"Young Stalin" by Simon Sebag Montefiore Knopf, 480 pp., $35 In "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," published in 2003 to international...

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“Young Stalin”

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Knopf, 480 pp., $35

In “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” published in 2003 to international acclaim, British historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore presented a macabre portrait of the private world of the Soviet dictator during his years in power. Never before had the perverse amorality, cutthroat brutality and suffocating terror of Stalin’s inner circle been so thoroughly documented or so keenly observed.

Montefiore now gives us the first half of Stalin’s story. “Young Stalin” offers the most complete, accurate account to date of the future tyrant’s early years and tells a fascinating tale of life in the revolutionary underground, drenched in violence, fear and deceit and filled with a rogue’s gallery of bandits, double-agents and terrorists.

A single question lays at the heart of Montefiore’s book: How was it that a frail cobbler’s son, an ethnic Georgian from a remote outpost of the Russian Empire, managed to become the supreme leader of the Soviet Union? The answer has been difficult to come by, given the myths, obfuscations and lies that have so long enshrouded Stalin.

Born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, little “Sotelo” was alternately smothered by his doting mother and beaten by his alcoholic father, who soon abandoned the family. His mother saw to it her only child was given an education. Josef showed unusual intelligence, but was equally drawn to the violent street life of his native Gori and joined a gang of young toughs.

In 1894 at the age of 16, Josef entered the seminary in Tbilisi to prepare for the priesthood. The blind repression he encountered there extinguished any religious sentiment he might have felt, and he left five years later an atheist Marxist and revolutionary in the making.

By the time of his first arrest in 1900 for organizing illegal strikes, “Koba,” one of the dozens of aliases he used before adopting “Stalin” in 1912, had joined what would become the Bolshevik Party and committed himself to the revolution.

He quickly established himself as one of the leading revolutionaries in the Caucasus. Stalin spread agitation among the workers, ran an underground press and organized a band of dedicated followers. The movement relied on money, and Stalin spent much of his time planning bank robberies and kidnappings, running extortion rackets and even engaging in piracy on the Black Sea.

For years, Stalin played cat and mouse with the police. Each time he was arrested, he managed to escape. But in 1913 Stalin’s luck ran out, and he was exiled to a remote village near the Arctic Circle from which there was no escape. These periods of incarceration were crucial to Stalin’s development, for he used this time to read widely. No ignorant simpleton, Stalin was intelligent and educated. “He was that rare combination,” writes Montefiore, “both ‘intellectual’ and killer. No wonder in 1917 Lenin turned to Stalin as the ideal lieutenant for his violent, beleaguered Revolution.”

Stalin was far from the capital when Czar Nicholas abdicated the throne in February 1917. He raced back to Petrograd and threw himself into the political turmoil engulfing the city. Like most Bolsheviks, Stalin initially took a cautious, wait-and-see approach toward the new Provisional Government. Yet when Lenin arrived and forcefully called for the seizure of power, Stalin immediately sided with him.

Stalin has been called, following Leon Trotsky’s memoirs, the man who “missed the Revolution,” suggesting he failed to act when it mattered most. Montefiore shows this for the falsehood it is. He was there, acting, plotting, organizing. Trotsky and others did not recognize Stalin’s contribution nor appreciate his considerable talents, for which they later paid the price. They failed to realize that Stalin’s skills flourished in the shadows. “Young Stalin” brings Josef Djugashvili out into the light, helping us to see what it was that turned him into the man called Stalin.

Douglas Smith is a resident scholar

at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.