If Stalin called Kostino “an ill - fated place,” Kureika was a freezing hellhole, the sort of place where a man could believe himself utterly forgotten and even lose his sanity: its desolate solitude and obligatory self - containment were to remain with Stalin throughout his life. In March 1914, he and Sverdlov were transported northwards on a horse - drawn cart by their armed personal Gendarmes, Laletin and Popov.
They arrived to find that Kureika barely merited the name of hamlet, and it seemed that virtually all its inhabitants were related. Sixty - seven villagers, thirty - eight men and twenty - nine women, were packed into just eight ramshackle izbas, wooden peasant bungalows, more like huts than houses. Most of the citizens of this interbred settlement belonged to three families; these were the Taraseevs, the Saltykovs and the seven Pereprygin orphans.1
“One Monday, I was just boiling water for the washing,” said Anfisa Taraseeva,* “when I saw a man—with thick dark beard and hair—come in with a small case and some knotted bedding. ‘Hello, khoziaika [housewife], I’m staying with you,’ he said. He put down his suitcase as if he’d always lived with us. He played with the children and . . . when the men came back, he said, ‘I’m from Petersburg. My name is Josef Djugashvili.’”
Stalin and Sverdlov moved into the izba of Alexei and Anfisa Taraseev. At first all went well. The exiles got on easily with Taraseev, who agreed to receive their money orders. It was still cold there, but the ice was thawing. Life in Kureika was governed by the weather: when the Yenisei River froze, locals travelled on the icy river in sleighs, pulled by teams of reindeer and dogs. Then there was the “bad roads season” when the roads were so muddy that they were impassable. In May, the steamships started to ply the Yenisei for a few months; then the locals would boat downriver, tugged from the banks by dog - teams—until the freeze came.
Only the reindeer, snow - foxes and Tungus indigenous tribesmen could really function in deep midwinter. Everyone had to wear reindeer fur. The thirteen - year - old Lidia Pereprygina, one of the family of orphans, noticed that Stalin was underdressed with only a light coat. Soon he sported a full outfit—from boots to hat—of reindeer fur.
“In the new place, it’s much harder to settle,” Sverdlov wrote on 22 March. “It was bad enough I didn’t have a room to myself.” The two Bolshevik roommates were friendly enough at first: “We’re two of us sharing. My old friend, the Georgian, Djugashvili, is here with me: we met before in earlier exiles. He’s a good fellow but”—even after barely ten days together, there was a big “but”—“he is too much of an individualist* in everyday life.”
Worse, the Taraseevs had a noisy brood of children. “Our room adjoins the hosts,” complained Sverdlov in a letter, “we’ve no separate entrance. The children hang around the whole day, disturbing us.” But Sverdlov was also infuriated by the silent Tungus tribesmen, who visited the exiles. Dressed from head to food in reindeer furs, the Tunguses would become part of Stalin’s life. They were tough, nomadic fishermen and herdsmen with Oriental features who lived in harmony with their reindeer, believing in a mixture of primitive Orthodoxy and ancient spiritualism, interpreted by shamans—indeed “shaman” is a Tungus word.
The Tunguses “sat down, and kept silent for half an hour before standing up and saying, ‘Goodbye, we’ve got to go.’ They come in the evening, the best time for studying,” sighed Sverdlov. But Stalin befriended these men, as laconic as himself.
The tension was not just about children and housework. The touchy, vindictive Stalin brooded about the money sent to Sverdlov, and not to himself, as an escape fund. Days after his arrival, he had received neither the hundred roubles promised by Malinovsky nor the fees and the books from Zinoviev. Was Zinoviev disrespecting him? Was Sverdlov double - crossing him?
