“The Milkman”: Was Stalin a Tsarist Agent? - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs

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“The Milkman”:
Was Stalin a Tsarist Agent?

In the Oil Kingdom of Baku, the Milkman tried to reinvigorate the shattered Bolsheviks, joining up with Spandarian, Sergo and Budu Mdivani. He rallied the remnants of the Outfit and “started to plan an attack on a mail ship,” says the Mauserist Kupriashvili, to fund their newspaper Bakinsky Proletary.

Yet it was a dark time. “The Party is ailing,” wrote Stalin. “There’s nothing good to write. We’ve no workers,” he complained to Tskhakaya, adding that he now believed in reuniting with the Mensheviks. Conciliation was anathema to Lenin, but dire circumstances had now forced Stalin to become a Conciliator. The tough Komitetchiki, the Committeemen inside Russia, were increasingly frustrated with Lenin and the bickering émigrés: “Why must these damned ‘trends’ split us . . . what useless skirmishes—both sides deserve a thrashing!” Stalin demanded the appointment of a Russian Bureau to run the Party inside the Empire and the creation of a national paper based in Russia, not in exile. “The Central Committee,” Stalin complained in print, “is a fictitious centre.”

Soso’s ideas for the future of the Party reached the Central Committee in Paris, which, in January 1910, appointed him to the new Russian Bureau, a recognition of his energetic persistence and organizational talents. He had graduated from Caucasian activist to Russian Bolshevik leader—yet in Baku he was playing his own game against Shaumian.

“Stalin and Spandarian concentrated all the power in their hands,” grumbled Shaumian’s wife, Ekaterina, the oil executive’s daughter. Faced with Stalin’s dominance and Tsarist repression, Shaumian, like many others, took a regular job, even working for a sympathetic oil baron, Shibaev: he tried to withdraw from the underground. “Everyone has ‘seen sense’ and got private jobs,” Soso told Tskhakaya. “Everyone except me, that is—I haven’t ‘seen sense.’ The police are hunting me!” Stalin, that sea - green incorruptible, never “saw sense” and hated those that did, like Shaumian, “who gave up our work three months ago!” He tried to tempt Shaumian back into the fold. Alone after Kato, Stalin despised Shaumian’s happy home,* blaming his wife, Ekaterina: “Like a doe, she thinks only of nurturing and was often hostile to me because I involved her Stepan in secret business that smelt of prison.” Ekaterina Shaumian complained that Stalin “intrigued against Shaumian and behaved like a termagant.”

Stalin made quick visits to Tiflis “concerned with financial matters,” the euphemism for expropriations and protection - rackets. Unknown to him, his father died, probably while he was there. Beso, by now a dosshouse drunk, was admitted to Mikhailovsky Hospital. Medical records chart his decline from TB, colitis and chronic pneumonia. He died on 12 August, aged fifty - five. He had made no attempt to find Soso. Without relatives or money, he was buried in a pauper’s grave.1 For the Bolshevik who signed himself “Son of Beso,” the father had died years before.

Back on the Caspian, Stalin was now joined by his girlfriend from exile, Stefania Petrovskaya, soon described by the Okhrana as “mistress of well - known leader of local RSDWP.” She must have been devoted to him because, on her release from exile, she did not return to either Moscow or Odessa but followed Stalin to Baku.

He now gave her his ultimate compliment: he jettisoned the pen name “K. Kato” and became “K. Stefin,” based on Stefania—and a step nearer “Stalin.” The adoption of the names of lovers as pen names is a peculiarity in such a chauvinist. We have no letters between them. But the “K. Stefin” shows that Stefania was important to him. They moved in together—or, as the secret police noted, the Milkman “cohabited with his concubine.”

There now started a farrago of bewildering scandals that revealed that Stalin’s Party was riddled with Tsarist spies. Stalin reacted by unleashing a hysterical, murderous witch hunt for traitors which only succeeded in destroying the innocent—and drawing suspicion onto himself. It began in September 1909, when Stalin’s own secret - police contacts warned him that his valuable printing - press had been betrayed by an Okhrana doubleagent: it was about to be raided. The press had to be swiftly moved and secretly reassembled in new premises.

Stalin “rushed to me,” recalls his henchman Vatsek, “and asked me to get cash. I got him 600 roubles from Mancho,” the oil baron. But it was not enough. A little later, “Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili came running with Budu Mdivani.” The tycoon then gave Stalin another 300 roubles.

Stalin found the press a new secret location in the Baku old city, setting it up in the dark cellars and alleyways of the Persian Fortress. But he discovered that the married couple who actually ran the press had embezzled money. He sent his Mauserists after them. The husband got away. The wife was interrogated by Stalin’s gunmen, but she somehow escaped before she could be liquidated.

