Boss of the Black City: Plutocrats, Protection - Rackets and Piracy - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Boss of the Black City: Plutocrats,
Protection - Rackets and Piracy

Soso closed Kato’s eyes himself. Stunned, he managed to stand beside his wife’s body with the family for a photograph but then collapsed. “Nobody could believe Soso was so wounded,” wrote Elisabedashvili. He sobbed that “he couldn’t manage to make her happy.”

Soso was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser. “I was so overcome with grief that my comrades took my gun away from me,” he later told a girlfriend. “I realized how many things in life I hadn’t appreciated. While my wife was alive, there were times I didn’t return home at night. I told her when I left not to worry about me but when I got home, she’d be sitting there. She’d wait up all night.”*

The death was announced in Tskaro newspaper; and the funeral was held at 9 a.m. on 25 November 1907, at the Kulubanskaya Church, right next to the Svanidze home—where they had married. The body was then conveyed through the town and buried at St. Nina’s Church in Kukia. The Orthodox funeral was both traumatic and farcical. Stalin, pale and tearful, “was very downcast yet greeted me in a friendly way like the old days,” remembers Iremashvili. Soso took him aside. “This creature,” he gestured at the open coffin, “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”

At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried—but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral—an ironic comment on his marital negligence.

For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him. All the time he blamed himself for not accepting our advice and for taking her to Baku in the heat.” Perhaps sensing the subdued anger in the Svanidze household, Soso went home to his mother in Gori to grieve. When he met one of his school friends, “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”

“My personal life is shattered,” sobbed Stalin. “Nothing attaches me to life except socialism. I’m going to dedicate my existence to that!” This was the sort of rationalization that he would use to explain ever more unspeakable tragedies which he himself arranged for his family and friends. In old age, he talked wistfully and tenderly about his Kato. He paid her a characteristic compliment. He signed his first articles in tribute to his father (“Besoshvili”), but now he chose a new byline: “K. Kato” (Koba Kato).

Even though his son was in Tiflis, he had no intention of moving back to that parochial “marsh” where he was already a political outcast. So he abandoned his son for more than ten years.

“Kato died,” says Monoselidze, “leaving eight - month - old Laddie to us.” Kato’s mother, Sepora, and the Monoselidzes raised the baby, whom Stalin barely even visited. Perhaps Laddie reminded him of the entire disaster.

This was not the Georgian way. The family, while awed by his conspiratorial competence, were appalled. In their memoirs, the Svanidzes and Elisabedashvili, writing thirty years later during Stalin’s dictatorship, though before the Terror, courageously recorded their disapproval of his behaviour, making it clear they continued to blame his neglect for Kato’s death.

“After that,” Monoselidze concludes tellingly, “Soso went to Baku and I didn’t see him until 1912, though we got a letter from exile asking for some wine and jam.”1

When Stalin emerged from mourning at the end of 1907, he joined decadent Spandarian for a New Year’s Eve dinner in a Baku restaurant. He was among old friends in the revolutionary capital of the Empire. The Bolsheviks there formed a cast reunion of Stalin’s career so far: as the Bolsheviks dwindled in Russia itself, Russian and Caucasian revolutionaries flooded into Baku, often interfering with Stalin’s work.* It was probably quite a party because Spandarian, who was “very close to Stalin in moral character,” was also “an incredibly lazy and sybaritic ladies’ man and lover of money.” Spandarian’s womanizing did not worry his wife, Olga, who said, “Suren never swore to be faithful to me, only to remain for ever the Knight of the Idea” of Bolshevism. But the Bolshevik playboy certainly shocked his comrades. “All the children in Baku,” recalls Tatiana Vulikh, “who are up to three years old look like Spandarian!”

Soso threw himself into his work again, reassembling the Outfit. He and Spandarian immediately started to push for more radical strikes and agitation, calling on the often illiterate Azeri and Persian workers to support them. Most intellectuals were too snobbish to bother with these illiterates, but Soso packed meetings with the Muslims, who voted for him en masse. One of his important contributions was to promote and work with the radicals of Himmat (Energy), a Muslim Bolshevik group. The Muslims often hid Stalin in mosques when he was on the run. In a row with Mensheviks, one of Stalin’s Muslim allies drew a dagger on Devdariani.

Through these Muslim connections, Stalin helped arm the Persian Revolution. He sent fighters and arms under Sergo to overthrow the Shah of Persia, Mohammed Ali, whom his Bolsheviks tried to assassinate. Stalin even crossed the border to Persia himself to organize his partisans, visiting Resht: the 1943 Teheran Conference was not his first time in Iran.