The Georgian and the Jew, the lost fulcrum of the Bolshevik Party in the Russian Empire, captive in their eight - shack village many time - zones from Europe, soon started to aggravate each other. On one side of their tiny dark room, Sverdlov scribbled about his roommate’s egotism, while on the other Stalin, at his nitpicking, seething worst, wrote to Malinovsky demanding that he sort out what had happened to the hundred roubles:
Five months ago, I received an invitation from a comrade in Petersburg to go there and to find the money for the trip. I answered four months ago but got no answer. Can you explain this misunderstanding to me? Then three months ago, I got a postcard from Kostya [Malinovsky himself offering to “sell the horse . . . for 100 roubles”]. I didn’t understand it and haven’t received the 100 roubles. Well, then Comrade Andrei [Sverdlov’s alias] got this sum . . . but I suppose it’s only for him. I’ve got no letters from Kostya ever since. I’ve received nothing from my sister Nadya [Krupskaya] for four months.
Stalin concluded that they had “chosen another man” to spring—Sverdlov. “Am I right, brother? I ask, dear friend, for a direct precise answer because I like clarity just as I hope you like clarity.”2
No two men liked clarity less than Stalin and Malinovsky, expert conspirators and dissimulators. But while the former stewed in distant frustration, the latter’s entire world was falling apart. There was a good reason Malinovsky had neither sold the “horse” nor answered Stalin’s letters. Stalin’s “dear friend Roman” was now an “hysterical” alcoholic doubleagent swigging vodka out of a teapot—and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Finally, a new Interior Minister and police director sacked Malinovsky, who resigned from the Duma on 8 May 1914. The Malinovsky case exploded very publicly in the faces of the government and police.
Malinovsky’s strongest defenders in the Party had been Lenin—and Stalin. “Lenin must have known,” Malinovsky said later, but he was wrong. Lenin would not believe the truth. But he weighed up the kudos won by Malinovsky in the Duma and his help in defeating (or removing, by arrest) the Conciliators (including Stalin) to conclude that “if he is a provocateur, the secret police gained less from it than our Party did.”*
Stalin, paranoia personified, did not suspect the greatest traitor of his political career. The Malinovsky case played its role in making him—and his comrades—obsessively paranoid. Malinovsky entered the Bolshevik consciousness. Like Banquo’s ghost, he haunted Soviet history. Henceforth, in the Bolshevik world of konspiratsia, nothing was too outlandish. If Malinovsky could be a traitor, why not the Soviet marshals, why not the entire General Staff, why not Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and most of the Central Committee, all shot as spies during the 1930s on Stalin’s orders?3
On the Arctic Circle, Stalin tormented himself and his roommate about the missing hundred roubles. “There’s a comrade [in Kureika],” reflected Sverdlov. “We know each other very well, but the saddest thing is that in exile a person appears bare, revealed in all his little idiosyncracies. The worst thing is that these ‘little things’ dominate a relationship. There’s little chance to show one’s better side.”
As the winter thawed, the Okhrana again warned on 27 April 1914 that the Bolsheviks were going “to organize the escapes of well - known Party men, Sverdlov and Djugashvili.” Stalin and Sverdlov frequently borrowed Fyodor Taraseev’s boat, but now the Gendarmes banned river expeditions. In May, when the steamboats again plied the Yenisei, Kureika’s tedium changed from an agony of cold to a plague of mosquitoes.
Soon Stalin “stopped talking to me,” wrote Sverdlov, “and let me know that I had to leave him alone and live separately.” Both moved out, Stalin temporarily finding refuge in Philip Saltykov’s izba. Moving out did not end Stalin’s Arctic sulk. “You know what nasty conditions I have in Kureika,” Sverdlovtold his wife, Klavidia, who was in exile nearby. “The companion . . . appears to have such a sense of his own personality that we don’t talk and meet one another.” Sverdlov’s letters capture the stress, depression (and bland menu) of this aimless existence.
I eat fish. My landlady makes me pies. I have sturgeon, white salmon with battered potatoes and caviar, salted sturgeon, sometimes I eat them raw. I feel too energyless even to add vinegar. I’ve ended all regular life. I eat irregularly. I study nothing. I go to sleep at odd times. Sometimes I walk for the whole night, sometimes I sleep at 10 a.m.
Stalin must have lived the same way: he never lost the nocturnal hours of Siberia.
