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


Chapter 5. Prison and Exile

. . . from the forest a rifle fired, it shot Diambeg dead . . . and wounded next to him Giorgola, who heard a voice: “I am Koba! I have avenged my friend Iago!”

Aleksandre Qazbegi, The Parricide

AWAITING DEPORTATION in cell No. 3 of Baku’s Bailov prison, Koba was visited by his mother and a girl, a neighbor from Gori. He valued his fellow inmates more than visitors, forging bonds with two in particular: Sergo Orjonikidze, a Transcaucasian bandit and party organizer, and Andrei Vyshinsky, a well-educated Menshevik lawyer from Kiev. Orjonikidze was emotional if brutal, and loyal. Vyshinsky was the most calculating and cynical of all Stalin’s associates; for twenty years he would provide the oratory and the legal framework to send hundreds of thousands to their death. Even in prison Vyshinsky found a comfortable niche: he was cell monitor and worked in the prison kitchens.

Koba made two escape attempts, but by early 1909, delayed en route by typhus, he was in exile in the north of Russia, at Solvychegodsk, fifteen miles over a frozen river from the railhead at Kotlas. Little detained Koba there; as exiles remarked, only those who couldn’t be bothered to escape stayed. Koba fled first to St. Petersburg, where his future father-in-law Sergei Alliluev found him a safe house owned by a concierge. (Concierges in Russia as in France, trusted by the police, provided the safest refuge for criminals on the run.)

That summer Koba was hiding in Baku, printing newssheets. He saw neither his mother nor his son. Another woman entered Koba’s life: Stefaniia Petrovskaia, who had left her Odessa home when her father remarried and entered into a common-law marriage with a political exile in Solvychegodsk, but fell in love with Koba and followed him to Baku.

In March 1910, Koba pronounced his first death sentence on a party member. When the typesetters refused to continue working at the Bolshevik underground printworks, Koba believed that the party had been infiltrated by half a dozen informers and demanded that one, Nikolai Leontiev, be summoned to a meeting and killed. Leontiev, however, fought back and demanded a “trial,” agreeing to die if found guilty. Support for a kangaroo court evaporated and Leontiev lived. Shortly afterward, Koba was again arrested.

Under interrogation, Koba disavowed all his activities; he claimed again his rights to the 1905 amnesty; he even denied that he was living with Stefaniia Petrovskaia, who had admitted that she was his common-law wife. The gendarmerie at Kutaisi, Tbilisi, and Baku took so long to make sense of the evidence that he was aiming to overthrow the state that he was spared lifelong exile to Siberia. (Corruption may have helped; at least one Baku gendarme, Major Zaitsev, was in the pay of the local revolutionaries.) Koba also obtained phlegm from a prisoner with advanced tuberculosis, bribed the prison doctor to certify him as seriously ill, and asked to be allowed to marry Stefaniia. Koba’s sentence was again lenient: he was banned from the Caucasus for five years and handed back to the Vologda authorities as “a person harmful to public peace.” Consent for Koba and Stefaniia to marry came through too late, on the day he was dispatched northward. In Solvychegodsk Koba knew no one; ironically his most faithful henchman in the future, Viacheslav Molotov, had just left the town for Vologda, the provincial capital where they met a few months later.

Having proved himself capable of robbing, killing, resisting interrogation, and withstanding prison and exile, Koba was now important enough to the party in Europe to be worth rescuing: he was in 1910 picked out for the Central Committee, in case any members should risk working in Russia. Koba began writing to Lenin, pointing out that the workers, even if they preferred Lenin’s line to the law-abiding approach of Leon Trotsky, had no respect for a party which cowered in Paris cafés and Zurich libraries: “Let them climb up the wall as much as they feel like, but we think that those who value the movement’s interest just get on with it.”21

Koba was visited by the gendarmerie twice a day. Consolation in Solvychegodsk came from his landlady, Maria Kuzakova, who in late 1911 gave birth to a son, perhaps Koba’s, Konstantin. On July 6, 1911, Koba was allowed to move to live under police supervision in Vologda, where there was a public library, a theater, a left-wing newspaper, and easy communications with the rest of Russia and with Bolsheviks abroad. In Vologda Koba met another exile, Piotr Chizhikov, who, while in exile further north in Totma had become engaged to a schoolgirl, Pelageiia (Polina) Georgievna Onufrieva. She followed him to Vologda and, with Chizhikov out all day, whiled away the hours with Koba.

