Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


O muse, today sing of Jughashvili, the son of a bitch, He has artfully combined the donkey’s stubbornness and the fox’s cunning, By cutting a million nooses he has made his way to power.

Pavel Vasiliev 1

Chapter 1. Childhood and Family

Instead of saying something like “X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur,” they tell you about a mother, a father . . .

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread

IN THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE, especially Georgia, 1878 was not a bad year to bring a child into the world. True, Georgians of all classes seethed with resentment. Their Russian overlords, into whose hands the last Georgian kings had surrendered their shattered realm at the beginning of the nineteenth century, ruled the country through a bureaucracy that was often callous, corrupt, and ignorant, while those Georgian children who went to school were instructed in Russian. The Russian viceroy in Tbilisi, however humane and liberal, was determined to keep things as they were: Armenians ran commerce, foreign capitalists controlled industry, while Georgian aristocrats and peasants, upstaged in their own capital city, led a more or less tolerable life in the fertile countryside.

Georgians had some reasons to be grateful for Russian rule. For nearly a century Georgia had been free of the invasions and raids by its neighbors that had devastated and periodically nearly annihilated the nation since the thirteenth century. Russians might impose punitive taxes, Siberian exile, and cultural humiliation, but, unlike the Turks, they did not decapitate the entire male population of villages and, unlike the Persians, they did not drive away the survivors of massacres to be castrated, enslaved, and forcibly converted to Islam. Under Russian rule towns had been rebuilt and railways linked the capital to the Black Sea, and thus the outside world. The capital city, Tbilisi, had newspapers and an opera house (even if it had no university). A new generation of Georgians, forced to become fluent in Russian, realized the dreams of their ancestors: they were now treated as Europeans, they could study in European universities and become doctors, lawyers, diplomats—and revolutionaries. Many Georgians dreamed of regaining independent statehood; so far, few believed that they should work toward this by violence. Most Georgians in the 1870s grudgingly accepted Russian domination as the price of exchanging their Asiatic history for a European culture.

For the inhabitants of the empire’s metropolis, St. Petersburg, 1878 was a year that threatened to totter into anarchy. The terrorists who would kill Tsar Alexander II in 1881 were already tasting blood: the honeymoon between the Russian government and its intellectuals and new professional classes was over. The seeds of revolution found fertile ground not in the impoverished peasantry nor in the slums that housed the cities’ factory workers, but among the frustrated educated children of the gentry and the clergy who were not content to demand just human rights and a constitution. They went further and were plotting the violent overthrow of the Russian state. Such extremism might be fanatical but was not unrealistic. A rigid state is easier to destroy than to reform, and the Russian state was so constructed that a well-placed batch of dynamite or a well-aimed revolver, by eliminating a handful of grand dukes and ministers, could bring it down. The weakness of the Russian empire lay in its impoverished social fabric: the state was held together by a vertical hierarchy, from Tsar to gendarme. In Britain or France society was held together by the warp and weft of institutions—judiciary, legislature, Church, local government. In Russia, where these institutions were only vestigial or embryonic, the fabric was single-ply.

The killers of Tsar Alexander II, the generation of Russian revolutionaries that preceded Lenin, saw this weakness but they had no popular support and no prospect of achieving mass rebellion. Russia in the 1880s and 1890s was generally perceived as stagnant, retrograde, even heartless and cynical—but stable. Episodes of famine, epidemics, and anti-Jewish progroms rightly gave Russia a bad international name in the 1880s. The 1860s and 1870s had been a period of reform, hope, and, above all, creativity: Fiodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoi, and Nikolai Leskov were writing their greatest novels. But the zest was gone: only the music of Piotr Tchaikovsky and the chemistry of Dmitri Mendeleev testified to Russian civilization. Nevertheless, there was tranquillity in stagnation. This was the Russian empire’s longest recorded period of peace. Between Russia’s victory over Turkey in 1877 and its defeat by Japan in 1905, half a human lifetime would elapse.

