In London in 1907, a decade before the revolution, young Stalin has yet to achieve the power, nor acted on the ruthlessness, that will define his legacy. Instead Koba, as he is known, arrives in London for the 5th Congress of the Russian Communist Part where he-and many of his fellow Bolsheviks-are only allowed to remain as a nonvoting witness. But his inability to vote does not limit his ability to act, and Stalin quickly begins forging alliances.
May charts a middle course, crafting an oft-sober, occasionally droll portrait of a monster-in-the-making. Impressively, he finds a flicker of humanity in a person who became a mass-murdering despot ... The book's title paraphrases a pitch-black communist quip: Capitalism marches workers to the gallows, but not before making them buy the rope that will hang them. It's in this spirit that May melds coarse jokes... and wry observations.
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 ... 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.
The historical facts furnish May with a cast of legends to bring to life, and he does it with verve and humour ... The novel’s most clear success is not in this realm of historical insight (although the research is evident and well deployed), but in the cruel course of human events, a proxy war among the delegates that takes hold in the novel’s third and strongest act. May ensnares his characters in a net of intrigue that keeps the reader with him to the denouement — no mean feat since we all know what happened next.