On one cold gloomy Petersburg winter day, I was studying when there was a knock at the door,” says Kavtaradze, who was attending Petersburg University while giving maths lessons to the Alliluyev sisters. “Suddenly in came Stalin. I knew he’d been exiled. He was as friendly and merry as usual, wearing a light overcoat despite the biting frost but . . . he wouldn’t take his coat off. ‘I’ll be here for a bit . . . I’ll just rest a while. I came straight from Moscow and I noticed I was being tailed in Moscow and when I got off the train, I spotted the same spook. . . he’s lurking right outside your place!”
“This was serious,” notes Kavtaradze. The two Georgians waited until darkness. Kavtaradze decided that there was only one way to escape: Stalin would have to dress up in drag. Kavtaradze procured some dresses and Stalin modelled them—but the look just did not work. “I could get women’s dresses,” said Kavtaradze, “but it was impossible to make Stalin look like a woman.”
The spook, reflected Stalin, “doesn’t want to arrest me—he wants to observe. So I’ll get some sleep.”
“Yes, sleep: maybe he won’t be able to take the frost. Like Napoleon’s army,” joked Kavtaradze.
“He will,” replied Soso, who slept all day. But when they emerged onto the streets, the agent was still there. “Let’s walk a little,” said Soso.
He was hungry, so they ate at Fedorov’s restaurant, but the spy reappeared. “Damn!” swore Stalin. “He pops up from nowhere!”
A cab clattered down the street. Stalin hailed the carriage and leaped on, but the spook hailed another. The galloping phaetons chased each other down Liteiny, but, realizing he was close to a safe house, Stalin jumped out of the moving cab into a snowdrift, which enveloped him completely. The spy’s galloped past, following the now empty carriage.*
Stalin dressed up “in the uniform of the Army Medical College and went out.” This was his favoured disguise in Petersburg that year. He stayed about a week. His new assignment was to convert the Bolshevik weekly Zvezda into a daily, Pravda (Truth).
Stalin was brought to the flat of Tatiana Slavatinskaya, aged thirty - three, a cultured and good - looking Bolshevik, an orphan who had educated herself and studied at the Conservatoire, becoming a fan of Chaliapin’s singing. One of Lenin’s covert operatives, Elena Stasova, trained her in code making. Married to a Jewish revolutionary named Lurye and mother of two children, Tatiana sheltered various Bolsheviks on the run, one of whom “brought a Caucasian with the codename ‘Vasily’ who lived with us for a while.”
She did not much like “Vasily”—Stalin’s latest alias. “Initially, he seemed too serious, too closed and shy, and his only concern was not to bother us. It was very hard to make him sleep in a bigger, more comfortable room, but on going out to work I always ordered the housemaid† to cook him dinner along with the children. He stayed a week and I ran his errands as messenger.” Stalin appointed her his secretary for the Duma elections. Slavatinskaya seems to have been fairly liberated, in the style of these early feminists. He started an affair with his “dear darling Tatiana” that was “well known” among Soviet grandees during Stalin’s rule.
Sometimes Stalin stayed with the Alliluyevs. The Venice of the North was a picture of “frosts, snowdrifts, icy sledge paths,” writes Anna Alliluyeva. “Its streets were filled with low Finnish sleighs decorated with ribbons and jingly bells” pulled by “stumpy little horses,” bearing “loads of laughing passengers.” Anna and her younger sister Nadya were glued to their windows longing for a ride—when Soso appeared: “Who’d like a sleigh - ride? Well, get dressed and hurry up, we’re leaving straight away!” The girls were delighted. “We all jumped up shouting with excitement,” recounts Anna. “Now we were invited”—and by none other than “Soso himself,” whose articles they loyally read. The girls knew him better now: “Usually uncommunicative, he can also laugh and joke boyishly and tell amusing stories. He sees the funny side of people and imitates them to such perfection that everyone roars with laughter.” But now he was in a hurry.
“Come on! Fedya [their brother Fyodor], Nadya! Get dressed”—and he ordered their maid, Fenya: “Get the fur coats!”
In the street, Soso called out to the driver: “How about giving us a ride!”
Stalin was in good spirits: “Every word . . . makes us laugh. Soso laughs with us all as the sleigh glides down Sampsonevsky Prospect past the station” with its “small steam trains.” Suddenly, Soso jumped off the sleigh and back into his secret life: “Stop, I’ll get off here, you can ride home”—and, just like that, the Bolshevik Macavity vanished into the station. Was he really having fun with the girls, or was the whole outing a cover to shake off a spook?
Soso disappeared again. The police spies lost him but guessed correctly that he would resurface in the Caucasus.1
On 16 March 1912, the Okhrana’s double - agent “Fikus” reported that Stalin was back in Tiflis, where he was staying with a singing teacher who worked at the Teachers’ Society School, directed by the severe Elena Stasova.* His hostess was told “not to ask the name of her visitor,” but Stalin, perhaps missing home, sang Georgian songs with her.
