The Frozen Georgian: Siberian Exile - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Frozen Georgian: Siberian Exile

The journey to Siberia was often more deadly than the exile itself. Stalin experienced the full gamut of horrors of the dreaded etap, the slow stage - by - stage progress to the east, picking up other prisoners on the way. Stalin claimed that his ankles were sometimes shackled to iron balls and once said emotionally: “There’s no better feeling than straightening your back after wearing shackles.”

When he reached Rostov - on - Don, he was already out of money and telegraphed Batumi to ask for more. Kandelaki sent it. Somewhere not far out, he started to suffer agonizing toothache and consulted a doctor’s assistant. “I’ll give you medicine that’ll cure your tooth for ever,” he promised. “He put the medicine into my rotten tooth himself,” Stalin recalled. “It was arsenic but he never told me you had to take it out of the tooth. So it stopped aching all right but a couple of teeth fell out altogether. He was right—those teeth never ached!” Toothache was just another of the many ailments that tormented Stalin throughout his life.

The farther from civilization they travelled, the more the prisoners were exposed to the extremes of Siberia, disease and violence. Somewhere in Siberia, one of the prisoners “was almost dying of gangrene,” Stalin recounted in his seventies. The closest hospital was 1,000 kilometres away at least. The doctor’s assistant was found and he decided to amputate. He poured spirit on the leg; asked several men to hold him down and started to operate. I couldn’t bear to watch the operation and I sheltered in the barracks, but the man’s bone was sawn without anaesthetic so you couldn’t escape his screams. I can still clearly hear that scream!” En route, he also encountered scores of Gurian peasant - workers, arrested during his Batumi demonstration. Soso admitted a rare moment’s guilt seeing these bewildered Georgians shivering on the road to Siberia—but they assured him of their gratitude.

The criminals were a real hazard. Usually they “respected our struggle,” said Stalin’s henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, who made a similar trip to Irkutsk, but they also terrorized the politicals. “During that etap,” Stalin told one of his adopted sons, “it was my fate to come up against a psychotic safe - breaker, a giant of a man, almost two metres tall. I made some harmless remark to him about my tobacco pouch . . . The exchange ended in a fight. The idiot forced me to the ground, breaking several ribs. No one helped me.” Stalin was knocked unconscious, but typically drew a political lesson: “As I was coming round, it occurred to me that politicians must always win over allies.” In future, the psychopaths would be on his side.1

On arrival in Irkutsk, the distant capital of Siberia, Stalin was despatched westwards to a regional centre, Balagansk, seventy - five versts from the nearest railway station. Now they travelled by foot and cart: Stalin was absurdly underdressed for the Siberian freeze, still in his white Georgian chokha with its bullet pouches. He found seven exiles in Balagansk and stayed with Abram Gusinsky, a Jewish exile, trying to avoid being sent farther.2 But he had been assigned to Novaya Uda. The local police recorded that “Josef Djugashvili, exiled by His Imperial Majesty’s command of 9 July, arrived on 26 November and was taken under police supervision.”

Novaya Uda, 70 versts from Balagansk and 120 from the closest station, thousands of versts from Moscow or Tiflis and his farthest exile, was a tiny town divided into two halves: the poor lived in shacks on a marshy promontory while the marginally better - off lived around a couple of shops, a church and a wooden fortress built to terrify into submission the local shamanistic Mongol tribe, the Buryats. There was little to do in Novaya Uda except read, argue, drink, fornicate and drink more—these were pastimes for locals and exiles alike. The settlement boasted five taverns.

Soso took to all these local pastimes, but he found his fellow exiles intolerable. There were three others in Novaya Uda, Jewish intellectuals who were either Bundists (followers of the Jewish Socialist Party) or SDs. Stalin had met few Jews in the Caucasus but henceforth he encountered many of the Jews who had embraced Marxism as a means of escaping the repression and prejudice of the Tsarist regime.

