Soso a.k.a. Osip a.k.a. Koba a.k.a. Pockmarked a.k.a. Stalin

The family story goes that my maternal grandmother’s several brothers (three?) were all killed by Stalin in the purges of the 1930s.  (The family was Latvian.) The only other story I remember about these brothers is that one of them was a devoted collector of birds’ eggs who was once attacked by a hawk while near the top of the tree and barely made it down while fighting off the bird.  I think as a kid in my mind these stories somehow conjoined into one scary Latvian-Gothic image.

Anyway, I recently read Simon Montefiore’s Young Stalin about the dictator’s youth up to the Revolution in 1917.   The book is a page-turner, sometimes to a fault — as one critical Amazon reviewer put it, it can occasionally read “as if he thinks he competes with Dan Brown (Well, maybe he does?),” in a highly florid, sensationalistic style filled with dramatic reenactments of events from 90 years ago.  It was certainly entertaining to read, though, and based on troves of absolutely new materials from the archives that offer major revisions of our understanding of the man. He was a total thug — basically the guy who’d get things done and who raised funds for the cause via outrageously daring and brutal robberies and hold-ups.  Interestingly, though, he was also something of an intellectual and a poet.  And very much a Georgian before a Russian.

Other aliases used at one time or another by Stalin: K. Safin; The Milkman; The Priest; K. Kato; The Loper.  There’s a whole appendix with a list of about 40 he used in his long years in the revolutionary underworld.

This was one of my favorite passages:

Kamenev gave Stalin The Prince by Machiavelli, perhaps an unwise gift for someone who was already Machiavellian enough.  At a boozy dinner, Kamenev asked everyone around the table to declare their greatest pleasure in life.  Some cited women, others earnestly replied that it was the progress of dialectical materialism towards the workers’ paradise.  Then Stalin answered: “My greatest pleasure is to choose one’s victim, prepare one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed.  There’s nothing sweeter in the world.”

He does have a point.

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