Sell Us the Rope is set during the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which took place in Stepney across three weeks in the late spring of 1907. Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and many others attended, and they appear in these pages, although, as Stephen May acknowledges in an afterword, much of the novel is invented rather than a fictionalised version of known incidents.
The title stems from a piece of gallows humour commonly attributed to Lenin: when the communists finally murder the capitalists, Lenin supposedly said, the capitalists will first sell the communists the rope with which they are to be hanged. In this novel, however, inward-looking paranoia and factional squabbling loom larger than class struggle. At the centre of the narrative is Stalin (then known by the nickname ‘Koba’), presented here as the ultimate man of contradictions: sensitive, almost solicitous, yet violent and without pity; thrumming with passion yet emotionally stunted (he falls for a young communist, Elli Vuokko, but frigidly spurns her advances); an adherent of the cause but ultimately loyal only to himself. Covert self-interest propels Stalin towards something he has often been accused of, though it has never been proved – working as a secret agent for the tsar.
Written in the present tense and with a cast of famous figures moving around a dank London filled with betrayals and danger, Sell Us the Rope has the promise of an exciting political thriller, but in execution it is disappointingly flat. Perhaps those famous figures themselves are part of