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I’ve now concluded my series on Josef Stalin, based largely on historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Young Stalin.

I’ve purposely covered less than a third of the book in an effort to encourage as many readers as possible to borrow it from the library or buy a copy (available from the usual online retailers).

This volume gives an unprecedented insight into Josef Stalin’s early life. When Montefiore began researching it, Russia had begun opening up their archives on Stalin. Over the next ten years, more information became available. Montefiore was also able to contact more people who remembered Stalin and felt comfortable discussing him for the first time.

The book takes the reader through the Russian Revolution and Montefiore provides an equally fascinating epilogue recapping the years up to Stalin’s death in 1953. This material comes from his earlier work, Court of the Red Tsar.

Before I begin more about the Red Tsar, it remains for me to say that my Stalin posts are available not only below but also on my Marxism / Communism page under Josef Stalin.

Winter Olympics [2014] documentaries — expect whitewash on Stalin

Milk kinship and Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin — an autocrat very different from most

Stalin’s parents’ marriage by way of a history of Georgia (please study the map)

Stalin’s early years — rumour and violence

Stalin’s schooldays in the Wild West of Gori

Stalin’s transition to seminary

The best and worst from Stalin’s seminary years

Stalin’s socialism and atheism

Stalin’s early career as activist and agitator

The murky world of konspiratsia in Stalin’s era

Lenin and Stalin did not intend sharing power with workers

Stalin and Hitler in Vienna at the same time

Lenin’s anti-smoking stance on the Sealed Train

Stalin: lies are good diplomacy

The names Stalin and Lenin

1920’s Georgia: Stalin survives his dispute with Lenin

End of series

After the Russian Civil War of 1918, Georgia became an independent republic.

Lenin was happy with that — and he was the man in charge. However, Stalin wanted Georgia to become part of a Transcaucasian Federation of republics (Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore, p. 383).

In 1921, Stalin and another Bolshevik, Grigory ‘Sergo’ Ordzhonikidze engineered an invasion of Georgia. Sergo, who was ruthless and mercurial, rode into Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi) on a white horse. The Georgians soon began calling him Stalin’s Ass; he was brutal, no doubt because many Georgians remained Menshevik, favouring a more measured approach to Marxism. They also hadn’t forgotten their long struggle to regain their independence.

Two leading Georgian Bolsheviks were adamant that Georgia retain its new independence. A heated discussion ensued. Sergo punched one of the Georgian Bolsheviks.

When word reached Lenin — who supported the Georgians — Stalin, still furious, insulted Lenin’s wife.

Afterward, Lenin wrote in his Testament that Stalin must be relieved of his post as General Secretary of the Party.

By then, Lenin was near the end of his life. He died of a stroke in 1924.

Stalin went on to succeed him.

But what happened to Lenin’s Testament? Wikipedia says that it was posted to the Central Committee to be read aloud, except that:

the ruling troika—Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev—suppressed Lenin’s Testament; it was not published until 1925, in the United States, by the American intellectual Max Eastman. In that year, Trotsky published an article minimising the importance of Lenin’s Testament, saying that Lenin’s notes should not be perceived as a will, that it had been neither concealed, nor violated;[203] yet he did invoke it in later anti-Stalin polemics.[204][205]

Bolsheviks were good at later changing their names.

They felt comfortable with this because of the necessity in the past to adopt various aliases under konspiratsia in avoiding the police.

As 1917 and revolution neared, Stalin began evolving his byline in Pravda. In Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells us that his pen name underwent several permutations (p. 278).

Prior to Pravda, which he founded, many of his articles and editorials appeared in other Social-Democrat and Bolshevik newspapers. From 1910, his bylines included K. St. (probably ‘Koba Stalin’), K. Safin and K. Solin. He rejected the last because he didn’t feel ‘man of salt’ had enough dynamism and strength.

Stalin had an ex-girlfriend by the name of Ludmilla Stal. ‘Stal’ also evokes ‘steel’ or ‘iron’ but isn’t an exact translation of either. By calling himself ‘Stalin’, he wanted others to consider him as a hard, indestructible man. He began using this new name in 1913 (p. 279).

By changing his name, Stalin was aping Lenin, who had changed his from Ulyanov years before. It is thought that the Bolshevik leader took it from the Lena River in Siberia (p. 278). As Ulyanov had written as ‘Lenin’ on his most important essay, ‘What Is to Be Done?’ he continued using it.

Other Bolsheviks who changed their names included Trotsky (Leon — or Lev — Bronstein) who took a Russian warder’s name; Lev Rosenfeld changed his to Kamenev (‘man of stone’) and Vyacheslav Scriabin became Molotov (‘hammer man’).

Kamenev, by the way, was married to Trotsky’s sister Olga (p. 318).

We rightly connect Goebbels with the strategy of ‘the big lie’: repeat it enough and people accept it as truth.

However, the Third Reich did not have a monopoly on this dishonesty, which still exists today, particularly with regard to dubious ‘experts’ (e.g. social scientists posing as medical researchers) opining on ‘public health’ issues in western nations. We also see it in the Church when priests, ministers and bishops call for ‘unity’ and ‘tolerance’ which go against the New Testament when theological error is involved.

In Young Stalin, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore tells us that when Stalin founded PravdaTruth (!) — in 1912, he wasted no time in displaying what, interestingly, we consider Goebbelsesque and Orwellian uses of ideas and words (p. 265). Stalin was at least two decades ahead of either.

Stalin observed that when diplomats prepare for war they shout about peace. He explained that a good diplomat’s words contradict his actions:

Fine words are a mask to conceal shady deeds.

In 1915, he and a handful of Bolsheviks gathered for dinner (p. 309). After everyone was comfortably fed and watered, the conversation turned to life’s greatest pleasures. Not surprisingly, a few of the men present mentioned women. The others mentioned making Marxism a reality in Russia.

When Stalin had his turn, he said that his greatest pleasure was plotting revenge down to the last detail followed by a good night’s sleep. For him, there was ‘nothing sweeter’.

In Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore writes that Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were both in Vienna at the same time (pp. 274, 275).

The year was 1913. Although they came incredibly close to meeting each other, they never did, even when Russia and Germany negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.

Both men enjoyed walking in the park near the palace. Both saw the same street scenes, including Emperor Franz-Josef’s weekday carriage ride from the Schönbrunn Palace to his office at the Hofburg.

However, neither future dictator thought much of it. Hitler envied the Emperor’s position.  Stalin was disdainful of Franz-Josef such that he never spoke of him.

Stalin went to Vienna to meet with Lenin, with whom he had had editorial disagreements at Pravda (p. 268-269). His mind was on revolution, not exploring a beautiful capital city (p. 183).

He arrived in Vienna by way of Poland. It is interesting that, even then, he disliked the Poles and firmly opposed any notion of Polish independence (p. 271). It is interesting that he managed to convince Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of the same at Yalta. It seems that Stalin persuaded them in his priestly way.

Neither Stalin nor Hitler had time for the Jews. Both saw the influence they had on Viennese culture. Hitler, as we know, found them repulsive and a people to be exterminated. Stalin, Montefiore says, found them too ‘mystical’ and culturally incomprehensible.

Meanwhile, many Russian Jews believed the Russian Revolution would benefit them. However, although the pogroms stopped, some Jews felt communism somehow would not and did not live up to their expectations. One of those who was disappointed was the artist Marc Chagall. As I wrote in June 2013:

Chagall had supported the Revolution because he believed it would be good for the Jews, liberating them from the urban ghettos and rural shtetls, putting an end to decades of pogroms.

He and his wife — whom he married in 1914 — left Russia for Berlin then moved to Paris. Ultimately, they settled in New York City.

His fellow Jews who stayed behind in Russia and the republics noticed that Lenin and Stalin exterminated, tortured or imprisoned anyone they considered an enemy — religion notwithstanding. The British journalist Ben Cohen wonders why more Jews did not see Stalin as ‘a monster’. The brief answer, he discovers, is that Stalin targeted people from every class, racial and religious group. No one demographic was singled out, whereas Hitler focussed primarily on Jews.

Even today, Russian Jews are divided on Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot — which, if true, would have dealt exclusively with Jews. It had started with physicians and would have ended in another Holocaust. Stalin felt that they were too intelligent a people. Along with this went his fear of Trotsky (Leon Bronstein); he was convinced the exile living in Mexico would attempt to stage a long distance coup. So, Stalin had him hacked to death in cold blood in 1940. Trotsky’s last words conveyed he knew the Soviet leader was behind it.

Cohen’s interviews uncovered either a denial of the Doctors’ Plot or a quiet gratitude that the autocrat died of a stroke in 1953 before he could implement it.

Back to who was in Vienna in 1913. Montefiore tells us that Josip Broz — the future Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia — was also there working as a mechanic. He did not meet either Stalin or Hitler.

It is a common belief — visible on many online summaries of Soviet Russia and widespread in school curricula — that Lenin liberated the proletariat.

Arts lovers point to the liberating atmosphere of Russia post-Revolution. The Flow of History describes it in part as follows (emphases mine):

Lenin eased up a bit with his New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed some degree of free enterprise to encourage higher production by the peasants.  While Lenin had little choice but to let free enterprise return, he could also justify NEP in Marxist terms since, according to Marx, Russia would have to evolve through a capitalist phase before it was ready for Socialism.  For several years in the 1920’s, Lenin’s Russia saw widespread experimentation in the arts and social engineering as well as economics.  Cubist and futuristic art flourished.  Avant-garde theater featured acrobats as well as heavy political messages.  The family was also under attack as a bourgeois institution with women as the oppressed working class.  Therefore, women gained equal rights and pay as well as access to easier divorces and legalized abortions.  Some young communists even saw free love and public nudity as revolutionary acts of liberation from bourgeois values.  Older Bolsheviks frowned on such acts, but tolerated them in the spirit of creating a new socialist society.  Lenin made similar concessions in government, giving tsarist bureaucrats and technical experts more authority in running the government and factories since most communists were uneducated and untrained in the technical expertise needed to run a country …

He was a brilliant leader and sincere revolutionary who oftentimes ignored human feelings in pursuit of his Communist revolution.  His harsh measures must be seen in light of the harsh conditions that demanded them if the Revolution were to survive

Nowhere is there a mention of his brutal secret police organisation, the Cheka. For that, you need to read Professor Bryan Caplan’s (George Mason University) articles, especially ‘Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions’.

Simon Sebag Montefiore describes Lenin’s and Stalin’s outlook on the much-vaunted proletariat in his outstanding book Young Stalin (pp. 116-117).

In short, Lenin and Stalin:

– did not want workers to have political power.

– created an oligarchy which would rule in the workers’ name but without their participation.

Stalin feared that allowing real workers to serve on Party committees would bring in too many amateurs (i.e. people asking too many questions) as well as police spies.

Lenin had no love of peasants and didn’t want them anywhere near power. A hereditary nobleman on both sides of his family, he had even sued peasants for damaging his estates (p. 150). Incidentally, Lenin had no qualms about living off the income of these estates.

By contrast, the more moderate socialists, such as the majority of Georgian Social-Democrats, envisaged political change wrought by workers and peasants together. Both would be in the ascendant.

Mensheviks shared that view. Many Mensheviks believed in a peaceful transition over time. However, a small number of Mensheviks favoured an approach based on terror, not unlike many their Bolshevik (Leninist) opponents.

That said, Montefiore notes that not all Mensheviks opposed violence and not all Bolsheviks advocated it.

The clothing later adopted by the Soviet — which means ‘council’, incidentally — hierarchy began evolving in 1917 (p. 343). Keep in mind none of the Bolshevik higher-ups had ever worked for any length of time. Nor did they ever have military careers. Yet, the nobleman Lenin traded his Homburg for a worker’s cap. Stalin also began wearing a worker’s cap which he teamed with a military tunic and, of course, the boots of which he was so fond.

Yesterday’s post alluded to Stalin and his fellow revolutionaries living in the world of konspiratsia, an underground ‘world apart’, as Simon Sebag Montefiore explains in his brilliant book, Young Stalin.

Tsarist spies

The Tsarist police — Gendarmes — and secret police — Okhrana — trailed various radical groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They had a complicated system of spies — agents, double-agents and treble-agents — not unlike other nations do today. Some agents followed suspects. Others infiltrated revolutionary organisations. Another group started their own as false fronts to lure radicals. All of these tactics were designed to make their targets paranoid, which they did (p. 87).

The radicals, whatever group they allied themselves with, followed Sergei Nechaev’s Revolutionary Catechism (p. 85). Lenin did. Stalin did. And so did many others. Nechaev advocated killing police slowly and painfully. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin advocated cultivating criminals friendly to the cause; they would be fearless and able to murder their enemies, law enforcement officers.

Among others, the Tsar’s agents had dossiers on middle class populist groups. Middle class populists were known as narodniki (narodnik, singular). They envisaged the peasantry ultimately taking over politics and society. One of the most radical of their groups, Land and Freedom, later known as People’s Will, believed that liberation could come only with the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. People’s Will were devout followers of the Revolutionary Catechism.

Lenin, once in power post-Revolution, Montefiore says, used the terror of the Revolutionary Catechism as well as the Okhrana’s spy tactics in his successor organisation — the Cheka (the All Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage). (Stalin took this further with his own NKVD.)

History tells us what a potent, horrifying cocktail that was. Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University has written several articles about Communism. Of Lenin’s shortlived regime (he died of a stroke in 1924), Caplan points out (emphases mine):

as Zinoviev, another high-ranking Bolshevik put it, “We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” As Paul Johnson observes, “There is no essential moral difference between class-warfare and race-warfare, between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the modern practice of genocide was born.” (Modern Times)

The work of the Cheka, Russia soon learned, was never done. Censorship was quickly imposed, and it was up to the Cheka to confiscate the literature of dissident workers: “[O]n 17 November the Central Executive Committee passed a decree giving the bolsheviks control over all newsprint and wide powers of closing down newspapers critical of the regime…” (Leonard Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Workers were re-forming independent soviets; the Cheka broke them up. Independent newspapers criticized Lenin’s government; the Cheka closed them down, until the Bolshevik-controlled Pravda and Izvestia had a monopoly on the supply of news. As Shapiro notes, “The refusal to come to terms with the socialists and the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly led to the logical result that revolutionary terror would now be directed not only against traditional enemies, such as the bourgeoisie or right-wing opponents, but against anyone, be he socialist, worker or peasant, who opposed bolshevik rule.” (The Communist Party of the Soviet Union)

The Cheka soon turned to “taking hostages”; i.e., arresting people who they guessed had anti-Bolshevik feelings, and shooting them if their demands were not met or their decrees disobeyed. For example, Lenin’s government might decree that the peasants in a certain region must deliver food or timber to the government; if the government’s demands were not met, they would shoot some hostages.

