The Escapist: Kamo’s Leap and the Last Bank Robbery - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Escapist: Kamo’s Leap
and the Last Bank Robbery

On the way to Tomsk, somewhere near Vologda, Stalin encountered Boris Nikolaevsky, the Mensheviks’ Baku investigator. Soso gave nothing away but borrowed Nikolaevsky’s treasured blue tea mug, which he then pinched.

On 18 July 1912 he arrived in Tomsk and was placed on a steamship up the Ob to Kolpashevo, where he disembarked for a week and met Simon Vereshchak, his Menshevik cell mate in Bailov Prison. Stalin dined with Vereshchak and Simon Surin, a Menshevik and Okhrana agent, before boarding another steamer upriver to his destination, Narym, where he was welcomed by Yakov Sverdlov, another young CC member.

Narym could have been worse. A settlement of 1,000 people with 150 houses, it was just within the agricultural belt. Its forests teemed with life, but it was high summer and the marshy landscape swarmed with mosquitoes—and with too many exiles, who even ran their own café, butcher’s shop and colonial goods store, plus, more important for Stalin, two escape bureaux.

“He arrived at my home,” remembers his landlady Yefrosina Alexeyeva, “in a Russian embroidered open - necked white shirt which left his chest exposed.” She tried to put him off because there were already two exiles living in her spare room, but “he went into the exiles’ room, looked around, talked with his comrades, then moved in” with Sverdlov.

Son of a wealthy Jewish printer from Nizhny Novgorod, the twenty - seven - year - old Yakov Sverdlov sported round spectacles and “black luxuriant hair,” but his most surprising feature was that out of this apparently meek figure of “remarkable gentleness” burst a “thunderous voice—the Devil knows how that monstrous voice could come from such a small man,” laughed Molotov. “A Jericho trumpet!” He looked like the sort of Jewish intellectual that Stalin loathed, but actually Sverdlov was a ruthless and unpretentious organizer. The two most impressive Bolsheviks in Russia shared a room and irritated each other.

Stalin, always the lazy egotist, avoided his share of the housework. The meticulous Sverdlov ended up doing it himself. “I liked to creep out for the post on Sverdlov’s day to do it,” chuckled Stalin when he recounted memories to Sverdlov and the Alliluyev girls. “Sverdlov had to look after the house whether he liked it or not—keep the stove alight and do the cleaning . . . How many times I tried to trick you and get out of the housework. I used to wake up when it was my turn and lie still as if asleep.”

“And do you think I didn’t notice?” replied Sverdlov. “I noticed only too well.”

The local Georgians, led by an exile known as “the Prince,” had heard of Soso, “a great man,” for whom they threw a Georgian feast. The guests sang in Russian and Georgian, dancing the lesginka. At the dance, a local housewife named Lukeria Tihomirova, aged twenty - five, bumped into “the Georgian in a double - breasted black coat,” who introduced himself as Djugashvili. But this time he did not bother to flirt, just sitting with Lukeria’s two - year - old niece on his knee, not even drinking.

“So young and already smoking a pipe,” she said flirtatiously. But Soso did not take the bait. The CC member had much on his mind: Pravda, the Duma elections—and a big bank robbery. He did not intend to stay long.

Lenin and Krupskaya, who had moved from Paris to Cracow, encouraged Soso and Sverdlov to escape. Sverdlov set off first but was recaptured. Then it was Soso’s turn.

“My sons took him by boat to the riverport,” says his landlady Alexeyeva.

“I’m leaving my books for my comrades,” Soso told her, doling out “apples and sugar and two bottles of good vodka from the parcel he’d received.” Then he set out with Yakov and Agafon Alexeyev in their canoe. At “dusk on a dark overcast night, no moonlight,” remembers Yakov Alexeyev, they paddled him to the river jetty, asking when he would return.

“Expect me,” he replied, “when you see me.” On 1 September, he caught the steamboat to Tomsk. Sverdlov followed and they travelled together. Stalin, always selfish and in command, posed as a commercial traveller on the train. So he bought a first - class ticket, mischievously forcing the diminutive Sverdlov to hide in his dirty laundry basket. They were confronted by a Gendarme, who, suspicious of the laundry, was just about to stab it with his bayonet when Sverdlov cried: “There’s a man in here!” A grinning Stalin bribed the policeman just in time. They reached Petersburg.* The prolific escapist had spent just thirty - eight days in Narym.1

Around 12 September, an unkempt Stalin with “a long beard, crumpled cap, worn shoes and an old jacket with a black shirt” was again strolling up and down Nevsky Prospect, looking suspiciously like an escaped convict among the dapper boulevardiers and fashionable ladies, when he saw Kavtaradze.

“I’ve escaped from Narym,” said Stalin. “I arrived safely but nobody is at the safe house . . . Just as well I at least met you.” Kavtaradze was alarmed by this dishevelled Siberian vision—“his look was inappropriate for Nevsky Prospect”—but immediately led him to a new safe house belonging to “a certain Rear - Admiral’s widow,” probably Baroness Maria Shtakelberg, descendant of a Catherine the Great courtier, who rented rooms to Georgian students. Presently Stalin and Sverdlov moved in with the Alliluyevs.

Stalin visited the Stasova apartment, where he collected the CC treasury which Elena had left with her brother on her arrest. He then bumped into an old girlfriend.

