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


Chapter 4. Political Initiation

AFTER LEAVING THE SEMINARY in 1898 Stalin did not go back to Gori with his disappointed mother; he hid from the police in a village near Tbilisi. In autumn he was helped by his friend Lado Ketskhoveli’s younger brother Vano to secure an undemanding job as one of six observers at the Tbilisi meteorological station for twenty rubles a month. One might reasonably have predicted that the promising boy was now doomed to be a marginal, semi-educated clerk.

What saved Stalin was a chance to foment trouble for the authorities. In January 1900, with Lado Ketskhoveli, Jughashvili helped organize a strike of tram workers. The strike was soon broken. Lado fled to Baku, Vano was forced to leave the meteorological station, and Jughashvili was caught and imprisoned but, after his mother intervened, released.

Isolated from his friends, the young Stalin had to seek support from Russian socialists whom the authorities had rashly exiled to Tbilisi from St. Petersburg. Thus in 1900 Stalin began his network. His first significant contact was a Russian exile working in the railway workshops, Mikhail Kalinin. Stalin would later maintain Kalinin for twenty-eight years as his front man, the puppet head of the Soviet state from 1918 to 1946. Kalinin, all his life a dog in search of a master, would prove an archetypical Stalinist employee, but in 1900 another Russian contact, Dr. Viktor Kurnatovsky, seemed more useful to Stalin. Kurnatovsky was an educated Marxist, the friend of another Caucasian Bolshevik, Sergei Alliluev, and the lover of his wife: Kurnatovsky thus introduced Stalin to the Marxist underground and to his future father-in-law.

Within a year Jughashvili, an obscure clerk, was again a wanted man. Of twenty-nine Russian “social democratic revolutionary party” members listed by the Tbilisi gendarmerie in early 1901, Viktor Kurnatovsky, Pilipe Makharadze, and Ioseb Jughashvili were singled out as dangerous. Jughashvili was noted as “an intellectual who leads a group of railway workers . . . behaving very cautiously, always looks around when walking . . .”

In 1901 Stalin began sixteen formative years of life on the run, in prison, or in exile. He had no address he could call home, and no serious expectations of settling down, let alone achieving power. He visited Gori only when the gendarmes made Tbilisi too hot for him. He organized demonstrations and set up an illegal printshop.

Even in his early twenties Stalin attached himself to two sorts of men. One sort, like Kalinin and Kurnatovsky—doctrinaire, self-educated Marxists—would constitute his inner circle. The other sort were killers. In 1901, Stalin took up with the first of the many criminals that he was to use and employ: a half-Georgian, half-Armenian youth, Simon (Kamo) Ter-Petrosiants. Stalin had known Kamo since childhood; the Ter-Petrosiants and Jughashvili families were neighbors. Kamo would soon be the Caucasus’s most notorious bandit: his bloody “expropriations” of millions of rubles from mail coaches and post offices funded the Bolsheviks’ arms and propaganda and alienated “legal” Marxists from their violent Bolshevik fellow travelers. In 1901 Kamo was only nineteen. Expelled from school for professing atheism, he now sought expertise in explosives and arms by applying to enter Tbilisi’s military academy.

At the end of 1901 Jughashvili took cover in Batumi from the gendarmes. Batumi was then, as today, Georgia’s second city, a lawless port influenced as much by Turkey and Islam as by Russia. Here the oil terminals, the Rothschild factory, and the port had built up a critical mass of disaffected proletarians. This was no provincial exile for Stalin but a chance to make his mark. For the first time he encountered an urban proletariat. That he, a stranger from Tbilisi, made an impact in an industrial area where many workers spoke little Georgian, says something for the force of his personality. Within two months he was making furtive trips to Tbilisi to fetch machinery for printing leaflets in Georgian and Armenian. He was helped by a twenty-year-old Armenian, Suren Spandaryan, the editor of Nor Dar (New Century) and son of a typesetter. Spandaryan was, until his death in 1916, one of the few people Stalin might have called a friend and whose death he, if perfunctorily, mourned.

In early 1902 Tbilisi’s social democrat revolutionaries were crushed by the police. In Batumi, however, the strikes that Stalin had helped foment were victorious. By April 1902, though, Jughashvili was arrested for “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority.” He was cursorily examined by a doctor, Grigol Eliava, who gave the first objective description of Stalin: “height 1.64, long, swarthy, pockmarked face, second and third toes on left foot joined . . . missing one front, right lower molar tooth . . . mole on left ear.”19

Stalin was no prison hero. In autumn he implored Prince Golitsyn, the viceroy of the Caucasus: “An increasingly choking cough and the helpless position of my elderly mother, abandoned by her husband twelve years ago and seeing me as her sole support in life, forces me to address the commander-in-chief’s chancellery for the second time and humbly request release under police supervision. . . .” A major of Tbilisi’s gendarmerie warned against clemency (making the young Stalin sound like an asset to the police force): “at the head of the Batumi organization is Ioseb Jughashvili, under special police supervision, Jughashvili’s despotism has enraged many people and the organization [in Batumi] has split. . . .”

In spring 1903 Stalin roused prisoners to protest against a visit by the exarch of the Georgian Church. He was moved a hundred miles east, to Kutaisi, where he was described by the social democrat Grigol Urutadze: “a beard, long hair combed back. An insinuating gait, in little steps. He never laughed with an open mouth. . . . He was absolutely imperturbable.” The gendarmerie proposed exiling him to eastern Siberia for six years.

It took the bureaucracy until the winter of 1903–04 to send Jughashvili, with two dozen other social democrats, in summer clothing, across the Black Sea and the Urals to Siberia, to a village forty miles from the railway. After two months Jughashvili persuaded a peasant (who was flogged for complicity) to drive him to the railhead from where he escaped back to the Caucasus. He was sheltered in Tbilisi by a fellow student of Suren Spandaryan, an engineer’s son who would become a key figure in Lenin’s entourage, Lev Kamenev (Rosenfeld). For some days, before he himself fled north to St. Petersburg, Kamenev protected Jughashvili, a comradely gesture which he must have bitterly regretted twenty years later. Few people suffered such scorpionlike ingratitude as Kamenev had from Stalin.

Not for the last time Stalin was suspected of being a police collaborator, a provocateur. So fast a return from Siberia unsettled Jughashvili’s associates. How had he gotten the hundred rubles for the fare from Siberia? Jughashvili said that he had forged a certificate that he was a police agent. But where had he found forms and stamps in the Siberian swamps? He went to Baku but was ostracized. He flitted to Tbilisi and back again. On May Day 1904 he was beaten up. He hid with a maternal uncle in Gori for two months. Only in August was he rehabilitated by the party, which was too short of educated activists to persist with its suspicions.

Using the name Koba, Stalin climbed ranks thinned by arrests and soon came to dominate the Caucasian Social Democrats. After the split between moderate Mensheviks and intransigent Bolsheviks at the second Social Democrat Party congress in 1903, the Bolsheviks felt free to act violently. In Geneva, Lenin, his spouse Krupskaia, Rozalia Zemliachka, and other extremists called for a new congress to endorse revolutionary action. At last Stalin had a policy he could impose on his Caucasian colleagues with enthusiasm. With Lado Ketskhoveli dead, nobody had more charisma and authority than Koba among the Georgian Bolsheviks. Intermittently, he received moral and financial support from the Russian Bolsheviks: Kamenev returned to Tbilisi in September 1904; Lenin’s emissary Tsetsilia Zelikson came from Switzerland; Kamo Ter-Petrosiants escaped from Batumi prison and joined him. That year Stalin was always on the move across Transcaucasia. His contacts among the railway workers served him well: he was hidden in train cars for his journeys.

From 1900 discontent swept the urban workers of the Russian empire. Whenever the Tsar’s government gave an inch, the workers (as the reactionaries rightly warned) tried to take a yard. In 1900 a tram workers’ depot was all that Stalin could shut down; in 1904, when the country was not only rapidly industrializing but also preparing for war with Japan, Koba’s Armenian and Azeri colleagues led a strike that paralyzed the oil fields of Baku and, for the first time in Russian history, forced employers to yield to workers. The gendarmes and Okhranka (security service) arrested so many Bolsheviks that Tbilisi’s more law-abiding Mensheviks temporarily took over the Social Democrat Party.

Russia’s defeat by Japan, and the promised reforms wrung from the Tsar after unarmed workers were gunned down in St. Peterburg’s notorious “Bloody Sunday” of January 1905, gave revolutionaries a sense of power. In summer 1905 they roused the Baku workers to burn down half the oil wells of the city. Koba traveled thousands of miles, attending meetings, delegating work to new and old recruits. When nothing was demanded of him Koba was quarrelsome and surly, buried in books for months on end, and yet, in crises, he organized the feckless, persuaded the irresolute, and conciliated the fractious, barely sleeping at all and rarely in the same place for more than a few days. Comrades overlooked his repellent personal manner, given his organizational genius.

At the age of twenty-five Stalin made the first of his few close attachments. He was hidden by his friend Mikhail Monaselidze, who had married into the Svanidze family. The three Svanidze sisters were dress-makers to the wives of army and gendarmerie officers; they lived close to the barracks and their house was the last place the police would search. Here Koba felt safe and here he courted Monaselidze’s sister-in-law Kato. Koba’s relationship with Kato Svanidze was as near as he came to commitment to another person.

In 1905 Stalin finally met the only man he ever recognized as his leader, Lenin. Koba went, under the name of Ivanovich, as one of three delegates from the Caucasus to a clandestine congress of the Russian Social Democrat Party, held at Tampere in Finland which, though in the Russian empire, offered some protection against arrest. In Tampere Koba met, most for the first time, forty other delegates of the Russian Social Democrat Party. He became known to some who would lead the Bolshevik uprising twelve years later: Lenin, Iakov Sverdlov, Leonid Krasin. Koba won praise from Lenin for his report on the Caucasus and for his hard-line stance. Back in Tbilisi early in 1906, Koba could proclaim himself as “the Lenin of the Caucasus.” He finally had authority.

The first murder in which Stalin was implicated occurred on January 16, 1906. General Griaznov, who had smashed down the barricades erected during the workers’ insurrection in Tbilisi the previous month, was “sentenced to death” by the party and killed. Koba had fallen off a tram and was lying up with head injuries when the police searched for him. Despite being a wanted escaped prisoner, Koba had had an extraordinarily easy journey to Finland and back. Understandably, other party members wondered if Koba was a police agent. He subsequently claimed to have been arrested early in April 1906 but his name is missing from Tbilisi’s Metekhi prison register. 20 Soon Koba was again off north, under the name of Vissarionovich, this time to Stockholm to the fourth Social Democrat Party congress while the gendarmes, uncannily tipped off, were raiding the socialist printing presses in Tbilisi.

Stockholm attracted many more delegates than Tampere. Here Stalin saw the doyen of Russian Marxism, Giorgi Plekhanov, as well as familiar Tbilisi faces such as Mikhail Kalinin. He also first encountered two men who would be instrumental in his struggle for total power: the first head of the Soviet secret police, Feliks image, and Klim Voroshilov, future commissar for defense and eventual butcher of the Red Army. Koba shared a hotel room in Stockholm with Voroshilov (an uneducated metalworker endowed with the voice of an opera singer). Koba and Klim bonded, master and servant, for life. As for those who would be killed by Stalin after they attained power, Koba first met in Stockholm Andrei Bubnov, Aleksandr Smirnov, and Aleksei Rykov. In Stockholm Koba briefly acquired a suit, a tie, a hat, and a pipe (the latter the only one of these bourgeois accessories he retained).

Back in Tbilisi, when Kato Svanidze realized she was pregnant, Koba married her, at one in the morning. They enjoyed little conjugal life: Koba was off to Baku, and the gendarmes arrested Kato for sheltering revolutionaries on the run. It took six weeks to free Kato: her sister, Aleksandra Monaselidze-Svanidze, went to see the wife of a gendarme colonel whose dresses she made. The colonel secured for Kato visits from Koba (allegedly her cousin) and then release, and at the same time a reprieve for Kato’s real cousin, who was to be hanged.

