Just at this time, the Gori priest’s son Kote Charkviani was arguing with a street - cleaner on a Tiflis backstreet when a familiar voice said: “Smash him up, Kote. Don’t be afraid, he’s the tamed street hound of the Gendarmes!” It was Soso, who could divine a traitor or a spy almost by instinct. He could not hang around to chat. The secret police were after him.
Then “he disappeared into the narrow curved street . . .” But that conspiratorial instinct was an essential quality in this game of mist, mirrors and shadows. The antagonists were locked in an intimate, desperate and amoral embrace in which agents, double - agents and treble - agents promised, betrayed, switched sides and betrayed again their allegiances.
In the 1870s, the rebels were middle - class populists, narodniki, who hoped that the liberal future lay with the pure peasantry. A faction of narodniki developed into the terrorist groups Land and Freedom and later People’s Will, who believed that the murder of Emperor Alexander II would achieve revolution.
People’s Will embraced the ideas of the small - time philosopher Nechaev whose amoral Revolutionary Catechism begot Lenin and Stalin. “Regroup this world of brigands into an indivisible destructive force,” he suggested, killing police “in the most agonizing way.” The anarchist Bakunin shared that dream of harnessing the “swashbuckling robber - world” to the Revolution. Lenin borrowed the disciplined organization, total dedication and the gangsterish brutality of the People’s Will, qualities that Stalin personified.
Alexander II, faced with a terroristic cat - and - mouse game, started to create a modern security service as sophisticated as the terrorists themselves. He reorganized his father’s Third Section into a plainclothed secret police, the Division for Protection of Order and Social Security, soon shortened to “Okhrana.” Yet, throughout the reforms, the People’s Will actually had an agent within the department. The police hunted down the terrorists, but it was too late. In 1881, they got their man, killing Alexander II on the streets of St. Petersburg.
His heir, Alexander III, created the double system that Stalin knew. Both the Okhrana and the prestigious semi - military Gendarmes, the “Tsar’s eyes and ears,” dressed in a fine blue white - trimmed uniform with boots and sabre, ran their own intelligence services.
At its elegant headquarters at 16 Fontanka by the Moika in Petersburg, the Okhrana Special Section meticulously collated labyrinthine charts and colour - coded files of terror groups. Their bureaux noirs practised perlustratsia (perlustration): 380,000 letters annually were being opened by 1882.* They had a reputation in Europe as the sinister organ of Autocracy but never even approached the brutal competence of Lenin’s Cheka, let alone Stalin’s NKVD. They wielded three punishments. The rope was rarely used, being reserved for assassins of Romanovs and ministers, but it had one decisive effect: the execution of Alexander Ulyanov, a young man on the edge of a conspiracy against the Tsar, helped radicalize his younger brother, Lenin. Next was katorga, hard labour, again quite rare. The most common punishment was “administrative exile,” for periods of up to five years.
The mastermind of konspiratsia, Moscow Okhrana chief Zubatov, evolved a new system of surveillance. Detectives were employed, but their real tools were the agentura, the “external agent”—the shpik, or “spook,” in revolutionary vernacular—who followed characters like Stalin. The Okhrana’s most effective tactic was the provokatsia—the provocations of their “internal agents.” The secret policeman should treat his agent provocateur like “a beloved woman with whom you have entered illicit relations,” explained Zubatov. “Look after her like the apple of your eye. One careless move and you dishonour her . . . Never reveal the name of your informer to anyone, even your director. Forget his name and remember only his pseudonym.” The stakes were high: one side’sprovokator was the other’s predatel (traitor), who faced death.
In return for sometimes huge salaries, these double - agents not only penetrated the “internal life of the revolutionary organizations” but also sometimes directed them. The Okhrana even set up their own revolutionary groups and trade unions. And their very existence was designed to inspire a cannibalistic frenzy of suspicion and paranoia among the revolutionaries. The craziness of Stalinist terror in the USSR shows how successful they were. Yet konspiratsia could be as dangerous for the authorities as for the terrorists.*
Russia faced a blossoming of conspiracies in this war on terror: the Okhrana had to foil not only the Social - Democrats, the Armenian nationalist Dashnaks and the Georgian Socialist - Federalists but Russia’s most deadly terrorists, populist socialists called the Socialist - Revolutionaries, the SRs. In the best example of the danger of double - agents, the Okhrana recruited Evano Azef, head of the SR Fighting Brigade, which effectively used suicide bombers. During 1902–5, Azef received massive payments, but simultaneously he arranged the assassination of two Interior Ministers and a Grand Duke.
Yet overall, despite Okhrana - Gendarme rivalry and bureaucratic muddle, the secret - police suppression and infiltration of the revolutionaries was astonishingly subtle and successful: they were the best secret services of their day.† Indeed Lenin copied the Okhrana to organize “a few professionals as highly trained and experienced as the secret police with conspiratorial techniques at the highest level of perfection.”
