The Weatherman: Parties and Princes - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Weatherman: Parties and Princes

Soso needed a job and a home. He became a weatherman. Unlikely as it sounds, the life of a meteorologist at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory was a most convenient cover for a young revolutionary. His friend from Gori, Vano Ketskhoveli, younger brother of Lado, was already working there when in October 1899 Stalin arrived to share his small room beneath the observatory’s tower.* As a “probationer - observer,” he was on duty only three times a week from 6:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., checking temperatures and barometers hourly, in return for twenty roubles a month. On night duty, he worked from 8:30 p.m. to 8: 30 a.m., but then he had the whole day off for revolutionary work. In late 1899, Lado, eagerly assisted by Soso, started to organize a strike, one of the first full - scale radical mobilizations of workers in Georgia.

On New Year’s Day, Lado managed to paralyse the city when the drivers of its Belgian - owned trams stopped work. The secret police were observing Lado and his revolutionary weathermen. In the first weeks of 1900, the police turned up at the observatory, arrested Stalin and carted him off to the Metekhi Fortress. The arrest, Stalin’s first of many, was officially because Beso had not paid his local taxes in his native village, Didi - Lilo1—though probably this was a cryptic warning from the Gendarmes.

Stalin had no money, but his better - off friends (led by Davitashvili) banded together and settled the bill. This can hardly have added to Soso’s paternal affections, yet Beso did visit him at the observatory several times.

When Keke heard that Beso had once again descended on her son, the redoubtable mother headed into Tiflis on a rescue mission. She insisted on staying in Soso’s room.2

Once Stalin was released—and the interfering Keke had gone home—he returned to encouraging the workers to strike across the city: the railway workshops were the hub of this agitation. He spent much time around the railway depot, “a long stone building with large latticed windows, the deafening roar of clanks and knocks, the puffing and huffing of locomotives.” Initially, his comrades assigned him two clandestine groups of railway workers—so - called circles—to supervise. “I was a complete greenhorn, a total beginner.”3

Stalin lived and dressed the part, wearing what Trotsky called the “generally recognized sign of a revolutionary, especially in the provinces”: a beard; long, almost hippyish hair; and a black satin Russian blouse with a red tie. And he revelled in his scruffiness. “You never saw him in anything,” says Iremashvili, “but that dirty blouse and unpolished shoes.”4

Soso energetically lectured and agitated at his circles. “Why are we poor?” he asked these small gatherings in workers’ digs. “Why are we disenfranchised? How can our life be changed?” His answer was Marxism and the Russian Social - Democratic Workers Party (the SDs).5

The workers listened reverently to this young preacher—and it was no coincidence that many revolutionaries were seminarists and the workers, often pious ex - peasants. Some later nicknamed Soso “the Priest.” “It’s a holy struggle,” explained the Tiflis agitator Mikhail Kalinin. Trotsky, agitating in another city, remembered that many of the workers thought the movement resembled “the early Christians” and had to be taught that they should be atheists.

“If the word ‘committee’ has a tedious twang nowadays, then the very words ‘committee’ and ‘party’. . . charmed young ears like a seductive melody,” wrote Trotsky. “These were the days of those aged 18–30. Anyone who joined knew prison and exile awaited him—it was a matter of honour to hold out as long as possible.”

Soso, who also believed in the sanctity of the cause, soon achieved his first success.6

On 1 May 1900, Soso organized a secretive and seminal mass meeting with his characteristically meticulous security. May Day—the Maievka—was the Christmas Day of socialism. The secret police tried to arrest Lado, who scarpered to Baku, the oil city on the Caspian Sea. Stalin stepped into his shoes.

The evening before, instructions and passwords were distributed. At night,500 workers and activists headed into the hills outside Tiflis to be met by lantern - waving picket - leaders who confided new passwords and routes. At the meeting, they sang “The Marseillaise.” Stalin and the other speakers then clambered onto some rocks: there Soso gave his first big speech, vigorously encouraging strike action while Jordania and the Mesame Dasi opposed it.

Soso and his radicals won. The railroad depots struck, as did Adelkhanov’s Shoe Factory, where Beso still worked.

“Why are you coming here?” he asked Soso, resenting his son’s visit.

“To address these fellows,” replied Soso.

“Why aren’t you learning a trade?” It was their last recorded contact: Beso failed to cling to his job and became one of the flotsam and jetsam of vagrant desperadoes, borne away on a tide of alcoholism, poverty and despair.

