• Dimac

Life of Stalin Before The Revolution


According to his official Soviet biography, Stalin was born in 1879. In fact Ioseb Jughashvili (his birth name) was born one year earlier. Stalin knew, of course, when and where he was born: in the small Georgian town of Gori, in a far corner of the vast Russian Empire. A Gori church register (part of Stalin’s personal archive) provides the exact date: 6 December 1878. This date can also be found in other documents, such as his graduation certificate from the Gori Theological School. In a form filled out in 1920, his year of birth is again given as 1878. But the year 1879 began to appear in paperwork completed by his various helpers, and that date was used in all encyclopedias and reference materials. After he had consolidated power, a grand celebration was held in honor of his fiftieth birthday on 21 December 1929. There was confusion over not only the year of his birth, but also the day, given as 9 December (Old Style) instead of 6 December. This inaccuracy came to the attention of historians only in 1990. 1 The reason for it has yet to be determined. One thing is clear: in the 1920s, Stalin decided to become one year younger. And he did. Legends surround Stalin’s parentage. Sensation seekers proclaimed Ioseb (who later became Iosif once his interactions began to be primarily in Russian) to have been the illegitimate son of a prosperous merchant, a factory owner, a prince, and even Emperor Alexander III, who supposedly was attended to by Ioseb’s mother while the emperor was visiting Tiflis. The historical record suggests more prosaic origins. Ioseb was born into a humble Georgian family. His mother, Ekaterine or Keke (Yekaterina in Russian) Geladze, the daughter of serfs, was born in 1856. In 1864, after the abolition of serfdom, her family moved to Gori, where, at the age of eighteen, she was given in marriage to the cobbler Besarion or Beso (Vissarion in Russian) Jughashvili, six years her senior. Their first two children died in infancy; Ioseb (Soso) was the third. 2 Few pieces of documentary evidence survive from Stalin’s youth. The primary source of our knowledge is memoirs written after he had already attained the pinnacle of power. Even an uncritical reader will notice that these memoirists are writing about the childhood and youth of a future dictator, not the early years of Ioseb Jughashvili. This aberration magnifies the tendency, common to biographies generally, toward selective exaggeration and exclusion. Depending on the situation and the writer’s politics, emphasis is placed on either Ioseb’s virtues and leadership qualities or his innate cruelty and psychological abnormalities. But as Ronald Grigor Suny has shown, attempts to find the future dictator in the child Ioseb Jughashvili are highly suspect. It is commonly believed that Ioseb had a difficult childhood. Abuse and beatings by his drunkard father, as well as material deprivation, supposedly embittered the boy and made him ruthless and vindictive. But there is plenty of evidence to support a very different picture. By many measures, Stalin’s childhood was ordinary or even comfortable. A number of accounts attest that his father was not only a skilled cobbler, but also that he was able to read Georgian and converse in several languages, including Russian. His mother had received some home schooling and could also read and write in Georgian. Given the low literacy rate in Georgia at the time, this would have given the family an advantage. During Ioseb’s early years, Besarion Jughashvili apparently was quite successful and his family was well provided for. 3 Later, after Besarion began to drink heavily and then abandoned his wife and child, responsibility for Ioseb’s upbringing fell on his mother’s shoulders. Ekaterine was a woman of strong character and a hard worker, and, starting with odd jobs, she managed to learn the craft of dressmaking. As an only child (a circumstance that would prove significant), Soso, unlike many of his peers, did not have to work and could therefore attend school. In a letter written in 1950, requesting a meeting for old times’sake, one of Stalin’s childhood friends commented, “In 1894, when you graduated from the theological school, I graduated from the Gori Municipal School. You were accepted that same year into the Tbilisi Theological Seminary, but I wasn’t able to continue my studies since my father had 8 children, so we were poor and we helped him.” 4 Ioseb’s mother, dreaming that her son would climb the social ladder to become a priest, doggedly worked to make this dream a reality and did everything she could to facilitate his education. Such strivings are hard to reconcile with the idea of a bleak, impoverished childhood. Certainly there was discord in the family, and the drunken Besarion let loose with his fists. Soso was apparently beaten by both parents. But as Suny rightly observes, the evidence we have is insufficient either to judge whether violence within the Jughashvili family was unusual for that place and time or to assess its impact on Soso’s perception of the world. 5 Stalin’s childhood and adolescence seem to have been utterly typical of the environment from which he came—the world of poor, but not destitute, craftsmen and shopkeepers in a small town at the outskirts of the empire. This was a world where coarse mores coexisted with traditions of neighbor helping neighbor and periods of relative well-being alternated with hard times. Children were exposed to severity and cruelty as well as to affection and indulgence. Soso Jughashvili experienced the good and the bad—his father’s harshness and his mother’s limitless affection—in relatively balanced proportion. The family’s financial difficulties, which came when Soso was in school, were eased by the help of friends and relatives. While at the local theological school and later at the seminary in Tiflis, Ioseb received assistance from the state and benefited from the intercession of sympathetic protectors. Despite their modest means, mother and son were fully accepted into their small community. During an interview many years later, Stalin said, “My parents were uneducated, but they did not treat me badly by any means.” 6 It is possible he was not being candid or was suppressing unpleasant childhood memories. There is little evidence regarding Stalin’s feelings toward his father, who died young. To all appearances, however, he felt genuine affection for his mother. His letters to her in her later years contain lines such as the following: “Hello Mama dear! How are you getting on, how are you feeling? I haven’t had any letters from you in a long time—you must be upset with me, but what can I do? I’m really very busy,” and “Greetings dear mother! I’m sending you a shawl, a jacket, and medicines. Show the medicines to your doctor before taking them because a doctor has to set the dose.” 7 Despite her son’s meteoric rise, Keke remained in Georgia, living in a position of respect and comfort. Stalin did not attend her funeral in 1937. Throughout that year, the height of the Great Terror, he did not set foot outside of Moscow. The dedication he wrote for a memorial wreath in both Georgian and Russian still survives: “To my dear and beloved mother from her son Ioseb Jughashvili (from Stalin).” 8 Stalin owed her a true debt of gratitude. She worked hard to protect her son from want and to enable him to get an education, and she nursed him through numerous illnesses, including smallpox, which pockmarked his face for the rest of his life. Soso also suffered a childhood mishap, exacerbated by poor medical treatment, that rendered his left arm severely disabled. The joints remained atrophied for the rest of his life, and the arm never functioned properly. Another physical defect was congenital: two toes on his left foot were joined. It seems unlikely that these defects remained unremarked in the often heartless company of boys. Yet Soso was not an outcast. He remained on an equal footing with his peers and took part in all of their games. He had an excellent memory, always a respected quality. It does not appear that a difficult childhood sowed in Ioseb Jughashvili the cruelty that emerged in Joseph Stalin. There is also no obvious sign of what in his childhood might have turned him into a rebel.


