Nineteen - hundred - and - five began and ended with slaughter. It was the year of revolution in which young Stalin, for the first time, commanded armed men, tasted power, and embraced terror and gangsterism. On 6 February, he was in Baku when some Armenians shot a Tartar in the centre of the city. Azeri Turks—or “Tartars” as they were often called—retaliated. The news spread. The authorities, who had long resented Armenian wealth and success, encouraged the Muslim Azeri mobs to pour into the city.
For five long days, Azeri gangs killed every Armenian they could find, with the frenzied hatred that comes from religious tension, economic jealousy and neighbourly proximity. While anti - Semitic pogroms broke out across the Empire, Baku descended into an orgy of ethnic killing, burning, raping, shooting and throat - cutting. The governor, Prince Nakashidze, and his police chief did nothing. Cossacks handed over Orthodox Armenians to be slaughtered by Azeri mobs, armed by the police. One Armenian oil baron was besieged in his palace by an Azeri mob, whom he picked off with a Winchester rifle until he ran out of ammunition and was torn to pieces. Eventually, the Armenians, wealthier and better armed, started to fight back and massacre Azeris.
“They don’t even know why they’re killing each other,” said the mayor. “Thousands of dead lay in the streets,” wrote a witness of the Baku slaughters, “and covered the Christian and Mussulman cemeteries. The odour of corpses stifled us. Everywhere women with mad eyes sought their children, and husbands were moving heaps of rotting flesh.” At least 2,000 died.
Stalin was there to see these infernal and apocalyptic sights. He had formed a small Bolshevik Battle Squad in Baku. Now he gathered this mainly Muslim gang and ordered them to divide the two communities wherever possible while simultaneously taking the opportunity to steal any useful printing equipment—and raise money for the Party by protection - rackets. Stalin, according to his first biographer, Essad Bey,* who grew up in Baku, “presented himself to the head of the [Armenian] household and gravely informed him that the time was near when the household would fall beneath the knives of the Muslims,” but “after a donation to Bolshevik funds, Stalin conveyed the Armenian merchants to the countryside.”1
Afterwards Soso hurried back to Tiflis, where there was every danger of an ethnic bloodbath between Georgians and Armenians or Christians and Muslims. The city was paralysed by strikes; the police arrested revolutionaries and Cossacks charged demonstrators on Golovinsky Prospect.
Stalin helped organize a demonstration of reconciliation to prevent a massacre and wrote a passionate pamphlet which, printed and distributed by Kamo, warned that the Tsar was using “pogroms against Jews and Armenians” to “buttress his despicable throne on the blood, the innocent blood of honest citizens, the groans of dying Armenians and Tartars.”
Stalin led the demonstration on 13 February “to struggle against the devils sowing strife among us.” He proudly reported that 3,000 of his own pamphlets had been distributed, and that “in the leading core [of the crowd] a banner - bearer was carried shoulder - high to deliver a strong speech”—himself no doubt.2 But the bad blood between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was now thoroughly poisonous.
Jordania, the aristocratic Menshevik leader, returned from exile. His towering authority and sensible pro - peasant policies won over the Georgians, who overwhelmingly embraced Menshevism. At the Tiflis Committee, Isidore Ramishvili, who in Batumi had whispered about Stalin’s suspicious escape, openly accused him of being a government agent, though he apparently had no proof of this. Emboldened by Jordania, Mensheviks and then Bolsheviks each elected their own Committees.3
In April, Stalin headed west, where armed gangs and elected Committees had taken control of government and justice, even though some of the peasants thought “Committee” was actually the name of a new sort of Tsar. Arson and assassination became routine in a “separate republic where police power could not enter.” Stalin wrote frenziedly, and spoke at mass meetings against the Mensheviks in Batumi and Kutaisi. At one debate, “Comrade Koba performed strongly in a session that started at 10 p.m. and lasted until dawn.” Then, dressed in black and grey with his moustache and beard shaved off for disguise, he was smuggled into the forest to hide until he could escape by night.