Shaumian was rattled by the crushing success of the Tsar’s backlash. He and Yenukidze, who had just returned from exile, took a more “rightist” moderate approach than Stalin, but could not break his dominance. Shaumian urged restraint. Stalin mocked his privileged existence, intriguing against him with his “closest friend and right - hand man, Spandarian.” After Stalin’s death, it was said he feuded with Shaumian, but this tension has been exaggerated. They worked well together—with mutual suspicion.2

Soon after his return, Stalin left on a secret trip to visit Lenin, who had now settled in Geneva. We know they met sometime in 1908, we know Stalin went to Switzerland. Stalin himself mentioned such a meeting in his reminiscences. He also met Plekhanov, who “exasperated” him. Stalin “was convinced he was a congenital aristocrat.” What really turned him against the sage was the fact that “Plekhanov’s daughter had aristocratic manners, dressed in the latest fashions, and wore boots with high heels!” Stalin was already at least partly a sanctimonious ascetic.3

Stalin and Lenin would have discussed money. Lenin was duelling with the Mensheviks while pursuing the fissiparous feud against Bogdanov and Krasin, who had stolen much of his Tiflis - heist booty, which in turn was being vigorously pursued by the European police. Thus the organization, now battered within by Lenin’s schisms and without by Stolypin’s victorious repression, was, explains Vulikh, “desperate for money.”

Sure enough, says Kavtaradze, Stalin’s henchman in Baku, “It was decided once again to get cash for the Party.” When the “chief financier of the Bolshevik Centre” heard the word “money,” he reached for his Mauser.

“In Baku,” says Sagirashvili, who was there too, “Koba was on the lookout for the criminal types, the ‘hotheads’ as he called them, the cutthroats. In America, such men would be gangsters,” but Stalin surrounded them “with the aura of revolutionary fighters.” Stalin “suggested organizing the Bolshevik Battle Squad.” Tsintsadze, Kupriashvili and some new faces joined Stalin’s Outfit of so - called Mauserists.

Kavtaradze assisted Soso with the planning under the aegis of his portentously named Self - Defence Headquarters. Stalin’s other sidekick was a red - haired lawyer, born in Odessa, son of a well - off Baku family with noble Polish antecedents: Andrei Vyshinsky, now twenty - three, a Menshevik, had given up the law, organized terrorist gangs and become a hit man in 1905. But Stalin, perhaps recognizing a usefully ruthless young rogue, relaxed his anti - Menshevik rigour. He commissioned Vyshinsky to procure arms and bombs.

“Politics is a dirty business,” Stalin said later. “We all did dirty work for the Revolution.” Stalin became the effective godfather of a small but useful fund - raising operation that really resembled a moderately successful Mafia family, conducting shakedowns, currency counterfeiting, extortion, bank robberies, piracy and protection - rackets—as well as political agitation and journalism.

Stalin’s aim, says one of his Mauserists, Ivan Bokov,* was “to threaten the oil tycoons and Black Hundreds [the right - wing Russian nationalists who had their own armed groups].” He ordered the Mauserists to murder many of the Black Hundreds, according to Bokov. Then the Outfit planned to rob the Baku State Bank. Kavtaradze explains that “we learned that 4 million roubles for the Turkestan Region were being transported by ship via Baku and the Caspian Sea. Therefore at the start of 1908 we started to assemble in Baku.” They would take the captain hostage—echoes of the Tsarevich Giorgi.

An act of piracy took place on a ship named the Nicholas I in Baku port: the Mensheviks investigated Stalin for this outrage, yet another infringement of Party rules. At the 1918 libel trial, Martov had enough evidence of Stalin’s participation in the Nicholas Iheist to call for witnesses. Later, the Trotskyite Victor Serge wrote that Vyshinsky, in a rash admission before the Bolsheviks came to power, had said, “Koba was deeply embroiled” in “the expropriation on the steamer Nicholas I in Baku harbour.”

Next, “Stalin thought up the idea” to raid the Baku naval arsenal. As ever, “He took the initiative to make us the [inside] connections with naval people,” reminisced his gunman Bokov. “We organized a gang of comrades . . . and raided the arsenal,” killing some of the guards. But Soso was also raising money day to day through “contributions from industrialists.”

Many tycoons and middle - class professionals were sympathetic contributors to the Bolsheviks. Berta Nussimbaum, wife of an oil baron and mother of the writer Essad Bey, was a Bolshevik sympathizer. “My mother,” Essad Bey says, “financed Stalin’s illicit communist press with her diamonds.” It remains astonishing how the Rothschilds and other oil barons, among the richest tycoons in Europe, funded the Bolsheviks, who would ultimately destroy their interests. Alliluyev remembered these Rothschild contributions.