Ioseb’s mother, whose efforts were inspired by the hope that her son would successfully overcome the social circumstances of his birth, was not the only one who noticed his intellectual abilities. When the time came to send the boy to school, Keke was able to solicit the support of well-wishers who felt strongly that the boy could profit from an education. Her aspiration that Ioseb would become a priest seemed entirely fitting. The well-wishers were the family of a priest named Khristofor Charkviani, in whose home the Jughashvilis rented a room. They helped Soso gain admission to the Gori Theological School. The Charkviani children also taught him Russian, the language of instruction. These language lessons enabled Soso to immediately enter the school’s highest preparatory class—undoubtedly a significant moment in the future leader’s life. Ten-year-old Soso was making an important step into the Russophone world. He spent almost six years, from 1888 to 1894, at the Gori Theological School, a period that saw dramatic changes in the Jughashvili family. After much domestic strife, Besarion left Gori, depriving his wife and son of their means of support and imperiling Soso’s continued attendance at the school. Keke was able to find help, a task undoubtedly made easier by Soso’s academic success. He was a model student and was even granted a stipend. The mother took care that her son would in no way feel inferior to his classmates and always ensured that he was dressed well and appropriately for the weather. According to numerous reminiscences, Soso distinguished himself at school by his diligence and hard work. He was reputed to be a fine reader of prayers and singer in the church choir, and he got along well with the teachers. The Russian teacher, whom the children called “the gendarme” behind his back, made Soso his assistant in charge of distributing books. 9 Many decades later, in 1949, another former teacher at the school, S. V. Malinovsky, took the bold step of contacting his former pupil. “In my old age,” he wrote, “I am proud that my humble efforts contributed to your education.” Malinovsky requested that he be awarded a personal pension, “so that in the twilight of my days my basic needs can be met and I can die in the happy awareness that my Great Pupil did not leave me in poverty.” 10 While there is evidence that this letter was placed before Stalin, the record is unclear on whether assistance was granted. Ioseb graduated in May 1894. The certificate issued to him lists the courses he took and the grades he received. He earned a grade of “excellent” for behavior, as well as for Sacred History, Orthodox Catechism, Liturgical Exegesis and Ecclesiastical Typikon, Russian and Church Slavonic, Georgian, geography, penmanship, and liturgical chant. In Greek and arithmetic, his weakest subjects, he managed a grade of “very good.” His academic success yielded a recommendation for entry into a theological seminary. 11 Despite the narrow curriculum, Soso acquired a great deal of skill and knowledge at the school in Gori and developed a passion for reading. More significant, he developed a mastery of Russian. Recollections of his time at the school paint a picture of an active child with pretentions toward leadership, pretentions undoubtedly affirmed by his standing as a top student. He seems to have had pleasant recollections of these years. Many decades later he remembered his school friends and even tried to help them. In notes dated May 1944, when he was sixty-five, Stalin wrote: “1) To my friend Petya—40,000, 2) 30,000 rubles to Grisha, 3) 30,000 rubles to Dzeradze,” and “Grisha! Accept this small gift from me.… Yours, Soso.” 12 Written in Georgian, these documents hint at bursts of nostalgia felt by an old man reflecting fondly on his adolescence. There are vague and inconsistent accounts by memoirists claiming that Ioseb Jughashvili’s rebellious behavior and break with religion dated to his days in Gori. Leon (Lev) Trotsky, one of Stalin’s first biographers (and hardly an impartial one), convincingly argues that Stalin’s former classmates are confusing the Gori period with events that took place later, in Tiflis. 13 The best proof of the schoolboy Soso’s exemplary behavior and law-abiding attitude is the glowing assessment on his graduation certificate and the recommendation that he enroll in a seminary. In September 1894, having successfully passed the entry examination, young Jughashvili enrolled in the Tiflis Theological Seminary. Ekaterine and her son enjoyed good fortune here as well. The seminary was more eager to have students born into the clerical estate, and others were required to pay tuition. But Ioseb’s abilities, along with the intercession of friends and relatives, earned him a free room and meals in the seminary cafeteria. He was required to pay only for his courses and clothing. 14 Did the ambitious boy perceive this as a demeaning handout to a “poor relative”? Perhaps. But it is equally possible that this grantin-aid was viewed as a recognition of past achievements. Stalin spent more than four and a half years in the Tiflis seminary, from the autumn of 1894 to May 1899. The move to a large city undoubtedly brought a degree of stress. However, Ioseb had not come alone but with a group of friends and acquaintances from the Gori Theological School. Furthermore, he seems to have found the course work relatively easy. He ranked eighth in his class in his first year and fifth the next year. His behavior was assessed as “excellent.” 15 Yet behind this promising façade lurked a growing dissatisfaction and insubordination. While there is no moment that stands out as marking his departure from the path of the law-abiding and well-adjusted student, we do have two well-known pieces of evidence attesting to the unbearable living conditions at the seminary. The first such testimony belongs to Stalin himself. In 1931, in an interview with German writer Emil Ludwig, he described the seminary’s role in pushing him toward insurrection: “In protest against the outrageous regime and the Jesuitical methods prevalent at the seminary, I was ready to become, and actually did become, a revolutionary, a believer in Marxism as a really revolutionary teaching.… For instance, the spying in the hostel. At nine o’clock the bell rings for morning tea, we go to the dining-room, and when we return to our rooms we find that meantime a search has been made and all our chests have been ransacked.” 16 This account is supplemented by a widely cited description by one of Stalin’s classmates: We were brought to a four-story building and put in huge dormitory rooms with 20–30 people each. … Life in the theological seminary was repetitious and monotonous. We arose at seven in the morning. First, we were forced to pray, then we had tea, and after the bell we went to class.… Classes continued, with breaks, until two o’clock. At three we had supper. At five there was roll call, after which we were not allowed to leave the building. We felt as if we were in prison. We were again taken to vespers, and at eight we had tea, and then each class went to its own room to do assignments, and at ten it was lights out, sleep. 