No Place to Hide: Joseph Stalin's Childhood

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No Place to Hide: Joseph Stalin's Childhood Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin. New York: Knopf, 2007.

This biography traces Stalin's life up to the October, 1917, Revolution where it joins Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Knopf, 2004) the author's biography of Stalin's later years. Drawing on a "wealth of new material that brings to life his childhood and his career as revolutionary, gangster, poet, trainee priest, husband, and prolific lover," (p. xxi) the project comprises the fullest account of the Russian dictator we are likely to have for the foreseeable future.

Born into the non-slavic, peasant culture of Gori in Georgia, Soso, as he was called, may have had somewhat different early care from Russia. But if he was born in a "communal bathhouse" akin to Russia's "favorite theatre of pain" where "women suffered unspeakable torments," where local demons hover, and the newborn is called a "little devil," he would carry considerable baggage (Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, The Slave Soul of Russia, New York University Press, 1995, pp. 282-3). Swaddling would likely have been standard and given his parents' lower class standing, little Soso would have been nursed at home, had not the milk of his mother, Keke, been insufficient. He was instead wet nursed by the wife of her husband's patron and godfather. Reportedly, the lad didn't at first take to the strange breast and covered his eyes so he wouldn't see the new nurse, but eventually came to like it (p. 24). We do know that his birth was greeted with excitement and relief. Two older brothers had died in infancy and caused his parents extreme grief. As a replacement child, he would likely be expected to ameliorate their feelings of anger and guilt as well as fulfill their deferred hopes. Though not notably devout, in fact a bit of a flirt and free-spirit, Keke doted on her "beloved treasure" and fantasized his (p. 23) entering the Russian Orthodox seminary to be made a bishop. His father Beso had more modest hopes in step with his trade. Initially, Beso was an industrious cobbler who expanded his operations until the practice of being paid in kind, too often with homemade wine, resulted in his drinking up his profits, becoming violently alcoholic, and impoverishing the family. Initially, Keke claims her husband was "almost mad with happiness" over the birth of their first son, and only took to drink over his early death; at the loss of their second son, Beso became, in Montefiore's words, "manic with grief" (p. 22). In his drunken rages, he brutally beat his wife and surviving son. Sometimes she would hide the boy or he would slip away ahead of the advancing footsteps. He once burst in on the police chief, "face covered in blood, crying: "Help! Come quickly! He's killing my mother!" The officer found Beso strangling Keke (p. 30). The officer's son claimed Keke "surrounded [Soso] with maternal love and defended him against all comers," and Keke remarked, "My Soso was a very sensitive child" (pp. 29-30). He loved reading, composed verse, and with a beautiful voice sang in the seminary choir and at weddings; but growing up he was also given to tears, to solitude, and (small wonder!) to being increasingly difficult to control. Keke resorted to the discipline of the day. Visiting her for the last time in the 1930s, "he asked her why she had beaten him so much. 'It didn't do you any harm,' she replied" (p. 30). Though forbidden to keep memoirs, she hid them and their recent discovery helps flesh out the biography. Montefiore also corrects earlier versions of Beso's violent death in a barroom fight (estranged from his family, he died in a hospital from tuberculosis and other medical problems).

Even in a rowdy town that thrived on communal brawling as the prime form of entertainment, this family stood out. Though born with one webbed foot, and suffering an immobile arm from various mishaps; short, slender, and pock-marked from small pox, Soso joined the crowd and earned his place among the bullies. …