“River Cock” and the Noblewoman - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


“River Cock” and the Noblewoman

Yet somewhere the swap was unravelled. Stalin’s attempted substitution must have been unmasked before he even left the Bailovka (betrayed by the same police spy who had informed on his planned escape or foiled by an underbribed guard) in time to be despatched to his place of exile. Vologda was much closer than Siberia, but the etap took over three months including a stay in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison, where so many would perish in Stalin’s Great Terror.

Soso again had no winter clothing and wrote to Shaumian in Baku for help. “We couldn’t even get hold of a second - hand suit,” wrote Shaumian, “but sent him 5 roubles.” Stolypin had tightened up the more relaxed regime in Baku. The police were successfully smashing the Bolsheviks there, its membership withering away, its leaders arrested or killed. “No money,” reported Shaumian. “Revolutionaries hungry and weak.”

In Vologda Prison,* Stalin led a protest and defied the authorities. “He didn’t really obey anyone,” says a fellow prisoner. “He only retreated when they used force.” On the way from Vologda town to his place of exile, he either fell sick with typhus or managed to persuade a doctor to park him in the comfort of Viatka Hospital. Finally, travelling by sleigh through frozen landscape, Stalin arrived in late February 1909 at the village of Solvychegodsk.

One of the first to welcome him to the Solvychegodsk community of about 450 exiles was an exiled girl, a teacher named Tatiana Sukhova, with whom it seems he conducted a love affair.

In his short time in Solvychegodsk, he was to find two mistresses among the small group of politicals. Even in these years of penniless obscurity he was never without at least one girlfriend, and often more. Indeed in exile he became almost libertine.

Stalin was “handsome” to women, Molotov recalled, despite his pock - marks and freckles. “Women must have been enamoured by him because he was successful with them. He had honey - coloured eyes. They were beautiful.” Soso was “quite attractive,” Zhenya Alliluyeva, future sister - in - law and probable mistress, told her daughter. “He was a thin man, strong and energetic [with] an incredible shock of hair and shining eyes.” Everyone always mentions those “burning eyes.”

Even his unattractive features had their charms. His enigmatic mien, his arrogance, ruthlessness, feline vigilance, obsessional studying and acute intelligence perhaps made him more compelling to women. His oddness could be seen as eccentric. Maybe his very lack of interest was somehow winning. Certainly, his apparent inability to look after himself—he was lonesome, skinny, scruffy—made women, throughout his life, wish to look after him. And then there was his nationality.

Georgians enjoyed a reputation for being passionate and romantic. When not being a surly brute, Stalin played the chivalrous Georgian suitor, singing songs and admiring girls’ beautiful dresses while presenting them with silk handkerchiefs and flowers. Furthermore, he was sexually competitive, cuckolding his comrades when it suited him, especially in exile. Stalin the flirt, the boyfriend, even the husband, was sometimes tender and humorous. But if the ladies expected a traditional Georgian Casanova they must have been bitterly disappointed when they grew to know him better.

Strange, eccentric and lacking in empathy, he was riddled with complexes about his personality, family and physique. He was so sensitive about his webbed toes that when his feet were later being examined by his Kremlin doctors, he hid the rest of his body—and his face—under a blanket. He later had his pockmarks powdered by his bodyguards and covered in official photographs. He was shy about his own nudity even in the Russian bathhouse, the banya, and uneasy about his stiff arm, which later prevented him from slow - dancing with women: he admitted he “couldn’t take a woman by the waist.” As Kato learned during their marriage, he was impossibly distant and hard to know. His seething, egocentric energy sucked the air from every room and wore down the weak without giving them emotional nourishment. The tender moments could not compensate for the glacial detachment and morose oversensitivity. As Natasha Kirtava discovered, when crossed, he turned nasty.

Women ranked low on his list of priorities, far below revolution, egotism, intellectual pursuits and hard - drinking dinners with male friends. Combining coarse virility with Victorian prudery, he was certainly no sensualist, no epicurean. He rarely talked about his own sex - life, yet he was promiscuous—which may explain his lifelong tolerance of shameless womanizing in his companions. Spandarian in Baku was notorious. Later, as the rulers of Soviet Russia, Yenukidze and Beria were both debauched to the point of priapic degeneracy. Provided they were competent, hardworking and loyal, they were safe. In his own life, he regarded sex less as a moral question than as a security hazard.

On one hand he distrusted strong, clever women like his mother, despised pretentious women “with ideas,” and disliked overscented glamourpusses who, like Plekhanov’s daughter, wore “boots with high heels.” He preferred young, malleable teenagers or buxom peasant women who would defer to him. On the other hand, even as late as the 1930s, he took some of his lovers from the ranks of educated, liberated female revolutionaries, his intellectual equals, sometimes even noblewomen, his social superiors. But the Marxist mission, and his own sense of separateness, always came first.

Women (and children if they inconveniently arrived) were expected to understand when the wandering Marxist crusader chose to vanish into thin air.

Tatiana Sukhova was sitting in her house with some other exiles when someone reported that “a new cluster of convicts had arrived and among them a comrade from Baku, Osip Koba, a professional, a key person.” A little later, furnished with proper clothes by his fellow exiles, Osip (a Russian diminutive for Josef) entered their house “wearing high boots, black overcoat, black satin shirt and a high Astrakhan hat with a white hood around his shoulders in the Caucasian style.”

It was spring in Solvychegodsk, a tiny medieval fur - trading outpost, 700 years old, with a dusty square, a wooden merchant’s mansion, a post office and a beautiful sixteenth - century church. The river Vychegda flowed through the town. Ten of the exiles lived in a communal house—“a real salvation for us,” says Tatiana Sukhova, “because it was a way to keep active. It was like a university—there were even lectures. Those who lived alone often started drinking.”

The district police chief, Zivilev, nicknamed “the River Cock,” was a petty, irascible but comical stickler with a falsetto voice. Known as “God and Tsar of Solvychegodsk,” he banned any meetings of more than five exiles, amateur dramatics and even skating, rowing and mushroom - picking. When he spotted any transgression, he was given to chasing exiles along the riverbank like an irate cockerel, hence the nickname.

Stalin was “cruel, outspoken and disrespectful to superiors,” according to the local policemen. River Cock had him locked up once for reading revolutionary literature aloud and fined him twenty - five kopecks for attending the theatre.* Yet there were covert if wild parties among the exiles and the inevitable flirtations. “We were singing—and I began to dance,” remembers a girl, Shura Dobronravova. “Koba clapped his hands and suddenly I heard his voice saying, ‘Shura is the joy of life!’ I saw Koba looking at me with his mysterious smile.” The sequel is not recorded.

Once the exiles went boating together, waving red flags and singing. The River Cock ran along the bank screeching, “Stop singing!” But he could not punish all of them, so they got away with it.

Stalin often organized these secret meetings of exiles, but he “watched every member of the group very carefully,” recalls Alexander Dubrovin, “and demanded a report of every action.” Dubrovin’s memoir implies that Stalin hunted traitors and ordered their killing. “There was an exile called Mustafa. This Mustafa turned out to be a traitor. According to a comrade, he was drowned under the high bank of the Vychegda river.”

“I often visited [Stalin] in his room,” recalls Tatiana Sukhova, a woman of twenty - two, with light - brown hair and grey eyes. “He lived in poverty, sleeping on a wooden crate covered in planks and a bag of straw with a flannel blanket on top and a pink pillowcase.” He was depressed—it was only months since the death of Kato. “I often found him half lying there even in daytime,” but, as ever, books served as his comfort and castle: “Since he was very cold, he lay in his coat and surrounded himself with books.” But she says she cheered him up. They spent more and more time together, laughing at the others and even going on boating dates. It seems the friendship turned into some kind of affair and Stalin remained fond of Sukhova into the 1930s.* He later wrote to her, begging forgiveness for never having kept in contact: “Contrary to my promises, which I remember were many, I’ve not even sent you a card! What a beast I am but it’s a fact and if you want, I present my apologies . . . Keep in touch!” They did not meet again until 1912.

In June, the local police recorded that Soso attended a meeting with all the other exiles, including a girl named Stefania Petrovskaya, who enjoyed a love affair with Stalin sufficiently serious that he decided to marry her.

Stefania, a teacher aged twenty - three, was above Stalin on the social scale, an Odessan noblewoman whose Catholic father owned a house in the centre of the city. She had attended the elite gymnasium there before going into higher education. “Noblewoman Petrovskaya,” as she appears in police reports, had been arrested in Moscow and given two years in Vologda exile, but she had just finished her sentence when she met Osip Koba. Stalin was not there for very long, but the relationship must have been intense because she hung around in godforsaken Solvychegodsk for no good reason—and then followed him back to the Caucasus.