Soso met up with his playboy friend and CC member Spandarian, and with Stasova. He visited his son, Yakov, whom the Svanidzes were bringing up “as their own with our own children.” The Monoselidzes remained shocked by his callous neglect. “My nephew, having been left an orphan by his mother,” complains Sashiko, “was also almost orphaned by his father.” Soso did not stay long, rushing over to Batumi and then back to Baku.2
There he found another witch hunt for traitors: the Mensheviks were investigating Spandarian, hoping to prove that he had either falsified a Party stamp or that he was an Okhrana spy. Stalin defended his friend. The Mensheviks refused to let him attend their investigation but agreed to send an envoy to hear Stalin’s side of the story. The envoy was Boris Nikolaevsky, the Menshevik who would, in sunny Californian exile, become the chronicler of the underground. Nikolaevsky consulted a Bolshevik, Abel Yenukidze, genial godfather to Nadya Alliluyeva, Svanidze friend and sceptical acquaintance of Stalin, who ultimately destroyed him.
“Have you ever heard the name ‘Koba’?” Yenukidze asked Nikolaevsky, in a Baku café.
“No,” replied Nikolaevsky.
“Koba,” explained Yenukidze, “is a dangerous fellow who’s capable of anything!” The Georgians were different from Russians: “We’re a vengeful people.”
Nikolaevsky laughed and asked in a mock - Caucasian accent: “Will he cut me with his dagger just a little bit?”
“Don’t laugh,” replied Yenukidze seriously. “He’ll cut your throat if he believes it necessary. It’s not Great Russia here: this is Old Asia. Don’t forget that name and be very wary.” Yenukidze would pay dearly for such outspokenness about his “dangerous” comrade.
Stalin was “waiting when I arrived, sitting in the shadows so he could easily observe me,” recounts the wary Nikolaevsky. They may have cleared up the question of Spandarian, but while in Baku Stalin ordered his Mauserists to kill a former sailor of the battleship Potemkin whom he accused of being an Okhrana spy. “He was shot,” notes Nikolaevsky, “and left for dead, but he regained consciousness and claimed rehabilitation.”
The Mensheviks ordered Nikolaevsky, who now became “very interested in old Koba’s deeds,” to investigate. But Nikolaevsky was arrested. Stalin vanished again.3
· · ·
“We need to send ‘Ivanovich’ [Stalin] to Petersburg immediately,” Krupskaya told Sergo, who was in Kiev. Stalin and Sergo, those two highhanded Georgians, who would later dominate the USSR together, revelled in their new CC eminence. Stasova grumbled that “Sergo and ‘Ivanovich’ keep giving orders but say nothing about what is happening around us.” Days later, Spandarian was arrested.
Stalin rushed northwards, pausing for a quick chat with Spandarian’s girlfriend, Vera Shveitzer, in the station buffet at Rostov - on - Don, to meet Sergo in Moscow,* where they visited Malinovsky. He betrayed them. As the Georgians left Moscow, they noticed their Okhrana tails. The agents saw them onto the train, but Stalin then jumped off outside the station. In Petersburg, it took the Okhrana six days to realize that Soso had never arrived.
The secret police, aided by Malinovsky and other double - agents, had decided to mop up the CC. On 14 April, Sergo was arrested too, but Soso the super - conspirator managed to outwit the spooks just a little longer, surrepticiously reaching the capital.
Suddenly the Revolution received a bloody boost. On 4 April, troops on the river Lena’s Siberian goldfields fired on workers, killing 150. “The Lena shots broke the ice of silence,” Stalin exulted in Zvezda, “and the river of popular resentment is flowing again. The ice has broken. It has started!” Strikes broke out across the Empire. Challenged in the Duma, Maklakov, the Interior Minister, arrogantly replied: “So it was. So it will be.”
Stalin was beside himself with excitement. “We live!” he boomed in an article. “Our scarlet blood seethes with the fire of unspent strength!” Lenin declared that “the Revolution is resurgent.”
In Petersburg, Stalin stayed with N. G. Poletaev, proletarian poet and Bolshevik Duma deputy, whose house enjoyed parliamentary immunity, and saw Tatiana Slavatinskaya, his assistant. From the “untouchable Poletaev’s house,” Stalin “started to run the weekly Zvezda,” writing a stream of passionate articles. Trotsky dismisses them as “the language of Tiflis Seminary homilectics,” but they were stirring stuff, not at all like the leaden ideological claptrap of the future. The Alliluyev girls read them aloud to each other. Their favourite began: “The country lay in chains at the feet of its enslavers.” With his “scarlet blood seething,” Soso wrote a much admired May Day appeal that was a surprising hymn to his beloved Nature, the last throwback to his days as a romantic poet: “Nature is awakening from its winter dream. The forests and mountains are turning green. Flowers adorn meadows and pastures. The sun shines more warmly. We feel in the air the pleasure of new life and the world is beginning to dance for joy.”*
“In April 1912,” recalled Stalin, “we agreed on the Pravda platform and worked out the first issue.” Founded in three little rooms, the first Bolshevik daily was legal—but its illegal editor - in - chief, Stalin, had to run it from the shadows. Pravda was funded by Victor Tikhomirnov, son of a Kazan tycoon who left him 300,000 roubles and whose childhood friend was Vyacheslav Scriabin—“Molotov.” Tikhomirnov channelled thousands of roubles through Molotov, a founder of Pravda.