In this eight - hut universe, the entire population must have been aware of this schism. “We just couldn’t harmonize our characters,” regretted Sverdlov. But there was probably another big but unspeakable reason for their fallout: a girl.4
No sooner had Stalin and Sverdlov settled with the Taraseevs than the Georgian must have noticed the youngest girl among the Pereprygin orphans. There were five brothers and two sisters, Natalia and Lidia. We know no details of how this developed. But some time in early 1914 Stalin, now thirty - four, embarked on an affair with Lidia, aged thirteen.
We catch a glimpse of Stalin and Lidia together staggering from drinking - bout to drinking - bout because we have her memoirs of their boozy carousals: “In his spare time, Stalin liked to go to evening dances—he could be very jolly too. He loved to sing and dance. He especially liked the song ‘I’m guarding the gold, the gold . . . I’m burying the gold, burying the gold, Guess where, pure damsel with your golden hair’. . . He often joined birthday dinners.” The memoirs of Stalin’s thirteen - year - old mistress were recorded twenty years later at the height of his dictatorship while she remained a Siberian housewife. The official who recorded her reminiscences would not have dared record the seduction, but the memoirs are still tactless. “He often liked to drop in on some people,” says Lidia, meaning herself. “And he also drank.” Was this how he seduced her—or she him? Girls in places like Kureika matured early—and Lidia does not sound like a shrinking violet.
Sverdlov may have disapproved of Stalin’s seduction of the thirteen - year - old, the latest in a line of adolescent girls romanced by the thirty - something Georgian. And Stalin may well have thrown him out in order to enjoy more privacy with his little mistress. But this was far from the end of the scandal.
The two Bolsheviks, now ignoring each other, were carefully watched by their own Gendarme inspectors, Laletin and Popov, whose sole job was to ensure that they did not escape. In cases of such close proximity, the policemen either became the companions, if not personal servants, of the exiles—or their mortal foes. The red - bearded, red - tempered Ivan Laletin soon became Stalin’s enemy.
Once Stalin was going out hunting with his rifle when he was challenged by the Gendarme. He was allowed to handle hunting - rifles with permission, but he refused to surrender his gun to the policeman. In the ensuing fracas, “Gendarme Laletin swooped on Josef Vissarionovich and tried to disarm him.” A fight started. The Gendarme “drew his sabre and managed to cut Stalin on the hand.” Stalin reported Laletin to Captain Kibirov.
By early summer, no matter how furtive the creeping around the eight huts, almost everyone must have known about Stalin’s little mistress. The sabrerattling Gendarme surely saw his chance to nail the insolent Georgian.
“One day,” recalls Fyodor Taraseev, the only villager who dared record the story, “Stalin was staying at home, working, and not leaving the house. The Gendarme found this suspicious and decided to check up on him. Without knocking on the door, he burst into the room.”
Taraseev prudently claims that Stalin was just “working,” yet the inspector found this oddly “suspicious.” And Stalin was furious at being interrupted. The memoirs unanimously emphasize his calmness during searches: so was there something unusual about this one? After all, the policeman deliberately surprised him “without knocking.” It sounds very much as if the policeman caught Stalin and Lidia in flagrante delicto.
Stalin attacked him. The policeman again drew his sabre. In the ensuing fight, Stalin was wounded in the neck by the sabre, which so inflamed his anger that “he kicked out the rogue!”
“We witnessed this scene,” says Taraseev. “The Gendarme was running away towards the Yenisei river, cravenly waving his sabre in front of him while Comrade Stalin was pursuing him in a state of high excitement and fury, with his fists clenched.”
If it was a secret, it was out. Even though local lore discouraged affairs with exiles, the local girls were bound to be attracted to these worldly, educated revolutionaries in their midst. This statutory rape was not rape by force but an old - fashioned seduction because, according to the later investigation by KGB Chairman Ivan Serov, “J. V. Stalin started living together with her.” Presumably she was sharing his room, which is how the policeman had caught them together. In his report to Nikita Khrushchev and the Politburo in 1956, which remained secret until the twenty - first century, General Serov implied that the living together was almost as shocking as the seduction.*
Stalin moved into the Pereprygin izba. There were two rooms and a shed for cattle in winter. The seven siblings were crammed into one fuggy, cow - dungy room; Stalin rented the filthy second chamber that could only be reached through the cowshed and family room. It contained just a “table covered in newspapers, wooden trestle bed, and tangle of fishing and hunting nets, tackle and hooks, all made by Stalin himself.” Everything was covered in soot from the black tin chimney in the middle of the room.