For the first time, the secret police mentioned Soso Djugashvili—along with the much older Victor Kurnatovsky, who knew Lenin himself, and Silva Jibladze, the legendary rector - beater—as a leader in their reports. Stalin had made his mark.7

The secret police were circling, but life in Tiflis was still sleepy, charming, idyllic with its balmy nights and busy street cafés. The revolutionaries enjoyed an almost undergraduate existence. “Their evenings were filled with loud arguments, reading and prolonged conversations interspersed with guitar playing and singing,” recalls Anna Alliluyeva, daughter of Sergei, the skilled electrician and Marxist agitator who operated alongside Stalin at the Tiflis railway depot. Tiflis was an intimate town where news travelled fast from one vine - entwined verandah to another on “the balcony telegraph.”

Stalin was just beginning, but already he divided his comrades into heroes, followers and enemies. First he found a new mentor, Prince Alexander “Sasha” Tsulukidze, a “tall handsome young man” dressed beautifully in Western suits, a friend of his other hero, Lado. Both hailed from classes above that of Stalin: Lado was a priest’s son but the Red Prince’s father was one of Georgia’s richest aristocrats; the family of his mother, Princess Olympiada Shervashidze, had ruled Abkhazia.* Stalin praised the “astonishing, outstanding talents” of Lado and Prince Sasha, both of them beyond his jealousy because they were long dead. Stalin had only one real hero: himself. In a lifetime of defiant, self - reliant egotism, Lado, Prince Sasha and Lenin were the only others who came close. He was, he said, their “disciple.”8

Stalin already had his own little court among the radical boys expelled from the seminary: another forty were sent down in 1901, including the icon - urinator (Stalin’s ex - pupil) Elisabedashvili and his friend Alexander “Alyosha” Svanidze, who rented a flat in Sololaki Street, just above Yerevan Square. There Stalin gave lessons, preparing a reading list of 300 books for his circle. “He didn’t just read books,” said Elisabedashvili, “he ate them.” Debonair with noble connections and three pretty sisters, Alyosha Svanidze would become Stalin’s brother - in - law and intimate until the Terror. But Stalin did not meet the sisters for a while.

The other pupil, just arrived from Gori, was the semi - psychotic Simon Ter - Petrossian, aged nineteen, soon to be known as “Kamo,” who had also spent his childhood joining in streetfights, “stealing fruit and my favourite activity—boxing!” He hung around Svanidze’s flat “in order to learn something,” but he wanted to be an army officer. His tyrannical father ranted at him for spending time with Stalin, “that penniless good - for - nothing.” But “when my father went bankrupt in 1901,” says Ter - Petrossian, he lost his power over the boy. “Stalin was my tutor. He taught me literature and gave me books . . . I really liked Zola’s Germinal!” Stalin “drew him like a magnet.”

Stalin was not the most patient teacher, however. When Ter - Petrossian struggled with Russian and Marxism, Stalin ordered another of his acolytes, Vardoyan, to teach him. “Soso lay reading a book while I taught Kamo Russian grammar,” remembers Vardoyan, “but Kamo had limited mental abilities and kept saying kamo instead of komu [to whom].” Stalin “lost his temper and jumped up but then laughed, ‘Komu not kamo! Try and remember it, bicho [boy]!’ Afterwards, Soso, always an avid coiner of nicknames for his courtiers, nicknamed Ter - Petrossian ‘Kamo,’ which stuck for his whole life,” says Vardoyan. If Kamo struggled with the language, he was intoxicated with Marxism, and “enthralled” by Stalin. “For now, just read more!” Stalin instructed him. “You might just manage to become an officer, but it would be better if you gave it up, and engaged in something else . . .” Stalin, like Dr. Frankenstein, groomed Kamo to become his enforcer and cutthroat.

“Soso was a philosophical conspirator from the start. We learned conspiracy from him,” says Vardoyan. “I was addicted to his way of talking and laughing, his mannerisms. I found myself imitating him against my will so my friends called me ‘Soso’s gramophone.’”9

Yet Soso was never the carefree Georgian. Even then, “He was a very unusual and mysterious man,” explains David Sagirashvili, a young socialist who met him at this time and noticed him “walking the streets of Tiflis, thin, pockmarked and carelessly dressed, burdened with a big stack of books.”