Stalin took up writing again, not lyrical poetry but political prose. He compiled in Georgian treatises on socialism and anarchism which were published in the periodicals Akhali droeba (New Times) and Chveni tskhovreba (OurLife). The birth of a son, Iakov, on March 18, 1907, did not distract him. A month later, the sole Bolshevik at liberty to travel from Transcaucasia to the fifth Social Democrat congress, Koba was in Copenhagen. The Danish government succumbed to Russian protests and the congress moved to London. On his way Stalin apparently visited Lenin in Berlin, where they agreed to authorize a bank robbery by Kamo Ter-Petrosiants to fund their activities—against party policy, for the fifth congress was about to vote for the ballot box and against the gun.

Koba returned to Georgia via Paris on a dead Georgian’s passport; his first exploit was to organize a spectacular robbery, carried out by Kamo on June 13, 1907, in the middle of Tbilisi. Koba put Kamo in touch with an old school friend who worked in the posts and telegraph at Gori, and he provided information on the transportation of bank-notes. The robbery netted a quarter of a million rubles, unfortunately in 500-ruble notes the numbers of which were circulated throughout Europe. Kamo’s hand grenades killed and maimed about fifty people, mostly bystanders, and Koba was expelled from the Caucasian Social Democrat Party for terrorism.

With his wife and infant son, Koba retreated east to Baku where he could rely on Bolshevik supporters among the oil workers. A new ally and eventual victim, Sergo Orjonikidze, joined Koba’s circle. Stalin’s authority derived from his unofficial mandate from Lenin; it is likely that he made two more journeys to see Lenin—in August 1907 to Stuttgart and to Switzerland in January 1908.

Koba was soon free of family ties. On November 22, 1907, Kato died, perhaps of TB. Koba handed his baby son Iakov over to his sister-in-law and did not ask after the child for fourteen years. On March 25, 1908, the Baku gendarmerie rounded up Baku’s Bolsheviks, including Koba, now known as Kaioz Nizheradze. Incompetence and perhaps corruption blinded them to the fact that Koba was a leading Bolshevik organizer on the run from Siberia. Besides, times had changed in Russia: the Tsar’s government had conceded a parliament and political prisoners were amnestied. Koba claimed he had been abroad all 1904 and 1905 and thus qualified for the 1905 amnesty. Even when the truth emerged, he was dealt with leniently: three years’ exile in northern Russia, in Vologda province.

imageWhy did the Russian state treat with such leniency those it knew were trying to overthrow it by organizing assassinations, armed robberies, sabotage, and strikes? In 1908 in France, Koba and Kamo would have gone to the guillotine, in Britain to the gallows, in America to the electric chair. True, revolutionaries in Russia were often tried by military tribunals, convicted on flimsy evidence, and hanged; but this happened mostly in the west of Russia, in Vilnius, Kiev, or Odessa, where governors-general ruled and where the revolutionaries were more often than not reviled Poles or Jews. Piotr Stolypin, the most effective prime minister that Tsarist Russia ever had, for all his pragmatic liberalism was so willing to hang those who threatened the state that the hangman’s rope became known as the Stolypin necktie.

Nevertheless, Stalin and his kind—Sverdlov, Kalinin, Kamenev— could get away with a few months in prison followed by an amnesty. In prison their secondary education entitled them to be treated as gentlemen—to receive visitors, good food, medical treatment, and polite warders. When they were sent to Siberia, they were given a living allowance that provided ample heating, food, even a servant and a cow. They lived among a friendly population; even the gendarmes who guarded them usually looked kindly on them, and when they were bored with each other’s company or the long Siberian winter, they could easily escape. In Britain, Switzerland, France, or America, they found a sympathetic reception. Nobody in western Europe believed that intellectual socialist revolutionary refugees from Russia posed a danger to anybody, and tolerating them provided some leverage on the Russian state, should it threaten the colonial empires of Britain or France in the Far East.

