. 11

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