Stalin attended a wild party given by Alyosha Svanidze. They were drinking cocktails of melon juice and brandy, and got wildly drunk. Yet Soso lay on a sofa on the verandah reading silently, making notes. So they started to look for him: “Where is he?”

“Soso’s reading,” replied Alyosha Svanidze.

“What are you reading?” his friends asked mockingly.

“Napoleon Bonaparte’s Memoirs,” Soso replied. “It’s amazing what mistakes he made. I’m making a note of them!” The intoxicated gentry had hysterics at this autodidactic cobbler’s son whom they now nicknamed the “Kunkula” (Staggerer), for his hasty and awkward gait.10 But the serious revolutionaries, such as Stalin, Lado and Prince Sasha, were not wasting their time on cocktails.

Georgia was in a revolutionary “ferment of ideas.” These passionate young idealists “returned late at night with friends,” recounts Anna Alliluyeva. “They sit down at the table, someone opens a book, starts to read aloud.” They were all reading one thing—Lenin’s new newspaper Iskra (Spark), which propagated the vision of a party led by a tiny militant elite.

This new model of a revolutionary electrified young hotheads like Stalin, who no longer aspired to be the gentleman - amateur enthusing broad groups of workers but resolved to be the brutal professional, leader of a ruthless sect. Always happiest in vigorous campaigns against internal as well as external foes, Soso, still only aged twenty - two, was determined to break Jordania and Jibladze, and bend the Tiflis Party to his own will. “He spoke with cruelty,” reports Razhden Arsenidze, a moderate Marxist who admitted that Stalin “radiated energy, his words imbued with a raw power and singlemindedness. Frequently sarcastic, his cruel witticisms were often as extreme as the lash of a whip.” When his “outraged” listeners protested, he “apologized, explaining that it was the language of the proletariat,” who “talked bluntly but always told the truth.”

The secret police and the workers regarded this ex - seminarist as an “intellectual,” but to the bewildered moderates he was “a muddled young comrade” launching a “hostile and disruptive agitation against the leaderships of the SD organization in Tiflis.” They openly mocked Soso as “ignorant and obnoxious,” according to Davrichewy. Jibladze grumbled that “we gave him circles to agitate against the state and instead he agitated against us.”11

Stalin, his mentors and followers still met “on the banks of the Kura sitting under scented acacias drinking cheap wine, served by the kioskkeeper.” But the success of Stalin’s strikes had concentrated police minds. The secret police decided to crush the movement before it could organize its 1901 May Day riot. The Gendarmes, analysing their intelligence on the revolutionary “leader” Stalin, immediately spotted his talent for conspiracy: “an intellectual who leads a group of railway workers. External observation revealed he behaves very cautiously, always keeps looking behind him when walking.” He was always hard to catch.12

Overnight on 21–22 March 1901, the secret police, the Okhrana, swooped down on the leaders, Kurnatovsky and Makharadze.* They surrounded the weather observatory to catch Stalin, who was returning on the tram. He suddenly noticed through the tram window the studied nonchalance of plainclothes secret policemen—as easily recognizable as G - men in an American movie—in position around the observatory. He stayed on the tram, returning later to reconnoitre, but he could never live there again.

The raid changed his destiny: here ended any aspiration to a life of normality. He had played with the idea of becoming a teacher, earning extra cash by tutoring (though he normally tried to convert his pupils to Marxism), charging ten kopecks an hour. That was all over now. Henceforth he lived on others, expecting friends, sympathizers or the Party to fund his philanthropic revolutionary mission. He instantly entered what Trotsky called “that very serious game called revolutionary conspiracy”—a murky terrorist netherworld with its own special customs, fastidious etiquette and brutal rules.

As Soso entered this secret world, he pushed ahead with the plans for an aggressive May Day demonstration.

The governor - general of the Caucasus, Prince Golitsyn, marched Cossacks, Dragoons, artillery and infantry into Tiflis for a showdown. They bivouacked in the squares. On the morning of Sunday, 22 April 1901, some 3,000 workers and revolutionaries gathered outside the Soldiers Bazaar. The Cossacks had other ideas, but Soso was prepared. Sergei Alliluyev noticed that the activists were “unseasonably dressed in heavy overcoats and Caucasian sheepskin hats.” When he asked why, a comrade answered: “Soso’s orders.”

“What for?”

“We’ll be the first to receive the Cossack whips.”

