Book Commentary: Young Stalin — Dynamite and Dialectics

By Harvey Blume

Young Stalin If you want to get a glimpse of a Joseph Stalin you likely had never conceived of before, just turn to the mug shot taken of him by Tsarist police in 1912 or some of the other photos in Sebag Montefiore fascinating, radically revisionist new biography Young Stalin.

This Stalin is no repulsively pock-marked yellow-eyed dwarf — as Leon Trotsky, who enacted enduring literary revenge on the man who exiled and executed him, described his foe. Nor does he remotely resemble the dull-witted bureaucrat of Trotskyite lore, a man who sat out the 1905 Revolution, for example, pushing papers in an office. (He was tossing grenades at the time).

Harvey Blume

No, the Stalin emerging from Montefiore’s pages is not in the least bit dull or bureaucratic. (Montefiore deals with the monster he became and was becoming in his much-praised 2004 bio, Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar). Young Stalin is debonair and violent; a gang leader, a published poet and acclaimed singer, a brawler and a bank robber. He’s a smart, schooled stud muffin, Charles Bukowski plus dynamite and dialectics.

He’s way cool

He’s such a brute.

Forget Trotsky — young Stalin is sexy, the Che of his day in a way.

He’s much more vital and dangerous than Trotsky — haughty and condescending, according to Montefiore, who bases his account on archives that have only recently become available — would allow.

Young Stalin was Lenin’s go to guy. Today, insofar as there is a left, or anything like it, young Stalin — the disciplined, romantic, charismatic, desperado — exerts the same allure.

Have you fallen for him lately?

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  1. […] Jupe wrote an interesting post today on Young Stalin — Dynamite and DialecticsHere’s a quick […]

  2. Ian Thal on November 7, 2007 at 5:08 am

    Communism seems to have always had a sexier pantheon and iconography than fascism has. Is that why people who are smart enough to know better still swoon at the portrait of Che or sing the “Internationale?”

    Is it that the communist movement was more accepting of romantic iconoclasts in leadership positions? Did they have better artists working on their behalf?

  3. ArtsFuse on November 7, 2007 at 8:08 am



    if communism is sexier than fascism that’s a relatively recent development, possibly related to the fact that when the nazis lost the war, their glamor got buried in the rubble. but it was generally understood that the nazis & fascists paid much more attention to things like their uniforms — hitler personally designed ss uniforms, for example. nazis outscored communists on the runway. it’s interesting though that, as you point out, that may have changed.

    as for people still swooning at the portrait of che or singing the international, maybe they’re not so smart in the first place, or maybe, as if there is a difference, they are just nostalgic.

    and there’s a sick twist at least to the che story; npr recently aired a piece about german neo-nazis marching under che banners. according to them, che’s socialism wasn’t important. they see him as a nationalist — pro-cuban, just as they are pro-german.

    of course, he wasn’t anti-semitic, didn’t hate foreigners and, given the chance, would have blown the fuhrer up. but, hey, these are details.

    another point: the right has always fetishized power. the left has always fetishized reason. power is sexier.

    Harvey Blume

  4. Anonymous on November 7, 2007 at 10:13 am

    On NPR today: Soviet-Era Nostalgia Grows

    “Syleia Daripova, 34, says she believes Stalin was a great man.

    ‘Not every person can accumulate power in his hands like that,” Daripova says. People say he murdered half of Russia … but, still, he was a unique personality. There are very few like him in history.'”

    You really have to hear the interpreter’s matter-of-fact tone (so he murdered half of Russia, still…).

    Power *is* sexy.

  5. Ian Thal on November 7, 2007 at 8:45 pm


    Does the left really fetishize reason? If so, which left? There’s the Western democratic left that refused to have much of anything with Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and their ilk (well, Trotsky was cut some slack because he spent his final years hanging out with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, just as Che gets slack for dying still young and handsome.) That particular left held reason dear, but does the rest of the left fetishize power any less than the right? Outside of ideology, what is the difference between persecuting millions of people for being “class enemies” and “counter revolutionary” and persecuting millions of people for being “degenerate” or “sub-human.”

    Communist iconography, Che posters, hammers and sickles, red stars, even backwards pseudo-Cyrilic lettering still holds some counter-cultural or hip-ironical cachet. Is it because, all of these communist revolutionaries had romantic notions of the world they were trying to create even as they were destroying it? Is it nostalgia for the ideals, or gallows humor at the contradiction between the ideals and the actions?

    Hitler may have designed some good looking uniforms, but Nazis still looked like well dressed film-villains. Somehow the communist uniform makes for a more bohemian, pop icon.

  6. ArtsFuse on November 10, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    >Outside of ideology, what is the difference between persecuting millions of people for being “class enemies” and “counter revolutionary” and persecuting millions of people for being
    “degenerate” or “sub-human.”< never said there was a difference. don't know why you would throw thisinto what seemed a good interchange. Harvey Blume

  7. Ian Thal on November 11, 2007 at 3:28 pm


    I’m asking because it’s an interesting question about the relationship between our politics, history, and personal aesthetics.

    Yes, fascists are terribly un-romantic to anyone who doesn’t fetishize power and violence. However isn’t the way so many of us can maintain an ambivilence of romanticism and revulsion towards the Russian revolution, a curious phenomenon? Intellectually, we understand the real consequences of a movement that was totalitarian in practice, but still so many of us find an attraction to these dashing mavericks before they fully consolidated power.


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