Joseph Stalin escorted by GRU secret agents, late 1920s (Photo by Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Young Stalin’s unlikely London holiday

Stephen May’s new novel is a triumph of historical fiction

Little is known about the three weeks twenty-nine year old Josef Stalin spent in London in 1907. But this is no obstacle to novelist Stephen May’s imagination. In Sell Us the Rope, May takes the scant recorded details of Stalin’s London-jaunt (grotty lodgings, an unlikely friendship with a thirteen-year old schoolboy, and the Congress of the Russian Communist party) to invent a beguiling history about events that may or may not have happened, and people who may or may not have been there. 

The late Christopher Hitchens once said that Stalinism was “among other things, a triumph of the torturing of language”. Unlike Stalin, who tortured the language to deceive, May’s carefully constructed lies are made firmly in the pursuit of a compelling “what if” scenario that plays with the nature of history and questions the course of true events.

Given the reader knows what he will become, Koba comes across surprisingly sympathetically

Not yet the man of steel, Stalin was known as Koba, a name he gave himself after a vengeful Georgian folk-hero. Koba is a man of contradictions: sensitive yet vengeful; caring but cruel; a published poet and a bank robber; in love with his wife, but more in love with power; a revolutionary and a Tsarist spy. May makes use of a rather dubious historical rumour that Koba was an informant to drive much of the story. 

May plays on Koba’s outsider status. Unlike some of his (ironically) rather bourgeois comrades, Koba grew up poor, Georgian and an outsider: he is unable to vote in the delegation because of his nationality, and believes himself resented for being “genuinely proletarian”. 

When rubbing shoulders with the bourgeois apparatchiks, useful idiots and imperial buffoons who can’t see they’re barely pawns on a chess board, one of history’s mass-murderers becomes a Tony Soprano style anti-hero. 

Sell Us the Rope, Stephen May (Sandstone Press, £8.99)

Whilst his loquacious counterparts “parade the finery of their opinions”, Koba excels in brooding, dreaming up violent means to achieve his aims rather than relying on persuasion. There are chilling flashes of the cold steel to come: he dreams of clipping testicles, feeding betrayers “covered in honey” to rats, and brags about the people he has killed — including a child and his own father. 

Given that the reader knows what will happen in the fullness of time, Koba comes across surprisingly sympathetically. He has a warring inner life, an unexpected friendship with a thirteen-year-old boy called Arthur Bacon, and the vestigial glitter of his poet’s eye. The presence of the darkness to come is foreshadowed as “a presence barely perceptible but growing stronger, more definite, with every passing day”.

The novel’s true hero is Elli Vuokko: young, idealistic, naïve and feisty. She is representative of a “new class of women” and her tubthumping speech from the first day of conference makes headlines in the Daily Mirror. Like the thirty of so other female delegates, she takes part in ju-jitsu lessons preparing for physical as well as ideological combat. “This is something every woman should know!” the diminutive instructor shouts. 

Elli is attracted to Koba’s brooding sensitivity which is so unlike the other peacocking males. Before he became the moustachioed supreme leader of the USSR, young Stalin cut a dashing figure. His attraction to Elli leaves him uncomfortable: she is a sexually confident and independently minded woman. “Don’t talk like that,” Kobo snaps when she brings up the topic of sex.

The first half of the novel moves along slowly. Beyond the hesitant romance of Elli and Koba, the first act busies itself with the details of the arguments of congress and the living arrangements of the Georgian contingent, with the “wet black fog” of London and with many inhabitants suffering the dual evils of squalor and false consciousness. “Like being pressed into shit,” Koba exclaims in violent poetry at the horror of the streets, “like being drowned in other people’s faeces.” 

What responsibility does a historical novelist have toward its subjects?

But things pick up: May makes use of his conjecture that Koba was a Tsarist informant. From this (however unreal) moment onwards, the novel gathers irresistible momentum toward a climax where accusation is proof enough.

“Why would an expert on guns want to write novels? Why swap a useful pursuit for something so trivial? And why would he think we’d be interested in such things?” Koba asks during an awkward exchange with gunsmith and author, William Greener. Yet Stalin was an avid reader of literature. In fact, the Robin Hood-like figure of Koba, from whom he takes his name during this period of his life, came to him from reading his favourite novel, The Patricide by Alexander Kazbegi. “Send me some books” was Stalin’s most frequent request when exiled or imprisoned. 

Indeed, the example is typical of May’s approach. As the author describes in his afterword, it is a historical novel rather than display of facts. Comrades enjoy using the jarring phrase, “pain is weakness leaving the body”, which feels drawn from a contemporary idiom, the expression said to be derived from US Marine Corps propaganda. The novel is evidently well-researched on the whole, though detail isn’t where the work excels. Sell Us the Rope very much reimagines history, often with verve and insight, though it is in its speculations where the novel is most interesting. 

What responsibility does a historical novelist have toward its subjects? There is a danger, alluded to by May in his author’s note, that fiction respects nothing. May’s answer is, like a more accessible version of Laurent Binet’s historical fictions, to take a joyride into the speculative whilst being self-reflexive enough to ensure his inventions never become invented facts because his characters are synecdoches for real suffering. The ending may hammer home a point already made more elegantly within the novel, but far from weakening the historical fiction morally and aesthetically, May’s inventions do quite the reverse.

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