Indeed the Cossacks waited in every courtyard down Golovinsky Prospect. At noon, “the garrison gun boomed;” the demonstrators started to march up Golovinsky to Yerevan Square, where the seminarists were to join them, singing “The Marseillaise” and “The Warsawianka.” The Cossacks galloped down on them, drawing sabres and brandishing their heavy nagaika whips that could kill a man. The pharaohs—the police—advanced, sabres drawn. A forty - five - minute pitched battle of “desperate encounters” broke out down the boulevard as the Cossacks charged any group larger than three people. The red banners—declaring DOWN WITH TYRANNY—were passed from hand to hand. Fourteen workers were seriously wounded and fifty arrested. Martial law was declared in Tiflis.13

This was Stalin’s first success. While the genteel Jordania was arrested and imprisoned for a year, his Kvali closed, Stalin just fled to Gori for a few days. No wonder Jordania loathed this young hothead, but Stalin had just started. He and his allies were soon keen to intensify the “open struggle”—even if it cost “torrents of blood.”

These young radicals discussed the murder of Captain Lavrov, the deputy chief of the Gendarmes in Tiflis, but the real action was in the railway depots where the railways director, Vedenev, energetically resisted Stalin’s strikes.

Stalin now met another partner - in - crime, Stepan Shaumian, the well - off, highly educated son of an Armenian businessman. Shaumian, closely connected with the plutocracy of the Caucasus, was tutor to the children of the city’s richest oil baron, Mantashev, and he soon married the daughter of a top oil executive.

“Tall, well built and very handsome with a pale face and light - blue eyes,” Shaumian helped organize a solution to the problem of Vedenev: the railway boss was sitting in his office when a pistol, pointed through his window, shot him through the heart.

No one was caught.14 But this shot marked the start of a new era in which “all tender feeling for family, friendship, love, gratitude and even honour, must,” according to the much - read Revolutionary Catechism of the nihilist Nechaev, “be squashed by the sole passion for revolutionary work.” The amoral rules—or rather the lack of them—were described by both sides as konspiratsia, the “world apart” that is vividly drawn in Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils. Without understanding konspiratsia, it is impossible to understand the Soviet Union itself: Stalin never left this world. Konspiratsia became the ruling spirit of his Soviet state—and of his state of mind.

Henceforth, Stalin usually carried a pistol in his belt. Secret policemen and revolutionary terrorists now became professional secret fighters in the duel for the Russian Empire.*

* The observatory still stands, though it is as rundown as every institution in Georgia. Stalin’s room remains, with a few of his supposed possessions and the old plaque: THE GREAT STALIN—LEADER OF VKPB AND WORLD PROLETARIAT—LIVED AND WORKED HERE, THE TIFLIS METEOROLOGICAL OBSERVATORY, FROM 28 DECEMBER 1899 TO 21MARCH 1901,LEADING ILLEGAL SOCIAL - DEMOCRATIC WORKERS’ CIRCLES.

* In Russia, the mercantile and middle classes, who had no access to political power, often sympathized with the revolutionaries, but in Georgia they could also count on local patriotism—and a web of family clans reaching the highest nobility. The Shervashidzes managed to be top Petersburg courtiers while on their Abkhazian estates enjoying links to the revolutionaries. Prince Giorgi Shervashidze was Chancellor of the Court of the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna, Alexander III’s widow and Nicholas II’s mother. After the Revolution and until the 1930s, the Shervashidzes who remained in the USSR were protected by the local Bolshevik leader and Stalin courtier Nestor Lakoba.

* The most important Russian revolutionary in Georgia then was tall, stooped, balding Victor Kurnatovsky, who had shared Lenin’s Siberian exile and even met Plekhanov in Zurich. Many of the most active revolutionaries were not Caucasians but Russians. In the railway depot, Sergei Alliluyev was assisted by the affable, ginger - bearded Mikhail Kalinin, another railway worker of peasant origins whom Soso was to meet now: he would be Stalin’s long - serving head of state. The other leaders were Georgians—Jordania, Jibladze, Mikha Tskhakaya and Philip Makharadze, all founders of the Third Group back in 1892.

* Going underground meant that Stalin also avoided conscription into the army in 1901. On his last arrest in 1913, he told the police he had been “exempted from conscription for family reasons in 1901.” The Gori police officer Davrichewy helped provide the paperwork enabling him to escape military service, according to his son’s memoirs, possibly by citing Stalin’s family problems and also moving his birthday a year later to 21 December 1879. Stalin was not bothered by conscription again until 1916.

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