In the early 2000’s, MTV Cribs kicked ass. Apparently that show is still on, I honestly had no idea. Back in the day though, looking at all the crazy nonsense celebrities filled their house with was like gawking at the richest freak in the sideshow. A person acquiring riches seems to breed a level of decadent eccentricity that for all intents and purposes makes the rich person a functionally different species from his poorer brethren. This is literally the plot of the film Society. There’s even evidence to suggest that acquiring vast amounts of wealth changes your thinking patterns with all the subtlety of a head wound.
This article talks about just this phenomena, and it’s bananas!: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_money_changes_the_way_you_think_and_feel
For all the money the celebrities on Cribs wave around, their influence on American life in general is minimal. Whatever eccentricities they develop are limited to entertaining us on TMZ and artificially shortening the lives of their agents. However, what would the consequences to society be if a person went from a lower middle-class background to the heights of political power? I’m talking like a shoemaker’s kid becomes the dictator of a world superpower. Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder about that, since that hypothetical situation stumbled ass first straight into reality, baby! Ladies and gentlemen, that’s just what happened to Joseph ‘Iron Joe’ Stalin! He ran the U.S.S.R. for decades! He built the army that killed Hitler! He deliberately starved millions of Czechs! His biography is the reason I’m writing this!
No matter how high you may or may not have been in your high school history class, it’s common knowledge that Joseph Stalin was a ruthless son of a bitch. You don’t beat down fascists and stand against global capitalism without being kind of a prick to people. He ran Russia like the boss from Hell. Purges, executions, all night binge drinking sessions with his underlings (where he drank water disguised as vodka) all ensured that everyone around him lived in white knuckled terror of not just his anger, but probably his notice. A look into this world that’s also one of the goddamn funniest movies I’ve ever seen is Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin. A more scholarly and quite frankly jaw dropping exploration into the insanity of Stalin’s leadership style can be found in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. It’s the most engrossing doorstop you’re likely to encounter. This 2003 banger was followed in 2007 by a prequel of sorts about Stalin’s rise to power that reads at times like a hardboiled noir novel, a John Le Carre espionage tale, and a straight up supervillain origin story. There’s no biography quite like it, because no man quite like Stalin has ever existed. Ladies and gentlemen, Young Stalin:
Young Stalin is as much a biography of one person as it is a cultural history of an empire on its’ last legs. If Americans have any cultural interest in Russia at all that’s not clouded by Cold War era antagonism, it’s the period from like 1880 to 1918. This is the era of the Romanovs and Rasputin, the October Revolution and the Great War. These events for the most part centered around the great cosmopolitan centers of Russia. Your Moscows, your Winter Palaces, St. Petersburg with its Russian domes and Old World glamour. These centers of Russian culture and power are what many Westerners associate as being Russian. The Romanovs got the prestige TV streaming treatment with The Last Czars, Rasputin is the literal villain in the Disney animation rip-off Anastasia. The Russian Empire however, stretched from the Ural Mountains to the Chinese border. It contained Caucasians, Middle-Easterners, Baltic peoples, Turks, Mongolians and ethnic Chinese. Its culture was not universal and many of the disparate reaches of Russia are almost wholly ignored by the world at large.
What this book succeeds in doing early is immersing you in one of these minor provinces of Czarist Russia. The man who became Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia, a small, poor-ish nation just south of Russia on the black sea. The picture Fiore paints of this land is one of ideal, Mediterranean style climates and medieval class systems. The Georgia Stalin was born into was a culture dominated by feudal Russian nobility and reverence for a medieval, martial past. The Georgians Stalin grew up around had fiery tempers, loved red wines and grilled meats, and had special fondness for music and epic poetry. Stalin’s hometown was closer to Bagdad than Moscow in terms of distance, but it’s portrayed as Russia’s own little slice of Italy, complete with rolling tides of passion and fury made famous by every portrayal of Italians from Shakespeare to The Sopranos.
As crazy as The Sopranos got, it’s got nothing on Stalin’s life. Stalin was born to whatever qualified as a MILF in rural Russia and any one of four potential dads. Was it the chief of police? A local bar owner? Am Orthodox priest? The drunk cobbler that’s ‘officially’ his dad? It’s all speculation, but the book’s included image of the local police chief is the spitting image of the future dictator. The circumstances of his birth generated just as much drama as you can imagine, and his life only got crazier as he grew up.
From multiple instances of getting run over by wagons to semi-regular abductions by his drunk dad who hated the fact that he was going to school, Stalin eventually rose through the ranks of his local seminary academy and came THIS close to being a priest before being swept up in the spirit of the revolution that would soon grip Russia. Stalin’s complete disrespect of authority and his love of schoolyard brawls bred a fighting spirit and ferocity that the drivers of the Russian Revolution would need, yet fear. He had the intelligence and cruelty necessary to take on the old order of princes and czars, and usher in the terrible age of the only military and political entity capable of exerting the force necessary to grind down the Nazi war machine.
The Italian anarchist Antonio Gramsci once described the world as he knew it 1929 thusly: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” Gramsci foresaw the violence that would envelop the world in the coming years, but his words can apply to any era of revolution. For lasting change to occur, monstrous men must perform monstrous deeds. They’ll be known as heroes in the history books of later ages, but in the moment heads must be cracked. Stalin was just the type of creature his era needed to bring down the twin monsters of feudal social hierarchies and the international capitalism that backed it up. Fiore specifically says that Stalin’s dual education of classical knowledge and schoolyard violence made him uniquely competent in furthering the gals of the Russian communists. He can write party literature one moment, and organize a robbery of a czarist bank the next. He can wow potential converts with verbal propaganda and murder traitors to the movement with equal glee.
The second portion of the book, where Stalin emerges from his rural boyhood into a revolution obsessed adulthood is a whirlwind of craziness. Banks are robbed, gangs of communist criminals are formed, policemen are seduced by female agents, oil refineries are bombed, prison escapes are orchestrated. Through the violence and intrigue, Stalin is the one constant figure, glad-handing the likes of Trotsky and Lenin and causing fights among the party leadership interchangeably. These episodes are interspersed with a number of exiles to Siberia, the czarist equivalent of a maximum-security prison sentence, miles of Siberian tundra making walls unnecessary.
Somehow, between the crime, gunfights, murders, marriages, love affairs, the fathering of several children, bastard and legitimate, Stalin somehow finds time to not only read voraciously, but climb the ranks of the communist party while starting shit with every potential rival he sees. Stalin is gun toting, poetry writing (swear to God) petty bitch that will get in altercations with anyone over anything, be it ideological differences, shares of stolen loot, or who has to clean the safe house. It brings a little bit of juvenile hilarity to what is a historical epic dressed up as a while knuckle political thriller. This shit rules.
Quote of the Story:
“Stalin’s prolonged youth has always been a mystery, in many senses. Before 1917, he cultivated the mystique of obscurity but also specialized in the ‘black work’ of underground revolution, which was, by its nature, secretive, violent and indispensable – but disreputable.” –Simon Sebag Montefiore
Keep or Donate?:
Keep this one for your bookshelf. The weirdly hot twenty-something Stalin that graces the cover is a solid conversation piece that leads to a discussion of the craziest biography I can remember reading. A true description of how crazy this book is would easily be another five thousand words and even then too many details would have to be left out. The excellent podcast Pod Damn America teamed up with Matt Christman of Chapo Traphouse to spend two hours reviewing this book and only got like halfway through. Listen to that below, then buy this book: