The Poet and the Priesthood - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Poet and the Priesthood

The boy of sixteen from Gori, accustomed to the freedom of fighting in the streets or climbing Gorijvari, now found himself locked for virtually every hour of the day in an institution that more resembled the most repressive nineteenth - century English public - school than a religious academy: the dormitories, the bullying boys, the rife buggery, the cruel sanctimonious teachers and the hours in the detention cells made it a Caucasian version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Stalin arrived with a group from Gori, including Josef Iremashvili and Peter Kapanadze. These provincial boys, few of them as poor as Soso, found themselves among the “arrogant sons of wealthy parents.* We felt like the chosen few,” wrote Iremashvili, because the seminary was “the source of Georgian intellectual life, with its historical grounds in a seemingly perfect civilisation.”

Soso and the other 600 trainee priests lived in a four - storey neoclassical seminary with noble white pillars. On the top floor, he shared a dormitory of twenty or thirty beds. The other floors contained a chapel, classrooms and a refectory. In a day strictly divided by ringing bells, Soso was awoken every morning at 7 a.m., donned his surplice uniform, then proceeded to prayers in chapel followed by tea and classes. The pupil on duty read another prayer. There were lessons until two. At three he had lunch, then an hour and a half off before call - over at five, after which he was banned from going out again. After evening prayers, supper was at eight, followed by more classes then yet more prayers and lights - out at 10 p.m. At weekends the church services were interminable, “three or four hours on the same spot, shifting from one leg to the other, under the tireless penetrating eyes of the monks.” But the boys were allowed out between 3 and 5 p.m.

The Empire’s seminaries were “notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval pedagoguery, and law of the fist,” comments Trotsky. “All the vices banned by the Holy Scriptures flourished in this hotbed of piety.” This seminary, nicknamed the Stone Sack, was worse than most: “utterly joyless,” reported one pupil. “Droningly boring—we felt we were in prison.”

When Stalin arrived, its twenty - three teachers were led by a lugubrious trinity: the rector, Archimandrite Serafim; his deputy, Inspector Germogen; and, the most hated of all, Father Dmitri, the only Georgian of the three, who had been born Prince David Abashidze. Soon promoted to inspector, this Abashidze was a fat swarthy pedant—“God’s submissive, lowly slave, the Tsar’s servant,” in his own words.

The monks were determined to squeeze any hint of Georgianness out of their proudly Georgian boys. Georgian literature was totally banned, but then so were all Russian authors published since Pushkin, including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Two inspectors were deployed fulltime in “constant unremitting supervision.” Punishments and bad marks were all recorded in the school journal. Soon being sent down—the “wolf’s ticket”—became a badge of honour.

Father Abashidze ran a circle of sneaks among the boys and spent much of Stalin’s schooldays creeping on tiptoe around the seminary or conducting melodramatic dormitory raids in order to catch the boys reading forbidden books, abusing themselves or uttering naughty words. Stalin, who was an acute coiner of nicknames, soon dubbed this grotesque priest “the Black Spot.” Initially terrifying, this man was ultimately comical in a way only the craziest pedagogic sticklers can be.

Stalin had heard all about the famous seminary rebellions from his mentor, Lado. A few years earlier, in 1885, a pupil had beaten up the rector for saying “Georgian was a dogs’ language.” The next year, the rector was murdered with a Georgian khanjali sword—a fate that even the most brutal English headmaster had managed to avoid.

The seminary was to pull off the singular achievement of supplying the Russian Revolution with some of its most ruthless radicals. “No secular school,” wrote another seminarist, Stalin’s comrade Philip Makharadze, “produced as many atheists as the Tiflis Seminary.” The Stone Sack literally became a boarding - school for revolutionaries.

Stalin was initially “calm, attentive, modest and bashful,” remembers one schoolmate, while another noticed the once swaggering Goreli gang leader turn “pensive and secluded, the love of games and fun of childhood gone.” The moody teenage Soso was taking stock—and becoming a self - conscious romantic poet—but he was also studying seriously, passing his first grade with an “excellent” mark and coming eighth out of the whole year. In 1894–95, he won straight 5s (A grades) for Georgian singing and language and scores like 4,5,4,5 in scripture. He was a model student, earning an “excellent 5” for behaviour.

