Donald Rayfield

The Bad Seed

Young Stalin


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 377pp £25 order from our bookshop

Anyone who writes the biography of the first half of a tyrant’s life risks humanising a monster: ‘Robert Mugabe/Fidel Castro/Leon Trotsky: the First Forty Years’ would make for a very misleading assessment. I approached this book with a trepidation that was instantly dissipated by every fact and report that Simon Sebag Montefiore cites of Stalin the child, adolescent, or young man. (If the author’s previous book, The Court of the Red Tsar, had a fault, it was a sporadic infective indulgence of the old tyrant, which no doubt stemmed from Sebag Montefiore’s interviews with the grandchildren of Stalin’s courtiers, whom he charmed into trusting him with their most intimate memories. This allowed the reader to forget for whole pages what an unremitting demon Stalin really was.) Like Hitler, Stalin was a megalomaniac thug from birth: a depressing thought, for it is clear that no parenting course for his Beso and Keke, no drugs for hyperactivity, no alternative intellectual challenges could have redirected his energies or prevented his rise. With the assistance of a bit of luck, Stalin was predestined to dominate everyone and every structure he came into contact with. This is no case of absolute power corrupting absolutely: as Iuri Andropov, one of the last leaders of the USSR and, like Stalin, a man with a surprising gift for verse, put it, ‘Power in fact is corrupted by people.’

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