“Darling, I’m in Desperate Straits” - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Over this land, like a ghost
He roamed from door to door;
In his hands, he clutched a lute
And sweetly made it tinkle;
In his dreamy melodies,
Like a beam of sunlight,
You could sense truth itself
And heavenly love.
The voice made many a man’s heart
Beat, that had been turned to stone;
It enlightened many a man’s mind
Which had been cast into uttermost darkness.
But instead of glorification,
Wherever the harp was plucked,
The mob set before the outcast
A vessel filled with poison . . .
And they said to him: “Drink this, o accursed,
This is your appointed lot!
We do not want your truth
Nor these heavenly tunes of yours!”

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)


“Darling, I’m in Desperate Straits”

The steamer that slowly conveyed Stalin up the Yenisei River from Krasnoyarsk in mid - June 1913 revealed a Siberia of inconceivable remoteness and wild vastness. His destination, Turukhansk, was larger than Britain, France and Germany combined, yet contained just 12,000 people.

The Yenisei flowed through narrow valleys with high terraces until it widened so far that he could peer across its glistening flatness and see no land at all. The Siberian taiga was hilly and forested with dense larch climbing to ridges of flat alpine tundra. It was green and lush in summer, but severe and icily white in a winter that lasted nine months a year, sinking to temperatures as low as—60°. Between villages of peasants and convicts, the colossal spaces were only rarely dotted with the tents and reindeer of the shamanistic Tungus and Ostyak nomads.

The game of escape, capture and escape again was over. This was, as Robert Service puts it, “a landbound Devil’s Island.” This time, though Stalin did not yet realize it, the Autocracy meant business. From Petersburg it took just over a week to reach the regional capital, Krasnoyarsk, whence he was despatched northwards into Turukhansk. It was Stalin’s home for four years but would enter his heart and never leave it.

After travelling for twenty - six days, he disembarked on 10 August at the village of Monastyrskoe,* the “capital” of Turukhansk Province. “As you see I’m in Turukhansk,” he wrote to Zinoviev (and Lenin) in Cracow. “Did you get my letter sent on the way? I’ve fallen ill. I need to recover. Send me some money.” He was already planning his escape: “If you need my help, let me know and I’ll come immediately.”

Lenin did need his help. On 27 July, he had held a CC meeting at which he had ordered that Stalin and Sverdlov be sprung from exile. Each was sent sixty roubles, but once again Malinovsky betrayed the plan to the Okhrana, which telegraphed Turukhansk police chief Ivan Kibirov, warning that Stalin was an escape - artist. The officers in such places were themselves effectively exiled: Kibirov, an Ossetian, had been removed from the Baku police and posted to Turukhansk for misdemeanours unknown. Possibly because of their shared Ossetian origins, he favoured Stalin.

Soso was assigned to stay in Miroedikha, a hamlet to the south where he soon made himself felt. An exile named Innokenti Dubrovinsky had drowned in the river that summer, leaving an impressive library. Exile etiquette decreed the sharing of the libraries of the dead, but typically Stalin “expropriated” the books, refused to share them and started to read them ravenously. The life of the exiles rotated around just this sort of petty quarrel which Stalin was so expert at provoking. The other exiles were outraged—they complained, and blackballed him. Philip Zakharov, a Bolshevik, confronted the book - thief, but Stalin treated his impertinent visitor “like a Tsarist General would receive a private soldier who had the insolence to appear before him with a request.” Stalin behaved like the Khoziain, the Master, long before he was dictator of Russia—indeed he had done so since childhood.

After just two weeks, he had to be moved (no doubt with his new library) to another hamlet, Kostino. There he found four other exiles, and this pedagogue manqué spent his time teaching two Georgian criminals to read. Soon he learned that his old roommate Sverdlov was nearby in Selivanikha.1

Around 20 September, Stalin visited Sverdlov, who lived in a peasant bathhouse. Staying together in the converted banya, they dreamed of escape. “I’ve just bidden farewell to Vaska [Stalin], my guest here for a week,” Sverdlov told Malinovsky, the last Bolshevik leader at liberty inside Russia. “If you have money for me or ‘Vaska’ (they might have sent some), then send it . . . Last week, we wrote asking for some newspapers and magazines. Do what you can.” Malinovsky was certainly doing what he could to betray the two hopeful escapees.

On 1 October, Lenin and the CC, reacting to Stalin’s offer to Zinoviev, again proposed to spring him and Sverdlov, assigning one hundred roubles to the project. Within nineteen days, Stalin had “received an offer from a comrade in Petersburg to escape to the capital.” Stalin and Sverdlov prepared for this challenging escape, spending all their money and credit. The Bolshevik manager of the Canadian fur - trading company Revelion provided flour, sugar, tea and tobacco; the local doctor donated medicines; others forged passports.

The “doctor of escapology” was almost ready, but now winter was descending on the taiga. It was harsher and more desolate than anything the Georgian had experienced before. He was soon at the lowest ebb of his life so far. Daily life in Turukhansk was meant to be a struggle. If most Tsarist exiles were like holidays, Turukhansk was a slow death: many exiles perished out there from the extremities of weather. By early November, it was—33°, heading for—50°. Saliva froze on the lips, breath crystallized. And the cold made living much more expensive. Stalin appealed to his girlfriend Tatiana Slavatinskaya. His panic is obvious:

Tatiana Alexandrovna, I feel rather ashamed to write this but I have no other choice—my need is urgent! I don’t have a kopeck. All my supplies are gone. I had some money but everything was spent on warm clothes, shoes and food supplies which are very expensive here . . . By God, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Could you stir up some friends and raise 30 roubles? Maybe more later. It would be my salvation and the sooner the better since winter is in full swing (yesterday—33) . . . I hope you can do this. So, my dear, please get started. Otherwise “the Caucasian of Kalashnikov Exchange” is going to perish . . . .

