The Prisoner - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


To the Moon

Move tirelessly
Do not hang your head
Scatter the mist of the clouds
The Lord’s Providence is great.

Gently smile at the earth
Stretched out beneath you;
Sing a lullaby to the glacier
Strung down from the heavens.

Know for certain that once
Struck down to the ground, an oppressed man
Strives again to reach the pure mountain,
When exalted by hope.

So, lovely moon, as before
Glimmer through the clouds;
Pleasantly in the azure vault
Make your beams play.

But I shall undo my vest
And thrust out my chest to the moon,
With outstretched arms, I shall revere
The spreader of light upon the earth!

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)


The Prisoner

Stalin was imprisoned in Batumi Prison, where he immediately distinguished himself by his surly swagger and arrogant audacity. Prison affected him deeply and remained with him. “I got used to loneliness in prison,” he said much later, though in fact he was rarely alone there.

His fellow prisoners, whether enemies who later denounced him in exile or Stalinists who praised him in official books, agree that Stalin in prison was like a frigid sphinx: “scruffy, pockmarked, with a rough beard and long backcombed hair.” His fellows were most struck by “his complete calmness.” He “never laughed with an open mouth, only smiled coolly” and was “incapable of co - operating with anyone . . . He walked by himself. Always unruffled.”1 But initially he made a foolish mistake.

On 6 April 1902, he faced his first interrogation at the hands of Gendarme captain Jakeli. He denied he had even been in Batumi at the time of the massacre, claiming he had been with his mother in Gori. Two days later, he ordered another prisoner to throw two notes into the prison yard where friends and families of the prisoners gathered to deliver food and messages. But the guards retrieved the notes in Stalin’s handwriting. The first sent a message “to tell the teacher . . . Josef Iremashvili that Soso Djugashvili’s been arrested and ask him to tell his mother that when Gendarmes ask her ‘When did your son leave Gori?,’ she must reply, ’He was here in Gori all summer and winter until 15 March.’”

The other note summoned his former pupil Elisabedashvili to Batumi to take over his organization. Captain Jakeli had already consulted the Tiflis secret police, who revealed that Stalin had been a leading light on the Tiflis Committee. But now he also briefed Gori, who reported that two men had arrived there from Batumi and talked to Keke, her brother Giorgi Geladze (Stalin’s uncle) and Iremashvili. All three were arrested and interrogated: not a happy day for Keke.2

The men from Batumi had come to collect Stalin’s mother, but the clumsy note - tossing also implicated Elisabedashvili, who was living in Tiflis with Kamo and Svanidze. The Gendarmes arrested Kamo, who reluctantly led them to the Sololaki bathhouse, where they seized a disrobed Elisabedashvili. He was taken to meet the “famous Captain Lavrov,” who handed him over to Captain Jakeli. As Elisabedashvili entered the Batumi prison yard, Stalin rushed past him, whispering: “You don’t know me.”

“I know,” replied Elisabedashvili. “Hello from everyone!”

The next day, Elisabedashvili was interrogated by Captain Jakeli.

“Do you know Josef Djugashvili?”


“Nonsense! He says he knows you!”

“He might be insane.”

“Insane?” laughed the captain. “How can such a person be mad? We had Marxists here before but they were quiet enough. This Djugashvili has turned the whole of Batumi upside down.”

When Elisabedashvili was led past Stalin’s cell, he caught a glimpse, through the bars, of “an outraged Soso cursing his cellmate and punching him. Next day, I learned that they had placed a stool - pigeon in his cell.” Elisabedashvili was released—but soon returned, on Stalin’s orders, to direct Batumi’s Sosoists.3

As for Keke, she obeyed Soso’s summons. Around 18 May, she set off from Gori and only returned on 16 June. She visited her son twice in Batumi Prison. On her way via Tiflis, she somehow bumped into Crazy Beso, drunk and angry.

“Stop or I’ll kill you!” he shouted, denouncing his rebel son. “He wants to turn the world upside down. If you hadn’t taken him to school, he’d be a craftsman—now he’s in prison. I’ll kill such a son with my own hands—he’s disgraced me!” A crowd gathered. Keke slipped away, her last encounter with her husband.