17 Having only Sundays free of this regimentation probably did not much brighten the seminarians’ lives, especially as the day was partially taken up by mandatory church services. It was a regime of constant surveillance, searches, denunciations, and punishments. Although the range of disciplines was somewhat broader than in Gori—in addition to scripture, church singing, Russian philology, and the Greek and Georgian languages, the curriculum included biblical and secular history and mathematics—intellectual life was constrained by dogmatism. The reading of secular literature was harshly punished and Russification was crudely enforced, insulting the national pride of Georgian seminarians. The strong undercurrent of resentment and rebellion among the students was hardly surprising. A strike had erupted the year before Ioseb enrolled. The seminarians stopped attending their classes and demanded an end to arbitrariness by the teachers and the firing of some of them. In response, the authorities closed down the institution and expelled a large number of students. The firm suppression of unrest doubtless helps account for the lack of open protest during Ioseb’s years at the seminary. Any individual or group dissent was kept underground. At first the future dictator found an outlet in romantic literary heroes exemplifying the struggle for justice, especially those from Georgian literature. One of his first models came from The Patricide, a novel by Alexandre Kazbegi. This was a tale of the fearless and noble avenger Koba, scourge of Russian oppressors and the Georgian aristocracy. 18 Koba became the future leader’s first pseudonym, one he treasured and allowed his closest comrades to use for him throughout his life. His fascination with romantic rebellion flavored with Georgian nationalism predictably led young Stalin to try his hand at verse. After completing his first year at the seminary, he brought a sample of his poetry to the editorial office of a Georgian newspaper, which published five poems between June and October 1895. Another poem appeared in a different newspaper the following summer. The poems, written in Georgian, extolled service to the motherland and the people. During Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union, his poetry was translated into Russian, but these translations were not included among his collected works. He undoubtedly understood that his undistinguished and naive verse belied the image of the single-minded revolutionary: A lark in the high clouds Sang ever so sonorously. And a joyous nightingale said this: “Blossom, lovely land, Exult, country of Georgians. And you, Georgian, Gladden your motherland with learning.” 19 Although such lines do nothing to soften the image of Stalin the dictator, they do attest to the pure intentions of Jughashvili the seminarian, who found inspiration in the ideas of service to the motherland and the people. During his third year at the seminary, these vague, half-formed strivings did lead to one concrete step. Ioseb joined an illegal discussion group of seminarians and apparently assumed a leadership role within it. The books read by the group were perfectly legal but forbidden by the seminary. Entries in the journal used to keep track of the seminarians’ conduct record violations by Jughashvili involving the reading of forbidden books, including novels by Victor Hugo, in late 1896 and early 1897. 20 Beginning in his third year, Ioseb’s grades began to decline, and he was caught violating rules with increasing frequency. Ioseb Jughashvili was growing increasingly radicalized. He stopped writing verse and developed an ardent interest in politics. Participating in the discussion group was no longer enough. He longed to get involved in something “real,” a desire that led him to the Social Democrats, an interest in Marxism, and attendance at illegal meetings of railway workers. According to his official biography, in August 1898, while still enrolled in the seminary, Ioseb joined a Social Democratic organization and began working as a propagandist for small groups of workers. At this point, his knowledge of Marxism must have been fairly superficial, but his fascination with it was consuming. For the young seminarian, the all-encompassing nature of Marxism, almost religious in its universality, was tremendously appealing. It filled the gap in his worldview created by his disillusionment with religion. The belief that human history was governed by a set of laws and that humanity was inexorably advancing toward the higher stages of socialism endowed the revolutionary struggle with special meaning. But this fascination with Marxism hardly set young Jughashvili apart. Belief in Marxism was a veritable epidemic. One influence on Ioseb was the older fellow revolutionaries and rebels who came to Tiflis from other regions of Georgia. The figure most often mentioned in this context is Lado Ketskhoveli. Though still a young man, he had already advanced along the path on which young Stalin was just embarking. After being expelled from the Tiflis seminary, Ketskhoveli enrolled in the Kiev Theological Seminary, where he was arrested by the authorities for possessing illegal literature. Only a general amnesty occasioned by the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II saved him from punishment. After returning to Tiflis and then moving to Baku, this committed revolutionary immersed himself in subversive work and organized an underground printing press. In 1903 he was shot by a prison guard. Legend has it that he was killed for shouting revolutionary slogans. This was the sort of man of action Ioseb looked up to. 21 Ioseb’s behavior during his final academic year at the seminary (1898–1899), when he was increasingly involved in the Social Democratic movement, clearly shows an intention to break with the past. All the indignation that had festered during his first years in Tiflis came to the surface. The seminary’s conduct journal serves as a chronicle of his rebellion. In September he was caught reading excerpts from banned books to his comrades. In October he was confined to a punishment cell three times for failing to attend prayers, bad behavior during liturgy, and returning late after a school recess. Over the following months, periods of confinement alternated with reprimands for a variety of offenses. 22 In January 1899, a serious conflict with the seminary’s administration resulted in Ioseb’s being prohibited from leaving the seminary for a month. Historian Aleksandr Ostrovskii attributes this punishment to an incident described in the memoirs of one of Ioseb’s classmates, published in 1939. 23 According to this account, a seminary inspector searched Jughashvili’s room and found forbidden books. At this point, a seminarian by the name of Kelbakiani pounced on the inspector and knocked the books out of his grasp. Helped by Jughashvili, Kelbakiani then gathered up the books and fled. 24 Among the sources that cast doubt on this account is the seminary’s conduct journal for 1899, which describes Kelbakiani’s infraction quite differently. 