Stalin’s Menshevik enemy was the charismatic firebrand Noe Ramishvili, “aged 25, tall, thin, with smiling eyes and energetic voice.” Khariton Chavichvili, a Menshevik,* saw the duellists face one another like mythical champions. First Ramishvili arrived, then “the famous Soso, Comrade Koba, smaller than Ramishvili but just as thin. His look was calmer, deeper, his face coarser, perhaps due to the pockmarks. His style, manners were totally Georgian, yet there was something utterly original, something hard to fathom, both leonine and feline about him. Under an ordinary appearance, wasn’t there something extraordinary?” Chavichvili was impressed too by the oratory—or lack of it: “He wasn’t an orator” but “a master of the art of dissimulation.” He spoke “with a light smile, eyes fixed . . . concisely, clearly, and was very persuasive” even though Ramishvili was the better speaker. Even when “the famous Soso” lost to the Mensheviks, which was often, the “workers kissed him with tears in their eyes.”4
Yet an envious fury at the smug, often Jewish Mensheviks seethed beneath Soso’s glacial calm. After one debate, he tore into the Mensheviks: “Lenin’s outraged that God sent him such comrades as the Mensheviks! Who are these people anyway? Martov, Dan, Axelrod are circumcised Yids. You can’t go into a fight with them and you can’t have a feast with them!”5
When Stalin was in Kutaisi, the miners of nearby Chiatura appealed to him. This mountain mining town was the only real Bolshevik stronghold in Georgia. With every intention of holding it, he now began to spend much of his time there. Astride snow - peaked mountains with precipitous cliffs and low clouds, Chiatura was growing fast: Russia’s biggest manganese mine supplied around 60 percent of the world’s production. Dominated by a lunar landscape of ore heaps, its 3,700 “black - skinned” workers toiled eighteen - hour days in choking dust for paltry salaries. Lacking baths or even housing, miners slept down in the mines. “Animals,” wrote Kote Tsintsadze, a gunman who was Stalin’s future bank - robbery supremo, “lived better than Chiatura workers.”6
On a hot summer day, 2,000 miners, covered in dust like blackamoors in a minstrel show, listened to the Mensheviks and then to Stalin. Chavichvili saw how Soso “the ultimate tactician” let the Mensheviks speak first, boring the audience. When his turn came, he said he did not want to tire them and refused to perform. “The workers then begged him to speak,” at which he talked for just fifteen minutes with “striking simplicity.” Stalin “kept a stupefying sang - froid . . . he talked as if in a fresh and serene conversation . . . he seemed to see nothing but observed everything.” He won the debate. His plain speaking outflanked the grand oratory of more flamboyant performers whom the workers distrusted. Years later, he worked the same trick with famous orators like Trotsky. He realized his own attraction, explaining to Chavichvili that the Menshevik speaker was a “great orator but your big cannon is no use here when you need to shoot short distances.”
Stalin took control of Chiatura, says Chavichvili, which became “the Bolshevik fortress.” Soso “was very powerful there: he surrounded himself with men twice as old, twice as cultured, but the admiration and affection with which he enveloped himself permitted him to impose his iron discipline on his troops.” Known as “Famous Soso” or “Sergeant - Major Koba,” he set up a printing - press with the help of the pretty young student Patsia Goldava, who later toted a revolver in the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery.7
The Famous Soso was the champion of armed resistance, founding, arming and commanding the Red Battle Squads, half - partisans, half - terrorists, across Georgia. “We must devote serious attention to setting up the Battle Squads,” wrote Stalin, a superb military and terrorist organizer—but the experience gave him not just the taste for military command, but the delusion that he had a gift for it.
Even the Mensheviks were arming, appointing Stalin’s rival Ramishvili to organize their Military Technical Commission and their bomb factories. By mid - 1905, these militias were ruling the streets and villages of Georgia—in between raids by Cossacks. Sometimes Stalin and the Bolsheviks cooperated with the Mensheviks, sometimes not.
In Chiatura, Stalin armed miners and local gangsters, appointing Vano Kiasashvili as commander. “Comrade Soso used to arrive to give his orders and we launched the Red Squad,” says Kiasashvili, who trained his partisans, stole guns and smuggled in ammunition over the hills. At Chiatura Station, Chavichvili watched Stalin giving orders to his other Battle Squad chieftain, Tsintsadze, the dashing, red - haired daredevil who recruited as gangsters a handful of female students, most of them in love with him. Tsintsadze’s and Stalin’s gunmen disarmed Russian troops, ambushed hated Cossacks, raided banks and murdered spooks and policemen “until nearly the whole province was in our hands.” Chiatura, boasted Tsintsadze, “became a kind of preparatory military camp.”8
Soso was constantly in and out of Chiatura to oversee this guerrilla war. Oddly, when he was there, the aristocratic manganese - mining tycoons hid and protected him. First he stayed at the mansion of Bartholome Kekelidze, then with the grander Prince Ivan Abashidze, deputy chairman of the Council of Manganese Industrialists, related to Princes Shervashidze, Amilakhvari and Prince David, alias Black Spot, the seminary teacher. (Prince Abashidze was also the great - grandfather of the present President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.) What was going on?
