Stalin settled Kato and Laddie, their baby, in the apartment of an oil worker and plunged himself into a life of banditry, espionage, extortion and agitation, the murkiest years of his entire career. Probably again on the Rothschild payroll, he soon moved his little family outside Baku city into a “Tartar house with a low ceiling on the Bailov Peninsula which he rented from its Turkish owner,” just above a cave, right on the seaside.
Kato, a born homemaker, made the shack cosy, with a wooden bed, curtains and her little sewing - machine in the corner. Visitors noticed the contrast between the sordid exterior and the tidiness inside—but Soso was not often there. Kato did not know many people, but Sergei Alliluyev visited them. He was now the manager of the local power plant and lived with Olga and the children in a villa by the sea. It was here in Baku that their youngest daughter, Nadezhda, wearing a pretty white dress, fell over the edge of their sunny yard into the Caspian Sea. Stalin jumped in and rescued her, a romantic tale, often retold as she grew up.
Always dressed in his trademark black fedora, Stalin gave a speech on 17 June 1907, the very day he arrived, and threw himself into his editing of the two Bolshevik newspapers, Bakinsky Proletary and Gudok (Whistle); he immediately set about dominating the Party there with his brand of aggressive politics, terrorist intimidation and gangster fund - raising.
Everywhere in Russia, “The reaction had triumphed, all liberties destroyed and revolutionary parties smashed,” recalls Tatiana Vulikh, but Baku, ruled as much by the oil companies and corrupt policemen as by the Tsar’s governors, followed its own rules. Stalin was on the run in Tiflis, but for a few months before Stolypin’s next crackdown he could stroll the Baku streets. Tiflis, said Stalin contemptuously, had been a parochial “marsh” but Baku “was one of the revolutionary centres of Russia,” its oil vital to the Tsar and the West, its workers a true proletariat, its streets violent and lawless. Baku, wrote Stalin, “would be my second baptism of fire.”1
Baku was a city of “debauchery, despotism and extravagance,” and a twilight zone of “smoke and gloom.” Its own governor called it “the most dangerous place in Russia.” For Stalin, it was the “Oil Kingdom.”
Baku was created by one dynasty. Swedish by origin, Russian by opportunity and international by instinct, the Nobels made their first fortune selling land mines to Tsar Nicholas I, but in 1879, the year of Baku’s first “fountain” of oil, the brothers Ludwig and Robert Nobel founded the Nobel Brothers Oil Company in the town known mainly for the ancient Zoroastrian temple where Magi priests tended their holy oil - fuelled flames.* The drilling had already started; entrepreneurs struck oil in spectacular gushers.
The Nobels started to buy up land particularly in what became the Black City. Another brother, Alfred, invented dynamite, but Ludwig’s invention of the oil tanker was almost as important. The French Rothschilds followed the Nobels into Baku. By the 1880s, Baron Alphonse de Rothschild’s Caspian Black Sea Oil Company was the second biggest producer—and its workers lived in the industrial township called the White City.† By 1901, Baku produced half the world’s oil—and the Nobel Prize, established that year, was funded on its profits.
Its oil boom, like the Kimberley Diamond Fever or the California Gold Rush, turned peasants into millionaires overnight. A dusty, windy ex - Persian town, built on the edge of the Caspian around the walls and winding streets of a medieval fortress, was transformed into one of the most famous cities in the world.
Its “barbaric luxury” filled the newspapers of Europe, scintillated by instant riches, remarkable philanthropy and preposterous vulgarity. Every oil baron had to have a palace, many as big as a city block. Even the Rothschilds built one. The Nobels’ palace was called Villa Petrolea, and was surrounded by a lush park. One oil baron insisted on building his palace out of gold but had to agree to cover it with goldplate because the gold would melt; another built his mansion like the body of a giant dragon with the entrance through its jaws; a third created his vast palace in the shape of a pack of cards emblazoned in golden letters: “Here live I, Isa - Bey of Gandji.” A popular singer made his fortune when a performance was rewarded by some land on which oil was struck: his neo - classical palace is now the headquarters of Azerbaijan’s state oil company.
Baku was a melting - pot of pitiful poverty and incredible wealth, its streets, observes Anna Alliluyeva, full of “red - bearded Muslims . . . street porters called ambals bent under excessive loads . . . Tartar hawkers selling sweetmeats, strange figures in whispering silks whose fiery black eyes watched through slits, street barbers, everything seemed to take place in the streets,” crowded with tribesmen in pleated coats with jewelled daggers, Persians in waistcoats and felt hats, Mountain Jews in fur hats, and Western millionaires in frock coats, their wives in French fashions. Stalin called its workforce of Turkish Azeris, Persians, Russians, Chechens and Armenians “a national kaleidoscope.” The rich promenaded down the Seaside Esplanade shadowed by carriages of gun - toting bodyguards.