The glass in the windows was broken, so Stalin sealed the cracks with old newspapers or boarded them up. The only light in this Arctic twilight, where night often lasted throughout the day, was a lamp, but he often lacked kerosene. The lavatory was an outhouse. The Pereprygins were dirt poor, “one day eating shchi [cabbage broth], the next day the holy spirit [nothing], but they owned one cow.”
At night, Lidia would creep into his room, recounts Stalin’s first biographer, Essad Bey, who must have talked to fellow exiles. Certainly she was not shy about recalling what underwear he favoured—“He wore white underwear and a sailor - striped vest,” she confided to her interviewer in 1952 when Stalin was almost worshipped as a demi - god.
The brothers were not happy about the seduction. There are hints of their disapproval: Stalin got his food and bread from his old landlady, not from the Pereprygins, though Lidia claimed that “this was because the girls were too young to cook.” Yet as orphans the girls had cooked for their brothers from an early age. More likely, Soso and his moll were banned from family meals.
The affair might have remained tolerable, but there was worse to come: Lidia fell pregnant with Stalin’s child. The Pereprygin brothers were angry, even though the exact law of consent was hardly enforced in distant communities in the Arctic Circle, where girls married and had children in their early teens. According to General Serov, Gendarme Laletin, despite having fled from the irate Stalin, threatened “to instigate criminal proceedings for living together with an underage girl. J. V. Stalin promised the Gendarme to marry Pereprygina when she came of age.” So, once again, Stalin became engaged—and the family, whether gratefully or begrudgingly, accepted the relationship.* In return, Stalin “shared his fish with them” as one of the family. Indeed he treated Lidia almost as his young wife. When his friend the elderly Elizaveta Taraseeva visited, Stalin commanded: “Lidia, Lidia, babushka’s come to tea! Feed her well.”
The policeman’s interference was the final straw. Stalin complained to Captain Kibirov, who favoured his fellow Caucasian. Stalin had a village of witnesses to the hapless Gendarme drawing his sword on an exile and the ignominious chase along the riverbank. Yet it took considerable chutzpah for Stalin to complain about the policeman when he had impregnated an underaged girl. As so often with Stalin’s self - righteous indignation, it worked.
That summer of 1914, around June, Kibirov agreed to replace Laletin, telling his deputy, “All right, let’s send Merzliakov to Kureika. Since Djugashvili is so keen to replace his inspector, let’s get him out of harm’s way.” In a reversal of roles, Gendarme Laletin was afraid of his prisoner—and with good reason. His replacement, Mikhail Merzliakov, now arrived. Stalin immediately assumed the role of quasi - aristocratic master, while the Gendarme became a cross between valet, batman and bodyguard for the rest of his sentence.
Stalin kept studying the nationalities issue, and English and German. “Dear friend,” a rather more cheerful Stalin wrote to Zinoviev on 20 May, “my warmest greetings to you . . . I’m waiting for the books . . . I also ask you to send me some English journals (an old or new issue doesn’t matter—it’s for reading since there’s nothing in English here and I’m afraid I’m losing all my acquired English skills without any practice . . .”
Soso’s engagement to Lidia, indeed the relationship itself, was a transitory amusement to be abandoned by the wayside of his revolutionary mission. The pregnancy was presumably an irritant. Yet the locals claim that Lidia was in love with Stalin. It was not her last pregnancy by him.5
In late summer, Sverdlov left Kureika and moved to Selivanikha, while Suren Spandarian, Stalin’s best friend, arrived in nearby Monastyrskoe.
