The Alliluyevs would become family and travel with Stalin from this world of prisons, death and conspiracy to the peak of power—and then back to the world of prisons, death and conspiracy, at the hands of Stalin himself.
Sergei was a “fascinating adventuresome man like his Gypsy forefathers. He got into fights: if anyone ill treated the workers, he’d beat them up.” His wife, Olga, née Fedorenko, “a real beauty with grey - green eyes and blonde hair,” was a highly sexed Marxist temptress. Olga “often fell in love with men,” wrote her granddaughter Svetlana.
Her parents, of German ancestry, were ambitious and hardworking with high hopes for Olga, but Sergei Alliluyev, then twenty - seven, was their lodger, a fitter of serf and Gypsy origins who had worked since he was twelve. Olga, just thirteen, was meant to marry a local sausage - maker but fell in love with the lodger. They eloped. Her father chased Sergei with a whip but it was too late. Sergei and Olga immersed themselves in revolutionary activism while raising a family of two daughters and two sons.
The youngest Alliluyev, Nadezhda, was still a baby, but the older children grew up with this unstable, nymphomaniac mother and a household devoted to the cause, abustle with an ever - changing cast of young conspirators—particularly those who were dark, mysterious and to their mother’s taste. Georgians were her type. “On occasion, she had affairs with a Pole, then a Hungarian, then a Bulgarian, and even a Turkish man,” says Svetlana. “She liked southern men and sometimes huffed ‘Russian men are bumpkins.’”
Olga Alliluyeva favoured Lenin’s brooding envoy Victor Kurnatovsky, now in Siberian exile—and Stalin. Her son Pavel Alliluyev supposedly complained that his mother “chased first Stalin then Kurnatovsky.” It is claimed that Nadya said her mother had admitted sleeping with both. Her granddaughter Svetlana certainly writes that Olga “always had a soft spot for Stalin,” but “the children came to terms with this, the affairs sooner or later ended, family life went on.”*
The affair sounds likely; if so, it was typical of its time.
In the underground, the revolutionaries were, under a façade of prudishness, sexually liberal. Married comrades constantly found themselves thrown together in the fever of their revolutionary work.1
When he was not with the Alliluyevs, Soso was again in command of Kamo and his young Sosoist acolytes. If he wanted an order obeyed fast, he would say, “I’ll spit now—and before it’s dry, I want you back here!”
Kamo was rapidly becoming one of the Party’s most useful thugs, expert in enforcement, setting up printing - presses and smuggling leaflets. He never wrote an article or gave a speech, but he was now teaching his craft to other young ruffians. In his tactless (and unpublished) memoirs, Kamo reveals much about how he and Stalin lived at this time. When distributing pamphlets, he worked out that the best place to hide was a brothel, “because there were no spooks there!” He was so short of cash that he virtually had to become a paid gigolo to survive: first there was the doctor’s wife, who let him stay. “I often wondered why my landlady looked after me so diligently. Then I had intimate intercourse with her. I was utterly disgusted—but as I had no other secret apartment, I had to submit and I had to borrow money from her too.”
Another woman, a Jewish nurse, also propositioned him. Kamo succumbed to her too: “Afterwards I went away and tried not to see her any more!” He may not have been the only one reduced to living off women. One unsourced but sometimes well - informed biographer claims that Stalin started an affair with a certain Marie Arensberg, wife of a German businessman in Tiflis, who helped him with tips for extorting money from merchants.
Kamo’s bosom pal was a young, dirt - poor nobleman named Grigory Ordzhonikidze, known as “Sergo.” Trained as a male nurse, Sergo was notoriously pugnacious, tempestuous, handsome and exuberant—a cartoon Georgian with big brown eyes, an aquiline profile and extravagant moustaches.
“Become my assistant!” Kamo urged Sergo.
“Assistant of the prince or the laundrywoman?” bantered Sergo, referring to Kamo’s disguises as a street pedlar with a basket on his head, a prince in Circassian uniform, a poor student or, his masterpiece, a laundrywoman with a bag of washing. Sergo became close to Stalin, an alliance that would take him to the Kremlin but ultimately destroy him.
The schoolboyish stunts of Stalin, Kamo and Sergo caught the town’s attention. Sergo’s cousin, Minadora Toroshelidze,* remembers seeing those three in the gallery of the Artistic Society Theatre, which was then presenting Hamlet. Just when Hamlet’s dead father appeared, they threw hundreds of leaflets towards the chandelier, whence they wafted down into the laps of the aristocrats and bourgeoisie. The three then scarpered. At the State Theatre, they dropped the leaflets onto the deputy governor’s head.2
Awaiting the Party’s forgiveness, Soso was drawn back to Batumi, where his reception by the Mensheviks Jibladze and Isidore Ramishvili was glacial.
“I heard a knock on the door,” says Natasha Kirtava. “Who is it?” she asked.
“Soso, man! I sent you a letter in Irkutsk—how did you manage to turn up here?”
“I escaped!” She welcomed her lover, who was dressed in the military uniform he used as disguise. The Prussianized uniformed hierarchy of the Romanov Empire was one big fancy - dress shop of disguises for the revolutionaries. When Natasha told her comrades of Soso’s return, “some were happy, some were sad.” The Menshevik Ramishvili denounced Stalin to Natasha.
“Throw him out,” he shouted, “or we’ll expel you from the Party.”
Stalin chivalrously left Natasha, but Ramishvili was spreading the rumour that there was something fishy about his escape: Stalin must be a police spy. After moving house eight times in his soldier’s uniform, Soso was forced to return to Natasha, who loyally raised cash for his return to Tiflis.
“Where are you going, Soso, what will we do if you fail again?” she asked him. As she remembered later, he stroked her hair and kissed her, saying, “Don’t be afraid!”
A railwayman lent him another uniform—“the peaked cap, tunic and torch of a train ticket - collector,” recalls the railway conductor, who regularly gave Soso lifts between Tiflis and Batumi. But Stalin did not forget Natasha. Once he was in Tiflis, he wrote using pseudo - medical code to invite her to join him. “Sister Natasha, your local doctors are ridiculous; if your disease is complicated, come here where there are good doctors.”
“I couldn’t go,” she says, “for family reasons.” Was her husband back? Stalin was outraged.3
He and Philip Makharadze, an older Bolshevik and founder of the Third Group, were busy at this time editing and contributing to the Party’s illegal Georgian newspaper, Proletariatis Brdzola (Proletarian Struggle), which was published at their secret press in Avlabar, the workers’ district in Tiflis. But then he returned to Batumi for a month in April, another unhappy visit.
At a May Day celebration at the seaside, Stalin apparently got into a row with some locals, presumably Mensheviks, which led to a Marxist wine - lubricated factional brawl in which he was beaten up.
He encountered Natasha Kirtava, who had turned down his proposal to live together. “I rushed up to greet him,” she writes. “But the angry Soso shouted at me: ‘Get away from me!’”4*
Bruised and rejected in Batumi, hunted by the Gendarmes in Tiflis, Soso retreated to Gori, where he hid out with his uncle Giorgi Geladze and presumably saw Keke. Davrichewy says that he got new papers in Gori in the name of “Petrov,” another of his many aliases.5
At the end of July, Tskhakaya despatched Stalin to western Georgia, the old principalities of Imeretia and Mingrelia, where he was to form the new Imeretian - Mingrelian Committee. He headed off to Kutaisi, a Georgian provincial town of 30,000 “chaise - drivers, policemen, tavern - owners, pale bureaucrats and idle petty - nobility.” This was a vital task because the peasants of the west, especially in Guria, had been politicized like no others in the entire Empire. This remote landscape of “mountains, swampy valleys, and gently rolling hills covered by cornfields, vineyards and tea plantations” now buzzed with rebellion. Assisted by the Red Prince, Sasha Tsulukidze, and a new friend, an orotund and grandiloquent young actor named Budu “the Barrel” Mdivani, Stalin was to enjoy a run of luck as a revolutionary in the strangest of times: the Japanese war was bleeding away the lifeblood of the Empire. In July 1904, the terrorists of the SR Fighting Brigade blew to pieces the hardline Interior Minister Plehve, who was succeeded by an inexperienced aristocrat, Prince Sviatopolk - Mirsky. Strikes and unrest spread as Mirsky experimented haplessly with a thaw.