Stalin decided it was time to meet this young man. Molotov was told to wait in a courtyard behind a dentist’s apartment near their printing - press. Stalin suddenly emerged, as if out of nowhere, from behind a pile of firewood. Soso liked to cultivate this mystery: his feline charisma certainly dazzled the ponderous but younger Molotov, who had never met a real CC member.
“I didn’t see how he appeared, but he wore the uniform of a psy - choneurology student. We introduced ourselves.” Molotov noticed the pockmarks and the Georgian accent. “He discussed only the most important issues without wasting a second on anything unnecessary. He delivered some Pravda materials. No superfluous gestures. Then he vanished just as suddenly as he had appeared. He climbed over the fence and all this was done with classic simplicity and grace.”
The next day, Molotov, almost lovestruck, gushed to a friend: “He’s astonishing, he possesses internal revolutionary beauty, a Bolshevik to the marrow, clever, cunning as conspirator. . .” When they met again, they talked all night. It was the beginning of a partnership that would last for the next forty - one years.
Soso’s vigilance was sensible: he was virtually the last CC member at liberty. Sergo and Spandarian were behind bars. On 22 April 1912, the first Pravda was published. When Stalin strolled out of the parliamentary sanctuary of Poletaev’s apartment, the Okhrana arrested him. By June, thanks to Malinovsky’s betrayals, only one ineffectual CC member was at liberty. The organization was again in ruins. Stasova rushed up from Tiflis to repair some of the damage, but she too was arrested.
On 2 July, Stalin, sentenced to three years’ exile, was despatched to Siberia.4 His courtiers later flattered him with the nickname “the Doctor of Escapology.” This was to be his shortest exile.
* Kavtaradze was arrested by the Gendarmes the next day. When they showed him a photo of Stalin, he laughed because he looked “so tousled.” “Do you know him?” asked the officer. “No, he looks crazy.” “Do you know Djugashvili?” “Yes I know Soso Djugashvili, I just saw him.” “Do you know he’s a state criminal who’s very dangerous and on the run?” “Well, you know we Georgians always know each other . . .” Kavtaradze was released.
† The housemaid was an Estonian girl who later married Kalinin, becoming the first lady of the USSR before being arrested during Stalin’s Terror while her husband remained head of state. See Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
* Now known as “Comrade Zelma,” Stasova was the granddaughter of the architect to the Emperors Alexander I and Nicholas I and daughter of a noble lawyer who worked in the Senate, a herald at Alexander II’s coronation: she had much in common with those cultured nobles Lenin and Krupskaya. She knew Stalin from Baku and was a specialist in secret work, often involved in keeping Party funds. Stasova was so humourless and prissy that Stalin laughed at her. She later became one of Lenin’s secretaries. After Lenin’s death, when Krupskaya opposed him, Stalin half jokingly threatened to appoint Stasova as his widow instead. She did not seek high office after Lenin’s death, almost disappearing, one of the very few Old Bolsheviks to survive the Terror. She emerged as a revered antique in Khrushchev’s reign, living on into Brezhnev’s, and dying in 1966.
* The nine - year - old son of a Moscow Bolshevik remembered how a Caucasian came to visit his father. The father was out, so the Caucasian tenderly chatted to the child. As he was leaving, the Caucasian sharply slapped the boy’s face then said, “Don’t cry, little boy. Remember, today Stalin [or whichever name he was then using] talked to you!” When the boy told his parents, they were angry and baffled until they heard of this mountain custom in Georgia: when a prince visited a village family, the peasant would slap his son across the face and say, “Remember today this Prince visited our house.”
* Stalin blasted the regime of “Nicholas the Last.” The Emperor and Empress were already placing their trust in a Siberian healer and dissolute hierophant named Grigory Rasputin. Once Rasputin’s intimacy with the monarchs was known, this created a growing scandal that alienated monarchists and Marxists alike. Few knew that the little heir, Tsarevich Alexei, suffered from haemophilia. Nicholas and Alexandra increasingly believed that Rasputin alone could staunch the bleeding and ease the child’s pain. The ever - changing Interior Ministers and Okhrana directors now started using their agents to tail Rasputin and chronicle his orgies to discredit him with the Emperor. Increasingly the Empress judged her ministers by their attitude to Rasputin. Stalin wrote about him when he called the Tsar and his courtiers “destroyers of liberties, worshippers of gallows and firing - squads, thieving quartermasters, robber police, murderous secret policemen and dissolute Rasputins! . . . To complete the picture: the brutal shooting of toilers in the Lena goldfields.”