Soso’s rebellion was the ruin of Keke’s ambition. She must, in her way, have worried as much as Beso. She applied for his release and probably delivered messages from his comrades. In his egocentricity, old Stalin acknowledged her suffering: “Was she happy? Come on! What happiness for Keke if her son was arrested? We didn’t have much time for our mothers. Such was the fate of mothers!”*

Stalin was soon the kingpin of Batumi Prison, dominating his friends, terrorizing the intellectuals, suborning the guards and befriending the criminals.4

The Imperial prisons were a hidden civilization with their own customs and tricks, but Stalin, as ever, ignored the etiquette that did not suit him. The prisons, “like the country itself, combined barbarism with paternalism,” says Trotsky. There was no consistency: sometimes political prisoners were placed in one big cell known as “the Church,” where they would elect “Elders.”

The revolutionaries lived by a set of chivalrous rules. Whenever comrades arrived or departed, it was traditional for the whole prison to sing “The Marseillaise” and wave a red flag. Revolutionaries, sacred intellectuals and self - appointed crusaders, were too elevated to socialize with mere criminals, but, “I preferred them [the criminals],” Stalin said, “because there were so many rats among the politicals.” He loathed the duplicitous chatter of the intellectuals. “Rats” were killed.

If they were in solitary cells, the politicals communicated through a ponderous but simple code of knocks—“the prison alphabet.” Sergei Alliluyev was in prison in the Metekhi Fortress of Tiflis but the tapping on his stove - pipe informed him: “Bad news! Soso arrested!” Then there was the impoverished jailhouse system of communication known as the “prison telegraph” by which prisoners delivered packages to each other by swinging them on strings from their windows whence they were hooked by another string with a stone on the end.

When the prisoners walked in the courtyards, discipline was lax: it was hard to keep any secrets there. Soso always seemed to know who was arriving, how prisoners were behaving. Like American Mafiosi running La Cosa Nostra from prison, Soso swiftly improved his communications with the outside world. “He continued to run things from prison.”

The authorities erred seriously when they allowed their revolutionaries to study in prison. These obsessive autodidacts studied hard there, none more so than Stalin, whose cellmate says, “He spent the whole day reading and writing . . . His prison day had a strict routine: he woke early in the morning, did morning exercises, then studied German and read economic literature. He never rested and he liked to recommend comrades what books to read . . .” Another prisoner said that Stalin made “prison into a university.” He called it his “second school.”

The prison guards were lenient, either because the revolutionaries were socially superior “gentlemen,” or because they had been bribed or because they were sympathetic. One of Stalin’s friends was put in a cell near to his and asked him about the Communist Manifesto: “We couldn’t meet,” reminisced Stalin, “but I read it aloud and he could hear it. Once during my reading, I heard some steps outside and stopped. Suddenly I heard the guard say: ‘Please don’t stop. Comrade, please continue.’”5

One article must have been doing the rounds of the “prison telegraph”: in March 1902, the Marxist now using the alias “Lenin” published an essay “What Is to Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement,” which demanded a “new vanguard” of ruthless conspirators—a vision that immediately split the Party. “Give us an organization of revolutionaries,” promised Lenin, “and we shall overturn the whole of Russia!”6*

Captain Jakeli rounded up Batumi’s Sosoists, including Stalin’s young landlady and girlfriend Natasha Kirtava. When she appeared in the jailyard, Natasha was swiftly approached by an unknown prisoner: “Comrade Soso asks you to look up at his window.”

Natasha was alarmed in case this prisoner was a stool - pigeon. “I don’t know a Comrade Soso,” she answered.

But when she was locked in her cell, Stalin appeared at her window. “So, comrades, are you bored?” he inquired grandly. She saw that Comrade Soso was still very much in command of the struggle inside and outside the prison. “The prisoners loved him because he took such cordial care of them.” He certainly took good care of Natasha. Once she went to see him in his cell for a chat when one of the prison guards caught her and drove her away with the handle of his sabre. Stalin demanded the dismissal of the guard. His courage won him popularity among the prisoners but also respect from the authorities: he got his way.7 It was not only Sosoists who admired him: another prisoner, who shared his cell, admitted that, although Soso later became a monster, he was “a very pleasant and gallant cellmate.”8

The Prosecutor in Tiflis ruled there was not enough evidence to charge Stalin with leading the Batumi riot. Probably witnesses were too afraid to testify. He was off that hook but remained in prison because Captain Lavrov was investigating another case—Stalin’s role on the Tiflis Committee. On 29 August, the Gendarmes indicted Stalin along with his old comrades on the Committee. Yet the bureaucracy muddled along slowly.9

