Georgia regarded herself as an oppressed kingdom of knights and poets. The poems in Iveria, published under Stalin’s nickname “Soselo,” were widely read and became minor Georgian classics, appearing in anthologies of the best Georgian poetry before anyone had heard of “Stalin.” Deda Ena, a children’s anthology of Georgian verse, produced between 1912 and the 1960s, included Stalin’s first poem—“Morning” in its 1916 edition. It remained in subsequent editions, sometimes ascribed to Stalin, sometimes not, up to the days of Brezhnev.
Stalin’s singing, now that he was an adolescent tenor, was said to be good enough for him to go professional. As a poet he showed a certain talent in another craft which might have provided an alternative to politics and bloodletting. “One might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin’s switch from poetry to revolution,” believes Professor Donald Rayfield, who translated the poems into English. Their romantic imagery was derivative but their beauty lay in the delicacy and purity of rhythm and language.
The scans and rhymes of his poem “Morning” work perfectly, but it was his sensitive and precocious fusion of Persian, Byzantine and Georgian imagery that won plaudits. “No wonder,” reflects Rayfield, “the doyen of Georgian letters and politics, Ilya Chavchavadze, was willing to print this poem and at least four others.”
Soselo’s next poem, a crazed ode “To the Moon,” reveals more of the poet. A violent, tragically depressed outcast, in a world of glaciers and divine providence, is drawn to the sacred moonlight. In his third poem, Stalin explores the “contrast between violence in man and nature and the gentleness of birds, music and singers.”
The fourth is the most revealing. Stalin imagines a prophet not honoured in his own country, a wandering poet poisoned by his own people. Now seventeen, Stalin already envisions a “paranoiac” world where “great prophets could only expect conspiracy and murder.” If any of Stalin’s poems “contained an avis au lecteur,” writes Rayfield, “it is this one.”
Dedicated to Georgia’s beloved poet* Prince Raphael Eristavi, Stalin’s fifth poem was, with “Morning,” his most admired. It was this that inspired Stalin’s State Bank “inside man” to give him the tip - off for the Yerevan Square bank robbery and it was good enough to be included in Prince Eristavi’s jubilee volume in 1899. Its heroic sage requires both the harp and the sickle.
The last poem, “Old Ninika,” which appeared in the socialist weekly Kvali (Plough), affectionately describes an old hero who “dreams or tells his children’s children of the past,” perhaps a vision of an idealized Georgian like old Stalin himself, who ended up sitting on his Black Sea verandah regaling youngsters with his adventures.
Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for—and jealousy of—brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. The words and influence of this “Kremlin crag - dweller” and “peasant - slayer” on literature were, as Mandelstam wrote in his famously scabrous poem denouncing Stalin, “leaden,” his “fat fingers . . . greasy as maggots.” But, ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge. Stalin never ceased caring about poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, “In Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it.”
The ex–romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism but promoted his distorted version of romanticism, Socialist Realism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He talked endlessly about the Georgian poets of his childhood, and he himself helped edit a Russian translation of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin, delicately translating some of the couplets himself and asking modestly: “Will they do?”
Stalin respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill Party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam’s arrest Stalin ordered, “Isolate but preserve.” He would preserve most of his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at other times denouncing and impoverishing them. When he called Pasternak in one of his telephonic lightning - strikes from Olympus, he asked about Mandelstam: “He’s a genius, isn’t he?” Mandelstam’s tragedy was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse—the medium of the dictator’s own childhood dreams—but also by Pasternak’s failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was not sentenced to death, but nor was he preserved, perishing on the dystopian road to Gulag hell. But Stalin did preserve Pasternak: “Leave that cloud - dweller in peace.”
