“I’m Working for the Rothschilds!”—Fire, Massacre and Arrest in Batumi - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


“I’m Working for the Rothschilds!”—
Fire, Massacre and Arrest in Batumi

Comrade Soso brought his new merciless style to Batumi with a vengeance. Within three months of his move to the seaside boom - town, the Rothschilds’ refinery had mysteriously caught fire. A militant strike had led to the storming of the prison and a Cossack massacre. The town was flooded with Marxist pamphlets; informers were being murdered, horses slaughtered, factory managers shot. Soso was in a feud with the old - style Georgian revolutionaries and was having an affair with a married girl while the secret police hunted him down.

He hit the ground running in Batumi. He rendezvoused at a tavern in the Turkish Bazaar with Constantine Kandelaki, a worker and Social - Democrat, who became his Batumi henchman. He ordered Kandelaki to call a series of meetings. “At an agreed knock, we opened the door,” wrote one of the local workers, Porfiro Kuridze, who confronted “a slim young and energetic man, with black hair,” worn very long.

“Nobody knew his name,” records Domenti Vadachkoria, who held one of these meetings at his apartment. “It was just a young man in a black shirt, a long summer coat and a fedora.” Already something of a veteran in konspiratsia and a believer in his own instinctive eye for traitors, Stalin ordered Vadachkoria to “invite seven workers to a meeting” but “asked me to show him the invited workers.” He stood at the window while “I walked the invited workers one by one along the lane. Stalin asked me not to invite one of them. He was an amazing conspirator and knew human nature well. He could look at someone and see right through them. I told him a man wanted to work with us.” The man’s name was Karzkhiya.

“That guy’s a spook,” said Stalin. Shortly afterwards, continues Vadachkoria, “when Cossacks broke up a meeting, we saw that man in a policeman’s uniform. It was decided to wipe him out. He was killed.” Here is the first instance when Stalin sniffs out a traitor and has him killed, probably his first murder.* In any case, henceforth, he played rough in “the serious game of conspiracy.” There would be other Karzkhiyas. But even then he left what he called the “black work”—the killing—to his henchmen.

At the meetings, Stalin announced that he was bringing a newly aggressive spirit to the Revolution in Batumi. Then he asked everyone there to “gather another seven at your factory and repeat this conversation.”1 Setting up his headquarters at Ali the Persian’s Tavern in the bazaar, Comrade Soso moved around all the time in a frenzy of often nocturnal visits and lectures. He first lived with Simhovich, a Jewish watchmaker, then with an ex - brigand, now oil worker, Silvester Lomdzharia, who with his brother Porfiro became Stalin’s bodyguards.

One day, Stalin rose early and disappeared without a word. Kandelaki arrived soon afterwards and waited nervously until he returned.

“Guess why I got up so early this morning?” asked Stalin exuberantly. “Today I got a job with the Rothschilds at their refinery storehouse. I’ll be earning 6 abaz daily [1 rouble 20 kopecks].” The Franco - Jewish dynasty, who personified the power, glamour and cosmopolitanism of international capitalism, would not have been as amused as Stalin, but they never knew that they had employed the future supreme pontiff of international Marxism. Stalin started laughing, almost singing: “I’m working for the Rothschilds!”

“I hope,” joked Kandelaki, “the Rothschilds will start to prosper from this moment onwards!”

Stalin said nothing, but they understood one another: he would do what he could to ensure that the Rothschilds prospered.2

On New Year’s Eve, Soso gathered together his top thirty rebels for a party - cum - meeting at Lomdzharia’s house, serving cheese, sausage and wine—but he banned excessive boozing. His bloodcurdling and melodramatic speech ended: “We mustn’t fear death! The sun is rising. Let’s sacrifice our lives!”

