Stalin was about to open fire when his brother - in - law grabbed the gun. He recognized the terrified policeman who had been bribed not to interfere with their printing - press. Soso’s edginess was understandable: the Cossacks had crushed the revolutionaries and the Okhrana was hunting him down, as he organized more heists for the Outfit in different parts of the Caucasus to fund the purchase of arms in Europe. Stalin was away from his new wife for weeks, oblivious to the fact that his life put her in real danger.
Around 9 September 1906, Stalin attended Jordania’s SD conference in Tiflis, and then at a Baku hotel. Tsarist repression and Menshevik success had broken the Bolsheviks in Georgia. Besides, the Mensheviks had officially given up terrorism, regarding Stalin and his Outfit as embarrassing bandits. Out of the meagre forty - two delegates, only six, including Stalin, Shaumian and Tskhakaya, were Bolsheviks.
Stalin compensated for this by defiantly sneering at the Mensheviks, on whom he played sinister tricks. “He spent the whole conference smiling ironically,” says Devdariani, his Menshevik seminary friend, “thinking ‘Make whatever resolutions you like, they’re irrelevant to the Revolution.’” Stalin was so “defiant, crude and sullen” that the Menshevik chairman, Arsenidze, accused him of “behaving indecently,” like a whore, a “woman of the streets” who wears no knickers. Stalin “jauntily replied that he hadn’t yet dropped his trousers.” Then, grinning “spitefully from the left side of his mouth,” he stalked out. “After a few minutes, we heard the agreed whistle warning us the police were coming. We scattered,” says Arsenidze. “But there were no police anywhere. It was Koba’s prank.”
Yet Stalin had become “the main financier of the Russian Bolshevik Centre,” according to the Menshevik, Uratadze, and he remained one of Lenin’s chief funders for the next three years. After the conference, it seems likely that Stalin headed west to Sukhum on the Black Sea to open a new front in his campaign of robberies: piracy on the high seas.
On 20 September, the steamship Tsarevich Giorgi, 2,200 tons and 285 feet long, was on its way from Odessa to Batumi, carrying passengers and a considerable treasury. Unknown to the ship’s captain, groups of Bolshevik gangsters, guns and grenades concealed under felt cloaks, boarded the ship when it stopped to deliver wages at Novorossiisk, Sukhum and New Athos.
At 1:15 a.m., as the sleeping ship passed Cape Kodori, the gang of twenty - five pirates, including “workers and intellectuals,” drew Mausers, Berdanas and bombs from their cloaks and held up the ship. The chief gangster, described by the Gendarmes afterwards as a “short Georgian in his twenties with gingerish hair, and freckles,” took over the bridge, training his Mauser on Captain Sinkevich. The duty officer, steersman and crew were held at gunpoint, though four sailors probably assisted the pirates as “inside men.”
The chief pirate, reported the crew later, was glacially calm and courteous throughout the heist. “We’re revolutionaries through and through, not criminals,” he announced. “We need cash for the Revolution and we’ll take only Treasury funds. Obey my commands and there’ll be no bloodshed. But if you’re thinking of resisting, we’ll kill you all and blow up the ship.”
“I submitted,” Captain Sinkevich admitted in an interview with the Tiflissky Listok afterwards. The crew and passengers were gathered and warned “to see nothing.” The captain showed the money to the chief gangster. The police announced officially that the Bolsheviks took 16,000 roubles, but the pirates probably bagged much more.
The gangster boss ordered Captain Sinkevich to lower the lifeboats. The pirates held some of the ship’s officers hostage as they loaded the cash, after which they ordered the sailors to row them ashore. They were conveyed so efficiently that the pirate chief, “being touched by their extremely conscientious obedience to his orders, ordered each sailor to be given a 10 - roubles tip.” The Tsarevich Giorgi was free to sail for Batumi.
On raising the alarm seven hours later, Cossacks and Gendarmes hunted the Bolshevik pirates along the coast without finding a single trace of the gang or the loot. Stalin and two Russian Bolsheviks hid at the home of Stepan Kapba, one of the gang—as remembered by his sister years later. Then, the sister testified, they moved on to another safe house belonging to the Atum family, and finally on to the Gvaramia home. As an old man, Kamshish Gvaramia recalled how Stalin arrived at his house. His father was excited at being asked to “hide the pockmarked chieftain of the gang that held up the mail - ship off Cape Kodori who subsequently became leader of this great country.”