The Rothschild managing director, David Landau, regularly contributed to Bolshevik funds, as recorded by the Okhrana—whose agents noted how, when Stalin was running the Baku Party, a Bolshevik clerk in one of the oil companies “was not active in operations but concentrated on collecting donations and got money from Landau of the Rothschilds.” It is likely that Landau met Stalin personally. Another Rothschild executive, Dr. Felix Somary, a banker with the Austrian branch of the family and later a distinguished academic, claims he was sent to Baku to settle a strike. He paid Stalin the money. The strike ended.

Stalin regularly met another top businessman, Alexander Mancho, managing director of the Shibaev and Bibi - Eibat oil companies. “We often got money from Mancho for our organization,” recalls Ivan Vatsek, one of Stalin’s henchmen. “In such cases, Comrade Stalin came to me. Comrade Stalin also knew him well.” Either Mancho was a committed sympathizer or Stalin was blackmailing him, because the businessman coughed up cash on request at even the shortest notice.

Stalin was also running protection - rackets and kidnappings. Many tycoons paid if they did not wish their oilfields to catch fire or “accidents” to befall their families. It is hard to differentiate donations from protection - money, because the felonies Stalin now unleashed on them included “robberies, assaults, extortion of rich families, and kidnapping their children on the streets of Baku in broad daylight and then demanding ransom in the name of some ‘revolutionary committee,’” states Sagirashvili, who knew him in Baku. The “kidnapping of children was a routine matter at the time,” recalls Essad Bey, who as a boy never went out without a phalanx of three kochi bodyguards and a “fourth servant, mounted and armed, who rode behind me.”

Baku folklore claims that Stalin’s most profitable kidnapping was that of Musa Nageyev, the tenth richest oil baron, a notoriously stingy ex - peasant who so admired the Palazzo Cantarini in Venice that he built his own (bigger) copy—the majestic Venetian - Gothic Ismailiye Palace (now the Academy of Sciences). Nageyev was actually kidnapped twice, but his own accounts of these traumas were confused and murky. Neither case was ever solved, but Bolshevik involvement was suspected. Years later, Nageyev’s granddaughter, Jilar - Khanum, claimed that Stalin jokingly sent the oil baron thanks for his generous contributions to the Bolsheviks.*

It was said that the millionaires like Nageyev were keen to pay up after a “ten - minute conversation” with Stalin. This was probably thanks to his system of printing special forms that read:

The Bolshevik Committee
proposes that your firm
should pay___roubles.

The form was delivered to oil companies and the cash was collected by Soso’s technical assistant—“a very tall man who was known as ‘Stalin’s bodyguard,’ visibly packing a pistol. Nobody refused to pay.”

The Bolshevik boss befriended organized crime in Baku, their operations and those of the Mauserists often overlapping. One gang controlled access to some wasteland in the Black City section. Stalin “made an agreement with the gang only to let through Bolsheviks, not Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks had special passwords.” In Russia’s wildest city, both sides used violence: the oil tycoons employed Chechen ruffians as oilfield guards. One of the richest oil barons, Murtuza Mukhtarov, who resided in Baku’s biggest palace based on a French Gothic château, ordered his kochis to kill the young Stalin. Soso was badly beaten up by Chechens, probably on Mukhtarov’s orders.*

Stalin’s secrecy was so absolute that the Mauserist Bokov said, “It was sometimes so conspiratorial that we didn’t even know where he was for six months! He had no permanent address and we only knew him as ‘Koba.’ If he had an appointment he never turned up on time; he turned up either a day early or a day later. He never changed his clothes, so he looked like an unemployed person.” Soso’s comrades noticed that he was different from the usual passionate Caucasian. “Sentiment was foreign to him,” says one. “No matter how much he loved a fellow, he’d never forgive him even the tiniest spoiling of a Party matter—he’d skin him alive.”

So again he succeeded in raising money and guns, but with him there was always a human cost. The traditional Bolsheviks like Alexinsky and Zemliachka were “very indignant at these expropriations” and killings. “Stalin blamed one member for provocation. There was no definite evidence, but that person was forced out of the city, ‘judged,’ condemned to death and shot.”

Stalin prided himself on being what he called a praktik, a practical hard man, an expert on what he called “black work,” rather than a chatty intelligent, but his gift was for being both. Lenin soon heard a storm of complaints about Stalin’s banditry, but by now, writes Vulikh, Stalin “was the true boss in the Caucasus” with “a lot of supporters devoted to him who respected him as the second person in the Party after Lenin. Among the intelligentsia, he was less loved, but everybody recognized that he was the most energetic and indispensable person.”