25 A search of Kelbakiani’s own possessions turned up a notebook into which excerpts from prohibited literature had been copied. When the inspector refused Kelbakiani’s request that the notebook be returned, the seminarian grabbed it and threw it into the toilet. The seminary rector was immediately informed of this incident and Kelbakiani was placed in a punishment cell for several hours. According to the conduct journal, “Kelbakiani displayed strong remorse.” He admitted his guilt and asked for indulgence. There is no mention of Jughashvili’s involvement in this incident. All that is known for certain is that in January 1899 Jughashvili was deprived of the right to leave the seminary premises for one month, and Kelbakiani was expelled. 26 The difference in punishments may indicate that Ioseb was penalized for some other infraction or that he played only a minor role in the destruction of the notebook. In June 1951, Kelbakiani wrote the following to his former classmate: Comrade Soso! If you knew how impoverished I was at the present time, I am certain you would not leave me without attention. I have grown old and have no income and I am in a state of need.… Comrade Soso, in some way you are in my debt: you probably remember how I grabbed from the seminary inspector … illegal literature that was taken during a search of your drawer, for which I was expelled from the seminary.… I am not proud of this and am not boasting, of course.… Poverty has forced me to remember this. Help me, Comrade Soso. 27 This letter was placed before Stalin. There is no record to show whether Kelbakiani was given any assistance, but his letter does shed light on the 1899 incident. Kelbakiani was undoubtedly familiar with the account published in 1939 describing the future Stalin’s “heroic deed,” and he generally adheres to its details. The confiscated notebook is identified as “illegal literature” and is found among Jughashvili’s possessions rather than Kelbakiani’s. It is, however, noteworthy that Kelbakiani unequivocally states that he himself, without help from “Comrade Soso,” was the one to grab the confiscated notebook from the inspector. He is just as unequivocal on the subject of Soso’s involvement in the incident and in suggesting that he, Kelbakiani, performed a favor for the future leader. Overall, it would appear that Ioseb really was involved. We can surmise, for example, that the notebook Kelbakiani destroyed belonged to Jughashvili. This may not have been reported in the conduct journal because it was not known at the time. It seems almost certain that Ioseb did not help Kelbakiani save the materials. This was among the more harmless of the legends that took shape to foster the cult of the leader. The notebook incident aside, Jughashvili committed more than enough sins in the eyes of the seminary leadership to render him persona non grata. In May 1899 he was expelled, the formal cause being “for failing to appear at examinations for unknown reasons.” One odd detail is that the certificate he was given upon expulsion, stating he had completed four years at the seminary, gives him excellent grades for behavior. 28 Stalin’s biographers have long commented on the confusion surrounding the circumstances of his departure. He himself preferred to say that he was “kicked out” “for Marxist propaganda.” In one interview, Ekaterine claims that she took her son out of the seminary because of his poor health. 29 There may be some truth to all these accounts—both the official formulation and the statements by Jughashvili and his mother. The seminary leadership may have been eager to rid itself of a rebel while avoiding scandal. Ioseb may have withdrawn “by mutual consent” with a commendatory certificate on the completion of four years. If so, Ekaterine and her complaints of her son’s worsening health probably played a major role. In the end, Ioseb really was “kicked out,” but quietly, leaving the door open for him to mend his ways.


The certificate issued to Ioseb Jughashvili by the seminary would have enabled him to work in the area of religion or teach elementary school. 30 But a return to ordinary life did not interest him. In late 1899 Ioseb was hired, with the help of friends, to work at the Tiflis Meteorological Station. His job involved constant recording of instrument readings and therefore required him to live on the premises, taking care of his need for both money and housing. Continuing to work with revolutionary groups, he soon aligned himself with the radical wing of the Tiflis Social Democratic organization, which rejected agitation through legal propaganda and instead favored fomenting strikes and demonstrations. Given the twenty-two-year-old rebel’s record at the seminary and his friendship with such revolutionaries as Lado Ketskhoveli, his turn toward radicalism is hardly surprising. The years 1900 and 1901 saw a wave of strikes in Tiflis, followed by crackdowns. Under threat of arrest, Jughashvili left the weather station and went underground. There was no turning back; he had become a professional revolutionary. Whatever their backgrounds, Russian revolutionaries tended to have one thing in common. Their break with ordinary life and move underground took place in a moment of hatred and decisiveness: hatred for the existing order and a decision to combat it. In the Russian Empire, there was no shortage of either emotion. An authoritarian regime and social injustices created a breeding ground for rebels. The persecution to which radicals were subjected radicalized them still more. The hatred felt by Ioseb Jughashvili, aroused by the arbitrariness and obscurantism that prevailed at the seminary, was further inspired by the propaganda and actions of his more experienced comrades, those who had chosen the path of revolution before him. His decisiveness was both a feature of his character and a product of the milieu into which he was born. Anyone with social origins like his had little to lose. In exploring the sources of Stalin’s rebelliousness and ruthlessness, many historians have pointed to the atmosphere that reigned in the outlying regions of the Russian Empire. Alfred Rieber has called him a “man of the borderlands.” 31 The Caucasus, a roiling cauldron of social and ethnic conflict where industrial enclaves emerged amid tribal traditions, would inevitably have played a role in shaping Stalin’s character. Jörg Baberowski has written that Stalin and his comrades-in-arms “brought into the party, both at the center and edges of the empire, the culture of violence of the Caucasian periphery, the blood feud and archaic conceptions of honor.” 32 Such opinions are supported by Boris Nicolaevsky, a Social Democrat who later became a well-known historian. Before the revolution, Nicolaevsky had spent time in Transcaucasia and had even met with Jughashvili. He described the future dictator as “exceptionally vicious and vindictive” and capable of applying “the most extreme measures” in his struggle to dominate the party. Yet many of Jughashvili’s opponents within the Social Democratic movement were no different. Nicolaevsky said he was told that these traits resulted from “the injection of Caucasian mores into the intraparty struggle.” 