Simon Sebag Montefiore has already distinguished himself as a Russian scholar with his biography of Prince Potemkin and his Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, a study of the years of power following the Russian Revolution. This book, a “prequel” to the earlier one, traces the childhood, youth and early manhood of the dictator until the Revolution began in October 1917. It bears the hallmarks of the author’s style; written with gusto and reading like a novel, its narrative pace is underpinned by a massive amount of local research in several countries, which includes an interview with his “most exciting witness”, Mariam Svanidze, aged 109, a relative of Stalin’s first wife who “still remembers her death in 1907.” The post-Communist atmosphere of glasnost has meant that a great deal of new material has been made available from the famously secretive Soviet archives. Sebag Montefiore deploys these findings very effectively, so that Stalin is indeed seen afresh. This does not, obviously, call for an historical reappraisal of the man who dominated Russia for over 30 years so much as a more intense reflection on the significance of early formation.

The author asks: “What missing empathy in Stalin’s upbringing allowed him to kill so easily?” Lacking a theology of good and evil, he does not answer this question – but it is one, nonetheless, that we all ask when confronted by those men of malign stature, such as Hitler, Chairman Mao – and Stalin, the “man of steel.” This was a bleakly accurate adoptive name, as the book demonstrates, for there appear to have been no soft, more human elements in his personality. Even his supposed grief at the early deaths of his two wives (brought about by his neglect and ill-treatment of them) seems largely compounded of moroseness that death interfered with his plans, rather than sorrow or remorse.

While the broad outlines of Stalin’s early life (he was born in Gori, Georgia, in 1878 and christened Josef Djugashvili) are known, the author provides the reader with a compelling, detailed portrait of the “gangster, godfather, audacious bank robber, killer, pirate and arsonist” that were Stalin’s chosen activities in his young adult life. His father was a cobbler and a drunk, who beat him and deserted his family; his mother, who believed in her gifted, undisciplined only surviving child, was herself a harsh disciplinarian and as tough as the boots that her husband crafted. Although her son wrote to her dutifully until her death in 1937 during the Great Terror, he kept his distance from her and did not attend her funeral. A school friend later wrote that “it was through his father that [Stalin] learned to hate people”, but this is too simplistic. Whatever the mysterious fashion in which his character was formed, aged ten there was something “unchildish” about him, an exceptional capacity to mask his feelings, command loyalty and challenge authority. Although he was the best scholar in school, he led a Jekyll and Hyde existence, singing in the choir, then organising street fights and gangs.

In 1893 Stalin passed the exams to Tiflis seminary. He had no vocation —  at the age of 13 he had read The Origin of Species and lost whatever belief in God he might have had — but as with other poor but clever men such as Talleyrand, the Church was the means of education and advancement. Sebag Montefiore conjures up a picture of a brutal, repressive seminary regime, not unlike a Victorian public school. Ironically, the seminary had the “singular achievement of supplying the Russian Revolution with some of its most ruthless radicals… no secular school produced as many atheists as the Tiflis seminary.” Although at first he excelled academically, the young Djugashvili started to read forbidden books such as novels and revolutionary literature. He gradually became rebellious, rude, irreverent and disobedient and to his mother’s distress – she had sacrificed herself to send him there – he was expelled in 1899, aged 21. According to the author, seminary life taught the future dictator the importance of “surveillance, spying, invasion of the inner life…”

From now on, Stalin’s course was set: that of a professional revolutionary. He read Lenin and entered the murky netherworld of “Konspiratsia” where all his formidable energies were dedicated to the overthrow of established order through bombings, arson, strikes and terror. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which is set in London,gives some idea of the mindset of those gripped by a fanatical ideology. In Tsarist Russia, so different from the bourgeois stability of Edwardian England, it took a more violently effective form. Stalin, his biographer says, was turning into a “devout Marxist of semi-Islamic fervour”.

In 1905 he first met Lenin, his intellectual mentor and evil genius. It was the year of abortive revolution in which for the first time he commanded men and tasted power. His Georgian methods of terror and gangsterism were slowly enjoying a wider application, in which the “command, harnessing and provocation of turmoil were his gifts”. By 1907 he was cultivating a persona of many disguises and aliases: 36 nicknames and by-lines are listed in the book before “Stalin” was settled on in 1913, evidence of an obsessive need for secrecy and altered identity. “The Loper” and “The Man in Grey” perhaps characterise him best, a lone grey wolf, detached from the pack, pursuing his own, ruthless agenda and making use of others only as they served his own, pathologically suspicious purpose. He never forgot and he never forgave.

There were several episodes of imprisonment and exile during those years. As Sebag Montefiore points out, exile under the Tsars was “more like a dull reading holiday than the living hell of Stalin’s murderous Gulags”. Stalin spent these periods of enforced political inactivity in affairs – including the seduction of a 13-year-old – reading, plotting with and against other political exiles, and hunting. His biographer suggests that he brought “the self-reliance, vigilance, frigidity and solitude of the Siberian hunter to the Kremlin.” Perhaps it would be truer to say that he brought these qualities, honed in his Georgian youth, to his experience of exile where they became reflexive aspects of his anti-social personality.

It is often noted of tyrants, that the peculiar circumstances of their times fatefully interweaves with their psychopathic traits in bringing them to power over ordinary lives. The prelude to the Russian Revolution allowed Stalin to lead an abnormal life; in a “normal” life, as the author comments, “his peculiarities would have been intolerable.” The book shows, more comprehensively than any thesis, how little Communism had to do with any real concern for the poor or a wish to improve their lives. Lenin and Trotsky, the other members of the “troika”, enter these pages as fellow zealots, pursuing power at any cost; although from different backgrounds – Lenin was from the minor gentry and Trotsky a freethinking Jew – they were united with Stalin in hatred of their fellow men. Lenin approved of firing squads, Stalin thought concentration camps an “excellent idea” and Trotsky was contemptuous of “the sanctity of human life”. Like John Reed’s classic account of the Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, the author’s recreation of the days, indeed the hours, leading to the Bolshevik overthrow of the government, are utterly absorbing, showing how the lives of millions of people for decades to come hung in the balance as these thugs and scoundrels plotted through the night in foetid, smoke-filled rooms.

The book is divided into five parts, each of which is preceded by a poem written by Stalin during his Georgian period. These are of significance because of their authorship; but they also show intrinsic merit. Despite the problems of poetic translation, they reveal a passionate, yearning side to Stalin that he chose not to display elsewhere in his career: “…Then I too, find the mist of sadness / breaks and lifts and instantly recedes / and hopes for the good life / unfold in my unhappy heart!” They provide the reader with a glimpse of the magnetism – not simply fear – which won Stalin the devotion of his amoral and unprincipled associates and of the ignorant masses. Molotov, when he first met him, commented that “he possesses internal revolutionary beauty”, the perverse “beauty” – not unlike St Just during the French Revolution – of one who has dedicated all his gifts to one supreme and terrible end. A Stalinist friend, on hearing what I was reading, commented to me that he enjoyed reading Sebag Montefiore’s “historical fiction”. But this fine book is not fiction; it has the ineluctable ring of truth about it, in its searching and brilliant portrayal of this man of most unhappy heart.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.