Stalin and the gangsters moved westwards through Abkhazia, across the Enguri River, into Guria. Old men told the writer and compiler of Abkhazian history Fasil Iskander how Stalin ordered the murder of seven unreliable gangsters (including the four collaborating sailors) and then led a train of horses packed with cash across the hills, a carbine over his shoulder. Iskander tells the story in his classic Sandro of Chegem. After delivering the cash to henchmen in Kutaisi, Stalin caught the train to Tiflis, leaving the bodies to be “eaten by jackals.”
Did Stalin really lead the pirate heist? The police description of the pirate chieftain fits Stalin in style, looks and speech: he too often insisted that he was “a revolutionary not a criminal.” But the description is very vague. Most memoirs claim that he organized, but did not participate in, the robberies.*
Yet we know from the memoirs of the Svanidzes and Davrichewy that Stalin carried a gun and was not shy of using it at this time. The well - informed Menshevik Arsenidze explained that Stalin “did not participate” in the notorious Tiflis heist but added, “There were a whole bunch of expropriations.” He heard that “even Stalin had participated” in one of them. Stalin had connections at the ports of Novorossiisk, New Athos and Sukhum, where the pirates boarded the ship—he had visited these places in 1905. Stalin’s practise of leading packponies with saddlebags full of banknotes over the hills is confirmed by Father Gachechiladze’s memoirs cited earlier.
This was not Stalin’s only involvement in piracy. He later orchestrated the robbery of another mail ship and planned several others in Baku.* The Abkhazian historian Stanislav Lakoba, whose other researches are meticulous, followed the legend to its source and managed to interview, independently of each other, two aged witnesses before they died. They confirmed that he had led the attack and collected the cash.
The dates fit perfectly. Stalin was not at home. The Baku conference had ended. These few days are blank. The ship was robbed on 20 September and it would have taken Stalin a few days to reach Tiflis. As arranged with Lenin and Krasin in Stockholm, Kamo and two of Stalin’s comrades were waiting in Tiflis to set off on a trip to buy weapons for the Party.
There is no documentary proof of Stalin’s role, but his participation is at the very least highly plausible. It certainly looks as if the robbery was timed for a reason—and Kamo received the money.
Five days after the holdup, on 25 September, Kamo left Tiflis with enough cash to travel round Europe and buy arms.1
Kamo, accompanied by the loquacious actor - revolutionary Mdivani and Kavtaradze, who had thrown the lamp at Stalin, first took the train to St. Petersburg. They were met and given instructions by Krasin, who ran the “Bolshevik Centre,” their clandestine headquarters in Finland, with Lenin and his ally Alexander Bogdanov, philosopher and organizer. This threesome were known as the “Small Trinity.”
Krasin knew Stalin from Baku and Stockholm. Always in stiff white collars and sporting a well - tended Charles I beard, he lived a double life: on one hand, he was a socialite womanizer and friend of millionaires; on the other, his bomb factories provided murderous devices for the Bolsheviks and other terrorist groups.† “His dream,” says Trotsky, “was to create a bomb the size of a walnut.” He never accomplished the walnut - bomb.
Krasin was the first in a line of sophisticated worshippers of violence to “almost fall in love with Kamo,” whom he put in contact with Meyer Wallach,* a worldly Jewish Bolshevik with spectacles and wavy fair hair.
Kamo and the two Georgians met Wallach in Paris. The Jewish fixer and the Armenian psychopath worked well together, travelling to Liege, in Belgium, Berlin, then Sofia, in Bulgaria, to buy arms, mainly Mausers, Mannlicher rifles and ammo. In Varna on the Black Sea, they bought a leaky yacht, the Zara, loaded it with arms, appointed as captain a revolutionary sailor from the battleship Potemkin, and hired four crew. Kamo volunteered as cook and enforcer, wiring up the boat to his berth so he could blow it up if Tsarist agents tried to board. In the Black Sea, a storm rocked the Zara, which sprang a leak, then ran aground. Kamo ignited his suicidal dynamite—but it failed to explode. The captain tried but failed to commit suicide. Seamen and cook were rescued, freezing, by a passing sailing - boat. The Zara sank, the spoils of Stalin’s piracy returning to the waves.