In October 1909, the police raided a safe house to pick up Stalin’s fellow Baku Bolshevik, Prokofi “Alyosha” Japaridze. The policemen were surprised to find Stalin and Sergo with Japaridze. The ranking detective, as ever incapable of independent thought, left some policemen on guard and went to consult his superiors. Stalin and Sergo bribed the policemen with ten roubles. Japaridze had to stay and face arrest, but Stalin and Sergo were allowed to escape.

Stalin, on a tip - off from another of his contacts in the Baku Okhrana, blamed these betrayals on the Secretary of the Bolshevik Oil Workers Union, Leontiev. Stalin decided that there were five Okhrana double - agents in the Party. He decided to kill Leontiev, but the latter called his bluff, reappearing and demanding a Party trial. Stalin refused to hold a trial since this would reveal his moles inside the Okhrana. Leontiev was let off, raising suspicions about Stalin’s own relationship with the secret police.

“The betrayal of someone with whom you’ve shared everything,” said Stalin later, “is so horrible, no actor or writer can express it—it’s worse than the very bite of Death!” Stalin orchestrated a cannibalistic inquisition in Baku to find traitors, real and imagined, just as he would across the entire USSR in the 1930s. The difference is that in Baku the Party really was infested with police spies.

Stalin printed the names of the five “traitors,” but secret - police archives reveal that only one was, in fact, a spy; all the others were innocent. The witch hunt gathered pace. When Baku was visited by a top Moscow Bolshevik named Chernomazov, “Comrade Koba stared disgustedly at him. ‘You’re a traitor!’ he shouted.” In this case, Stalin was right.

The disarray was reported to the gleeful Baku Okhrana by their real spies code named “Fikus” and “Mikheil,” the traitors who really had infiltrated the Bolsheviks but were never identified by witchfinder - general Stalin. No doubt in Baku he ordered innocent people killed as traitors just as he would in the Terror.

It was a mess. Soso liked to fix such messes with quiet killings, but that did not work this time. He and another comrade accused each other of being spooks. Indeed the Mensheviks, and some Bolsheviks, suspected that Stalin himself, with his secret - police contacts, was the biggest traitor of the lot. So was he betraying the Party to the police? Here is the case against Stalin.

Stalin certainly cultivated shadowy Tsarist connections, receiving a stream of mysterious tip - offs from contacts in the secret police. Once Stalin was walking in Baku’s streets with a comrade when an Okhrana officer approached him. “I know you’re a revolutionary,” he said. “Here’s a list of all your comrades who will be arrested in the near future.” On another occasion, a comrade arrived to meet Stalin at a Party safe house and was startled to pass a senior Gendarme officer on his way out. He challenged Stalin, who said the Gendarme was aiding the Bolsheviks.

In Tiflis, during a roundup of revolutionaries, Stalin was amazed to find a Menshevik, Artyom Gio, in a secret hideout. “I wasn’t expecting it!” Stalin blurted out. “Haven’t you been arrested?” Just then a stranger entered. “You can talk freely,” Stalin reassured Gio. “He’s a comrade of mine.” This “comrade” turned out to be a police interpreter who then recited the list of comrades, including Sergei Alliluyev, who had been arrested that day—and warned Stalin that the police would arrest him that very night.*

The Okhrana’s agent “Fikus” reported that an unknown Gendarme officer visited Stalin and Mdivani to warn them about the Gendarme raid on the printing - press. As we saw, they saved the press.

So what was Stalin’s relationship with the secret police?

“Stalin was giving addresses of comrades disagreeable to him to the Gendarmes to get rid of them,” insists Arsenidze. “His comrades decided to put him on Party trial . . . but, at the trial meeting, Gendarmes appeared and arrested the judges and Koba.” In 1909, adds Uratadze, “the Baku Bolsheviks accused him of denouncing Shaumian to the police.” Jordania claimed that Shaumian even told him, “Stalin denounced me—no one else knew the address of my safe house.” All three of these accusers were Menshevik exiles whose stories have been widely accepted.

Then the secret police always seemed strangely confused about Stalin. The Gendarme chief in Baku, Colonel Martynov, only “discovered” that the Milkman was Soso Djugashvili in December 1909—almost six months after his escape. Was he being protected by his Tsarist controllers?