Tolerance apart, the Russian state had two fatal flaws in the second decade of the twentieth century. First, it spoke with a forked tongue. One fork was the Tsar, Nicholas II, a constitutional, not an absolute monarch after 1905, he still had enormous power. Under the influence of his wife, a woman far more willful than he and just as stupid, he would dismiss any minister who seemed to diminish his authority. The other fork was the new parliament, the Duma, which talked up radical reform. Each successive Duma had a more restricted electorate and thus became less radical, but despite the presence of a monarchist right wing, its liberals and socialists demanded human rights and economic reforms. Between the Tsar and the Duma stood the ministers. The Russian state was sustained by a series of wise, energetic self-sacrificing ministers—Count Sergei Witte, who made the Russian ruble one of Europe’s strongest currencies; Piotr Stolypin, who for five brief years truly liberated the Russian peasant; Piotr Sviatopolk-Mirsky, who brought about the liberal spring of 1904. But the uncomprehending conservatism of the Tsar and the irresponsibility of the Duma nullified their efforts.

The economic boom that gathered strength in 1908 deceived most observers. They underestimated the weakness of Russia’s political structures and discounted the threat posed by the revolutionary left. Even the Ministry of the Interior and the gendarmerie had a liberal view of their educated opponents. Russian public opinion generally adopted a Christian attitude toward criminals, particularly politically motivated ones. When the anarchist Giashvili was sentenced to death for exploding a bomb that killed a senior government official, nobody in Tbilisi would act as his executioner. He was reprieved—laudable in a Christian or humanistic culture, but disastrous for a state whose weaknesses were being probed by embittered fanatics.

Because these fanatics were split into factions, the consensus was that they were too weak to cause serious damage. The Social Revolutionaries, whose incoherent mysticism made them spectacular assassins, aroused most alarm, while the Bolshevik Social Democrats, who used violence selectively and who seemed in thrall to obscure German political ideas, were belittled despite their nearly overturning the state with their workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in the 1905 uprising.

Corruption, endemic in the bureaucracy at all but the highest levels, undermined the Russian state. Bribery and infiltration crippled the Tsar’s gendarmerie—even if, by the standards of today’s Russian militia (which a cynic might call the uniformed branch of the mafia), the gendarmerie was an efficient and dedicated force.

In 1908 the prophets of doom—and their voice was loud among Russia’s newspaper tycoons, philosophers, theologians, and poets— sensed that Russia’s Armageddon would come from a world war into which its alliance with Britain, France, and Serbia, and the myopia of the Tsar’s family, would drag it. There was no good reason for Russia to be drawn into a quarrel with the Kaiser’s Germany or Habsburg Austria-Hungary; Russia had no seas whose waves they needed to rule, no colonies to expand at the expense of other empires. The rush toward 1914 was that of Gadarene swine.

The Bolsheviks attacked the Russian state not because it was oppressive but because it was weak. The Russia of 1908 did nearly as much for its citizens as the states of western Europe did for theirs. Trial by jury, equality before the law, enlightened treatment of ethnic minorities, religious tolerance, cheap credits for farmers, an efficient postal and railway service, a free press, flourishing universities with leading scientists, doctors, and scholars, universal (if impoverished) primary education and primary medical care, the most powerful outburst of creativity in all the arts that Europe had known since the Italian Renaissance—all this outweighed for many observers the endemic alcoholism and syphilis, the idleness and bribery, the foul roads, the idle bureaucrats, the general poverty. Russia’s ills seemed curable by economic progress.

Lenin’s followers had a clever motto: “The worse, the better.” They actively encouraged (if only by not assassinating them) brutal governors-general, stupid gendarmerie colonels, exploitative factory owners, because these men might create a resentful proletariat who would follow the social democrats.

When Stalin went to prison and into exile, he was not isolated or disadvantaged. He could educate himself further, meet other revolutionary socialists from all over the Russian empire and, when he left this incubation stage, emerge all the more effective and dangerous a pestilence.