cover image Sell Us the Rope

Sell Us the Rope

Stephen May. Bloomsbury, $18 (240p) ISBN 978-1-63973-143-5

May’s stellar latest (after Stronger than Skin) chronicles the three weeks Josef Stalin spent in London attending the fifth annual congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party. The conference, held abroad in May 1907 because the party has been exiled from Russian territory, is shadowed by informants from the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, and riven by disputes between the moderate Menshevik faction and their militant Bolshevik rivals. Koba, as Stalin styles himself after a folkloric antihero, plays a negligible role in official events, but his tactical genius and willingness to murder and rob for the Bolsheviks win him approval from fellow party members Ulyanov and Yanovsky (later Lenin and Trotsky), who scheme privately with him to continue the illegal operations the congress votes against. As Koba attempts to keep his footing amid the party’s sometimes lethal power struggles, he grapples with his dangerous status as a secret informant for the Okhrana. Meanwhile, he finds surprising comfort as protector to preteen Arthur Bacon, the son of the boarding-house owner from whom Koba rents a room and, like Koba, is the victim of a father’s violent abuse. He’s also romantically drawn to spirited Finnish delegate Elli Vuokko, despite having a wife and son at home. With a spare, sardonic style, May probes Stalin’s childhood trauma, sense of charisma, and brutally violent side, humanizing him without sentimentalizing. Secondary figures, too, are incisively evoked—German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg is particularly vivid—as are the party’s petty squabbles and the reeking, begrimed London the characters move through. This is superb. (Feb.)