Stalin opted for the poor part of town, staying in “the beggarly ramshackle two - room house of a peasant, Martha Litvintseva.” One room was a larder where the food was kept, the other, divided by a wooden partition, was the bedroom where the whole family lived and slept around a stove. Stalin slept on a trestle table in the larder on the other side of the partition: “At night, he lit a small lamp and read when the Litvintsevs were asleep.”3

Siberian exile was regarded as one of the most terrible abuses of Tsarist tyranny. It was certainly boring and depressing, but once settled in some godforsaken village, the exiles, intellectuals who were often hereditary noblemen, were usually well treated. Such paternalistic sojourns more resembled dull reading - holidays than the living hell of Stalin’s murderous Gulags. The exiles even received pocket - money from the Tsar—twelve roubles for a nobleman such as Lenin, eleven roubles for a school graduate such as Molotov, and eight for a peasant such as Stalin—with which to pay for clothes, food and rent. If they received too much money from home, they lost their allowance.

Wealthier revolutionaries could travel first - class. Lenin, who enjoyed a private income, financed his own trip to exile and behaved throughout like a nobleman on an eccentric naturalist’s holiday. Trotsky, who was subsidized by his father, a rich farmer, mused pompously that Siberia was a “test of our civic sensibilities” where the exiles could live happily “like gods on Olympus.” But there was a big gap between the well - off like Lenin and the penniless like Stalin.*

The behaviour of exiles was governed by a set of rules. Each settlement elected a committee which could try anyone who broke Party rules. Books must be shared. If an exile died, his library was split between the survivors. No consorting with criminals. On departure, the exile was allowed to choose a gift from each fellow exile and should present a keepsake to his host family. Exiles divided the housework and the duty of collecting the mail. The arrival of the post was their happiest moment. “You remember how good it felt in exile to receive a letter from a friend?” recalled Yenukidze when he was in power.

Yet in the Wild East rules were hard to maintain: sexual adventures among the exiles were rife. “Like palms on a Diego Rivera landscape, love struggled towards the sun from under the heaviest boulders,” declaimed Trotsky grandiloquently, “couples came together . . . in exile.” When Golda Gorbman, who later married Stalin’s lieutenant Klimenti Voroshilov, was in exile, she was seduced and impregnated by Yenukidze, the Georgian who was later one of Stalin’s magnates. In power, the Politburo liked to reminisce about these scandals. Stalin himself never forgot the cheek of the exile Lezhnev, who bedded the local Prosecutor’s lovely wife and was sent to the Arctic as punishment. Molotov quoted the story of the two exiles who fought a duel for a mistress—one was killed and the other got the girl.

Exiles had to rent rooms from local peasants: they found themselves living in cramped and noisy little rooms, irritated by screaming children and lack of privacy. “The worst thing [about exile] was the lack of separation from the hosts,” wrote Yakov Sverdlov, later in exile with Stalin, but this sharing of rooms led also to more sexual temptation. Local custom banned affairs with exiles. But this was impossible to enforce: the local girls found the exiles exotic, educated, affluent and hard to resist—especially when they were often sharing the same bedroom.

Revolutionaries were naturally fractious, but their feuds in the isolation of exile had a malice all of their own. “Men bared themselves before you and showed themselves in their pettiness—there was no room to show decent features.” The exiles behaved appallingly, but Stalin’s conduct as reckless seducer, procreator of illegitimate children, serial feuder and compulsive troublemaker was one of the worst. No sooner had he arrived than Stalin started to break the rules.4

He cut his Jewish fellow exiles but embraced the local hobby: pubcrawls with the criminals. “There were some nice salt - of - the - earth fellows among them and too many rats among the politicals,” he told Khrushchev and the rest of the Politburo at their dinners in the 1940s. “I hung around mostly with the criminals. We’d stop at the saloons in town, see if any of us had a rouble then we’d hold it up to the window, and drink up every kopeck we had. One day I’d pay, next day someone else.” This consorting with criminals was considered beneath the dignity of the snobbish middle - class revolutionaries. “Once they organized a comrade’s court,” says Stalin, “and put me on trial for the offence of drinking with criminals.” This was neither the first nor the last trial that the uncongenial Soso faced from his comrades.5