The villages of western Georgia were already alight. In the ensuing jacquerie, peasants attacked the nobility, seized land and drove out the Tsar’s police. Stalin started to travel hectically across the Caucasus, leaving Tiflis more than ten times on trips to organize the Revolution and raise funds from Kutaisi to Vladikavkaz and Novorossiisk. The Okhrana noticed his return to Tiflis, writing in October: “Djugashvili escaped from exile and now is a leader of the Georgian worker’s party.” The Gendarmes tried to ambush him in Tiflis, but he was tipped off and escaped. Arrested again with Budu Mdivani and confined to Ortachala Prison in Tiflis, he and his new friend escaped. The police fired at them but Budu covered Soso with his body.
In western Georgia, he travelled with fishing - rods and tackle, and when arrested by the local police he convinced them he was just fishing. In September and December, he took the train for his first visit to Baku, the oil boomtown, where Bolshevik printing - presses mobilized workers to launch a December strike. The workers won.6
Just when the SDs should have been united, they were tearing themselves apart. While the Bolsheviks concentrated on their revolutionary vanguard, Jordania and the Mensheviks shrewdly appealed to the revolting Georgian peasants, offering them what they really wanted: land. Stalin conducted the feud in his base of Kutaisi with such feline use of slander, lies and intrigue that a local Menshevik wrote a rare letter to a member of the Committee that brilliantly reveals his character and style:
Comrade Koba [Stalin] told you that we were against you and demanded your sacking from the Committee [wrote the Menshevik Noe Khomeriki] but I promise nothing of the sort happened and everything Koba told you is a malicious lie! Yes: a calumny to discredit us! I just wonder at the man’s impudence. I know how worthless he is, but I didn’t expect such “courage.” But it turns out he’ll use any means if the ends justify them. The end in this case—the ambition—is to present himself as a great man before the nation. But . . . God didn’t grant him the right gifts so he had to resort to intrigues, lies and other “bagatelles.” Such a filthy person wanted to pollute our sacred mission with sewage!
Stalin claimed he had the right to sack whomever he wanted from the Committee, even though he knew this was untrue. Khomeriki called him “Quixote Koba”—but, as so often, Stalin’s shameless “impudence” won the day.*
Triumphant at winning control for Lenin, in September 1904 Stalin now wrote two letters to his Gori chum Davitashvili, in Leipzig, praising Lenin the “mountain eagle,” attacking the Mensheviks and boasting that his “committee had been hesitating but I convinced them.” Plekhanov, he wrote, “has either gone off his nut or is showing hatred and hostility,” while Jordania was an “ass.” This obscure Georgian was quite happy to denounce the international sages of Marxism. The letter worked: Lenin heard about Stalin for the first time. The “mountain eagle” acclaimed him as his “fiery Colchian.”*
On New Year’s Eve 1904, Soso ordered a small gang of railway workers to meet him outside the Nobleman’s Club on Tiflis’s Golovinsky Prospect. Noble liberals were then holding a so - called Banquet Campaign to canvass the Tsar for a constitution, but the Bolsheviks loathed such half - baked bourgeois liberalism. As soon as the chairman opened the banquet, Stalin, backed by his workers, burst in and demanded to speak. When the banqueters refused, Stalin sabotaged the evening by shouting, “Down with Autocracy,” then led his workers out singing “The Marseillaise” and “The Warsawianka.” On 2 January, the Tsar’s chief Far Eastern port, Port Arthur, still stocked with troops and munitions, surrendered to the Japanese. So began 1905.7
On Sunday, 9 January, when Stalin was in Baku again, the revolutionary - cum - police - agent Father Gapon marched at the head of 150,000 hymn - singing workers to submit a Humble and Loyal Petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace in Petersburg. Cossacks blocked the way. They fired two warning salvoes, but the workers continued to advance. The troops fired on the crowd, and then charged. Two hundred workers were killed, and hundreds more wounded. “There is no God any longer,” murmured Father Gapon. “There is no Tsar.”
