Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Young Stalin. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.
Availability: Easy to find! Available on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. My copy came from a big box bookstore in the Midwest, so I assume it will be in the non-fiction sections of many local bookstores. In stock at Prospero’s Books in Tbilisi last time I was there. I’ve noticed Georgian-language translations in many of the bookshops along Rustaveli Avenue. There seems to be a Russian-language edition in print, as well.
I’ve had this book recommended to me many times, and have been lugging it around for quite a while (thanks for sending it to Georgia, Mom!). With the end of the school year I’ve had more time to read, and I finally became acquainted with Young Stalin. Overall, I was impressed with the book: it’s well-written, accessible, and is closer to the “brain candy” end of the non-fiction spectrum than most subject matter that grabs my attention. I was also repeatedly amazed by the extensive research and (occasionally bizarre) sources that Montefiore found (side note: what a cool job!). Though the book is, obviously, focused on Stalin’s early biography, his activities offer insight into a period of Georgian history (the late Imperial era) that is not often studied, making it difficult to find accessible sources on the period (and as a nerd for this sort of thing, my definition of “accessible” is perhaps a bit broader than most people’s). If nothing else, I’m now full of Stalin stories to tell while strolling around Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue. I don’t know the historical geography of Tbilisi well enough to pinpoint all of Stalin’s adventures (I wish the book had contained more detailed maps!), but I have an idea of where the major bank robberies and prison stays took place.
In addition to the lack of a city map, I had one other minor dislike in the book: the poetry. Contrary to what you might think, I loved that Montefiore chose to include some of Stalin’s (or, more accurately, Soselo’s) poetry to introduce each new section. However, I’m not much of one for figurative speech: metaphor often goes straight over my head, and my appreciation of poetry comes primarily from its form: I love analyzing poetic meter and rhyme. The translations chosen for the book focused on the ideas of the poetry, not the music. Of course I understand that translating poetry isn’t easy (believe me, I’ve tried and stumbled), and I admit that in the context of biography the content takes precedence, but if I had my druthers….
And as a funny aside: on p. 162, Young Stalin in involved in a pirate attack on (boat) Captain Sinkevich. I assume none of the Captain’s crew or passengers were English-speakers…
As you see, my only criticisms of the book are things I would have done differently, and desires for even more information, and I still found the book both entertaining and highly informative. I’d initially planned to sell or trade this book when I was done and keep myself in fresh reading material, but I just can’t part with it yet. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t really know what is.