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Young Stalin

Young Stalin

Аннотация

    Stalin, like Hitler, remains the very personification of evil but also one of the creators of today’s world. Now in an enthralling biography that reads like a thriller, Simon Sebag Montefiore unveils the shadowy, adventurous journey of the Georgian cobbler’s son who became the Red Tsar.
* * *
    What makes a Stalin? Was he illegitimate? Was his mother whore or saint? Was Stalin a Tsarist agent or Lenin’s chief gangster? Was his most notorious heist planned during his stay in London? Was he to blame for his wife’s death? If he really missed the 1917 Revolution, how did he emerge so powerful?
    Born in poverty, scarred by his upbringing, exceptional in his studies, this charismatic but dangerous boy was hailed as a romantic poet and trained as a priest but found his mission as fanatical revolutionary. He became the mastermind of bank-robberies, protection-rackets, arson, piracy and murder yet he was, uniquely, part-intellectual, part-brigand. Surprisingly, he is also revealed as a scandalously prolific lover, leaving a trail of mistresses (varying from schoolgirls to noblewomen) and illegitimate children.
    Here is the arch-conspirator and escape-artist whose brutal ingenuity so impressed Lenin that he made Stalin (with Trotsky) his top henchman. The paranoid underworld of Joseph Conrad-style terrorism was Stalin’s natural habitat. Montefiore shows how clannish Caucasian banditry and murderous gangsterism, combined with pitiless ideology, qualified Stalin to dominate the Kremlin—and create the USSR in his flawed image.
    Based on massive research and astonishing new evidence in archives from Moscow to Georgia, Young Stalin, companion and prequel to bestselling, prizewinning Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, is a chronicle of the Revolution, a pre-history of the USSR—and a fascinatingly intimate biography: this is how Stalin became Stalin.


Simon Sebag Montefiore YOUNG STALIN

    To my darling son,
    Sasha

Stalin’s Family


Maps



Introduction

    “All young people are the same,” said Stalin, “so why write… about the young Stalin?” Yet he was wrong: he was always different. His youth was dramatic, adventurous and exceptional. When in old age he reflected on the mysteries of his early years, he seemed to change his mind. “There are,” he mused, “no secrets that won’t be revealed for everyone later.” For me as a historian unveiling his clandestine life up to his emergence as one of Lenin’s top henchmen in the new Soviet government, he was right about the secrets: many of them can now be revealed.
    There are few works on early Stalin (compared to many on young Hitler), but this is because there seemed to be so little material. In fact, this is not so. A wealth of vivid new material that brings to life his childhood and his career as revolutionary, gangster, poet, trainee priest, husband and prolific lover, abandoning women and illegitimate children in his wake, lay hidden in the newly opened archives, especially those of often-neglected Georgia.
    Stalin’s early life may have been shadowy but it was every bit as extraordinary as, and even more turbulent than, those of Lenin and Trotsky—and it equipped him (and damaged him) for the triumphs, tragedies and predations of supreme power.
    Stalin’s pre-revolutionary achievements and crimes were much greater than we knew. For the first time, we can document his role in the bank robberies, protection-rackets, extortion, arson, piracy, murder—the political gangsterism—that impressed Lenin and trained Stalin in the very skills that would prove invaluable in the political jungle of the Soviet Union. But we can also show that he was much more than a gangster godfather: he was also a political organizer, enforcer and master at infiltrating the Tsarist security services. In contrast to Zinoviev, Kamenev or Bukharin, whose reputations as great politicians are ironically founded on their destruction in the Terror, he was not afraid to take physical risks. But he also impressed Lenin as an independent and thoughtful politician, and as a vigorous editor and journalist, who was never afraid to confront and contradict the older man. Stalin’s success was at least partly due to his unusual combination of education (thanks to the seminary) and street violence; he was that rare combination: both “intellectual” and killer. No wonder in 1917 Lenin turned to Stalin as the ideal lieutenant for his violent, beleaguered Revolution.

    This book is the result of almost ten years of research on Stalin in twenty-three cities and nine countries, mainly in the newly opened archives of Moscow, Tbilisi and Batumi, but also in St. Petersburg, Baku, Vologda, Siberia, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Paris, Tampere, Helsinki, Cracow, Vienna and Stanford, California.
    Young Stalin is written to be read on its own. This is a study of Stalin’s life before power, up to his arrival in government in October 1917, whereas my last book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, covers Stalin in power up to his death in March 1953. Both are intimate histories of the man and politician but also of his milieu. I hope they will together form an introduction to the most elusive and fascinating of twentieth-century titans, showing the development and early maturity of the ultimate politician. What missing empathy in Stalin’s upbringing allowed him to kill so easily, but equally what quality equipped him so well for political life? Were the cobbler’s son of 1878, the idealistic seminarist of 1898, the brigand of 1907 and the forgotten Siberian hunter of 1914 destined to become the fanatical Marxist mass-murderer of the 1930s or the conqueror of Berlin in 1945?
    My two books are not meant to form an exhaustive narrative history covering every political, ideological, economic, military, international and personal aspect of Stalin’s life. That has already been superbly done, in different eras, by two scholars—Robert Conquest, the founding maestro of Stalinist history, with his Stalin: Breaker of Nations and, more recently, Robert Service, with his Stalin: A Biography—and I do not think I could improve on their broader works.
    I make no apology that my two books are tightly focused on the intimate and secret, political and personal lives of Stalin and the small circle that ultimately came to create and rule the Soviet Union until the 1960s. Ideology must be our foundation as it was for the Bolsheviks, but the new archives show that the personalities and patronage of a minuscule oligarchy were the essence of politics under Lenin and Stalin, as they were under the Romanov emperors—and just as they are today under the “managed democracy” of twenty-first-century Russia.

    Stalin’s prolonged youth has always been a mystery, in many senses. Before 1917, he cultivated the mystique of obscurity but also specialized in the “black work” of underground revolution, which was, by its nature, secretive, violent and indispensible—but disreputable.
    Once in power, Stalin’s campaign to succeed Lenin required a legitimate heroic career which he did not possess because of his experience in what he called “the dirty business” of politics: this could not be told, either because it was too gangsterish for a great, paternalistic statesman or because it was too Georgian for a Russian leader. His solution was a clumsy but all-embracing cult of personality that invented, distorted and concealed the truth. Ironically this self-promotion was so grotesque that it fanned sparks, sometimes innocent ones, which flared up into colossal anti-Stalin conspiracy-theories. It was easy for his political opponents, and later for us historians, to believe that it was all invented and that he had done nothing much at all—particularly since few historians had researched in the Caucasus where so much of his early career took place. An anti-cult, as erroneous as the cult itself, grew up around these conspiracy-theories.
    The most intriguing rumour remains: was Stalin a double-agent for the Tsar’s secret police? The dictator’s most infamous secret policemen, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenti Beria, secretly sought such evidence to use against Stalin in case he turned against them—as indeed he did. It is significant that neither of them, with the absolute researching power of the NKVD behind them, ever found that “smoking gun.”
    Yet there is a deeper mystery too: every historian has quoted Trotsky’s claim that Stalin was a provincial “mediocrity” and Sukhanov’s that he was just a “grey blur” in 1917. Most historians followed Trotsky’s line that Stalin was so greyly mediocre that he failed to perform in 1905 and 1917, becoming, in Robert Slusser’s words, “The Man Who Missed the Revolution.”
    Yet, if this was so, how did the “mediocrity” seize power, outwit talented politicians such as Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky himself, and coordinate his programme of industrialization, the savage war on the peasantry and the ghoulish Great Terror? How did the “blur” become the homicidal but super-effective world statesman who helped create and industrialize the USSR, outplayed Churchill and Roosevelt, organized Stalingrad, and defeated Hitler? It is as if the pre-1917 mediocrity and the twentieth-century colossus cannot be the same man. So how did one become the other?
    They are in fact absolutely the same man. It is clear from hostile and friendly witnesses alike that Stalin was always exceptional, even from childhood. We have relied on Trotsky’s unrecognizably prejudiced portrait for too long. The truth was different. Trotsky’s view tells us more about his own vanity, snobbery and lack of political skills than about the early Stalin. So the first aim of this work is to reveal the true record of Stalin’s rise, as unblemished as possible by either the Stalinist cult or the anti-Stalin conspiracy-theory industry.
    There is a tradition of biographies dealing with the early careers of great statesmen. Winston Churchill wrote of his own youth and there have been many works on his early career. The same goes for many other historical titans, such as both presidential Roosevelts. Young Hitler has become an industry, though no work comes close to the outstanding first volume of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris.
    On Stalin, in a field of thousands of books, there have been just two serious Western works on his pre-1917 years: the excellent political-psychological Stalin as Revolutionary by Robert Tucker (1974), written long before the new archives were opened; and a Cold War work of anti-Stalin conspiracy-theory by Edward Ellis Smith (1967), who argues that Stalin was a Tsarist agent. There have been more in Russia, mainly journalistic sensationalism. However, the outstanding work is Alexander Ostrovsky’s magisterial, indefatigable Kto stoyal za spinoi Stalina? (Who Was Behind Stalin?) (2002). My own work is indebted to all three.
    So much of the inexplicable about the Soviet experience—the hatred of the peasantry for example, the secrecy and paranoia, the murderous witch hunt of the Great Terror, the placing of the Party above family and life itself, the suspicion of the USSR’s own espionage that led to the success of Hitler’s 1941 surprise attack—was the result of the underground life, the konspiratsia of the Okhrana and the revolutionaries, and also the Caucasian values and style of Stalin. And not just of Stalin.
    By 1917, Stalin knew many of the characters who would form the Soviet elite and his court in the years of supreme power. The violence and clannishness of the Caucasians, men like Stalin, Ordzhonikidze and Shaumian, played a special role in the formation of the USSR at least as great as the contributions of the Latvians, Poles, Jews and perhaps even Russians. They were the essence of the “Committeemen,” who formed the heart of the Bolshevik Party and were likely to support Stalin against intellectuals, Jews, émigrés and particularly the brilliant, haughty Trotsky. Such types took to the brutality of the Civil War (and to the liquidation of the peasantry, and to the Terror) because, like Stalin, indeed alongside him, they had been raised in the same streets, had shared gang warfare, clan rivalries, and ethnic slaughter, and had embraced the same culture of violence. My approach avoids much of the psycho-history that has both obscured and oversimplified our understanding of Stalin and Hitler. As I hope this book shows, Stalin was formed by much more than a miserable childhood, just as the USSR was formed by much more than Marxist ideology.
    Yet the formation of Stalin’s character is particularly important because the nature of his rule was so personal. Furthermore, Lenin and Stalin created the idiosyncratic Soviet system in the image of their ruthless little circle of conspirators before the Revolution. Indeed much of the tragedy of Leninism-Stalinism is comprehensible only if one realizes that the Bolsheviks continued to behave in the same clandestine style whether they formed the government of the world’s greatest empire in the Kremlin or an obscure little cabal in the backroom of a Tiflis tavern.
    It seems that Russia today—dominated by, and accustomed to, autocracy and empire, and lacking strong civic institutions especially after the shattering of its society by the Bolshevik Terror—is destined to be ruled by self-promoting cliques for some time yet. On a wider plane the murky world of terrorism is more relevant than ever today: terrorist organizations, whether Bolshevik at the beginning of the twentieth century or Jihadi at the start of the twenty-first, have much in common.

List of Characters

FAMILY
    Vissarion “Beso” Djugashvili, cobbler, father
    Ekaterina “Keke” Geladze Djugashvili, mother
    STALIN, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, “Soso,” “Koba”
GORI
    Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili, Gori wrestling champion, merchant, possible father
    Ivan “Vaso” Egnatashvili, son of Yakov, lifelong friend of Stalin
    Alexander “Sasha” Egnatashvili, son of Yakov, courtier of Stalin, “the Rabbit”
    Damian Davrichewy, police officer of Gori and possible father
    Josef Davrichewy, son of Damian, Stalin’s childhood friend, political bank robber, and later pilot, spy and memoirist in France
    Josef Iremashvili, childhood friend in Gori and Tiflis Seminary, Menshevik memoirist
    Father Christopher Charkviani, Gori priest, protector and possible father, and his son, Kote Charkviani
    Peter “Peta” Kapanadze, Gori and Tiflis Seminary, priest and lifelong friend
    Giorgi Elisabedashvili, Gori friend, Bolshevik
    Dato Gasitashvili, Beso’s cobbling apprentice
THE SCHOOLMASTERS
    Simon Gogchilidze, Stalin’s singing teacher and patron at the Gori Church School
    Prince David Abashidze, Father Dmitri, “Black Spot,” priestly pedant at the Tiflis Seminary and Stalin’s hated persecutor
THE GIRLS
    Natalia “Natasha” Kirtava, landlady and girlfriend in Batumi
    Alvasi Talakvadze, protégée and girlfriend in Baku
    Ludmilla Stal, Bolshevik activist and girlfriend in Baku and St. Petersburg
    Stefania Petrovskaya, Odessan noblewoman, exile, mistress and fiancée in Solvychegodsk and Baku
    Pelageya “Polia” Onufrieva, “Glamourpuss,” schoolgirl mistress in Vologda
    Serafima Khoroshenina, mistress and partner in Solvychegodsk
    Maria Kuzakova, landlady and mistress in Solvychegodsk, mother of Constantine
    Tatiana “Tania” Slavatinskaya, married Bolshevik and mistress
    Valentina Lobova, Bolshevik fixer and probable mistress
    Lidia Pereprygina, thirteen-year-old orphan seduced by Stalin in Turukhansk and mother of two children by him, fiancée
COMRADES, ENEMIES AND RIVALS—TIFLIS AND BAKU
    Lado Ketskhoveli, Gori priest’s son, Stalin’s Bolshevik mentor and hero
    Prince Alexander “Sasha”Tsulukidze, rich aristocrat, Stalin’s Bolshevik mentor and hero
    Mikha Tskhakaya, founder of Georgian SDs (Social-Democrats), early Bolshevik, Stalin’s patron
    Philip Makharadze, Bolshevik and Stalin’s sometime ally
    Budu “the Barrel” Mdivani, actor and Bolshevik terrorist, Stalin’s ally
    Abel Yenukidze, early Bolshevik, friend of Alliluyevs, Svanidzes and Stalin
    Silibistro “Silva” Jibladze, ex-seminarist, Menshevik firebrand
    Lev Rosenblum, “Kamenev,” well-off Tiflis engineer’s son, moderate Bolshevik
    Mikhail “Misha” Kalinin, peasant, butler, early Bolshevik in Tiflis
    Suren Spandarian, son of well-off Armenian editor, Bolshevik, womanizer, Stalin’s best friend
    Stepan Shaumian, well-off Armenian Bolshevik, Stalin’s ally and rival
    Grigory “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze, poor nobleman, nurse, Bolshevik hard man, Stalin’s longtime ally
    Sergo Kavtaradze, young henchman of Stalin in western Georgia, Baku, St. Petersburg
WIVES AND IN-LAWS
    Alexander “Alyosha” Svanidze, seminarist, Stalin friend, early Bolshevik and later brother-in-law
    Alexandra “Sashiko” Svanidze, sister of above and Stalin friend
    Mikheil Monoselidze, Sashiko’s husband and Bolshevik ally of Stalin
    Maria “Mariko” Svanidze, sister of Sashiko and Alyosha
    Ekaterina “Kato” Svanidze Djugashvili, youngest of family, Stalin’s first wife and mother of
    Yakov “Yasha” or “Laddie” Djugashvili, Stalin’s son
    Sergei Alliluyev, railway and electrical manager, early Bolshevik, Stalin ally in Tiflis, Baku and St. Petersburg
    Olga Alliluyeva, wife of Sergei, early Stalin friend, possibly mistress, later mother-in-law
    Pavel Alliluyev, son of Olga
    Anna Alliluyeva, daughter of Olga
    Fyodor “Fedya” Alliluyev, son of Olga
    Nadezhda “Nadya” Alliluyeva, daughter of Sergei and Olga, Stalin’s second wife
GANGSTERS, MASTERMINDS AND FIXERS
    Kamo, Simon “Senko”Ter-Petrossian, Stalin’s friend, protégé, then bank robber and hitman
    Kote Tsintsadze, Stalin’s hitman and brigand in western Georgia and later bank-robbery chief
    Leonid Krasin, Lenin’s master of bomb-making, money-laundering, bank robberies and elite contacts, later fell out with Lenin
    Meyer Wallach, “Maxim Litvinov,” Bolshevik arms-dealer and money-launderer
    Andrei Vyshinsky, well-off Odessa pharmacist’s son, brought up in Baku, Stalin’s enforcer and later Menshevik
THE TITAN OF MARXISM
    Georgi Plekhanov, father of Russian Social-Democracy
THE BOLSHEVIKS
    Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, “Lenin,” or “Illich” to his intimates, Russian SD leader and founder of Bolsheviks
    Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife and assistant
    Grigory Radomyslsky, “Zinoviev,” Jewish milkman’s son, Lenin’s sidekick in Cracow, then ally of Kamenev
    Roman Malinovsky, burglar, rapist and Okhrana spy, Bolshevik leader in the Imperial Duma
    Yakov Sverdlov, Jewish Bolshevik leader and Stalin’s roommate in exile
    Lev Bronstein, “Trotsky,” leader, orator and writer, independent Marxist, Menshevik Chairman of the Petersburg Soviet in 1905, joined Bolsheviks in 1917
    Felix Dzerzhinsky, Polish nobleman, veteran revolutionary, joined Bolsheviks in 1917
    Elena Stasova, “Absolute” and “Zelma,” noblewoman and Bolshevik activist
    Klimenti Voroshilov, Lugansk lathe-turner, Bolshevik friend of Stalin, roommate in Stockholm
    Vyacheslav Scriabin, “Molotov,” young Bolshevik and founder with Stalin of Pravda
THE MENSHEVIKS
    Yuli Tsederbaum, “Martov,” Lenin’s friend then bitter enemy, founder of Mensheviks
    Noe Jordania, founder of Georgian Social-Democracy and leader of Georgian Mensheviks
    Nikolai “Karlo” Chkheidze, moderate Menshevik in Batumi and later in St. Petersburg
    Isidore Ramishvili, Menshevik enemy of Stalin
    Said Devdariani, Seminary friend then political enemy and Menshevik
    Noe Ramishvili, tough Menshevik enemy of Stalin
    Minadora Ordzhonikidze Toroshelidze, Menshevik friend of Stalin and wife of Bolshevik ally Malakia Toroshelidze
    David Sagirashvili, Georgian Menshevik and memoirist
    Grigol Uratadze, Georgian Menshevik and memoirist
    Razhden Arsenidze, Georgian Menshevik and memoirist
    Khariton Chavichvili, Menshevik memoirist

Note

STALIN
    Stalin did not start to use his renowned name until 1912: it only became his surname after October 1917. His real name was Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili. His mother, friends and comrades called him “Soso” even after 1917. He published poems as “Soselo.” He increasingly called himself “Koba,” but he used many names in the course of his secret life.
    For the sake of clarity, “Stalin” and “Soso” are used throughout the book.
NAMES AND TRANSLITERATIONS
    I have followed the same principles as I did in my other books on Russia. Wherever possible, I have tried to use the most recognizable, best-known and most easily transliterated versions of the Georgian and Russian names. Of course, this leads to many inconsistencies—for example, I call the Georgian Menshevik leader Noe Jordania, not Zhordania, and use Jibladze, not Djibladze, yet I feel I must spell Stalin’s real name Djugashvili because it is so well known by that spelling. I use the French spellings of Davrichewy and Chavichvili (instead of Davrishashvili and Shavishvili) because their memoirs are published under these names. I apologize to the many linguists who may be appalled by this.
DATES
    Dates are given in the Old Style Julian Calendar, used in Russia, which ran thirteen days behind the New Style Gregorian Calendar used in the West. When describing events in the West, both dates are given. The Soviet government switched to the New Style Calendar at midnight on 31 January 1918 with the next day declared 14 February.
MONEY
    In early-twentieth-century rates, 10 roubles = £1. The simplest way to convert this into today’s money is to multiply by five to get pounds sterling and by ten to get U.S. dollars. A couple of examples: as a labourer in the Rothschild refineries in Batumi, young Stalin received 1.70 roubles per day, or 620 per annum ($6,000 or £3,000 per annum today). Tsar Nicholas II paid himself a personal allowance of 250,000 roubles a year while the bodyguard of the Tsarevich Alexei was paid a salary of 120 roubles a year ($1,200 or £600 per annum today). Yet these numbers are meaningless: the figures give little idea of real buying power and value. For example, Nicholas II was probably the richest man in the world, certainly in Russia. Yet his entire personal wealth of land, jewels, palaces, art and mineral deposits were calculated in 1917 as being worth 14 million roubles which, transferred into today’s money, is a mere $140 million or £70 million—clearly an absurdly small figure.
TITLES
    There are not always equivalents of Tsarist titles and ranks but I have tried to use as close an equivalent as possible. For the Russian autocrats, I use “Tsar” and “Emperor” interchangeably. Tsar Peter the Great crowned himself “Emperor” in 1721. The title of the ruler of the Caucasus varied. Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaievich, son and brother of emperors, was the viceroy. His successor, Prince Grigory Golitsyn, in office during Stalin’s seminary days, had the lesser rank of governor-general. His successor Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov would again be viceroy in 1905–16.
DISTANCES/WEIGHTS
    10 versts = 6.63 miles
    1 pud = 36 lb.