If one throws into this poisonous cauldron the accusations of betrayal against him as early as 1902, his secret - police contacts and his escapes from exile and prison, it might look plausible that he was a Tsarist agent.2Was the future supreme pontiff of international Marxism an unprincipled megalomaniac traitor? If Stalin was a phoney, was not the entire Soviet experiment a fraud too? And was everything he did, particularly the Great Terror, an attempt to cover up his guilt? It was a tempting theory—especially during the Cold War.

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Yet the case against Stalin is actually a weak one. The Menshevik stories of Shaumian’s betrayal do not stand up. There was tension but no feud with Shaumian: the two towering Bolshevik figures in the Caucasus were “friendly but with a shadow.” During 1907–10, Shaumian was only arrested once, on 30 April 1909, when Stalin was still in Solvychegodsk. Shaumian was next arrested, on 30 September 1911, when Stalin was imprisoned in Petersburg. It is unlikely Stalin arranged either arrest.

Stalin was flexible and amoral. His Messiah - complex led him to believe that anyone opposed to him was an enemy of the cause—thus any compact was justified, no matter how Mephistophelian. Yet there is no proof that he betrayed any comrades or that he was tried by a Party court.

Stalin’s secret - police contacts are not as suspicious as they seem. When he visited Tiflis for a short conference in November 1909, we know, ironically from “Fikus,” the Okhrana agent within the Bolsheviks, that “Due to the efforts of Koba (Soso)—Josef Djugashvili, who came from Baku—the conference decided to arrange that Party members should infiltrate different state institutions and collect intelligence for the Party.” So Stalin was in charge of the Party’s intelligence/counterintelligence—the penetration of the secret police.

It was his job to groom Gendarme or Okhrana officers, to generate tip - offs about traitors and police raids, and to engineer quick releases for arrested comrades. If one reads them carefully, every one of the stories of Stalin’s secret - police meetings, even the most hostile ones, reveals that he was actually receiving intelligence, not giving it. Some contacts, like the police interpreter, were sympathizers; most just wanted money.

The secret world is always a marketplace. The Caucasian police were particularly venal, and prices for releasing comrades were well known. The Bailov prison governor charged 150 roubles per prisoner to substitute a stand - in.* In Baku, the deputy head of the Gendarmerie, Captain Fyodor Zaitsev, was notorious. “Soon all our comrades were released,” remembers Sergo, “by means of small payments to Captain Zaitsev, who readily accepted bribes.” Shibaev, the Baku oil baron, paid Zaitsev 700 roubles to free Shaumian. Captain Zaitsev was almost certainly the senior Gendarme secretly meeting Stalin. In April 1910, Zaitsev’s venality caught up with him, and he was dismissed.

The money flowed both ways. Virtually all Okhrana agents were paid, but Stalin received no such mysterious income. Even when he was flush with bank - robbery cash, he spent little on himself and was usually penniless, in marked contrast to the real Okhrana agents, who were lavishly rewarded bon viveurs.

The secret police also ensured that their agents were virtually always at liberty: they wanted value for money. Yet Stalin spent only one and a half years at liberty between his arrest in 1908 and 1917. After 1910, he was free for just ten months.

The muddle of the Tsarist secret police is a major plank in the case against Stalin, and the flimsiest. Such mistakes were universal, not restricted to Stalin. The security agencies had totally infiltrated the Bolsheviks, but no organization before computers could have digested their millions of reports and card indexes. Indeed the Okhrana were remarkably successful, emerging well from comparisons with, say, today’s generously funded U.S. security agencies in the age of computers and electronic surveillance.

As for Stalin’s many escapes from exile (and there are more to come), “Those who didn’t escape,” explained one secret policeman, “did not want to, for personal reasons.” Stalin’s covert craft, feline elusiveness, and use of intermediaries made him especially hard to catch; his ruthlessness discouraged witnesses.

Finally, the evidence, in the many surviving secret - police archives, is overwhelming that Stalin was not a Tsarist agent—unless this is overturned by some decisive document* lurking undiscovered in provincial Okhrana archives, missed by Stalin himself, his own secret police, his many enemies and the armies of historians who have searched in vain for a smoking gun for almost a century.

Stalin was supremely well qualified for this moral no - man’s - land. On each of his nine or more arrests, the secret police would routinely have tried to turn him into their double - agent. Simultaneously, Stalin, that master of human frailty, would have been assiduously probing, seeking weak or venal policemen to become his agents.

When he did recruit an informer from the secret police, who was playing whom? It is likely that some of the secret policemen were double - crossing Stalin in the spirit of konspiratsia, passing him the names of innocent Bolsheviks as “traitors” in order to sow destructive paranoia within the Party—and protect their real agents. This explains why most of the Baku “traitors” named by Stalin were innocent, while the real Tsarist agents, “Fikus” and “Mikheil,” remained unsuspected.

