Battle of the Dormitories: Soso versus Father “Black Spot” - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Battle of the Dormitories:
Soso versus Father “Black Spot”

By early 1897, Stalin was at war with the Black Spot. The school journal records that he was caught thirteen times reading banned works and had received nine warnings.

“Suddenly inquisitor Abashidze,” says Iremashvili, started launching raids on their footlockers and even their dirty laundry baskets. The maniacal “Black Spot” Abashidze became obsessed with catching Stalin reading his forbidden books. At prayers, the boys had the Bible open on their desks and read Marx or Plekhanov, the sage of Russian Marxism, on their knees. In the courtyard stood a huge pile of firewood in which Stalin and Iremashvili would hide the banned works and where they would sit and read them. Abashidze waited for this and then sprang out to catch them, but they managed to drop the books into the logs: “We were locked up in the detention cell at once, sitting late into the evening in darkness without food, but hunger made us rebellious so we banged on the doors until the monk brought us something to eat.”1

When it was time for the holidays, Stalin went to stay with a younger friend, the priest’s son Giorgi Elisabedashvili, in his village (anything rather than spend time with his mother). The priest hired Stalin as a tutor to get Giorgi ready for the seminary’s entrance examinations. He always had a strong pedagogic instinct, but he was more interested in converting the boy to Marxism. Arriving on the back of a cart perched atop a pile of illegal books, the two made mischief in the countryside, laughing at peasants, whom Stalin “mimicked perfectly.” When they visited an old church, Stalin encouraged his pupil to pull down an old icon, smash it and urinate on it.

“Not afraid of God?” asked Stalin. “Good for you!”

Stalin’s pupil failed his exams. Father Elisabedashvili angrily blamed the tutor. But the boy got in on a second attempt—and later became one of Stalin’s Bolsheviks.2

Back at the seminary, Stalin was in constant trouble: in the school journal, the priests recorded that he was rude, “failed to bow” to a teacher and was “confined to the cell for 5 hours.” He declined to cut his hair, growing it rebelliously long. Challenged by the Black Spot, he refused to cut it. He laughed and chatted in prayers, left Vespers early, was late for the Hymn of the Virgin, and pranced out of mass. He must have spent much of his time in the punishment cell. In December 1898, he turned twenty, much too old for boarding - school, and a year older than anyone else (because of time wasted recovering from his accidents). Small wonder he was frustrated.

He had outgrown the seminary. Seminarists were meant to kiss one another, like brothers, thrice whenever they met, but now, embroiled in factional struggles with Devdariani and devoted to Marxism, he distrusted this chivalrous humbug. “Such embracing is merely a mask. I’m not a Pharisee,” he said, refusing to embrace. The obsession with masked traitors never left him.

There were frenzied searches for the atheists’ Life of Christ by Renan, which Stalin proudly owned. His bedside table was repeatedly raided by the prince - monk - inquisitor—who found nothing. One of the boys cleverly hid the book under the rector’s own pillow. Stalin remembered how the boys would be summoned into call - over and then come out to find that all their footlockers had been ransacked.

Soso was losing interest in his studies. By the start of his fifth grade he was twentieth out of twenty - three, scoring mainly 3s where he used to score 5s. He wrote to Rector Serafim blaming his bad studies on illness, but he still had to resit some of his exams.

Meanwhile Black Spot “watched us ever more vigilantly” and the other boys were encouraged to inform on the rebels. But Stalin was get ting more daring and defiant by the week. When he and his allies started reading funny verses from his copybook, the sneaks reported it to Abashidze, who crept up and listened. He burst into the room and grabbed the journal. Stalin tried to snatch it back. Priest and teenager scuffled but the Black Spot won, frog - marching Stalin back to his flat where he “forced these unclean souls to douse their subversive writings” with paraffin. Then he set fire to the papers.

Finally Abashidze intensified his spying on Stalin: “At 9 p.m., the Inspector noticed in the dining - room a group of pupils around Djugashvili who was reading them something. On approach, Djugashvili tried to hide the notes and only after insistence did he reveal he was reading unauthorized books. Signed: D. Abashidze.”

Stalin’s mother heard “the evil talk that he had become a rebel.” Being Keke, she dressed up and took the train to Tiflis to save the day—but for the first time “he got angry with me. He shouted that it wasn’t my business. I said, ‘My son, you’re my only child, don’t kill me—but how will you be able to defeat Emperor Nicholas II? Leave that to those who have brothers and sisters.’” Soso soothed and hugged her, telling her that he was not a rebel. “It was his first lie,” remembers Keke sadly.

She was not the only concerned parent. Stalin was still seeing his ne’er - do - well father, probably unbeknown to Keke.* Accompanied by his mother’s cousin Anna Geladze, Stalin visited Beso, who liked to present him with lovingly sewn boots. “I should mention,” adds Anna, “that Soso had liked wearing boots ever since childhood.” The dictator in jackboots was not just a militaristic pose but an unspoken tribute to his father and to the beautiful leather boots he made with his own hands.

Perhaps his maturity had alleviated his fear of Beso, his Marxism softening his intolerance. Beso, now working humbly in a clothing - repair shop, came to “love his child doubly, talking about him all the time,” says Kote Charkviani. “Soso and I used to visit him. He didn’t raise his voice to Soso”—but he did mutter: “I hear he’s now rebelling against Nicholas II. As if he’s ever going to overthrow him!”

The war between the Black Spot and Stalin was hotting up. The seminary journal reports that Stalin declared himself an atheist, stalked out of prayers, chatted in class, was late for tea and refused to doff his hat to monks. He had eleven more warnings.

Their confrontations were increasingly farcical as the boys lost all respect for their inquisitor. Some of Soso’s buddies were chatting in Yerevan Square’s Pushkin Gardens when a boy ran out and reported that Stalin’s footlocker was being raided (again) by Father Abashidze. They sprinted back into the seminary just in time to see the inspector force open Stalin’s trunk and find some forbidden works. Abashidze grabbed them and was triumphantly bearing his prize up the stairs when one of the group, Vaso Kelbakiani, charged and rammed the monk, almost loosening his grip on the books. But Black Spot held on valiantly. The boys jumped on him and knocked the volumes out of his hands. Stalin himself ran up, seized the books and took to his heels. He was banned from visiting town, and Kelbakiani was expelled. Yet ironically Soso’s schoolwork seemed to improve—he received “very good” 4s for most subjects and a 5 for logic. Even now he still enjoyed his history lessons. Indeed he so liked his history teacher, Nikolai Makhatadze, the only seminary teacher he admired, that he later took the trouble to save his life.*

Meanwhile, the Black Spot had lost control of Stalin but could not restrain his own obsessive pursuit of this malcontent. They were getting closer to the breaking point. The monk crept up on him and peeked at him reading yet another forbidden book. He then pounced, taking the book from him, but Stalin simply wrenched it out of his hands, to the amazement of the other boys. He then went on reading it. Abashidze was shocked. “Don’t you know who I am?” he shouted.

Stalin rubbed his eyes and said, “I see the Black Spot and nothing else.” He had crossed the line.

The Black Spot must have longed for someone to rid him of this turbulent trainee - priest. It was almost the end of term. Stalin earned a last reprimand on 7 April for not greeting a teacher and the school broke up two days later. He never returned. In May 1899, the journal simply noted, “Expelled . . . for non - appearance at examinations.” As always with Stalin, things were not quite so simple.3

·  ·  ·

“I was expelled for Marxist propaganda,” Stalin boasted mendaciously later, but the Black Spot may have been investigating something spicier than just horseplay in the chapel or even Marxist meetings in the town.

The boys with more pocket - money than Stalin used to hire rooms on Holy Mountain, purportedly to hold meetings of their liberal reading circle, but being teenage boys and Georgians, who prided themselves on their amours, it is likely there were parties there too, wine—and girls. The priests, especially Inspector Black Spot, also patrolled the town, like English public - school masters, to catch their boys in theatres, taverns or brothels.

When he was not studying, Stalin could drink and flirt too. He may have got into more serious trouble in the holidays in Gori. Was it his love for the Charkviani girl? He never forgot her, talking about her in old age. Years later, he also remembered another girl from Gori, Lisa Akopova. In 1926, he actually tried to find out what had become of her, which suggests they were close. This encouraged her to send him a letter: “I swear that the attention you show us by asking about us makes me very happy . . . I was always your inseparable friend in fortune and misfortune . . . If you’ve not forgotten . . . you were courted by your pretty neighbour Lisa.” This was daring stuff for the 1920s but not half as daring as another letter Stalin received in 1938.