33 It is not unreasonable to take into account the mentality forged by the hardships and tragic history of the Russian borderlands. Yet the entire Russian Empire was one vast borderland: between Asia and Europe, between the promises of modernization and the deteriorating traditional ways of life, between the city and the country, between authoritarianism and democratic strivings, between the obscurantism of the regime and the bloodthirstiness of many revolutionaries. Whatever features may be particular to the Caucasus must be seen within the context of the Russian culture of extremism and violence, which merely provided an outlet for the impulse. Such a context does not, of course, relieve young Jughashvili of personal responsibility for his choices. Revolutionaries are not all cut from the same cloth. Many throw themselves into the fight under the influence of youth, ardor, and thrill seeking. These factors were probably not what led Stalin onto this path, though they should not be discounted entirely. The future dictator could be described as a calculating revolutionary, the sort who doggedly and methodically—even cautiously— moved the revolution forward and later, when success came, had the best chance of solidifying power. He had just the right balance of decisiveness and caution, obsession and cynicism, to emerge unscathed through the revolution’s countless dangers. An overview of the activities of the Tiflis Social Democratic organization found in the files of the local gendarme administration describes Ioseb Jughashvili as “conducting himself with complete caution and constantly looking over his shoulder as he walks.” 34 He managed to avoid arrest for some time, giving him a significant advantage, since many members of the Social Democratic Party were in prison, and facilitating his rise within the Tiflis party leadership. Apparently to evade arrest, he moved from Tiflis to Batum, a major center of the empire’s petroleum industry. A propaganda campaign by him and his associates evidently had an effect, as Batum workers staged a spate of strikes and demonstrations. The government response was severe. On 9 March 1902, when workers stormed a prison where many of their comrades were being held, troops opened fire. At least thirteen people were killed and dozens were wounded. News of violence in Batum spread, and Jughashvili, one of the organizers of the demonstration, was arrested. In an effort to avoid punishment, Jughashvili denied his guilt, asserting that he had been nowhere near Batum during the period leading up to the attack. In notes sent from prison, he asked his mother, friends, and relatives to give him an alibi by falsely testifying that he had arrived in Gori before mid-March. 35 One such note fell into the hands of the police. The police in Batum still could not prove that Jughashvili was directly involved in organizing the storming of the prison, but in probing his background, they brought to light his activities in Tiflis. The investigation inched along. Languishing in prison, Ioseb did what he could to improve the outcome of his case. In October and November 1902, seven and eight months after his arrest, he sent two petitions to the offices of the administrator-in-chief for the Caucasus. Citing a “worsening asphyxiating cough and the helpless situation of my aged mother, who has been abandoned by her husband for 12 years now and sees me as the only person she can count on in life,” he asked to be released under police supervision. “I beseech the office of the Administrator-in-Chief not to neglect me and to respond to my request.” In January 1903 Ekaterine also submitted a request to the authorities that her son be freed. Her petition, written in Russian but signed in Georgian, stated that her son, “as the breadwinner for himself and his mother, has neither the time nor the occasion to participate in conspiracies or disturbances.” 36 These entreaties proved ineffective. Ioseb remained in prison for several more months, suffering deprivation and harassment. Not until the fall of 1903, one and a half years after his arrest, was he finally sent into exile in eastern Siberia. Soon, in early 1904, he escaped from his place of banishment. Such an escape was not at all unusual. Lax security enabled many revolutionaries to flee their places of exile, although such escapes demanded careful preparation, courage, and physical endurance. Jughashvili learned from his first stint in exile and later had several opportunities to put that experience to use. There is evidence to suggest that during the first months after his return to Transcaucasia, Jughashvili was suspected of being a double agent. 37 Social Democrats were being arrested throughout the region. Although these arrests cast a pall of suspicion over him, the lack of personnel began to facilitate his ascent within the underground movement. He rose through the ranks to the governing committee of the Transcaucasian Social Democratic organization. Other factors in his success were his active efforts in the underground and his ability to generate fiery prose. Rumors that he was collaborating with the police remained just that. During the two years that Jughashvili spent in prison and exile, Russia’s Social Democratic Party had undergone major changes. While formally a single party, in actuality it was divided between the adherents of Lenin—Bolsheviks— and the more moderate Mensheviks. Lenin advocated the creation of a militant and cohesive underground party that would serve as an instrument of revolution. It was Lenin’s belief that the workers, who were to be the main force in the revolution, were not capable of developing proper revolutionary thinking on their own. They had to be taught by professional revolutionaries. Lenin’s teachings were aimed at hastening revolution and speeding up “historical time.” The Mensheviks felt that the party should be less rigid and accept among its ranks sympathizers as well as activists. The Mensheviks had greater respect for the workers and placed less emphasis on their own role as teachers. This approach was a natural byproduct of their core belief that the revolutionary process would move gradually and organically forward as the objective preconditions for socialism reached fruition. Jughashvili was temperamentally inclined to accept Lenin’s viewpoint and to embrace his radicalism and calls to action. Furthermore, as a member of the party intelligentsia, Jughashvili welcomed the idea that professional revolutionaries must lead the workers’ movement. 38 To be leaders, to show the masses the way forward—surely this was the intelligentsia’s proper place within the revolution? Many of his articles were devoted to promoting Lenin’s ideas. The first Russian Revolution, in 1905, initially intensified discord between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks but ultimately brought the two sides closer together. Both groups faced a common enemy—the government and its supporters—and both sides increasingly resorted to violence and brutality. In Transcaucasia, roiled by social and ethnic animosities, the situation was particularly dire. As usual, the government did not hesitate to use arms. In response, the revolutionaries murdered figures associated with the autocratic regime and committed arson against industrial enterprises. Ethnic pogroms fed the rush of carnage. Violence and bloodshed became commonplace. Mensheviks and Bolsheviks organized their own armed detachments and made generous use of terrorist methods. 