Around the time Ioseb Jughashvili was born on December 6, 1878, in the flourishing town of Gori, forty miles west of Tbilisi, the atmosphere among the town’s artisans, merchants, and intellectuals was quietly buoyant. A boy whose parents had a modest income could secure an education that would make a gentleman of him anywhere in the Russian empire. Few observers had cause to agree with the prophecies of Dostoevsky and the philosopher Vladimir Soloviov: that within forty years a Russian tyranny so violent and bloody would be unleashed that Genghis Khan’s or Nadir Shah’s invasions would pale into insignificance by comparison. Even less did anyone sense that Ioseb Jughashvili, as Joseph Stalin, would be instrumental in establishing this tyranny over the Russian empire and would then take sole control of it.

imageThe family that begot Ioseb (Soso) Jughashvili had no more reason than other Georgians to fear the future. The cobbler Besarion Jughashvili was in 1878 twenty-eight years old, a skilled and successful artisan working for himself; he had been married six years to Katerine (Keke), who was now twenty-two. She was a peasant girl with strong aspirations, well brought up, and had even been taught to read and write by her grandfather. Their first two sons had died in infancy; this third son, by Georgian (and Russian) tradition, was a gift from God, to be offered back to God. Katerine Meladze’s father had died before she was born, and she was brought up by her uncle, Petre Khomuridze. In the 1850s the Khomuridzes had been serfs from the village of Mejrokhe near Gori but in 1861 Tsar Alexander II made them, like all serfs, freemen. Petre Khomuridze, once freed, proved an enterprising patriarch: he raised his own child and the children of his widowed sister. Katerine’s brothers Sandro and Gio became a potter and a tile-maker respectively; when Katerine became a cobbler’s wife, all the Meladze siblings had succeeded in rising from peasant to artisan status.

The family of Stalin’s father Besarion seemed to be on the same upward course. Stalin’s paternal great-grandfather, Zaza Jughashvili, had also lived near Gori, in a largely Osetian village.Zaza was also a serf. He took part in an anti-Russian rebellion in the 1800s, escaped retribution and was resettled, thanks to a charitable feudal prince, in a hovel in the windswept and semi-deserted village of Didi Lilo, ten miles north of Tbilisi. Here Zaza’s son Vano moved up the social ladder: he owned a vineyard. Zaza’s two grandchildren Giorgi and Besarion seemed destined to climb further. After Vano’s death, Giorgi became an innkeeper but their rise to prosperity was brutally interrupted: Stalin’s uncle Giorgi was killed by robbers, and his younger brother Besarion, destitute, left for Tbilisi to be a cobbler. By 1870 the Jughashvilis had resumed their climb: working for an Armenian bootmaker, Besarion acquired not only his craft, but learned to speak some Russian, Armenian, and Azeri Turkish, as well as Georgian. Unlike most Georgian artisans at that time, Besarion was literate.

One in three great dictators, artists, or writers witness before adolescence the death, bankruptcy, or disabling of their fathers. Stalin, like Napoleon, Dickens, Ibsen, and Chekhov, was the son of a man who climbed halfway up the social ladder and then fell off. Why did Besarion Jughashvili fail, when everything seemed to favor a man of his origins and skills? Contemporaries recall little of Besarion. One remembers that the Jughashvilis never had to pawn or sell anything. Another remembers: “When Soso’s father Besarion came home, we avoided playing in the room. Besarion was a very odd person. He was of middling height, swarthy, with big black mustaches and long eyebrows, his expression was severe and he walked about looking gloomy.” 3 Whatever the reasons, in 1884, when Stalin was six, Besarion’s affairs went sharply downhill. The family moved house—nine times in ten years. The cobbler’s workshop lost customers; Beso took to drink.