Soso had an “electrical effect” on his followers, of whom he took good care. He had a talent for political friendship that played a major role in his rise to power. His roommate from Stockholm, Voroshilov, the eager, fair - haired and dandyish lathe - turner,* joined him in Baku but fell ill. “He visited me every evening,” said Voroshilov. “We joked a lot. He asked if I liked poetry and recited a whole Nekrasov poem by heart. Then we sang together. He really had a good voice and fine ear.” “Poetry and music,” Stalin told Voroshilov, “elevate the spirit!” When Alliluyev was arrested again, he worried about his family, so once released he came to consult Soso, who insisted he had to leave, giving him cash to move to Moscow. “Take the money, you’ve children, you must look after them.”

The death of Kato was a grievous blow, but even in early 1908 the widower who signed his articles “Koba Kato” found time for partying, and never lacked female company.

* Stalin’s reaction to the death is very similar to his behaviour after the suicide of his second wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, in 1932, down to the suicide threat, self - pity and blaming himself for neglect.

The announcement of the death read: “We notify our comrades, friends and family of the death of Ekaterina Semyonovna Svanidze Djugashvili, expressing the deepest sorrow on behalf of Josef, husband, Simon and Sepora, parents, and Alexandra, Alexander and Mariko, siblings.” Mikheil Monoselidze adds, “In 1936, I buried my wife, Sashiko, next to Kato.” Sashiko died of cancer, but it might have been a mercy. By the early 1930s, the Svanidzes were among Stalin’s most intimate courtiers. But their fortunes would be suddenly and terribly reversed: their story is told in the Epilogue. The Tiflis grave, with photographs of Kato and Sashiko, is still there; so is an old fence at the back of the cemetery, perhaps the one Stalin vaulted to escape the police. Among the gravediggers, there is a story that because Kato died of typhus, the authorities first tried to bury her in a mass “plague grave” but that the family recovered the body and buried her themselves.

* He met up again now with his comrades from Tiflis such as Sergo, Budu “the Barrel” Mdivani, Alliluyev, Kavtaradze, the gangster Tsintsadze, most of the Outfit—and the tall, blue - eyed Shaumian. Stalin’s new friend Voroshilov and his old friend Yenukidze were soon joined by Lenin’s special agent, the well - connected but severe noblewoman Elena Stasova (“Comrade Absolute”), Rozalia Zemliachka, Alexinsky and a girl named Ludmilla Stal. But there were also many Mensheviks from his past, such as Devdariani. It was a small world.

* Stalin’s career in Baku is shadowy, but the memoirs of the Mauserists give us helpful clues. They could not be used in the Soviet era, especially during Stalin’s dictatorship, and are mostly unpublished, but they remain in the archives.

* In his first kidnapping, Nageyev’s ransom was 10,000 gold roubles—or his kidnappers threatened to cut him into pieces. “I can pay only 950 roubles,” Nageyev replied. “Of course you can slice me up, but then you won’t get anything.” He paid only the 950. Then in December 1908, Nageyev was again kidnapped by gangsters led by “a Georgian with black hair and unusual pockmarks.” Nageyev supposedly paid 100,000 roubles. Stalin was at liberty in Baku for the first kidnapping, but in Baku Jail for the second. Had Stalin been at liberty on the latter occasion, he would still not have participated directly. In any case, he ran his criminal - terrorist organization from his cell: he could easily have ordered either or both kidnappings. On the other hand, the story does not appear in any of the Bolshevik memoirs, and in 1909 newspapers claimed the second gang of kidnappers were rogue policemen linked to deputy city governor Colonel Shubinsky. Nonetheless Nageyev probably contributed to Bolshevik funds like the other oil barons. Like them, too, he lost his fortune in the Revolution; he died in 1919.

* The beating - up was a humiliation that may have contributed to his brutal deportation of the entire Chechen race during the Second World War at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Equally, he deported many other peoples during the war and victimized other races such as the Poles and Koreans with whom he had had no such experience. As for Mukhtarov, he refused to surrender his palace to the Bolsheviks when the Red Army took Baku in 1920. “As long as I am alive, no barbarian in army boots will enter my house!” In a shoot - out, he fired on the Bolsheviks until he was overcome, at which point he shot himself. His beautiful wife, Liza - Khanum, for whom his Baku château was built, lived on in the basement, then escaped to Turkey, where she lived until the 1950s. Mukhtarov’s château is now the Baku Wedding Palace.

* When Marshal Voroshilov was out of Stalin’s favour in his last years, he used to plead: “But, Koba, we became friends in Baku in 1907.” “I don’t remember,” Stalin replied. For his future life, see the Epilogue.

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