He fell ill with his old chest sickness, which he sometimes claimed was his heart, at other times a shadow on the lung. During October, Soso managed to get the prison doctor to assign him and his sidekick Kandelaki to hospital.10 Against revolutionary etiquette, he also appealed three times to Prince Golitsyn, the governor - general himself:

My worsening cough and the pitiful condition of my aged mother, who was left by her husband twelve years ago and of whom I am the only support, force me to apply for the second time for a humble discharge, under police surveillance. I beg you to heed my request and respond to my petition.

J. Djugashvili. 23 November 190111

His sickness did not stop him making trouble. When the Exarch of the Georgian Church came to minister to his errant sons on 17 April 1903, the ex - seminarist led a violent protest that got him clapped in solitary confinement. The riot, not the first organized by Stalin, led to his transfer to the stricter Kutaisi Prison, in western Georgia.

Two days later, when the prisoners were mustered for their transfer, Stalin found that Natasha was being transferred with him. The warders started to handcuff him.

“We’re not thieves to be handcuffed!” snapped Stalin. The officer took off the cuffs. The story shows Stalin’s authority over prisoners and officers alike—the Tsarist police were biddable in a way unthinkable for the Soviet secret police. Then the prisoners were gathered for the march through Batumi. Stalin demanded a cart for their belongings and “a phaeton for me, the woman,” recalls Natasha proudly. Incredibly Stalin, that master of the prison system, got his way here too.* Only the best for Stalin’s girl: Natasha travelled to the station in a phaeton.

When their train arrived at nearby Kutaisi, Stalin held everyone back: “Let Natasha go in front so everyone can see that women also fight these dogs!”12

At Kutaisi, the authorities tried to force the prisoners to behave. The politicals were split up, but Stalin soon found a way to communicate and plan a counterattack. When Natasha Kirtava was moved out of the collective cell into solitary, “Emotion overcame me. I started crying.” Stalin heard about this on the prison telegraph and had a note delivered to her that read: “What do your tears signify, she - eagle? Is it possible prison has defeated you?”

In the prison yard, Stalin met a moderate comrade, Grigol Uratadze, who hated him but almost admired his “glacial temperament: in six months, I never once saw him crying, angry or indignant—he always conducted himself with total composure” and his “smile was carefully calibrated to his emotions . . . We used to chat in the courtyard.” But Stalin just “walked alone in strange little short steps . . . Everyone knew how surly he was,” but he was also “absolutely imperturbable.”

Stalin was hostile to the bumptious intellectuals, but, with the less elevated worker - revolutionaries, who did not arouse his inferiority complex, he played the teacher—the Priest. Soso “organized the reading of newspapers, books and magazines, and gave lectures to the prisoners.” Meanwhile he confronted Kutaisi’s more severe regime. The regional governor refused his demands. On 28 July, Soso gave a sign and the prisoners started a noisy protest, banging the steel doors so loudly that the whole town was alarmed. The governor called for troops, who surrounded the prison, but then he capitulated, agreeing to place all the politicals in one cell. Stalin won, but the governor got his revenge: it was the dreariest dungeon in the bowels of the jail.

When some of the prisoners were swiftly despatched to Siberian exile, Stalin suggested a group photograph. Just as he liked to set up the group photographs when he was in power, so now he directed everyone’s position and placed himself in his favourite place—middle top row: “I’m also one of the soldiers of the Revolution so I’ll stand here in the centre.” There he is: long - haired and bearded, the self - appointed leader.

When his comrades were led out for their long journey, “Comrade Soso stood in the courtyard and raised a red flag . . . We sang the Marseillaise.”13

The secret police now mislaid Stalin . . . in their own prison. The Gendarmes and the Okhrana in Tiflis both thought that “Chopura, the Pockmarked One,” had long since been released. Captain Lavrov believed he was again leading the workers in Batumi “under special surveillance.” Clearly the spooks were watching completely the wrong man. Batumi was not too sure either until Lieutenant Colonel Shabelsky settled the case of the lost Pockmarked One by informing everyone that “Djugashvili has been in prison for a whole year already (now in Kutaisi).”14

The grinding mechanisms of Tsarist justice, which sent cases like that of Stalin from local governors to Justice and Interior Ministries in Petersburg, generated a recommendation for three years’ exile in eastern Siberia.* On 7 July 1903, the Justice Minister sent this recommendation to the Emperor, who approved Stalin’s sentence with his Imperial stamp. Nicholas II was such a punctilious if unimaginative autocrat that he diligently read even the most trivial paper sent to his office. So there were several occasions when the fate of the future Red Tsar crossed the desk of the last Emperor.