“God forbid we die in our beds!” shouted the toastmaster. The workers cheered, inspired by Stalin’s aggression—even if Batumi’s moderate Marxists, led by Karlo Chkheidze, the local hospital manager, and teacher Isidore Ramishvili, were not. They ran a Sunday school for workers, a soppy approach anathema to Stalin. The “legals” initially helped fund his work, but friendly relations did not last long. Stalin was about to “turn Batumi upside down.”

Batumi was a subtropical frontier - town on the Black Sea, dominated by the Empire’s great financial - oil dynasties, the Nobels and the Rothschilds. Even twenty years later, the poet Osip Mandelstam called Batumi “a Russian - style California Goldrush city.”

The Tsar had only gained this seaside nest of pirates from the Ottoman Padishah in 1878, but the oil boom in Baku, on the other side of the Caucasian isthmus, had presented the challenge of how to transport the black gold to the West. The Rothschilds and Nobels built a pipeline to Batumi, where they could refine the oil, then load it into the tankers moored in Naphtha Harbour. Suddenly Batumi, also the port of export for manganese, liquorice and tea, became a “door to Europe,” Georgia’s “only modern town.”

Batumi now boasted 16,000 Persian, Turkish, Greek, Georgian, Armenian and Russian workers, almost a thousand of them at the refinery, controlled by Baron Eduard de Rothschild’s Caspian and Black Sea Oil Company. The workers, often children, lived miserably in Oil City on reeking streets, with overflowing cesspools beside oozing refineries. Typhus killed many. But Batumi’s millionaires and foreign executives, especially the English, turned this backwater into a pleasure town with a seaside boulevard, white Cuban - style mansions, sumptuous brothels, a casino, a cricket pitch and an English Yacht Club.3

On 4 January 1902, “As I was coming home,” says Kandelaki, “I saw the fire!” Then Stalin returned, cheerfully boasting: “You know, man, your words came true!” The Rothschilds would indeed “prosper” with Stalin as an employee. “My warehouse caught fire!”*

Crowds watched a black mushroom of smoke rise over the port. The workers helped put out the fire, which meant they were due a bonus. Stalin joined a deputation to meet the Rothschilds’ French manager, François Jeune, his first encounter with a European businessman. But there is evidence that Stalin was henceforth in secret contact with the Rothschilds management—the start of his murky but lucrative relationship with the oil barons. The Rothschilds surely knew that the fire was arson, and Jeune refused to pay the bonus. This was the provocation Stalin sought. He called a strike.

The authorities attempted to stop him; the Okhrana tried to hunt down Batumi’s new agitator; the pharaohs harassed the strikers; the police spies watched the Marxists; the Rothschilds worried about their oil shipments. But Stalin headed for Tiflis—eleven hours by train—to procure the printing - press, necessary to broaden the strike. Leaflets had to be published in both Georgian and Armenian, so the Committee put him in contact with Suren Spandarian, an affluent but ruthless Armenian who, despite a wife and children, was an unrestrained Lothario. Stalin printed his Armenian pamphlets on the presses of Spandarian’s father, a newspaper editor. Spandarian became Stalin’s best friend.4

Stalin, assisted by Kamo and bearing his printing - press, returned to find Batumi in uproar. Kamo and Kandelaki quickly set up the press, which was soon broadcasting Stalin’s words to all the workers of Oil City.

On 17 February, the Rothschilds and Nobels capitulated and agreed to the workers’ demands, including a 30 percent pay rise—a triumph for the young revolutionary. In Tiflis, Captain Lavrov’s Gendarmes were breaking the Marxists with raids and arrests, but in Batumi, formerly so quiet, Gendarme captain Giorgi Jakeli admitted that he was worried by the “sudden increased restlessness.” He intensified surveillance of the enigmatic “Comrade Soso.”