Yet he did not lose contact with the outside world or settle for a long stay. In December 1903, the mail brought a letter from Lenin. “I first met Lenin in 1903,” said Stalin, “not a personal meeting, more a postal one. It wasn’t a long letter but a bold and fearless critique of our Party.” He exaggerated. This was not a personal letter—Lenin had not yet heard of Stalin—but a pamphlet: “A Letter to a Comrade on Organizational Tasks.” Nonetheless its effect on Stalin was real enough. “That simple bold note reinforced my belief that in Lenin, the Party had a mountain eagle.”

Stalin burned it afterwards but he soon learned that at the SD Party’s Second Congress, held in both Brussels and London, Lenin and Martov had defeated their rivals the Jewish Bundists, who wanted to combine socialism with national territories for minorities. But then the victors had fallen out among themselves, Lenin demanding his exclusive sect of revolutionaries, Martov embracing a wider membership and mass worker participation. Lenin, who revelled in schismatic confrontations, split the Party, claiming that his group were the Majoritarians—Bolsheviki—and Martov’s the Minoritarians—Mensheviki.*

Stalin claimed that he wrote immediately to his lame Goreli friend Davitashvili in Leipzig, who was in contact with Lenin—but this was one of his fibs. In fact he did not write for almost a year, but he was already a Leninist. Trotsky believed one could recognize a Bolshevik on sight. Stalin was, says Iremashvili, “an instant Bolshevik.” In 1904, there was a strong sense that something world - shattering was stirring: the movement was flourishing. As Nicholas II blundered closer to “a victorious little war” with Japan in his quest for a Far Eastern empire, the Revolution was suddenly closer than it had ever been. This was no time to be in Novaya Uda.6 Soso had no sooner arrived than he started to plan his escape—which was as much part of the revolutionary experience as arrest and exile itself.

Escape was “not too difficult. Everyone tried to escape,” wrote Trotsky. “The exile system was a sieve.”

The escapee needed money to buy his “boots”—the false papers. Usually the full escape kit—“boots,” food, clothes, train tickets, bribes—cost around one hundred roubles. Conspiracy - theorists ask naively how Stalin raised the cash: was he an agent for the Okhrana? Probably Egnatashvili, via Keke, and his Party comrades provided the money. But raising it was hardly unusual: between 1906 and 1909, over 18,000 obscure exiles out of a total of 32,000 somehow raised the money to escape.

Stalin made his record more suspicious by changing the number of his escapes and arrests in his own propaganda. Yet it turns out that he was arrested and escaped more often than he officially claimed. When he personally edited his Short Course biography in the 1930s, he signed off on eight arrests, seven exiles and six escapes, but when he re - edited the book in 1947, using his blue crayon, he reduced the numbers to seven arrests, six exiles and five escapes. In conversation, he claimed, “I escaped five times.” Amazingly, Stalin was being modest or forgetful. There were in fact at least nine arrests, four short detentions and eight escapes.

The last word belongs to Alexander Ostrovsky, expert on Stalin’s secret - police connections: “The fact of Stalin’s frequent escapes might be seen as surprising only to a person who is completely unfamiliar with the specifics of the pre - revolutionary exile system.”

Soso made his first, amateurish attempt after reading Lenin’s pamphlet in December 1903: his landlady and children gave him some bread for the trip. “Initially,” he told Anna Alliluyeva, “I didn’t succeed because the police chief had an eye on me. The freeze set in and then I collected winter supplies and set off on foot. My face almost froze!” As he got older, these tales grew taller. “I fell into a frozen river, the ice gave way,” he told his Soviet henchman Lavrenti Beria. “I was chilled to the bone. I knocked at a door, nobody invited me in. At the end of my strength, I had finally the luck to be welcomed by some poor people who lived in a miserable hut. They fed me, warmed me by the stove and gave me clothes to reach the next village.”