All the revolutionaries were funded at least partly by big business and the middle class, many of whom were alienated by the Tsarist regime and in any case excluded from any influence. In Russia itself, the plutocrats, such as the textile tycoon Savva Morozov, were the biggest Bolshevik contributors, while among lawyers, managers and accountants “it was a status symbol to give to the revolutionary parties.” This was especially true in Georgia.
Yet there is more to this than just hospitality and philanthropy. Stalin had probably learned the lucrative art of protection - racketeering and extortion from his criminal acquaintances and from his dealings in Baku and Batumi. Now he offered security in return for money. If the tycoons did not pay, their mines might be blown up, their managers murdered; if they did pay, Stalin protected them.
Two of his fighters recall, in unpublished memoirs, how Stalin kept his side of the bargain, showing that he could really deal with the devil. When the tycoons were robbed, reports G. Vashadze, “it was not local citizens who organized the search for the ‘criminals’ but J. V. Stalin.” Some “thieves robbed the manager of a German manganese company and stole 11,000 roubles,” says N. Rukhadze. “Comrade Stalin commanded us to find the money and get it back. We did so.”
It is not surprising that the tycoons preferred to have Stalin on their side: Chiatura crackled with assassinations. “The capitalists,” wrote Tsintsadze, “were so afraid it didn’t take them long to cough up.” As for any policemen or spooks, “the Chiatura organization decided to get rid of them.” They were hit one by one. Stalin, with his brigands riding shotgun through the hills, his newspapers pumping out his own articles, and his surprisingly impressive performances at mass meetings, became the king of the mountain. “Comrade Koba and [Prince] Sasha Tsulukidze,” wrote a rich young Bolshevik lawyer, Baron Bibeneishvili, “were our big guns.” But the Mensheviks were winning in the rest of the Caucasus.9
“I’ve had to travel all around the Caucasus taking part in debates, encouraging comrades,” Soso recounted to Lenin, who was abroad. “The Mensheviks campaign everywhere and we’ve got to repel them. We’ve almost no people (and still too few, two or three times less than the Mensheviks) . . . Almost all of Tiflis has fallen into their hands. Half of Baku and Batumi. But the Bolsheviks have the other half of Baku, half of Batumi, some of Tiflis, and all of the Kutaisi Region with Chiatura (the manganese - mining district, 9,000–10,000 workers). Guria belongs to Conciliators who lean towards the Mensheviks.”10
Stalin, wrote one of his Menshevik enemies, “was working very energetically, travelling around Guria, Imeretia, Chiatura, Baku, Tiflis, throwing himself to and fro, but all his work was mainly factional, trying to stamp the Mensheviks into the filth.”* He fought the Mensheviks viciously—“Against them,” he said, “any methods are fine.”11
· · ·
On 5 May 1905, a new—and liberal—viceroy stepped off the train at Tiflis Station to “marching bands, plumed hats, golden epaulettes and bombastic speeches.” Count Illarion Vorontsov - Dashkov, aged sixty - eight, was a “horse - breeder, oil investor, scion of great aristocratic families,” married to a Princess Vorontsov who was descended from one of the famous nieces of Catherine the Great’s partner, Prince Potemkin. Family friend and ex—Court Minister to the Emperor, he was open - minded and fair: one of his first acts was to appoint a liberal to govern Guria. But Count Vorontsov - Dashkov was too late and too inconsistent. In the brutal Battle of Mukden, in Manchuria, the Tsar’s armies had lost tens of thousands of peasant - soldiers yet failed to defeat the Japanese. On 27 May, the Russian Baltic Fleet, after that quixotic round - the - world voyage during which it had succeeded only in sinking an English fishing - boat in the North Sea, was ignominiously routed by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima. Even its admiral was captured. These disasters rocked the Empire. Jews were slaughtered in pogroms. On 14 June, the crew of the battleship Prince Potemkin of Taurida, the showpiece of the Black Sea Fleet, mutinied.