Koba often mentioned his dead wife to Polina: “You can’t imagine what beautiful dresses she used to make!”22 Koba inscribed books “to clever, nasty Polina from Oddball Iosif” and wrote affectionate postcards: “I kiss you in turn, but I don’t kiss in an ordinary way, but arrrrrdently (it’s not worth just plain kissing). Iosif.” Stalin showed characteristic pedantry: he told her how important was William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (as one might expect from someone who was a Caliban impersonating Prospero). He described to Polina the paintings of the Louvre. After they parted she gave him the cross she wore, and Iosif, instead of a photograph of himself, sent her pictures of bare-breasted nymphs and half-undressed kissing couples. On his secret trip to Petersburg in August he used a passport in the name of her fiancé who, although an exile, was not a wanted man.

The Okhranka now took a closer look at Koba: they decided at first not to rearrest him, but to use him as a tracer to lead them to other Bolsheviks. They let Koba reach St. Petersburg, where Orjonikidze gave him a message from Lenin. In October 1911 he left again; this time, he hoped, for good. He was followed closely, arrested, and so well interrogated that he gave, for almost the only time, his real date of birth. Even so, the Okhranka failed to translate the Georgian and German entries in Koba’s notebooks, and gave him a railway pass to Vologda and permission to live anywhere except St. Petersburg and Moscow. The gendarmerie had so vague a description of Koba—omitting his pockmarks and crippled arm—that he could not be recaptured easily.

In Baku or Tbilisi such leniency indicated corruption. Administrative sanctions against revolutionaries were determined at the highest level—by the minister of the interior, even the Tsar—but on the basis of reports compiled by lowly captains or majors. The gendarmes and prison wardens in the provinces had their tariff, from fifty rubles for letting someone impersonate a prisoner, to 800 rubles for sending the prisoner to a tolerable part of European Russia, not Siberia. In Petersburg, however, such laxity occurred for serious reasons: either the Okhranka had made its prisoner a police informer or the Okhranka wanted other revolutionaries to suspect that its prisoner was an informer.

There were even more sophisticated motives: at the Ministry of the Interior, the head of police Sergei Zubatov was infiltrating the Social Democrat and Social Revolutionary movements. Merely to bribe or blackmail revolutionaries into being police informers was futile; an effective informer such as Roman Malinovsky—soon to be a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and the leader of the Social Democrat faction in the Duma—would be either found out or paralyzed every time his information was acted on. More Mephistophelean were plans to encourage, even subsidize, extreme and fractious revolutionaries to splinter the left into feuding factions.

If Koba collaborated with the Okhranka, this is a tribute to his equally Mephistophelean recognition of the common interests that bound the Tsar’s Ministry of the Interior with the Social Democrat movement. Certain murders—of the Georgian Christian liberal writer and politician Prince (now Saint) Ilia Chavchavadze in 1907, of Russian Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin in 1911—were the joint work of the establishment’s right wing and the revolution’s left wing, united against the parliamentary liberals who thwarted them both. Arrests and exiles of Social Democrats still took place, but only if the revolutionaries were no use to the police as informers or allies.

Koba stayed in Vologda until February 1912, cementing his relationship with Viacheslav Molotov in St. Petersburg by an exchange of letters. He closeted himself studying German verbs. He missed the Prague party conference, but wrote a letter which showed, as Krupskaia expostulated, that, “He is terribly cut off from everything as if he has come from another planet.” In February 1912 Koba left for Moscow, his every move reported to the police by agents, among them Roman Malinovsky whom Koba treated as a bosom friend. In Petersburg Koba learned that the Prague conference had co-opted him onto the Central Committee and made him, with Elena Stasova, Orjonikidze, and Malinovsky, a member of the Russian Bureau that would implement within the country decisions taken abroad.