Tatiana not only sent him his old clothes but also bought him winter underwear. When it arrived, he was thrilled: “Darling dear Tatiana, I got your parcel. But I didn’t ask for new clothes, just the old ones, yet you’ve spent your money on new ones. Dear darling, it’s a shame because you’re short of money, but I don’t know how to thank you!” Even with his new clothes, Stalin begged Tatiana for money: “Darling, My need is more urgent with every passing hour. I’m in desperate straits: on top of every thing, I got ill, a cough on the lungs. I need milk, money. I have none. My dear, if you find money, send it immediately. It’s unbearable to wait any longer . . .”

He must have been sending out letters to all his friends, particularly Malinovsky, the very man who had put him in Siberia:

Hello, my friend

I feel a bit uncomfortable writing but needs must. I’ve never suffered such a terrible situation. All my money’s gone, I’ve got a sinister cough along with sinking temperatures (—37), a general deterioration in my health; and I’ve no supplies, no bread, sugar, meat, kerosene. All my money’s gone on living expenses and clothing and footwear . . . I need milk, I need firewood but . . . money, I’m out of money, friend. I don’t know how I’ll get through the winter . . . I have neither rich family nor friends, and I’ve no one to ask so I’m appealing to you . . . .

Stalin suggested that Malinovsky appeal to the Menshevik Karlo Chkheidze, whom he had tormented in Batumi, “not only as my compatriot but as Chairman of the faction. I don’t want to die out here without even writing you a letter. The matter is urgent because waiting means starving when I am already weak and sick.” He had got “44 roubles from abroad,” from Berne, Switzerland—and nothing else. He tried to raise money another way. Zinoviev claimed they were publishing his nationalities essay as a pamphlet:

Then I hope (have a right to hope) for a fee (money is the breath of life in this ill - fated place, where they have nothing but fish). I hope if that happens, you’ll stand up for me and get me the fee . . . I embrace you, goddamn me . . . Do I really have to vegetate here for another four years?


Malinovsky replied in transparent code: “Dear brother, I’ll sell the horse: I’ve asked 100 roubles for it.”

Yet when the hundred - rouble escape fund arrived, it was sent to Sverdlov. Stalin took umbrage: did they only want Sverdlov and not him? But things looked up a little. Zinoviev replied that they were publishing Stalin’s pamphlet. He got twenty - five roubles from Badaev, the Duma deputy, but he needed more. He must have written to Georgia, to his mother and the Svanidzes, because he received a parcel from Tiflis, and he appealed to the Alliluyevs too.

The books and money demanded from Zinoviev did not arrive. Stalin again became desperate: “You wrote that you’d be sending the ‘debt’ in small bits. Send it as soon as possible however small the bits. I terribly need the money. It would be fine without my damn illness which requires money. . . I’m waiting.”

Stalin was writing another article entitled “Cultural - National Autonomy,” which he sent, via Sergei Alliluyev, to Troyanovsky for his journal Prosveshchenie. But he became ever more irritated with Zinoviev, writing on 11 January 1914, referring to himself in the third person: “Why are you keeping silent, my friend? I haven’t had a letter from you for three months. Stalin . . . hoped to get the relevant fee, and thus wouldn’t need to ask anyone for money any more. I think he has a right to think like that.” Stalin never forgot his treatment at the hands of Zinoviev, showy orator and supercilious Jewish émigré, things he despised.

In January 1914, after six months of anxiety and struggle, money started arriving: the policeman Kibirov reported to his superiors that Stalin had received 50 roubles from Petersburg, 10 roubles from Sashiko (Svanidze) Monoselidze in Tiflis, 25 from Badaev, plus another 55 from Petersburg, almost enough for an escapee’s “boots.”

The Imperial Police director, Beletsky, learned (probably from Malinovsky) that an escape was imminent. He telegraphed Turukhansk that Stalin and Sverdlov had each received another 50 roubles “to organize their escape.” A local Okhrana informer confirmed that “Djugashvili and Sverdlov are thinking of escaping . . . on the very first steamboat down the Yenisei this summer.” Beletsky ordered: “Take all measures to prevent this!” The Okhrana decided “to place Djugashvili and Sverdlov in a northern village where there are no other exiles and to attach two inspectors specially to watch them.”

This was dire news. “Djugashvili and I are being moved 180 versts northwards, 80 versts north of the Arctic Circle,” a downhearted Sverdlov told his sister Sara. “We’re torn away even from the post office. The mail only comes once a month by foot and really only eight or nine times a year . . . The name of the place is Kureika.”

Stalin was being moved to the very edge of the Arctic Circle.2*

* This trading centre boasted a large missionary monastery, which had baptized the local tribesmen and which was led by a Mikhail Suslov, the great - grandfather and namesake of the Soviet grandee who was favoured by Stalin after the Second World War and who became the éminence grise of the Brezhnev era.

* Sverdlov was wrong: there were two Kureikas. But their destination was just south of the Arctic Circle.

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