Within days of his arrival, Count Vorontsov - Dashkov was faced by the collapse of his power, armed gangs in Tiflis, terrorism at the railway depot, and another bloodbath in Baku. The count could scarcely square his liberal instincts with the brutal reality as his generals and Cossacks launched murderous raids on radicals in Tiflis. He was soon faced with open warfare, wild terrorism and a rash of industrial action. “In 1905,” writes one historian, “everyone from palm - readers to prostitutes went on strike.”12
On 9 June, Sasha Tsulukidze, Stalin’s beloved Red Prince, died of tuberculosis. The funeral at Kutaisi attracted 50,000 people, who followed the open coffin to Khoni singing “The Marseillaise.” Even though he was a wanted man, Stalin delivered the funeral oration, a passionate speech that one spectator could still recite three decades later.*
The Famous Soso lived in a frenzy at this time—heading east to Tiflis, west to Batumi, thence to Kutaisi, commanding his Battle Squads. “Terrorism assumed gigantic proportions,” said Baron Bibeneishvili, himself a Bolshevik terrorist. It seemed that every young revolutionary was tinkering with explosive devices, stealing guns and robbing banks. “Almost every day there was a ‘political killing’ or an attack on some representative of the old regime.” Landowners, Gendarmes, officials, Cossacks, police spies and traitors were regularly murdered in broad daylight. In Tiflis, the ex—governor - general, Golitsyn, had survived an Armenian Dashnak assassination attempt only because he wore a chain - mail vest. Between February 1905 and May 1906, the viceroy reported to the Emperor that 136 officials had been assassinated, 72 wounded. Across the Empire, 3,600 officials were killed or wounded—these official figures are probably massive understatements. In Baku, the governor, Prince Nakashidze, was killed by the Dashnaks, his police chief by a Bolshevik hit man.
“There was much competition between the parties in their terroristic antics,” explained Stalin’s Gori friend Davrichewy. In Kutaisi, Soso ordered his Battle Squad there to obtain arms by raiding the Kutaisi Arsenal. They rented a house nearby and mined under it—but the tunnel collapsed.
After Bloody Sunday and a series of massacres in Tiflis, the Cossacks were especially hated. Stalin ordered Kamo and his terrorists to attack them. Between 22 and 25 June, the Tsar’s horsemen were bombed five times.
In his white palace in Tiflis, the sexagenarian viceroy, his decent dreams in tatters, was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while in the revolutionary bedlam far beneath him, Stalin flourished in a seething atmosphere of relentless struggle. Illiterate ruffians and cutthroats like Kamo always prosper in lawless times, but Stalin was unusual—as adept at debating, writing and organizing as he was at arranging hits and heists. The command, harnessing and provocation of turmoil were his gifts. The viceroy declared martial law and handed over power to his generals.13
One day a young priest in the village of Tseva, between Chiatura and the station at Jirual, was at the bazaar when he was greeted by an unknown man. “I am Koba from Gori,” he said. “I’m not here to shop. I have private business with you.” Taking Father Kasiane Gachechiladze aside,* Stalin said he knew that the priest owned some donkeys and asked him how to get over the hills to Chiatura, adding, “No one knows this area better than you.”
The priest realized that the sinister stranger knew a lot about him and his young family. He also noticed that the local Red Battle Squad’s hit man and policemen - slayer was standing guard outside the bazaar. “There weren’t police in Tseva then—the Red Squad was in charge there.” “Koba of Gori,” clearly a Red chieftain, courteously requested the use of the priest’s donkeys and offered the considerable sum of fifty roubles to set up a route over the hills. The money eased the priest’s anxiety.
Stalin insisted on taking the priest for a drink in the local tavern.
“They’ll inform you in advance when I’m coming,” he said before disappearing. “Father, do not be late: I want to make the journey there and back in a day. We’re both young men.”
Soon the priest got the word. Stalin returned with two henchmen who helped him load the donkeys with saddlebags containing money, printing - presses and probably ammunition. Stalin knew the trains to Chiatura were often searched, and had concluded that this was the safest way to reach his “Bolshevik fortress.”
The priest and the ex - seminarist, precisely the same age, chatted as they trekked. Sometimes under a tree, Stalin rested his head on the priest’s knee for a nap. During Stalin’s dictatorship, Father Gachechiladze wished he had murdered his companion, but at the time “he impressed everyone. I even liked him—he was restrained, serious and decent. He even used to recite poetry to me,” adding that they were his own compositions. He was still proud to be a poet.
“Some of my poems were even published in the newspapers,” boasted Stalin, who rarely talked politics but claimed that “the police are after me because a friend of mine got into a fight in Chiatura over a girl—and I oversupported him.” He displayed his stiff arm as evidence of this fight (yet another of his versions). Stalin recited the blessing before meals. “You see, I still remember it,” he laughed. He sang as they walked. “Music has such power to relax the soul!” he reflected.
A peasant invited priest and revolutionary to a feast. The tipsy Stalin sang “with such velvet softness” that the peasants wanted to “marry him to their daughter.”
The priest complimented him: “You’d have made a great priest.”
“I the cobbler’s son competed with noble children and I was superior to all of them,” replied Stalin.
