Louse Racing, Murder and Madness—Prison Games - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Louse Racing, Murder and Madness—
Prison Games

Whenever the Outfit pulled off a heist, Stalin and Spandarian spent a little of it on a wild party. In a very Bolshevik in - joke on the Party’s endless political schisms, Soso called these festivities uklonenia— deviations.

“When Stalin collected some extra pennies,” reports A. D. Sa - kvarelidze, who ran Stalin’s cash - counterfeiting operations, “we’d hold a ‘deviational’ meeting in a remote bistro or a private room at a gorgeous restaurant, often Svet Restaurant on Trading Street, where we’d have a feast, especially after celebrating the success of some deed. Spandarian especially liked ‘deviations’ where we’d talk frankly, eat deliciously and sing loudly, particularly Stalin.” Wherever Spandarian went, girls usually followed.

A comrade from Batumi introduced his pretty sister, Alvasi Tala - kvadze, to Stalin. She was just eighteen, a self - confessed “spoilt child,” brimming with revolutionary ardour. “Koba—the head of the Baku proletariat—used the backroom of my brother’s flowerstall in the Bibi - Eibat oilfield as his base,” she explains. So Stalin took Talakvadze under his wing, giving her the moniker “Comrade Plus” because of her enthusiasm. Even in absurdly turgid Stalinist jargon, the girl’s memoirs record a close relationship: “Koba was enlightening me ideologically, conducting with me discussions on social - political subjects, and developing in me class - consciousness, introducing me to a faith in victory.” One is tempted to read “developing class - consciousness” and “introducing faith in victory” as euphemisms, because Alvasi Talakvadze later let it be known she was Stalin’s girlfriend in 1908.

His gift for conspiracy was ingenious, if sometimes macabre. This girlfriend became “adept at tricking the spooks, but Koba devised the most original tricks.” One day, he ordered her to take some secret documents to the Balakhana oilfield in a coffin. “You must play the role of a mourning sister who is burying her dead baby brother with her bare hands,” said Stalin, sending her to a cemetery and directing her performance like a playwright. “You’ll loosen your hair, hold the coffin, sob, say you’re left alone and blame yourself for his death. Don’t bury it too deeply.” He handed her a shovel. The “director” praised her performance, covertly observing her. “Even now,” she mused later, “I don’t know how he watched me so acutely.”

Alvasi Talakvadze does not seem to have been his only relationship with a comrade. He also came to know Ludmilla Stal, “a famous activist among women” who was described later as “buxom but pretty.” The daughter of the owner of a steel mill from south Ukraine, six years older than Soso, she was already a prison veteran. Soon afterwards, she went into exile in Paris. The affair was said to be intermittent, but it had an influence on the younger Stalin. They possibly met later during Stalin’s visits abroad to see Lenin, with whom Ludmilla worked closely. They certainly met again in 1917. But nothing survives of their friendship—except one surprising lifelong relic: his renowned name.

The secret police had lost Stalin when he moved cities after the Tiflis spectacular. Now they were back on his case. When Stalin’s hit man Bokov was arrested, “The Gendarme asked me: who was Stalin himself and in particular what was his role in the robbery of the [Baku port] arsenal?”

On 15 March 1908, the Gendarmes raided a Party meeting in the People’s Hall. Stalin, Shaumian and Spandarian escaped, but the Gendarmes were on the trail of the Mauserists. Just as Tsintsadze and the Outfit set the date for the holdups of the State Bank and the gold ship, Cossacks and Gendarmes “attacked our safe house.” In the shootout, several Cossacks were killed, but the Outfit lost its best Mauserist triggerman, Intskirveli, veteran of the Tiflis bank robbery. The plans were abandoned; Kavtaradze left secret work and went to Petersburg University—but he remained in Stalin’s life until the end.

On the night of 25 March, Baku’s police chief raided “several dens of delinquents where certain criminal suspects were arrested including Gaioz Besoevich Nizheradze, bearing criminal papers, who I therefore placed at the disposal of the Gendarmerie.” The man carried the passport of a nobleman named Nizheradze, but perhaps the patronymic “Son of Beso” was a better guide to the real identity of the most prominent Bolshevik in the Caucasus: “the second Lenin.” After four years, the Okhrana had got Stalin.1

When the new prisoner arrived in Baku’s Bailov Prison wearing a blue - satin smock and a dashing Caucasian hood, the other political prisoners passed the word to be careful. “This is secret,” they whispered. “That is Koba!” They feared Stalin “more than the police.”

The bogeyman did not disappoint. He had the “ability quietly to incite others while he himself remained on the sidelines. The sly schemer did not spurn any means necessary but managed to avoid public responsibility.” In his seven months at the famous Bailovka, set amid the oilfields, Stalin dominated its power structures. He read, studied Esperanto, which he regarded as the language of the future,* and stirred up a series of witch hunts for traitors that often ended in death. His reign at the Bailovka was a microcosm of his dictatorship of Russia.

Soso was placed in Cell 3 with the mainly Bolshevik politicals (most Mensheviks were in Cell 7). The politicals were so organized in the Bailovka, they even had a Credentials Commission. In his cell, Stalin found his fellow Bolshevik praktik Sergo and his Menshevik henchman Vyshinsky. The latter was elected Elder in charge of food, which was a sensible appointment since he received regular hampers of delicacies from his prosperous wife and parents. He shared these hampers with Stalin, a prudent generosity that may have contributed to his survival in the Terror.

The Elders divided the days into hours for leisure, cleaning and discussion. Bedmates (Stalin shared with a Goreli named Ilia Nadiradze) and domestic chores were assigned by the Elders, including washing up dishes and emptying latrines, but typically, recalls Sakvarelidze, “Stalin was often released from such duties.”