Incidentally, it is not easy finding detailed policy descriptions of Lenin’s government online. Most are middling to positive representations which mask the horrifying reality of arbitrariness and death. These detail-deficient summaries encourage people to think that Russian history is boring. Frankly, if I favoured totalitarianism, I, too, would make it sound dry as dust. All the easier to get people to say ‘It doesn’t matter who’s in charge — they’re all the same’ and to sleepwalk into it under the guise of ‘liberation of the oppressed’.

Back to the Okhrana. Montefiore concludes that they were the best secret police of their day and had a remarkably good success rate (pp. 87-88).

They looked ahead to new threats. Montefiore says that the Okhrana were the first to view aircraft as weapons. By 1908, flight times were beginning to lengthen and airplanes could carry a pilot and a passenger. In 1909, the Okhrana became aware that a terrorist group, the Social-Revolutionaries, were planning to fly into the Winter Palace in Petersburg (St Petersburg) in a plane loaded with dynamite. Not only did the Okhrana monitor all flights but also the identities of those taking flying lessons. This was just less than a century before 9/11 — and people still have problems believing that was a terrorist operation!

Tsarist death sentences

Speaking of Lenin — born Vladimir Illich Ulyanov — his brother Alexander was executed under the Tsar’s regime for conspiring against the Tsar (p. 86). This encouraged Lenin to avenge his brother’s death through Marxism and Bolshevism.

Montefiore doesn’t elaborate on Alexander Ulyanov’s crime, however, he does say that death sentences were rare under Tsarist rule and normally related to assassins or would-be assassins of the Romanovs and their political ministers.

Hard labour — katorga — was also rare and reserved for the most serious of crimes.


The usual penalties were imprisonment for a few months to a few years depending on the crime or ‘administrative exile’ which could last for a maximum of five years.

Stalin was imprisoned in 1902 for having started a series of disturbances when he worked in Batumi (on the southwest coast of Georgia). The Tsarist regime was lenient, comparable to Western prison systems today (p. 106). In between exercise and meals, prisoners could read books and write letters.

Stalin and the more intelligent prisoners took full advantage of these privileges. One day Stalin was reading Communist Manifesto aloud to a fellow prisoner in a nearby cell in Batumi Prison. He stopped when he heard the guard’s footsteps. The guard told him to carry on reading and continued his rounds.

Stalin was also able to extract certain favours from the guards, such as travelling without handcuffs during his transfer to Kutaisi Prison from Batumi after having started a prison riot.  When he found out his lady friend at the time was also being transferred, he had the guards arrange for a small carriage to pick her up and take her to the railway station where she would continue on her journey. He also demanded a cart for their belongings. All requests were granted (p. 108).

Therefore, it’s interesting that during his Great Terror of 1937, Stalin criticised the Tsarist prisons, branding them ‘rest homes’ (p. 108). He recalled his many privileges and the fact that prisoners could also receive post and parcels. He would have none of that — and those who know their history understand how brutal he, his NKVD (successor to the Cheka), police and prison guards were, not to mention the extended sentences and daily horrors in the gulags.


Stalin also ended up serving a sentence in exile in Siberia. Again, under the Tsar, where you went depended on the severity of your crime. The more severe your crime, the colder and/or more remote the region.

Lenin and Trotsky (Leon Bronstein) also spent time in exile. Trotsky later remembered living it large (p. 114) and how marvellous it was when prisoners and/or locals fell in love — a common occurrence (p. 115).

Montefiore describes journeys which sometimes took several days; it was normal for prisoners to spend a few nights in prisons en route to remote villages where they served their sentences.

However, once they reached their appointed villages, they were allowed to find their own lodgings (a network of homeowners rented to exiles). They lived with families who prepared their meals and did their laundry; often the exiles shared in these chores. Local police ‘minders’ frequently allowed the men to use rifles and hunt for game with the locals. Men spent their evenings at the village tavern. Some houses rented to exiles had copious libraries and stationery. Exiles took turns going to the post office to collect or send mail and parcels.

Lenin found Siberian exile a productive time. He was able to read books and write essays with few interruptions. He enjoyed it so much that he sent for his wife and mother-in-law. He even hired a cleaning lady (p. 114).

The Tsar’s leniency

Those in exile often had a good thing going. Montefiore explains that the Tsarist government actually paid stipends to exiles.

There was a pecking order for stipends from the Tsar. Lenin — a nobleman, by the way — received 12 roubles for clothes, rent and meals as did his fellow nobles. Those with higher education — such as Molotov — received 11 roubles. Stalin was classified as a peasant and received eight roubles.

Exiles could also receive funding from their families. Trotsky’s father — a gentleman farmer — subsidised his son’s exile.

However, families had to be careful not to exceed the private funding threshold, otherwise the Tsar’s stipends would stop.