He managed to make it to Abram Gusinsky’s house in Balagansk, seventy versts away.

One night, when there were terrible frosts of—30, we heard a knock.

“Who’s there?”

“Unlock the door, Abram, it’s me, Soso.”

Then an ice - coated Soso entered, dressed very flippantly for Siberian winter in a felt cloak, a fedora and a dandyish Caucasian hood. My wife and daughter so admired the white hood that Comrade Stalin with Caucasian generosity took it off and gave it to them.

He already had the “necessary documents.” But he could go no farther.

“Suffering frostbite on his nose and ears,” according to Sergei Alliluyev, “he couldn’t get anywhere and returned to Novaya Uda.” No doubt, his convict friends warmed him up in the boozing stews of the frontier - town while he planned his second attempt.

Soso wrote to Keke, and she “sewed the right clothes and sent them as soon as she could. Soso escaped wearing them.” He had moved into another house belonging to Mitrofan Kungarov, who, on 4 January 1904, gave Stalin a lift out of Novaya Uda. Arming himself with a sabre, Stalin tricked Kungarov, claiming that he just wanted to reach nearby Zharkovo to complain about the police chief. Kungarov was probably the drunken sledge - driver who demanded to be paid in vodka at every stop. “We travelled in—40 temperatures,” recalled Stalin. “I wrapped myself in furs. The coachman actually opened his coat while driving to let the bitter freezing wind blow against his almost naked belly. Apparently alcohol warmed his body: what healthy people!” But when the peasant realized that Stalin was escaping, he refused to help and stopped the sledge. “At that moment,” said Stalin, “I opened my fur coat and showed my sword and ordered him to drive on . . . The peasant sighed and made the horses gallop!”*

Soso was on his way. Coming up to Orthodox Epiphany, he was hoping the police would be distracted by their celebrations. “Exiled Josef Djugashvili has escaped! Appropriate measures are taken to recapture him!” telegraphed the local police. He made it to Tyret Station and may have gone to Irkutsk before heading back along the Trans - Siberian Railway.

The Siberian stations, even during holidays, were patrolled by uniformed Gendarmes and Okhrana spies, sometimes professionals, frequently informing freelancers, watching for escapees. But Stalin had procured not just the usual “boots” but the ID card of a police agent. In faraway Siberia (as in the Caucasus), any papers could be bought, but this was unusual. Stalin boasted that at one of the stations a real spook was on his tail, following him until the escapee approached a Gendarme, showed him his false ID and pointed out the police spy as an escaping exile. The policeman arrested the protesting spook while Stalin calmly boarded the train for the Caucasus. It is a story that demonstrates the layers of murkiness in which Stalin blossomed. If Soso really was a police spy, it is unlikely he would have told the story at all and, in any case, he might have invented it. But it certainly added to the mystique (and suspicion) of this ace of conspirators.7

Within ten days, he was back in Tiflis. When he burst into a friend’s apartment, they barely knew who he was, as he had lost weight in Siberia.

“Don’t you recognize me, you cowards!” he laughed, whereupon they greeted him and rented him a room.

Stalin’s timing was impeccable. That January 1904, Russia stumbled into war. The Japanese attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in the Far East. The Emperor and his ministers were convinced the primitive Japanese “monkeys” could not defeat civilized Russians. Yet Nicholas’s army was antiquated, his peasant soldiers ill armed, his commanders hapless cronies.

“I remember,” says Stalin’s roommate, “that he was reading History of the French Revolution.” He knew how war and revolution, those horses of the apocalypse, often gallop together.

·  ·  ·

Georgia was seething. “Georgians are such a political nation,” reflected Stalin later, “I don’t think there’s a Georgian alive who isn’t a member of some political party.” Young Armenians joined the Dashnaks, Georgians joined the Socialist - Federalists, and many others joined the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Anarchists or the SRs—the latter were conducting a vicious terrorist campaign against the Tsar and his ministers. As the war strained the sinews of the Empire, the Okhrana tried to suppress the restlessness by arresting droves of revolutionaries.