A woman wrote to Stalin about her niece, Praskovia Mikhailovskaya—Pasha, for short—who was allegedly fathered by Stalin himself in 1899. “If you remember your youth, you cannot forget. You certainly remember a small dark - eyed girl named Pasha.” The letter claims that Stalin’s mother had taken an interest in the child, who herself remembered Keke. Pasha’s mother told her that her father “had devoted himself to saving the nation and had been exiled.” Pasha grew up into a “tall svelte dark - eyed Georgian beauty,” became a typist, and got married, but her mother and husband both died, leaving her destitute. She disappeared into 1930s Moscow.

The letter may be the sort of crazed correspondence attracted by politicians, except for the fact that Stalin, who did not keep much in his personal archive, filed the letter. The mention of his mother rings true, for Keke surely would have helped her beloved Soso in a situation that can hardly have been unknown among the young Casanovas of Georgia. Besides, only someone telling the truth—or a lunatic with a death wish—would have dared to write such a letter to Stalin at the height of the Great Terror. Had Stalin no history of abandoned mistresses and children, one would dismiss this. But henceforth he rarely seems to have been without a girlfriend, and he had no compunction in abandoning fiancées, wives and children. We will never know, but in terms of character and timing, it is plausible.4

If such an event was discovered by Father Abashidze or if Keke feared that the seminary was likely to find out, it might explain her role in his leaving. Soso spent the Easter of 1899 at home in Gori, claiming to be sick with chronic pneumonia. Perhaps he really was ill. “I took him out of school,” Keke asserted. “He didn’t want to leave.” But she must have been bitterly disappointed.

Soso certainly exaggerated the glamour of his expulsion. He was not thrown out for being a revolutionary, and he maintained polite relations with the seminary afterwards. Some biographies claim that he was expelled for missing his exams, but this was forgivable if he was ill. Indeed the Church bent over backwards to accommodate him, letting him off repaying his scholarship (480 roubles) for five years; they even offered him a chance to resit the finals and a teaching job.

The truth is that Father Abashidze had found a soft way of getting rid of his tormentor. “I didn’t graduate,” Stalin told his Gendarme interrogators in 1910, “because in 1899, absolutely unexpectedly, I was invoiced 25 roubles to proceed with my education . . . I was expelled for not paying this.” The Black Spot cunningly raised the school fees. Stalin did not try to pay them. He just left. Stalin’s friend Abel Yenukidze, another exseminarist who met him at this time, puts it best: “He flew out of the Seminary.” But not without controversy.

He confided to his Gori friend Davrichewy that he had been expelled after being denounced, which he said was “a blow.” Afterwards, twenty others were expelled for revolutionary activities. Soso’s enemies later claimed that he betrayed his fellow Marxists to the rector. It was said that later in prison he confessed, justifying his treachery by saying he was turning them into revolutionaries: they did indeed become the core of his followers. Stalin was capable of this sort of sophistry and betrayal, but would he have been accepted into the Marxist underground if this had been widely known? Even Trotsky thinks the story absurd. More likely, this was his sardonic answer to an accusation, but it fed the suspicion that he would later become an Okhrana spy. Anyhow, many seminarists were expelled every year.

Soso the autodidactic bibliophile “expropriated” the books he still kept from the seminary library. They tried to bill him eighteen roubles and another fifteen in autumn 1900, but by then he was underground, forever beyond the reach of the seminary. The Church was never repaid and Black Spot never got his books back.*

Stalin did not qualify as a priest, but the boarding - school educated him classically—and influenced him enormously. Black Spot had, perversely, turned Stalin into an atheist Marxist and taught him exactly the repressive tactics—“surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings,” in Stalin’s own words—that he would re - create in his Soviet police state.

Stalin remained fascinated with priests throughout his life and when he met other seminarists or the sons of priests he would often question them carefully. “Priests teach one to understand people,” he reflected. Furthermore he always used the catechismic language of religion. His Bolshevism aped Christ’s religion with its cults, saints and icons: “The working - class,” he blasphemously wrote on being hailed as the Leader in 1929, “gave birth to me and raised me in its own image and likeness.”

The other irony of the seminary was its effect on foreigners such as Franklin Roosevelt, whose secretary recorded that the President—after being thoroughly charmed by Stalin at the 1943 Teheran Conference—was “intrigued that Stalin had been destined for the priesthood.”