Trotsky described the exile system as a ‘sieve’ (p. 117). Obtaining false papers was expensive, approximately 100 roubles, but thousands of exiles managed to raise the money. Family members sometimes sent the appropriate clothing to match the fake identity papers.

As for prisoners, Montefiore writes that Stalin’s criminally insane friend Kamo Ter-Petrossian considered escaping from prison in a coffin until he was told that the prison guards smashed each corpse’s skull with a hammer. That prospect dissuaded even the fearless Kamo.

In conclusion, the Tsarist regime was a much different universe than either Lenin’s or Stalin’s. It’s ironic that both stamped out the freedom the emperors granted the people of Russia and the republics.

We learned in history classes how oppressive the Romanovs were. Were they? After reading Young Stalin I no longer think so. They weren’t perfect but, at least where much of their law enforcement was concerned, they seem quite modern on the whole — even today.

After seminary, Stalin reconciled with his father Beso at the turn of the 20th century.

In Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore tells us that Josef Djugashvili — or Soso, as he was known by his friends (the name Stalin came later) — enjoyed wearing the boots his father made for him by hand (p. 69). This is how they came to be an identifiable part of Stalin’s wardrobe from that point onward.

Beso was still an alcoholic but was once again employed in Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi). At this point, he was working in a clothing repair shop. Stalin usually took a close friend or relative with him when he went to meet Beso. Those who wrote later memoirs said that Beso was kind towards his son but bemused that he wanted to overthrow the Tsar. It’s less a matter of supporting such a scheme and more doubt as to whether the boy could actually do it. Beso died in 1910.

As for girlfriends, previously sealed archives and memoirs which were made available to Montefiore, reveal that Stalin was rarely without a female love interest after this time. Stalin wrote to at least one of these women in 1926, after he assumed power (p. 71). She replied, recalling the happy times they spent together; he held on to the letter. Some ex-girlfriends wrote him requesting help when their family members were suddenly exiled or imprisoned.

As for work, this champion of the proletariat had the briefest of careers with regard to an honest day’s work. Readers who have been following this series will recall that Beso kidnapped his son from hospital and put him to work briefly as an apprentice in Tiflis’s Adelkhanov Shoe Factory. Stalin was just a boy then; his mother Keke managed to get him back home to Gori and returned him to church school there, much to his relief.

Post-seminary, Stalin was employed briefly at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory (p. 76). He worked three days a week checking temperatures and barometric readings. The rest of the week gave him time to pursue his political activism. Those who knew him at the time said that he was grubby, wore the same set of clothes and looked dissolute (p. 77). A regular destination for him was the rail depot, where he agitated the workers for political change. He encouraged them to embrace Marxism and the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party, which would later divide into two factions, the Bolsheviks (meaning ‘majority’) and Mensheviks (‘minority’).

The last recorded contact between Soso and Beso was on May Day 1900 (p. 78). May Day, even then, was a cherished time for Marxists. Soso gave a speech to the shoe factory and rail depot workers urging them to strike. Beso, by then once again at the shoe factory, confronted his son privately and asked him why. He closed their conversation by telling Soso he should have learned a trade. The workers struck, even though Noe Jordania’s and Silva Jilbladze’s Third Group opposed industrial action. Jordania thought the young Stalin was still wet behind the ears; Stalin never forgot it. Jordania’s party would become part of the Menshevik faction whilst Stalin would become one of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

It was Stalin’s call for a strike and impassioned speech that further brought him to the attention of the secret police. They were determined to prevent similar action the following year (p. 81). It was also becoming apparent — and not just to them — that Stalin wanted to break the allegiance of Tiflis’s workers to Jordania’s party and win them to himself.

In order to do this, he had to build a group of insider loyalists. He still had the radical Lado Ketskhoveli from seminary days. Lado introduced Stalin to a friend of his who would become pivotal in Stalin’s group, Prince Alexander ‘Sasha’ Tsulukidze (p. 79). Lado’s father was a priest and the prince came from one of Georgia’s most prominent families. Prince Alexander’s mother’s family had ruled Abkhazia, the territory where the Winter Olympics 2014 ski jump is located. (See the Wikipedia map and my brief history of Georgia.)

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the Marxist groups garnered empathy from both the middle and upper classes in Georgia (p. 79). Some felt they had no voice under a Russian tsar. They were also deeply nationalistic, hoping that Georgia could one day regain her independence and former glory. Post-1917 and well into the days of Stalin’s USSR, some of these nobles and merchants were protected by Soviet leaders in Georgia.

Lado and the Red Prince became Stalin’s right hand men. Stalin considered only Lenin to have greater importance than these two.

However, there was also Simon ‘Kamo’ Ter-Petrossian from Gori. Arshak Ter-Petrossian was the wealthy Armenian military contractor whom Stalin’s mother Keke befriended when her son was still a child. Ter-Petrossian later wondered what he and his wife ever saw in those two. Arshak’s fortunes took a turn for the worse at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, he declared bankruptcy and, consequently, lost all parental authority over his son (p. 80).

