In 2000 the archives of Stalin's papers were finally opened after being sealed for more than 50 years, and I was one of the first researchers to see them. At the time I was working on my most recent book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which tells of the dictator's years in power after 1917. I had little hope of finding anything about him prior to that—his exploits as a bank robber, political enforcer, and prolific lover.
The archives, Stalin's own papers, are located close to the center of Moscow, near Pushkin Square. I lived in a little flat near the Kremlin and walked down the street every day to the State Archive of Social and Political History reading room. For 12 hours a day I wouldn't leave the building, just grabbed some surprisingly delicious, greasy borscht in the dingy, old canteen before heading back to my desk. The papers are amazing in that you're handling hundreds of notes and documents scrawled by Stalin himself with his thick red or blue crayons. Sometimes he just wrote "Ha-ha-ha" if he thought something was funny.
One day I was reading his letters from the thirties when an archivist brought me something intriguing—a flirtatious postcard Stalin had sent to a girlfriend in 1909. "I owe you a kiss," it read, "in return for your kiss passed on to me….Let me kiss you right now.…Yours, Joseph." It was always said that Stalin, like Hitler, was a sort of sexless freak. His first wife died in 1907, soon after their marriage, and his second wife committed suicide in 1932. Nothing else was known about his love life, especially before his first marriage.
When I researched the postcards, I discovered that they were written to a mistress named Polia, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who had run away from her parents in Siberia for an affair with the much older Stalin. Polia was so pretty that the czar's secret police agents shadowing Stalin nicknamed her Glamourpuss. She was outrageous and cheeky and called Stalin Oddball Osip—Osip being a diminutive for Joseph. He never tolerated such teasing from anyone else, but he seemed to like it coming from her. When the two parted after a few months, they exchanged letters for some years afterward.
The postcard was my first clue that there might be enough material to write a biography of Stalin as a young man. The archives contained a wealth of material that showed him as a gangster, godfather, bank robber, pirate, lover, and much more. As Stalin himself, the most secretive of men, once said, "We can keep our secrets, but in the end historians will find everything—yes, even secrets from the very bottom of the ocean."—Simon Sebag Montefiore's book, Young Stalin, will be published this month by Knopf.