Early in 1890 the marriage of Stalin’s parents broke up. This was the last year the young Stalin had any contact with his father: the twelve-year-old boy was run over by a carriage and his father and mother took him to Tbilisi for an operation. Besarion stayed in the capital, finding work at a shoe factory. When the boy recovered, Besarion gave him an ultimatum: either become an apprentice cobbler in Tbilisi or return to Gori, follow his mother’s ambitions, train to be a priest, and be disowned by his father. Soso went back to school in Gori in autumn 1890. Besarion, after visits to Gori to beg Katerine to take him back, vanished. (Stalin later stated in official depositions that his father had abandoned the family.) Besarion Jughashvili became an alcoholic tramp. On August 12, 1909, taken to the hospital from a Tbilisi rooming house, he died of liver cirrhosis. He was buried in an unmarked grave, mourned only by one fellow cobbler.4

Some Georgians found it hard to believe that Stalin could have such lowly origins: they speculated that Stalin was illegitimate, which would explain Besarion deserting his “unfaithful” wife and her offspring. Legend puts forward two putative fathers for Stalin: Nikolai Przhevalsky, explorer of central Asia, and a Prince Egnatashvili. It is true that Stalin physically resembled Przhevalsky but the latter was a misogynistic homosexual, camped on the Chinese border when Stalin was begotten. In Soviet times two Egnatashvili brothers, related to the priest who married both Stalin and Stalin’s parents, and to the Prince Egnatashvili for whom Katerine allegedly did housework, led remarkably charmed lives. Stalin was frequently called a bastard and whoreson, but the abuse was figurative. Adultery in a small Georgian town was rare: Keke was a conventional, if strong-willed, wife and mother, and Ioseb was undoubtedly Besarion’s son.

Stalin discouraged prying into his origins and was most evasive about his father; only in 1906 did he give him the most cursory acknowledgment when he briefly adopted a new pseudonym for his journalism: Besoshvili (son of Besarion). Katerine exerted a more prolonged influence on her son. She bequeathed her obstinacy in pursuing goals. Ruined then deserted, constantly moving house, demoted from artisan’s wife to drudge, she nevertheless scraped together the money and cajoled the authorities to get her son off the streets and into school. By several accounts she beat Ioseb as often as Besarion did, but for nobler reasons. Religious piety and instinct told her that education, preferably directed at the priesthood, provided the only way in which her son could make his way in the world. Katerine was nothing if not single-minded; religion and her son were her only interests. Her sole surviving letter to Stalin, from the 1920s, shows how much she had in common with him: “My dear child Ioseb first of all I greet you with great love and wish you a long life and good health together with your good family. Child, I ask nature to give you complete victory and the annihilation of the enemy. . . . Be victorious!”5

If Stalin avoided speaking of his father, he was conventionally, if casually, fond of his mother. He sent her short letters and sporadic gifts of money. In the 1930s Katerine could be seen, an austere widow in black, carrying her basket to Tbilisi’s collective-farm market accompanied by a squad of smart NKVD guards—at the fawning initiative of Lavrenti Beria, not at her son’s behest. Stalin visited his mother twice in the 1920s and once in 1935. He just sent a wreath to her funeral.

All who came across Stalin in power were struck by his self-sufficiency and solitude. Perhaps Stalin’s solitary habits came from being the only son of an impoverished and lonely woman, but was his childhood the solitary hell that would produce a psychopath? What we can glean of Ioseb’s childhood does not bear this out. The Jughashvilis lived on amicable terms with their neighbors, who were cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile artisans. Nearby lived Katerine’s extended family— craftsmen and innkeepers, with connections to merchants and even aristocrats. Like Beso’s first two short-lived sons (Mikhail 1875, Giorgi 1876) Ioseb Jughashvili had prominent godfathers on whom the family could also count for support. The young Stalin had for company a foster brother (apprenticed to Besarion) a year younger than himself, Vano Khutsishvili. Vano had no complaints when in 1939 he recalled their apparently happy childhood in a letter to Stalin.Even after Besarion parted from his wife and son, Katerine and Ioseb kept up contact with that side of the family. Besarion’s sister was married to a Iakob Gveseliani, and although they lived near Tbilisi their offspring, Ioseb’s cousins, often visited Gori. As for Katerine, she and her children were part of an extended family in Gori, including her cousin Mariam Mamulashvili, who had seven children. Not until his twenties could Stalin have known involuntary solitude.