One of his cellmates, Simon Vereshchak, a Menshevik, wrote a penetrating portrait of Stalin in the Bailovka. He hated him for his crude cunning yet, in spite of himself, was fascinated by Stalin’s supreme confidence, vigilant intelligence, machine - like memory and sangfroid: “It was impossible to throw him off balance, nothing could get his goat!” Stalin was the only cellmate who slept soundly even when the prisoners could hear men being hanged in the courtyard.

Soso did not invent the death penalty for traitors. “In the Bailovka,” explains Vereshchak, “provocateurs were usually killed”—but after investigation and trial. Stalin killed by proxy, and stealth. First, “Mitka the Greek stabbed a young worker for being a police spy. Koba had ordered the hit.” Then “a young Georgian was beaten up in the corridor of the political building. The word spread, ‘Provocateur!’ Everyone joined in, beating him with whatever they could, until the walls were spattered in blood. The bloody body was taken away on a stretcher. Later we learned that the rumour had started with Koba.”

The politicals held debates that often turned sour. Stalin most disliked the Christian Socialists, who followed Leo Tolstoy. Sergo, who always hit first and thought afterwards, got into a fight with some SRs. “Sergo really punched but none of the SRs was strong enough to hit Sergo,” Stalin later wrote to Voroshilov, protecting Ordzhonikidze’s amour propre when the three of them were ruling the USSR. In fact, the SRs beat up Sergo.

Stalin dealt with political dilemmas by making himself “the best authority on Marx. Marxism was his element in which he was unconquerable. He knew how to substantiate anything with an appropriate formula from Marx” yet his style was “unpleasant, coarse, devoid of wit, dry and formal.”*

Stalin still preferred rogues to revolutionaries. He was “always seen in the company of cutthroats, blackmailers, robbers and the gunslingers—the Mauserists.” Sometimes the criminal prisoners raided the politicals, but the Georgian criminals, probably organized by Stalin, served as their bodyguards. In power, he shocked his comrades by promoting criminals in the NKVD, but he had used criminals all his life.

These two species came together to bet on prison games such as wrestling competitions and louse racing. Stalin did not like chess but “he and Sergo Ordzhonikidze often played backgammon all night.” The cruellest game was “Madness,” in which a young prisoner was placed in the criminals’ cell to be driven mad. Bets were taken on how long it would take for the youngster to crack up. Sometimes the victim really did go crazy.

The prison was overcrowded with victims of Stolypin’s repressions: 1,500 shared cells built for 400. Stalin suffered from a shadow on his lung and found it hard to breathe in the heat. The sturdy “Barrel” Mdi - vani, who was at certain times in the same cell, lifted Soso onto his shoulders to let him breathe at the high window while the rest of the cell laughed and shouted: “Giddy - up, Barrel, giddy - up!” When the Barrel later visited Stalin in the Kremlin, he always greeted him: “Giddy - up, Soso!”

Stalin protested against the conditions and provoked the authorities, who sent a company of soldiers to beat up the politicals. Forced to run the gauntlet, “Koba walked, his head unbowed, under the blows of the riflebutts, a book in his hands,” observed Vereshchak. In response, “He smashed the door of his cell with a slop - bucket, ignoring the threat of the bayonets.”

It was impossible to move “without standing on someone’s toe,” but the overcrowding presented opportunities for shenanigans. Stalin’s bedmate Nadiradze from Gori arranged for his wife to escort Keke on a visit to Baku. The two women visited son and husband. Stalin “greeted her so cordially. His mother burst into tears on seeing her only son,” but he “calmed her saying the revolutionary couldn’t do without prisons . . . We chatted gaily for two whole hours,” says Nadiradze. Stalin got his mother to deliver secret notes to the Baku revolutionaries—which almost got her arrested.

The Outfit was planning Soso’s escape. At night, he used a hacksaw, smuggled to him by a warder, to cut the bars of his cell. Outside the jail walls, his Mauserists waited on the appointed day with a phaeton to whisk him to freedom. But the plan must have been betrayed because at the last minute incorruptible Cossacks assumed guard duties. Stalin’s escape attempt had to be cancelled.

The slow Tsarist system, creaking along with its usual confusion and leniency, took even longer than usual to sort out his identity and prosecute his case. Finally he was given a surprisingly lax sentence of just two years’ exile in European Vologda Province instead of Asiatic Siberia.

Just before his departure, the disorder in the overcrowded Bailovka gave Stalin the chance to attempt a swap between himself and another prisoner. It seemed to go according to plan:* the substitute took his place; Soso kissed his fellow prisoners goodbye and was escorted from his cell.2

* In power, he persecuted and arrested Esperanto speakers.

* Stalin found many of his Mauserist gangsters in the Bailovka (such as his cellmates the Sakvarelidze brothers). His Menshevik opponents, Devdariani from the seminary and Isidore Ramishvili from Batumi, were also in his crowded cell, but now the two factions were again forced to work together, and they turned a blind eye to his banditry.

* In July 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, the man from Gori who arranged this swap, I. P. Nadiradze, wrote to another of his cellmates, Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s craven but dreaded Procurator - General, to ask him to confirm that he had served time for political murder and had helped arrange Stalin’s swap and escape. Vyshinsky confirmed the former, but on the swap that sinister survivor sat on the fence: “As for the fact of organizing the replacement for Comrade Stalin . . . I cannot attest to this because I do not remember.” Nadiradze was clearly under investigation in the Terror or he would not have appealed to the dangerous Vyshinsky on this sensitive subject at such a risky moment. But it is almost unthinkable that he would have written the letter were it not completely true as far as it goes.

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