Book Reviews: Young Stalin and The Whisperers.

These two books provide a fascinating portrait of life in Russia and the Soviet Union – The Whisperers starts in 1917 and ends in 1956 with Stalin’s death. He is, of course, the object of the first book, and while he is not one of Figes’s focuses, Stalin maintains a brooding presence throughout – the subject of people’s private thoughts and the ultimate instigator of many of their personal successes and disasters. I found both book to be cracking reads, consistently engaging and informative.

Young Stalin
By Simon Sebag Montefiore 

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Price: £9.99
Publication Date: 2007
ISBN: 9780297850687
Classification: Hob Nob accompaniment

Young Stalin covers the period from 1872 until the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. Montefiore has based his biography of Stalin’s early years on archived documents found in Georgia. In particular, the author is to be commended for locating surprisingly frank personal memoirs written by Stalin’s friends, family and associates that were collected and suppressed by the Georgian communist party. This book is the first to authoritatively debunk the two very different myths produced around Stalin’s origins – his opponents, and particularly Trotsky, painted him as a boorish nonentity, while Soviet era hagiographies crafted an impression of a tireless Marxist ideologue. Montefiore shows that he was much more colourful and explains how he managed to become such a powerful figure by 1917. Far from being a nonentity, he was Lenin’s chief fixer, the Bolshevik’s bank robber and gun runner. Stalin financed the party by performing daring heists from banks across the Caucasus and supplied rebellious workers with arms. He also had a colourful personal life; Montefiore highlights that Stalin was educated at one of the best schools in the Caucasus, spoke several languages fluently and initially became famous in Georgia as a poet rather than a revolutionary. Montefiore dwells on how he seduced his way from one affair to another across Russia. Stalin’s youth also provides a clue to the origins of his paranoia while in power, one such clue is borne from the world of the revolutionaries where everyone was constantly under suspicion, and some of his most trusted comrades did turn out to be police informers, for other clues you'll have to read the book.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia
By Orlando Figes 

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Price: £12.99
Publication Date:
ISBN: 9780713997026
Classification: Hob Nob accompaniment

In 'The Whisperers' Figes concentrates upon the private lives of Russians from all social strata, and his book is based upon oral history and personal archives of diaries, letters and photographs.
Figes has certainly produced a consistently moving and detailed account of how people coped with the terror of the purges and the hardships they endured after they were sent to the Gulag. More interesting is his treatment of the supporters of the new regime which I found to be something of  a neglected new angle. Some were motivated by idealism, while for others (particularly those from peasant families), the Soviet Union offered social advancement, education and much improved employment opportunities. He also highlights how some people from persecuted backgrounds turned themselves into model citizens, such as graduates taking manual jobs, in order to purge the stain on their character caused by having a privileged background. In other cases, it is somewhat disheartening to read about how people would inform on their neighbours (often for exaggerated or false reasons) and condemn them to years of imprisonment in order to gain some furniture or a few square metres of living space. In all, his book provides a fascinating insight into how tyrannies are maintained – partly through fear, resignation, greed and ambition. Figes also concludes with a note on the advantages of using oral history instead of relying upon documents (as Montefiore does). He states that a historian can ask a witness for confirmation and clarification while documents cannot be questioned. In all, both are remarkable books that provide startling and often moving portraits of a crucial period in world history.