Prologue
The Bank Robbery

    At 10:30 a.m. On the sultry morning of Wednesday, 26 June 1907, in the seething central square of Tiflis, a dashing moustachioed cavalry captain in boots and jodhpurs, wielding a big Circassian sabre, performed tricks on horseback, joking with two pretty, well-dressed Georgian girls who twirled gaudy parasols—while fingering Mauser pistols hidden in their dresses.
    Few outside the gang knew of the plan that day for a criminal-terrorist “spectacular,” but Stalin had worked on it for months. One man who did know the broad plan was Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party,[1] hiding in a villa in Kuokola, Finland, far to the north. Days earlier, in Berlin, and then in London, Lenin had secretly met with Stalin to order the big heist, even though their Social-Democratic Party had just strictly banned all “expropriations,” the euphemism for bank robberies. But Stalin’s operations, heists and killings, always conducted with meticulous attention to detail and secrecy, had made him the “main financier of the Bolshevik Centre.”{3}
    The events that day would make headlines all over the globe, literally shake Tiflis to its foundations, and further shatter the fragmented Social-Democrats into warring factions: that day would both make Stalin’s career and almost ruin it—a watershed in his life.
    In Yerevan Square, the twenty brigands who formed the core of Stalin’s gang, known as “the Outfit,” took up positions as their lookouts peered down Golovinsky Prospect, Tiflis’s elegant main street, past the white Italianate splendour of the Viceroy’s Palace. They awaited the clatter of a stagecoach and its squadron of galloping Cossacks. The army captain with the Circassian sabre caracoled on his horse before dismounting to stroll the fashionable boulevard.
    Every street corner was guarded by a Cossack or policeman: the authorities were ready. Something had been expected since January. The informers and agents of the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, and his uniformed political police, the Gendarmes, delivered copious reports about the clandestine plots and feuds of the gangs of revolutionaries and criminals. In the misty twilight of this underground, the worlds of bandit and terrorist had merged and it was hard to tell tricks from truth. But there had been “chatter” about a “spectacular”—as today’s intelligence experts would put it—for months.
    On that dazzling steamy morning, the Oriental colour of Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia) hardly seemed to belong to the same world as the Tsar’s capital, St. Petersburg, a thousand miles away. The older streets, without running water or electricity, wound up the slopes of Mtatsminda, Holy Mountain, until they were impossibly steep, full of crookedly picturesque houses weighed down with balconies, entwined with old vines. Tiflis was a big village where everyone knew everyone else.
    Just behind the military headquarters, on genteel Freilinskaya Street, a stone’s throw from the square, lived Stalin’s wife, a pretty young Georgian dressmaker named Kato Svanidze, and their newborn son, Yakov. Theirs was a true love match: despite his black moods, Stalin was devoted to Kato, who admired and shared his revolutionary fervour. As she sunned herself and the baby on her balcony, her husband was about to give her, and Tiflis itself, an unholy shock.
    This intimate city was the capital of the Caucasus, the Tsar’s wild, mountainous viceroyalty between the Black and the Caspian Seas, a turbulent region of fierce and feuding peoples. Golovinsky Prospect seemed Parisian in its elegance. White neo-classical theatres, a Moorish-style opera house, grand hotels and the palaces of Georgian princes and Armenian oil barons lined the street, but, as one passed the military headquarters, Yerevan Square opened up into an Asiatic potpourri.
    Exotically dressed hawkers and stalls offered spicy Georgian lobio beans and hot khachapuri cheesecake. Water-carriers, street-traders, pickpockets and porters delivered to or stole from the Armenian and Persian Bazaars, the alleyways of which more resembled a Levantine souk than a European city. Caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded with silks and spices from Persia and Turkestan, fruit and wineskins from the lush Georgian countryside, ambled through the gates of the Caravanserai. Its young waiters and errand boys served its clientele of guests and diners, carrying in the bags, unharnessing the camels—and watching the square. Now we know from the newly opened Georgian archives that Stalin, Fagin-like, used the Caravanserai boys as a prepubescent revolutionary street-intelligence and courier service. Meanwhile in one of the Caravanserai’s cavernous backrooms, the chief gangsters gave their gunmen a pep talk, rehearsing the plan one last time. Stalin himself was there that morning.
    The two pretty teenage girls with twirling umbrellas and loaded revolvers, Patsia Goldava and Anneta Sulakvelidze, “brown-haired, svelte, with black eyes that expressed youth,” casually sashayed across the square to stand outside the military headquarters, where they flirted with Russian officers, Gendarmes in smart blue uniforms, and bowlegged Cossacks.
    Tiflis was—and still is—a languid town of strollers and boulevardiers who frequently stop to drink wine at the many open-air taverns: if the showy, excitable Georgians resemble any other European people, it is the Italians. Georgians and other Caucasian men, in traditional chokha—their skirted long coats lined down the chest with bullet pouches—swaggered down the streets, singing loudly. Georgian women in black head scarves, and the wives of Russian officers in European fashions, promenaded through the gates of the Pushkin Gardens, buying ices and sherbet along side Persians and Armenians, Chechens, Abkhaz and Mountain Jews, in a fancy-dress jamboree of hats and costumes.
    Gangs of street urchins—kintos—furtively scanned the crowds for scams. Teenage trainee priests, in long white surplices, were escorted by their berobed bearded priest-teachers from the pillared white seminary across the street, where Stalin had almost qualified as a priest nine years earlier. This un-Slavic, un-Russian and ferociously Caucasian kaleidoscope of East and West was the world that nurtured Stalin.
    Checking the time, the girls Anneta and Patsia parted, taking up new positions on either side of the square. On Palace Street, the dubious clientele of the notorious Tilipuchuri Tavern—princes, pimps, informers and pickpockets—were already drinking Georgian wine and Armenian brandy, not far from the plutocratic grandeur of Prince Sumbatov’s palace.
    Just then David Sagirashvili, another revolutionary who knew Stalin and some of the gangsters, visited a friend who owned a shop above the tavern and was invited in by the cheerful brigand at the doorway, Bachua Kupriashvili, who “immediately offered me a chair and a glass of red wine, according to the Georgian custom.” David drank the wine and was about to leave when the gunman suggested “with exquisite politeness” that he stay inside and “sample more snacks and wine.” David realized that “they were letting people into the restaurant but would not let them out. Armed individuals stood at the door.”
    Spotting the convoy galloping down the boulevard, Patsia Goldava, the slim brunette on lookout, sped round the corner to the Pushkin Gardens where she waved her newspaper to Stepko Intskirveli, waiting by the gate.
    “We’re off!” he muttered.
    Stepko nodded at Anneta Sulakvelidze, who was across the street just outside the Tilipuchuri, where she made a sign summoning the others from the bar. The gunmen in the doorway beckoned them. “At a given signal” Sagirashvili saw the brigands in the tavern put down their drinks, cock their pistols and head out, spreading across the square—thin, consumptive young men in wide trousers who had barely eaten for weeks. Some were gangsters, some desperadoes and some, typically for Georgia, were poverty-stricken princes from roofless, wall-less castles in the provinces. If their deeds were criminal, they cared nothing for money: they were devoted to Lenin, the Party and their puppet-master in Tiflis, Stalin.
    “The functions of each of us had been planned in advance,” remembered a third girl in the gang, Alexandra Darakhvelidze, just nineteen, a friend of Anneta, and already veteran of a spree of heists and shootouts.
    The gangsters each covered the square’s policemen—the gorodovoi, known in the streets as pharaohs. Two gunmen marked the Cossacks outside the City Hall; the rest made their way to the corner of Velyaminov Street and the Armenian Bazaar, not far from the State Bank itself. Alexandra Darakhvelidze, in her unpublished memoirs, recalled guarding one of the street corners with two gunmen.
    Now Bachua Kupriashvili, nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper, spotted in the distance the cloud of dust thrown up by the horses’ hooves. They were coming! Bachua rolled up his newspaper, poised…
    The cavalry captain with the flashing sabre, who had been promenading the square, now warned passers-by to stay out of it, but when no one paid any attention he jumped back onto his fine horse. He was no officer but the ideal of the Georgian beau sabreur and outlaw, half-knight, half-bandit. This was Kamo, aged twenty-five, boss of the Outfit and, as Stalin put it, “a master of disguise” who could pass for a rich prince or a peasant laundrywoman. He moved stiffly, his half-blind left eye squinting and rolling: one of his own bombs had exploded in his face just weeks before. He was still recuperating.
    Kamo “was completely enthralled” by Stalin, who had converted him to Marxism. They had grown up together in the violent town of Gori forty-five miles away. He was a bank robber of ingenious audacity, a Houdini of prison-escapes, a credulous simpleton—and a half-insane practitioner of psychopathic violence. Intensely, eerily tranquil with a weird “lustreless face” and a blank gaze, he was keen to serve his master, often begging Stalin: “Let me kill him for you!” No deed of macabre horror or courageous flamboyance was beyond him: he later plunged his hand into a man’s chest and cut out his heart.
    Throughout his life, Stalin’s detached magnetism would attract, and win the devotion of, amoral, unbounded psychopaths. His boyhood henchman Kamo and these gangsters were the first in a long line. “Those young men followed Stalin selflessly… Their admiration for him allowed him to impose on them his iron discipline.”{4} Kamo often visited Stalin’s home, where he had earlier borrowed Kato’s father’s sabre, explaining that he was “going to play an officer of the Cossacks.”{5} Even Lenin, that fastidious lawyer, raised as a nobleman, was fascinated by the daredevil Kamo, whom he called his “Caucasian bandit.” “Kamo,” mused Stalin in old age, “was a truly amazing person.”{6}
    “Captain” Kamo turned his horse towards the boulevard and trotted audaciously right past the advancing convoy, coming the other way. Once the shooting started, he boasted, the whole thing “would be over in three minutes.”
    The Cossacks galloped into Yerevan Square, two in front, two behind and another alongside the two carriages. Through the dust, the gangsters could make out that the stagecoach contained two men in frockcoats—the State Bank’s cashier Kurdyumov and accountant Golovnya—and two soldiers with rifles cocked, while a second phaeton was packed with police and soldiers. In the thunder of hooves, it took just seconds for the carriages and horsemen to cross the square ready to turn into Sololaki Street, where stood the new State Bank: the statues of lions and gods over its door represented the surging prosperity of Russian capitalism.[2]
    Bachua lowered his newspaper, giving the sign, then tossed it aside, reaching for his weapons. The gangsters drew out what they nicknamed their “apples”—powerful grenades which had been smuggled into Tiflis by the girls Anneta and Alexandra, hidden inside a big sofa.
    The gunmen and the girls stepped forward, pulled the fuses and tossed four grenades which exploded under the carriages with a deafening noise and an infernal force that disembowelled horses and tore men to pieces, spattering the cobbles with innards and blood. The brigands drew their Mauser and Browning pistols and opened fire on the Cossacks and police around the square who, caught totally unawares, fell wounded or ran for cover. More than ten bombs exploded. Witnesses thought they rained from every direction, even the rooftops: it was later said that Stalin had thrown the first bomb from the roof of Prince Sumbatov’s mansion.
    The bank’s carriages stopped. Screaming passers-by scrambled for cover. Some thought it was an earthquake: was Holy Mountain falling on to the city? “No one could tell if the terrible shooting was the boom of cannons or explosion of bombs,” reported the Georgian newspaper Isari (Arrow). “The sound caused panic everywhere… almost across the whole city, people started running. Carriages and carts were galloping away…” Chimneys had toppled from buildings; every pane of glass was shattered as far as the Viceroy’s Palace.
    Kato Svanidze was standing on her nearby balcony tending Stalin’s baby with her family, “when all of a sudden we heard the sound of bombs,” recalled her sister, Sashiko. “Terrified, we rushed into the house.” Outside, amid the yellow smoke and the wild chaos, among the bodies of horses and mutilated limbs of men, something had gone wrong.
    One horse attached to the front carriage twitched, then jerked back to life. Just as the gangsters ran to seize the money-bags in the back of the carriage, the horse reared up out of the mayhem and bolted down the hill towards the Soldiers Bazaar, disappearing with the money that Stalin had promised Lenin for the Revolution.{7}

    During the ensuing century, Stalin’s role that day was suspected yet unprovable. But now the archives in Moscow and Tbilisi show how he masterminded the operation and groomed his “inside-men” within the Bank over many months. The unpublished memoirs of his sister-in-law Sashiko Svanidze, in the Georgian archives, record Stalin openly acknowledging that he presided over the operation.[3] A century after the heist, it is now possible to reveal the truth.
    Stalin revelled in the “dirty business of politics,” the conspiratorial drama of revolution. When he was dictator of Soviet Russia, he referred enigmatically, even nostalgically, to those games of “Cossacks and bandits”—kazaki i razboyniki, the Russian version of “cops and robbers”—but never gave details that might undermine his credentials as a statesman.{8}
    The Stalin of 1907 was a small, wiry, mysterious man of many aliases, usually dressed in a red satin shirt, grey coat and his trademark black fedora. Sometimes he favoured a traditional Georgian chokha, and he liked to sport a white Caucasian hood, draped dashingly over his shoulder. Always on the move, often on the run, he used the many uniforms of Tsarist society as his disguises, and frequently escaped manhunts by dressing in drag.
    Attractive to women, often singing Georgian melodies and declaiming poetry, he was charismatic and humorous, yet profoundly morose, an odd Georgian with a northern coldness. His “burning” eyes were honey-flecked when friendly, yellow when angry. He had not yet settled on the moustache and hair en brosse of his prime: he sometimes grew a full beard and long hair, still with the auburn tinge of his youth, now darkening. Freckled and pockmarked, he walked fast but crookedly, and held his left arm stiffly, after a spate of childhood accidents and illnesses.
    Indefatigable in action, he bubbled with ideas and ingenuity. Inspired by a hunger for learning and an instinct to teach, he feverishly studied novels and history, but his love of letters was always overwhelmed by his drive to command and dominate, to vanquish enemies and avenge slights. Patient, calm and modest, he could also be vainglorious, pushy and thin-skinned, with outbursts of viciousness just a short fuse away.
    Immersed in the honour and loyalty culture of Georgia, he was the gritty realist, the sarcastic cynic and the pitiless cutthroat par excellence: it was he who had created the Bolshevik bank-robbery and assassination Outfit, which he controlled from afar like a Mafia don. He cultivated the coarseness of a peasant, a trait which alienated comrades but usefully concealed his subtle gifts from snobbish rivals.
    Happily married to Kato, he had chosen a heartless wandering existence that, he believed, liberated him from normal morality or responsibility, free from love itself. Yet while he wrote about the megalomania of others, he had no self-knowledge about his own drive for power. He relished his own secrecy. When he knocked on the doors of friends and they asked who was there, he would answer with mock-portentousness: “The Man in Grey.”
    One of the first professional revolutionaries, the underground was his natural habitat, through which he moved with elusively feline grace—and menace. A born extremist and conspirator, the Man in Grey was a true believer, “a Marxist fanatic from his youth.” The violent rites of Stalin’s secret planet of Caucasian conspiracy would later flower into the idiosyncratic ruling culture of the Soviet Union itself.{9}
    “Stalin had opened the era of the hold-up,” wrote one of his fellow bank-robbery masterminds, his hometown friend Josef Davrichewy.{10} Stalin, we used to believe, organized operations but never took part personally. This may have been true that day in 1907, but we know now that Stalin himself, usually armed with his Mauser, was more directly involved in other robberies.{11}
    He always kept his eyes skinned for the spectacular prize and knew that the best bank robberies are usually inside jobs. On this occasion, he had two “inside-men.” First, he patiently groomed a useful bank clerk. Then he bumped into a school friend who happened to work for the banking mail office. Stalin cultivated him for months until he proffered the tip that a huge sum of money—perhaps as much as a million roubles—would arrive in Tiflis on 13 June 1907.
    This key “inside-man” afterwards revealed that he had helped set up this colossal heist only because he was such an admirer of Stalin’s romantic poetry. Only in Georgia could Stalin the poet enable Stalin the gangster.{12}

    The runaway horse with the carriage and its booty bolted across the square. Some of the gangsters panicked, but three gunmen moved with astonishing speed. Bachua Kupriashvili kept his head and sprinted towards the horse. He was too close for his own safety, but he tossed another “apple” under its belly, tearing out its intestines and blowing off its legs. Thrown into the air, Bachua fell stunned to the cobbles.
    The carriage careened to a halt. Bachua was out of action but Datiko Chibriashvili jumped onto the coach and pulled out the sacks of money. Gripping the money-bags, he staggered through the smoke towards Velyaminov Street. But the gang was in disarray. Datiko could not run far holding the weight of the banknotes: he must hand them over—but to whom?
    The drifting smoke parted to reveal carnage worthy of a small battlefield. Screams and shots still rent the air as blood spread across cobbles strewn with body parts. Cossacks and soldiers started to peep out, reaching for their weapons. Reinforcements were on their way from across the city. “All the comrades,” wrote Bachua Kupriashvili, “were up to the mark—except three who had weak nerves and ran off.” Yet Datiko found himself momentarily almost alone. He hesitated, lost. The success of the plan hung by a thread.

    Did Stalin really throw the first bomb from the roof of Prince Sumbatov’s house? Another source, P. A. Pavlenko, one of the dictator’s pet writers, claimed that Stalin had attacked the carriage himself and been wounded by a bomb fragment. But this seems unlikely.{13} Stalin usually “held himself apart” from everyone else in all matters for security reasons and because he always regarded himself as special.{14}
    In the 1920s, according to Georgian sources, Kamo would drunkenly claim that Stalin had taken no active part but had watched the robbery, a report confirmed by another, questionable source connected to the police, who wrote that Stalin “observed the ruthless bloodshed, smoking a cigarette, from the courtyard of a mansion” on Golovinsky Prospect. Perhaps the “mansion” was indeed Prince Sumbatov’s.{15} The boulevard’s milkbars,[4] taverns, cobblers, hairdressers and haberdashers crawled with Okhrana informers. Most likely, Stalin, the clandestine master who specialized in sudden appearances and vanishings, was out of the way before the shooting started. Indeed the most informed source puts him in the railway station that mid-morning.{16}
    Here he could keep in easy contact with his network of porters and urchins on Yerevan Square. If these artful dodgers brought bad news, he would jump on a train and disappear.

    Just as the robbery was about to collapse, “Captain” Kamo rode into the square driving his own phaeton, reins in one hand and firing his Mauser with the other. Furious that the plan had failed, cursing at the top of his voice “like a real captain,” he whirled his carriage round and round, effectively retaking possession of the square. Then he galloped up to Datiko, leaned down and, aided by one of the gun girls, heaved the sacks of money into the phaeton. He turned the carriage precipitously and galloped back up the boulevard right past the Viceroy’s Palace, which was buzzing like a beehive as troops massed, Cossacks saddled up and orders for reinforcements were despatched.
    Kamo noticed a police phaeton cantering along in the opposite direction bearing A. G. Balabansky, the deputy police chief. “The money’s safe. Run to the square,” shouted Kamo. Balabansky headed for the square. Only the next day did Balabansky realize his mistake. He committed suicide.
    Kamo rode straight to Vtoraya Goncharnaya Street and into the yard of a joiner’s shop behind a house owned by an old lady named Barbara “Babe” Bochoridze. Here, with Babe’s son Mikha, Stalin had spent many nights over the years. Here the robbery had been planned. It was an address well known to the local police, but the gangsters had suborned at least one Gendarme officer, Captain Zubov, who was later indicted for taking bribes—and even helping to hide the spoils. Kamo, exhausted, delivered the money, changed out of his uniform and poured a bucket of water over his sweltering head.

    The shock waves of Stalin’s spectacular reverberated around the world. In London the Daily Mirror announced RAIN OF BOMBS: REVOLUTIONARIES HURL DESTRUCTION AMONG LARGE CROWDS OF PEOPLE: “About ten bombs were hurled today, one after another, in the square in the centre of town, thronged with people. The bombs exploded with terrific force, many being killed…” The Times just called it TIFLIS BOMB OUTRAGE; Le Temps in Paris was more laconic: CATASTROPHE!
    Tiflis was in uproar. The usually genial viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, ranted about the “insolence of the terrorists.” The “administration and army are mobilized,” announced Isari. “Police and patrols launched searches across the city. Many have been arrested…” St. Petersburg was outraged. The security forces were ordered to find the money and the robbers. A special detective and his team were despatched to head the investigation. Roads were closed; Yerevan Square was surrounded, while Cossacks and Gendarmes rounded up the usual suspects. Every informer, every double-agent was tapped for information and duly delivered a farrago of versions, none of them actually fingering the real culprits.
    Twenty thousand roubles had been left in the carriage. A surviving carriage driver, who thought he had got lucky, pocketed another 9,500 roubles but was arrested with it later: he knew nothing about the Stalin and Kamo gang. A jabbering woman gave herself up as one of the bank robbers but turned out to be insane.
    No one could guess how many robbers there had been: witnesses thought there were up to fifty gangsters raining bombs from the roofs, if not from Holy Mountain. No one actually saw Kamo take the banknotes. The Okhrana heard stories from all over Russia that the robbery was, variously, arranged by the state itself, by Polish socialists, by Anarchists from Rostov, by Armenian Dashnaks, or by the Socialist-Revolutionaries.
    None of the gangsters was caught. Even Kupriashvili regained consciousness just in time to hobble away. In the chaotic aftermath, they scarpered in every direction, melting into the crowds. One, Eliso Lominadze, who had been covering a street-corner with Alexandra, slipped into a teachers’ conference, stole a teacher’s uniform and then nonchalantly wandered back to the square to admire his handiwork. “Everyone survived it,” said Alexandra Darakhvelidze, dictating her memoirs in 1959, by then the only member of the ill-fated gang still alive.
    Fifty lay wounded in the square. The bodies of three Cossacks, the bank officials and some innocent passers-by lay in pieces. The censored newspapers kept casualties low but the Okhrana’s archives reveal that around forty were killed. Dressing-stations for the wounded were set up in nearby shops. Twenty-four seriously wounded were taken to hospital. An hour later, passers-by saw the funereal progress of a ghoulish carriage carrying the dead and their body-parts down Golovinsky, like the giblets from an abattoir.{17}

    The State Bank itself was unsure if it had lost 250,000 roubles or 341,000, or somewhere between the two figures—but it was certainly an impressive sum worth about £1.7 million (U.S. $3.4 million) in today’s money though its effective buying power was much higher.
    Bochoridze and his wife, Maro, another of the female bank robbers, sewed the money into a mattress. Svelte Mauser-toting Patsia Goldava then called porters, perhaps some of Stalin’s urchins, and supervised its removal to another safe house across the river Kura. The mattress was then placed on the couch of the director of the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, where Stalin had lived and worked after leaving the seminary. It was Stalin’s last job before he plunged into the conspiratorial underground, indeed his last real employment before he joined Lenin’s Soviet government in October 1917. Later the director of this weather-centre admitted he had never known what riches lay under his head.
    Stalin himself, many sources claim, helped stow the cash in the observatory. If this sounds like a myth, it is plausible: it transpires that he often handled stolen funds, riding shotgun across the mountains with saddlebags full of cash from bank robberies and piracy.
    Surprisingly, that night Stalin felt safe enough to go home to Kato and boast of his exploit to his family—his boys had done it.{18} Well might he boast. The money was safe in the weatherman’s mattress and would soon be on its way to Lenin. No one suspected Stalin or even Kamo. The booty would be smuggled abroad, some of it even laundered through the Credit Lyonnais. The police of a dozen nations would pursue cash and gangsters for months, in vain.
    For a couple of days after the heist, Stalin, it is said, unsuspected of any connection to the robbery, was secure enough to drink insouciantly in riverside taverns, but not for long. He suddenly told his wife that they were leaving at once to start a new life in Baku, the oil-boom city on the other side of the Caucasus.
    “The devil knows,” reflected Novoye Vremya (the Tiflis New Times), “how this uniquely audacious robbery was carried out.” Stalin had pulled off the perfect crime.

    The Tiflis bank robbery turned out to be far from perfect. Indeed it became a poisoned chalice. Afterwards, Stalin never lived in Tiflis or Georgia again. The fate of Kamo would be insanely bizarre. The quest for the cash—some of which, it turned out, was in marked notes—would be tangled, but even these astonishing twists were far from the end of the matter for Stalin. The heist’s success was almost a disaster for him. The robbery’s global notoriety became a powerful weapon against Lenin, and against Stalin personally.
    The gangsters fell out over the spoils. Lenin and his comrades fought for possession of the cash like rats in a cage. His enemies spent the next three years launching three separate Party investigations hoping to ruin him. Stalin, persona non grata in Georgia, tainted by the brazen flouting of Party rules and this reckless carnage, was expelled from the Party by the Tiflis Committee. This was a blot that could have derailed his bid to succeed Lenin and spoiled his ambition to become a Russian statesman and a supreme pontiff of Marxism. It was so sensitive that even in 1918 Stalin launched an extraordinary libel case to suppress the story.[5] His career as gangster godfather, audacious bank robber, killer, pirate and arsonist, though whispered at home and much enjoyed by critics abroad, remained hidden until the twenty-first century.
    In another sense, the Tiflis spectacular was the making of him. Stalin had now proved himself, not only as a gifted politician but also as a ruthless man of action, to the one patron who really counted. Lenin decided that Stalin was “exactly the kind of person I need.”

    Stalin, his wife and baby vanished from Tiflis two days later—but it was far from his last heist. There were new worlds to conquer—Baku, the greatest oil city in the world, St. Petersburg the capital, and vast Russia herself. Indeed Stalin, the Georgian child raised rough on the violent, clannish streets of a turbulent town that was the bank-robbery capital of the Empire, now stepped, for the first time, onto the Russian stage. He never looked back.
    Yet he was on the eve of a personal tragedy which helped transform this murderous egomaniac into the supreme politician for whom no prize, no challenge and no cost in human life would be too great to realize his personal ambitions and his utopian dreams.{19}

PART ONE

Morning

The rose’s bud had blossomed out
Reaching out to touch the violet
The lily was waking up
And bending its head in the breeze
High in the clouds the lark
Was singing a chirruping hymn
While the joyful nightingale
With a gentle voice was saying—
“Be full of blossom, oh lovely land
Rejoice Iverians’ country
And you oh Georgian, by studying
Bring joy to your motherland.”

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)

1. Keke’s Miracle: Soso

    A matchmaker had visited Keke’s house to tell her about the suit of Beso the cobbler: he was a respected artisan in Baramov’s small workshop, quite a catch. “Beso,” says Keke in newly discovered memoirs,[6] “was considered a very popular young man among my friends and they were all dreaming of marrying him. My friends nearly burst with jealousy. Beso was an enviable groom, a true karachogheli [Georgian knight], with beautiful moustaches, very well dressed—and with the special sophistication of a town-dweller.” Nor was Keke in any doubt that she herself was something of a catch too: “Among my female friends, I became the desired and beautiful girl.” Indeed, “slender, chestnut-haired with big eyes,” she was said to be “very pretty.”
    The wedding, according to tradition, took place just after sunset; Georgian social life, writes one historian, was “as ritualised as English Victorian behaviour.” The marriage was celebrated with the rambunctious festivity of the wild town of Gori. “It was,” Keke remembers, “hugely glamorous.” The male guests were true karachogheli, “cheerful, daring and generous,” wearing their splendid black chokhas, “broad-shouldered with slim waists.” The chief of Beso’s two best men was Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili, a strapping wrestler, wealthy merchant and local hero who, as Keke puts it, “always tried to assist us in the creation of our family.”
    The groom and his friends gathered for toasts at his home, before parading through the streets to collect Keke and her family. The garlanded couple then rode to church together in a colourfully decorated wedding phaeton, bells tingling, ribbons fluttering. In the church, the choir gathered in the gallery; below them, men and women stood separately among the flickering candles. The singers burst into their elevating and harmonic Georgian melodies accompanied by a zurna, a Georgian wind instrument like a Berber pipe.
    The bride entered with her bridesmaids, who were careful not to tread on the train, a special augur of bad luck. Father Khakhanov, an Armenian, conducted the ceremony, Father Kasradze recorded the marriage, and Father Christopher Charkviani, a family friend, sang so finely that Yakov Egnatashvili “generously tipped him 10 roubles,” no mean sum. Afterwards, Beso’s friends headed the traditional singing and dancing procession through the streets, playing duduki, long pipes, to the supra, a Georgian feast presided over by a tamada, a joke-telling and wisdom-imparting toastmaster.
    The service and singing had been in the unique Georgian language—not Russian because Georgia was only a recent addition to the Romanov Empire. For a thousand years, ruled by scions of the Bagrationi dynasty, the Kingdom of Sakartvelo (Georgia to Westerners, Gruzia to Russians) was an independent Christian bulwark of knightly valour against the Islamic Mongol, Timurid, Ottoman and Persian Empires. Its apogee was the twelfth-century empire of Queen Tamara, made timeless by the national epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin by Rustaveli. Over the centuries, the kingdom splintered into bickering principalities. In 1801 and 1810, the Tsars Paul and Alexander I annexed principalities to their empire. The Russians had only finished the military conquest of the Caucasus with the surrender of Imam Shamyl and his Chechen warriors in 1859 after a thirty-year war—and Adjaria, the last slice of Georgia, was gained in 1878. Even the most aristocratic Georgians, who served at the courts of the Emperor in St. Petersburg or of the viceroy in Tiflis, dreamed of independence. Hence Keke’s pride in following Georgian traditions of manhood and marriage.
    Beso, mused Keke, “appeared to be a good family man… He believed in God and always went to church.” The parents of both bride and groom had been serfs of local princes, freed in the 1860s by the Tsar-Liberator, Alexander II. Beso’s grandfather Zaza was an Ossetian[7] from the village of Geri, north of Gori.{21} Zaza, like Stalin, his great-grandson, became a Georgian rebel: in 1804, he joined the uprising of Prince Elizbar Eristavi against Russia. Afterwards, he was settled with other “baptized Ossetians” in the village of Didi-Lilo, nine miles from Tiflis, as a serf of Prince Badur Machabeli. Zaza’s son Vano tended the Prince’s vineyards and had two sons: Giorgi, who was murdered by bandits, and Beso, who got a job in Tiflis in the shoe factory of G. G. Adelkhanov but was headhunted by the Armenian Josef Baramov to make boots for the Russian garrison in Gori.{22} There young Beso noticed the “fascinating, neatly dressed girl with chestnut hair and beautiful eyes.”
    Keke was also new to Gori, daughter of Glakho Geladze, a peasant serf of the local grandee, Prince Amilakhvari. Her father worked as a potter nearby before becoming the gardener for a wealthy Armenian, Zakhar Gambarov, who owned fine gardens at Gambareuli, on Gori’s outskirts. As her father died young, Keke was raised by her mother’s family. She remembered the excitement of moving to unruly Gori: “What a happy journey it was! Gori was festively decorated, crowds of people swelled like the sea. A military parade dazzled our eyes. Music blared. Sazandari [a band of four percussion and wind instruments], and sweet duduki played, and everyone sang.”{23}
    Her young husband was a thin dark figure with black eyebrows and moustaches, always sporting a black Circassian coat, tightly belted, a peaked cap and baggy trousers tucked into high boots. “Unusual, peculiar and morose,” but also “clever and proud,” Beso was able to speak four languages (Georgian, Russian, Turkish and Armenian) and quote the Knight in the Panther Skin.{24}
    The Djugashvilis prospered. Many houses in Gori were so poor they were made of mud and dug out of the earth. But for the wife of the busy cobbler Beso there was no fear of such poverty. “Our family happiness,” declared Keke, “was limitless.”
    Beso “left Baramov to open his own workshop,” backed by his friends, especially his patron Egnatashvili, who bought him the “machine-tools.” Keke was soon pregnant. “Many married couples would envy our family happiness.” Indeed, her marriage to the desired Beso still caused jealousy among her contemporaries: “Evil tongues didn’t stop even after the marriage.” It is interesting that Keke stresses this gossip: perhaps someone else had expected to marry Beso. Whether or not Keke stole him from another fiancée, “evil tongues,” later citing the best man Egnatashvili, the priest Charkviani, Gori’s police officer Damian Davrichewy and a host of celebrities and aristocrats, started wagging early in the marriage.