Simon wasted no time in moving to Tiflis where he met with his boyhood chum Stalin. If there was a brawl or a stabbing, Simon was there, relishing the violence, sometimes taking part in it. Simon had wanted a military career but was rejected, possibly because he hadn’t had a very good academic career. Prison doctors later diagnosed him as being criminally insane (p. 191).

Stalin also found Simon a difficult student. In Tiflis, he tried to teach him Russian then, having run out of patience, asked another of the group to continue the tutoring. For whatever reason, Simon couldn’t pronounce the word komu, ‘to whom’. He kept saying ‘kamo’, which is not a word. Stalin, reading nearby, blew his top. From that point on, however, the nickname Kamo stuck (p. 80).

Although Kamo might have been useless at Russian and had no aptitude for study, he was a necessary part of Stalin’s set-up because he was fearless. He wouldn’t hesitate to shoot at people, start a riot or rip a man’s heart out after killing him (p. 378). He also had an extremely high pain threshold, which partly contributed to the doctors’ diagnosis of insanity.

Stalin spent his free time discussing Marxism with his followers, which also included the band of ex-seminarians expelled not long after he left in 1899. It was not uncommon for Montefiore to find in contemporary memoirs that Stalin spoke like ‘a priest’ when discussing the need for revolution and change.

The secret police considered the young radical an ‘intellectual’. Meanwhile, Noe Jordania’s and Silva Jilbladze’s Third Group found his efforts to undermine their authority in Tiflis obnoxious and crude (p. 81). They were also offended that they offered him a party to join which would encourage a constructive workers’ struggle and Stalin rejected it, creating his own breakaway group.

In anticipation of May Day 1901, the Okhrana — the secret police — and the Gendarmerie (as the Tsarist police force was known) surrounded the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory on March 21-22 that year. Stalin saw them in the distance as he returned there on the tram (p. 82). He knew he couldn’t return to the Observatory.

From that point until the Revolution, Stalin began to move from house to house, living wherever he could under a variety of aliases and disguises, most of which were successful.

On April 22, 1901, a violent confrontation took place between Stalin’s workers and the Cossacks in Tiflis. It’s interesting that the moderate Noe Jordania of the Third Group was the man arrested and imprisoned for a year (p. 83). And Stalin? He spent the day in Gori. One wonders if Stalin’s men arranged for Jordania to be framed for something in which he had no involvement.

Meanwhile, Stalin continued to agitate for an ‘open struggle’ and ‘torrents of blood’.

At this time, he made a new friend and contact, Stepan Shaumian, the son of a wealthy Armenian businessman. No social dropout, Shaumian had excellent connections with the most powerful families in the Caucasus, married to the daughter of a senior oil company executive and was tutor to the children of the local oil baron.

It was Shaumian who would plan a way to liberate Tiflis’s railway workers. He engineered the murder in cold blood of the rail depot’s boss. Someone aimed a pistol at his office window and fired the fatal shot. No one was ever apprehended.

Montefiore says that this was the start of Stalin’s radicals’ absolute adoption of the Revolutionary Catechism, written by the nihilist Nechelev, which had been making the rounds in Marxist circles for years. Love had to go, as did any attachment to family or friends. Revolution now became a religion.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the nature of konspiratsia — ‘the world apart’, as Dostoevsky described in his novel The Devils.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin describes how Josef Djugashvili — later Stalin — developed the ideas which came to shape his life.


Stalin believed that the proletariat were the only class who could liberate humanity and bring happiness as well as ‘freedom’ to the world. However, the world would have to undergo birth pangs in order for this utopia to come about. There would need to be, in Stalin’s words, ‘trial, suffering and change’, including conflict, bloody battles and death.

For Stalin, socialism was not just a political stance. It was a philosophy, an all-encompassing way of life (p. 66, paperback version [Phoenix]).

Later in life, Stalin said that if Lenin hadn’t been Bolshevik leader he (Stalin) probably would have continued happily at seminary (p. 75).

Stalin said that the seminary taught him to understand how people feel and think, which is what priests do (p. 73).

He transformed Bolshevism into a cult for his followers by adopting priestly language when discussing Marxist theory. Furthermore, his rule would also perpetuate the notion of saints (e.g. Lenin) and feast days (e.g. May 1). His party demanded total devotion, as former radical David Horowitz discovered through his parents’ devotion to Stalin.


Stalin, in adopting a priestly demeanour and religious language, managed to impress Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Averell Harriman (pp. 73-74).

Stalin played the God card when he saw it could bring others on side. Talking about forgiveness coming only from God or the past belonging to Him charmed these world leaders and diplomats with whom he would negotiate settlements in his favour (e.g. Poland) following the Second World War.

Oddly, these Westerners disregarded or had suddenly forgot his suppression of the Church, his imprisonment and torture — not to mention murder — of Christian clergy.

His persecution of the Orthodox Church continued until 1943 when he restored the Patriarchate; Montefiore says this was a cynical move to promote patriotism during wartime.