As a scholarship boy in “pitiful” circumstances, Soso constantly had to beg the rector “on my knees” for further help with the fees.* Stalin earned more pocket - money (five roubles, he recalled later) by singing in the choir. He was “the first tenor of the right wing of the choir”—the key choirboy—and often performed in the Opera House.

Keke accompanied him to Tiflis and stayed for a few weeks to help him settle. She took a job sewing and serving food at the seminary—surely an embarrassment to Stalin, and perhaps another reason for his initial reticence. Mission accomplished, she returned to Gori. Henceforth, throughout his periods of exile, up until her death forty years on, Stalin wrote to her with dutiful regularity (especially when he needed money or clothes) but with growing detachment. He would never really return to the mother whose remarkable drive and sharp tongue he had himself inherited, yet whom he found unbearable.1

Somehow Beso, lurking in Tiflis, discovered Soso as a potential source of wine - money: he went to see Stalin’s rector and demand his son back: “Make him leave because I need someone to take care of me!” Stalin was “unmoved,” wanting to alleviate “the hardship of Beso and people like him,” but repelled by the man himself.

“Once,” recalled Stalin, “the nightwatchmen came in and told me that my father was outside.” The boy hurried downstairs and “saw him standing there. He didn’t even ask about me but just said briskly: ‘Young man, sir, you’ve totally forgotten your father, haven’t you? I’m leaving to work in another town.’”

“How would I have any money to help you?” replied Stalin.

“Shut up!” shouted Beso. “Give me at least 3 roubles and don’t be as mean as your mother!”

“Don’t yell!” replied Soso. “This is my boarding - school. If you don’t leave now, I’ll call the watchmen and they’ll make you go.”

The “threat worked,” recounted Stalin. “Father slunk away into the streets, muttering something.”2

In the holidays, Soso returned to Gori to see the doting Keke. Even though he “was starting to grow a beard, he still nestled up to me like a five - year - old.” But he spent most of his time staying with his lame, well - off friend Mikha Davitashvili in his village, Tsromi. When he returned for the next term, Stalin did even better, winning another “excellent” and moving up to number five in his year. And he started to work on his verse.

At the end of term, Soso took his poems to the offices of the famous newspaper Iveria (Georgia), where he was received by the country’s greatest poet, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, a romantic nationalist who believed in an agrarian Georgia ruled by an enlightened aristocracy.

The Prince was sufficiently impressed to show the teenager’s work to his editors. He admired Stalin’s verse, choosing five poems to publish—quite an achievement. Prince Chavchavadze called Stalin the “young man with the burning eyes.” He was admired in Georgia as a poet before he was known as a revolutionary.3

* The seminarists were mainly gentry, poorer nobility and priests’ sons, not the very richest—but much better off than Stalin. The Gori police chief’s son Davrichewy and other better - off boys like Stalin’s future comrade Kamenev attended the Tiflis Boys’ Gymnasium. The affluent Egnatashvili boys, Vaso and Sasha, were sent to a gymnasium in Moscow. During the Stalin years, the seminary bore the plaque: THE GREAT STALIN—LEADER ÖF THE VKP(B) AND PROLETARIAT OF THE WORLD—LIVED AND STUDIED IN THE EX - THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY FROM 1 SEPTEMBER 1894 TO 29 MAY 1899 LEADING ILLEGAL WORKERS’ CIRCLES IN TBILISI.

* “To Archimandrite Serafim, Very Reverend Rector of the Tiflis Orthodox Seminary from 2nd Grade student Josef Djugashvili: Your Reverence knows all about the pitiful circumstances of my mother who takes care of me. My father has not provided for me in three years. This is his way of punishing me for continuing my studies against his wishes . . . It is for this reason I am applying to Your Reverence for the second time. I beg you on my knees to help me and accept me on full public expense. Josef Djugashvili 25 August 1895.”

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