Stalin was precisely such a man; this “world apart” was his natural habitat. In the Caucasus, it was even harder to make sense of the game. A Georgian upbringing was the ideal training for the terrorist - gangster, based on sacred loyalty to family and friends, fighting skill, personal largesse and the art of vengeance, all punched into Stalin on Gori back - streets. The Caucasian secret police were more violent yet more venal. Stalin became eerily adept at corrupting them and at divining their spies.1
Stalin was constantly tailed by Okhrana spooks whom he became expert at foxing: “Those dolts,” he laughed as he pulled off another serpentine escape in the backstreets of Tiflis. “Are we supposed to teach them how to do their own jobs?”2 He avoided the arrests that followed his May Day bedlam, but he had close misses. Once he was singing Georgian songs in an illicit bookshop when the police surrounded the place: he walked right past the “dumb policemen.” Another time at a revolutionary meeting, the police raided the house, but Stalin and his friends jumped out of the window into the rain without their galoshes, roaring with laughter.3
He changed names—he used the alias “David” at this time—and lodged in at least six apartments. When he was staying with his friend Mikha Bochoridze, the police raided the house (where Kamo would later take the money after the Tiflis heist). Stalin pretended to be a sick tenant, lying in bed, shrouded in sheets and bandages. The police searched the house but, having no orders about an invalid, they went to consult their officers. They were sent back to arrest the “patient,” who meanwhile had made a swift recovery—and exit. 4
Between escapes and meetings, Stalin was busy writing his first articles in a catechismic, romantic and apocalyptic style. Lado had teamed up with Abel Yenukidze, a sandy - haired, genial ex - seminarist and womanizer, to create a radical newspaperBrdzola(Struggle), which they printed on an illegal printing - press in Baku.5
The police spies hunted and sometimes even caught up with him: on 27 and 28 October 1901, they observed “Intellectual Josef Djugashvili leading a meeting” at the Melani Tavern.
On 11 November, he was one of those running a city conference attended by about twenty - four Marxists. Here he was attacked by the moderates as a “slanderer.” They would all have known of Jibladze’s accusations against the “obnoxious” Soso, but they also recognized his energy, competence and ruthlessness. Stalin, following Lenin’s vision of a militant sect of professional revolutionaries, warned of the dangers of electing ordinary workers to their Committee because “police agents would be elected.” Instead the conference elected a committee of four workers and four intellectuals.
His many enemies surely demanded his expulsion, later claiming that he was driven out of Tiflis. This wishful thinking has been repeated by historians ever since. Fortunately, the Gendarme agents, who were better informed and whose reports were written that day, reveal that Soso was elected as the fourth intellectual. But perhaps this was part of a compromise that killed two birds with one stone. He was elected to the Committee, joining the leadership for the first time, but as the secret police were closing in, he was “rescued” (and his comrades rescued from his malevolent machinations) by being sent on “a propaganda mission”—conveniently far away from Tiflis.
The Gendarmes noticed that the newly elected, ever - present Stalin missed his Committee meeting on 25 November 1901—and, as ever like Macavity, T. S. Eliot’s elusive cat, disappeared into thin air.
He was in fact on the train to Batumi, turbulent oil port of the Russian Empire, where he would spread blood and fire.6
* When Interior Minister Plehve was assassinated in 1904, his police director, Lopukhin, found forty of his own private letters in the dead man’s safe: the Minister was perlustrating his own chief of police.
* During the 1880s, Colonel G. P. Sudeikin of the Petersburg Okhrana cultivated a young People’s Will terrorist named Degaev, a success that allowed the policeman to become “the master of revolution in Russia.” But this had a price: the Colonel was even forced to order murders to conceal his double - agent. Then in 1883 Degaev lured him to a meeting and murdered him. Degaev ultimately disappeared. Years later, a mathematics professor in an obscure U.S. midwestern university was exposed as none other than Degaev, a story finely told in Richard Pipes’s Degaev Affair. Such tactics are always a deadly gamble. In our times, the U.S. intelligence officers who set up the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviets and the Israeli intelligence officers who sponsored Islamic radicals on the West Bank to counteract the PLO learned similar lessons when their organizations developed into the Jihadist al - Qaeda and Hamas, respectively.
† The Okhrana could not afford to ignore the ingenuity of the SR assassins. In a foreshadowing of al - Qaeda and 9/11, the success of aeroplane flight suggested these new machines as weapons. SR terrorists considered flying a dynamite - packed biplane into the Winter Palace, so the Okhrana in 1909 ordered the monitoring of all flights as well as people learning to fly and members of aero - clubs. It is a mark of the Okhrana’s excellence that in 1909 it was imaginative enough to envisage a crime that was beyond the scope of the FBI and CIA in the twenty - first century.