The Russian Revolution

In 1917, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky put their thoughts together on the Revolution (p. 369).

Lenin said they were engaging in ‘annihilation’, otherwise, the revolution had no point. Firing squads would be needed as well as hanging, he said, to rid them of ‘spiders’ and ‘leeches’ who had no right to live.

Trotsky vowed to put an end to the ‘Papist-Quaker babble’ about the sanctity of life.

Stalin found the idea of concentration camps ‘excellent’.

Stalin would be responsible for the deaths of between 20 and 25 million people (p. 393).

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin describes Tiflis Seminary in the 1890s as debauched.

Whereas English public (private) schools were beginning to reform, Georgia’s foremost seminary was the worst of places in terms of cruelty and the best of places with regard to learning.

The daily routine resembled that of a monastery, with students and priests gathering for prayer and devotions at appointed times of the day and evening. The students wore monk-like surplices. Sunday services were of the traditional Orthodox length, three to four hours long. However, all this piety in the chapel contrasted with the violence going on in the dormitories.

Most of the priests were Russian Orthodox. Ironically, the only Georgian priest, David Abashidze, born a prince, was the faculty member the students found most loathsome (p. 54).

Young Stalin soon dubbed Father Abashidze the Black Spot. Ironically, it was probably from Abashidze that Stalin learned how to run a spy network. The priest had a corrupt network of students who informed on others for various infractions, the principal of which was reading forbidden books.

Stalin had already heard quite a bit about recent history at Tiflis Seminary, thanks to his older friend and former alumnus Lado Ketskhoveli, who had instigated a student rebellion there. And there were other incidents. In 1885, a student — Silibistro ‘Silva’ Jibladze — beat up a rector who insulted the Georgian language. The following year, another student fatally stabbed the man with a Georgian sword. Another friend of Stalin’s, Philip Makharadze, later said that no secular school produced as many atheists as had Tiflis Seminary (p. 55).

As was the case in Gori, Stalin’s grades were excellent and his financial situation very poor. Keke moved to Tiflis temporarily to work at the seminary, which no doubt embarrassed her son. Once she returned to Gori, Stalin wrote to her regularly but with increasing detachment. Having known men who went to boarding school, I find this a normal state of affairs as one becomes more independent living away from home.

Beso, still living in Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi), showed up one night to ask his son for money. Stalin refused, threatening to have the night watchmen remove him if he persisted. Beso left the seminary grounds. A reconciliation would have to wait.

Stalin took his poetry to the Georgian nationalist Prince Ilia Chavchavadze (p. 56). The prince published five of the student’s poems in his newspaper Iveria, well known throughout Georgia. The name Soselo — his pen name — would start to become known in the region. (Josef Djugashvili changed his name to Stalin years later.)  The prince remembered the young man ‘with the burning eyes’.

Incidentally, one of these poems, ‘Morning’, also appeared in the 1916 edition of a children’s anthology of Georgian verse, Deda Ena (p. 57). The others were also republished elsewhere. Stalin wrote with perfect scansion and his verse evokes the best of Georgian romanticism. Montefiore includes these poems in Young Stalin.

The seminarians were allowed to go into Tiflis for a few hours twice a week. Stalin was taken with the city which appeared positively cosmopolitan compared to Gori. Tiflis was on the trade route to Asia. As such, it was a colourful mix of Georgians, Russians, Armenians, Jews, Persians and Tartars. Holy Mountain and its white marble church tower over the city’s bustling marketplaces. However, Baedeker’s guide of the day warned European tourists to pass through  town as quickly as possible, especially if women were in their party. The city of 160,000 inhabitants was dangerous. Baedeker also advised men to carry pistols for self defence (p. 60).

Stalin was still suffering from ill health. At one point, he was moved into another part of the dormitory. There he met an older student, Said Devdariani, who introduced him to socialism (p. 61). Both were voracious readers and especially enjoyed Victor Hugo’s books, forbidden by the seminary. They particularly liked Hugo’s revolutionary-priest Cimourdain. Stalin spent time in the punishment cell when he was caught with several of Hugo’s books.

Josef Iremashvili recalled another book which fascinated him and Stalin — Alexander Kazbegi’s The Patricide, also on the forbidden book list. The protagonist’s name was Koba, which Stalin liked; Koba was his ‘godfather’ Yakov Egnatashvili’s nickname. Iremashvili said that The Patricide‘s Koba — a Caucasian bandit-hero — became ‘Stalin’s God’ and gave his life meaning (p. 63). Although called Soso by most, he was also known as Koba for the next several years.

By late 1896 — a few months before he turned 18 — Stalin began to neglect his studies.