The seminary’s priest - poet of seventeen never publicly acknowledged his poems, but he later told a friend, “I lost interest in writing poetry because it requires one’s entire attention—a hell of a lot of patience. And in those days I was like quicksilver”—the quicksilver of revolution and conspiracy that was now flashing through the youth of Tiflis and into the seminary.1
When he stood on the white steps of the Stone Sack, Soso could see the bustling but dangerous Persian and Armenian Bazaars around Yerevan Square, “a network of narrow lanes and alleys” with “open workshops of goldsmiths and armourers; stalls of pastry cooks and bakers with flat loaves baked in huge clay ovens . . . cobblers displaying gaudy slippers . . . and wine - merchants’ shops where the wine is kept in sheep or buffalo skins with the fur inside.”* Golovinsky Boulevard was almost Parisian; the rest more resembled “Lima or Bombay.”
“The streets,” reports Baedeker,
are generally steep and so narrow that two carriages cannot pass, the houses, mostly adorned with balconies, perched one above the other on the mountainside like steps of a staircase. From sunrise to sunset, the streets are crowded with a motley throng of men and animals . . . the Georgian dealers in vegetables with large wooden trays on their heads, the Persians in long caftans and high black fur caps, often with red - dyed hair and fingernails; the Tartar saids and mullahs in flowing raiment with green and white turbans; the representatives of mountain tribes in picturesque cherkeskas and shaggy fur caps . . . Mohammedan women in veils . . . and horses carrying waterskins with gaily clad attendants.
A city of hot sulphur springs (and famous bathhouses), it was built right on the slopes of Holy Mountain and on the banks of the Kura River beneath the round - spired Georgian church and sombre towers of the fortress - prison of Metekhi, which Iremashvili called the “Bastille of Tiflis.” High, up cobbled lanes on Holy Mountain, stood the white marble church (where Keke today lies buried among poets and princes), radiant and pristine.
Tiflis was a city of 160,000–30 percent Russians, 30 percent Armenians and 26 per cent Georgians, with the rest a smattering of Jews, Persians and Tartars. There were six Armenian newspapers, five Russian and four Georgian. Tiflis’s workers mainly laboured in the railway depot and small workshops; its rich and powerful were Armenian tycoons, Georgian princes, and Russian bureaucrats and generals who converged on the court of the Emperor’s viceroy. Its water - carriers were from Racha, in the west, its stonemasons Greek, its tailors Jewish, its bathkeepers Persian. It was like “a porridge of people and beasts, sheepskin hats and shaved heads, fezzes and peaked caps . . . horses and mules, camels, and dogs . . . All shout, bang, laugh, swear, jostle, sing . . . in the burning air.”
This cosmopolitan imperial city of theatres, hotels, caravanserai, bazaars and brothels already vibrated with Georgian nationalism and international Marxism, which were seeping dangerously into the closed cloisters of the seminary.2
Soso and another boy, Said Devdariani, were moved out of their dormitory into a smaller room “because of our poor health.” Devdariani was older, already a member of a secret circle at which the boys gathered to read forbidden socialist literature. “I suggested he join,” says Devdariani, “and he was delighted—he agreed.” There Stalin met up with his friends from Gori, Iremashvili and Davitashvili.
At first the books were hardly incendiary works of Marxist conspiracy but the sort of harmless books banned by the seminary. The boys joined a forbidden book club called the Cheap Library and started to get other books from a bookshop run by a formernarodnik. “Remember the little bookshop,” the owner of this small bookshop, Imedashvili, later wrote to the supreme Stalin. “How we thought and whispered there about great unanswerable questions!” Stalin discovered the novels of Victor Hugo, especially 1793, whose hero Cimourdain, the revolutionary - priest, would become one of his prototypes.* But Hugo was strictly forbidden by the monks.
At night, Black Spot patrolled the corridors, constantly checking that the lights were out and that there was no reading—or other self - indulgent vices. As soon as he was gone, the boys lit candles and started reading again. Soso, typically, “overdid it and hardly slept at all, looking bleary - eyed and ill. When he started coughing,” Iremashvili “took the book out of his hand and blew out the candle.”
Inspector Father Germogen caught Stalin with Hugo’s 1793 and ordered that “he be punished with a prolonged stay in the punishment cell.” Then he was found with yet more Hugo by another snooping priest: “It emerges Djugashvili subscribes to Cheap Library and reads books there. Today I have confiscated Toilers of the Sea by V. Hugo. I had already issued him with a warning in connection with the book 1793 by V. Hugo. Signed: Assistant Inspector: V. Murakhovsky.”
Young Stalin was even more influenced by Russian writers who caused a sensation among radical youth: the poems of Nikolai Nekrasov and the novel by Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? Its hero, Rakhmetov, became Stalin’s prototype for the steely ascetic revolutionary. Like Rakhmetov, Stalin came to regard himself as “a special man.”
Soon Stalin was caught reading another forbidden book “on the school stairs” for which he received, “on the Rector’s order, a prolonged stay in the punishment cell and severe reprimand.” He “worshipped Zola,” his favourite of the Parisian’s novels beingGerminal. He read Schiller, Maupassant, Balzac and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in translation, Plato in the original Greek, Russian and French history—and he distributed these books to the other boys. He adored Gogol, Saltykov - Shchedrin and Chekhov, whose works he memorized and “could recite by heart.” He admired Tolstoy “but was bored by his Christianity,” later in life scrawling “ha - ha - ha!” beside Tolstoyan musings on redemption and salvation. He marked up heavily a copy of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece on revolutionary conspiracy and betrayal, The Devils. These volumes were smuggled in, strapped under the surplices of the seminarists. Stalin later joked that he had to “expropriate”—steal—some of these books from the bookshop for the sake of the Revolution.3
Hugo was not the only writer who changed Stalin’s life: another novelist changed his name. He read Alexander Kazbegi’s forbidden novel The Patricide, which starred a classic Caucasian bandit - hero called Koba. “What impressed me and Soso,” writes Iremashvili, “were the works of Georgian literature which glorified the Georgians’ struggle for freedom.” In the novel, Koba fights against the Russians, sacrificing everything for his wife and country, then visiting a terrible vengeance on his enemies.
“Koba became Soso’s God and gave his life meaning,” says Iremashvili. “He wished to become Koba. He called himself ‘Koba’ and insisted we call him that. His face shone with pride and pleasure when we called him ‘Koba.’” The name meant a lot to Stalin—the vengeance of the Caucasus mountain peoples, the ruthlessness of the bandit, the obsession with loyalty and betrayal, and the sacrifice of person and family for a cause. It was a name he already loved: his “substitute father” Egnatashvili’s first name was Koba, short for Yakov. “Koba” became a favourite nom de révolution and nickname. But his intimates still called him Soso.4
His poems were already appearing in the newspapers but at seventeen, in the autumn of 1896, Stalin started to lose interest in priestly studies and even in poetry. In his year, he slipped from fifth to sixteenth.
In hushed voices after lights - out, keeping a lookout for the dreaded Black Spot, the boys vigorously debated the great questions of existence. In his seventies, the dictator was still chuckling about these arguments. “I became an atheist in the first year,” he said, which led to arguments with other boys such as his pious friend Simon Natroshvili. But, after some thought, Natroshvili “came to see me and admitted his mistake.” Stalin was delighted until Simon continued: “If God exists, hell exists too. There’s always a blazing hellfire. To keep the hellfires burning, who can provide enough logs? They would have to be endless and how can endless logs exist?” Stalin remembered, “I burst out laughing! I thought Simon had reached his conclusions by philosophical reasoning but actually he became an atheist for fear that there weren’t enough logs for hell!”
Now Soso moved beyond mere sympathy towards outright rebellion. Just at this time, his uncle Sandala, Keke’s brother, was killed by the police. Stalin never mentioned this but it must have played its part.