Yet ultimately Stalin was a devout Marxist “of semi - Islamic fervour,” allowing no friend or family to stand between him and his mission. He regarded himself as an undiscovered but remarkable leader of the working class—a “Knight of the Grail,” in Spandarian’s phrase. As far as we know, he never wavered from this mission even in the worst of times—and in this he was almost unique.

Yet this cesspit of duplicity and espionage helps explain some of the craziness of Soviet history. Here is the origin of the paranoiac Soviet mind - set, the folly of Stalin’s mistrust of the warnings of Hitler’s invasion plans in 1941 and the bloody frenzy of his Terror.

The Okhrana may have failed to prevent the Russian Revolution, but they were so successful in poisoning revolutionary minds that, thirty years after the fall of the Tsars, the Bolsheviks were still killing each other in a witch hunt for nonexistent traitors.3

In the spring of 1910, the Milkman was such a master of evasion that the secret police could no longer cope. “The impossibility of his continued surveillance,” reported the Baku Gendarme commander Colonel Martynov, “makes necessary his detention; all the agents have become known to him and even newly assigned agents failed, while the Milkman managed both to deceive the surveillance and to expose it to his comrades, thus spoiling the entire operation. The Milkman mainly lives with his concubine Stefania Petrovskaya.”

On 23 March 1910, Colonel Martynov arrested the Milkman, now using the alias “Zakhar Melikiants,” and “the noblewoman of Kherson Province, Stefania Petrovskaya.” The couple were interrogated separately in Bailov Prison. The Milkman first denied having a relationship with Stefania. But he then requested permission to marry her. Soon Stalin was calling her “my wife.”

* Just as he was to despise the happy marriages of his grandees in power, after the suicide of his second wife in 1932. See Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Until recently, historians repeated that Beso had died about 1890, perhaps in a bar brawl, but the new archives disprove this. Once in power, Stalin’s henchmen and historians tried to find photographs of Beso and showed them to the dictator for identification: the Georgian Party archives contain piles of photographs of local cobblers and Beso candidates. One photograph probably is Beso for it was displayed in the cult museums, but Stalin himself refused to identify it. The local Party bosses also tried to find Beso’s grave but failed there too. In the 1940s, Elisabedashvili, who survived the Terror, presented Stalin with a clock that he claimed had belonged to Beso. Stalin refused to accept it, implying that someone else, probably Egnatashvili, was his real father. He preferred this gap in his life to any hint of the man himself.

* Gio’s memoirs are remarkable because they were published in the Soviet Union in 1925, just after Lenin’s death but before Stalin had established his dictatorship—virtually the only moment in Soviet history when this could have happened. The book came out in Leningrad, then the fiefdom of Zinoviev, who presumably permitted this as a warning to Stalin, with whom he was competing for Lenin’s throne. Gio reveals that the Georgian police interpreter betrayed the Tsarist state not because he was a Marxist but because he was a Georgian “nationalist.” Gio also recounts how Stalin gave him code words to contact another comrade named Kornev, who turned out to be so suspicious that he was probably a police agent. Gio believed that this Kornev had tricked Stalin, but it is equally possible that Stalin was testing or sacrificing Gio, or that he was in the process of recruiting Kornev.

* Sometimes the police set the price too high. “My dear,” wrote an unknown Bolshevik, “unfortunately I cannot help you. The official asks 800 roubles for cancellation abroad [this meant going abroad instead of into Siberian exile] for Yakov Mikhailovich [Sverdlov]. Where to get this sum?”

* A major piece of evidence that Stalin was an Okhrana agent was a probable forgery, the so - called Eremin Letter, that appeared in the 1920s and was published by Life magazine in the 1950s, forming the backbone of the conspiracy - theory books by I. D. Levine and E. E. Smith. Colonel Eremin was indeed the head of the Tiflis Okhrana from February 1908. The letter was clearly drafted by someone who knew a lot about Stalin and the Okhrana, but it contained a series of mistakes of detail. While appreciating Stalin’s amorality, it also grasped his devotion to the cause, claiming that he was an unsatisfactory agent because in the end he was a fanatical Marxist. When the Eremin Letter was published in Life after Stalin’s death, his successor, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, and the Politburo ordered the KGB Chairman, General Serov, to analyse its veracity. His investigations, recently found in the archives, also conclude that it was a forgery. As for the theory that the Great Terror was Stalin’s effort to suppress evidence of his Okhrana links, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin by Roman Brackman (2001) puts the argument robustly.

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