In late August 1914, Stalin took the boat downriver for a reunion with Spandarian—just as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, a shot that sent Russia and the Great Powers lurching into the Great War. “The bourgeois vampires of the belligerent countries plunged the world into a bloody shambles,” wrote Stalin. “Wholesale slaughter, ruin, starvation and . . . savagery—so that a handful of crowned and uncrowned robbers may pillage foreign lands and rake in untold millions.”
As the lights went out all over Europe, Stalin found himself irrelevant, forgotten, frustrated and engaged against his will to a pregnant adolescent peasant - girl, at the centre of nothing—except an Arctic sex scandal. Nineteen - fourteen was not his finest hour. As the Great Powers fought, the snows obscured the sun and the news from the outside world. Stalin disappeared into the Siberian winter.6
* In 1942, the First Secretary of Krasnoyarsk, Constantin Chernenko, who had risen in the Terror by denunciation and even participation in executions, commissioned the well - known historian M. A. Moskalev to interview Stalin’s Turukhansk acquaintances for a sycophantic book, Stalin in Siberian Exile. Chernenko printed the book and sent it to Moscow for approval. After all, Politburo member and secret - police chief Beria had built his career on overseeing a preposterously inflated history of Stalin’s Caucasian career. But this time it did not work. Stalin was incensed by Chernenko’s inquiries, though they are a blessing for us historians. The dictator was working long hours to win the war; he knew there was nothing glorious to reveal in Kureika, quite the contrary; he both craved his idolatrous cult and disdained it; and Moskalev was a Jew, a race Stalin increasingly distrusted. He phoned Chernenko and shouted at him. The book was withdrawn. Moskalev was arrested in the anti - Semitic, postwar Terror but survived as a top Soviet historian into the 1960s. Chernenko’s career was frozen. However, his sycophancy found him another patron: he became Leonid Brezhnev’s long - serving chef de cabinet, Politburo member and penultimate successor as Soviet leader in 1984: the short reign of this senile mediocrity symbolized the geriatic obsolescence of the Soviet Union. Chernenko died in 1985. His successor was the vigorous reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
* “Individualist” was a Marxist insult because Bolsheviks were meant to submit the individual to the collective.
* Like the Azef case, the revelations about Malinovsky, aired in the Duma, shook the political establishment and helped to undermine the credibility and competence not just of the Okhrana but also of the Duma, the Emperor and the state itself. One of Malinovsky’s first accusers was Elena (Rozmirovich) Troyanovskaya, Stalin’s hostess in Vienna, who had become Secretary to the Bolshevik Duma deputies. Yet the traitor dismissed this as the sour grapes of his ex - mistress. When Malinovsky was captured by the Germans during the war, Lenin sent him clothes, but after the Revolution, faced with the evidence, he changed his view: “What a swine: shooting’s too good for him.” Malinovsky was tried in November 1918, prosecuted, ironically, by Elena Rozmirovich’s husband, Nikolai Krylenko, at a tribunal chaired by Elena herself. Malinovsky was shot.
* For decades there were rumours of Stalin’s rape or seduction of a girl in Turukhansk and his fathering a child. This first appeared in Essad Bey’s biography of 1931. Svetlana Alliluyeva says her aunts told her Stalin had a son in exile. The stories were repeated in biographies and sensational newspaper articles but seemed outlandish, presumably just anti - Stalin myths. But it is confirmed by the KGB in General Serov’s 18 July 1956 memorandum to First Secretary Khrushchev and the Politburo. Serov, a brutal Stalinist secret policeman, had the sense to separate himself from Beria and attach himself to Khrushchev. After Stalin’s death, he assisted Khrushchev in the arrest and execution of Beria, becoming the first Chairman of the KGB, the new version of the secret police. His memo was read in secrecy at a Politburo meeting and signed by all Stalin’s old henchmen before being consigned to the top secret “Special File.”
* Fourteen was technically the age of consent in the Russian and European regions of the Tsarist Empire, but this was Siberia. Besides, there was no precise legal concept of statutory rape in Tsarist law: for the police, it was as much a crime “against female honour” as a violation of her father’s chattels. The seducer’s agreement to marry and then the exchange of marriage vows were seen as rectifying an untoward situation.