Sell Us the Rope by Stephen May review – Stalin in London

Fictional imaginings ignite the historical facts in this darkly comic tale of political intrigue, with revealing insights into the making of a dictator

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.

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