Stalin had to move out of Lomdzharia’s apartment. After staying in different flats, he settled in the workers’ township of Barskhana in a little house belonging to Natasha Kirtava, aged twenty - two, a peasant beauty and SD sympathizer whose husband had disappeared. Judging by Batumi folklore, Kirtava’s own memoirs and his own later proposals, Stalin enjoyed a love affair with the young woman, the first but not the last with his many landladies and conspiratorial comrades. In her memoirs, she talks of his “tender attention and thoughtfulness” and even records a loving moment* amid the Marxist struggle: “He turned to me, stroked the hair off my forehead, and kissed me.”5

The Rothschilds, under their managers Jeune and von Stein, were determined to avenge Stalin’s success. On 26 February, they dismissed 389 troublemaking workers. They went on strike, sending “a man to find Comrade Soso,” but he was in Tiflis, where he frequently visited his protégés Svanidze and Kamo.

Soso hurried back to Batumi next day, inviting his followers to a meeting at Lomdzharia’s place, where “he proposed a series of demands”—and an even more provocative strike to shut down the whole oil terminal. One of his helpers, Porfiro Kuridze, did not recognize him: he had shaved off his beard and moustaches. When Stalin was not in Ali the Persian’s Tavern, he used the Souk - suk Cemetery as his macabre headquarters, holding midnight meetings among the graves to elect delegates. Once when police surprised a meeting there, he hid within the wide skirts of a female comrade. At another gathering, surrounded by Cossacks, Stalin pulled on a dress and escaped in drag.

The workers were impressed with the “intellectual,” whom they dubbed “the Priest.” He gave them a reading list. “He once left us a book,” said Kuridze. “‘It’s Gogol,’ Stalin explained, teaching us about Gogol’s life.”

Comrade Soso, usually dressed in a dashing Circassian coat with his trademark black wide - brimmed fedora and a white Caucasian hood tossed over his shoulder, quickly gained an aggressive following, known as the “Sosoists,” an early version of Stalinists. Chkheidze and the “legals” of the Sunday school invited him over to receive a reprimand, but he refused to go. “They’re armchair strategists and avoid real political struggle,” sneered Soso, who had to be in absolute control. “Djugashvili’s despotism,” reported Captain Lavrov of the Tiflis Gendarmerie, “alienated many” in the struggle “between the older Socialists and the younger Socialists.” The strike spread. Blacklegs were threatened, their horses slaughtered. But the secret police were after Soso the Priest. The Cossacks were massing.6

General Smagin, governor of Kutaisi Province, which included Batumi, rushed into town to lead the suppression of the strike. Addressing the workers, his message was bleak: “Back to work or Siberia!” Overnight on 7 March, Smagin arrested Stalin’s bodyguard Porfiro Lomdzharia and the strike leaders.

Next day, Stalin arranged demonstrations outside the police station where the prisoners were kept. The pressure worked. The Gendarmes nervously moved the prisoners to a transit prison. The governor promised to meet the demonstrators. This did not suit Soso. At that night’s meeting, he proposed storming the prison. Vadachkoria preferred to negotiate. “You’ll never be a revolutionary,” sneered Soso the Priest. The Sosoists backed him. The next morning, Stalin led aggressive demonstrations. The day after that, much of the town joined him on the march to storm the prison. But a traitor had betrayed the plan. Cossacks took up positions. Troops under the tough Captain Antadze blocked the way to the transit prison. They fixed bayonets. The vast crowd hesitated before the roadblock.

“Don’t run or they’ll shoot,” Stalin warned.

“Soso suggested we sing songs. We didn’t know the revolutionary hymns then so we sang ‘Ali - Pasha’!” said Porfiro Kuridze.

“The soldiers won’t fire,” Stalin called out over the crowd, “and don’t be afraid of the officers. Beat ’em up and let’s free our comrades.” The mob lurched forward towards the prison.

Soso was surrounded by a guard of Sosoists, mainly Gurian peasant - workers, led by Kandelaki. “The Gurians were brave conspirators. They tried to stop me going to the front but I did,” Stalin bragged later. “So they created seven circles round me and even the wounded were held in place so it was impossible to break the circle.”