Exiles were isolated from Party politics abroad, but they caught up on the latest schisms from battered back copies of journals that arrived from family and friends. Stalin was irritated by Lenin’s feud with Bogdanov. “How do you like Bogdanov’s new book?” Soso asked his friend Malakia Toroshelidze, in Geneva. “In my view, some of Illich’s [Lenin’s] individual blunders are significantly and correctly noted in it. He also notes that Illich’s materialism is . . . different from Plekhanov’s which . . . Illich tries to hide.”

Stalin respected Lenin, but never completely uncritically. The deification only came after Lenin’s death and with a clear political purpose. Now he regarded Lenin’s schisms as the self - indulgence of spoiled émigrés. In Russia, where Bolshevism was in decay, thepraktiki could not afford such nonsense. “The Party had as a whole ceased to exist,” admitted Zinoviev. It was so bad that some, the “Liquidators,” proposed winding up the Party. Stalin on the other hand agreed with the so - called Conciliators that the Bolsheviks had to work with the Mensheviks—or disappear altogether.

He was sure the Party needed him and he had no intention of hanging around in Solvychegodsk: the more revolutionaries that Stolypin exiled, the more the system was overwhelmed. Escapes multiplied. Of 32,000 exiles in 1906–9, the authorities could never account for more than about 18,000 at any one time. Soso wrote to Alliluyev in St. Petersburg asking for his address and place of work, obviously planning on a trip to the capital. He started raising funds: some money orders arrived at the post office. The prisoners staged a fake gambling game in which Stalin “won the entire kitty of 70 roubles.”

In late June, after River Cock’s morning inspection, Sukhova helped Stalin don a sarafan, a long, sleeveless Russian dress. We do not know if he shaved his beard, but in full drag, he travelled, accompanied by Sukhova, by steamboat to the local centre, Kotlas. On parting, he managed a romantic flourish, unabashed by his transvestite garb, telling Sukhova: “One day I’ll pay you back by giving you a silk handkerchief.”

Then he caught the train to the Venice of the North.1

“Once, in the evening,” recounts Sergei Alliluyev, still married to the libidinous Olga, “I was strolling along Liteinyi Boulevard [in St. Petersburg] when I suddenly saw Comrade Stalin coming in the opposite direction.” The friends embraced.

Stalin had already visited the Alliluyev flat and workplace but had found no one home. Central Petersburg was a small world, however. Alliluyev recruited a concierge to hide Soso. These concierges were often Okhrana informers, so, if Bolshevik sympathizers, their places were ideal hideouts, never searched.

The concierge hid Stalin in the porters’ lodge of the Horse Guards barracks on Potemkin Street right next to the Taurida Palace, once the home of Catherine the Great’s political partner, Prince Potemkin, and now seat of the Duma. At the barracks, “Cabs would drop off court officials . . . while Stalin went into the city to visit friends,” says Anna Alliluyeva. He “would stroll serenely by the guard at the barrack gates, holding the regimental rollcall under his arm.”

Stalin, who was on a mission connected to “publishing a newspaper,” made the necessary contacts and swiftly departed for the Caucasus.

In early July 1909, he re - emerged in Baku with yet another name—Oganez Totomiants, Armenian merchant. But the Okhrana noticed his return nonetheless: “The Social - Democrat escapee from Siberia has arrived—he’s known as ‘Koba’ or ‘Soso.’” Two Okhrana agents inside the Bolshevik Party, “Fikus” and “Mikheil,” now informed regularly on Stalin, who gloried in the code name of “the Milkman,”* because he used a Baku milkbar as his base. He was intermittently watched, but the secret police took months to identify Soso and hunt him down. Why?

Here is one of the enduring mysteries of young Stalin: was the future Soviet dictator an agent of the Tsar’s secret police?2

* The chief jailer there was named Serov, ironically the father of the future General Ivan Serov, one of Stalin’s top secret policemen, deporter of the Chechens and other peoples, and first KGB Chairman.

* Soso befriended the post - office clerk who doubled as a jailer and whom he had met when he picked up his money orders. Soso liked to hunt alone in the forests during the summer and would meet the postman - jailer to pass him notes that he would deliver to the prisoners in the local prison. The local priest let Stalin use his library.

* See the Epilogue.

* The secret police adapted their own witty code names for their surveillance targets: a baker would be “Bun,” a banker “Moneybags,” the poet Sergei Esenin was “Typesetter,” while a pretty girl might be “Gorgeous” or “Glamourpuss.”

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