Kamo made it back to Tiflis, where Stalin had a new idea for a colossal bank robbery. A few months earlier, in Tiflis, he had bumped into a certain Voznesensky who had studied with him at the Gori Church School and the Tiflis Seminary. Voznesensky told his school friend that he now worked in the Tiflis banking mail office with access to the invaluable, secret schedules of the cash stagecoaches. Stalin invited him for a cup of milk at the Adamia milkbar, where he was persuaded to help the Bolsheviks expropriate money that passed through the mail office. Voznesensky, who was interviewed by a secret Party investigation in 1908, confessed that he agreed to help “only for Koba” because “Koba wrote a poem on the death of Prince Eristavi of such revolutionary character: it impressed me so much.” Only in Georgia could a terrorist receive the timing and tip for a robbery because he was such a fine poet!
Stalin introduced Voznesensky to the Outfit, keeping in contact and meeting his inside man every few months. He had last met Voznesensky in late 1906, so it seems the Okhrana was right that the robbery was originally planned for January or February 1907. But it had not happened. In his own surly and laconic answers to a cross - examination by a Menshevik Party inquiry, Stalin confirmed that he had been behind the world’s most notorious heist, running the two “inside men,” including the “one Comrade Koba knows from school,” whom he had introduced to the Outfit.
Stalin’s other “inside man” was Grigory “Gigo” Kasradze, another Goreli, a cousin of Keke and Father Charkviani, who was interviewed by a different Party investigation committee. He too was groomed by Stalin for months before the robbery. Both were part of Stalin’s own private intelligence network.
Kamo, after the sinking of the Zara, lacked the necessary armaments for these new operations so Stalin sent him back to see Krasin. A grand sympathizer, Prince Koki Dadiani, lent him his passport, allowing him to travel to the capital in style. At their Finnish hideout, Kamo met Lenin and Krupskaya. “He was a fearless fighter of limitless audacity and unbreakable willpower,” Krupskaya observes, “but also exceedingly sensitive, somewhat naïve . . .” Lenin called him his “Caucasian bandit,” thrilled that he always packed two pistols, which he regularly invited Krupskaya’s noble mother to strap on. Lenin and Krupskaya, both brought up with privilege and culture, courted Kamo. They were always drawn to the glamour (and utility) of brutal cutthroats, following the sentiments of the anarchist Bakunin: for the Revolution to triumph, he wrote, “we must join with the swashbuckling robber - world, the true and only revolutionaries in Russia.”
Entranced by Kamo’s simple - eyed sweetness, the Lenins sensed that his strange tranquillity might, at any moment, be shattered by an act of insane violence. He once met the Lenins for lunch saying he had a present for them, which he slowly placed on the table wrapped in a napkin. “Everyone went silent. ‘He’s got a bomb!’ they thought,” recounts Krupskaya. “But it was a watermelon.” Kamo returned to Tiflis with a shipment of grenades.2
Lenin, according to Stalin’s gangster Kupriashvili, ordered Stalin to raise much - needed funds to pay for the coming London Congress. Stalin kept in contact with Kamo and his inside men in the banking system but also travelled back to Baku, where he was busy founding and editing the Russian newspaper Bakinsky Proletary (Baku Worker) with Shaumian and Spandarian. Involved in so much skulduggery, Soso seemed untouchable. But, while he was away, his wife was not so lucky.
During a raid on a Bolshevik in Moscow, the Okhrana found a note that read: “3 Freilinskaya Street, seamstress Svanidze, ask for Soso.” Not long afterwards, Kamo asked the Svanidzes to host a “Moscow Jewish comrade” for two weeks. The sisters welcomed him but soon after his departure, on 13 November 1906, the Gendarmes raided the house asking for Soso and Kato. The sisters realized that the “Moscow Jewish comrade” was a traitor. The Gendarmes fortunately did not find either Soso or his documents hidden inside the fashion mannequins. But Kato was arrested—along with her cousin, the bomb - maker Spiridon Dvali, who was sentenced to death. This was no joke for a girl already four months pregnant.
Sashiko Svanidze sprang into action to help Stalin’s wife, calling in the favours of her clients, who included most of the Gendarme officers: “I went to see the wife of Gendarme Colonel Rechitsky (whose dress I was making at the time) and requested her to reduce Dvali’s death penalty and to release the innocent Kato.” The Colonel’s wife did get Dvali’s sentence reduced and helped the pregnant Kato even more by allowing her to await her release in a police station instead of prison. The sisters were also making the gowns for the wife of the police station chief, who immediately took Kato home with her and looked after her.