His faith died during his first year at seminary and he spent quite a lot of time convincing other students to become atheists (p. 63). A priest, Father Elisabedashvili, heard that Stalin was an outstanding student. He invited him to his family home once for school holidays. The priest’s son Giorgi was going to sit the seminary’s entrance exam and Stalin appeared to be a good tutor. Stalin came armed with books the seminary had banned. He and Giorgi spent days reading and talking in the countryside. One day, Stalin took the boy to an old church nearby. He told Giorgi to remove an icon from the wall, smash it and then urinate on it. When he did so, Stalin congratulated his pupil on not showing a fear of God. When the boy’s exam score was too low for the seminary, the priest — rightly — blamed Stalin (pp. 66-67). Giorgi did get into Tiflis Seminary when he resat his exam. He was expelled in 1901 (p. 79) and became part of Stalin’s gang of ex-seminarians (see below).

Since the hanging in Gori Stalin became preoccupied by poverty;  he was one of those people who posited that if God existed, surely He would have banished poverty. Therefore, he reasoned, as there was poverty, there was no God. Another reason had to do with the murder of his uncle Sandala — Keke’s brother — by the police, which made him believe that the poorest were the most oppressed.

Stalin increasingly found Said Devdariani irritating. His fellow student’s approach to socialism was too genteel, too intellectual. Stalin — in Koba mode — preferred sneaking off with Iremashvili at night to meet with the workers in their hovels at the foot of Holy Mountain.

Although Iremashvili liked Devdariani, Stalin broke off relations with his roommate early in 1897, following Christmas break. Iremashvili remembered that Stalin instigated feuds and arguments with Devdariani. Eventually, he roped other seminarians into these disputes. Because Devdariani did not share his views, Stalin couldn’t abide being friends with him anymore. Also, Stalin had to be leader; it was his way or the highway. In the end, two socialist groups developed — his and Devdariani’s.

Stalin now deepened his friendship with Lado Ketskhoveli, who had not only been expelled from Tiflis Seminary but also Kiev Seminary. He also had a police record (p. 65). Ketskhoveli’s radicalism appealed to Stalin.

Ketskhoveli wasted no time in introducing Stalin to Silibistro ‘Silva’ Jibladze who had beaten up the rector a few years before for insulting the Georgian language. In 1892, he and a nobleman Noe Jordania had founded a Georgian socialist party called the Third Group (Mesame Dasi). When Stalin met them, they were intensifying their revolutionary efforts in Tiflis among the workers; they also published a newspaper. Jordania was unimpressed by young Stalin and dismissed him, saying he should come back once he’d studied a bit more (p. 65).

Jordania’s response set Stalin alight. Stalin had a new enemy, one who was in the public eye. By publicly opposing him, Soso/Koba would also make a name for himself — and come to the attention of the Okhrana, the secret police.

Stalin and Lado Ketskhoveli rented a small room on Holy Mountain where they met twice a week. Stalin was able to visit during his free time when the seminarians were allowed to go into town. Stalin kept notebooks of his and Lado’s meetings which he then shared with his fellow students.

By now, Stalin had been caught 13 times with forbidden books. Father ‘Black Spot’ Abashidze increased his inspection of the dormitories, which now included rifling through the seminarians’ clothes and personal belongings.

Stalin was now cutting class and chapel prayers. His coursework continued to suffer. He also openly declared his atheism before the rectors and classmates. His mother Keke found out and went to the seminary to talk with him. He assured her that he was no revolutionary. She remembered the conversation years later as the first lie he’d ever told her (p. 69).

By the end of 1898, he was 20 years old. He was a man and too old for an institution geared to adolescents (p. 68). He and Black Spot had a confrontation when Stalin heard the priest was going through his footlocker. Another student, Vaso Kelbakiani, got there first and assaulted Black Spot, hoping to loosen the priest’s grip on Stalin’s forbidden books. However, Black Spot held on. Stalin then snatched the books out of the priest’s hands. Kelbakiani was expelled and Stalin’s town privileges were suspended (p. 70).

Stories have circulated whether Stalin was ultimately suspended or expelled from seminary in 1899. He spent Easter break with Keke in Gori, supposedly ill. In May 1899, the rectors recorded that Stalin was ‘expelled’ for not showing up for his final exams (p. 70).

Montefiore says that the truth was, as Stalin told the police in 1910, that Black Spot added an additional sum to his tuition fees along with the school library fines he’d incurred (p. 72). Stalin could afford to pay neither nor was he interested in taking his finals by that point. Although the Orthodox Church said they would pay the fees, Stalin demurred. Keke was beside herself; she was so close to realising her lifelong dream for her Soso — and yet, so far. Tiflis Seminary pursued the money owed them in 1900, but Stalin’s bill went unpaid — he had already gone underground and he still had the library books (p. 73).

After Stalin left, Tiflis Seminary expelled 20 more students. They all became Stalin’s followers. Some historians wonder if Stalin provided his rectors with a list of suspects, but Montefiore doubts Stalin was an informer because, if he were, he would have been unlikely to become such a high profile Marxist (p. 72). The seminary normally expelled a number of students every year, so it was probably not unusual. It is more likely that these men went on to follow Stalin because they remembered him from seminary.

The next post will look briefly at Stalin’s atheism and socialism.

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