Yet the source of all this money, the derricks and the refineries, poisoned the city and corrupted the people. “The oil seeped everywhere,” says Anna Alliluyeva. “Trees couldn’t grow in this poisonous atmosphere.” Sometimes it bubbled out of the sea and ignited, creating extraordinary waves of fire.
The Black and White Cities and other oil townships were polluted slums. The 48,000 workers toiled in terrible conditions, living and fighting each other in grimy streets “littered with decaying rubbish, disembowelled dogs, rotten meat, faeces.” Their homes resembled “prehistoric dwellings.” Life expectancy was just thirty. The oilfields seethed with “lawlessness, organized crime and xenophobia. Physical violence, rapes and bloodfeuds dominated workers’ everyday lives.”
Baku, states Stalin, was “irrepressible,” its rootless proletariat ideal for the Bolsheviks. It was especially corrupt; its moral ambiguities and duplicitious opportunities suited Stalin’s conspiratorial cynicism. It was said that there were only ten honest men in the entire city (a Swede—Mr. Nobel, of course—an Armenian and eight Tartars).
“Equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh and nineteenth - century Paris,” Baku “was too Persian to be European but much too European to be Persian.” Its police chiefs were notoriously venal; its Armenians and Azeris armed and vigilant; its plentiful gunmen, the kochis, either performed assassinations for three roubles a victim, guarded millionaires or became “Mauserists,” gangsters always brandishing their Mausers. “Our city,” writes Essad Bey, “not unlike the Wild West, was teeming with bandits and robbers.”
In Baku, brashly taking on oil barons, and Menshevik and Bolshevik “rightists,” Stalin prospered to become the revolutionary and criminal kingpin of the Oil Kingdom. It was through Baku* that he, belatedly, found a national Russian role, graduating from “an apprentice to a craftsman of the Revolution.” Here he became the “second Lenin.”2
In August 1907, when poor Kato was suffering grievously from the stifling, polluted heat of Baku, Stalin returned to Germany to attend the Congress of the Second International in Stuttgart. He met up with Alyosha Svanidze, still studying at Leipzig. Soso and his brother - in - law, writes Monoselidze, “went sightseeing, visiting meetings of German workers in restaurants, and cafés.”
The Germans “are a queer people like sheep,” Stalin later told the Yugoslav leader Milovan Djilas (he told Churchill the same story). “Wherever the ram went, they just followed.” On the way to the conference, some German Communists felt unable to leave the station because there was no ticket - collector. They were so obedient to the rules that, Stalin said, “They actually missed the meeting for which they’d made the entire trip.” He joked that a Russian comrade had shown them a “simple solution: leave the platform without handing in the tickets!”3
Soso was back in Baku in time for another outbreak of ethnic turbulence. On 19 September, an Azeri worker named Khanlar was murdered by Russian nationalists. In protest the workers went on strike. Stalin spoke at the funeral demonstration.
At a meeting soon afterwards, he and the Bolsheviks routed the Mensheviks and took control of the local organization: Baku became a Bolshevik city. Soso concentrated on his work, but, Monoselidze notes, “when he was involved, he forgot everything”—including Kato.
“Soso loved her so much,” says Elisabedashvili, who joined him in Baku. “Wife, child, friend were only okay if they didn’t hinder his work and saw things his way. You had to know Soso to understand his love.”
“It was too hot in Baku” for Kato. “Soso would go early in the morning and return late at night while Kato sat at home with a tiny baby terrified that he would be arrested,” remembers Monoselidze. “Bad diet, little sleep, the heat and stress weakened her and she fell ill. Surrounded by strangers, she had no friends around her. Soso was so busy he forgot his family!”
Stalin knew he was being a neglectful husband and father, but, like many who have suffered broken families, he could not change his behaviour. He must have talked about it with Elisabedashvili: “Soso regretted it and was angry at himself for having married in such circumstances.”