Not every comrade was delighted at the return of the truculent, aggressive Soso, and his enemies devised a way to rid themselves of him. There was a problem with Stalin’s Marxist orthodoxy: Lenin had defeated the Bundists because he believed in an internationalist party for all the peoples of the Empire. Even Jordania preached Marxism for the whole Caucasian region. Yet young Stalin, clinging to the romantic dreams of his poetry, insisted eccentrically on a Georgian SD Party. So his enemies accused him of Bundist tendencies, not a Marxist internationalist at all. At this time, Stalin adapted Marx to his own instincts. He quoted Marx, observed David Sagirashvili, “but always in his own peculiar way.” Challenged at one meeting, Soso “wasn’t in the least perturbed,” simply saying, “Marx is the son of an ass. What he wrote should be written as I say!” With this, he stormed out.

Fortunately Stalin was vigorously defended by Georgia’s first Bolshevik, Mikha Tskhakaya, one of the founders of Mesame Dasi, who now supported Lenin’s radical approach. Stalin respected the energetic, older Tskhakaya, with his goatee - beard and ideological gravity. He later mocked him, but he was as grateful as a man could be who regarded “gratitude as a dogs’ disease.”

Tskhakaya pleaded for Stalin, saving him from expulsion, but he made him undergo a new introduction to Marxism. “I can’t trust you with much,” he lectured Soso. “You’re still young and need a foundation of stable ideas—or you’ll encounter difficulties.”

Tskhakaya introduced him to a young Armenian intellectual named Danesh Shevardian to lecture him on the “new literature.” Tskhakaya, Stalin laughed later, “began our instruction on the creation of the planets, life on earth, protein and protoplasm and after three hours, we finally reached slave - owning society. We couldn’t stay awake and starting dozing off . . .”

Yet Stalin’s anecdotes concealed the humiliating truth: Tskhakaya ordered him to write a Credo renouncing his heretical views. The Armenian read it and was satisfied. Seventy printed copies were distributed.* Stalin was forgiven, but Tskhakaya said he had to “rest” before he could receive a redemptive mission. 8

Soso shamelessly sponged off his friends. “If he visited some guy’s family,” recalled Mikheil Monoselidze, ex - seminarist friend of Kamo and Svanidze, “he behaved as if he was a member of the family. If he noticed they had wine, fruit or sweets that he liked, he wasn’t embarrassed to say, ‘Well, someone said I was invited to drink wine and eat fruit,’ and he’d open the cupboard and help himself . . .” He believed they literally owed him a living out of gratitude for his sacred mission.

He spent time with his well - off friend Spandarian, who took him to a circle run by Lev Rosenfeld, the future “Kamenev,” Stalin’s co - ruler after Lenin’s death, and later his victim. Kamenev’s father, a rich engineer who built the Batumi—Baku railway, subsidized his Marxist son. Younger than Stalin, though he looked years older, he was red - bearded and schoolmasterly with myopic, watery - blue eyes. He befriended, but always patronized, Stalin—until it was too late. Kamenev was a Bolshevik but a very moderate one, already in conflict with Stalin’s hotheads.

“I often had fights with the intellectuals,” remembers Kamo,” and I had a quarrel with Kamenev who didn’t want to attend a demonstration.” At Kamenev’s, Soso met another old friend—Josef Davrichewy, who had attended the poshest school in Tiflis, the gymnasium on Golovinsky Prospect, with Kamenev and Spandarian.

Davrichewy, flirting with Socialist - Federalism, was “delighted to see Soso for the first time since Gori.” He resembled Stalin (and believed they were half brothers). “We talked for ages,” reminisces Davrichewy, snobbishly adding that Stalin “knew no one in Tiflis.”9

·  ·  ·

This was not quite true, for he now met up with many of the young revolutionaries who would rule the USSR with him—or at least share his life. One day, Sergei Alliluyev returned from Baku with some printing - press type, and delivered it to Babe Bochoridze’s house, a favourite with the revolutionaries. “I looked round,” wrote Alliluyev.