Stalin’s cousins—particularly Pepo (Euphemia) Gveseliani on his father’s side and Vano Mamulashvili on his mother’s side—kept in touch with him until his death. They sent letters—ingratiating, begging, sometimes affectionate. They came to Moscow and on two occasions threatened to commit suicide if Stalin refused to see them. His cousins were the only family category for whom Stalin never sanctioned arrests (Stalin’s in-laws, the Svanidzes and Alliluevs, suffered the same near-extermination as did other “old Bolsheviks”). Admittedly, Stalin did his blood relatives few favors—they endured the same hardships all Georgia’s peasantry and artisans underwent after the revolution—but they were the only human beings with whom Stalin sustained a semblance of normal relations. In his old age he would send them and some schoolmates parcels of cash (his earnings as a Supreme Soviet deputy). In 1951, General Nikolai Vlasik, the commandant at Stalin’s dacha, drew up a list of Stalin’s surviving relatives and schoolmates for a bus trip to a reunion in Georgia. Vlasik would not have dared to do so had Stalin not shown some last flicker of human affection.

The most telling events in Stalin’s childhood are his brushes with death: his years in Georgia were marked by crippling illnesses and ghastly traffic accidents. All his life Stalin was rarely free of physical pain—which must have stimulated his sadism and irritability—and most of his pain, mental as well as physical, was a residue of childhood. He survived all the childhood illnesses—from measles to scarlet fever—that had carried off his infant brothers but in 1884 caught smallpox and was left badly scarred, earning the nickname Chopura (Poxy). Soon afterward he was run over by a carriage, and the subsequent blood poisoning apparently withered his left shoulder and arm. In early 1890 in another street accident his legs were run over by a carriage and Ioseb acquired another nickname, Geza (Crooked). His injuries left him with a waddling, strutting walk and a decade later he would plead leg injuries to mitigate his prison sentences. Illnesses, psychological and physical, hold one key to Stalin’s pathological personality; the other is his pursuit of information. From a very early age he understood that ruthless aggression was useless unless he was armed with knowledge: he had to know his enemy and everything that his enemy knew. Very early in his life Stalin became an autodidact, and even in his senility he gathered and tried to retain all the information he could.

Not until her child was eight, a street urchin and, by some accounts, a violent brawler, did Katerine succeed in placing him in school. In 1886 the Jughashvilis had moved to the upper story of a house owned by a priest, Kristopore Charkviani. Keke begged Charkviani to teach Ioseb to read and write Russian so that he could win a place in Gori’s clerical college, where instruction was mostly in Russian. In summer 1888, still only nine, Soso was accepted into the two-year preparatory class of the college; he learned Russian so quickly that he graduated to the main school in one year.

Gori clerical college formed the young Stalin. Some of its teachers, particularly the Georgians, were radical intellectuals with considerable talents: one, Giorgi Sadzghelashvili, would become catholicos of the newly autocephalous Georgian Church in 1917; another, Zakare Davitashvili, belonged to literary and revolutionary circles. Davitashvili had Keke’s thanks for “singling out my son Soso . . . you helped him grow to love learning and because of you he knows the Russian language well.” Even before puberty, Stalin combined the conformist’s desire to study with the radical’s instinct to rebel. At Gori he was influenced by classmates with older brothers, such as the Ketskhovelis, one of whom had been expelled from Tbilisi seminary for radicalism.