    Just over nine months after the wedding, on 14 February 1875, “our happiness was marked by the birth of our son. Yakov Egnatashvili helped us so very much.” Egnatashvili stood godfather and “Beso laid on a grand christening. Beso was almost mad with happiness.” But two months later the little boy, named Mikheil, died. “Our happiness turned to sorrow. Beso started to drink from grief.” Keke fell pregnant again. A second son, Giorgi, was born on 24 December 1876. Again Egnatashvili stood godfather, again unluckily. The baby died of measles on 19 June 1877.
    “Our happiness was shattered.” Beso was manic with grief and blamed “the icon of Geri,” the shrine of his home village. The couple had appealed to the icon for the life of their child. Keke’s mother, Melania, started visiting fortune-tellers. Beso kept drinking. The icon of St. George was brought into the house. They climbed the Gorijvari mountain, towering over the town, to pray in the church that stood beside the medieval fortress. Keke fell pregnant for the third time and swore that, if the child survived, she would go on pilgrimage to Geri to thank God for the miracle of St. George. On 6 December 1878, she gave birth to a third son.{25}[8]
    “We sped up the christening so he wouldn’t die unchristened.” Keke cared for him in the poky two-room one-storey cottage that contained little except a samovar, bed, divan, table and kerosene lamp. A small trunk held almost all the family’s belongings. Spiral stairs led down to the musky cellar with three niches, one for Beso’s tools, one for Keke’s sewing-kit and one for the fire. There Keke tended the baby’s cot. The family lived on the basic Georgian fare: lobio beans, badridjani aubergine and thick lavashi bread. Only rarely did they eat mtsvadi, Georgian shashlik.
    On 17 December the baby was christened Josef, known as Soso—the boy who would become Stalin. Soso was “weak, fragile, thin,” said his mother. “If there was a bug, he was sure to catch it first.” The second and third toes of his left foot were webbed.
    Beso decided not to ask the family’s benefactor Egnatashvili to be godfather. “Yakov’s hand was unlucky,” said Beso, but even if the merchant missed the church formalities, Stalin and his mother always called him “godfather Yakov.”
    Keke’s mother reminded Beso that they had sworn to take a pilgrimage to the church at Geri if the baby lived. “Just let the child survive,” answered Beso, “and I’ll crawl to Geri on my knees with the child on my shoulders!” But he delayed it until the child caught another chill which shocked him into prayer: they travelled to Geri, “facing much hardship on the way, donated a sheep, and ordered a thanksgiving service there.” But the Geri priests were conducting an exorcism, holding a little girl over a precipice to drive out evil spirits. Keke’s baby “was horrified and screamed,” and they returned to Gori where little Stalin “shuddered and raved even in his sleep”—but he lived and became his mother’s beloved treasure.
    “Keke didn’t have enough milk,” so her son also shared the breasts of the wives of Tsikhatatrishvili (his formal godfather) and Egnatashvili. “At first the baby didn’t accept my mother’s milk,” says Alexander Tsikhatatrishvili, “but gradually he liked it providing he covered his eyes so he couldn’t see my mother.” Sharing the milk of the Egnatashvili children made them “like milk brothers with Soso,” says Galina Djugashvili, Stalin’s granddaughter.
    Soso started to speak early. He loved flowers and music, especially when Keke’s brothers Gio and Sandala played the duduki pipes. The Georgians love to sing and Stalin never lost his enjoyment of the haunting Georgian melodies.[9] In later life, he remembered hearing the “Georgian men singing on their way to market.”{26}
    Beso’s little business was flourishing—he took on apprentices and as many as ten employees. One of the apprentices, Dato Gasitashvili, who loved Soso and helped bring him up, recalled Beso’s prosperity: “He lived better than anyone else of our profession. They always had butter in their house.” There were later whispers about this prosperity, embarrassing for a proletarian hero. “I’m not the son of a worker,” Stalin admitted. “My father had a shoe workshop, employing apprentices, an exploiter. We didn’t live badly.” It was during this happy time that Keke became friends with Maria and Arshak Ter-Petrossian, a wealthy Armenian military contractor, whose son Simon would become infamous as the bank robber Kamo.{27}
    Keke adored her child and “in old age, I still can see his first steps, a vision that burns like a candle.” She and her mother taught him to walk by exploiting his love of flowers: Keke would hold out a camomile, and Soso ran to grasp it. When she took Soso to a wedding, he noticed a flower in the bride’s veil and grabbed it. Keke told him off but godfather Egnatashvili lovingly “kissed the child and caressed him, saying, ‘If even now you want to steal the bride, God knows what you’ll do when you’re older.’”
    Soso’s survival seemed miraculous to the grateful mother. “How happy we were, how we laughed!” reminisces Keke. Her reverence must have instilled in Soso a sense of specialness: the Freudian dictum that the mother’s devotion made him feel like a conqueror was undoubtedly true. “Soselo,” as she lovingly called him, grew up super-sensitive but also displayed a masterful confidence from an early age.
    Yet at the height of Beso’s success there was a shadow: his clients paid him partly in wine, which was so plentiful in Georgia that many workers received alcohol instead of cash. Furthermore, he did some business in the corner of a friend’s dukhan (tavern), which encouraged him to drink too much. Beso befriended a drinking partner, a Russian political exile named Poka, possibly a narodnik populist or a radical connected to the People’s Will, the terrorists who were at that time repeatedly attempting to assassinate Emperor Alexander II. So Stalin grew up knowing a Russian revolutionary. “My son made friends with him,” says Keke, “and Poka bought him a canary.” But the Russian was a hopeless alcoholic who lived in rags. One winter, he was found dead in the snow.
    Beso found he “could not stop drinking. A good family man was destroyed,” declares Keke. The booze started to ruin the business: “His hands began shaking and he couldn’t sew shoes. The business was only kept going by his apprentices.”
    Learning nothing from Poka’s demise, Beso acquired a new boon drinking companion in the priest Charkviani. Provincial Georgia was priest-ridden, but these men of God enjoyed their worldly pleasures. Once church services were over, the priests spent much of their time drinking wine in Gori’s taverns until they were blind drunk. As an old man, Stalin remembered: “As soon as Father Charkviani finished his service, he dropped in and the two men hurried to the dukhan.”[10] They returned home leaning on each other, hugging and “singing out of tune,” totally sozzled.
    “You’re a good bloke, Beso, even for a shoemaker,” drawled the priest.
    “You’re a priest, but what a priest, I love you!” wheezed Beso. The two drunks would embrace. Keke begged Father Charkviani not to take Beso drinking. Keke and her mother beseeched Beso to stop. So did Egnatashvili, but that did not help—probably because of the rumours already spreading around town.{28}
    Perhaps these were the same “evil tongues” Keke mentioned at the wedding because Josef Davrichewy, the son of Gori’s police chief, claims in his memoirs that “the birth was gossiped about in the neighbourhood—that the real father of the child was Koba Egnatashvili… or my own father Damian Davrichewy.” This could not have helped Beso, whom Davrichewy calls “a manically jealous runt,” already sinking into alcoholism.{29}

    In the course of 1883, Beso became “touchy and very careless,” getting into drunken fights and earning the nickname “Crazy Beso.”
    Paternity suits develop proportional to the power and fame of the child. Once Stalin became Soviet dictator, his rumoured fathers included the celebrated Central Asian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who resembled the adult Stalin and passed through Gori, and even the future Emperor Alexander III himself, who had visited Tiflis, supposedly staying at a palace where Keke toiled as a maid. But the explorer was a homosexual who was not near Georgia when Stalin was conceived, while Keke was not in Tiflis at the same time as the Tsarevich.
    Leaving aside these absurdities, who was Stalin’s real father? Egnatashvili was indeed the patron of the family, comforter of the wife and sponsor of the son. He was married with children, lived affluently, owned several flourishing taverns and was a prosperous wine-dealer in a country that virtually floated on wine. More than that, this strapping athlete with the waxed moustaches was a champion wrestler in a town that worshipped fighters. As already noted, Keke herself writes that he “always tried to assist us in the creation of our family,” an unfortunate but perhaps revealing turn of phrase. It seems unlikely she meant it literally—or was she trying to tell us something?
    Davrichewy the police chief, who helped Keke when she complained about her husband’s unruly drinking, was another potential father: “As far I know, Soso was the natural son of Davrichewy,” testified Davrichewy’s friend Jourouli, the town’s mayor. “Everyone in Gori knew about his affair with Soso’s pretty mother.”
    Stalin himself once said his father was really a priest, which brings us to the third candidate, Father Charkviani. Egnatashvili, Davrichewy and Charkviani were all married, but in Georgia’s macho culture, men were almost expected to keep mistresses, like their Italian brethren. Gori’s priests were notoriously debauched. All three were prominent local men who enjoyed rescuing a pretty young wife in trouble.{30}
    As for Keke herself, it has always been hard to match the pious old lady in her black nunnish headdress of the 1930s with the irrepressible young woman of the 1880s. Her piety is not in doubt, but religious observance has never ruled out sins of the flesh. She certainly took pride in being “the desired and beautiful girl” and there is evidence that she was much more worldly than she appeared. As an old lady, Keke supposedly encouraged Nina Beria, wife of Lavrenti, Stalin’s Caucasian viceroy, to take lovers and talked very spicily about sexual matters: “When I was young, I cleaned house for people and when I met a good-looking boy, I didn’t waste the opportunity.” The Berias are hostile witnesses, but there is a hint of earthy mischief even in Keke’s memoirs. In her garden, she recounts, her mother managed to attract Soso with a flower, at which Keke jovially pulled out her breasts and showed them to the toddler, who ignored the flower and dived for the breasts. But the drunken Russian exile Poka was spying on them and burst out laughing, so “I buttoned up my dress.”{31}
    Stalin, in his elliptical, mendacious way, encouraged these stories. When he chatted in his last years to a Georgian protégé, Mgeladze, he gave him “the impression that he was Egnatashvili’s illegitimate son” and seemed to deny he was Beso’s. At a reception in 1934, he specifically said, “My father was a priest.” But, in Beso’s absence, all three paternal candidates helped bring him up: he lived with the Charkvianis, was protected by the Davrichewys and spent half his time at the Egnatashvilis’ so he surely felt filial fondness for them. There was another reason for the priest rumour: the church school accepted only the children of clergy, so his mother says he was passed off as the son of a priest.{32}
    Stalin remained ambiguous about Crazy Beso: he despised him, but he also showed pride and sympathy too. They had some happy moments. Beso told Soso stories of Georgia’s heroic outlaws who “fought against the rich, stole from princes to help peasants.” At hard-drinking dinners, Stalin the dictator boasted to Khrushchev and other magnates that he had inherited his father’s head for alcohol. His father had fed him wine off his fingertips in his cot, and he insisted on doing the same with his own children, much to the fury of his wife, Nadya. Later he wrote touchingly about an anonymous shoemaker with a small workshop, ruined by cruel capitalism. “The wings of his dreams,” he wrote, were “clipped.” He once bragged that “my father could make two pairs of shoes in a single day” and, even as dictator, liked to call himself a shoemaker too. He later used the name Besoshvili—Son of Beso—as an alias, and his closest Gori friends called him “Beso.”{33}
    Weighing up all these stories, it is most likely that Stalin was the son of Beso despite the drunkard’s rantings about Soso as a “bastard.” A married woman was always expected to be respectable, but it is hardly outrageous if the pretty young Keke, a semi-widow, did become the mistress of Egnatashvili when her marriage disintegrated. In her memoirs, Egnatashvili appears as often as her husband, and is remembered much more fondly. She does say that he was so kind and helpful to her that it caused a certain “awkwardness.” Some of the Egnatashvili family claim there was a “genetic” connection with Stalin. However, Egnatashvili’s grandson, Guram Ratishvili, puts it best: “We simply do not know if he was Stalin’s father, but we do know that the merchant became the boy’s substitute father.”{34}
    Rumours of bastardy, like those of Ossetian origins, were another way of diminishing the tyrant Stalin, widely hated in Georgia, which he conquered and repressed in the 1920s. It is true that great men of humble origins are often said to be the sons of other men. Yet sometimes they really are the offspring of their official fathers.
    “When he was young,” testified a school friend, David Papitashvili, Stalin “closely resembled his father.” As he got older, says Alexander Tsikhatatrishvili, “he looked more and more like his father and when he grew his moustache, they looked identical.”{35}
    By the time Soso was five, Crazy Beso was an alcoholic tormented by paranoia and prone to violence. “Day by day,” said Keke, “it got worse.”

2. Crazy Beso

    Soso suffered bitterly, terrified of the drunk Beso. “My Soso was a very sensitive child,” reports Keke. “As soon as he heard the sound of his father’s singing balaam-balaam from the street, he’d immediately run to me asking if he could go and wait at our neighbours until his father fell asleep.”
    Crazy Beso now spent so much on drink that he even had to sell his belt—and, explained Stalin later, “a Georgian has to be in desperate straits to sell his belt.”{36} The more she despised Beso, the more Keke spoiled Soso: “I always wrapped him up warmly with his woollen scarf. He for his part loved me very much too. When he saw the drunken father, his eyes filled with tears, his lips turned blue and he cuddled me and begged me to hide him.”
    Beso was violent to both Keke and Soso. A son was the pride of a Georgian man, but perhaps Soso had come to represent a husband’s greatest humiliation if the evil tongues were right after all. Once Beso threw Stalin so hard to the floor that there was blood in the child’s urine for days. “Undeserved beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as the father himself,” believed his schoolmate Josef Iremashvili, who published his memoirs. It was through his father “that he learned to hate people.” Young Davrichewy recalls how Keke “surrounded him with maternal love and defended him against all-comers,” while Beso treated him “like a dog, beating him for nothing.”
    When Soso hid, Beso searched the house screaming, “Where is Keke’s little bastard? Hiding under the bed?” Keke fought back. Once, Soso arrived at Davrichewy’s house with his face covered in blood, crying: “Help! Come quickly! He’s killing my mother!” The officer ran round to the Djugashvilis to find Beso strangling Keke.
    This took a toll on the four-year-old. His mother remembered how Soso would take stubborn offence at his father. He first learned violence at home: he once threw a knife at Beso to defend Keke. He grew up pugnacious and truculent, so hard to control that Keke herself, who adored him, needed physical discipline to govern her unruly treasure.
    “The fist which had subdued the father was applied to the upbringing of the son,” said a Jewish lady who knew the family. “She used to thrash him,” says Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. When Stalin visited Keke for the last time, in the 1930s, he asked her why she had beaten him so much. “It didn’t do you any harm,” she replied. But that is open to question. Psychiatrists believe that violence always damages children, and it certainly did not instil love and sympathy. Many children abused by alcoholic fathers repeat the behaviour to become child-or wife-beaters themselves, but few become murderous tyrants.[11] Besides, this was far from the only culture of violence which helped form Stalin.
    He himself believed in the redemptive effect and practical use of violence. When the Tsar’s Cossacks used their nagaika whips on demonstrators, he wrote, “the whiplash renders us great service.” In later life, he believed in violence as both the holy scythe of History and as a useful management tool, encouraging his henchmen to “smash people in the face as a means of checking up on them.” Yet he admitted that he “wept a lot” during his “terrible childhood.”
    The family lost the home which was Stalin’s birthplace and became wanderers. They had at least nine different homes, depressing rented rooms, in the next ten years, hardly a stable upbringing.{37} Now Keke and the child went to live with one of her brothers, but Beso promised to improve and brought her back. As he “could not stop the drinking,” however, she moved in with the priest, Father Charkviani.
    Keke could see the effect on her little Soso: “He became very reserved, frequently sat alone and didn’t go out to play with other children any more. He said he wanted to learn to read. I wanted to send him to school but Beso was against it.” He wanted Stalin to learn shoemaking. In 1884, Beso had just begun to teach him the craft when Soso fell desperately ill.

    Smallpox was raging in Gori that year. Keke could “hear weeping in every household.” Her dearest supporter Yakov Egnatashvili lost “three of his wonderful children all in one day. The poor man almost went mad with grief.” Two sons and a daughter survived. The death of children was something else Keke shared with “godfather Yakov.” She nursed her stricken Soso. By the third day, he was deliriously feverish. The young Stalin had inherited both his mother’s freckles and her auburn hair: now he was marked for life on his face and hands by the pox. One of his nicknames—and an Okhrana code name for him—would be “Chopura” (the Pockmarked). But he survived. The mother was exultant, but at this moment her life again lurched towards disaster. Beso left her.
    “Look after the child,” he said, offering no help in paying for the family’s food. Beso, said Stalin, demanded that Keke take in laundry and send him the money. “How many nights did I spend in tears!” Keke remembers. “I didn’t dare cry in the child’s presence for it worried him so much.” Stalin “used to embrace me, peering fearfully into my face and say, ‘Mummy, don’t cry or I’ll cry too.’ So I’d control myself, laugh and kiss him. Then he’d ask again for a book.”
    It was now, alone with a child, and with no support, that Keke became determined to send Soso to school, the first of either family to study. In her dreams, “I always wanted him to become a bishop because when a bishop visited from Tiflis, I couldn’t tear my eyes off him in admiration.” When Beso staggered back into her life again, he banned any such plan: “Over my dead body, Soso be educated!” They started to fight and “only the sound of my child crying separated us.”
    Beso’s alcoholism undoubtedly made him pathologically jealous, but the rumours of infidelity and the wiles of a wife who overthrew his God-given power as a Georgian male, turning the town against him, must have contributed to his breakdown. Keke’s misery was indeed well known: Egnatashvili, Father Charkviani and the police chief Davrichewy did their bit to help her. Even Dato, the kind apprentice in Beso’s shop, reminded Stalin during the Second World War how he used to cuddle and protect him. On one occasion in the streets a Russian called the puny Soso a “locust.” Dato punched him and was arrested. But the judge laughed and the family protector, Egnatashvili, “paid for a feast for that Russian man.”
    Keke’s life was falling apart. The business was failing, and even Dato left to set up his own cobbler’s shop.[12] “When I was ten,” Stalin recounted in 1938, “my father lost everything and became a proletarian. He swore all the time about his bad luck,” but, he joked, “he became a proletarian so his ruin was my advantage! When I was ten, I wasn’t happy he’d lost everything!”
    Davrichewy employed Keke to do housework. She became the laundress for the Egnatashvilis: she was always in their house, where Soso would often have his dinner. It is clear from Keke’s memoirs that Egnatashvili loved Soso, as did his wife, Mariam, who gave them baskets of food. If there had not been an earlier affair with Egnatashvili, there surely was now. “The family survived only with his help,” says Keke. “He always helped us and he had his own family… and to tell the truth, I felt uneasy.”
    The priest also supported her plan to educate Soso and she asked the Charkvianis to let their teenage sons teach him Russian with their younger children. She sensed that Soso was gifted. The teenage boys were teaching their younger sister, who could not answer their questions—but young Stalin could. Stalin boasted as an old man that he had learned to read and write faster than the older children: he ended up teaching the teenagers. “It had to be top secret,” says Father Charkviani’s son Kote, “because Uncle Beso was getting worse daily, threatening, ‘Don’t ruin my son or else!’ He’d drag Soso by the ear to the workshop, but as soon as his father went out, Soso joined us, we locked the door and studied.” The Davrichewys let him share their son’s lessons too.
    Such was the charm of Keke and the horror of Beso that everyone wanted to help her. Now she had to inveigle Soso into Gori’s excellent church school so that he could become a bishop. She made several attempts. But the school was taking only the children of priests. Father Charkviani solved this problem by saying that Soso’s father was a deacon, but this appears in none of the documents. One wonders if he actually whispered to the school authorities that he himself or some other sinful priest was the natural father. Was it this chicanery that made Stalin claim that his father was a priest?
    Soso sat the examination—prayers, reading, arithmetic and Russian—and his performance was so outstanding that the church school accepted him into the second grade. “My happiness was endless,” said Keke, but Beso, who could no longer work, “was infuriated.”{38}
    Crazy Beso smashed the windows of Egnatashvili’s tavern. When Keke grumbled to Davrichewy, Beso attacked the policeman, stabbing him in the street with a cobbler’s tool. Ironically, Mayor Jourouli presented this as proof that the policeman was Soso’s father. But Davrichewy did not arrest Crazy Beso. According to his son, the police officer’s wound was minor, and he had had some sort of relationship with the “very pretty” Keke: he always “took a special interest in Soso.” Davrichewy merely ordered Beso to leave Gori, whereupon he took a job at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory in Tiflis where he had started out. Sometimes Beso missed his son and sent Keke money, asking for a reconciliation. Keke agreed occasionally, but it never worked.
    Stalin’s father had lost the respect due to him as a man, let alone as a karachogeli. In the honour-and-shame society of Georgia, this was a sort of death. “He was a half-man now,” said Keke, and this pushed him over the edge. For the moment, he was gone, but he was never far away.{39}
    Keke got a proper job at the atelier of the Kulijanav sisters, who had just opened a lady’s couture shop in Gori. Keke worked there for seventeen years. Now that she earned her own money, she tried to “make sure my child’s heart didn’t wither with sorrow—I gave him everything necessary.”
    She brought him up to be the Georgian knight, an ideal he transferred to himself as a knight of the working class. “A strong person,” he wrote to her in her old age, “must always be valiant.” He believed that he resembled Keke more than Beso. Stalin “loved her,” said his daughter, Svetlana, “and he loved to talk about her though she beat him mercilessly. All the love Father had was for me and he told me it was because I looked like his mother.” Yet he began to pull away from Keke.
    Stalin “did not love his mother,” claims Beria’s son; others, mainly Georgians, swear he called her “whore.” But these were often stories to dehumanize Stalin told by his enemies. Psychiatrists suggest he was confused by Keke’s combination of virgin and whore, which may have made him suspicious of sexual women later in life.
    Was he shocked by Keke’s earthiness? Did he disapprove of her male protectors? Certainly he became prudish later, but so do many people as they get older. All we know for sure is that he was raised in a rigid, hypocritical and macho culture—yet his sexual morals as a young revolutionary were easygoing, almost liberated.
    Soso was “devoted to only one person—his mother,” according to Iremashvili, who knew them both well—and is a hostile witness. But the more likely reason for the growing distance between them was her sarcastic outspokenness—she “never hesitated to voice her opinion on everything,” reports Beria’s son—and her domineering drive to control his life. Her love—just as his would be for his own children and friends—was suffocating and severe. Mother and son were rather similar, and there lay the problem.
    Yet in his own way he appreciated her intense love. During the Second World War, he laughed fondly about Keke mollycoddling him, telling Marshal Zhukov that she “never let him out of her sight until he was six.”{40}

    In late 1888, at the age of ten, Soso triumphantly enrolled at the Gori Church School,[13] a handsome two-storey redbrick building near the new station. Poor as she was, Keke was determined that her Soso would not stand out for his poverty among the well-off sons of priests. On the contrary, he would be positively the best-dressed pupil in the whole school of 150 boys.
    So it turned out: many of the schoolboys remembered Stalin’s first day decades later. “I saw among the schoolchildren an unknown boy wearing a long arkhalukhi [formal Georgian coat] down to his knees, new boots with high legs, a tight wide leather belt and a black peak-cap with a lacquered visor shining in the sun,” recalled Vano Ketskhoveli, soon a friend. “This very short person, quite thin, was wearing tight trousers and boots and a pleated shirt with a scarf” and a “red chintz schoolbag.” Vano was amazed: “No one else was dressed like that in the whole class, the whole school. Schoolboys surrounded him” in fascination. The poorest boy was outfitted the best, the Fauntleroy of Gori. Who had paid for these beautiful clothes? Priests, tavern owners and police officers had surely played their part.
    Stalin’s suffering had made him tough, for all his pretty clothes. “We avoided him out of fear,” says Iremashvili, “but we were interested in him” because there was something peculiarly “unchildish” and “excessively passionate” about him. He was an odd child: when he was happy, “he’d express his satisfaction in the most peculiar way. He’d snap his fingers, yell loudly and jump around on one leg!”[14] Whether written within the oppressive cult of personality when Stalin was dictator or in vicious opposition to him, all memoirs of his childhood agree that Stalin, even aged ten, exerted a singular magnetism.{41}
    Somewhere around this time, perhaps just as he started school, he had another close brush with death. “I sent him out to school healthy in the morning,” says Keke, “and they bore him home unconscious in the afternoon.” He had been hit in the street by a phaeton. The boys enjoyed playing “chicken,” grabbing the axles of galloping carriages. Perhaps this was how Stalin was hurt. Once again the poor mother was “mad with fear” but the doctors treated him for free—or Egnatashvili was quietly paying the bills. Keke, her son said later, also called in a village quack who doubled as the local barber.
    The accident gave him yet another reason, on top of the webbed foot, pockmarks and rumours of bastardy, for vigilance and inferiority, for being different. It permanently damaged his left arm, which meant he could never be the beau ideal of the Georgian warrior—he later said it prevented him dancing properly, but he still managed to fight.[15] On the other hand it would save him from conscription and probable death in the trenches of the First World War. Yet Keke was worried about how it would affect the future bishop. “When you’re a priest, sonny,” she asked him, “how will you hold the chalice?”
    “Never mind, Mummy!” replied Soso. “Before I’m a priest, my arm will heal so that I’ll be able to hold up the whole church!”{42}
    Playing chicken was not the only danger in the streets of Gori, which were notoriously out of the control of the Tsarist authorities. Henceforth, even though he would swiftly become the best scholar at his school, young Stalin lived a Jekyll and Hyde existence—choirboy-cum-streetfighter, half—overdressed mummy’s boy, half-urchin.
    “There was hardly a day,” says Father Charkviani’s son, Kote, when “someone had not beaten him up, sent him home crying—or when he hadn’t beaten up someone else.”{43} Gori was that sort of town.