On Stalin’s return after his frantic shuttling around the Caucasus, “He was deeply despondent about what had happened,” notes Monoselidze. “He insisted on visiting Kato,” so Sashiko went to see the wife of the police station chief and “told her our cousin from our village had come to visit Kato. The police officer’s wife permitted it, so we took Soso to their apartment at night and they had a rendezvous there. Fortunately none of them knew Soso by sight. The police officer’s wife demanded that Kato be allowed home for two hours every evening. Soso and Kato met every evening like that” until her release two months later.
Soon after her release, on 18 March 1907, Kato was delivered of a son, Yakov.* According to Kato’s cousin Ketevan Gelovani, Soso was present for the birth along with his mother. Keke and “the little woman” Kato got on very well. Stalin was over the moon at being a father. “After the birth of the baby,” Monoselidze observes, “his love for wife and child became ten times more.” He nicknamed the baby “Patsana” (Laddie). Writing day and night, however, Stalin became “irritated when the baby’s crying disturbed his work. But as soon as the mother fed it and the baby stopped crying, he kissed him, tickling his nose, fondling him.”
Soso had much on his mind. That March 1907, Stalin’s Outfit planned a heist on the Kutaisi stagecoach, but, just before the chosen day, its chieftain, Tsintsadze, was arrested. Stalin appointed Kamo as his successor. Stalin’s pet psychopath was more than capable of controlling the band of bandits, always tottering between simple enthusiasm and frenzied killing. When he heard a Bolshevik, probably Stalin, arguing theory with a Menshevik, he exclaimed: “What are you arguing with him for? Let me slit his throat.” Kamo, with Tsintsadze’s female gunslingers Anneta, Patsia and Alexandra, held up the Kutaisi stagecoach—but the Cossacks fired back. Kamo and the girls found themselves in the midst of a savage fire - fight, but when it was at its most intense the girls swooped in and grabbed the money - bags, which they then smuggled to Tiflis in their lingerie. “Anneta and I wrapped it around our bodies,” recalls Alexandra Darakhe - lidze. Kamo hid the cash in wine - sacks and sent it to Lenin in Finland.
Stalin’s inside men in the banking mail now informed the Outfit that a huge delivery was due in Tiflis—it might be as big as a million roubles, enough to fund Lenin’s expensive organization for years. Stalin and Kamo prepared for a spectacular heist.
Barely a month later, Stalin, elected as non - voting delegate to the Fifth Congress, left Laddie and Kato in Tiflis, setting off on a long journey via Baku, St. Petersburg, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Stalin, travelling under the name “Ivanovich,” was on his way to London.3
Around 24 April, when he was in Denmark, he took the train down to Berlin to meet Lenin. We know they met secretly on this trip and that Stalin visited Berlin. They had one subject to discuss: the imminent Tiflis bank robbery. If Lenin went to Berlin, writes Trotsky, “then it was not for theoretical conversation but was undoubtedly devoted to the impending expropriations and the means of forwarding the money.” The secrecy was aimed as much at their comrades as at the Okhrana: the Party, now dominated by Mensheviks, had banned brigandage.
Lenin and Stalin then proceeded separately to London.4
* This was true especially after the 1907 London Congress banned expropriations and ordered expulsion from the Party for those who disobeyed. But this was September 1906—the London Congress was in the future.
* This piracy was quite common among the revolutionary bandits: Stalin’s Gori alter ego, Davrichewy, chief of the military wing of the Socialist - Federalists, tells how he robbed a ship carrying funds at roughly the same time as the Tsarevich Giorgi heist. Meanwhile, off Odessa, revolutionaries seized a noble dinner - party on a pleasure ship, theSofia, where they grabbed £5,000 in gold.
† At this time Krasin loaned his most advanced infernal device to the Maximalist - SR terrorists, who used it to blow up the house of the Tsar’s brilliant Premier Stolypin. Many were killed in the inferno but Stolypin survived.
* Later Stalin’s People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs during the 1930s, Maxim Litvinov.
* Known as Yasha to the family, he was christened months later and registered years later—hence confusions about his birth. The name was probably a tribute to Stalin’s protector, Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili.