Stalin in London - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Stalin in London

On 27 April/10 May 1907, after a tedious journey, Stalin and his companions Tskhakaya and Shaumian disembarked at Harwich, in England. Catching the train to London’s Liverpool Street Station,* they were greeted by sensational headlines in the English press, thrilled to have exotic “Anarchists” loose in the capital, which, then as now, was a notorious refuge for murderous extremists.

The delegates were met by an incongruous crew of English reporters and photographers, twelve Special Branch detectives and two Okhrana agents, as well as by local sympathizers who were either English socialists or Russian exiles.

“History is being made in London!” declared the Daily Mirror, which seemed to be most fascinated by the fact that some of the revolutionaries were “women burning with zeal for the great cause”—and by their lack of luggage in that age of stately travel. “There is not a man over forty and many little over twenty”—Stalin was twenty - nine, Lenin was thirty - seven (but “we always called him the Old Man,” Stalin said later). “It was,” concluded the Daily Mirror, “a most picturesque crowd.”

As with the Soviet Union itself, the delegates were meant to be equal but some were more equal than others. Maxim Gorky, “the famous novelist,” said the Mirror, “is in London but where he is staying, only his intimate friends know.” Gorky resided with his actress - mistress in the comfort of the Hotel Imperial in Russell Square, where Lenin and Krupskaya joined them. It was wet and cold when they arrived. The domineering Lenin took charge, checked Gorky’s sheets for dampness and ordered the gasfire lit to warm their wet underwear.

“There’s going to be a right old scuffle here,” Lenin told Gorky as the Leninist socks dried. The delegates with private incomes stayed in small hotels in Bloomsbury, though Lenin and Krupskaya took rooms in Kensington Square, whence he headed out every morning to pick up his favourite takeaway, fish and chips, outside King’s Cross Station. However, money was extremely short for the poor delegates like Stalin.

Legend says he spent the first nights with Litvinov, whom he now met for the first time, in the Tower House hostel on Fieldgate Street, Stepney, which the novelist Jack London called the “monster dosshouse”: it cost sixpence for a fortnight. Its conditions were so dire that Stalin supposedly led a mutiny and got everyone rehoused. He was settled into a cramped first - floor backroom at 77 Jubilee Street in Stepney, which he rented from a Jewish - Russian cobbler and shared with Tskhakaya and Shaumian.

Foggy and wet, London was an intimidating city for a visitor from Georgia. “At the outset I found London swallowed and suffocated me,” wrote another Russian Communist visitor, Ivan Maisky, later Stalin’s Ambassador to London. “I felt lonely and lost in its giant stone ocean . . . with its grim rows of little houses swallowed up in a black fog.”

If London was foreign, Whitechapel, where Russian was commonly spoken, was more familiar. One hundred and twenty thousand Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms, gangsters and socialists among them, lived in the East End. Lenin visited Rudolf Rocker’s Anarchist Club, near Stalin’s rooms in Stepney, where he ate Jewish gefilte fish. Stalin probably did so too. Soso also could hardly have missed the savage jungle of Slavic - Hebraic gang - warfare. The East End gangs, all from the Russian Empire, controlled so - called rookeries of “shootflyers” (gold - watch thieves) and “whizzers” (pickpockets). Three gangs vied for supremacy: the Bessarabian Tigers fought the Odessans, who fought the Aldgate Mob led by Darkie the Coon (a swarthy Jewish gangster named Bogard).

On arrival, Stalin and the others registered at the Polish Socialist Club on Fulbourne Street off the Whitechapel Road across from the London Hospital.* Observed by Special Branch detectives and excited journalists, they received their sparse allowance of two shillings a day, guidance on how to find the main Congress, and secret passwords to avoid Okhrana infiltration.

Meeting upstairs in “modest premises with little furniture belonging to a socialist club with tables and chairs and foreign autographs on the walls,” the Bolsheviks started the political business with their own factional meeting at which they elected a secret committee, and like all good conferencers, “They studied the city map.” But the Daily Mirror had no time for such mundane details. “The women are said to be conspicuous for their unflinching courage and nerve,” the reporter revealed admiringly. “Revolver practise enters their daily exercise. They drill themselves constantly in front of the mirror by which they become adept in aiming and pulling the trigger . . . Most of these are young girls, one being eighteen wearing her long fair hair in a long coil down her back.”

The eagle - eyed Daily Express, however, noticed “a sturdy resolute - looking man who . . . stood at the corner of Fulbourne Street, obviously a foreigner and equally obviously a person of some importance. Apparently unconcerned, he was taking a lively interest . . . This was Monsieur Seveff, one of Russia’s secret police, and his duty is to keep watch on the Russian Socialists”—who, that paper added significantly, “had little luggage.”

The delegates then proceeded to the SD Fifth Congress, taking the bus or walking to Islington, where they were amazed to find they were meeting in a church, the Brotherhood Church on Southgate Road: “down the dim and dirty streets of working - class quarters, it was like dozens of buildings, soot - grimed walls, high narrow windows, grimy roof with a short steeple.” Inside, the delegates found “a simple bare room that could hold 300–400.” Gorky was unimpressed by the church décor, “unadorned to the point of absurdity.” The vicar, the Reverend F. R. Swan, whose flock included the future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, was a pacifist follower of William Morris.

On 30 April/13 May 1907, the father of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, opened the Congress after delegates sang a funeral hymn for fallen comrades. Stalin watched how Lenin often sat with the tall, haunted and spectrethin Gorky, international celebrity and Bolshevik fund - raiser who had once watched a hanging in Gori.* The Bolsheviks sat on one side, the Mensheviks on the other; every vote was “ultra tense.”

There were 302 voting delegates representing 150,000 workers, but after the glory days of 1905 the Party was in dire straits, shattered by Nicholas II’s repressions. There were 92 Bolsheviks, most of whom were determined to continue the armed struggle of 1905 and avoid participation in the Duma. They were outnumbered by 85 Mensheviks, 54 Jewish Bundists, 45 Polish - Lithuanians and 26 Letts who supported participation in the Duma elections. Lenin also wanted to adopt the strategy of gun and ballot - box favoured in our time by terrorists from the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. So he used Menshevik help to win that battle before turning on them again.

The entire Party was shrinking, but the Bolsheviks had been so routed in Georgia that Stalin, Tskhakaya and Shaumian were only consultative delegates without votes.

“Who is that?” Stalin supposedly asked Shaumian as a new orator took the podium.

“Don’t you know him?” answered Shaumian. “It’s Comrade Trotsky”—real name Lev Bronstein, the undoubted star in London, who had just pulled off an escape from Siberia by dashing 400 miles through the tundra on a reindeer - propelled sleigh. Here Stalin first saw (and probably shook hands with) Trotsky, who for his part did not recall meeting his nemesis until 1913.

While Stalin had been commanding his militias in Chiatura, Trotsky had been Chairman of the Petersburg Soviet. Effortlessly brilliant in writing, dizzyingly eloquent in performance, unmistakably Jewish in accent, and shamelessly vain, Trotsky, with his dandyish suits and plumage of mane - like tresses carefully bouffed, possessed the shine of international radical celebrity, light - years ahead of Stalin. Despite being a rich Jewish farmer’s son from faraway Kherson Province, he was overweeningly arrogant, regarding Georgians as bumpkin “provincials.”

Lenin, who had nicknamed him “the Pen” for his virtuoso journalism, now complained that Trotsky was showing off. Stalin, whose gifts lurked in the shadows while Trotsky’s glittered in the spotlight, hated him on sight: Trotsky was “pretty but useless,” wrote Stalin on his return. Trotsky simply sneered that Stalin “never spoke.”

It was true that Stalin did not speak during the entire Congress. He knew that the Mensheviks, who hated him for his truculence and banditry, were gunning for him as part of their campaign to ban bank robberies and score points off Lenin. When Lenin proposed the vote on credentials, Martov, the Russian Menshevik leader, prompted by Jordania, challenged the three nonvoters, Stalin, Tskhakaya and Shaumian.

“One can’t vote without knowing who’s involved. Who are these people?” asked Martov.

“I really don’t know,” replied Lenin insouciantly, though he had just met Stalin in Berlin. Martov lost his challenge.

“We protest!” shouted Jordania, but to no avail. Stalin henceforth loathed Martov, real name Tsederbaum, who was, like Trotsky, Jewish.

The Jewish presence irked Stalin, who decided that the Bolsheviks were “the true Russian faction” while the Mensheviks were the “Jewish faction.” There must have been some grumbling about this in the pub after the sessions. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for us Bolsheviks,” said the Bolshevik Alexinsky to Stalin “in jest,” “to organize a pogrom in the Party.” At a time when thousands of Jews had just been slaughtered in pogroms, it was a “jest” in poor taste.* Its resentment of Jewish intellectuals exposed Stalin’s burning inferiority complex. But here too is the emergence of Stalin the Russian (for there was no anti - Semitism in Georgia, where Babylonian Jews had lived for two millennia without a single pogrom). Weary of Georgia’s petty squabbles and Menshevik dominance, he was ready to concentrate on Baku and Russia herself. Henceforth he wrote in Russian, not Georgian.

Lenin got his way at the Congress. More Bolsheviks than Mensheviks were elected to the Central Committee, while he continued to keep his secret Bolshevik Centre. “Now,” reflected Stalin later, “I got to see Lenin in triumph.”

However the Mensheviks did achieve one resolution that affected Stalin: they passed a rigorous condemnation of bank robberies that decreed expulsion from the Party for anyone who broke the rules. They appointed the gay Menshevik aristocrat Georgi Chicherin (later the second Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs) to investigate all the bank robberies since the Stockholm Congress. “Stalin was very reserved during that meeting, mostly silent, keeping himself in the shadows,” noticed Devdariani, his Menshevik friend. Trotsky later understood that Stalin was preoccupied with his bank robberies in May 1907: “Why did he bother to come to London? He must have had other tasks.”

Outside, “Curious Englishmen gathered and just stared at us as if we were animals from faraway lands!” The press besieged the building while the early versions of paparazzi pushily photographed the shy revolutionaries, who begged them to desist. RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONISTS AFRAID OF CAMERA: headlined the Daily Express. “Do you realize that the reproduction of those portraits could mean death?” one Russian told the newspaper, not realizing that all the precautions were irrelevant.

The spooks were already inside the church. The Russian secret police—then as now—was irritated by the English tendency to grant asylum to Russian dissidents. “Because of London’s liberalism, it’ll be impossible to count on co - operation of local police forces,” complained A. M. Garting, the director of the Okhrana Foreign Agency, based in Paris. Two agents followed the revolutionaries to England. Special Branch and the Russian secret policemen lurked in the street to the delight of the press, but the Okhrana did not need outside help—their double - agent Yakov Zhitomirsky, who received 2,000 francs a month, was one of two traitors inside the Congress. In the Okhrana archives, we find the speeches reported as tediously as in the official protocols.

Lenin was at his best in London. Inside the church, the delegates ate during sessions, but funds were dwindling. Lenin worried that his Bolsheviks were not eating enough, so he arranged for Gorky’s mistress to distribute beer and sandwiches.

After sessions, Lenin chatted to delegates on the grass in the sunshine of Hyde Park, lectured them on English pronunciation, laughed with them unaffectedly, gave them tips on cheap accommodation and took them to his favourite pub, the Crown and Woolpack in Finsbury, where a Special Branch detective was said to have hidden in a cupboard to eavesdrop though he spoke no Russian. On 13 May, Stalin may have attended his only Chelsea soirée. In an early case of radical chic, the artist Felix Moscheles invited the Marxists to a reception filled with guests in evening dress at his house at 123 Old Church Street. There Ramsay MacDonald toasted the Russians; Plekhanov and Lenin responded. Their hosts expressed surprise that they were not kitted out in white tie.

Stalin was not in Chelsea most nights—he spent more of his time on the rough side of town. His experience was surely like that of Maisky: “I tramped along dreary streets, feebly lit by antiquated gas - lamps, crossed deserted bridges, seeing glimpses of dark shadowy canals beneath. I saw London’s belly and heard the calls of prostitutes and brazen laughter of their drunken escorts. I nearly fell over homeless creatures sleeping on the steps of closed shops.” At some point, in a pub, Stalin was almost beaten up by East End dockers. Litvinov supposedly rescued him. According to his daughter, Litvinov joked that this was the only reason Stalin later spared him, saying, “I haven’t forgotten that time in London.”

Back in Stepney, Mister Ivanovich (a.k.a. Stalin), who wore a tunic - style jacket, baggy trousers and high boots, spent much time in his room reading, but he also employed a youth named Arthur Bacon to run errands. “Stalin wrote a letter to someone a street or so away,” recalled Bacon in an interview after the Second World War, “and wanted it taken round by hand. He couldn’t write English so the cobbler’s wife addressed the envelope.” Bacon was usually paid a halfpenny per errand, but Stalin gave him two bob: “That was money then, you know,” said Bacon. Stalin, either generous or ignorant, had paid him 4,800 percent above the going rate. “His favourite treat was toffee,” added Bacon. “I bought him some every day.”

While Stalin was living in East End penury, he probably saw little of London. The Bolsheviks were so politically obsessed and culturally parochial, they scarcely noticed either natural or cultural landmarks. To admire a city, wrote Trotsky, “you have to expend too much of yourself. I had my own sphere of activity which brooked no rival: Revolution.” Soso was the same. He hardly had any money, but during the Second World War he confided in one of his young diplomats, Andrei Gromyko, later Soviet Foreign Minister and President, that he had spent his time “in churches listening to the sermons—the best way to learn English.” Despatching Gromyko as Ambassador to Washington, he suggested he do the same.

Meanwhile the Congress had run out of cash to pay the sixty - five roubles for each delegate to get home. Something had to be done. The Russian - Jewish socialist Fyodor Rothstein, who had helped organize the Congress, appealed to the leftist journalist H. N. Brailsford of the Daily News and the Labour MP George Lansbury. They approached the tycoon Joseph Fels, American owner of the Fels - Naphtha Soap Company.

“Before I decide,” replied the soap baron, “I want to see these people.” Brailsford and Lansbury took Fels to the Brotherhood Church to watch a session. “How young they all are, how absorbed!” exclaimed the Philadel - phian, who offered the Party £1,700. Fels’s loan agreement stipulated, “We, the undersigned delegates” must repay him by 1 January 1908. Fels insisted it be signed by every delegate. Lenin agreed but then ordered the revolutionaries to use only aliases. They duly signed this extraordinary document in English, Russian or Georgian. Lenin probably just signed “Vladimir.” It is believed Stalin used a favoured alias: “Vasily from Baku.” Fels died before Lenin came to power, but his heirs were repaid in 1917.

When Churchill* met Stalin for the first time in 1942, they bonded, after a frosty start, in a nocturnal Kremlin drinking marathon at which the Prime Minister asked about this London visit.

“Lenin, Plekhanov, Gorky and others were there,” Stalin answered.

“Trotsky?” asked Churchill about the enemy whom Stalin had had assassinated two years earlier.

“Yes, he was there,” replied Stalin, “but went away a disappointed man not having been given any organization to represent such as the Battle Squads which Trotsky hoped for . . .” Even thirty years later and after murdering his great enemy, Stalin was still proud that he had commanded Battle Squads while the celebrated War Commissar Trotsky had not.

“The London Congress is over,” reported “Koba Ivanovich,” Stalin’s latest pseudonym, in the Bakinsky Proletary, “ending in the victory of Bolshevism.”

However Stalin and Shaumian remained in London to nurse Tskhakaya, who had fallen sick. “I had a temperature of 39 or even more,” recounts Tskhakaya, so Stalin and Shaumian stayed on “to care for me because we all lived in one room.”

There is a legend among Welsh Communists that, after the Congress, Stalin forsook his nursing duties to visit the miners of the Valleys: after all, his 1905 stronghold, Chiatura, was a mining town. But despite a miraculous blossoming of sightings of “Stalin in Wales” among the Communists of the Rhondda during the Second World War, there is not the slightest evidence that he visited Wales.* Besides, he had not yet invented the name “Stalin.” But he was also supposedly spotted on the docks of Liverpool, a Scouse version of his encounter with the London dockers. Sadly, “Stalin in Liverpool” belongs with “Stalin in Wales” in that fabulous realm of urban mythology, regional aspirational fantasia and leftist personality cult.1

After about three weeks in London, Soso spent a week in Paris. Then, borrowing the papers of a just - deceased Georgian, Simon Jvelaya, he arrived home in Tiflis on the eve of the big bank robbery.2

* They were not meant to be in London at all: the original plan was to hold the Congress in Copenhagen, so Stalin travelled to St. Petersburg, then to Finland and on to Malmö in Sweden, whence he and his fellow delegates were ferried to Copenhagen. But the Danes expelled them to Sweden, which sent them back to Denmark, which despatched them to Esbjerg, where they caught a steamship to London.