3. Brawlers, Wrestlers and Choirboys

    Little Stalin now spent his spare time, away from Keke, on the streets of Gori, a liberated and violent place dominated by drinking, prayer and brawling.
    He was a typical Goreli, for the denizen of Gori was notorious throughout Georgia as a matrabazi, a boastful, violent scallywag. Gori was one of the last towns to practise the “picturesque and savage custom” of free-for-all town brawls with special rules but no-holds-barred violence. The boozing, praying and fighting were all interconnected, with drunken priests acting as referees. The saloon-bars of Gori were incorrigible stews of violence and crime.{45}
    The Russian and Georgian administrators had tried to ban this dubious sport that originated as military training at a time when medieval Georgia was constantly at war. Despite the presence of a Russian barracks, the pristav—local police chief—Davrichewy and his few policemen could hardly cope: no one could quell Gori’s irrepressible lawlessness. It was no wonder too that, during the punch-ups, horses bolted and phaetons knocked down youngsters on the streets. Psychological historians attribute much of Stalin’s development to his drunken father, but this streetfighting culture was just as formative.
    Gori, wrote the visiting writer Maxim Gorky, “has a picturesque and original wildness all of its own. The sultry sky, the noisy turbulent waters of the Kura, the mountains in the near distance with their cave city, and farther away the Caucasus with its snows that never melt.”
    Gori’s yellow, turreted fortress was probably built by Queen Tamara in the twelfth century. When her empire fragmented, Gori became the capital of one of the Georgian principalities.[16] It was a stop on the route from Central Asia. Camels still passed through on their way to Tiflis, but the opening of the railway to the Black Sea in 1871 downgraded this once proud town into a chaotic provincial backwater with grand connections and a specially riotous tradition. With just one proper street (then Tsar Street, now Stalin Street) and one square, children played, amid ambling oxen, in winding alleys half flooded by open drains. There were just 7,000 Gorelis, half of them Georgians like the Djugashvilis, half of them Armenians, like Kamo’s family: the Armenians provided the entrepreneurs. There were just eighteen Jews. Much more important was Gori’s division into two main neighbourhoods because these were the teams in the town brawls: the Russian Quarter and the Fortress Quarter.

    Town brawls, wrestling tournaments and schoolboy gang-warfare were the three Goreli fighting traditions. At festivals, Christmas or Shrovetide before Lent, both quarters fielded a parade led by transvestites or actors riding as “carnival kings” on camels and donkeys, surrounded by pipe players and singers in fancy dress. At the Keenoba carnival to celebrate Georgia’s 1634 victory over Persia, one actor played the Georgian Tsar, another the Persian Shah—who was soon pelted with fruit, then doused in water.
    The males in each family, from children upwards, also paraded, drinking wine and singing until night fell, when the real fun began. This “assault of free boxing”—the sport of krivi—was a “mass duel with rules”: boys of three wrestled other three-year-olds, then children fought together, then teenagers and finally the men threw themselves into “an incredible battle,” by which time the town was completely out of control, a state that lasted into the following day—even at school, where classes fought classes. Shops were often pillaged.{46}
    Gori’s favourite sport was the wrestling of champions, which resembled somewhat the biblical story of Goliath. It was a great leveller. Tournaments—tschidooba—took place in specially erected rings to the accompaniment of an orchestra of zurnas. Rich princes, like local landowner Prince Amilakhvari, and merchants, even villages, fielded their own champions, regarded with such esteem that they were addressed by the title palavani. Stalin’s godfather, Egnatashvili, was himself one of three champion brothers. Now he was older, and rich, Palavani Egnatashvili fielded his own champions. Even in old age, Stalin was still boasting about his godfather’s pugilistic triumphs:
    Those Egnatashvilis were such famed wrestlers they were known through the whole of Kartli, but the first and strongest of them was Yakov.
    Prince Amilakhvari had a bodyguard who was a Chechen giant. When he challenged the Gori champions, he beat everyone. So the Gorelis went to Yakov Egnatashvili, who said: “Let him fight my brother Kika; if he beats Kika, let him fight my brother Simon; if he beats him, I’ll fight him.” But Kika beat the Chechen Goliath.
    Once some bandits swaggered into town during a religious fete, wearing sheepskin hats and daggers.
    They drank at the Egnatashvili tavern, then refused to pay. “We children,” recalled Stalin, watched in amazement as Kika Egnatashvili “smashed one of them, knocked him down, grabbed a dagger from the other’s scabbard and hit that one with the blunt end. The third one paid his bill.”{47}
    The church schoolboys joined in the semi-casual bare-knuckle fighting on Gori Cathedral Street. On threat of the detention cell and ultimately expulsion, the schoolboys were absolutely banned from these vicious scrummages, “but Soso still took part.” Besides, his maths and geography teacher, Iluridze, loved to watch his boys in streetfights, yelling, “GO! Go! Well done!” and barely noticing if he was himself hit in the process or spattered with blood.{48}
    “Little Stalin boxed and wrestled with a certain success,” agrees Davrichewy.[17] His singing teacher observed him setting up wrestling matches, but once he hurt his already fragile arm. “It started as a wrestling match then turned into real boxing,” recounts the master, “and they beat each other up.” Soso’s arm swelled up painfully and made it harder to fight by the rules.
    His friend Iremashvili fought Stalin in the schoolyard. The bout was declared a draw, but as Iremashvili turned away Stalin ambushed him from behind, hurling him onto the grass. When he fearlessly took on stronger fighters, Soso was beaten within an inch of his life and Keke had to rescue him, running to the police chief crying, “My God, they’ve killed my son.” But Stalin remained the most sartorially immaculate street-fighter in his year: “Sometimes his mother even dressed him in a big white collar that, as soon as her back was turned, he would take it off and put in his pocket.”
    The boys’ real energies were reserved for gang-warfare. “The kids of our hometown were organized into gangs based on the streets or quarter where they lived. These bands were in constant warfare”—though they were melting-pots too. “Gori’s kids were educated together in the street without distinction of religion, nationality or fortune.” A ragamuffin like Stalin played in the streets with the son of Prince Amilakhvari—a famous general—who tried to teach him to swim. The children, armed with knives, bows and arrows, or catapults, led a blissfully free if wild existence: they swam in the river, they sang their favourite songs, pillaged apples from Prince Amilakhvari’s orchard, mischievously ranging across the countryside. Once Stalin set the Prince’s orchards alight.
    “Soso was very naughty,” his younger friend Giorgi Elisabedashvili recalls, “always running through the streets. He loved his catapult and homemade bow. Once a herdsman was bringing his herd home, when Soso jumped out and catapulted a cow in the head. The ox went crazy, the herd stampeded and the herdsman chased Soso who disappeared,” already elusive.[18] “He used to slip through my hands like a fish,” wrote another school friend, “and it was no use trying to catch him.” Soso once terrorized a shopkeeper by igniting some explosive cartridges that destroyed his shop. “His mother had to hear a lot of cursing about her son.”
    Soso loved to lead his band on the steep climb up to Gorijvari—the mountain on which the “castle of high yellow walls” stood—where they sang, fought, debated religion and admired the views: “He loved the beauties of nature.” Six miles away, there was Uplis-Tsikhe, the “city of caves,” such a hard climb that initially Stalin failed to reach the top. He practised tirelessly, says Iremashvili, until he could make it.
    He was ruthless to other children, but protective of his vassals. When he learned to swim (though he never swam well due to his arm), he pushed a small child who could not swim into the fast Kura waters. The boy protested that he had almost drowned. “Yes, but when you got into trouble, you had to learn to swim,” answered Soso. Yet when his pals were attacked by another gang, Soso “bombarded them with stones until they withdrew.” A friend was being soundly thrashed when Soso appeared and shouted, “Hey, why are you standing there like a donkey? Use your fists!” He beat off the enemy.
    Stalin constantly defied lads “older and stronger than himself,” says young Josef Davrichewy. He was already chippy. He was too clumsy to master the Georgian lekuri dance, so he promptly deadlegged the boy who danced it most gracefully.
    He displayed the will to power that remained with him until his last days. “Soso belonged to his local gang but he often crossed to the opposing band because he refused to obey his own gangleader,” who grumbled that the boy Stalin “undermined my authority and tried to dethrone me.” Iremashvili thought that “all people who, through greater age or strength, dominated others seemed like his father: he developed a vengeful feeling against everyone positioned above himself.” As soon as he was out of his mother’s control, Stalin, even as a child, had to be the leader.
    Somehow, the alternate bullying and crack-up of his father, the passionate adoration of his mother and his own natural intelligence and hauteur, created such a strong conviction that he was always right and must be obeyed that his infectious confidence won him followers. One follower was the son of one of his mother’s Armenian friends—Simon “Senko” Ter-Petrossian, later Kamo. The wealthy father, who had made a fortune supplying the army during Alexander II’s conquests of the Khiva and Bokhara Khanates, angrily asked his daughter “what on earth we saw in that penniless good-for-nothing Stalin. Aren’t there any decent people in Gori?” Not many, it seems.
    Soso “could be a good friend as long as one bowed to his dictatorial will,” opines Iremashvili. When a boy sneaked on Kote Charkviani for eating communion bread, Stalin, in a puerile reenactment of his future purges, “cursed his life, called him an informer, a spy, made him hated by the other boys, then he even beat him black and blue. Soso was a devoted friend.”
    Stalin showed poetical enthusiasm for the mountains and skies but rarely compassion for people. The police officer’s son remembers him at this time as the “very image of his mother.” He was deeply calm and cautious but “when anger took over, he became brutal, swore and pushed things to extremes.” With less to lose than others, with sparser emotional attachments, Stalin became a natural extremist.{49}

    The streetfighting was legitimate not just because Goreli parents joined in the annual brawls and bet on the wrestling-bouts but because the boys were playing the Georgian bandit-heroes who fought the Russians in the nearby mountains. But now the schoolboys found themselves persecuted by the Russian Empire even at school.
    The bovine Emperor Alexander III orchestrated a conservative backlash against the soft, liberal policies of his murdered father that would unite most Georgians against his Empire. The Tsar decreed that Georgians had to learn and study in Russian[19]—hence Stalin’s Russian lessons with the Charkvianis.
    When he enrolled at the school in September 1890, Stalin shared the hatred of the new Russian rules. The boys were not even allowed to speak Georgian to each other. Unable to speak Russian very well, “our mouths had been locked in this prison for children,” says Iremashvili. “We loved our native country and mother tongue… They considered us Georgians to be an inferior culture into whom the blessing of Russian civilization had to be beaten.” Speaking Georgian in class was punished by “having to stand in a corner or holding a long piece of wood for a whole morning or being locked in a detention cell without food or water and in complete darkness until late evening.”
    The Russian teachers[20] were brutal pedants in Russian uniforms—tunics with gold buttons and peaked caps—who disdained the Georgian language. But one teacher was beloved—the singing master Simon Gogchilidze, a kindly dandy who always wore the latest fashions: spats, winged collars and a buttonhole. The schoolgirls were in love with him and even wrote songs about him. His favourite choirboy was Stalin, whom he tried to help in every way: “In two years, he learned music and began to help the conductor. There were a lot of solos and Soso always sang them…” It was not just his “beautiful, sweet high voice,” writes the romantic teacher, but his “grand style of performance.” Stalin was often hired to sing at weddings: “People would turn up just to watch him sing, saying, ‘Let’s go see how the Djugashvili boy amazes everyone with that voice.’” When Stalin “appeared for the solo in the pulpit wearing his surplice and sang in his wondrous alto, it delighted everyone!”
    During these first school years, Stalin was so devout that he barely missed a mass. “He not only performed the rites but always reminded us of their significance,” says a schoolfellow, A. Chelidze. Another, Suliashvili, remembers Stalin and two other boys in church, “wearing their surplices, kneeling, faces raised, singing Vespers with angelic voices while the other boys prostrated themselves filled with an ecstasy not of this world.” He was the “best reader of Psalms” in church. Others were only permitted to read after being tutored by Soso himself. The grateful school presented him with David’s Book of Psalms inscribed “To Josef Djugashvili… for excellent progress, behaviour and excellent recitation and singing of the Psalter.”
    Soso also painted well and showed a taste for acting that would remain with him. He appeared in a satirical vaudeville that mocked Shakespeare: “Soso’s expression made the audience burst into laughter!” He was already starting to write poetry: “He wrote verses instead of letters to his friends.”[21]
    He was also the school’s most outstanding pupil in class. “He was a very clever boy,” said the singing teacher. “Nobody remembers him scoring anything less than 5s [A grades].” Soso “spent his spare time reading books.” He “often carried volumes stuck into the belt of his trousers” and liked to help less intelligent children with their work. “He never missed a class or arrived late and aimed always to be first in everything,” says his classmate Petre Aadamshvili—whom he advised: “Improve yourself. Don’t be lazy or you’ll lose in life.”
    Even the Georgia-phobe teachers were impressed with Stalin’s knowledge. School Inspector Butyrsky used to excuse himself from social events saying he had to go home to study because “if I’m not prepared [for tomorrow’s class], there’s a pupil named Djugashvili who’s sure to catch me out!”[22] Stalin was such a goody-goody that when he was on class duty he marked down anyone who was late or tried to cheat. The other boys even nicknamed him “the Gendarme.”
    Yet the class pet was never deferential. When the school went on an expedition and one of the boys let Inspector Butyrsky ride over a stream on his back, Stalin sneered: “What are you, a donkey? I’d never let God himself ride on my back, let alone some school inspector.” When the beloved Gogchilidze tried to persuade him to perform a song he did not like, Soso did not turn up on the day.
    Lavrov, the most hated teacher and a persecutor of all things Georgian, appointed Stalin his “assistant,” a decision he soon regretted. When Lavrov tried to force his “assistant” to inform on anyone speaking Georgian, Stalin acted. Backed up by some tough eighteen-year-olds, he lured the teacher into an empty classroom and threatened to kill him. Lavrov became much more compliant.
    At the end of the fourth year, Stalin decided that his choir should pose for a portrait. The singing master heard him “dividing the tasks—one boy was to gather money, another to book the photographer and when we gathered [Stalin] arrived with a bunch of flowers, ordering the boys to put them in their buttonholes and arranging them for the photograph.”
    Yet there was always a shadow over Soso: Crazy Beso arrived drunk and seized him from the church school, demanding he become a cobbler. Keke appealed to her protectors: “I raised the entire world, my brothers, godfather Egnatashvili, the teacher…” and Beso “returned my son to me.” But Beso repeatedly “burst into the school drunkenly to grab Soso by force.” Henceforth, Soso had to be smuggled into school literally under the coat of Keke’s brothers while “everyone helped and hid the child, telling the infuriated Beso that Soso wasn’t even at the school.”
    The schoolboy Stalin, like the politician he became, was a bundle of contradictions: “Soso Djugashvili,” Iremashvili sums up, “was the best but also the naughtiest pupil.” Stalin’s childhood had already been a triumph over misfortune. But just as he was prospering at school, he again faced a series of terrible blows that almost destroyed him.{50}

4. A Hanging in Gori

    On 6 January 1890, the choirboys, shepherded by singing teacher Gogchilidze, were trooping out of church after the Epiphany Day blessing for Gori’s Russian garrison. “No one noticed a runaway phaeton,” recalled Gogchilidze, which galloped straight into the crowd. Stalin, now twelve, was just crossing the road when the carriage “hurtled towards him, a pole hit his cheek, knocking him off his feet, [the wheels] running over his legs. The crowd stood round him and picked up the child who had lost consciousness and we carried him away.” The coachman was arrested and later sentenced to a month in jail, but poor Keke again had her bloodied child borne home. When he came round, he saw his desperate mother. “Don’t worry, Mummy, I’m all right,” he said pluckily. “I’m not going to die.”{51}
    The injuries were so grave that Soso was taken to hospital in Tiflis, the capital, missing school for months. His legs were seriously damaged. Years later at the seminary, he complained of “sore legs” and, even when he recovered, he walked in the heavy, sideways gait that won him another nickname. Already the Pockmarked (Chopura), he became the Loper (Geza). More than ever, he must have yearned to prove his strength yet also enjoyed the confidence of overcoming such adversity.
    The accident brought Beso out of the shadows with a vengeance—the cobbler probably visited the boy in Tiflis. Keke had to let him know that the child was so ill. But Beso could not resist an opportunity to reimpose himself on his defiant family. As soon as Soso had recovered in Tiflis, his father kidnapped the boy and enrolled him as an apprentice cobbler at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory, where he himself worked.
    “You want my son to be a bishop? Over my dead body, he’ll be educated!” he shouted at Keke. “I’m a shoemaker and my son will be one too.”
    Beso and his son now toiled with the eighty-strong Adelkhanov workforce for long hours and low wages in a half-flooded cellar lit by kerosene lamps amid the almost faecal reek of tanning leather. The stink made grown men vomit. Even the Tsarist authorities were worried about the number of child workers in Adelkhanov’s grim rectangular factory. Living with his father in a room in the Avlabar workers’ district and walking into work over the bridge past the Metekhi Fortress-Prison, Soso had to carry shoes from the factory to the shop-warehouse in the bazaar off Yerevan Square. Apart from the short spell in his father’s Gori workshop, this was to be Stalin’s only experience of a worker’s existence during a life devoted to the proletariat. If Beso had succeeded, there would have been no Stalin, for he would have remained uneducated. Stalin owed his political success to his unusual combination of street brutality and classical education.
    “The whole school missed Soso,” recalled the singing master, “no one more than Keke.” Once again, Keke flew into action, mobilizing all her allies. That formidable and good-looking woman arrived in Tiflis backed by the teachers at the school, Father Charkviani and Egnatashvili, who all tried to prevail over Beso. Even the Exarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church heard of the case and offered to find Soso a place as a chorister in Tiflis, but Keke was determined. Beso raged. The boy was consulted. He wanted to study at the church school in Gori. The priests returned him to Keke. Beso swore never to give another kopeck to his family, cutting them out of his life.
    “Time passed,” says Keke. “Beso’s voice was heard no more. Nobody told me if he was dead or alive. I was even happy that, without him, I alone put the family on a firm footing again.” But Beso would rear up again in Stalin’s life—before disappearing forever.{52}
    Stalin returned to the school where he again excelled as “the best pupil” (his mother’s proud words). Without Beso’s help, Keke could not pay the school bills. She worked herself ever harder, canvassing her patrons and finding new ones: she started to clean and launder for the decent chairman of the school board, Vasily Beliaev, with a wage of ten roubles a month. Egnatashvili and Davrichewy contributed more. The school itself, mobilized no doubt by Chairman Beliaev, Keke’s protectors and the devoted singing master, not only reinstated Soso but offered a scholarship of three roubles, thirty kopecks too.
    Perhaps the trauma of the accident, the kidnapping and the harsh existence at the factory drained Soso. Just after Beso released him, the boy fell seriously ill with pneumonia. His mother “almost lost him but again Soso escaped death,” reports his singing master. This time, the school doubled the scholarship to seven roubles. Even when he was ill and feverish, his proud Keke reported that he raved, “Mother, let me go to school or teacher Iluridze will give me bad marks…”

    For over a year, it had been one crisis after another. Now Stalin celebrated his return to school by taking to his studies with renewed enthusiasm. Yet he was becoming ever more rebellious. “He was punished almost on a daily basis,” says Iremashvili, who sang with him in the choir trio. Soso arranged a protest against the hated inspector Butyrsky that almost led to a riot: “This was the first rebellion instigated by Soso.”
    His mother had to move into miserable rooms on Sobornaya Street, an “old, small and dirty house” with a roof that let in the wind and rain. “The room,” recalls Iremashvili, “was in eternal twilight. The musty air, thick with the smell of rain, wet clothes and cooking, could not escape from it”—but Stalin could. He had even more reason to stay out with his gang in the streets and up Gorijvari Mountain.
    While still the finest choirboy at the church school, Stalin started to show an interest in the plight of the poor and to doubt his faith. He became close friends with three priests’ sons—the brothers Lado and Vano Ketskhoveli, who were to play a vital role in his future life, and Mikheil Davitashvili,[23] who, like Stalin, walked with a limp. The elder Ketskhoveli brother, Lado, soon entered the Tiflis Seminary and brought back news of how he had led a protest and strike that led to his being sent down. Stalin was inspired by these new friends and their books, but he still saw the priesthood as his vocation to help the poor. Now, however, he aspired to politics for the first time. Under Lado Ketskhoveli’s charismatic influence, he declared he wanted to be a local administrator with the power to improve conditions.
    He talked about books all the time. If he coveted a volume, he was happy to steal it from another schoolboy and run home with it. When he was about thirteen, Lado Ketskhoveli took him to a little bookshop in Gori where he paid a five kopeck subscription and borrowed a book that was probably Darwin’s Origin of Species. Stalin read it all night, forgetting to sleep, until Keke found him.
    “Time to go to bed,” she said. “Go to sleep—dawn is breaking.”
    “I loved the book so much, Mummy, I couldn’t stop reading…” As his reading intensified, his piety wavered.
    One day Soso and some friends, including Grisha Glurjidze, lay on the grass in town talking about the injustice of there being rich and poor when he amazed all of them by suddenly saying: “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just.”
    “Soso! How can you say such things?” exclaimed Grisha.
    “I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see.” He presented Glurjidze with a copy of Darwin.
    Soso’s dreams of handing down justice merged with the stories of popular bandit-heroes and the resurgent Georgian nationalism. He revered the poems of the Georgian nationalist Prince Raphael Eristavi, memorizing his masterpiece Khevsur’s Motherland. “That wonderful poem,” Stalin enthused in old age. The schoolboy was now writing his own romantic poems. All the boys hung around Stalin’s place avidly discussing these forbidden ideas and works.{53}
    By now, Stalin had fallen in love, another human moment that was cut out of the official memoirs and never published. His passion was for Father Charkviani’s daughter: he and his mother had rented rooms from the family. “In the third form, he fell in love with the Charkviani girl,” says Giorgi Elisabedashvili. “He used to tell me about this emotion and laugh at himself for the fact that he was carried away with the sentiment.” When she was learning Russian, “I often dropped by and took an interest in these lessons,” Stalin reminisced fifty years later. “Once when the pupil was in trouble, I gave her a hand…” We do not know whether the priest’s daughter returned his love, but the two of them had always been close in childhood as her brother Kote noticed: “He began to play dolls with my sister. He’d drive her to tears, but after a moment they’d reconcile and sit together with their books as real friends…”{54}
    One event—the “most remarkable occasion in Gori in the late nineteenth century”—made a deep impression on Stalin. On 13 February 1892, the teachers of the church school ordered all their pupils to attend a gruesome mise-en-scène that they hoped “would arouse fear and respect in the boys”: a hanging.