Just as the crowd outside the jail started to charge the soldiers, the prisoners inside overcame their guards. One of the prisoners, Porfiro Lomdzharia, heard the rioters: “We tried to get out. The gate was shattered. Some prisoners escaped.” The Cossacks galloped at the marauding demonstrators, who tried to grab their rifles. The rebels fired shots in return and pelted the Cossacks with rocks. The soldiers beat them back with rifle - butts but were forced to retreat. Captain Antadze was hit by stones, his cuff pierced by a bullet. The soldiers fought back, shooting into the air—and retreated again. But this time they stood their ground. “Again the loud voice of Stalin called upon us not to disperse and to free the workers,” recalled a demonstrator, Injerabian. The mob surged forward.

“Then a terrible sound!” Captain Antadze barked the order “Fire!” Volleys of shots rang out. People fell to the ground. Everyone was running and screaming. “It was panic, absolute hell. The deserted square was covered with dead and dying, groaning” under the eyes of the soldiers. The dying cried out “Water” or “Help!” Then “I remembered Soso,” says Kandelaki. “We got separated. I was afraid, starting to search for his body among the dead.” But Vera Lomdzharia, Porfiro’s sister, noticed Stalin wandering around observing the mayhem he had unleashed. Looking for her brother among the corpses, she attacked a soldier, but he replied: “It was Antadze.”

Soso picked up “one of the wounded” and got him into a phaeton. “He brought him to our flat,” reports Illarion Darakhvelidze. “Soso wrapped bandages around the wounded,” agrees Kandelaki. Natasha Kirtava and other women helped wounded comrades into carts that took them to hospital. There were thirteen dead, fifty - four wounded. That night at Darakhvelidze’s house, “We were extremely agitated.” But Soso was exhilarated.

“Today we advanced several years!” Stalin told Kachik Kazarian. Nothing else mattered. “We lost comrades but we won.” As in many other bloody campaigns, the human cost was irrelevant, subordinate to its political value. “The whiplash and sabre render us a great service, hastening to revolutionize any innocent bystanders.” Young Trotsky was impressed by the Batumi massacre: “It stirred the whole country.”

Jordania and Chkheidze fumed about “this youngster who wanted to be a leader” but “lacked necessary understanding of affairs . . . and used rough language.” They believed that the massacre played into the hands of the authorities: was Stalin an agent provocateur?

Stalin rushed to his printing - press hidden in the cottage of Despina Shapatava, a young Marxist. “Thank the mothers who raised such sons!” he boomed in his printed response to the massacre, distributed all over town by next morning. However, an informer betrayed the press, and policemen raided the house. But Despina blocked the way. “My children are sleeping,” she shouted. The police laughed: neither the press nor Stalin were interrupted. But he was not only fighting with words: it seems that he ordered the assassination of the Rothschilds’ manager von Stein. “We entrusted [a comrade] to assassinate him,” recalls one of Stalin’s henchmen. “When von Stein’s carriage got closer,” the hit man drew his revolver but bungled the hit. “Von Stein turned his carriage round, fled and left the town that night by ship.”

The hunt was on for Stalin, who now had to move his invaluable press to a safer hideout. He “attached great importance to conspiracy,” says Kuridze. “Often he’d arrive in a coach, then change his clothes and disappear again just as quickly.” He would alter his appearance, suddenly swap coats with comrades, often sporting “a hood over his long hair.”7

That night, Stalin loaded the press onto a carriage, hid it in the cemetery, then carried it to a shack, the home of an old Abkhazian highwayman named Hashimi Smirba, at Makhmudia, seven versts outside Batumi but right under the cannons of the garrison fortress (and therefore beyond suspicion). The retired brigand was delighted to hide the press because his friend Lomdzharia told him it would print counterfeit roubles. Smirba would get his share. Smirba’s son Hamdi, whose memoirs do not appear in the cult literature, recounts how Stalin arrived in the middle of the night with four heavy boxes and sprang into action, unpacking and setting them up in a cellar. The typesetters, and probably Stalin too, arrived and left dressed as Muslim women in veils. Working day and night, he hired builders to construct another house for Smirba containing a secret compartment for the whirring press.