The other big news during these weeks was a plot against the life of the Tsar and a photo - portrait of the three - year - old Tsarevich Alexei headlined: TSAREVICH WEARS HIS FIRST PAIR OF KNICKERS; the wedding of the Tsar’s cousin Grand Duke Nicholas to the daughter of the Prince of Montenegro; and the birth of a son to the English Queen of Spain, headlined AN ENGLISH BABE.

* Now a furniture warehouse, a camera shop and a gentleman’s outfitters.

* Later in life, Gorky would become the dictator’s friend, shameful apologist, pathetic trophy and possibly victim. See Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

* Stalin slyly blamed this on Grigory Alexinsky in Notes of a Delegate, his account of the London Congress published under the name “Koba Ivanovich” in Bakinsky Proletary. He pointed out that the “majority of Mensheviks were Jews, then came Georgians and then Russians. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik group were Russians, then came Jews (not counting Poles and Letts of course), then Georgians . . .” Much has been made of the Jewish nature of the SDs, but Stalin’s figures show how Georgian the Party was too. Arsenidze asserts that Stalin was “neutral” on the Jews, merely interested in what was useful politically. In his articles, he was sympathetic to their plight: “Groaning under the yoke are the eternally persecuted and humiliated Jews who lack even the miserably few rights enjoyed by other Russian subjects.” On a related theme, he also attacked the Mensheviks for being “intellectuals” instead of workers and expressed amazement that the Mensheviks had attacked the Bolsheviks for containing too many intellectuals: “We explained the Menshevik shouts by the proverb: ‘The tongue ever turns to the aching tooth.’” As we have seen, this was a favourite phrase. As for the challenge to his credentials, most histories retell this to diminish his importance and standing, but never mention that the respected Tskhakaya and Shaumian were challenged simultaneously. There was another reason for Lenin’s insouciance. He had offered a merger deal to the Georgian Mensheviks: if Jordania did not interfere in Russian matters, he could become leader of a united Party in Georgia. Jordania never took up the offer.

* Churchill, aged thirty - three, was living at his bachelor flat at Mount Street WI while Stalin, twenty - nine, was staying as Koba Ivanovich in Stepney. Already Under - Secretary for the Colonies in the Liberal government of Sir Henry Campbell - Bannerman, he had just published his biography of his father, Lord Randolph. He was famous enough for a biography of himself to be published, the first. While Stalin was in England, Churchill travelled up to give a speech in Scotland which was reported in the papers.

* “Stalin in Wales” persists: the Welsh writer John Summers “confirmed” it on a visit to the mining town founded by a Welshman, Hughesovska (now Donetsk) in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. A Welsh website still lists Stalin among “scary individuals who have spent quality - time in Wales,” alongside the serial - killer Fred West, the magician Aleister Crowley, the Nazi Rudolf Hess and the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin: “Stalin briefly visited the South Wales valleys to garner support and raise funds for the Russian Revolution.” Of Stalin’s helpers, Fyodor Rothstein, the Bolshevik fixer in London, became Soviet Ambassador to Persia, dying before the Terror. His son Andrew Rothstein enjoyed a strange career between the English Establishment and the Stalinist nomenklatura, he studied at Oxford University, then worked in the Marxism - Leninism Institute during the Terror and was fortunate to survive, later returning to London to become the sage of British Marxism. In one of his more bizarre reminiscences, Stalin told a group of British MPs during the Second World War that he had seen Benito Mussolini, then a socialist, at a Marxist meeting when he was in London. It is possible he did see Mussolini at some socialist conference in Germany, but the future Duce was not then in London. Stalin’s English errand - boy Bacon became a hospital orderly at Beckenham Hospital. He gave an interview to the Daily Express in 1950 when he was fifty - six. “I wonder if Generalissimo Stalin, Father of all the Russias, remembers the tall boy who bought him toffee,” concluded Bacon. The house on Jubilee Street no longer exists.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!