The old God remained a presence in his atheist consciousness. At one of their meetings during the Second World War, he forgave Winston Churchill’s anti - Bolshevism, saying, “All that is in the past and the past belongs to God.” He told U.S. envoy Averell Harriman, “Only God can forgive.” Friends such as Kapanadze became priests, yet Stalin kept in generous contact. He and his grandees sang church hymns during their drunken Bolshevik dinners. He fused Orthodoxy and Marxism by half joking: “Only the saints are infallible. The Lord God can be accused of creating the poor.” But Stalin’s actions always speak loudest: the dictator mercilessly suppressed the Church and murdered and deported priests—until 1943, when he restored the Patriarchate, but only as a wartime gesture to harness old Russian patriotism.*

Perhaps he revealed his real view of God when he sent his protégé Alexei Kosygin (future Premier under Brezhnev) a gift of fish after the Second World War with this handwritten note: “Comrade Kosygin, here are some presents for you from God! I am the executor of his will! J. Stalin.” In some way, as the supreme pontiff of the science of History, the Tiflis seminarist really did regard himself as the executor of God’s will.5

“Do you suppose,” FDR mused several times, “it made some kind of difference in Stalin? Doesn’t that explain part of the sympathetic quality in his nature that we all feel?” Perhaps it was the “priesthood” that had taught Stalin “the way a Christian gentleman should behave.”

This most un - Christian of gentlemen had moved far from Christianity. Even moderate, noble socialists like Jordania now irritated him and Lado. “They’re conducting cultural and educational activities among workers without training them to be revolutionaries,” Soso complained. He denounced Jordania to his friends, explaining that he had discovered the works of a brilliant new radical named “Tulin,” one of the aliases of Vladimir Ulyanov, who would become Lenin.

“If there’d been no Lenin,” said Stalin in old age, “I’d have stayed a choirboy and seminarian.” Now he told his friends about this far - off radical. “I must meet him at all costs!” he declared, about to commit himself absolutely to life as a Marxist revolutionary. But he had more immediate problems. Keke “got so angry with him” for leaving the seminary that Soso had to hide a few days in the Gambareuli Gardens, outside Gori, where his friends brought him food. He returned to Tiflis but he soon argued with his roommates, who were supporters of Jordania. He moved out. He had fought with his seminarist friends, then with his roommates, and now he would confront the older radicals of Tiflis. Wherever this rude and arrogant boy went, there was trouble.6

* Most historians repeat the assertion that Stalin never saw Beso much after 1890, but a reading of several sources in the archive, as well as Candide Charkviani’s memoirs, show he saw his alcoholic father much later.

* In September 1931, his old history teacher, lingering in the dungeons of the Metekhi Fortress - Prison of Tiflis, managed to get an appeal to his old pupil, now the Soviet dictator. Stalin wrote thus to Beria, his Caucasian viceroy: “Nikolai Dmitrievich Makhatadze aged 73 finds himself in Metekhi Prison . . . I have known him since the Seminary and I do not think he can present a danger to Soviet power. I ask you to free the old man and let me know the result.”

* George Gurdjieff, the spiritualist author of Meetings with Remarkable Men, charlatan to some, hierophant magus to others, claimed to have attended the seminary with Stalin, who, he said, stayed with his family in Tiflis. But Gurdjieff, of Armenian origins, was a fantasist: born in 1866, he was twelve years older than Stalin and there is no evidence he attended the seminary at all. Stalin boarded at the seminary during the term. Gurdjieff also claims a “Prince Nijeradze” as a companion: “Nizheradze” was an alias later used by Stalin in Baku. But there is no evidence that any of Gurdjieff’s claims are true. During his reign, Stalin persecuted spiritualists and specifically “Gurdjieffites,” who were often shot.

* On 4 September 1943, the exiled Russian Patriarch Sergei and two Metropolitans were summoned for a bizarre nocturnal Kremlin chat at which Stalin revealed that he had decided to restore the Patriarchate, churches and seminaries. Sergei thought perhaps it was too early for seminaries. Stalin replied, “Seminaries are better,” but mused disingenuously, “Why don’t you have any cadres? Where have they disappeared to?” Instead of replying that his “cadres” had been systematically liquidated by Stalin, Sergei tactfully joked: “One of the reasons is that we train a person for priesthood and he becomes a Marshal of the Soviet Union.” Stalin then reminisced about the seminary until 3 a.m. “Your Grace,” he concluded, wishing the priests good night, “that’s all I can do for you now.”

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