Kinship and friendship also linked twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys with their teachers, and thus with Georgia’s radical intelligentsia as well as its merchants and officials. Georgia differed from Russia in that all educated men, regardless of their social origins and political alignments, were united in their resentment of Russian domination. Wealthy middle-aged capitalists would shelter impoverished radical schoolboys simply because they were fellow Georgians and fellow victims of the empire. That they were, to use Maupassant’s simile, like corn merchants protecting rats, apparently never occurred to these patrons of dissidence.

If Ioseb Jughashvili was disliked by his classmates for his surliness, he was favored by teachers for his willingness to be class monitor, for his absorption in books and homework. Even the most hated teacher (as usual in Georgian schools, the Russian language teacher), Vladimir Lavrov, known as the gendarme, put his trust in Ioseb Jughashvili. Just as well, for when Katerine became a pauper, the school waived the twenty-five-ruble annual fee and gave the boy a scholarship of three, later seven, rubles a month for “exemplary” performance. He came top in every subject and was an outstanding choirboy and reader in the college’s liturgical services.

When in 1894 Jughashvili graduated from Gori, he had acquired enough patronage to have a choice of further education. Tbilisi had no university, but it had two tertiary institutions: a pedagogical institute, where the Gori college singing teacher was moving and where he offered to take Jughashvili; and a theological seminary where, with help from his former teachers, Ioseb would be equally sure of placement. With examination results of “excellent” in Bible studies, Church Slavonic, and Russian, catechism, Greek, Georgian, geography, calligraphy, church singing, and Georgian (only in arithmetic did he gain just “very good”), Ioseb Jughashvili actually needed little patronage. Whatever his mother wished, and regardless of his own religious beliefs, the turbulent student life of the Tbilisi seminary would have lured any boy with a desire to make an impact on the world to choose a priest’s, rather than a pedagogue’s, path.

The seminary gave by far the best education in Tbilisi. It was a strange institution where obscurantist Orthodox monk-teachers (mostly Russians appointed by the viceroy of the Caucasus) fought the mainly Georgian liberals among staff and students. Disruption in the seminary was a perennial topic in the Georgian press for the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. In the early 1890s, the heavy hand of Tsar Alexander III’s bureaucracy began to lose its grip. The new generation of students was more radical and the ferment such that one rector, Kersky, was demoted by the government to monkhood, and another, Chudetsky, was murdered by a former student. The writer Iakob Gogebashvili, like many Georgian luminaries a former teacher there, declared that any student, Russian or Georgian, not gripped by egotistical fear would rebel against the seminary authorities.In 1893, the year before Jughashvili entered, the students’ protests and demonstrations frightened the seminary’s hierarchs to such a degree that tuition was suspended and troublemakers expelled.

Despite antagonism between Russian staff and Georgian students, there were some Russian teachers whom Stalin and his classmates later recalled with respect, even reluctant affection. Some reactionaries on the staff were men of character: the deputy rector in the mid-1890s, Father Germogen, later became bishop of Tobolsk and a member of the Holy Synod. In 1914, he was dismissed for denouncing Grigori Rasputin and in 1918 he tried to rescue Tsar Nicholas II from captivity.

Although he had no clerical background, Jughashvili impressed the seminary enough to be awarded a half-scholarship. The withdrawn, introverted surliness that repelled his fellow students seemed to his teachers the seriousness of a dedicated scholar. It took time for Jughashvili’s religious conformism to collapse under the influence of the radicals in the seminary. Even in 1939, in the USSR, it was admitted in print: “Ioseb in his first years of study was very much a believer, going to all the services, singing in the church choir . . . he not only observed all religious rites but always reminded us to carry them out.”8

Stalin’s career at the seminary falls into two periods. Until 1896, when he was seventeen, he was an exemplary student. He acquired the rudiments of classical and modern languages and had begun to read widely in secular Russian and European literature as well as in sacred texts. He had a basic knowledge of world history. His reports show him as fifth in his class with top marks for behavior, Georgian, church singing, mathematics and “very good” for Greek. He rebelled in earnest in 1897, his third year. The previous year, when a crowd had been trampled to death at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in Moscow, Russian public opinion had turned hostile to the new Tsar, his ministers, and the imperial establishment. Jughashvili’s conformism was swept away in this tide of radical anger. His faith collapsed; his term reports became deplorable. By 1898 Jughashvili had fallen to twentieth in the class, he had failed scripture, and was due to retake his annual examinations.