In April 1912 Koba was instrumental in setting up the Bolsheviks’ legal newspaper, Pravda, in St. Petersburg. In May, Molotov took over as editor, so that even in Stalin’s absence the paper would remain Stalinist.

The authorities, informed about the Prague congress, rounded up all the Central Committee members on Russian territory, with the exception of their own spy Malinovsky and, for show, Grigori Petrovsky.23 The Bolshevik fraction suddenly became a party in exile. This time the security services worked professionally: Koba was properly described and a dossier of over 1,000 pages (the charge sheet amounted to sixty pages) was compiled. 24 The sentence was not, however, harsh. Koba was exiled to Narym, a village of a few hundred persons on the river Ob in Siberia, north of the railhead in Tomsk. Ernest Ozolinņ, a Latvian socialist, accompanied Stalin and other political prisoners on the very uncomfortable train journey. To Ozolinņš, Stalin stood out with his mocking, ironical sense of superiority, his aggressiveness, and self-confidence.25 In September 1912, after a few months’ languishing, Koba took a boat and, near Tomsk, found a friendly railwayman to smuggle him onto a passenger train back to Europe.

The authorities took two months to put him on the wanted list. By then, Koba was organizing the Bolshevik campaign for the fourth Duma elections. Koba made his way to the Caucasus, probably to help Kamo Ter-Petrosiants stage a mail robbery. By October he was back in Petersburg, where he helped ensure the Okhranka’s coup: their spy Roman Malinovsky was elected to the Duma to represent both Bolsheviks and the secret police. Soon Malinovsky had reported Koba’s arrival and both were on their way to Kraków to see Lenin. Here Koba met one more key associate: Grigori Zinoviev, a dairy farmer’s son who had spent most of the last decade in Switzerland, studying and lecturing in socialist politics.

No sooner had Malinovsky and Koba recrossed the Austrian-Russian frontier to get to St. Petersburg for the opening of the Duma than Lenin, Zinoviev, and Krupskaia, sensing a trap, urgently called Koba back: “Rush him out as soon as possible, otherwise we can’t save him and he’s needed and has already done the essentials.” Stalin nevertheless returned to Russia and there was no reason to panic. Malinovsky, now Bolshevik spokesman in the Duma, had taken such a soft line that many of his colleagues began to believe he was a police agent.

At the Duma’s Christmas break, Koba left for Kraków via Finland and Germany—his longest and his last journey abroad for thirty years. He stayed in apartments in Kraków and Vienna. His energy pleased Lenin—“the wondrous Georgian writing an article on the nationalities question” wrote his first substantial treatise, “Marxism and the Nationality Question,” laboriously plowing through German sources. Koba thus gained enough status as a Marxist theoretician to ensure that he would be minister for nationalities in the first Soviet government. On this journey he made two more acquaintances, Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin.

By 1913 he had made an impression, positive or negative, on virtually everyone who would participate in the October 1917 revolution. Above all, like image, he had won Lenin’s trust: here was a comrade who could and would do anything the party asked and, unlike Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, or Bukharin, would not argue policy, tactics, or morals but would stay contentedly in the background. The secret of Stalin’s charm was that the deeper their acquaintance with him, the more his admirers wondered at the mixture of ruthless activity and well-hidden intellect. He still struck them as a coarse, monoglot barbarian, but they would at some point be stunned by his mastery of information, human character, and his ability to orientate himself in any group.

Another ten years would pass before Stalin, as general secretary of the Communist Party, could exercise his own judgment in choosing, not whom to flatter or court, but whom to appoint, whom to dismiss. But long before the revolution, by 1913, he had met most of those who would play a part in his rise to power—whom he would follow, patronize, or kill. Of those he would need most, he had gotten to know Mikhail Kalinin, his puppet head of state, in 1900 and Emelian Iaroslavsky, his most effective propagandist, in 1905. In 1906 Stalin met image, who would swing Lenin’s secret police behind him, and Klim Voroshilov, who would subordinate the army to Stalin’s will and then supervise the slaughter of every possible dissident senior officer. In 1907 he acquired a loyal ally in Sergo Orjonikidze, and in 1908 the unprincipled lawyer Vyshinsky, who would organize the parody of legal process by which terror could be instituted. In 1910 Stalin won over the most devoted of his subordinates, Viacheslav Molotov. Lazar Kaganovich was the only figure close to Stalin during the revolution whom he had not met in the revolutionary underground.

Likewise, by 1913 Stalin had met, and taken a dislike to, the party’s theoreticians, the rivals whom he would exterminate. He met Kamenev in 1904, Rykov in 1906, Trotsky and Zinoviev in 1912, and Bukharin in 1913. They would pay for their condescension to Koba decades later.

Trotsky disliked Stalin at first sight: “The door was flung open, without a preliminary knock, an unknown person appeared on the threshold—squat, with swarthy face and traces of smallpox.” Koba poured himself tea and without a word walked out. Bukharin, a daily visitor to the apartment where Koba stayed, reacted to him with a mix of admiration, affection, fear, and horror. To judge from Koba’s letters intercepted by the Russian secret service, he felt unhappy in the bourgeois luxury of Vienna and, despite Lenin’s admiration, Russian intellectuals in exile irritated him. “There’s nobody to let my hair down with. Nobody to have a heart-to-heart,” he complained to an unknown girlfriend. Koba’s recent encounter with three persons in Lenin’s entourage—Zinoviev, Trotsky, and Bukharin—was a blow to his self-esteem which gave him no peace until he had killed all three.

Nineteen thirteen, the year the Romanov dynasty celebrated its three hundredth anniversary, seemed to doom Koba to ignominy and obscurity. He fell into a depression that lasted four years. First, Malinovsky was denounced as a police agent in a calculated blow to the left wing by Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, the head of the gendarmerie. Lenin would not believe it. The Bolsheviks now looked like a farcical band of deluded intellectuals, its Central Committee a handful of Okhranka puppets. Second, the police rounded up virtually every important Bolshevik activist at large in Russia. Third, the Romanov tercentenary, Russia’s economic boom, and liberal legislation had dulled the proletarian grievances that fueled Bolshevik popularity. Fourth, as Europe headed for war, as in Germany so in Russia the Social Democrats collapsed as an internationalist party: its members put nation first and socialism second. The revolution was indefinitely postponed.

Koba wrote to the Bolsheviks in exile abroad to complain of the bacchanalia of arrests and hinted to Lenin that Malinovsky was putting a wrench in the works and was a police spy. In February Iakov Sverdlov (who would be first head of the Soviet state), then Koba, were arrested. This time it was decided not just to make Koba finish his exile but to pack him off for four years to farthest Siberia, to Turukhansk on the river Enisei where it crosses the Arctic Circle.

Despondent despite money offered by the party, Koba made no escape attempt, although he now signed himself K. (for Koba) Stalin (man of steel). 26 From Turukhansk, Koba was sent still farther north to the tiny settlement of Miroedikha. Here Koba’s behavior made him hated. The exile who had preceded him, Iosif Dubrovinsky, had drowned in the river Enisei that May. Stalin violated revolutionary etiquette by appropriating Dubrovinsky’s library. He was transferred ninety miles south to the village of Kostino, and then north again to a hamlet, Monastyrskoe. Koba was, one guesses, more miserable than ever before or afterward. From here he wrote to Zinoviev asking for books. He asked a woman friend to send his underwear. He wrote to, of all people, Roman Malinovsky, asking for sixty rubles, complaining of poverty—no bread, meat, or paraffin in an area where the only food an exile could have for free was fish—of emaciation and an ominous cough. Then, on September 27, 1913, he moved in with Iakov Sverdlov ten miles away. Money arrived, but it was meant only for Sverdlov’s escape. The gendarmerie, who read all letters, deducted the money from Stalin’s and Sverdlov’s board allowances and deported them, with a gendarme, Laletin, a hundred miles farther north to an even more desolate outpost, Kureika. Again Stalin begged Malinovsky for money, as if he did not know that Malinovsky had resigned after being exposed as a spy.

