Sell Us the Rope
by Stephen May
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Pub Date 1 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 24 Mar 2022
'Original, adept and confident... What can I say, except that I wish I had written it myself?' -Hilary Mantel
May 1907. Young Stalin – poet, bank-robber, spy – is in London for the 5th Congress of the Russian Communist Party. As he builds his powerbase in the party, Stalin manipulates alliances with Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg under the eyes of the Czar’s secret police. Meanwhile he is drawn to the fiery Finnish activist Elli Vuokko and risks everything in a relationship as complicated as it is dangerous.
‘Original, adept and confident. What can I say, except that I wish I had written it myself?’ HILARY MANTEL
‘Hums with the visceral energy of revolutionary fervour and sex.’ LIZ JENSEN
‘Both challenges and illuminates history. A rare achievement.’ BENJAMIN MYERS
‘A vibrant depiction of Stalin’s time in London, complete with calisthenics, traitors and bank robberies.’ SUZANNE JOINSON
‘Introduces us to an extraordinary cast at one of history’s oddest turning points.’ MARCEL THEROUX
‘Brimming with captivating characters and twisty intrigues.’ KATHERINE CLEMENTS
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Average rating from 9 members
A marvellous blend of fiction and historical facts involving a young Stalin who has travelled to London in order to attend an international gathering of socialists.
A captivating plot and a cast of exquisitely drawn characters make this compelling read an absolute joy from start to finish.
Youthful idealism just a few years before the first big catastrophic nightmare of the 20th century....
Many thanks to Netgalley and Sandstone for this terrific ARC
Men of Steel
A conference of Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in London in 1907, attended by no less than Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and a young Josef Jugashvili, later to be known as Stalin, as well as a list of the leading communists of the day, there to hammer out the future direction of socialism, by the armed revolution or by political means.
It’s hard to credit, but this conference really happened; that Stalin’s Georgian delegation was so short of money, they kipped down in a London doss-house, moving later to a house where a bullied son struck up a friendship with Stalin, and who later became a Conservative politician; that Lenin and Trotsky preferred to drink fine wine in the accommodation of a wealthy sympathiser; that the conference itself took place in the premises of a socialist minded clergyman, who happened to originate from Ulster; that rich ‘useful idiots’ could be seduced to provide money for the delegates’ fares back home.
All true. Perhaps not so true is the married Stalin’s quasi-romance with a Finnish woman delegate, Elli Vuokko, a liberated and committed revolutionary, and her growing friendship with Rosa Luxemburg. Will the relationship of Elli and Stalin flower? And how might Stalin’s links with the Czarist secret police place Elli in danger?
This is a wonderful novel, filled with the optimism of socialism in its idealistic youth, soured by the violent reality of communist purity. I enjoyed it in its every aspect, the political toing and froing, the picture of London squalor and English xenophobia, the conflict of the idealistic and the pragmatic, the pleasures and pains of conference living. Witty, imaginative, original and thought provoking, all at the same time. I enjoyed it immensely, even its rather poignant afterword.
I didnt know what to expect from this book and I didnt know much about Stalon's time in London but I found this book to be an enjoyable and original read. It was full of revolutionary electricity and atmosphere and I had my heart in my mouth the whole time. A great read.
This will appeal to readers of Robert Harris as it follows his proven recipe: take a historical event and invent a spy plot around it. I found it very enjoyable and well done!
The setting is the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which took place in 1907 in London (one of the few places the Communists could meet and discuss freely). It is 10 years before the October Revolution and all the big shots are there already: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg. It is always fun to read about historical figures before they became famous and in this case especially young Stalin is quite the character. In fact he appears as an informer of the Czar's secret police (Okhrana) - a historical fact I was not aware of - around which the spy plot revolves.
A love story is neatly woven in too - although actually it is quite a substantial part of the novel, slightly too much for me. I had hoped to learn more about the Congress itself, but that is clearly not the focus of the novel, and maybe it was not all that important a congress anyway.
The author also clearly enjoys having the Russians criticise the English for their narrow-mindedness and complain about the filth, pollution and poverty of capitalist London.
Many thanks to @sandstonepress for the ARC via Netgalley
Sell Us The Rope is an inventive, very clever play on actual historical events. The 5th Congress of the Russian Communist Party really did take place in London in 1907 and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, the man we would later come to know simply as Stalin but who at the time preferred to be known as Koba, did attend along with other famous Communist party members such as Lenin (referred to as Ulyanov in the book), Trotsky, Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg. The Conference itself was dominated by internal wrangling and a conflict between the Bolshevik and Menshavik wings of the party over its future direction, however it’s not necessary to know any of this to enjoy the book which is much more about the characters than the politics.
The young Stalin we meet in the book is a wily, formidably determined figure, propelled by a sense of destiny. ‘His country will always need him, there will always be a national emergency.’ The son of a violent father, there are already signs of the inner ruthlessness and capacity for violence that will later be unleashed on the world. ‘Anyone can learn to kill. It’s learning to live with having killed that is the difficult part.’ It’s clear that Koba has already learned to live with it and lots of other things besides. He definitely has a short fuse, having to be restrained from assaulting a journalist who attempts to take a photograph of him quite soon after his arrival in London.
It would probably be overstating it to say we a ‘softer’ side to Koba in the book but his relationship with Finnish activist, Elli Vuokko, does show he has a capacity for affection, albeit it represents a betrayal of his wife. And the way Koba befriends young Arthur Bacon, the son of the owner of his lodgings, is rather touching, even if Arthur does appear to be an entrepreneur, perhaps even a capitalist, in the making.
It was interesting to witness Koba’s and Elli’s impressions of London as they walk the streets of the city. They are appalled by the poor housing, poverty and the lack of sanitation they see and the city’s downtrodden population. ‘The under-sized, misshapen people, the tired and skinny livestock. The children still, dead-eyed and sullen, or, alternatively, running and pushing or shrieking like supercharged geese through the crowds.’ Elli is particularly conscious of the demeanour of the women she sees. ‘They are so wan, so many with a curious bluey-yellow patina to the skin, so many with a haunted look. So many muttering to themselves. So many coughing.’ Asked what’s the matter with them, Koba replies, ‘Work. Children. Degradation. All three.’
In case you’re getting the impression the book is a depressing read, I can assure you there are plenty of moments of, often deadpan, humour. For example, Koba’s reaction to an English cup of tea: ‘I think I can’t drink this grandmother’s piss’. Or when describing Rosa Luxemburg: ‘Elli could listen to her talk about anything for hours. Which is probably just as well’. Or when lured to alternative lodgings by the prospect of a flushing toilet, Koba and his companions are disappointed to learn they may only flush it once a day, at 10pm to be precise – except in case of ‘special need’. Asked to elaborate, Arthur explains, ‘Da says if it’s proper disgusting, you can pull the handle’.
For those who crave an element of intrigue there is Koba’s sparring with agents of the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, who are attempting to use their hold over him to force him to denounce influential members of the Communist party who threaten their interests. But perhaps it’s not so easy to get one over on Koba?
The author’s historical note provides fascinating background detail. I was surprised by how many of the characters, including ones I had thought might be the product of the author’s imagination, were actually drawn from real life, such as Arthur Bacon who really did run errands for Stalin. The same goes for many of the locations, some of which still exist albeit in a different form. By the way, for those wondering about the book’s title, let Koba explain. ‘You know the old saying that when it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.’
Sell Us The Rope is a rather chilling insight into the complicated and violent history of Russia, especially given current events. However, as a work of fiction it’s a wonderfully immersive read, full of atmosphere and with a delicious thread of dark humour.
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