Bloody Sunday shook the Empire, unleashing a tempest of demonstrations, ethnic massacres, killings and open revolution. Strikes mushroomed across the Empire. Peasants burned the palaces and libraries of their masters—3,000 manor houses were destroyed. The unrest spread to the army. “The Tsar’s battalions,” wrote Stalin in an article, “are dwindling, the Tsar’s navy is perishing and now Port Arthur has shamefully surrendered—the senile decreptitude of the Autocracy is revealed again.” But the Tsar still hoped for a miracle. In one of the most extraordinary naval ventures in history, he sent his leaky Baltic Fleet to almost circumnavigate the globe, via Africa, India, Singapore, to fight the Japanese. Had the gamble succeeded, Nicholas II’s victory would have resounded down the ages.
The Tsar sacked his luckless Interior Minister and appointed a new one, who suggested that some political concessions might be necessary. “One would think you’re afraid a revolution will break out,” replied the Emperor.
“Your Majesty, the revolution has already begun”—the 1905 Revolution, which Trotsky later called the “Dress Rehearsal.” At the time, it seemed like the real thing, a savage and exhilarating battle across the Empire, but especially in the Caucasus, where Stalin learned the methods that he would use throughout his life.8 He found himself in his element, revelling in the bloodcurdling drama.
“WORKERS OF THE CAUCACUS! TIME FOR VENGEANCE!” he wrote. “They’re asking us to forget the swish of the whips, the whiz of the bullets, the hundreds of our hero - comrades killed, and the hover of their glorious ghosts around us whispering: ‘AVENGE US!’”9
* The “affair” resurfaced when Stalin married Olga’s youngest daughter, Nadya. The rumour spread that Stalin was her father. Both apparently heard the rumour, but she was already three when Stalin met the family. Meanwhile, in 1904, Soso had also been courting more traditionally a Georgian girl of a good family, Nina Gurgenidze, asking her to marry him. When she forsook him and married a dishevelled lawyer, Soso cursed: “How could you have married that scruff.” The lawyer husband was shot in 1937.
* Minadora, née Ordzhonikidze, was a Menshevik married to the Bolshevik Malakia Toroshelidze, who was also close to Stalin. Minadora was the only woman to sign the Menshevik declaration of independence for Georgia in 1918. After Stalin and Sergo reconquered Georgia in 1921, she stayed in Tiflis with Toroshelidze, rector of Tiflis University, one of those who received a copy of the Credo. In 1937, they were both arrested. In a typical random irony of Stalin’s Terror, she, the Menshevik, was released; he, the Bolshevik, was shot. But perhaps this was not coincidental: Stalin liked her. Minadora’s memoirs are unpublished.
* Kirtava became a Party official and avid Stalinist in Batumi. Her memoirs are written in the rigid hieroglyphic Bolshevik language, but even in the 1930s she dared record how she turned down Stalin—and how that infuriated him. The story has not been published until now.
* Noe Khomeriki later served as Minister of Land in the independent Georgia of 1918–21 before leading the Menshevik rebellion of 1924 when he was captured and shot. His letter was confiscated in a Gendarme raid and then long lost in the archives. It is unusual because it is so specifically damning in its analysis of Stalin’s methods and ambitions. In late 1950, Beria, then the Politburo grandee in charge of the nuclear project, was out of favour and feared his own destruction. We now know that he heard about this letter from Georgian circles and, gathering ammunition to use against Stalin if need be, he secretly and unofficially asked an archivist to trace it. But Beria did not find it. The letter resurfaced only in 1989.
* Colchis, land of the Golden Fleece, was the ancient name of Georgia: hence Colchian.