    Three gallows were erected on a sunny winter’s day on the banks of the Kura River beneath the mountain fortress. Many of the Gorelis came to watch and the uniforms of the church school pupils were visible in the crowd. But the boys were “deeply depressed by the execution.”
    The condemned men had stolen a cow and, in the ensuing pursuit, had killed a policeman. But the boys learned that the criminals were actually just three “peasants who had been so oppressed by landowners that they escaped into the forest,” petty Robin Hoods, attacking only local squires and helping other peasants. Stalin and Peter Kapanadze wondered how it could be right to kill the bandits given that the priests taught them the Mosaic commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” The two schoolboys were especially appalled to see a priest standing at the gallows with a big cross.
    The boys were fascinated. “Soso Djugashvili, me and four other schoolboys climbed a tree and watched the terrifying show from there,” remembers one of the group, Grigory Razmadze. (Yet the police chief Davrichewy banned his own son from attending.) Another spectator whom Stalin would later befriend and promote was Maxim Gorky, then a journalist, soon to be Russia’s most celebrated writer.
    The Gorelis sympathized with these brave Caucasian bandits—two of them Ossetians, one an Imeretian. The executions were a Russian show of strength; young Davrichewy called the condemned men “holy martyrs.” The crowd became menacing; double ranks of Russian soldiers encircled the square. The drums began to beat. “The authorities in uniforms lingered around the scaffold,” wrote Gorky in his article. “Their dreary and severe faces looked strange and hostile.” They had reason to be nervous.
    The three bandits in leg irons were marched onto the scaffold. One was separated from the others—he had been reprieved. The priest offered the two condemned men his blessings; one accepted and one refused. Both asked for a smoke and a sip of water. Sandro Khubuluri was silent, but the handsome and strong “ringleader,” Tato Jioshvili, smiled and joked valiantly before the admiring crowd. He leaned on the railings of the gallows and, noticed Gorky, “chatted to people who had come to see him die.” The crowd threw stones at the hangman, who was masked and clad completely in scarlet. He placed the condemned on stools and tightened the nooses around their necks. Sandro just twirled his moustache and readjusted the noose. The time had come.
    The hangman kicked away the stools. As so often with Tsarist repression, it was inept: Sandro’s rope broke. The crowd gasped. The scarlet hangman replaced him on the stool, placed a new noose round his neck and hanged him again. Tato also took a while to die.
    The townsfolk and the schoolboys hurried away. Stalin and his school friends discussed what would happen to the souls of the executed: would they go to hellfire? Stalin settled their doubts. “No,” he said. “They’ve been executed and it would be unjust to punish them again.” The boys thought this made sense. The hanging is often cited as an event that stimulated Stalin’s murderous nature, but all we know is that the boys sympathized with these Georgian outlaws, and disdained their Russian oppressors. If anything, the spectacle helped make Stalin a rebel, not a murderer.{55}
    It was time to move on from Gori: Soso was about to graduate from the church school. Keke often sat at the head of his bed at dawn silently admiring her brilliant slumbering child. “My Soso had grown up,” she says, but they still spent much time together. “We’d hardly ever been separated. He was always beside me.” Even when he had been ill, “he used to read sitting next to me. His only other entertainment was walking along the river or up Mount Gorijvari.”
    Yet now she realized that to fulfil her dreams she had to let him go even though “he couldn’t survive without me and I without him but his thirst for learning forced him to leave me.” This thirst was indeed something that never left him.[24] Naturally, after the church school, he had to go to the best religious educational establishment in the southern Empire: the Tiflis Seminary. In July 1893, aged fifteen, he passed his exams with flying colours. All his teachers, especially Simon Gogchilidze, recommended him to the seminary—but there was a problem.
    “One day Soso came home” to his mother “with tears in his eyes.”
    “What’s the matter, son?” asked Keke.
    Soso explained that the strike and closure of the seminary in Tiflis, orchestrated partly by his radical friend Lado Ketskhoveli, meant “he could lose a year because there were no new entrants that summer who were not priests’ sons.”
    “I comforted my son,” Keke says, “and then I dressed up,” probably in her best headdress, and called on Soso’s teachers and patrons, who promised to help. The singing master offered to take Soso himself and enrol him in teacher-training college. But, for Keke, it had to be the best and it had to be the priesthood: that meant the seminary.
    Keke set out for Tiflis with her son. Soso was excited but on the forty-five-mile train ride, he suddenly began to cry.
    “Mummy,” sobbed Stalin, “what if, when we arrive in the city, Father finds me and forces me to become a shoemaker? I want to study. I’d rather kill myself than become a cobbler.”
    “I kissed him,” reminisces Keke, “and wiped away his tears.”
    “Nobody will stop you studying,” she reassured him, “nobody is going to take you away from me.”
    Soso was impressed by Tiflis, the “throbbing bustle of the big city,” though both the Djugashvilis were “terrified that Beso would appear,” says Keke. “But we didn’t meet Beso.”
    The indomitable Keke rented a room, and searched out her one well-connected relative in the capital, who was the tenant of an even better-connected priest with a resourceful wife.
    “Please help this woman,” the relative told the priest’s wife, “and it will be as good a work as building a whole church.”[25] The priest’s wife appealed to more clergymen who spoke to the seminary and won Stalin the right to sit the entrance exam. That was all his mother wanted because “I knew he’d glorify me.” Indeed he did “glorify” her, but the cost for a non-priest’s son boarding at the seminary was 140 roubles a year, a sum Keke had no hope of raising on her own. Davrichewy, surely at Keke’s bidding, persuaded a well-known aristocrat, Princess Baratov, to help too. With Keke frantically pulling strings, Soso applied for a scholarship and was accepted as a half-boarder, which meant he still had to pay a considerable sum—forty roubles a year—and buy the surplice uniform. Keke did not mind: the “happiest mother in the world” returned to Gori and started to sew to raise the money. Egnatashvili and Davrichewy contributed to his fees.
    “A month later,” says Keke, “I saw Soso in the uniform of the seminarist and I cried so much out of happiness. I grieved very much too…” Having enrolled around 15 August 1894, Soso entered the seminary boarding-school and the wider world of the capital of the Caucasus.
    The lame, pockmarked, web-toed boy, humiliatingly beaten and deserted by his father, adored but beaten some more by his single mother, haunted by bastardy, surviving accident and disease, had overcome the odds.
    It is hard to exaggerate what a vital moment this was. Without the seminary, without the mother’s determination, Soso would have missed the classical, if stifling, education that equipped the cobbler’s son to become Lenin’s successor.
    “He wrote to me that he would save me from poverty soon,” recalls his mother, the first of a lifetime of dutiful but distant letters from her beloved son. “When he sent me letters, I pressed them to my heart, slept with them and kissed them.”
    “Everyone at the school congratulated me,” adds Keke, “but only Simon Gogchilidze looked wistful: ‘The School seems somehow deserted,’ he said.[26] ‘Who’ll sing in the choir now?’”{56}

5. The Poet and the Priesthood

    The boy of sixteen from Gori, accustomed to the freedom of fighting in the streets or climbing Gorijvari, now found himself locked for virtually every hour of the day in an institution that more resembled the most repressive nineteenth-century English public-school than a religious academy: the dormitories, the bullying boys, the rife buggery, the cruel sanctimonious teachers and the hours in the detention cells made it a Caucasian version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
    Stalin arrived with a group from Gori, including Josef Iremashvili and Peter Kapanadze. These provincial boys, few of them as poor as Soso, found themselves among the “arrogant sons of wealthy parents.[27] We felt like the chosen few,” wrote Iremashvili, because the seminary was “the source of Georgian intellectual life, with its historical grounds in a seemingly perfect civilisation.”
    Soso and the other 600 trainee priests lived in a four-storey neoclassical seminary with noble white pillars. On the top floor, he shared a dormitory of twenty or thirty beds. The other floors contained a chapel, classrooms and a refectory. In a day strictly divided by ringing bells, Soso was awoken every morning at 7 a.m., donned his surplice uniform, then proceeded to prayers in chapel followed by tea and classes. The pupil on duty read another prayer. There were lessons until two. At three he had lunch, then an hour and a half off before call-over at five, after which he was banned from going out again. After evening prayers, supper was at eight, followed by more classes then yet more prayers and lights-out at 10 p.m. At weekends the church services were interminable, “three or four hours on the same spot, shifting from one leg to the other, under the tireless penetrating eyes of the monks.” But the boys were allowed out between 3 and 5 p.m.
    The Empire’s seminaries were “notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval pedagoguery, and law of the fist,” comments Trotsky. “All the vices banned by the Holy Scriptures flourished in this hotbed of piety.” This seminary, nicknamed the Stone Sack, was worse than most: “utterly joyless,” reported one pupil. “Droningly boring—we felt we were in prison.”
    When Stalin arrived, its twenty-three teachers were led by a lugubrious trinity: the rector, Archimandrite Serafim; his deputy, Inspector Germogen; and, the most hated of all, Father Dmitri, the only Georgian of the three, who had been born Prince David Abashidze. Soon promoted to inspector, this Abashidze was a fat swarthy pedant—“God’s submissive, lowly slave, the Tsar’s servant,” in his own words.
    The monks were determined to squeeze any hint of Georgianness out of their proudly Georgian boys. Georgian literature was totally banned, but then so were all Russian authors published since Pushkin, including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Two inspectors were deployed fulltime in “constant unremitting supervision.” Punishments and bad marks were all recorded in the school journal. Soon being sent down—the “wolf’s ticket”—became a badge of honour.
    Father Abashidze ran a circle of sneaks among the boys and spent much of Stalin’s schooldays creeping on tiptoe around the seminary or conducting melodramatic dormitory raids in order to catch the boys reading forbidden books, abusing themselves or uttering naughty words. Stalin, who was an acute coiner of nicknames, soon dubbed this grotesque priest “the Black Spot.” Initially terrifying, this man was ultimately comical in a way only the craziest pedagogic sticklers can be.
    Stalin had heard all about the famous seminary rebellions from his mentor, Lado. A few years earlier, in 1885, a pupil had beaten up the rector for saying “Georgian was a dogs’ language.” The next year, the rector was murdered with a Georgian khanjali sword—a fate that even the most brutal English headmaster had managed to avoid.
    The seminary was to pull off the singular achievement of supplying the Russian Revolution with some of its most ruthless radicals. “No secular school,” wrote another seminarist, Stalin’s comrade Philip Makharadze, “produced as many atheists as the Tiflis Seminary.” The Stone Sack literally became a boarding-school for revolutionaries.

    Stalin was initially “calm, attentive, modest and bashful,” remembers one schoolmate, while another noticed the once swaggering Goreli gang leader turn “pensive and secluded, the love of games and fun of childhood gone.” The moody teenage Soso was taking stock—and becoming a self-conscious romantic poet—but he was also studying seriously, passing his first grade with an “excellent” mark and coming eighth out of the whole year. In 1894–95, he won straight 5s (A grades) for Georgian singing and language and scores like 4,5,4,5 in scripture. He was a model student, earning an “excellent 5” for behaviour.
    As a scholarship boy in “pitiful” circumstances, Soso constantly had to beg the rector “on my knees” for further help with the fees.[28] Stalin earned more pocket-money (five roubles, he recalled later) by singing in the choir. He was “the first tenor of the right wing of the choir”—the key choirboy—and often performed in the Opera House.
    Keke accompanied him to Tiflis and stayed for a few weeks to help him settle. She took a job sewing and serving food at the seminary—surely an embarrassment to Stalin, and perhaps another reason for his initial reticence. Mission accomplished, she returned to Gori. Henceforth, throughout his periods of exile, up until her death forty years on, Stalin wrote to her with dutiful regularity (especially when he needed money or clothes) but with growing detachment. He would never really return to the mother whose remarkable drive and sharp tongue he had himself inherited, yet whom he found unbearable.{57}
    Somehow Beso, lurking in Tiflis, discovered Soso as a potential source of wine-money: he went to see Stalin’s rector and demand his son back: “Make him leave because I need someone to take care of me!” Stalin was “unmoved,” wanting to alleviate “the hardship of Beso and people like him,” but repelled by the man himself.
    “Once,” recalled Stalin, “the nightwatchmen came in and told me that my father was outside.” The boy hurried downstairs and “saw him standing there. He didn’t even ask about me but just said briskly: ‘Young man, sir, you’ve totally forgotten your father, haven’t you? I’m leaving to work in another town.’”
    “How would I have any money to help you?” replied Stalin.
    “Shut up!” shouted Beso. “Give me at least 3 roubles and don’t be as mean as your mother!”
    “Don’t yell!” replied Soso. “This is my boarding-school. If you don’t leave now, I’ll call the watchmen and they’ll make you go.”
    The “threat worked,” recounted Stalin. “Father slunk away into the streets, muttering something.”{58}
    In the holidays, Soso returned to Gori to see the doting Keke. Even though he “was starting to grow a beard, he still nestled up to me like a five-year-old.” But he spent most of his time staying with his lame, well-off friend Mikha Davitashvili in his village, Tsromi. When he returned for the next term, Stalin did even better, winning another “excellent” and moving up to number five in his year. And he started to work on his verse.
    At the end of term, Soso took his poems to the offices of the famous newspaper Iveria (Georgia), where he was received by the country’s greatest poet, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, a romantic nationalist who believed in an agrarian Georgia ruled by an enlightened aristocracy.
    The Prince was sufficiently impressed to show the teenager’s work to his editors. He admired Stalin’s verse, choosing five poems to publish—quite an achievement. Prince Chavchavadze called Stalin the “young man with the burning eyes.” He was admired in Georgia as a poet before he was known as a revolutionary.{59}

6. The “Young Man with the Burning Eyes”

    Georgia regarded herself as an oppressed kingdom of knights and poets. The poems in Iveria, published under Stalin’s nickname “Soselo,” were widely read and became minor Georgian classics, appearing in anthologies of the best Georgian poetry before anyone had heard of “Stalin.” Deda Ena, a children’s anthology of Georgian verse, produced between 1912 and the 1960s, included Stalin’s first poem—“Morning” in its 1916 edition. It remained in subsequent editions, sometimes ascribed to Stalin, sometimes not, up to the days of Brezhnev.
    Stalin’s singing, now that he was an adolescent tenor, was said to be good enough for him to go professional. As a poet he showed a certain talent in another craft which might have provided an alternative to politics and bloodletting. “One might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin’s switch from poetry to revolution,” believes Professor Donald Rayfield, who translated the poems into English. Their romantic imagery was derivative but their beauty lay in the delicacy and purity of rhythm and language.
    The scans and rhymes of his poem “Morning” work perfectly, but it was his sensitive and precocious fusion of Persian, Byzantine and Georgian imagery that won plaudits. “No wonder,” reflects Rayfield, “the doyen of Georgian letters and politics, Ilya Chavchavadze, was willing to print this poem and at least four others.”
    Soselo’s next poem, a crazed ode “To the Moon,” reveals more of the poet. A violent, tragically depressed outcast, in a world of glaciers and divine providence, is drawn to the sacred moonlight. In his third poem, Stalin explores the “contrast between violence in man and nature and the gentleness of birds, music and singers.”
    The fourth is the most revealing. Stalin imagines a prophet not honoured in his own country, a wandering poet poisoned by his own people. Now seventeen, Stalin already envisions a “paranoiac” world where “great prophets could only expect conspiracy and murder.” If any of Stalin’s poems “contained an avis au lecteur,” writes Rayfield, “it is this one.”
    Dedicated to Georgia’s beloved poet[29] Prince Raphael Eristavi, Stalin’s fifth poem was, with “Morning,” his most admired. It was this that inspired Stalin’s State Bank “inside man” to give him the tip-off for the Yerevan Square bank robbery and it was good enough to be included in Prince Eristavi’s jubilee volume in 1899. Its heroic sage requires both the harp and the sickle.
    The last poem, “Old Ninika,” which appeared in the socialist weekly Kvali (Plough), affectionately describes an old hero who “dreams or tells his children’s children of the past,” perhaps a vision of an idealized Georgian like old Stalin himself, who ended up sitting on his Black Sea verandah regaling youngsters with his adventures.
    Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for—and jealousy of—brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. The words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were, as Mandelstam wrote in his famously scabrous poem denouncing Stalin, “leaden,” his “fat fingers… greasy as maggots.” But, ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge. Stalin never ceased caring about poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, “In Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it.”
    The ex–romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism but promoted his distorted version of romanticism, Socialist Realism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He talked endlessly about the Georgian poets of his childhood, and he himself helped edit a Russian translation of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin, delicately translating some of the couplets himself and asking modestly: “Will they do?”
    Stalin respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill Party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam’s arrest Stalin ordered, “Isolate but preserve.” He would preserve most of his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at other times denouncing and impoverishing them. When he called Pasternak in one of his telephonic lightning-strikes from Olympus, he asked about Mandelstam: “He’s a genius, isn’t he?” Mandelstam’s tragedy was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse—the medium of the dictator’s own childhood dreams—but also by Pasternak’s failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was not sentenced to death, but nor was he preserved, perishing on the dystopian road to Gulag hell. But Stalin did preserve Pasternak: “Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.”
    The seminary’s priest-poet of seventeen never publicly acknowledged his poems, but he later told a friend, “I lost interest in writing poetry because it requires one’s entire attention—a hell of a lot of patience. And in those days I was like quicksilver”—the quicksilver of revolution and conspiracy that was now flashing through the youth of Tiflis and into the seminary.{60}

    When he stood on the white steps of the Stone Sack, Soso could see the bustling but dangerous Persian and Armenian Bazaars around Yerevan Square, “a network of narrow lanes and alleys” with “open workshops of goldsmiths and armourers; stalls of pastry cooks and bakers with flat loaves baked in huge clay ovens… cobblers displaying gaudy slippers… and wine-merchants’ shops where the wine is kept in sheep or buffalo skins with the fur inside.”[30] Golovinsky Boulevard was almost Parisian; the rest more resembled “Lima or Bombay.”
    “The streets,” reports Baedeker,
    are generally steep and so narrow that two carriages cannot pass, the houses, mostly adorned with balconies, perched one above the other on the mountainside like steps of a staircase. From sunrise to sunset, the streets are crowded with a motley throng of men and animals… the Georgian dealers in vegetables with large wooden trays on their heads, the Persians in long caftans and high black fur caps, often with red-dyed hair and fingernails; the Tartar saids and mullahs in flowing raiment with green and white turbans; the representatives of mountain tribes in picturesque cherkeskas and shaggy fur caps… Mohammedan women in veils… and horses carrying waterskins with gaily clad attendants.
    A city of hot sulphur springs (and famous bathhouses), it was built right on the slopes of Holy Mountain and on the banks of the Kura River beneath the round-spired Georgian church and sombre towers of the fortress-prison of Metekhi, which Iremashvili called the “Bastille of Tiflis.” High, up cobbled lanes on Holy Mountain, stood the white marble church (where Keke today lies buried among poets and princes), radiant and pristine.
    Tiflis was a city of 160,000–30 percent Russians, 30 percent Armenians and 26 per cent Georgians, with the rest a smattering of Jews, Persians and Tartars. There were six Armenian newspapers, five Russian and four Georgian. Tiflis’s workers mainly laboured in the railway depot and small workshops; its rich and powerful were Armenian tycoons, Georgian princes, and Russian bureaucrats and generals who converged on the court of the Emperor’s viceroy. Its water-carriers were from Racha, in the west, its stonemasons Greek, its tailors Jewish, its bathkeepers Persian. It was like “a porridge of people and beasts, sheepskin hats and shaved heads, fezzes and peaked caps… horses and mules, camels, and dogs… All shout, bang, laugh, swear, jostle, sing… in the burning air.”
    This cosmopolitan imperial city of theatres, hotels, caravanserai, bazaars and brothels already vibrated with Georgian nationalism and international Marxism, which were seeping dangerously into the closed cloisters of the seminary.{61}

    Soso and another boy, Said Devdariani, were moved out of their dormitory into a smaller room “because of our poor health.” Devdariani was older, already a member of a secret circle at which the boys gathered to read forbidden socialist literature. “I suggested he join,” says Devdariani, “and he was delighted—he agreed.” There Stalin met up with his friends from Gori, Iremashvili and Davitashvili.
    At first the books were hardly incendiary works of Marxist conspiracy but the sort of harmless books banned by the seminary. The boys joined a forbidden book club called the Cheap Library and started to get other books from a bookshop run by a former narodnik. “Remember the little bookshop,” the owner of this small bookshop, Imedashvili, later wrote to the supreme Stalin. “How we thought and whispered there about great unanswerable questions!” Stalin discovered the novels of Victor Hugo, especially 1793, whose hero Cimourdain, the revolutionary-priest, would become one of his prototypes.[31] But Hugo was strictly forbidden by the monks.
    At night, Black Spot patrolled the corridors, constantly checking that the lights were out and that there was no reading—or other self-indulgent vices. As soon as he was gone, the boys lit candles and started reading again. Soso, typically, “overdid it and hardly slept at all, looking bleary-eyed and ill. When he started coughing,” Iremashvili “took the book out of his hand and blew out the candle.”
    Inspector Father Germogen caught Stalin with Hugo’s 1793 and ordered that “he be punished with a prolonged stay in the punishment cell.” Then he was found with yet more Hugo by another snooping priest: “It emerges Djugashvili subscribes to Cheap Library and reads books there. Today I have confiscated Toilers of the Sea by V. Hugo. I had already issued him with a warning in connection with the book 1793 by V. Hugo. Signed: Assistant Inspector: V. Murakhovsky.”
    Young Stalin was even more influenced by Russian writers who caused a sensation among radical youth: the poems of Nikolai Nekrasov and the novel by Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? Its hero, Rakhmetov, became Stalin’s prototype for the steely ascetic revolutionary. Like Rakhmetov, Stalin came to regard himself as “a special man.”
    Soon Stalin was caught reading another forbidden book “on the school stairs” for which he received, “on the Rector’s order, a prolonged stay in the punishment cell and severe reprimand.” He “worshipped Zola,” his favourite of the Parisian’s novels being Germinal. He read Schiller, Maupassant, Balzac and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in translation, Plato in the original Greek, Russian and French history—and he distributed these books to the other boys. He adored Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Chekhov, whose works he memorized and “could recite by heart.” He admired Tolstoy “but was bored by his Christianity,” later in life scrawling “ha-ha-ha!” beside Tolstoyan musings on redemption and salvation. He marked up heavily a copy of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece on revolutionary conspiracy and betrayal, The Devils. These volumes were smuggled in, strapped under the surplices of the seminarists. Stalin later joked that he had to “expropriate”—steal—some of these books from the bookshop for the sake of the Revolution.{62}
    Hugo was not the only writer who changed Stalin’s life: another novelist changed his name. He read Alexander Kazbegi’s forbidden novel The Patricide, which starred a classic Caucasian bandit-hero called Koba. “What impressed me and Soso,” writes Iremashvili, “were the works of Georgian literature which glorified the Georgians’ struggle for freedom.” In the novel, Koba fights against the Russians, sacrificing everything for his wife and country, then visiting a terrible vengeance on his enemies.
    “Koba became Soso’s God and gave his life meaning,” says Iremashvili. “He wished to become Koba. He called himself ‘Koba’ and insisted we call him that. His face shone with pride and pleasure when we called him ‘Koba.’” The name meant a lot to Stalin—the vengeance of the Caucasus mountain peoples, the ruthlessness of the bandit, the obsession with loyalty and betrayal, and the sacrifice of person and family for a cause. It was a name he already loved: his “substitute father” Egnatashvili’s first name was Koba, short for Yakov. “Koba” became a favourite nom de révolution and nickname. But his intimates still called him Soso.{63}
    His poems were already appearing in the newspapers but at seventeen, in the autumn of 1896, Stalin started to lose interest in priestly studies and even in poetry. In his year, he slipped from fifth to sixteenth.

    In hushed voices after lights-out, keeping a lookout for the dreaded Black Spot, the boys vigorously debated the great questions of existence. In his seventies, the dictator was still chuckling about these arguments. “I became an atheist in the first year,” he said, which led to arguments with other boys such as his pious friend Simon Natroshvili. But, after some thought, Natroshvili “came to see me and admitted his mistake.” Stalin was delighted until Simon continued: “If God exists, hell exists too. There’s always a blazing hellfire. To keep the hellfires burning, who can provide enough logs? They would have to be endless and how can endless logs exist?” Stalin remembered, “I burst out laughing! I thought Simon had reached his conclusions by philosophical reasoning but actually he became an atheist for fear that there weren’t enough logs for hell!”
    Now Soso moved beyond mere sympathy towards outright rebellion. Just at this time, his uncle Sandala, Keke’s brother, was killed by the police. Stalin never mentioned this but it must have played its part.
    Stalin was “like quicksilver,” moving from French novelists to Marx himself: the boys paid five kopecks to borrow Das Kapital for a fortnight.{64} He tried to study German so that he could read Marx and Engels in the original, and English too—he had a copy of The Fight of the English Workers for Liberty. This was the start of a lifelong effort to learn foreign languages, especially German and English.[32]

    Stalin and Iremashvili were soon creeping out of the seminary, under cover of darkness, to attend their first meetings with real railway workers at little hovels built into the Holy Mountain. This first spark of conspiracy lit a fire that was never extinguished.
    Stalin became bored by the worthy educational discussions of Devdariani’s seminary club: he wanted to push the circle towards more aggressive action. Devdariani resisted, so Stalin launched a campaign against him and started to create his own group.{65}
    The two remained friendly enough for him to stay in Devdariani’s village for the Christmas holidays of 1896. Perhaps Stalin, always a master of “dosage” and soon to be a skilful abuser of hospitality, delayed the final rift so that he had somewhere to stay for the holidays. On the way, the boys visited Keke, who lived in a “little hut,” where Devdariani noticed legions of bedbugs.
    “It’s my fault, son, that we eat without wine,” said Keke over supper.
    “Mine too,” said Stalin.
    “I hope the bedbugs let you sleep?” Keke asked Devdariani.
    “I didn’t notice any such thing,” lied Devdariani tactfully.
    “Oh he felt them all right,” Stalin said to his poor mother. “He was wriggling his legs all night.” Keke noticed how Soso “avoided me, he tried to speak as little as possible.”
    On his return to the seminary in 1897, Stalin broke with Devdariani. “Major and not altogether harmless feuds… were usually stirred up by Koba,” says Iremashvili, who remained with Devdariani. “Koba thought it natural to be the leader and never tolerated any criticism. Two parties formed—one for Koba, and one against.” It was a pattern to be repeated throughout his life. He found a tougher mentor, meeting up again with the inspiring Lado Ketskhoveli from Gori, who had been expelled from both the Tiflis and Kiev Seminaries, arrested and now released. Soso respected no one like Lado.
    His mentor introduced his younger friend to the fiery black-eyed Silibistro “Silva” Jibladze, the legendary seminarist who had beaten up the rector. Jibladze and an elegant nobleman named Noe Jordania had, with some others, founded a Georgian socialist party, the Third Group (Mesame Dasi), in 1892. Now these Marxists reassembled in Tiflis, taking over the Kvali newspaper and starting to sow revolution among the workers. Jibladze took the teenager to the apartment of Vano Sturua, who recalls that “Jibladze brought an unknown youngster.”
    Eager to contribute, Stalin called on the group’s forceful leader, Noe Jordania, just returned from exile, at Kvali, which had published his last poem. Jordania, tall, with “a graceful and handsome face, black beard… and aristocratic habits and demeanour,” patronizingly suggested that Soso should study more. “I’ll think it over,” replied the truculent youth. Now he had an enemy to fight. He wrote a letter criticizing Jordania and Kvali. They refused to publish it, whereupon Stalin insulted the editorial staff for “sitting in there for days without expressing a decent opinion!”
    Lado was also frustrated with Jordania’s gentility and it must have been he who introduced Stalin to the mainly Russian workers’ circles that were just starting to mushroom among the many small workshops of Tiflis. They met secretly at the German cemetery, at a little house beside a mill, and near the Arsenal. Stalin suggested they rent a room on Holy Mountain, “where we used to gather twice a week after dinner before call-over. It cost 5 roubles that we took from pocket-money our parents sent.” Stalin started to keep a “handwritten journal in Georgian about their discussions” which was passed from hand to hand among his followers in the seminary.{66}
    He was already crossing the line from rebellious schoolboy to a revolutionary who was, for the first time, of interest to the secret police. When another Marxist activist named Sergei Alliluyev, a skilled railway worker and Stalin’s future father-in-law, was arrested, he was interrogated by the Gendarme captain Lavrov, who asked him: “Know any Georgian seminarists?”{67}