When they arrived in Chiatura, Stalin disappeared with the saddlebags into the bazaar and returned with them empty: “Now at least I can rest my head on them on the train home,” said Stalin.
This was Stalin’s secret life in the revolutionary summer of 1905—an armed chieftain leading packhorses laden with saddlebags of smuggled guns and plundered banknotes over the baking hills to Chiatura.14
In Tiflis, the Cossacks and the terrorists fought for the streets. Thousands met in the City Hall on Yerevan Square every day, barracking the City Council and proposing ever more radical measures. On 29 August, a public meeting of students discussing Nicholas II’s proposal of a compromise parliament named after Interior Minister Bulygin was raided brutally by the Cossacks, who entered the hall shooting. Sixty students were killed,200 wounded.
Stalin rushed back to Tiflis to meet his ally Shaumian and plan a response, on paper and in dynamite. He wrote a leaflet, raced to Chiatura and back again in time to co - ordinate a spectacular vengeance, set for 25 September. “On Stalin’s return,” says Davrichewy, “the signal was given—a red lantern lit atop Holy Mountain. At about 8 p.m., the gangsters opened fire outside the main barracks . . . When the Cossacks galloped out, grenades were tossed among the child - slayers.” Stalin’s terrorists launched nine simultaneous attacks.
Bolshevik and Menshevik hit men and agitators were already cooperating on the streets. On 13 October, Stalin and the Bolsheviks met the Mensheviks and agreed to coordinate politics and terrorism to redouble the pressure on the Autocracy, which seemed on the verge of collapse. Across the Empire, workers and soldiers elected councils, or “soviets,” the most famous being in Petersburg. The peasants rampaged in the countryside, while on 6 October a strike on the Moscow—Kazan railway escalated into a general stoppage across the Empire. It seemed that Tsardom was finished.
“The coming storm,” wrote Soso, “will break over Russia any day in a mighty cleansing flood to sweep away all that is antiquated and rotten.”
In St. Petersburg, even Nicholas II, whose political antennae were as sensitive as a stone, was forced to understand that he was about to lose his realm. He was ready to make peace with the Japanese, but political concessions went against his deepest convictions of holy Autocracy. He envied and hated his most able ministers, but his mother and uncles forced him to consult the brilliant ex—Finance Minister Sergei Witte. Before leaving to make peace with Japan at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, under the aegis of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, Witte forcefully told the Tsar, whom he despised, to concede a constitution. Nicholas II wavered, then asked his tall, soldierly cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, to become military dictator.
As Romanov Autocracy tottered, we have a rare glimpse of Stalin as gang leader dealing out death in the backstreets of Tiflis.15
* Essad Bey was one of the pseudonyms of Lev Nussimbaum, the son of a Jewish Baku oil baron, who wrote Stalin: Career of a Fanatic. He also wrote the classic love story Ali and Nino under the name Kurban Said, whose identity was a mystery until a new biography—The Orientalist by Tom Reiss—revealed Nussimbaum’s bizarre life and ethnic transformation into a Muslim in Fascist Italy. A notorious fantasist is hardly an ideal historical source; his unsourced anecdotes were long regarded as myths yet they often turn out to be historically correct. Nussimbaum must have known exiles from Tiflis and Baku and recorded their stories, but his unreliable material has to be counter - checked.
* Chavichvili’s two volumes of memoirs are invaluable but rarely used by historians: they were only published in tiny editions in French. Chavichvili was a hostile witness who wrote in exile, yet he is half impressed, half appalled by Stalin’s magnetism.
* He fought in print too. “Our Mensheviks are really too tiresome!” wrote Stalin in his pamphlet accusing them of Marxist phoniness. The article is interesting for its quaint phrases and parables: “One day a crow found a rose but that doesn’t prove a crow is a nightingale.” The Mensheviks “remind us of the thief who stole the money and shouted ‘Stop thief!’” But he concluded, “It is well known that the tongue always turns to the aching tooth.”
* In October 1940, the celebrated Georgian writer Shalva Nutsubidze was suddenly freed from jail and brought to meet Stalin, who admired, edited and contributed to his translation of Rustaveli. At dinner in Stalin’s mansion at Kuntsevo, Nutsubidze remembered the speech at Tsulukidze’s funeral and proceeded to recite it. “Extraordinary talent goes hand in hand with extraordinary memory,” exclaimed Stalin, who walked up to his guest and kissed him on the forehead. For the full story, see Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
* Father Kasiane Gachechiladze’s memoirs were written secretly during Stalin’s lifetime and inherited by his grandson, who saw this author talking about this project on Georgian television and made contact. The account of his leading horses cross - country, his movements and his conversation all chime with other sources.