39 Jughashvili took an active part in these events, traveling across Georgia, helping to organize strikes and demonstrations, writing leaflets and articles, and helping set up an underground printing press and militant groups. He gradually reached the forefront of the Bolshevik leadership in Transcaucasia. In October 1905, unrest compelled the tsar to make concessions. Russia was given its first parliament, the State Duma. Political freedoms were proclaimed: freedom of conscience, free speech and assembly, and the inviolability of the person. The revolution nonetheless continued to build, and it forced maneuvering by the Social Democrats as well as the tsar. Under pressure from the ranks, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed to a reconciliation, restoring a superficial party unity. This newfound unity, however, did not advance the interests of the Bolsheviks in Transcaucasia, Jughashvili in particular, because it put the Mensheviks in charge of the region’s revolutionary organizations. The election of delegates to the party’s April 1906 “Unity Congress” in Stockholm put the Bolsheviks’ demeaning position on full display: the future dictator was the only Transcaucasian Bolshevik delegate elected. The next congress, in London the following May, was even more humiliating. At first, only Mensheviks were elected. The Bolsheviks had to arrange by-elections so they could send at least one representative. Again, they sent Jughashvili. Jughashvili’s trips to these congresses undoubtedly expanded his sense of the world and the party, as well as his circle of contacts. There is evidence that in 1907, while traveling to London, he met with Lenin in Berlin. 40 Returning from London, he spent several days in Paris, where he stayed with fellow Georgian Grigory Chochia, a student there. He returned to Russia using the passport of a friend of Chochia’s who had died. This arrangement enabled him to evade police surveillance and improved his personal safety. Forty years later, in May 1947, Chochia, then living in Leningrad, reminded Stalin of this: “In mid-1907, after you stayed with me for several days, I escorted you to the St. Lazare train station in Paris. You were so kind as to say to me, ‘I will never forget your help’ (you were referring to my giving you the international passport). Right now, I am greatly in need of your attention. I ask to be granted a 5–10 minute meeting with you.” 41 The letter was filed away. Stalin rarely recalled his foreign travel. We do not know what he saw in Europe and how he perceived it. Did he bring any gifts to his young wife, Yekaterina Svanidze, whom he married in July 1906, or his son, Yakov, born in March 1907 (right before Ioseb left for Western Europe)? Undoubtedly, Jughashvili’s mind was on the revolution. Immediately after he returned from the West, on 13 June 1907, a group of Transcaucasian Bolsheviks staged an armed robbery of money being transported to a bank in Tiflis; the robbery has become a part of the history of the Russian revolutionary movement. At the cost of several lives, it yielded a huge sum for Bolshevik coffers: 250,000 rubles. The ringleader of this “expropriation” was Jughashvili’s good friend Simon Ter-Petrosian, nicknamed Kamo. The obvious link between the two men has led some to suggest that Stalin was involved in organizing the heist and perhaps even took part in it, but there is no hard evidence. 42 Boris Nicolaevsky, who completed a thorough study of the case in the course of chronicling the Social Democratic movement, concluded that Jughashvili was informed of the activities of Kamo’s group and “helped conceal them from the local party organization.” But “he was in no regard a ringleader.” Nicolaevsky found a document showing that Kamo was working directly with the Bolshevik center abroad, specifically an agreement between Kamo and Lenin’s Bolshevik center on the details of the robbery. 43 It was Kamo, not Jughashvili, who signed this agreement. Except for the amount stolen, the Tiflis holdup was nothing out of the ordinary. The robbery of government institutions and private individuals was widely practiced at the time, by the Bolsheviks as well as other groups. Although such actions generated income, they undermined the morals of the revolutionaries and damaged their reputation with the public. From time to time, ordinary criminals would join forces with the revolutionaries for personal gain. In fact, ideologically motivated thieves stealing to further the revolution, even if they did not take a kopeck for themselves, were sometimes hard to distinguish from the ordinary criminals. This state of affairs must have been deeply disturbing for the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. At the 1907 congress in London the Mensheviks passed a resolution prohibiting Social Democrats from conducting such robberies. This resolution did not stop Lenin and his followers. The Tiflis operation was already being planned, and they did not cancel it. That this robbery was carried out so soon after the party congress made it look particularly cynical. Controversy spread through the ranks of the Social Democrats. Not for the first time and knowing his association with Kamo, the Tiflis Mensheviks showed Jughashvili how displeased they were with him. He was forced to leave Tiflis for Baku. In Baku, where the Mensheviks also dominated the party, Jughashvili could still rely on a stalwart group of Leninists. This major industrial center was ripe with opportunity for both agitation among the working class and combat against political opponents. Jughashvili managed to drive a wedge through the Baku organization, and the Bolsheviks took over the party leadership. But the joy of victory was overshadowed by personal tragedy. In Baku, Ioseb’s wife Yekaterina died. The couple’s infant son was taken in by the mother’s relatives. His father had no time for him. The unrest surrounding the 1905 revolution frightened the ruling classes and awakened the tsarist government to the need for concessions. Russia became a freer country. Serious agrarian reform was introduced that had fundamental significance for a country in which the peasantry represented an overwhelming —and explosive—majority. Historians still argue over where these reforms might ultimately have led. One thing is clear: Russia was not allowed to follow the course of reform long enough to yield results. Furthermore, alongside the reforms and concessions, the authorities began to “restore order” and more decisively and brutally combat the revolutionary underground. One victim of this post-revolutionary crackdown was Jughashvili. In March 1908 he was arrested. As before, he denied any wrongdoing, claiming that he did not belong to any revolutionary party and had spent a long time abroad. 44 These ploys did not work. After seven months in prison, he was sent into exile in Vologda Province, where he spent four months before fleeing. In the summer of 1909, he returned to Baku. By this time, the Social Democratic organization in Baku had been infiltrated by undercover police. Failed operations and arrests aroused mutual suspicion and rising tempers among the revolutionaries. Jughashvili again came under scrutiny: new rumors emerged that he was working for the police. This idea has continued to be promoted, although most historians have never given credence to theories that he was a double agent. The opening of the archives has confirmed their skepticism. A key document used to bolster these accusations against Stalin has been definitively exposed as a forgery, produced within émigré circles after the revolution. 45 Jughashvili spent more time in prison and exile than one would expect for a double agent. In the spring of 1910 he was again arrested and this time threatened with serious punishment. The police demanded that he be sent for five years to “the most remote reaches of Siberia.” He resorted to a tried-andtrue method: pleas for leniency, citing his poor health and the absence of serious evidence. In an attempt to demonstrate good intentions, he requested that he be allowed to marry a woman he had met while in exile and with whom he was living. 46 It is hard to assess what effect these “humble pleas” had, but in October 1910, instead of the five-year sentence in Siberia initially sought, Jughashvili was returned to Vologda Province to complete his previous sentence. This was a mild punishment. His term concluded in July 1911. The year-and-a-half between his release from this term of exile and his final arrest, in February 1913, was the peak of his career in the underground. He advanced into the ranks of the Bolshevik leadership, becoming a member of the Leninist party’s Central Committee in 1912. This elevation had at least two consequences. First, he now zigzagged across Russia and often spent extended periods in the two capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow, rather than working full time in Transcaucasia. Second, he was the target of much more intense police surveillance. He engaged in underground work in Russia, assisted in the publication of Bolshevik newspapers, wrote articles, and strategized with Bolshevik representatives in the State Duma. He also became one of Lenin’s closest associates. The Bolshevik leader was still in hiding outside the country and needed loyal helpers in Russia. Several times, Jughashvili traveled to meet with Lenin abroad. Detained by circumstances in Vienna for several weeks in 1913, he began work on an article addressing the party’s approach to ethnic minorities. This work was of particular interest to Lenin. In lockstep with Lenin’s views, Jughashvili advocated a unified Russian Social Democratic Party and argued against the fragmentation of revolutionary forces based on ethnicity. Jughashvili exemplified this sort of inter-ethnic cooperation. He considered himself an actor on the Russian imperial—not just the Georgian—stage. Putting his youthful nationalism and Transcaucasian Social Democratic past behind him, he consciously transformed himself into Stalin. He began to use this Russiansounding pseudonym, which symbolized his affinity with the revolutionary movement, around the time he moved into the Bolshevik party leadership. Stalin undoubtedly deserved his standing and reputation as a prominent Bolshevik. His organizational and writing abilities, daring, decisiveness, cool head, simple tastes, adaptability, and devotion to Lenin all contributed to his elevation to the top ranks. He stuck with the party even during the crisis in the Social Democratic movement that followed the crushing of the first revolution, a crisis characterized by mass arrests of underground operators, infiltration of the organization by police agents, and a severe shortage of funds. In March 1913, an agent who had penetrated the Baku Social Democratic organization reported that “The committee is currently not undertaking any activities.” 47 Meanwhile, in February, in far-off Petersburg, Stalin was arrested. He had been betrayed by fellow Bolshevik leader and Lenin favorite Roman Malinovsky, who had been working for the police for several years.


In June 1913, Ioseb Jughashvili was sentenced to a four-year term of exile in Siberia’s Turukhansky Krai. From the start, this last period of exile was marked by particular hardship. Turukhansky Krai was an extremely inhospitable region. Stalin’s letters during the first months were filled with pleas for help and complaints that he lacked funds and was in poor health: 49 It seems that I have never been in such a terrible situation. My money is gone, the intensifying cold (37 below) has brought on a suspicious cough, and I’m in a general state of ill health, have no supply of bread, sugar, meat, or kerosene (all my money has gone toward day-to-day expenses, clothing, and footwear).… I understand that none of you, you in particular, have time for this, but, damn it, I don’t have anyone else to turn to. And I don’t want … to croak here. This has to be taken care of today and money sent by telegraph because waiting any longer means starving, and I’m already malnourished and sick. 50 My hardship grows by the hour, I’m in a desperate situation, and on top of it all I’ve fallen ill and some suspicious cough has set in. I need milk, but … money, I have no money. My dear, if you get some money, send it to me immediately via telegram. I can’t stand it any longer. 51 At first there was a lingering hope of freedom. The party leadership adopted a resolution to arrange an escape for Stalin and his comrade in exile, Yakov Sverdlov. An escape would require money, but there were delays in sending it. Furthermore, the traitor Malinovsky informed the police of the escape plans. In March 1914, on orders from St. Petersburg, Stalin and Sverdlov were sent to the even more remote village of Kureika, not far from the Arctic Circle, and placed under the charge of personal wardens. Escape was almost impossible. Stalin took this transfer as a severe blow. In late March 1914 he sent an angry letter to St. Petersburg rebuking his party comrades for their long silence and demanding to know: would there be money for an escape or not? 52 Several weeks later he changed his plans. In April he wrote to Malinovsky: “The new governor has relocated me to the far north and confiscated the money sent to me (60 r. total). We’re still living, brother.… Someone, it turns out, has been spreading rumors that I’m not going to remain in exile for the rest of my term. Nonsense! I’m telling you and swear on the life of my dog that I will serve out my term (until 1917). At one point I thought of leaving, but now I’ve abandoned that idea, abandoned it for good.” 53 This letter raises questions. Was Stalin’s firm assertion that he did not plan to escape intended for the eyes of the police? Or was he expressing his dissatisfaction with party comrades who had failed to help him? Perhaps he recognized the fruitlessness of any hope of escape and had made a genuine decision to remain in exile. Given that the subject of escape did not arise again, it appears that he really did reconcile himself to his fate. Stalin’s life in Kureika was shaped by events that occurred during his first months there. First, he had a falling out with Sverdlov. Upon arriving in Kureika, the two set up house together, but this arrangement did not last long. In his letters, Sverdlov only hinted at conflict with his roommate: “I’m living with the Georgian Jughashvili.