    The romantic poet was becoming the “convinced fanatic” with a “quasimystical faith” to which he devoted his life and from which he never wavered. But what did he really believe?
    Let him explain in his own words. Stalin’s Marxism meant that “the revolutionary proletariat alone is destined by History to liberate mankind and bring the world happiness,” but humanity would undergo great “trial and suffering and change” before it achieved “scientifically proven socialism.” The heart of this providential progress was “the class struggle: Marxism is the masses whose liberation is the catalyst for the freedom of the individual.”
    This creed was, says Stalin, “not only a theory of socialism: it’s an entire worldview, a philosophical system”—like a scientifically proven religion—of which these young revolutionaries were part. “I had the feeling,” explained Trotsky, “I was joining a great chain as a tiny link.” Trotsky, like Stalin, believed that “the lasting thing is gained through combat.” Blood, death, conflict were essential: “Many storms, many torrents of blood,” in Stalin’s own words, would mark “the struggle to end oppression.”
    There was one big difference between Stalin and Trotsky then: Stalin was a Georgian. He never lost his pride in Georgia as a nation and a culture. The little nations of the Caucasus all found it hard to embrace real internationalist Marxism because their own repression made them also dream of independence. Young Stalin believed in a blend of Marxism and Georgian nationalism, almost opposed to internationalist Marxism.
    Soso, poring over his Marxist texts, was rude and truculent to the priests, but he was not yet in open revolt as other seminarists were, before and after him. His own propaganda later exaggerated the precocity of his becoming a revolutionary, but he was far from the first of his generation to become the real thing. So far he was a schoolboy radical just dipping his toes into revolutionary waters.{68}

7. Battle of the Dormitories: Soso versus Father “Black Spot”

    By early 1897, Stalin was at war with the Black Spot. The school journal records that he was caught thirteen times reading banned works and had received nine warnings.
    “Suddenly inquisitor Abashidze,” says Iremashvili, started launching raids on their footlockers and even their dirty laundry baskets. The maniacal “Black Spot” Abashidze became obsessed with catching Stalin reading his forbidden books. At prayers, the boys had the Bible open on their desks and read Marx or Plekhanov, the sage of Russian Marxism, on their knees. In the courtyard stood a huge pile of firewood in which Stalin and Iremashvili would hide the banned works and where they would sit and read them. Abashidze waited for this and then sprang out to catch them, but they managed to drop the books into the logs: “We were locked up in the detention cell at once, sitting late into the evening in darkness without food, but hunger made us rebellious so we banged on the doors until the monk brought us something to eat.”{69}

    When it was time for the holidays, Stalin went to stay with a younger friend, the priest’s son Giorgi Elisabedashvili, in his village (anything rather than spend time with his mother). The priest hired Stalin as a tutor to get Giorgi ready for the seminary’s entrance examinations. He always had a strong pedagogic instinct, but he was more interested in converting the boy to Marxism. Arriving on the back of a cart perched atop a pile of illegal books, the two made mischief in the countryside, laughing at peasants, whom Stalin “mimicked perfectly.” When they visited an old church, Stalin encouraged his pupil to pull down an old icon, smash it and urinate on it.
    “Not afraid of God?” asked Stalin. “Good for you!”
    Stalin’s pupil failed his exams. Father Elisabedashvili angrily blamed the tutor. But the boy got in on a second attempt—and later became one of Stalin’s Bolsheviks.{70}

    Back at the seminary, Stalin was in constant trouble: in the school journal, the priests recorded that he was rude, “failed to bow” to a teacher and was “confined to the cell for 5 hours.” He declined to cut his hair, growing it rebelliously long. Challenged by the Black Spot, he refused to cut it. He laughed and chatted in prayers, left Vespers early, was late for the Hymn of the Virgin, and pranced out of mass. He must have spent much of his time in the punishment cell. In December 1898, he turned twenty, much too old for boarding-school, and a year older than anyone else (because of time wasted recovering from his accidents). Small wonder he was frustrated.
    He had outgrown the seminary. Seminarists were meant to kiss one another, like brothers, thrice whenever they met, but now, embroiled in factional struggles with Devdariani and devoted to Marxism, he distrusted this chivalrous humbug. “Such embracing is merely a mask. I’m not a Pharisee,” he said, refusing to embrace. The obsession with masked traitors never left him.
    There were frenzied searches for the atheists’ Life of Christ by Renan, which Stalin proudly owned. His bedside table was repeatedly raided by the prince-monk-inquisitor—who found nothing. One of the boys cleverly hid the book under the rector’s own pillow. Stalin remembered how the boys would be summoned into call-over and then come out to find that all their footlockers had been ransacked.
    Soso was losing interest in his studies. By the start of his fifth grade he was twentieth out of twenty-three, scoring mainly 3s where he used to score 5s. He wrote to Rector Serafim blaming his bad studies on illness, but he still had to resit some of his exams.
    Meanwhile Black Spot “watched us ever more vigilantly” and the other boys were encouraged to inform on the rebels. But Stalin was get ting more daring and defiant by the week. When he and his allies started reading funny verses from his copybook, the sneaks reported it to Abashidze, who crept up and listened. He burst into the room and grabbed the journal. Stalin tried to snatch it back. Priest and teenager scuffled but the Black Spot won, frog-marching Stalin back to his flat where he “forced these unclean souls to douse their subversive writings” with paraffin. Then he set fire to the papers.
    Finally Abashidze intensified his spying on Stalin: “At 9 p.m., the Inspector noticed in the dining-room a group of pupils around Djugashvili who was reading them something. On approach, Djugashvili tried to hide the notes and only after insistence did he reveal he was reading unauthorized books. Signed: D. Abashidze.”
    Stalin’s mother heard “the evil talk that he had become a rebel.” Being Keke, she dressed up and took the train to Tiflis to save the day—but for the first time “he got angry with me. He shouted that it wasn’t my business. I said, ‘My son, you’re my only child, don’t kill me—but how will you be able to defeat Emperor Nicholas II? Leave that to those who have brothers and sisters.’” Soso soothed and hugged her, telling her that he was not a rebel. “It was his first lie,” remembers Keke sadly.
    She was not the only concerned parent. Stalin was still seeing his ne’er-do-well father, probably unbeknown to Keke.[33] Accompanied by his mother’s cousin Anna Geladze, Stalin visited Beso, who liked to present him with lovingly sewn boots. “I should mention,” adds Anna, “that Soso had liked wearing boots ever since childhood.” The dictator in jackboots was not just a militaristic pose but an unspoken tribute to his father and to the beautiful leather boots he made with his own hands.
    Perhaps his maturity had alleviated his fear of Beso, his Marxism softening his intolerance. Beso, now working humbly in a clothing-repair shop, came to “love his child doubly, talking about him all the time,” says Kote Charkviani. “Soso and I used to visit him. He didn’t raise his voice to Soso”—but he did mutter: “I hear he’s now rebelling against Nicholas II. As if he’s ever going to overthrow him!”

    The war between the Black Spot and Stalin was hotting up. The seminary journal reports that Stalin declared himself an atheist, stalked out of prayers, chatted in class, was late for tea and refused to doff his hat to monks. He had eleven more warnings.
    Their confrontations were increasingly farcical as the boys lost all respect for their inquisitor. Some of Soso’s buddies were chatting in Yerevan Square’s Pushkin Gardens when a boy ran out and reported that Stalin’s footlocker was being raided (again) by Father Abashidze. They sprinted back into the seminary just in time to see the inspector force open Stalin’s trunk and find some forbidden works. Abashidze grabbed them and was triumphantly bearing his prize up the stairs when one of the group, Vaso Kelbakiani, charged and rammed the monk, almost loosening his grip on the books. But Black Spot held on valiantly. The boys jumped on him and knocked the volumes out of his hands. Stalin himself ran up, seized the books and took to his heels. He was banned from visiting town, and Kelbakiani was expelled. Yet ironically Soso’s schoolwork seemed to improve—he received “very good” 4s for most subjects and a 5 for logic. Even now he still enjoyed his history lessons. Indeed he so liked his history teacher, Nikolai Makhatadze, the only seminary teacher he admired, that he later took the trouble to save his life.[34]
    Meanwhile, the Black Spot had lost control of Stalin but could not restrain his own obsessive pursuit of this malcontent. They were getting closer to the breaking point. The monk crept up on him and peeked at him reading yet another forbidden book. He then pounced, taking the book from him, but Stalin simply wrenched it out of his hands, to the amazement of the other boys. He then went on reading it. Abashidze was shocked. “Don’t you know who I am?” he shouted.
    Stalin rubbed his eyes and said, “I see the Black Spot and nothing else.” He had crossed the line.
    The Black Spot must have longed for someone to rid him of this turbulent trainee-priest. It was almost the end of term. Stalin earned a last reprimand on 7 April for not greeting a teacher and the school broke up two days later. He never returned. In May 1899, the journal simply noted, “Expelled… for non-appearance at examinations.” As always with Stalin, things were not quite so simple.{71}
·  ·  ·
    “I was expelled for Marxist propaganda,” Stalin boasted mendaciously later, but the Black Spot may have been investigating something spicier than just horseplay in the chapel or even Marxist meetings in the town.
    The boys with more pocket-money than Stalin used to hire rooms on Holy Mountain, purportedly to hold meetings of their liberal reading circle, but being teenage boys and Georgians, who prided themselves on their amours, it is likely there were parties there too, wine—and girls. The priests, especially Inspector Black Spot, also patrolled the town, like English public-school masters, to catch their boys in theatres, taverns or brothels.
    When he was not studying, Stalin could drink and flirt too. He may have got into more serious trouble in the holidays in Gori. Was it his love for the Charkviani girl? He never forgot her, talking about her in old age. Years later, he also remembered another girl from Gori, Lisa Akopova. In 1926, he actually tried to find out what had become of her, which suggests they were close. This encouraged her to send him a letter: “I swear that the attention you show us by asking about us makes me very happy… I was always your inseparable friend in fortune and misfortune… If you’ve not forgotten… you were courted by your pretty neighbour Lisa.” This was daring stuff for the 1920s but not half as daring as another letter Stalin received in 1938.
    A woman wrote to Stalin about her niece, Praskovia Mikhailovskaya—Pasha, for short—who was allegedly fathered by Stalin himself in 1899. “If you remember your youth, you cannot forget. You certainly remember a small dark-eyed girl named Pasha.” The letter claims that Stalin’s mother had taken an interest in the child, who herself remembered Keke. Pasha’s mother told her that her father “had devoted himself to saving the nation and had been exiled.” Pasha grew up into a “tall svelte dark-eyed Georgian beauty,” became a typist, and got married, but her mother and husband both died, leaving her destitute. She disappeared into 1930s Moscow.
    The letter may be the sort of crazed correspondence attracted by politicians, except for the fact that Stalin, who did not keep much in his personal archive, filed the letter. The mention of his mother rings true, for Keke surely would have helped her beloved Soso in a situation that can hardly have been unknown among the young Casanovas of Georgia. Besides, only someone telling the truth—or a lunatic with a death wish—would have dared to write such a letter to Stalin at the height of the Great Terror. Had Stalin no history of abandoned mistresses and children, one would dismiss this. But henceforth he rarely seems to have been without a girlfriend, and he had no compunction in abandoning fiancées, wives and children. We will never know, but in terms of character and timing, it is plausible.{72}
    If such an event was discovered by Father Abashidze or if Keke feared that the seminary was likely to find out, it might explain her role in his leaving. Soso spent the Easter of 1899 at home in Gori, claiming to be sick with chronic pneumonia. Perhaps he really was ill. “I took him out of school,” Keke asserted. “He didn’t want to leave.” But she must have been bitterly disappointed.
    Soso certainly exaggerated the glamour of his expulsion. He was not thrown out for being a revolutionary, and he maintained polite relations with the seminary afterwards. Some biographies claim that he was expelled for missing his exams, but this was forgivable if he was ill. Indeed the Church bent over backwards to accommodate him, letting him off repaying his scholarship (480 roubles) for five years; they even offered him a chance to resit the finals and a teaching job.
    The truth is that Father Abashidze had found a soft way of getting rid of his tormentor. “I didn’t graduate,” Stalin told his Gendarme interrogators in 1910, “because in 1899, absolutely unexpectedly, I was invoiced 25 roubles to proceed with my education… I was expelled for not paying this.” The Black Spot cunningly raised the school fees. Stalin did not try to pay them. He just left. Stalin’s friend Abel Yenukidze, another exseminarist who met him at this time, puts it best: “He flew out of the Seminary.” But not without controversy.
    He confided to his Gori friend Davrichewy that he had been expelled after being denounced, which he said was “a blow.” Afterwards, twenty others were expelled for revolutionary activities. Soso’s enemies later claimed that he betrayed his fellow Marxists to the rector. It was said that later in prison he confessed, justifying his treachery by saying he was turning them into revolutionaries: they did indeed become the core of his followers. Stalin was capable of this sort of sophistry and betrayal, but would he have been accepted into the Marxist underground if this had been widely known? Even Trotsky thinks the story absurd. More likely, this was his sardonic answer to an accusation, but it fed the suspicion that he would later become an Okhrana spy. Anyhow, many seminarists were expelled every year.
    Soso the autodidactic bibliophile “expropriated” the books he still kept from the seminary library. They tried to bill him eighteen roubles and another fifteen in autumn 1900, but by then he was underground, forever beyond the reach of the seminary. The Church was never repaid and Black Spot never got his books back.[35]

    Stalin did not qualify as a priest, but the boarding-school educated him classically—and influenced him enormously. Black Spot had, perversely, turned Stalin into an atheist Marxist and taught him exactly the repressive tactics—“surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings,” in Stalin’s own words—that he would re-create in his Soviet police state.
    Stalin remained fascinated with priests throughout his life and when he met other seminarists or the sons of priests he would often question them carefully. “Priests teach one to understand people,” he reflected. Furthermore he always used the catechismic language of religion. His Bolshevism aped Christ’s religion with its cults, saints and icons: “The working-class,” he blasphemously wrote on being hailed as the Leader in 1929, “gave birth to me and raised me in its own image and likeness.”
    The other irony of the seminary was its effect on foreigners such as Franklin Roosevelt, whose secretary recorded that the President—after being thoroughly charmed by Stalin at the 1943 Teheran Conference—was “intrigued that Stalin had been destined for the priesthood.”
    The old God remained a presence in his atheist consciousness. At one of their meetings during the Second World War, he forgave Winston Churchill’s anti-Bolshevism, saying, “All that is in the past and the past belongs to God.” He told U.S. envoy Averell Harriman, “Only God can forgive.” Friends such as Kapanadze became priests, yet Stalin kept in generous contact. He and his grandees sang church hymns during their drunken Bolshevik dinners. He fused Orthodoxy and Marxism by half joking: “Only the saints are infallible. The Lord God can be accused of creating the poor.” But Stalin’s actions always speak loudest: the dictator mercilessly suppressed the Church and murdered and deported priests—until 1943, when he restored the Patriarchate, but only as a wartime gesture to harness old Russian patriotism.[36]
    Perhaps he revealed his real view of God when he sent his protégé Alexei Kosygin (future Premier under Brezhnev) a gift of fish after the Second World War with this handwritten note: “Comrade Kosygin, here are some presents for you from God! I am the executor of his will! J. Stalin.” In some way, as the supreme pontiff of the science of History, the Tiflis seminarist really did regard himself as the executor of God’s will.{73}
    “Do you suppose,” FDR mused several times, “it made some kind of difference in Stalin? Doesn’t that explain part of the sympathetic quality in his nature that we all feel?” Perhaps it was the “priesthood” that had taught Stalin “the way a Christian gentleman should behave.”

    This most un-Christian of gentlemen had moved far from Christianity. Even moderate, noble socialists like Jordania now irritated him and Lado. “They’re conducting cultural and educational activities among workers without training them to be revolutionaries,” Soso complained. He denounced Jordania to his friends, explaining that he had discovered the works of a brilliant new radical named “Tulin,” one of the aliases of Vladimir Ulyanov, who would become Lenin.
    “If there’d been no Lenin,” said Stalin in old age, “I’d have stayed a choirboy and seminarian.” Now he told his friends about this far-off radical. “I must meet him at all costs!” he declared, about to commit himself absolutely to life as a Marxist revolutionary. But he had more immediate problems. Keke “got so angry with him” for leaving the seminary that Soso had to hide a few days in the Gambareuli Gardens, outside Gori, where his friends brought him food. He returned to Tiflis but he soon argued with his roommates, who were supporters of Jordania. He moved out. He had fought with his seminarist friends, then with his roommates, and now he would confront the older radicals of Tiflis. Wherever this rude and arrogant boy went, there was trouble.{74}

8. The Weatherman: Parties and Princes

    Soso needed a job and a home. He became a weatherman. Unlikely as it sounds, the life of a meteorologist at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory was a most convenient cover for a young revolutionary. His friend from Gori, Vano Ketskhoveli, younger brother of Lado, was already working there when in October 1899 Stalin arrived to share his small room beneath the observatory’s tower.[37] As a “probationer-observer,” he was on duty only three times a week from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., checking temperatures and barometers hourly, in return for twenty roubles a month. On night duty, he worked from 8:30 p.m. to 8: 30 a.m., but then he had the whole day off for revolutionary work. In late 1899, Lado, eagerly assisted by Soso, started to organize a strike, one of the first full-scale radical mobilizations of workers in Georgia.
    On New Year’s Day, Lado managed to paralyse the city when the drivers of its Belgian-owned trams stopped work. The secret police were observing Lado and his revolutionary weathermen. In the first weeks of 1900, the police turned up at the observatory, arrested Stalin and carted him off to the Metekhi Fortress. The arrest, Stalin’s first of many, was officially because Beso had not paid his local taxes in his native village, Didi-Lilo{75}—though probably this was a cryptic warning from the Gendarmes.
    Stalin had no money, but his better-off friends (led by Davitashvili) banded together and settled the bill. This can hardly have added to Soso’s paternal affections, yet Beso did visit him at the observatory several times.
    When Keke heard that Beso had once again descended on her son, the redoubtable mother headed into Tiflis on a rescue mission. She insisted on staying in Soso’s room.{76}

    Once Stalin was released—and the interfering Keke had gone home—he returned to encouraging the workers to strike across the city: the railway workshops were the hub of this agitation. He spent much time around the railway depot, “a long stone building with large latticed windows, the deafening roar of clanks and knocks, the puffing and huffing of locomotives.” Initially, his comrades assigned him two clandestine groups of railway workers—so-called circles—to supervise. “I was a complete greenhorn, a total beginner.”{77}
    Stalin lived and dressed the part, wearing what Trotsky called the “generally recognized sign of a revolutionary, especially in the provinces”: a beard; long, almost hippyish hair; and a black satin Russian blouse with a red tie. And he revelled in his scruffiness. “You never saw him in anything,” says Iremashvili, “but that dirty blouse and unpolished shoes.”{78}
    Soso energetically lectured and agitated at his circles. “Why are we poor?” he asked these small gatherings in workers’ digs. “Why are we disenfranchised? How can our life be changed?” His answer was Marxism and the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party (the SDs).{79}
    The workers listened reverently to this young preacher—and it was no coincidence that many revolutionaries were seminarists and the workers, often pious ex-peasants. Some later nicknamed Soso “the Priest.” “It’s a holy struggle,” explained the Tiflis agitator Mikhail Kalinin. Trotsky, agitating in another city, remembered that many of the workers thought the movement resembled “the early Christians” and had to be taught that they should be atheists.
    “If the word ‘committee’ has a tedious twang nowadays, then the very words ‘committee’ and ‘party’… charmed young ears like a seductive melody,” wrote Trotsky. “These were the days of those aged 18–30. Anyone who joined knew prison and exile awaited him—it was a matter of honour to hold out as long as possible.”
    Soso, who also believed in the sanctity of the cause, soon achieved his first success.{80}

    On 1 May 1900, Soso organized a secretive and seminal mass meeting with his characteristically meticulous security. May Day—the Maievka—was the Christmas Day of socialism. The secret police tried to arrest Lado, who scarpered to Baku, the oil city on the Caspian Sea. Stalin stepped into his shoes.
    The evening before, instructions and passwords were distributed. At night,500 workers and activists headed into the hills outside Tiflis to be met by lantern-waving picket-leaders who confided new passwords and routes. At the meeting, they sang “The Marseillaise.” Stalin and the other speakers then clambered onto some rocks: there Soso gave his first big speech, vigorously encouraging strike action while Jordania and the Mesame Dasi opposed it.
    Soso and his radicals won. The railroad depots struck, as did Adelkhanov’s Shoe Factory, where Beso still worked.
    “Why are you coming here?” he asked Soso, resenting his son’s visit.
    “To address these fellows,” replied Soso.
    “Why aren’t you learning a trade?” It was their last recorded contact: Beso failed to cling to his job and became one of the flotsam and jetsam of vagrant desperadoes, borne away on a tide of alcoholism, poverty and despair.
    For the first time, the secret police mentioned Soso Djugashvili—along with the much older Victor Kurnatovsky, who knew Lenin himself, and Silva Jibladze, the legendary rector-beater—as a leader in their reports. Stalin had made his mark.{81}

    The secret police were circling, but life in Tiflis was still sleepy, charming, idyllic with its balmy nights and busy street cafés. The revolutionaries enjoyed an almost undergraduate existence. “Their evenings were filled with loud arguments, reading and prolonged conversations interspersed with guitar playing and singing,” recalls Anna Alliluyeva, daughter of Sergei, the skilled electrician and Marxist agitator who operated alongside Stalin at the Tiflis railway depot. Tiflis was an intimate town where news travelled fast from one vine-entwined verandah to another on “the balcony telegraph.”
    Stalin was just beginning, but already he divided his comrades into heroes, followers and enemies. First he found a new mentor, Prince Alexander “Sasha” Tsulukidze, a “tall handsome young man” dressed beautifully in Western suits, a friend of his other hero, Lado. Both hailed from classes above that of Stalin: Lado was a priest’s son but the Red Prince’s father was one of Georgia’s richest aristocrats; the family of his mother, Princess Olympiada Shervashidze, had ruled Abkhazia.[38] Stalin praised the “astonishing, outstanding talents” of Lado and Prince Sasha, both of them beyond his jealousy because they were long dead. Stalin had only one real hero: himself. In a lifetime of defiant, self-reliant egotism, Lado, Prince Sasha and Lenin were the only others who came close. He was, he said, their “disciple.”{82}
    Stalin already had his own little court among the radical boys expelled from the seminary: another forty were sent down in 1901, including the icon-urinator (Stalin’s ex-pupil) Elisabedashvili and his friend Alexander “Alyosha” Svanidze, who rented a flat in Sololaki Street, just above Yerevan Square. There Stalin gave lessons, preparing a reading list of 300 books for his circle. “He didn’t just read books,” said Elisabedashvili, “he ate them.” Debonair with noble connections and three pretty sisters, Alyosha Svanidze would become Stalin’s brother-in-law and intimate until the Terror. But Stalin did not meet the sisters for a while.
    The other pupil, just arrived from Gori, was the semi-psychotic Simon Ter-Petrossian, aged nineteen, soon to be known as “Kamo,” who had also spent his childhood joining in streetfights, “stealing fruit and my favourite activity—boxing!” He hung around Svanidze’s flat “in order to learn something,” but he wanted to be an army officer. His tyrannical father ranted at him for spending time with Stalin, “that penniless good-for-nothing.” But “when my father went bankrupt in 1901,” says Ter-Petrossian, he lost his power over the boy. “Stalin was my tutor. He taught me literature and gave me books… I really liked Zola’s Germinal!” Stalin “drew him like a magnet.”
    Stalin was not the most patient teacher, however. When Ter-Petrossian struggled with Russian and Marxism, Stalin ordered another of his acolytes, Vardoyan, to teach him. “Soso lay reading a book while I taught Kamo Russian grammar,” remembers Vardoyan, “but Kamo had limited mental abilities and kept saying kamo instead of komu [to whom].” Stalin “lost his temper and jumped up but then laughed, ‘Komu not kamo! Try and remember it, bicho [boy]!’ Afterwards, Soso, always an avid coiner of nicknames for his courtiers, nicknamed Ter-Petrossian ‘Kamo,’ which stuck for his whole life,” says Vardoyan. If Kamo struggled with the language, he was intoxicated with Marxism, and “enthralled” by Stalin. “For now, just read more!” Stalin instructed him. “You might just manage to become an officer, but it would be better if you gave it up, and engaged in something else…” Stalin, like Dr. Frankenstein, groomed Kamo to become his enforcer and cutthroat.
    “Soso was a philosophical conspirator from the start. We learned conspiracy from him,” says Vardoyan. “I was addicted to his way of talking and laughing, his mannerisms. I found myself imitating him against my will so my friends called me ‘Soso’s gramophone.’”{83}
    Yet Soso was never the carefree Georgian. Even then, “He was a very unusual and mysterious man,” explains David Sagirashvili, a young socialist who met him at this time and noticed him “walking the streets of Tiflis, thin, pockmarked and carelessly dressed, burdened with a big stack of books.”
    Stalin attended a wild party given by Alyosha Svanidze. They were drinking cocktails of melon juice and brandy, and got wildly drunk. Yet Soso lay on a sofa on the verandah reading silently, making notes. So they started to look for him: “Where is he?”
    “Soso’s reading,” replied Alyosha Svanidze.
    “What are you reading?” his friends asked mockingly.
    “Napoleon Bonaparte’s Memoirs,” Soso replied. “It’s amazing what mistakes he made. I’m making a note of them!” The intoxicated gentry had hysterics at this autodidactic cobbler’s son whom they now nicknamed the “Kunkula” (Staggerer), for his hasty and awkward gait.{84} But the serious revolutionaries, such as Stalin, Lado and Prince Sasha, were not wasting their time on cocktails.
    Georgia was in a revolutionary “ferment of ideas.” These passionate young idealists “returned late at night with friends,” recounts Anna Alliluyeva. “They sit down at the table, someone opens a book, starts to read aloud.” They were all reading one thing—Lenin’s new newspaper Iskra (Spark), which propagated the vision of a party led by a tiny militant elite.
    This new model of a revolutionary electrified young hotheads like Stalin, who no longer aspired to be the gentleman-amateur enthusing broad groups of workers but resolved to be the brutal professional, leader of a ruthless sect. Always happiest in vigorous campaigns against internal as well as external foes, Soso, still only aged twenty-two, was determined to break Jordania and Jibladze, and bend the Tiflis Party to his own will. “He spoke with cruelty,” reports Razhden Arsenidze, a moderate Marxist who admitted that Stalin “radiated energy, his words imbued with a raw power and singlemindedness. Frequently sarcastic, his cruel witticisms were often as extreme as the lash of a whip.” When his “outraged” listeners protested, he “apologized, explaining that it was the language of the proletariat,” who “talked bluntly but always told the truth.”
    The secret police and the workers regarded this ex-seminarist as an “intellectual,” but to the bewildered moderates he was “a muddled young comrade” launching a “hostile and disruptive agitation against the leaderships of the SD organization in Tiflis.” They openly mocked Soso as “ignorant and obnoxious,” according to Davrichewy. Jibladze grumbled that “we gave him circles to agitate against the state and instead he agitated against us.”{85}
    Stalin, his mentors and followers still met “on the banks of the Kura sitting under scented acacias drinking cheap wine, served by the kioskkeeper.” But the success of Stalin’s strikes had concentrated police minds. The secret police decided to crush the movement before it could organize its 1901 May Day riot. The Gendarmes, analysing their intelligence on the revolutionary “leader” Stalin, immediately spotted his talent for conspiracy: “an intellectual who leads a group of railway workers. External observation revealed he behaves very cautiously, always keeps looking behind him when walking.” He was always hard to catch.{86}

    Overnight on 21–22 March 1901, the secret police, the Okhrana, swooped down on the leaders, Kurnatovsky and Makharadze.[39] They surrounded the weather observatory to catch Stalin, who was returning on the tram. He suddenly noticed through the tram window the studied nonchalance of plainclothes secret policemen—as easily recognizable as G-men in an American movie—in position around the observatory. He stayed on the tram, returning later to reconnoitre, but he could never live there again.
    The raid changed his destiny: here ended any aspiration to a life of normality. He had played with the idea of becoming a teacher, earning extra cash by tutoring (though he normally tried to convert his pupils to Marxism), charging ten kopecks an hour. That was all over now. Henceforth he lived on others, expecting friends, sympathizers or the Party to fund his philanthropic revolutionary mission. He instantly entered what Trotsky called “that very serious game called revolutionary conspiracy”—a murky terrorist netherworld with its own special customs, fastidious etiquette and brutal rules.
    As Soso entered this secret world, he pushed ahead with the plans for an aggressive May Day demonstration.

    The governor-general of the Caucasus, Prince Golitsyn, marched Cossacks, Dragoons, artillery and infantry into Tiflis for a showdown. They bivouacked in the squares. On the morning of Sunday, 22 April 1901, some 3,000 workers and revolutionaries gathered outside the Soldiers Bazaar. The Cossacks had other ideas, but Soso was prepared. Sergei Alliluyev noticed that the activists were “unseasonably dressed in heavy overcoats and Caucasian sheepskin hats.” When he asked why, a comrade answered: “Soso’s orders.”
    “What for?”
    “We’ll be the first to receive the Cossack whips.”
    Indeed the Cossacks waited in every courtyard down Golovinsky Prospect. At noon, “the garrison gun boomed;” the demonstrators started to march up Golovinsky to Yerevan Square, where the seminarists were to join them, singing “The Marseillaise” and “The Warsawianka.” The Cossacks galloped down on them, drawing sabres and brandishing their heavy nagaika whips that could kill a man. The pharaohs—the police—advanced, sabres drawn. A forty-five-minute pitched battle of “desperate encounters” broke out down the boulevard as the Cossacks charged any group larger than three people. The red banners—declaring DOWN WITH TYRANNY—were passed from hand to hand. Fourteen workers were seriously wounded and fifty arrested. Martial law was declared in Tiflis.{87}
    This was Stalin’s first success. While the genteel Jordania was arrested and imprisoned for a year, his Kvali closed, Stalin just fled to Gori for a few days. No wonder Jordania loathed this young hothead, but Stalin had just started. He and his allies were soon keen to intensify the “open struggle”—even if it cost “torrents of blood.”

    These young radicals discussed the murder of Captain Lavrov, the deputy chief of the Gendarmes in Tiflis, but the real action was in the railway depots where the railways director, Vedenev, energetically resisted Stalin’s strikes.
    Stalin now met another partner-in-crime, Stepan Shaumian, the well-off, highly educated son of an Armenian businessman. Shaumian, closely connected with the plutocracy of the Caucasus, was tutor to the children of the city’s richest oil baron, Mantashev, and he soon married the daughter of a top oil executive.
    “Tall, well built and very handsome with a pale face and light-blue eyes,” Shaumian helped organize a solution to the problem of Vedenev: the railway boss was sitting in his office when a pistol, pointed through his window, shot him through the heart.
    No one was caught.{88} But this shot marked the start of a new era in which “all tender feeling for family, friendship, love, gratitude and even honour, must,” according to the much-read Revolutionary Catechism of the nihilist Nechaev, “be squashed by the sole passion for revolutionary work.” The amoral rules—or rather the lack of them—were described by both sides as konspiratsia, the “world apart” that is vividly drawn in Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils. Without understanding konspiratsia, it is impossible to understand the Soviet Union itself: Stalin never left this world. Konspiratsia became the ruling spirit of his Soviet state—and of his state of mind.
    Henceforth, Stalin usually carried a pistol in his belt. Secret policemen and revolutionary terrorists now became professional secret fighters in the duel for the Russian Empire.[40]

9. Stalin Goes Underground: Konspiratsia

    Just at this time, the Gori priest’s son Kote Charkviani was arguing with a street-cleaner on a Tiflis backstreet when a familiar voice said: “Smash him up, Kote. Don’t be afraid, he’s the tamed street hound of the Gendarmes!” It was Soso, who could divine a traitor or a spy almost by instinct. He could not hang around to chat. The secret police were after him.
    Then “he disappeared into the narrow curved street…” But that conspiratorial instinct was an essential quality in this game of mist, mirrors and shadows. The antagonists were locked in an intimate, desperate and amoral embrace in which agents, double-agents and treble-agents promised, betrayed, switched sides and betrayed again their allegiances.
    In the 1870s, the rebels were middle-class populists, narodniki, who hoped that the liberal future lay with the pure peasantry. A faction of narodniki developed into the terrorist groups Land and Freedom and later People’s Will, who believed that the murder of Emperor Alexander II would achieve revolution.
    People’s Will embraced the ideas of the small-time philosopher Nechaev whose amoral Revolutionary Catechism begot Lenin and Stalin. “Regroup this world of brigands into an indivisible destructive force,” he suggested, killing police “in the most agonizing way.” The anarchist Bakunin shared that dream of harnessing the “swashbuckling robber-world” to the Revolution. Lenin borrowed the disciplined organization, total dedication and the gangsterish brutality of the People’s Will, qualities that Stalin personified.
    Alexander II, faced with a terroristic cat-and-mouse game, started to create a modern security service as sophisticated as the terrorists themselves. He reorganized his father’s Third Section into a plainclothed secret police, the Division for Protection of Order and Social Security, soon shortened to “Okhrana.” Yet, throughout the reforms, the People’s Will actually had an agent within the department. The police hunted down the terrorists, but it was too late. In 1881, they got their man, killing Alexander II on the streets of St. Petersburg.
    His heir, Alexander III, created the double system that Stalin knew. Both the Okhrana and the prestigious semi-military Gendarmes, the “Tsar’s eyes and ears,” dressed in a fine blue white-trimmed uniform with boots and sabre, ran their own intelligence services.
    At its elegant headquarters at 16 Fontanka by the Moika in Petersburg, the Okhrana Special Section meticulously collated labyrinthine charts and colour-coded files of terror groups. Their bureaux noirs practised perlustratsia (perlustration): 380,000 letters annually were being opened by 1882.[41] They had a reputation in Europe as the sinister organ of Autocracy but never even approached the brutal competence of Lenin’s Cheka, let alone Stalin’s NKVD. They wielded three punishments. The rope was rarely used, being reserved for assassins of Romanovs and ministers, but it had one decisive effect: the execution of Alexander Ulyanov, a young man on the edge of a conspiracy against the Tsar, helped radicalize his younger brother, Lenin. Next was katorga, hard labour, again quite rare. The most common punishment was “administrative exile,” for periods of up to five years.
    The mastermind of konspiratsia, Moscow Okhrana chief Zubatov, evolved a new system of surveillance. Detectives were employed, but their real tools were the agentura, the “external agent”—the shpik, or “spook,” in revolutionary vernacular—who followed characters like Stalin. The Okhrana’s most effective tactic was the provokatsia—the provocations of their “internal agents.” The secret policeman should treat his agent provocateur like “a beloved woman with whom you have entered illicit relations,” explained Zubatov. “Look after her like the apple of your eye. One careless move and you dishonour her… Never reveal the name of your informer to anyone, even your director. Forget his name and remember only his pseudonym.” The stakes were high: one side’s provokator was the other’s predatel (traitor), who faced death.
    In return for sometimes huge salaries, these double-agents not only penetrated the “internal life of the revolutionary organizations” but also sometimes directed them. The Okhrana even set up their own revolutionary groups and trade unions. And their very existence was designed to inspire a cannibalistic frenzy of suspicion and paranoia among the revolutionaries. The craziness of Stalinist terror in the USSR shows how successful they were. Yet konspiratsia could be as dangerous for the authorities as for the terrorists.[42]
    Russia faced a blossoming of conspiracies in this war on terror: the Okhrana had to foil not only the Social-Democrats, the Armenian nationalist Dashnaks and the Georgian Socialist-Federalists but Russia’s most deadly terrorists, populist socialists called the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the SRs. In the best example of the danger of double-agents, the Okhrana recruited Evano Azef, head of the SR Fighting Brigade, which effectively used suicide bombers. During 1902–5, Azef received massive payments, but simultaneously he arranged the assassination of two Interior Ministers and a Grand Duke.
    Yet overall, despite Okhrana-Gendarme rivalry and bureaucratic muddle, the secret-police suppression and infiltration of the revolutionaries was astonishingly subtle and successful: they were the best secret services of their day.[43] Indeed Lenin copied the Okhrana to organize “a few professionals as highly trained and experienced as the secret police with conspiratorial techniques at the highest level of perfection.”
    Stalin was precisely such a man; this “world apart” was his natural habitat. In the Caucasus, it was even harder to make sense of the game. A Georgian upbringing was the ideal training for the terrorist-gangster, based on sacred loyalty to family and friends, fighting skill, personal largesse and the art of vengeance, all punched into Stalin on Gori back-streets. The Caucasian secret police were more violent yet more venal. Stalin became eerily adept at corrupting them and at divining their spies.{89}

    Stalin was constantly tailed by Okhrana spooks whom he became expert at foxing: “Those dolts,” he laughed as he pulled off another serpentine escape in the backstreets of Tiflis. “Are we supposed to teach them how to do their own jobs?”{90} He avoided the arrests that followed his May Day bedlam, but he had close misses. Once he was singing Georgian songs in an illicit bookshop when the police surrounded the place: he walked right past the “dumb policemen.” Another time at a revolutionary meeting, the police raided the house, but Stalin and his friends jumped out of the window into the rain without their galoshes, roaring with laughter.{91}
    He changed names—he used the alias “David” at this time—and lodged in at least six apartments. When he was staying with his friend Mikha Bochoridze, the police raided the house (where Kamo would later take the money after the Tiflis heist). Stalin pretended to be a sick tenant, lying in bed, shrouded in sheets and bandages. The police searched the house but, having no orders about an invalid, they went to consult their officers. They were sent back to arrest the “patient,” who meanwhile had made a swift recovery—and exit.{92}
    Between escapes and meetings, Stalin was busy writing his first articles in a catechismic, romantic and apocalyptic style. Lado had teamed up with Abel Yenukidze, a sandy-haired, genial ex-seminarist and womanizer, to create a radical newspaper Brdzola (Struggle), which they printed on an illegal printing-press in Baku.{93}
    The police spies hunted and sometimes even caught up with him: on 27 and 28 October 1901, they observed “Intellectual Josef Djugashvili leading a meeting” at the Melani Tavern.
    On 11 November, he was one of those running a city conference attended by about twenty-four Marxists. Here he was attacked by the moderates as a “slanderer.” They would all have known of Jibladze’s accusations against the “obnoxious” Soso, but they also recognized his energy, competence and ruthlessness. Stalin, following Lenin’s vision of a militant sect of professional revolutionaries, warned of the dangers of electing ordinary workers to their Committee because “police agents would be elected.” Instead the conference elected a committee of four workers and four intellectuals.
    His many enemies surely demanded his expulsion, later claiming that he was driven out of Tiflis. This wishful thinking has been repeated by historians ever since. Fortunately, the Gendarme agents, who were better informed and whose reports were written that day, reveal that Soso was elected as the fourth intellectual. But perhaps this was part of a compromise that killed two birds with one stone. He was elected to the Committee, joining the leadership for the first time, but as the secret police were closing in, he was “rescued” (and his comrades rescued from his malevolent machinations) by being sent on “a propaganda mission”—conveniently far away from Tiflis.
    The Gendarmes noticed that the newly elected, ever-present Stalin missed his Committee meeting on 25 November 1901—and, as ever like Macavity, T. S. Eliot’s elusive cat, disappeared into thin air.
    He was in fact on the train to Batumi, turbulent oil port of the Russian Empire, where he would spread blood and fire.{94}

10. “I’m Working for the Rothschilds!”—Fire, Massacre and Arrest in Batumi

    Comrade Soso brought his new merciless style to Batumi with a vengeance. Within three months of his move to the seaside boom-town, the Rothschilds’ refinery had mysteriously caught fire. A militant strike had led to the storming of the prison and a Cossack massacre. The town was flooded with Marxist pamphlets; informers were being murdered, horses slaughtered, factory managers shot. Soso was in a feud with the old-style Georgian revolutionaries and was having an affair with a married girl while the secret police hunted him down.
    He hit the ground running in Batumi. He rendezvoused at a tavern in the Turkish Bazaar with Constantine Kandelaki, a worker and Social-Democrat, who became his Batumi henchman. He ordered Kandelaki to call a series of meetings. “At an agreed knock, we opened the door,” wrote one of the local workers, Porfiro Kuridze, who confronted “a slim young and energetic man, with black hair,” worn very long.
    “Nobody knew his name,” records Domenti Vadachkoria, who held one of these meetings at his apartment. “It was just a young man in a black shirt, a long summer coat and a fedora.” Already something of a veteran in konspiratsia and a believer in his own instinctive eye for traitors, Stalin ordered Vadachkoria to “invite seven workers to a meeting” but “asked me to show him the invited workers.” He stood at the window while “I walked the invited workers one by one along the lane. Stalin asked me not to invite one of them. He was an amazing conspirator and knew human nature well. He could look at someone and see right through them. I told him a man wanted to work with us.” The man’s name was Karzkhiya.
    At the meetings, Stalin announced that he was bringing a newly aggressive spirit to the Revolution in Batumi. Then he asked everyone there to “gather another seven at your factory and repeat this conversation.”{95} Setting up his headquarters at Ali the Persian’s Tavern in the bazaar, Comrade Soso moved around all the time in a frenzy of often nocturnal visits and lectures. He first lived with Simhovich, a Jewish watchmaker, then with an ex-brigand, now oil worker, Silvester Lomdzharia, who with his brother Porfiro became Stalin’s bodyguards.
    One day, Stalin rose early and disappeared without a word. Kandelaki arrived soon afterwards and waited nervously until he returned.
    “Guess why I got up so early this morning?” asked Stalin exuberantly. “Today I got a job with the Rothschilds at their refinery storehouse. I’ll be earning 6 abaz daily [1 rouble 20 kopecks].” The Franco-Jewish dynasty, who personified the power, glamour and cosmopolitanism of international capitalism, would not have been as amused as Stalin, but they never knew that they had employed the future supreme pontiff of international Marxism. Stalin started laughing, almost singing: “I’m working for the Rothschilds!”
    “I hope,” joked Kandelaki, “the Rothschilds will start to prosper from this moment onwards!”
    Stalin said nothing, but they understood one another: he would do what he could to ensure that the Rothschilds prospered.{96}
    On New Year’s Eve, Soso gathered together his top thirty rebels for a party-cum-meeting at Lomdzharia’s house, serving cheese, sausage and wine—but he banned excessive boozing. His bloodcurdling and melodramatic speech ended: “We mustn’t fear death! The sun is rising. Let’s sacrifice our lives!”
    “God forbid we die in our beds!” shouted the toastmaster. The workers cheered, inspired by Stalin’s aggression—even if Batumi’s moderate Marxists, led by Karlo Chkheidze, the local hospital manager, and teacher Isidore Ramishvili, were not. They ran a Sunday school for workers, a soppy approach anathema to Stalin. The “legals” initially helped fund his work, but friendly relations did not last long. Stalin was about to “turn Batumi upside down.”

    Batumi was a subtropical frontier-town on the Black Sea, dominated by the Empire’s great financial-oil dynasties, the Nobels and the Rothschilds. Even twenty years later, the poet Osip Mandelstam called Batumi “a Russian-style California Goldrush city.”
    The Tsar had only gained this seaside nest of pirates from the Ottoman Padishah in 1878, but the oil boom in Baku, on the other side of the Caucasian isthmus, had presented the challenge of how to transport the black gold to the West. The Rothschilds and Nobels built a pipeline to Batumi, where they could refine the oil, then load it into the tankers moored in Naphtha Harbour. Suddenly Batumi, also the port of export for manganese, liquorice and tea, became a “door to Europe,” Georgia’s “only modern town.”
    Batumi now boasted 16,000 Persian, Turkish, Greek, Georgian, Armenian and Russian workers, almost a thousand of them at the refinery, controlled by Baron Eduard de Rothschild’s Caspian and Black Sea Oil Company. The workers, often children, lived miserably in Oil City on reeking streets, with overflowing cesspools beside oozing refineries. Typhus killed many. But Batumi’s millionaires and foreign executives, especially the English, turned this backwater into a pleasure town with a seaside boulevard, white Cuban-style mansions, sumptuous brothels, a casino, a cricket pitch and an English Yacht Club.{97}

    On 4 January 1902, “As I was coming home,” says Kandelaki, “I saw the fire!” Then Stalin returned, cheerfully boasting: “You know, man, your words came true!” The Rothschilds would indeed “prosper” with Stalin as an employee. “My warehouse caught fire!”[45]
    Crowds watched a black mushroom of smoke rise over the port. The workers helped put out the fire, which meant they were due a bonus. Stalin joined a deputation to meet the Rothschilds’ French manager, François Jeune, his first encounter with a European businessman. But there is evidence that Stalin was henceforth in secret contact with the Rothschilds management—the start of his murky but lucrative relationship with the oil barons. The Rothschilds surely knew that the fire was arson, and Jeune refused to pay the bonus. This was the provocation Stalin sought. He called a strike.
    The authorities attempted to stop him; the Okhrana tried to hunt down Batumi’s new agitator; the pharaohs harassed the strikers; the police spies watched the Marxists; the Rothschilds worried about their oil shipments. But Stalin headed for Tiflis—eleven hours by train—to procure the printing-press, necessary to broaden the strike. Leaflets had to be published in both Georgian and Armenian, so the Committee put him in contact with Suren Spandarian, an affluent but ruthless Armenian who, despite a wife and children, was an unrestrained Lothario. Stalin printed his Armenian pamphlets on the presses of Spandarian’s father, a newspaper editor. Spandarian became Stalin’s best friend.{98}
    Stalin, assisted by Kamo and bearing his printing-press, returned to find Batumi in uproar. Kamo and Kandelaki quickly set up the press, which was soon broadcasting Stalin’s words to all the workers of Oil City.
    On 17 February, the Rothschilds and Nobels capitulated and agreed to the workers’ demands, including a 30 percent pay rise—a triumph for the young revolutionary. In Tiflis, Captain Lavrov’s Gendarmes were breaking the Marxists with raids and arrests, but in Batumi, formerly so quiet, Gendarme captain Giorgi Jakeli admitted that he was worried by the “sudden increased restlessness.” He intensified surveillance of the enigmatic “Comrade Soso.”
    Stalin had to move out of Lomdzharia’s apartment. After staying in different flats, he settled in the workers’ township of Barskhana in a little house belonging to Natasha Kirtava, aged twenty-two, a peasant beauty and SD sympathizer whose husband had disappeared. Judging by Batumi folklore, Kirtava’s own memoirs and his own later proposals, Stalin enjoyed a love affair with the young woman, the first but not the last with his many landladies and conspiratorial comrades. In her memoirs, she talks of his “tender attention and thoughtfulness” and even records a loving moment[46] amid the Marxist struggle: “He turned to me, stroked the hair off my forehead, and kissed me.”{99}
    The Rothschilds, under their managers Jeune and von Stein, were determined to avenge Stalin’s success. On 26 February, they dismissed 389 troublemaking workers. They went on strike, sending “a man to find Comrade Soso,” but he was in Tiflis, where he frequently visited his protégés Svanidze and Kamo.
    Soso hurried back to Batumi next day, inviting his followers to a meeting at Lomdzharia’s place, where “he proposed a series of demands”—and an even more provocative strike to shut down the whole oil terminal. One of his helpers, Porfiro Kuridze, did not recognize him: he had shaved off his beard and moustaches. When Stalin was not in Ali the Persian’s Tavern, he used the Souk-suk Cemetery as his macabre headquarters, holding midnight meetings among the graves to elect delegates. Once when police surprised a meeting there, he hid within the wide skirts of a female comrade. At another gathering, surrounded by Cossacks, Stalin pulled on a dress and escaped in drag.
    The workers were impressed with the “intellectual,” whom they dubbed “the Priest.” He gave them a reading list. “He once left us a book,” said Kuridze. “‘It’s Gogol,’ Stalin explained, teaching us about Gogol’s life.”
    Comrade Soso, usually dressed in a dashing Circassian coat with his trademark black wide-brimmed fedora and a white Caucasian hood tossed over his shoulder, quickly gained an aggressive following, known as the “Sosoists,” an early version of Stalinists. Chkheidze and the “legals” of the Sunday school invited him over to receive a reprimand, but he refused to go. “They’re armchair strategists and avoid real political struggle,” sneered Soso, who had to be in absolute control. “Djugashvili’s despotism,” reported Captain Lavrov of the Tiflis Gendarmerie, “alienated many” in the struggle “between the older Socialists and the younger Socialists.” The strike spread. Blacklegs were threatened, their horses slaughtered. But the secret police were after Soso the Priest. The Cossacks were massing.{100}

    General Smagin, governor of Kutaisi Province, which included Batumi, rushed into town to lead the suppression of the strike. Addressing the workers, his message was bleak: “Back to work or Siberia!” Overnight on 7 March, Smagin arrested Stalin’s bodyguard Porfiro Lomdzharia and the strike leaders.
    Next day, Stalin arranged demonstrations outside the police station where the prisoners were kept. The pressure worked. The Gendarmes nervously moved the prisoners to a transit prison. The governor promised to meet the demonstrators. This did not suit Soso. At that night’s meeting, he proposed storming the prison. Vadachkoria preferred to negotiate. “You’ll never be a revolutionary,” sneered Soso the Priest. The Sosoists backed him. The next morning, Stalin led aggressive demonstrations. The day after that, much of the town joined him on the march to storm the prison. But a traitor had betrayed the plan. Cossacks took up positions. Troops under the tough Captain Antadze blocked the way to the transit prison. They fixed bayonets. The vast crowd hesitated before the roadblock.
    “Don’t run or they’ll shoot,” Stalin warned.
    “Soso suggested we sing songs. We didn’t know the revolutionary hymns then so we sang ‘Ali-Pasha’!” said Porfiro Kuridze.
    “The soldiers won’t fire,” Stalin called out over the crowd, “and don’t be afraid of the officers. Beat ’em up and let’s free our comrades.” The mob lurched forward towards the prison.
    Soso was surrounded by a guard of Sosoists, mainly Gurian peasant-workers, led by Kandelaki. “The Gurians were brave conspirators. They tried to stop me going to the front but I did,” Stalin bragged later. “So they created seven circles round me and even the wounded were held in place so it was impossible to break the circle.”
    Just as the crowd outside the jail started to charge the soldiers, the prisoners inside overcame their guards. One of the prisoners, Porfiro Lomdzharia, heard the rioters: “We tried to get out. The gate was shattered. Some prisoners escaped.” The Cossacks galloped at the marauding demonstrators, who tried to grab their rifles. The rebels fired shots in return and pelted the Cossacks with rocks. The soldiers beat them back with rifle-butts but were forced to retreat. Captain Antadze was hit by stones, his cuff pierced by a bullet. The soldiers fought back, shooting into the air—and retreated again. But this time they stood their ground. “Again the loud voice of Stalin called upon us not to disperse and to free the workers,” recalled a demonstrator, Injerabian. The mob surged forward.
    “Then a terrible sound!” Captain Antadze barked the order “Fire!” Volleys of shots rang out. People fell to the ground. Everyone was running and screaming. “It was panic, absolute hell. The deserted square was covered with dead and dying, groaning” under the eyes of the soldiers. The dying cried out “Water” or “Help!” Then “I remembered Soso,” says Kandelaki. “We got separated. I was afraid, starting to search for his body among the dead.” But Vera Lomdzharia, Porfiro’s sister, noticed Stalin wandering around observing the mayhem he had unleashed. Looking for her brother among the corpses, she attacked a soldier, but he replied: “It was Antadze.”
    Soso picked up “one of the wounded” and got him into a phaeton. “He brought him to our flat,” reports Illarion Darakhvelidze. “Soso wrapped bandages around the wounded,” agrees Kandelaki. Natasha Kirtava and other women helped wounded comrades into carts that took them to hospital. There were thirteen dead, fifty-four wounded. That night at Darakhvelidze’s house, “We were extremely agitated.” But Soso was exhilarated.
    “Today we advanced several years!” Stalin told Kachik Kazarian. Nothing else mattered. “We lost comrades but we won.” As in many other bloody campaigns, the human cost was irrelevant, subordinate to its political value. “The whiplash and sabre render us a great service, hastening to revolutionize any innocent bystanders.” Young Trotsky was impressed by the Batumi massacre: “It stirred the whole country.”
    Jordania and Chkheidze fumed about “this youngster who wanted to be a leader” but “lacked necessary understanding of affairs… and used rough language.” They believed that the massacre played into the hands of the authorities: was Stalin an agent provocateur?

