Do recognize the unassuming young man in the picture? No? What if I told you his name - Iosef Dzugashvili. Does that help?
What if I told you his famous pseudonym: Koba. Would that tell you more?
Ok, it's time to let the cat out of the bag. The picture is of Josef Stalin, born Iosef Dzugashvili in the small town of Gori in then Russian Georgia. It's also Dzugashvili as opposed to his more ferocious and infamous adult incarnation that is the subject of Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book Young Stalin, a book the New York Times has cheekily (but not inaccurately) described as a portrait of the "dictator as a young poet-thug". Montefiore's book apparently expands on where Donald Rayfield and Robert Conquest have tread only briefly to provide what may be the most comprehensive biography yet of the man who would become Josef Stalin. While I haven't read Young Stalin yet, I certainly intend to do so soon, but I'd already learned about Iosef Dzugashvili surprised me at first, as it surprises everyone who first learns about the man who become the powerful man of the 20th century.
Unlike his German contemporary, the young Dzugashvili has a credible claim to being an artist, with a talent for Georgian poetry. Also unlike Hitler, Dzugashvili was a quick study and an adept student - when not rebelling against the monastery where he was educated. Though an avid reader, the young man was also a street brawler, who managed to intimidate with his brawn despite losing much of the use of an arm that withered after it was run over by a horse drawn carriage. Undoubtedly, a vicious streetfighting intellectual seems to be a contradiction in terms, but not for Dzugashvili, who quickly learned to hide his brains and overemphasize his strength - a decision that served him extremely well for the rest of his life. And when young Dzugashvili had finally morphed into Stalin, the Man of Steel, his Bolshevik rivals - especially Trotsky - bought into his ruse, continually underestimating him as some sort of uneducated, bloodthirsty country bumpkin. This image alone kept Stalin out of the picture while the party intellectuals fought each other for power, allowing Stalin to sit back and wait to see who would emerge victorious.
Stalin invented a ridiculous biography to obscure what were, frankly, his more interesting (if infinitely more humble) origins, and I eagerly await reading Young Stalin to learn yet ever more about the man behind the monstrous myth. Perhaps I'll even read it by candlelight on Halloween, just for the effect ..