Now the police managed to lose Stalin all over again. The governor of Tiflis thought he was in the Metekhi Fortress, but the prison replied that he had never been there. So the head of the Tiflis police declared: “Location of Djugashvili so far unknown.” The police appealed to the Gendarmes, who revealed that Stalin was back in Batumi Prison, which was well and good—except that he was still in Kutaisi Prison. It took a month and a half to find him: such confusion has fuelled the feverish imagination of conspiracy - theorists ever since. Were the Gendarmes or the Okhrana hiding him from one another because he was a doubleagent? There is no evidence for this. The muddle might be suspicious if it applied only to Stalin, but it was almost universal. In the interlinked worlds of murderous conspiracy and sluggish pen - pushing, there was as much confusion as konspiratsia.

While he waited, he heard terrible news. On 17 August 1903, Soso’s hero, Lado Ketskhoveli, who had been arrested in Baku and incarcerated in the Metekhi Fortress, was standing at his cell - window baiting the guards with shouts of “Down with Autocracy!” when one of them shot him through the heart. Such a fate could easily have befallen Stalin himself. He never forgot Lado.

On 8 October, Stalin finally learned that he was departing on a very long journey. His first stop would be a return to Batumi. He organized another group photograph. As he departed the prison, his comrades waved the flag, singing “The Marseillaise.”

“I’m being exiled,” Stalin wrote to the newly released Natasha Kirtava. “Meet me near the prison.” She raised ten roubles and some food to help him on the cold journey into the Russian winter, but he left wearing just a light Georgian chokha, boots and no gloves. As he was marched onto the prison steamship in Batumi Harbour for the first leg of his journey via Novorossiisk and Rostov, the beautiful Natasha waited on the wharf: “I saw him off.”

This voyage would take a Georgian, accustomed to the singsong, wine - flavoured lushness of Georgia, to another life in a frozen far - off country: Siberia.15

* “Happy?” Keke sardonically told an interviewer in 1935 when asked if she was happy to be Stalin’s mother. “You ask me what kind of happiness I felt? The whole world is happy looking at my son and our country. So what should I feel as a mother?”

Stalin swiftly developed his clandestine craft. A sympathetic worker in Batumi worked for the company that supplied wood to the prison. One day he was approached and told he was to help deliver the wood and must follow his instructions precisely. He delivered the logs, carried them into the courtyard and sure enough, at 3 p.m. sharp, the warders led out a single prisoner, Stalin, who gave him an urgent message to deliver in Batumi.

* Lenin encapsulated Stalin’s dream of himself as a knight in a military - religious order. “Our Party is not a school of philosophers,” he asserted revealingly, but “a fighting Party. Until now it resembled a hospitable patriarchical family. Now it must become like a fortress—its gates only opened for the worthy.” Any other way was a “desecration of its Holy of Holies.”

* As Soviet leader, Stalin disdained Tsarist leniency, determined to avoid it in his own repressions. “The prisons resemble nothing so much as rest - homes,” he wrote at the height of the Terror in 1937. “The prisoners are allowed to socialize, can write letters to each other at will, receive parcels . . . !”

* The Tsarist authorities recognized, due to the special challenges of evidence and secrecy, that terrorists and revolutionaries could not be tried by jury or judge: the local Gendarme officer recommended a sentence to the local governor - general who forwarded it on to the Special Commission—five Justice and Interior officials who passed sentence. The Interior Minister confirmed it; the Emperor signed off. Stalin was habitually sentenced this way. Between 1881 and 1904, only 11,879 were sentenced like this, while during Stalin’s reign of the same approximate timespan, he presided over the deportation of an astonishing 28 million, several million of whom never returned. As for capital punishment under the Tsars, Catholic Poles and Jews in the western provinces were much more likely to be hanged than Orthodox Russians or Georgians.

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