… He’s a fine fellow but too much of an individualist in practical matters. I am an adherent of some minimal order. This is a source of agitation for me at times.” 54 The picture is filled in by other sources. According to the reminiscences of Anna Allilueva, the sister of Stalin’s second wife, Stalin later admitted that he found various pretexts for shirking his household duties— cleaning, keeping the stove going, etc. Sverdlov wound up stuck with all the chores. 55 Khrushchev offered further information: Stalin told the following story: “We would make dinner for ourselves.… The main thing we did in the way of earning a livelihood was to fish for white salmon. That didn’t take any great skill. We also went hunting. I had a dog and called him Yashka. Of course for Sverdlov that wasn’t pleasant; he was Yashka and the dog was Yashka, and so then Sverdlov used to wash the dishes and spoons after dinner, but I never did. I would eat and put the dishes on the dirt floor and the dog would lick everything clean. But that fellow had a passion for cleanliness.” 56 These differences over hygiene were bound to provoke discord, but there may have been other sources of conflict. The animosity that developed between Sverdlov and Stalin was so strong that they not only moved into separate houses, but also broke off contact altogether. Sverdlov wrote to his wife some time later: “After all, you know, dear one, what abominable conditions I endured in Kureika. On a personal level, the comrade I lived with there turned out to be the sort that we did not talk to one another or get together.” 57 Soon after his falling out with Sverdlov, Stalin moved into the home of the Pereprygin family—five brothers and two sisters, all orphans. Stalin, who was thirty-five, entered into an intimate relationship with the fourteen-year-old Lidiia Pereprygina. This apparently provoked an argument between Stalin and the man in charge of guarding him, which escalated into a fistfight. The local police took Stalin’s side. One circumstance that may have worked in Stalin’s favor was that the police chief in Turukhansky Krai was I. I. Kibirov, an ethnic Ossetian who, like Stalin, was from Georgia. It is possible that Stalin and Kibirov came to an agreement that he would be given a degree of liberty in exchange for a promise that he would not attempt to flee. Stalin not only was not charged for his transgression with a minor, but he was also given a new guard, M. A. Merzliakov, who treated him exceptionally well. 58 In 1930, when he was persecuted under the Soviet regime for having served in the tsarist police, Merzliakov turned to Stalin for help. “I am asking Com. Stalin,” he wrote, “to inform our village soviet that I truly did have a friendly relationship with you while serving in Turukhansky and did not act against you.” Stalin responded with a glowing recommendation: “Mikh. Merzliakov had a formal attitude toward his police duties, without the usual police zeal; he did not spy on me, did not badger me, did not pick on me, and turned a blind eye to my frequent absences.” 59 Taking advantage of this obliging attitude, Stalin managed to arrange a relatively pleasant life for himself, to the extent such a thing is possible in the Arctic. He continued to live with Lidiia Pereprygina. There were rumors— though muddled and contradictory—that the two had a child together. 60 Stalin devoted his copious free time to fishing, hunting, visiting fellow exiles in neighboring settlements, receiving guests, and taking part in local merrymaking. His financial situation stabilized enough to support his modest lifestyle. Most important is that his health improved. “I’m living as before. I feel fine. I’m completely healthy—I must have gotten used to the nature around here. And nature here is harsh: three weeks ago the temperature went to 45 below,” he cheerfully reported in a letter written in late 1915. 61 This unusual period in Stalin’s life reveals some interesting aspects of his character. He was completely unfazed by the absence of creature comforts in this harsh environment. In Kureika, with a total of eight houses and sixty-seven residents, he seems to have suffered an utter absence of suitable conversation partners. Yet he endured this lack of intellectual stimulation with equanimity. Apparently he was perfectly capable of living without the revolution and felt no need to exercise his intellect. His opponents have long accused him of wasting the time spent in Turukhansky Krai. Trotsky, for example, wrote that “Any attempt to find traces of his spiritual life during this period of solitude and leisure would be in vain.” 62 Indeed, Stalin’s collected works feature not a single article written between early 1913 and early 1917. Stalin’s correspondence from this period, however, paints a more complicated picture. During the first year of exile, either because he still hoped to escape or simply out of habit, he did try to work. He wrote a new article on nationalities problems and sent them to a journal. He asked his comrades to send him books, journals, and newspapers. In subsequent years as well, his correspondence from exile contained references to work on articles and his need for new books. 63 But his enthusiasm was waning. In 1914, Malinovsky was exposed as a double agent. This was a crushing blow to the entire Bolshevik party, but for Stalin, who was friendly with Malinovsky and had turned to him for help, the revelation was especially painful. And there were other discouraging developments. An article that Stalin submitted to a journal was not published, his comrades failed to send him new journal issues, and he lacked the money for subscriptions. In November 1915, after two years in Turukhansky Krai, he explained his situation in a rare letter to Lenin: “My life is not great. I’m hardly doing anything. And what is there to do when you have no or almost no serious books? … I have lots of questions and topics in my head, but as for material—nothing. I’m itching to do something, but there’s nothing to do.” 64 Stalin’s communication with the party leadership in emigration gradually dropped off, and he occasionally complained in letters that they had forgotten him. Indeed, Lenin’s requests in 1915 to be reminded of Stalin’s last name became well known: “Do you remember Koba’s last name?”; “I have a big favor: find out … ‘Koba’s’ last name (Iosef J…?? We’ve forgotten).” 65 Stalin’s situation reflected the general state of affairs in the Bolshevik party. Its leadership was languishing either in forced internal exile or self-imposed exile abroad. Periods of hope, dreams, and failed attempts to activate the movement alternated with quarrels, both internally and with opponents from other parties. On both the personal and political front, the future looked gloomy for the revolutionaries. How thirty-eight-year-old Stalin imagined his future at this point is hard to know. Perhaps he tried not to think about it.

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