The reading prescribed at Tbilisi seminary was theological, and the lives of the Church fathers were the perfect preparation for reading the classics of Marxism. Ten years of ecclesiastical reading turned Stalin into that chimerical creature: the diehard atheist with a profound knowledge and love of religious texts and music. In his sixties Stalin sought out others who had had a seminary education—Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, the opera bass Maksim Mikhailov. To them he remarked, “One thing priests teach you is to understand what people think.”

Stalin’s transition to atheism was neither abrupt nor complete. His atheism was a rebellion against God rather than a disavowal of the deity. The transition from Orthodoxy to Marxism, from the discipline of the Church to that of the party, was easy. Stalin went only halfway. Marxists declare man to be naturally good; all evil stems from social injustice. Stalin knew all human beings to be sinners in need of punishment and expiation. He took with him into power the deeply held conviction that the duty of the ruler was not to make his subjects happy but to prepare their souls for the next world.

At the seminary Stalin’s intellectual interests veered toward forbidden authors and topics. He was now boarding in the same house as the young philosopher Seit Devdariani and illicitly subscribing to the Georgian Society for the Spreading of Literacy, which had a cheap lending library. The cluster of acolytes around Seit and Jughashvili still regarded themselves as trainee priests; the aim that bonded them was to broaden their education through reading political and scientific literature. The books, if found, were confiscated by their teachers, and persistent disobedience of the seminary rules led to imprisonment in a cell on a diet of bread and water.

Seit Devdariani was too mild a philosopher for Jughashvili, and in any case was off to Estonia to study at Tartu (Iuriev) University. In 1897 Jughashvili came under the spell of a more charismatic activist, Lado Ketskhoveli, who had just returned to Tbilisi from Kiev University after being expelled for reading forbidden literature. Ketskhoveli managed an underground printshop and was Stalin’s first contact with the world of revolutionary propaganda. Under Ketskhoveli’s tutelage Jughashvili now read exegeses of Marxism, not of the Bible. By 1898 he was engaged outside the seminary in propaganda work among Tbilisi’s largest proletarian group, the Caucasian railway workers. He earned money by coaching a boy for entry to the seminary. That autumn the seminary considered expelling Jughashvili; he suffered reprimands, searches, and detentions, but he was more preoccupied with fomenting a strike of railway engineers in December 1898.

On May 29, 1899, the seminary announced: “I. V. Jughashvili is expelled from the seminary for failing for unknown reasons to appear for examinations.” These “unknown reasons” might have been propagating Marxism, not paying seminary fees after his scholarship was withdrawn, or, as Katerine (who came to take him home) maintained, incipient TB. There may have been another reason. To judge by a semiliterate letter that Stalin hid in his private archive in April 1938 he had become in 1899 the father of a baby girl. All we know of her, apart from her later disappearance, was that she bore an extraordinary resemblance to Stalin, that she was called Pasha (Praskovia Georgievna Mikhailovskaia), and that Stalin’s mother at some point took care of her.9

The seminary was generous to its wayward student: the marks in Jughashvili’s leaving certificate reflect his exemplary early years. But the seminary fined him seventeen rubles for unreturned library books—all his life Stalin hung on to books he had borrowed—and they demanded 630 rubles—two years’ salary from Stalin’s first employment—to repay his scholarship, since he had dishonored his undertaking to repay his education by becoming a priest or schoolteacher.