Kato “prayed that Koba would turn away from his ideas and return to a peaceful homelife.” But he had chosen a mission that in many ways let him off the normal responsibilities of a family man. Bolshevik wives knew this. “Am I a martyr?” Spandarian’s much cuckolded wife, Olga, asked of her marriage to Stalin’s friend—but she might have been describing Stalin too. “I make as much as I can of my life. My path is not covered with roses but I chose it . . . He’s not for family life but that doesn’t diminish his character. He carries out his mission . . . It’s possible to love a man and forgive him everything for the sake of the good he has inside.” Kato knew that Stalin, like Spandarian, had “sworn to remain for ever a true Knight of the Grail” of Marxism.*
The Svanidzes in Tiflis heard first that Kato “was very thin,” recalls her sister Sashiko, who invited her to recuperate in their home village.
“How can I leave Soso?” replied Kato.
Soon the Svanidzes heard from Elisabedashvili that “she was sick and they wrote to ask Soso to bring her back.” Kato begged him. Now she was really ill, “but he kept postponing the trip until she became weak and suddenly he realized he had to act immediately.” In October, Stalin was sufficiently alarmed to escort her back to Tiflis. But the journey itself, more than thirteen hours, was debilitating: “It was too hot on the way and she drank bad water at a station.” Afterwards, Soso hastened back to Baku, leaving her with her family.
Back at home, she deteriorated. Already weak, exhausted and malnourished, she had contracted typhus, which is usually accompanied by a fever and diarrhoea. Its speckled rash showed first red and then darkened ominously. Historians usually diagnose her illness as tuberculosis, but if so it had infected her innards. Family and friends, whose memoirs were not available to previous historians, agree on a diagnosis of typhus along with haemorrhagic colitis. Kato haemorrhaged blood and fluid in miserable spasms of dysentery.
Stalin rushed back again from Baku to find the mother of his Laddie dying. He “nursed her desperately and tenderly, suffering himself,” but it was too late. She supposedly called for a priest to give her final sacraments and Stalin promised her an Orthodox burial. Two weeks after her return home, on 22 November 1907, Kato, aged just twenty - two, “died in his arms.”* Stalin was poleaxed.4
* The Persian word for fire is azer—hence the name of the country, Azerbaijan.
† They were soon joined by an Englishman, Sir Marcus Samuel, later Viscount Bearsted, founder of Shell. In 1912, Eduard de Rothschild, Alphonse’s son, sold most of the Rothschild interests in Baku to Royal Dutch Shell, then headed by Henri Deterding. The Rothschilds took most of their payment in Royal Dutch Shell shares. This proved a classically brilliant Rothschild deal. The Rothschilds eschewed oil investments in Russia for almost a century—making another fortune in the Russian oil boom of the twenty - first century. The ex - Rothschild palace is now Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry.
* Stalin had “great knowledge of the oil industry,” wrote his Georgian protégé Mgeladze. Baku became enormously important in 1942 when Hitler, in desperate need of oil, ordered his armies to push towards the oilfields. The result was the Battle of Stalingrad, which in effect was the battle for Baku. Stalin called in his Deputy Oil Commissar, Nikolai Baibakov: “Hitler wants the oil of the Caucasus. On pain of losing your head, you’re responsible for ensuring no oil is left behind . . . Do you know Hitler has declared that without oil he’ll lose the war?”
* Trotsky too was neglectful: he abandoned his wife and two daughters in Siberia, blaming “Fate”—and later treated his children appallingly. Bolshevism and family were incompatible.
* The family, who were there and know best, write that she suffered a stomach complaint, haemorrhagic colitis and typhus. Almost certainly Kato suffered intestinal or peritoneal TB (not always associated with pulmonary TB), which leads to weight loss, stomach pain, diarrhoea and bowel bleeding. Levan Shaumian, who grew up in Stalin’s home in the 1920s, says she died of TB and pneumonia. Typhus is spread by infected water and food, typhoid by bedbugs and reduced resistance, but both flourish among the poor and malnourished—and both can lead to bleeding bowels and darkening rashes. There was no treatment until the 1950s. Katevan Gelovani, a close Svanidze relative interviewed in Tbilisi by this author, calls it “stomach cancer,” which may be her explanation of the bleeding from the bowels. Mariam Svanidze, another cousin still alive in Tbilisi (aged 109) and interviewed by this author on 31 October 2005, remembers the death clearly. “I was then nine years old. Kato and my father got typhus at the same time. Books say Kato died of TB, but I can assure you it was typhus,” says this sturdy and lucid centenarian wearing a floral dressing - gown in a Tbilisi old people’s home. “Both got the red rash. We knew if the rash went black, they’d die. My father’s rash stayed red. He lived, but I remember that Kato’s turned black. Then all the family knew she’d die. And die she did.”