Kevin Saving on
Montefiore, S. (2007) Young Stalin, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
If the history of the twentieth century teaches us anything much at all it's that we should forever beware the thwarted romantic. Adolf Hitler's painting - to this reviewer's eyes at least - reveals a greater natural talent than, for instance, Churchill's over-hyped efforts, and is full of dreamy landscapes. Mao Zedong - an even more egregious slaughterer of his fellow - men - wrote poetry which displays an attractive, homespun imagery. And then there's Josef Stalin.
Not the least surprising of this book's revelations - it serves as a companion piece to the author's earlier and equally outstanding Stalin - The Court of the Red Tsar (2003) - is that
'Stalin' (Josef Djugashvili, publishing under the pen-name 'Soselo') once had a literary-poetic reputation in his native Georgia which preceded and briefly surpassed his political one. Other, previous, biographies - even the mostly-sympathetic Deutscher's 'Stalin' (London, 1966) - have either been unaware of their subject's poetic propensities, or have failed to attach much significance to them. Yet a love of poetry remained with the dictator right up until his old-age and death. He had memorised the Georgian prince Raphael Eristavi's nationalistic verses in his youth, and had had five of his own pieces published in the (then) well-known newspaper Iveria (Georgia). Amongst his admirers was Ilya Chavchavadze -acknowledged as Georgia's finest poet. Stalin's poem, 'Morning' , remained in the anthologies of best Georgian verse (the country, that is, not the English pastoral school[!]), and under the byline 'Soselo', long after 'Stalin' had been denounced by his successor (and frequent Butt) Khrushchev, for perpetuating a cult of the personality'.
The rose's bud had blossomed out
Reaching out to touch the violet
The lily was waking up
And bending its head in the breeze
High in the clouds the lark
Was singing a chirruping hymn
While the joyful nightingale
With a gentle voice was saying
"Be full of blossom, Oh lovely land
Rejoice Iverian's country
And you Oh Georgia, by studying
Bring joy to your motherland."
It's ironic to think of the 'joy' to his 'motherland' which Soselo would bring via his mass-deportations and large-scale liquidations (he always insisted upon rigorously scanning the proposed execution lists prior to personally sanctioning them). It's ironic, also, that in his early career other terrorists agreed to work with Josef Djugashvili solely because of the "revolutionary character" of his well-metred and carefully rhymed verses.
According to Soselo's translator, professor Donald Rayfield, "one might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin's switch from poetry to revolution". Whilst the imagery can appear derivative, the beauty (apparently) lies in the "sensitive and precocious" fusion of Persian, Byzantine and Georgian influences, coupled with a "delicacy and purity" of rhythm and language. Stalin knew his Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation and could recite Walt Whitman (who's still popular in Russia to this day). In his latter, influential, years he detested modernism, promoted "socialist realism" and involved himself in the affairs of major Russian artists such as Pasternak, Shostakovich and Bulgarkov. In a strange, protective gesture of mixed jealousy and reverence, he wrote a propos the former: "Leave that cloud-dweller in peace!" Osip Mandelstam he considered to be (possibly) "a genius", but when that poet's vitriolic lines came to his attention castigating the "Kremlin grag-dweller...[whose]...fat fingers...[were]...greasy as maggots", Mandelstam had penned his own death-warrant. Even here, there is evidence that Stalin wished merely to "isolate but preserve" possibly the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. Mandelstam would die in transit to the gulag: he'd been uncannily prescient when writing "In Russia, poetry is really valued. Here, they kill for it".
An intriguing postscript occurred in 1949 when, for Stalin's official seventieth birthday, his Politburo acolyte (and fellow Georgian) Beria commissioned a team of translators (which included Pasternak) to produce a Russian edition of the dictator's Georgian poems. Although the team, quite deliberately, had NOT been told the author's name, one of them judged the work to be "worthy of the Stalin prize, first rank". Somehow, Stalin got wind of the project and scotched it. He'd confided to his "godson", Levan Shaumian, "I lost interest in writing poetry partly because it requires one's full attention -a hell of a lot of patience". But then, patience was never a stalinist strongsuit.
Montefiore's monumental biography concerns itself with far more than a somewhat abortive literary career. The author is clearly steeped in every aspect of his subject's obsessive, murderous, yet oddly compelling world. Stalin must be an uncomfortable man to have constantly inside one's head. Within this arch-cynic, rabidly paranoid fantasist and Machiavellian schemer there had once been an idealistic seminarian capable of writing (in
'To the Moon':)
Know for certain that once
Struck down to the ground, an opressed man
Strives again to reach the pure mountain
When exalted by hope.
Unfortunately for his contemporaries (once 'Soselo' had been crushed and subverted into a far steelier carapace) this same, enigmatic individual could remark that "A single person killed in a traffic accident is a tragedy; one million killed is a statistic".
Kevin Saving © 2008