“I was on my way to teach down Nevsky Prospect,” says Tatiana Sukhova, “when suddenly I felt a man’s hand on my shoulder. It made me jump but a familiar voice addressed me: ‘Don’t be afraid, Comrade Tatiana, it’s me!’ And there was Comrade Osip Koba standing next to me.” They arranged to meet at “some workers’ meeting.” Later they walked together and, “as we passed a café, Comrade Koba took a red carnation and gave it to me.”

Days later, he arrived in Tiflis, where his Bolshevik gangsters were assembling. Kamo was out.2

Stalin had kept a distant eye on his demented brigand, Kamo. In Tiflis, Budu Mdivani and Tsintsadze were preparing to spring the prisoner from the Metekhi Fortress’s Unit for the Criminally Insane, where a doctor recorded Kamo’s bizarre behaviour: “Complains that mice bother him, though his building has no mice. Patient suffers from hallucinations. He hears strange voices, talks with someone, and is answered.” The guard who watched him “noticed that Ter - Petrossian rises during the night, catches something in the air, crawls under the table, trying to find something . . . complains someone is throwing stones in the room and when asked who, replies, ‘The devil’s brother.’” In fact, Kamo was planning his escape.

Kamo’s warder was a simpleton named Bragin whom he gradually charmed and then recruited as courier. Mdivani and Kamo’s sisters met Bragin and gave him escape tools, saws and ropes, which he smuggled in to his patient. Kamo sawed through the bars, replacing them with paste made from his bread. It took him five days to sever his shackles, which he held in place with wire.

On 15 August 1912, Mdivani and Tsintsadze’s Mauserists waved a handkerchief three times from the street. Kamo broke the shackles and bars and abseiled down the walls. The rope snapped and Kamo, who felt little pain, toppled into the Kura. Clambering out, he tossed his shackles into the river and walked to the nearest street, where he boarded a tram (to confuse search dogs) before making the rendezvous with the Mauserists.

One night, recalls Sashiko Svanidze, while police combed the city and the press sensationalized the escape, “Comrade Budu Mdivani came and told Misha [Monoselidze, her husband] that they’d sprung Kamo from the Mental Hospital the night before . . . They brought Kamo, who stayed for a month at our place.” Sashiko, Stalin’s son and her own children were then staying in the country, but Kamo looked after Mono selidze for a month by cooking him delicious meals. Kamo, in disguise, then escaped abroad via Batumi and Istanbul.

“Kamo came to us in Paris,” recalls Krupskaya. “He suffered greatly from the split between Illich [Lenin] on one hand, and Bogdanov and Krasin* on the other,” bewildered by the schism between the three heroes for whom he had performed his most outrageous bank robberies. Kamo wavered and Lenin “listened with great pity for this extremely daring but na’ive man with a fiery soul.” Lenin, like Stalin, knowing that concern and health care offered ways ofcontrolling his political protégés, offered to pay for an operation on Kamo’s damaged eye. After surgery in Brussels, Kamo set off to smuggle arms into Russia. He was arrested in Bulgaria and Istanbul, each time managing to charm his way to freedom. Back in Tiflis, Kamo assembled the Outfit. A mail coach with a huge sum of cash was expected to gallop down the main highway into the city. Around 22 September, Stalin, in charge of Party financial matters inside Russia, also arrived in Tiflis.

It was probably now that Tsintsadze, as Stalin recalled after the Second World War, gave the gangsters his pep talk in a private room at the Tamamshev Caravanserai on Yerevan Square before they rode up the Kadzhorskoe Highway.

On 24 September, Kamo and Tsintsadze, with Kupriashvili and about eighteen gunmen, ambushed the mail coach three miles outside Tiflis. The highwaymen tossed bombs at the police and Cossacks: three policemen and a postilion were killed. A fourth policeman was wounded but opened fire on the bank robbers. The holdup escalated into a brutal fire - fight. The gunmen failed to grab the money; the Cossacks rallied. When the Outfit eventually retreated, the Cossacks gave chase but Tsintsadze and Kupriashvili, both crack shots, covered their retreat, picking off seven Cossacks in a galloping battle down the Kadzhorskoe Highway.

It was the last bow of the Outfit. Kamo was tracked down to his hideout with eighteen of his gangsters. They were arrested. Kamo received four death sentences.

“I’m resigned to death,” Kamo wrote to Tsintsadze, “I’m absolutely calm. On my grave there should already be grass growing six feet high. One can’t escape death for ever. One must die one day. But I’ll try my luck once more and perhaps one day, we’ll laugh at our enemies again . . .”3This seemed highly unlikely.*

Soso did not linger in Tiflis.

* Stalin told this story to Molotov on their way to the Teheran Conference in 1943 and to his son - in - law Yuri Zhdanov. Back in Narym, the district policeman found Stalin was missing the next day but waited to see if he would return from Tomsk. By the time the police reported his escape to the governor of Tomsk, who had issued an alert, it was 3 November and Stalin had been in Petersburg for weeks.

* Krasin finally left active politics, but Lenin welcomed his return to the Bolsheviks after the Revolution, appointing him People’s Commissar for Trade, Industry and Transport, and later Ambassador to London. Krasin the engineer was one of the brains behind the refrigeration, embalming and displaying of the dead Lenin in 1924. He himself died in 1926.

* Once again, Kamo cheated the noose, benefiting from the broad amnesty of Nicholas II on the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913. Kamo remained in jail for five years but lived to meet up again with Stalin and play out the ultimate insane violence after the Revolution. See the Epilogue. Of the female gangsters, Anneta and Patsia died of TB, as did many of the others. By the end of the 1930s, only Alexandra Darakhvelidze and Bachua Kupriashvili survived to leave their memoirs.

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