“What’s that noise?” asked one of the builders.

“A cow with a worm in its horn,” replied Smirba.

Soso almost moved into Smirba’s wooden cottage, where the old Muslim footpad hassled the young Georgian rebel for his share of the scam.

“You’ve been printing for days,” said Smirba. “When are you going to use the money?”

Soso handed Smirba one of his leaflets.

“What’s this?” exclaimed the amazed Smirba.

“We’re going to overthrow the Tsar, the Rothschilds and the Nobels,” replied Stalin, to Smirba’s puzzlement.

Each morning, he hid the pamphlets in peasant fruit baskets which Smirba loaded onto his cart. Meeting Lomdzharia in town, the two bandits took the fruit baskets around the factories, distributing the leaflets. If anyone tried to buy fruit, Smirba demanded a steep price or claimed it was a special order. When the printer was broken, Stalin told Kandelaki, “Let’s go hunting.” Identifying the right spare parts in a local printingshop, he then said: “The bear’s shot, now skin it”—and sent in his henchmen, who stole them and delivered them to him at his HQ, Ali the Persian’s Tavern in the bazaar. Once some Cossacks galloped down the street just as little Hamdi was delivering a part. He tossed the bag into the house and leaped into a ditch. Afterwards, Stalin helped dry the boy, praising his courage.

Smirba’s whole village now knew there was something afoot in the new wooden hut visited by so many burly and veiled women, whereupon Soso gathered twelve trusted peasants to explain his mission. “After that,” remembers Hamdi Smirba, “they respected the house.”

“You’re a good man, Soso,” said Smirba, puffing on his pipe. “Shame you’re not Muslim. If you become Muslim, you’ll get seven beautiful virgins. Don’t you want to become Muslim?”

“I certainly do!” laughed Soso.8*

The dead workers were buried on 12 March, an opportunity for yet another demonstration, 7,000 strong, inspired by the fiery proclamation written and printed by Stalin. The procession was surrounded on every side by mounted Cossacks. Singing was banned. Comrade Soso quietly supervised the funerals. The Gendarmes prevented any speeches. As the crowd left, the Cossacks mocked them by singing the Death March.

The secret police now knew Stalin was one of the leaders of the Batumi disturbances. The organization “achieved some big successes after the arrival of Josef Djugashvili in autumn 1901,” Captain Jakeli reported to the chief of the Kutaisi Gendarmerie. “I have ascertained that Josef Djugashvili was seen in the crowd during the 9 March disorders . . . All evidence points to the fact of his active role in the disorders.” They were determined to track him down.

On 5 April, Despina Shapatova warned Stalin that he had been denounced. He moved that night’s meeting twice and finally it met at Darakhvelidze’s house. Suddenly Despina ran in: the Gendarmes were outside or, as the presiding officer, put it: “Yesterday at midnight, I surrounded the house where intelligence told us they were holding a meeting of the Mantashev Refinery workers . . .”

Soso the Priest rushed to the back window, but it was hopeless. The house was surrounded by blue - uniformed Gendarmes. This time there was no escape.9*

* The dates of these memoirs are always important. In memoirs dictated in 1936, Vadachkoria implies that it was Stalin who ordered the murder, a naïve thing to record that year; an unthinkable thing to record a year later during the Great Terror, or afterwards. The story of Stalin just suspecting the police spy and being right about it was published as part of the cult of personality. The story of the sleuth being killed appears only in the archival original and is published here for the first time.

* Kandelaki, in memoirs recorded in 1935, before the Terror, strongly implies that Stalin was the Rothschilds arsonist. The Stalinist histories, which quote Kandelaki, suppress any suggestion that the Leader had been an arsonist, killer, bank robber or seducer. Kandelaki’s record is published here for the first time. Historians have often mistaken him for David Kandelaki, a young trade official in the 1930s whom Stalin used as his secret emissary to open negotiations with Hitler, a probe three years before the 1939 Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact. Stalin had David Kandelaki shot in 1937. But the latter was not Constantine—or Kotsia—Kandelaki of Batumi, later a Menshevik and Minister of Finance in the independent Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918–21.