    Stalin rushed to his printing-press hidden in the cottage of Despina Shapatava, a young Marxist. “Thank the mothers who raised such sons!” he boomed in his printed response to the massacre, distributed all over town by next morning. However, an informer betrayed the press, and policemen raided the house. But Despina blocked the way. “My children are sleeping,” she shouted. The police laughed: neither the press nor Stalin were interrupted. But he was not only fighting with words: it seems that he ordered the assassination of the Rothschilds’ manager von Stein. “We entrusted [a comrade] to assassinate him,” recalls one of Stalin’s henchmen. “When von Stein’s carriage got closer,” the hit man drew his revolver but bungled the hit. “Von Stein turned his carriage round, fled and left the town that night by ship.”
    The hunt was on for Stalin, who now had to move his invaluable press to a safer hideout. He “attached great importance to conspiracy,” says Kuridze. “Often he’d arrive in a coach, then change his clothes and disappear again just as quickly.” He would alter his appearance, suddenly swap coats with comrades, often sporting “a hood over his long hair.”{101}
    That night, Stalin loaded the press onto a carriage, hid it in the cemetery, then carried it to a shack, the home of an old Abkhazian highwayman named Hashimi Smirba, at Makhmudia, seven versts outside Batumi but right under the cannons of the garrison fortress (and therefore beyond suspicion). The retired brigand was delighted to hide the press because his friend Lomdzharia told him it would print counterfeit roubles. Smirba would get his share. Smirba’s son Hamdi, whose memoirs do not appear in the cult literature, recounts how Stalin arrived in the middle of the night with four heavy boxes and sprang into action, unpacking and setting them up in a cellar. The typesetters, and probably Stalin too, arrived and left dressed as Muslim women in veils. Working day and night, he hired builders to construct another house for Smirba containing a secret compartment for the whirring press.
    “What’s that noise?” asked one of the builders.
    “A cow with a worm in its horn,” replied Smirba.
    Soso almost moved into Smirba’s wooden cottage, where the old Muslim footpad hassled the young Georgian rebel for his share of the scam.
    “You’ve been printing for days,” said Smirba. “When are you going to use the money?”
    Soso handed Smirba one of his leaflets.
    “What’s this?” exclaimed the amazed Smirba.
    “We’re going to overthrow the Tsar, the Rothschilds and the Nobels,” replied Stalin, to Smirba’s puzzlement.
    Each morning, he hid the pamphlets in peasant fruit baskets which Smirba loaded onto his cart. Meeting Lomdzharia in town, the two bandits took the fruit baskets around the factories, distributing the leaflets. If anyone tried to buy fruit, Smirba demanded a steep price or claimed it was a special order. When the printer was broken, Stalin told Kandelaki, “Let’s go hunting.” Identifying the right spare parts in a local printingshop, he then said: “The bear’s shot, now skin it”—and sent in his henchmen, who stole them and delivered them to him at his HQ, Ali the Persian’s Tavern in the bazaar. Once some Cossacks galloped down the street just as little Hamdi was delivering a part. He tossed the bag into the house and leaped into a ditch. Afterwards, Stalin helped dry the boy, praising his courage.
    Smirba’s whole village now knew there was something afoot in the new wooden hut visited by so many burly and veiled women, whereupon Soso gathered twelve trusted peasants to explain his mission. “After that,” remembers Hamdi Smirba, “they respected the house.”
    “You’re a good man, Soso,” said Smirba, puffing on his pipe. “Shame you’re not Muslim. If you become Muslim, you’ll get seven beautiful virgins. Don’t you want to become Muslim?”
    “I certainly do!” laughed Soso.{102}[47]

    The dead workers were buried on 12 March, an opportunity for yet another demonstration, 7,000 strong, inspired by the fiery proclamation written and printed by Stalin. The procession was surrounded on every side by mounted Cossacks. Singing was banned. Comrade Soso quietly supervised the funerals. The Gendarmes prevented any speeches. As the crowd left, the Cossacks mocked them by singing the Death March.
    The secret police now knew Stalin was one of the leaders of the Batumi disturbances. The organization “achieved some big successes after the arrival of Josef Djugashvili in autumn 1901,” Captain Jakeli reported to the chief of the Kutaisi Gendarmerie. “I have ascertained that Josef Djugashvili was seen in the crowd during the 9 March disorders… All evidence points to the fact of his active role in the disorders.” They were determined to track him down.
    On 5 April, Despina Shapatova warned Stalin that he had been denounced. He moved that night’s meeting twice and finally it met at Darakhvelidze’s house. Suddenly Despina ran in: the Gendarmes were outside or, as the presiding officer, put it: “Yesterday at midnight, I surrounded the house where intelligence told us they were holding a meeting of the Mantashev Refinery workers…”
    Soso the Priest rushed to the back window, but it was hopeless. The house was surrounded by blue-uniformed Gendarmes. This time there was no escape.{103}[48]

PART TWO

To the Moon
Move tirelessly
Do not hang your head
Scatter the mist of the clouds
The Lord’s Providence is great.

Gently smile at the earth
Stretched out beneath you;
Sing a lullaby to the glacier
Strung down from the heavens.

Know for certain that once
Struck down to the ground, an oppressed man
Strives again to reach the pure mountain,
When exalted by hope.

So, lovely moon, as before
Glimmer through the clouds;
Pleasantly in the azure vault
Make your beams play.

But I shall undo my vest
And thrust out my chest to the moon,
With outstretched arms, I shall revere
The spreader of light upon the earth!

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)

11. The Prisoner

    Stalin was imprisoned in Batumi Prison, where he immediately distinguished himself by his surly swagger and arrogant audacity. Prison affected him deeply and remained with him. “I got used to loneliness in prison,” he said much later, though in fact he was rarely alone there.
    On 6 April 1902, he faced his first interrogation at the hands of Gendarme captain Jakeli. He denied he had even been in Batumi at the time of the massacre, claiming he had been with his mother in Gori. Two days later, he ordered another prisoner to throw two notes into the prison yard where friends and families of the prisoners gathered to deliver food and messages. But the guards retrieved the notes in Stalin’s handwriting. The first sent a message “to tell the teacher… Josef Iremashvili that Soso Djugashvili’s been arrested and ask him to tell his mother that when Gendarmes ask her ‘When did your son leave Gori?,’ she must reply, ’He was here in Gori all summer and winter until 15 March.’”
    The other note summoned his former pupil Elisabedashvili to Batumi to take over his organization. Captain Jakeli had already consulted the Tiflis secret police, who revealed that Stalin had been a leading light on the Tiflis Committee. But now he also briefed Gori, who reported that two men had arrived there from Batumi and talked to Keke, her brother Giorgi Geladze (Stalin’s uncle) and Iremashvili. All three were arrested and interrogated: not a happy day for Keke.{105}
    The men from Batumi had come to collect Stalin’s mother, but the clumsy note-tossing also implicated Elisabedashvili, who was living in Tiflis with Kamo and Svanidze. The Gendarmes arrested Kamo, who reluctantly led them to the Sololaki bathhouse, where they seized a disrobed Elisabedashvili. He was taken to meet the “famous Captain Lavrov,” who handed him over to Captain Jakeli. As Elisabedashvili entered the Batumi prison yard, Stalin rushed past him, whispering: “You don’t know me.”
    “I know,” replied Elisabedashvili. “Hello from everyone!”
    The next day, Elisabedashvili was interrogated by Captain Jakeli.
    “Do you know Josef Djugashvili?”
    “No.”
    “Nonsense! He says he knows you!”
    “He might be insane.”
    “Insane?” laughed the captain. “How can such a person be mad? We had Marxists here before but they were quiet enough. This Djugashvili has turned the whole of Batumi upside down.”
    When Elisabedashvili was led past Stalin’s cell, he caught a glimpse, through the bars, of “an outraged Soso cursing his cellmate and punching him. Next day, I learned that they had placed a stool-pigeon in his cell.” Elisabedashvili was released—but soon returned, on Stalin’s orders, to direct Batumi’s Sosoists.{106}
    As for Keke, she obeyed Soso’s summons. Around 18 May, she set off from Gori and only returned on 16 June. She visited her son twice in Batumi Prison. On her way via Tiflis, she somehow bumped into Crazy Beso, drunk and angry.
    “Stop or I’ll kill you!” he shouted, denouncing his rebel son. “He wants to turn the world upside down. If you hadn’t taken him to school, he’d be a craftsman—now he’s in prison. I’ll kill such a son with my own hands—he’s disgraced me!” A crowd gathered. Keke slipped away, her last encounter with her husband.
    Soso’s rebellion was the ruin of Keke’s ambition. She must, in her way, have worried as much as Beso. She applied for his release and probably delivered messages from his comrades. In his egocentricity, old Stalin acknowledged her suffering: “Was she happy? Come on! What happiness for Keke if her son was arrested? We didn’t have much time for our mothers. Such was the fate of mothers!”[49]

    Stalin was soon the kingpin of Batumi Prison, dominating his friends, terrorizing the intellectuals, suborning the guards and befriending the criminals.{107}
    The Imperial prisons were a hidden civilization with their own customs and tricks, but Stalin, as ever, ignored the etiquette that did not suit him. The prisons, “like the country itself, combined barbarism with paternalism,” says Trotsky. There was no consistency: sometimes political prisoners were placed in one big cell known as “the Church,” where they would elect “Elders.”
    The revolutionaries lived by a set of chivalrous rules. Whenever comrades arrived or departed, it was traditional for the whole prison to sing “The Marseillaise” and wave a red flag. Revolutionaries, sacred intellectuals and self-appointed crusaders, were too elevated to socialize with mere criminals, but, “I preferred them [the criminals],” Stalin said, “because there were so many rats among the politicals.” He loathed the duplicitous chatter of the intellectuals. “Rats” were killed.
    If they were in solitary cells, the politicals communicated through a ponderous but simple code of knocks—“the prison alphabet.” Sergei Alliluyev was in prison in the Metekhi Fortress of Tiflis but the tapping on his stove-pipe informed him: “Bad news! Soso arrested!” Then there was the impoverished jailhouse system of communication known as the “prison telegraph” by which prisoners delivered packages to each other by swinging them on strings from their windows whence they were hooked by another string with a stone on the end.
    When the prisoners walked in the courtyards, discipline was lax: it was hard to keep any secrets there. Soso always seemed to know who was arriving, how prisoners were behaving. Like American Mafiosi running La Cosa Nostra from prison, Soso swiftly improved his communications with the outside world. “He continued to run things from prison.”[50]
    The authorities erred seriously when they allowed their revolutionaries to study in prison. These obsessive autodidacts studied hard there, none more so than Stalin, whose cellmate says, “He spent the whole day reading and writing… His prison day had a strict routine: he woke early in the morning, did morning exercises, then studied German and read economic literature. He never rested and he liked to recommend comrades what books to read…” Another prisoner said that Stalin made “prison into a university.” He called it his “second school.”
    The prison guards were lenient, either because the revolutionaries were socially superior “gentlemen,” or because they had been bribed or because they were sympathetic. One of Stalin’s friends was put in a cell near to his and asked him about the Communist Manifesto: “We couldn’t meet,” reminisced Stalin, “but I read it aloud and he could hear it. Once during my reading, I heard some steps outside and stopped. Suddenly I heard the guard say: ‘Please don’t stop. Comrade, please continue.’”{108}
    One article must have been doing the rounds of the “prison telegraph”: in March 1902, the Marxist now using the alias “Lenin” published an essay “What Is to Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement,” which demanded a “new vanguard” of ruthless conspirators—a vision that immediately split the Party. “Give us an organization of revolutionaries,” promised Lenin, “and we shall overturn the whole of Russia!”{109}[51]

    Captain Jakeli rounded up Batumi’s Sosoists, including Stalin’s young landlady and girlfriend Natasha Kirtava. When she appeared in the jailyard, Natasha was swiftly approached by an unknown prisoner: “Comrade Soso asks you to look up at his window.”
    Natasha was alarmed in case this prisoner was a stool-pigeon. “I don’t know a Comrade Soso,” she answered.
    But when she was locked in her cell, Stalin appeared at her window. “So, comrades, are you bored?” he inquired grandly. She saw that Comrade Soso was still very much in command of the struggle inside and outside the prison. “The prisoners loved him because he took such cordial care of them.” He certainly took good care of Natasha. Once she went to see him in his cell for a chat when one of the prison guards caught her and drove her away with the handle of his sabre. Stalin demanded the dismissal of the guard. His courage won him popularity among the prisoners but also respect from the authorities: he got his way.{110} It was not only Sosoists who admired him: another prisoner, who shared his cell, admitted that, although Soso later became a monster, he was “a very pleasant and gallant cellmate.”{111}
    The Prosecutor in Tiflis ruled there was not enough evidence to charge Stalin with leading the Batumi riot. Probably witnesses were too afraid to testify. He was off that hook but remained in prison because Captain Lavrov was investigating another case—Stalin’s role on the Tiflis Committee. On 29 August, the Gendarmes indicted Stalin along with his old comrades on the Committee. Yet the bureaucracy muddled along slowly.{112}
    He fell ill with his old chest sickness, which he sometimes claimed was his heart, at other times a shadow on the lung. During October, Soso managed to get the prison doctor to assign him and his sidekick Kandelaki to hospital.{113} Against revolutionary etiquette, he also appealed three times to Prince Golitsyn, the governor-general himself:
    My worsening cough and the pitiful condition of my aged mother, who was left by her husband twelve years ago and of whom I am the only support, force me to apply for the second time for a humble discharge, under police surveillance. I beg you to heed my request and respond to my petition.
J. Djugashvili. 23 November 1901{114}
    His sickness did not stop him making trouble. When the Exarch of the Georgian Church came to minister to his errant sons on 17 April 1903, the ex-seminarist led a violent protest that got him clapped in solitary confinement. The riot, not the first organized by Stalin, led to his transfer to the stricter Kutaisi Prison, in western Georgia.
    Two days later, when the prisoners were mustered for their transfer, Stalin found that Natasha was being transferred with him. The warders started to handcuff him.
    “We’re not thieves to be handcuffed!” snapped Stalin. The officer took off the cuffs. The story shows Stalin’s authority over prisoners and officers alike—the Tsarist police were biddable in a way unthinkable for the Soviet secret police. Then the prisoners were gathered for the march through Batumi. Stalin demanded a cart for their belongings and “a phaeton for me, the woman,” recalls Natasha proudly. Incredibly Stalin, that master of the prison system, got his way here too.[52] Only the best for Stalin’s girl: Natasha travelled to the station in a phaeton.
    When their train arrived at nearby Kutaisi, Stalin held everyone back: “Let Natasha go in front so everyone can see that women also fight these dogs!”{115}

    At Kutaisi, the authorities tried to force the prisoners to behave. The politicals were split up, but Stalin soon found a way to communicate and plan a counterattack. When Natasha Kirtava was moved out of the collective cell into solitary, “Emotion overcame me. I started crying.” Stalin heard about this on the prison telegraph and had a note delivered to her that read: “What do your tears signify, she-eagle? Is it possible prison has defeated you?”
    In the prison yard, Stalin met a moderate comrade, Grigol Uratadze, who hated him but almost admired his “glacial temperament: in six months, I never once saw him crying, angry or indignant—he always conducted himself with total composure” and his “smile was carefully calibrated to his emotions… We used to chat in the courtyard.” But Stalin just “walked alone in strange little short steps… Everyone knew how surly he was,” but he was also “absolutely imperturbable.”
    Stalin was hostile to the bumptious intellectuals, but, with the less elevated worker-revolutionaries, who did not arouse his inferiority complex, he played the teacher—the Priest. Soso “organized the reading of newspapers, books and magazines, and gave lectures to the prisoners.” Meanwhile he confronted Kutaisi’s more severe regime. The regional governor refused his demands. On 28 July, Soso gave a sign and the prisoners started a noisy protest, banging the steel doors so loudly that the whole town was alarmed. The governor called for troops, who surrounded the prison, but then he capitulated, agreeing to place all the politicals in one cell. Stalin won, but the governor got his revenge: it was the dreariest dungeon in the bowels of the jail.
    When some of the prisoners were swiftly despatched to Siberian exile, Stalin suggested a group photograph. Just as he liked to set up the group photographs when he was in power, so now he directed everyone’s position and placed himself in his favourite place—middle top row: “I’m also one of the soldiers of the Revolution so I’ll stand here in the centre.” There he is: long-haired and bearded, the self-appointed leader.
    When his comrades were led out for their long journey, “Comrade Soso stood in the courtyard and raised a red flag… We sang the Marseillaise.”{116}

    The secret police now mislaid Stalin… in their own prison. The Gendarmes and the Okhrana in Tiflis both thought that “Chopura, the Pockmarked One,” had long since been released. Captain Lavrov believed he was again leading the workers in Batumi “under special surveillance.” Clearly the spooks were watching completely the wrong man. Batumi was not too sure either until Lieutenant Colonel Shabelsky settled the case of the lost Pockmarked One by informing everyone that “Djugashvili has been in prison for a whole year already (now in Kutaisi).”{117}
    The grinding mechanisms of Tsarist justice, which sent cases like that of Stalin from local governors to Justice and Interior Ministries in Petersburg, generated a recommendation for three years’ exile in eastern Siberia.[53] On 7 July 1903, the Justice Minister sent this recommendation to the Emperor, who approved Stalin’s sentence with his Imperial stamp. Nicholas II was such a punctilious if unimaginative autocrat that he diligently read even the most trivial paper sent to his office. So there were several occasions when the fate of the future Red Tsar crossed the desk of the last Emperor.
    Now the police managed to lose Stalin all over again. The governor of Tiflis thought he was in the Metekhi Fortress, but the prison replied that he had never been there. So the head of the Tiflis police declared: “Location of Djugashvili so far unknown.” The police appealed to the Gendarmes, who revealed that Stalin was back in Batumi Prison, which was well and good—except that he was still in Kutaisi Prison. It took a month and a half to find him: such confusion has fuelled the feverish imagination of conspiracy-theorists ever since. Were the Gendarmes or the Okhrana hiding him from one another because he was a doubleagent? There is no evidence for this. The muddle might be suspicious if it applied only to Stalin, but it was almost universal. In the interlinked worlds of murderous conspiracy and sluggish pen-pushing, there was as much confusion as konspiratsia.
    While he waited, he heard terrible news. On 17 August 1903, Soso’s hero, Lado Ketskhoveli, who had been arrested in Baku and incarcerated in the Metekhi Fortress, was standing at his cell-window baiting the guards with shouts of “Down with Autocracy!” when one of them shot him through the heart. Such a fate could easily have befallen Stalin himself. He never forgot Lado.
    On 8 October, Stalin finally learned that he was departing on a very long journey. His first stop would be a return to Batumi. He organized another group photograph. As he departed the prison, his comrades waved the flag, singing “The Marseillaise.”
    “I’m being exiled,” Stalin wrote to the newly released Natasha Kirtava. “Meet me near the prison.” She raised ten roubles and some food to help him on the cold journey into the Russian winter, but he left wearing just a light Georgian chokha, boots and no gloves. As he was marched onto the prison steamship in Batumi Harbour for the first leg of his journey via Novorossiisk and Rostov, the beautiful Natasha waited on the wharf: “I saw him off.”
    This voyage would take a Georgian, accustomed to the singsong, wine-flavoured lushness of Georgia, to another life in a frozen far-off country: Siberia.{118}

12. The Frozen Georgian: Siberian Exile

    The journey to Siberia was often more deadly than the exile itself. Stalin experienced the full gamut of horrors of the dreaded etap, the slow stage-by-stage progress to the east, picking up other prisoners on the way. Stalin claimed that his ankles were sometimes shackled to iron balls and once said emotionally: “There’s no better feeling than straightening your back after wearing shackles.”
    When he reached Rostov-on-Don, he was already out of money and telegraphed Batumi to ask for more. Kandelaki sent it. Somewhere not far out, he started to suffer agonizing toothache and consulted a doctor’s assistant. “I’ll give you medicine that’ll cure your tooth for ever,” he promised. “He put the medicine into my rotten tooth himself,” Stalin recalled. “It was arsenic but he never told me you had to take it out of the tooth. So it stopped aching all right but a couple of teeth fell out altogether. He was right—those teeth never ached!” Toothache was just another of the many ailments that tormented Stalin throughout his life.
    The farther from civilization they travelled, the more the prisoners were exposed to the extremes of Siberia, disease and violence. Somewhere in Siberia, one of the prisoners “was almost dying of gangrene,” Stalin recounted in his seventies. The closest hospital was 1,000 kilometres away at least. The doctor’s assistant was found and he decided to amputate. He poured spirit on the leg; asked several men to hold him down and started to operate. I couldn’t bear to watch the operation and I sheltered in the barracks, but the man’s bone was sawn without anaesthetic so you couldn’t escape his screams. I can still clearly hear that scream!” En route, he also encountered scores of Gurian peasant-workers, arrested during his Batumi demonstration. Soso admitted a rare moment’s guilt seeing these bewildered Georgians shivering on the road to Siberia—but they assured him of their gratitude.
    On arrival in Irkutsk, the distant capital of Siberia, Stalin was despatched westwards to a regional centre, Balagansk, seventy-five versts from the nearest railway station. Now they travelled by foot and cart: Stalin was absurdly underdressed for the Siberian freeze, still in his white Georgian chokha with its bullet pouches. He found seven exiles in Balagansk and stayed with Abram Gusinsky, a Jewish exile, trying to avoid being sent farther.{120} But he had been assigned to Novaya Uda. The local police recorded that “Josef Djugashvili, exiled by His Imperial Majesty’s command of 9 July, arrived on 26 November and was taken under police supervision.”
    Novaya Uda, 70 versts from Balagansk and 120 from the closest station, thousands of versts from Moscow or Tiflis and his farthest exile, was a tiny town divided into two halves: the poor lived in shacks on a marshy promontory while the marginally better-off lived around a couple of shops, a church and a wooden fortress built to terrify into submission the local shamanistic Mongol tribe, the Buryats. There was little to do in Novaya Uda except read, argue, drink, fornicate and drink more—these were pastimes for locals and exiles alike. The settlement boasted five taverns.
    Soso took to all these local pastimes, but he found his fellow exiles intolerable. There were three others in Novaya Uda, Jewish intellectuals who were either Bundists (followers of the Jewish Socialist Party) or SDs. Stalin had met few Jews in the Caucasus but henceforth he encountered many of the Jews who had embraced Marxism as a means of escaping the repression and prejudice of the Tsarist regime.
    Stalin opted for the poor part of town, staying in “the beggarly ramshackle two-room house of a peasant, Martha Litvintseva.” One room was a larder where the food was kept, the other, divided by a wooden partition, was the bedroom where the whole family lived and slept around a stove. Stalin slept on a trestle table in the larder on the other side of the partition: “At night, he lit a small lamp and read when the Litvintsevs were asleep.”{121}
    Siberian exile was regarded as one of the most terrible abuses of Tsarist tyranny. It was certainly boring and depressing, but once settled in some godforsaken village, the exiles, intellectuals who were often hereditary noblemen, were usually well treated. Such paternalistic sojourns more resembled dull reading-holidays than the living hell of Stalin’s murderous Gulags. The exiles even received pocket-money from the Tsar—twelve roubles for a nobleman such as Lenin, eleven roubles for a school graduate such as Molotov, and eight for a peasant such as Stalin—with which to pay for clothes, food and rent. If they received too much money from home, they lost their allowance.
    Wealthier revolutionaries could travel first-class. Lenin, who enjoyed a private income, financed his own trip to exile and behaved throughout like a nobleman on an eccentric naturalist’s holiday. Trotsky, who was subsidized by his father, a rich farmer, mused pompously that Siberia was a “test of our civic sensibilities” where the exiles could live happily “like gods on Olympus.” But there was a big gap between the well-off like Lenin and the penniless like Stalin.[54]
    The behaviour of exiles was governed by a set of rules. Each settlement elected a committee which could try anyone who broke Party rules. Books must be shared. If an exile died, his library was split between the survivors. No consorting with criminals. On departure, the exile was allowed to choose a gift from each fellow exile and should present a keepsake to his host family. Exiles divided the housework and the duty of collecting the mail. The arrival of the post was their happiest moment. “You remember how good it felt in exile to receive a letter from a friend?” recalled Yenukidze when he was in power.
    Yet in the Wild East rules were hard to maintain: sexual adventures among the exiles were rife. “Like palms on a Diego Rivera landscape, love struggled towards the sun from under the heaviest boulders,” declaimed Trotsky grandiloquently, “couples came together… in exile.” When Golda Gorbman, who later married Stalin’s lieutenant Klimenti Voroshilov, was in exile, she was seduced and impregnated by Yenukidze, the Georgian who was later one of Stalin’s magnates. In power, the Politburo liked to reminisce about these scandals. Stalin himself never forgot the cheek of the exile Lezhnev, who bedded the local Prosecutor’s lovely wife and was sent to the Arctic as punishment. Molotov quoted the story of the two exiles who fought a duel for a mistress—one was killed and the other got the girl.
    Exiles had to rent rooms from local peasants: they found themselves living in cramped and noisy little rooms, irritated by screaming children and lack of privacy. “The worst thing [about exile] was the lack of separation from the hosts,” wrote Yakov Sverdlov, later in exile with Stalin, but this sharing of rooms led also to more sexual temptation. Local custom banned affairs with exiles. But this was impossible to enforce: the local girls found the exiles exotic, educated, affluent and hard to resist—especially when they were often sharing the same bedroom.
    Revolutionaries were naturally fractious, but their feuds in the isolation of exile had a malice all of their own. “Men bared themselves before you and showed themselves in their pettiness—there was no room to show decent features.” The exiles behaved appallingly, but Stalin’s conduct as reckless seducer, procreator of illegitimate children, serial feuder and compulsive troublemaker was one of the worst. No sooner had he arrived than Stalin started to break the rules.{122}
    He cu