A young man of twenty - three or - four entered the adjoining room.

“He’s one of us,” said Babe.

“One of us,” the young man repeated, inviting me in. He sat me at the table and asked: “Well what good news have you to tell me?”

Even though he was ten years younger than Alliluyev, the haughty Soso presumed to command, giving orders on the transport of the press. They had already met as conspirators but now Alliluyev invited him into his home to meet his beautiful and notoriously promiscuous wife. Stalin later grumbled that the Alliluyev women “would never leave him alone,” always “wanting to go to bed with him.”

* When Lenin arrived, he reprimanded the stationmaster, availed himself of the local merchant’s library, brought out his wife, Nadya Krupskaya, and his mother - in - law to care for him, and even employed a maid to clean the house. The Lenins patronized the peasants who, noted Krupskaya, “were generally clean in their habits.” Lenin raved about the landscape of this “Siberian Italy,” a pleasant environment for writing. “Generally,” wrote Krupskaya, “exile didn’t pass by so badly.” The system favoured noblemen and Orthodox Russians and Georgians over Jews and Poles. Lenin and his friend Yuli Martov were arrested at the same time on the same charges but, while the noble Russian Lenin enjoyed his scenic reading - holiday, his fellow SD leader, the Jewish Martov, struggled to survive the desperate Arctic freeze of Turukhansk.

* Even at this early date, Lenin and Stalin, soi - disant champions of the proletariat, were against the involvement of real workers. They believed in an oligarchy that would rule in the name of the workers, a concept that became the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Stalin was convinced that the election of workers to the Party committees would include too many amateur revolutionaries and more police agents. Leninists were also less sympathetic to the land aspirations of peasants. Most Georgian Social - Democrats believed in wide worker and peasant participation and land grants to peasants, so they became Mensheviks. The Georgian Mensheviks under firebrands like Jordania were very effective and increasingly popular; Georgian Mensheviks were much more violent than Russian Mensheviks. Jibladze and Noe Ramishvili were as enthusiastic about terror and expropriation as Stalin up to 1907. But ultimately Bolsheviks were much more disciplined, merciless and comfortable with terror and killing. To complicate matters, there were mild Bolsheviks such as Kamenev, just as there were extreme Mensheviks.

* In 1934, the children who had provided the bread for the escape wrote to Stalin; he wrote back with a present for them—a radio and gramophone. In 1947, pensioner Kungarov wrote: “Generalissimo of the Soviet Union Comrade J. V. Stalin, I deeply apologize for bothering you but in 1903 you lived at my place and in 1904 I personally took you to Zharkovo on the way to the Tyret Station and when the police interrogated me I lied for you that I had taken you to Balagansk. For lying I was imprisoned and received ten lashes. I ask you to help me.” It is highly unlikely that Kungarov would make this up, but Stalin read the letter and said he did not recall this, asking Kungarov to give more details. Possibly Stalin’s memories of the first exile were less vivid, but more likely he nursed a grievance against Kungarov for refusing to help him escape.

* The Credo was one of the important secrets of Stalin’s past. It seriously undermined Stalin’s Leninist credentials, putting him closer to the 1918 Mensheviks, who created an independent Georgia, and the Bolshevik “deviationalists” of 1921–22. In 1925, striving to succeed Lenin, Stalin started to seek out and destroy any copies. In 1934, he twice approached Shevardian (first via his boss in the Trade Commissariat, Stalinist magnate Anastas Mikoyan, then through an old Tiflis comrade, Malakia Toroshelidze, rector of Tiflis University). Shevardian buried his papers in his village. In the 1937 Terror, Mikoyan and Beria were despatched to Yerevan with a deathlist of 300 Armenian Bolsheviks. Mikoyan saved one of the 300, Shevardian, who was still arrested. His family destroyed the papers. Shevardian was shot by Beria on 24 October 1941, as the Germans advanced. Not all recipients of the Credo were shot: Tskhakaya remained a favourite.

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