* This would have irritated Stalin—the sort of personal detail that more sophisticated interviewees in the 1930s left out of their memoirs. Natasha Kirtava recorded two sets of memoirs, one in 1934 and the other in 1937. Needless to say, the unpublished kissing episode appeared only in the first, before the Terror.

* The Batumi demonstration and the Smirba story became seminal Stalinist legends. When the boss of Abkhazia, one of Stalin’s favourite courtiers, Nestor Lakoba, wrote his Stalin i Hashimi (Stalin and Hashimi) in 1934, he reinforced the cult of personality which had begun in 1929. Stalin’s secretary Ivan Tovstukha worried about the text, writing to Stalin’s then deputy Lazar Kaganovich, “Had the Hashimi text . . . Still things to correct and rewrite . . . What to do? Should it be thrown out?” It was not. Its publication won Lakoba favour but not for long. A year later, his work was outstripped by the massive exaggeration of History of the Bolshevik Organization in the Caucasus by Beria. Stalin himself, according to Beria’s son, amended the manuscript, “striking out names and replacing them with his own.” A huge volume called The Batumi Demonstration 1902 followed in 1937. Beria swiftly moved to destroy his rival Lakoba, poisoning him and then murdering and personally torturing his wife and children. See Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar for the full story. As for Hashimi Smirba himself, he moved house in 1916, burying the printing - press in his garden. He died in 1922 aged eighty - one. In his seventies, Stalin chuckled about Smirba. He knew Lakoba’s book was widely regarded as propaganda. After all, it claimed that Stalin was “the greatest man of a whole epoch, such as history gives to humanity only once in one or two hundred years.” But Stalin insisted, “It’s true as it was told in that book—that’s really how it happened.”

* In early 1939, the Moscow Arts Theatre commissioned the brilliant but under - employed writer Mikhail Bulgakov to write a romantic play about young Stalin in Batumi to celebrate the dictator’s sixtieth birthday that December. Stalin must have signed off on the commission. He admired Bulgakov—like Chekhov, a practising doctor - turned - writer—particularly for his novel The White Guard. Its dramatized version The Days of the Turbins was Stalin’s favourite play: he saw it fifteen times. Yet, as with Pasternak and Shostakovich, Stalin played a game of cat - and - mouse, personally phoning Bulgakov to assure him he would be given work, then tightening the screws on him again. Bulgakov, like Pasternak, was fascinated by his omnipotent persecutor and had toyed with the idea of this play since 1936, even though he knew “it’s dangerous for me.” Basing the play on the book The Batumi Demonstration 1902 and presumably on conversations with witnesses, Bulgakov finished a draft in June 1939, first calling it The Priest, Stalin’s nickname among the workers, then It Happened in Batumi, then just Batumi. The romantic play contains no love affairs but it implies Stalin’s relationship with Natalia Kirtava, for his companion in the play is a Natasha, who is jointly based on Kirtava and Lomdzharia’s sister. The cultural apparatchiks liked and approved the play. In August, Bulgakov, declaring that he wanted to interview witnesses and read the archives, set off by train for Batumi with his wife, Elena. But Stalin did not wish his status as statesman (he was just about to sign the Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler) undermined by any revelations contained in these archives, many of which have been used in this book. The Bulgakovs were recalled by telegram: “Journey no longer necessary. Return to Moscow.” Bulgakov fell ill. Stalin read the play. Visiting the Arts Theatre, he told the director that Batumi was a good piece but could not be staged, adding (hypocritically), “All young people are the same, so why write a play about the young Stalin?” The play was hackwork for Bulgakov, who secretly finished his anti - Stalin masterpiece The Master and Margarita before his death in 1940.

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