Sverdlov found Stalin bad company. He wrote to his wife: “ . . . you know my dear what foul conditions I lived in at Kureika. The comrade [Stalin] we were with turned out on a personal level to be such that we didn’t speak or see each other.” By Easter 1914, Stalin had forced Sverdlov out and moved in with a family of seven orphans, the Pereprygins. He scandalized both Sverdlov and Ivan Laletin by seducing the thirteen-year-old Lidia Pereprygina. Bolsheviks had tolerant sexual mores, but sleeping with a pubescent girl was for them typical of the hated feudal gentry. Koba was now beyond the pale. Laletin caught Stalin in flagrante and had to fight off Koba’s fists with his saber. (Stalin then promised to marry Lidia Pereprygina when she came of age.) At Stalin’s insistence, the Turukhansk chief of police, the Osetian Ivan Kibirov, replaced the indignant Laletin—who nearly drowned on his return upriver—with a more compliant gendarme. 27 Lidia became pregnant; in 1916, after the baby died, she conceived again.28

Cohabitation with an adolescent girl gave Stalin no joy. He read, he tried to master languages. He wrote very little—to Zinoviev to ask for English newspapers, to the Alliluevs to ask for postcards with pictures of pleasant scenery. He made one visit 120 miles upstream to Monastyrskoe, where his Armenian friend Suren Spandaryan, now dying of TB, had been transferred. When the ice melted in spring 1915, five Bolshevik Duma deputies, all “anti-patriotic defeatists,” arrived, exiled to Monastyrskoe, and with them one familiar face from Tbilisi, Lev Kamenev. Here the exiles conferred, but Stalin could never endure more than a day or two of these gatherings, even though the news of Russia’s catastrophic defeats by the Germans must have rekindled hopes of revolution. Dispossessed radicals, cut off from their ideological leaders by war and 7,000 miles of Asia and Europe, seemed to Koba “a little bit like wet chickens. Ha, there’s ‘eagles’ for you.”29

The company soon dispersed: the Duma deputies and Kamenev were allowed south to the town of Eniseisk. The remaining exiles were demoralized and began to accuse each other of crimes: Sverdlov had been teaching a policeman German; Spandaryan had helped loot the local stores. Stalin voted that Sverdlov be ostracized. Another exile was beaten up; after the brawl Spandaryan had a hemorrhage which led to his death in September, despite the Tsar freeing him on compassionate grounds. Nobody saw Stalin in his last months in Siberia; perhaps he fled to Eniseisk, from hostility toward him at Kureika when Lidia Pereprygina became pregnant again.

By autumn 1916 the Russian army’s losses in the war were so horrendous that the authorities began calling up political exiles: even Stalin, aged thirty-seven and with a withered arm, was summoned to the recruiting office in Krasnoyarsk. In February 1917 he was rejected as unfit for service. The Tsar’s regime was collapsing; political exiles were effectively released. Stalin was allowed to settle, with Kamenev, in the town of Achinsk on the Trans-Siberian railway. On March 2 the Tsar abdicated, a provisional parliamentary government took power in Petrograd, as St. Petersburg had been renamed in 1915, and the old regime was dismantled. Peasants, burghers, and officials celebrated. At a meeting Lev Kamenev proposed a congratulatory telegram to the Tsar’s brother for refusing the throne—a conciliatory message that Stalin would never let him forget. On March 12 Stalin, Kamenev, and other exiles arrived in Petrograd to begin months of conspiratorial work to prepare for the return of Lenin and the seizure of power. First, Stalin and Kamenev took control of Pravda and typeset their own articles. All Koba’s rudeness, perversity, and surliness were set aside by his colleagues in the interests of the struggle.