Stalin came to love life lived in the shadows, and Simon Sebag Montefiore argues that the "world apart" of konspiratsia was the crucial formative experience of his life. Born Josef Djugahsvili, this son of a feckless Georgian cobbler and a proud, onward-urging mother, may have been an autodidact, feasting as a teenager on forbidden books smuggled into the Tiflis Seminary (French novels as well as Marxist treatises), but instead of joining the priesthood he became a terrorist-gangster mastermind who arranged bank-robberies (or "heists", as Montefiore likes to call them), hijackings of mail ships, raids on government arsenals, and the extortion of oil millionaires in the Black Sea port of Batumi and the Caspian Sea port of Baku. All proceeds of his crimes during the first two decades of the 20th century went to the Bolshevik Party cause, for beyond a fondness for wine and a dandyish interest in clothes (spurred by a chameleon-like need to keep shedding and adopting disguises) he exhibited an ascetic demeanour. His coolness and his self-assurance meant that he had several narrow escapes, outwitting the various "spooks" detailed to follow him. He once said that he was "like quicksilver", and so Montefiore likens him to "Macavity, T S Eliot's elusive cat". Lenin called him his "wonderful Georgian" and it flattered him to be known to some as Koba, after the romantic bandit-hero of a Caucasian novel.
When inside prison he would seek out the company of professional criminals, preferring their company to that of his fellow intellectuals. But outside prison his most consistent role was as the uninvited guest, if not always the unwanted one. He was ready to doss on the floors of friends and strangers (though he often managed to snaffle a bed), rarely sleeping in the same place for long. Usually he proved to be good company for the duration of his visit, carousing and singing and reciting poems, but also eyeing any daughters of the house - the younger the better - with a predatory twinkle.
Montefiore is apt to use the terms "psychopathic" or "semi- psychotic" rather loosely, even when describing Stalin's chief "enforcer and cutthroat" Simon Ter-Petrossian, known as Kamo. But he is careful to avoid applying any such term borrowed from clinical psychology to define Stalin's villainy. Instead, he resorts to the trope of the loner shorn of conscience. At times Stalin resembles an existential anti-hero, whose murderous appetite seems almost casual rather than vicious. While eschewing all sentiment, he was also given to such haphazard and unmediated acts of kindness and indulgence as seem to accompany the corruption of absolute power. He was a lyric poet (a Shropshire lad in Georgia) and Montefiore introduces each part of the book with one of his poems. "You'd have made a great priest," a qualified priest tells this charming, pockmarked troubadour at one point. Lenin, for all his patina of gracious nobility, comes across as the nastier personality, yet we know that Stalin would become the more accomplished mass murderer. He did not so much wash the blood from his hands as wash his hands in blood.
Not only did he graduate as an atheist while studying for the priesthood, but also his experience of the repressive atmosphere in the seminary may have been at the heart of his own later urge to repress others. Beguiling, impregnating and abandoning women was a forte. Although it is impossible to prove, Montefiore offers plausible reasons for thinking that Stalin may have fathered the first of his several bastards in 1899. …