Stalin was “like quicksilver,” moving from French novelists to Marx himself: the boys paid five kopecks to borrow Das Kapital for a fortnight.5 He tried to study German so that he could read Marx and Engels in the original, and English too—he had a copy ofThe Fight of the English Workers for Liberty. This was the start of a lifelong effort to learn foreign languages, especially German and English.*
Stalin and Iremashvili were soon creeping out of the seminary, under cover of darkness, to attend their first meetings with real railway workers at little hovels built into the Holy Mountain. This first spark of conspiracy lit a fire that was never extinguished.
Stalin became bored by the worthy educational discussions of Devdariani’s seminary club: he wanted to push the circle towards more aggressive action. Devdariani resisted, so Stalin launched a campaign against him and started to create his own group.6
The two remained friendly enough for him to stay in Devdariani’s village for the Christmas holidays of 1896. Perhaps Stalin, always a master of “dosage” and soon to be a skilful abuser of hospitality, delayed the final rift so that he had somewhere to stay for the holidays. On the way, the boys visited Keke, who lived in a “little hut,” where Devdariani noticed legions of bedbugs.
“It’s my fault, son, that we eat without wine,” said Keke over supper.
“Mine too,” said Stalin.
“I hope the bedbugs let you sleep?” Keke asked Devdariani.
“I didn’t notice any such thing,” lied Devdariani tactfully.
“Oh he felt them all right,” Stalin said to his poor mother. “He was wriggling his legs all night.” Keke noticed how Soso “avoided me, he tried to speak as little as possible.”
On his return to the seminary in 1897, Stalin broke with Devdariani. “Major and not altogether harmless feuds . . . were usually stirred up by Koba,” says Iremashvili, who remained with Devdariani. “Koba thought it natural to be the leader and never tolerated any criticism. Two parties formed—one for Koba, and one against.” It was a pattern to be repeated throughout his life. He found a tougher mentor, meeting up again with the inspiring Lado Ketskhoveli from Gori, who had been expelled from both the Tiflis and Kiev Seminaries, arrested and now released. Soso respected no one like Lado.
His mentor introduced his younger friend to the fiery black - eyed Silibistro “Silva” Jibladze, the legendary seminarist who had beaten up the rector. Jibladze and an elegant nobleman named Noe Jordania had, with some others, founded a Georgian socialist party, the Third Group (Mesame Dasi), in 1892. Now these Marxists reassembled in Tiflis, taking over the Kvali newspaper and starting to sow revolution among the workers. Jibladze took the teenager to the apartment of Vano Sturua, who recalls that “Jibladze brought an unknown youngster.”
Eager to contribute, Stalin called on the group’s forceful leader, Noe Jordania, just returned from exile, at Kvali, which had published his last poem. Jordania, tall, with “a graceful and handsome face, black beard . . . and aristocratic habits and demeanour,” patronizingly suggested that Soso should study more. “I’ll think it over,” replied the truculent youth. Now he had an enemy to fight. He wrote a letter criticizing Jordania and Kvali. They refused to publish it, whereupon Stalin insulted the editorial staff for “sitting in there for days without expressing a decent opinion!”
Lado was also frustrated with Jordania’s gentility and it must have been he who introduced Stalin to the mainly Russian workers’ circles that were just starting to mushroom among the many small workshops of Tiflis. They met secretly at the German cemetery, at a little house beside a mill, and near the Arsenal. Stalin suggested they rent a room on Holy Mountain, “where we used to gather twice a week after dinner before call - over. It cost 5 roubles that we took from pocket - money our parents sent.” Stalin started to keep a “handwritten journal in Georgian about their discussions” which was passed from hand to hand among his followers in the seminary.7
He was already crossing the line from rebellious schoolboy to a revolutionary who was, for the first time, of interest to the secret police. When another Marxist activist named Sergei Alliluyev, a skilled railway worker and Stalin’s future father - in - law, was arrested, he was interrogated by the Gendarme captain Lavrov, who asked him: “Know any Georgian seminarists?”8
The romantic poet was becoming the “convinced fanatic” with a “quasimystical faith” to which he devoted his life and from which he never wavered. But what did he really believe?
Let him explain in his own words. Stalin’s Marxism meant that “the revolutionary proletariat alone is destined by History to liberate mankind and bring the world happiness,” but humanity would undergo great “trial and suffering and change” before it achieved “scientifically proven socialism.” The heart of this providential progress was “the class struggle: Marxism is the masses whose liberation is the catalyst for the freedom of the individual.”
This creed was, says Stalin, “not only a theory of socialism: it’s an entire worldview, a philosophical system”—like a scientifically proven religion—of which these young revolutionaries were part. “I had the feeling,” explained Trotsky, “I was joining a great chain as a tiny link.” Trotsky, like Stalin, believed that “the lasting thing is gained through combat.” Blood, death, conflict were essential: “Many storms, many torrents of blood,” in Stalin’s own words, would mark “the struggle to end oppression.”
There was one big difference between Stalin and Trotsky then: Stalin was a Georgian. He never lost his pride in Georgia as a nation and a culture. The little nations of the Caucasus all found it hard to embrace real internationalist Marxism because their own repression made them also dream of independence. Young Stalin believed in a blend of Marxism and Georgian nationalism, almost opposed to internationalist Marxism.
Soso, poring over his Marxist texts, was rude and truculent to the priests, but he was not yet in open revolt as other seminarists were, before and after him. His own propaganda later exaggerated the precocity of his becoming a revolutionary, but he was far from the first of his generation to become the real thing. So far he was a schoolboy radical just dipping his toes into revolutionary waters.9
* Stalin was immersed in Georgian poetry: he loved Eristavi; Chavchavadze was “a great writer with a huge role in the freedom movement of Georgia;” and he enthused about Akaki Tsereteli: “My generation learned the poems of Tsereteli by heart and with joy . . . beautiful, emotional and musical, he’s rightly called the nightingale of Georgia.” But, looking back, Stalin also measured these poets politically, saying Tsereteli wrote “beautiful poems but ideologically primitive and parochial.” Stalin was not the only poetical future Bolshevik: at exactly the same time, at his school in Odessa, young Leon Bronstein, the future Trotsky and near contemporary, was also writing poems. Trotsky far outstripped Stalin as a writer but not as a poet. If any of Stalin’s colleagues had dedicated a poem to a prince, it would have been used against them in the Terror. In 1949, for Stalin’s official seventieth birthday, the Politburo magnate Beria secretly commissioned the best poetical translators, including Boris Pasternak and Arseni Tarkovsky, to create a Russian edition of the poems. They were not told the author of the poems but one of the poets thought “this work is worthy of the Stalin Prize first rank,” though perhaps they had guessed the identity of the young versifier. In the midst of the project, they received the stern order, clearly from Stalin himself, to stop the work.
* “A hasty visit, especially if ladies are of the party,” suggests Baedeker, “is best made by carriage . . . Public safety is on a somewhat unstable footing; it is well to avoid travelling alone or the exhibition of much money (for permission to carry a revolver see earlier). It is advisable to keep a sharp lookout on one’s belongings as natives are not averse from picking up unconsidered trifles.” Baedeker adds that even a letter of introduction from the viceroy or to local princes are of limited use in “surmounting difficulties that arise: these can be successfully met only by a resolute bearing”—and probably with the help of the revolver mentioned earlier.
* Hugo’s hero Cimourdain had “never been seen to weep . . . [he had an] inaccessible and frigid virtue. A just but awful man. There are no half - measures for a revolutionary - priest [who] must be infamous and sublime. Cimourdain was sublime . . . rugged, inhospitably repellent . . . pure but gloomy.”
* These young Marxists would copy out Marx by hand and distribute the manuscripts. When his Gori friend Kote Khakhanashvili came home with some Marx volumes, Stalin borrowed them but then refused to return them: “Why do you need them? They’re being passed through many hands and people are learning from them.” He also purloined a German - language textbook. Yet his English and German studies never led to fluency: even in the early 1930s he was asking his wife, Nadya, to send him an English textbook to study on holiday.