In May 1907, to the great excitement of the British tabloid press, the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party met at the Brotherhood church in Hackney, east London. Among the delegates were Lenin, Trotsky, Litvinov, Rosa Luxemburg, the writer Maxim Gorky, at least two spies from the Russian secret police and a 29-year-old shoemaker’s son from Georgia who went by the nom de revolution of Koba. The original Koba had been a Georgian folk hero in the Robin Hood mould, an outlaw who defended the weak against the strong. History would remember his namesake by a later pseudonym, a play on the Russian word for steel: Stalin.
Stalin spent about three weeks in London, lodging first and very briefly at Tower House, a notoriously grim doss house in Stepney, and then, at his insistence, in rather less squalid private accommodation nearby. In Sell Us the Rope, Stephen May weaves real-life events with fictional imaginings to create a novel that defies easy categorisation: a convincing slice of history that is also a darkly comic tale of political intrigue and a revealing portrait of the dictator who would go on to mastermind the Great Terror of the 1930s, the bloodiest and most brutal campaign of political repression in Russian history.
What kind of man becomes a monster? From the moment of his disembarkation on to the drizzly Harwich quay, May’s Koba is uncompromising, suspicious of charm, a short man with a short fuse and the instinct towards violence that comes from having been brutally beaten as a child. He dislikes his companions, whom he regards as patronising and overprivileged. He dislikes England more, and not just because of the filth and the fog and the foul food. In England, with his poor English, he is as he has always been in Russia: an outsider. On the first day of the congress, a motion is tabled to have the Georgian delegation excluded from proceedings. An intervention by Lenin allows them to remain in a non-voting capacity, but the message is clear: all communists are not equal.
May’s Koba understands this. He also understands that silence can be a useful weapon. Koba is a listener, a man who notices everything: “He hasn’t written poetry for years, but he tries to retain a poet’s eye.” A torturer’s eye too, perhaps. Adept at identifying weakness, Koba is a grandmaster in the pitiless chess game of revolutionary politics. But though he lacks scruples, he is not a monster, not entirely, not yet. There is softness still inside his hardened shell. He is protective of nervy young Arthur Bacon, London errand boy and racketeer-in-training, who, like Koba at his age, is battered by his alcoholic father. He tips too much. He admires – and is increasingly attracted to – Elli Vuokko, a dauntless young lathe operator from Finland who does nothing to stroke his ego. Pragmatic about the business of bloodshed, he is nonetheless troubled by ghosts. “The living come and go, but the dead never leave you,” he tells Elli. “Everyone you kill hangs around, plucking at your sleeve, wanted to be acknowledged, refusing to be forgotten.” Already one can sense them, the millions of ghosts to come, stirring in the margins.
In an afterword, May acknowledges that some parts of his story are invented. He makes no apology for this. “Fiction,” he says, quoting Laurent Binet, “respects nothing.” The same might be said for the engaging (and fictional) Elli. Clear-sighted, courageous and irresistibly quick to laughter, she is at least as excited by her new friendship with Rosa Luxemburg as she is by the possibility of a love affair with Koba. By pairing their stories, May shines a light on the contradictions in communist ideology itself: the righteous ferocity of its convictions and the ugly violence of its methods. The idealistic Elli is as unflinching as Koba in her certainty that “free nations can only evolve out of streams of blood”.
Other historical inventions feel more problematic. In May’s telling, Koba has murdered his brute of a father: he cannot shake his ghost, either in his waking hours or in his dreams. While this lends the narrative an undeniably Shakespearean echo, the rather more prosaic truth is that Stalin’s father died of cirrhosis two years after the London congress. By rooting his Koba in so fundamental a fiction, May plants a niggling worm of doubt about the integrity of his creation.
Cavils aside, this remains a deeply satisfying novel. Incisive, inventive, frequently very funny, Sell Us the Rope pulls off something rare and exhilarating: it takes a powerful piece of political history and a sober meditation on the nature of evil, and mashes it up with a pacy plot to create a story that is as propulsive as it is thought-provoking. Fiction may respect nothing, but a novel as skilful as this one commands a great deal of it.