The Hunter - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Hunter

Now the only exile in ice - bound, twilighted Kureika, Stalin started to live closely with aboriginal Tunguses and Ostyaks. There was little to do, but survival was a struggle: tundra wolves howled at the edge of the village. When Stalin visited the outhouse lavatory, he fired a rifle to keep the wolves at bay. When he travelled, the sleigh “dashed along under the interminable howls of wolves.” The wolf - packs of Kureika entered Stalin’s consciousness, the enemies always circling his Siberian hut. He sketched them on documents during meetings, especially towards the end of his life as he orchestrated a last Terror campaign, the Doctors’ Plot. In his last exile, he told visitors, “The peasants used to shoot mad wolves.”

Yet somehow it suited Stalin: he began to enjoy Kureika. Strangely, it became one of the happiest times in his morose life. His favourite companions were a little dog called Stepan Timofeevich, or Tishka for short, which the locals gave him as a present, a Tungus fisherman named Martin Peterin, and his police inspector, Merzliakov. Lidia’s pregnancy was increasingly visible. Siberia became more bearable because Stalin now began to receive regular money orders: during 1915–16, he received ten, worth more than one hundred roubles in all, so he could buy food and clothes and pay bribes where necessary.*

He became the solitary hunter, a role that suited his self - image as a man on a sacred mission, riding out into the snows with a rifle for company, but no attachments except his faith, lacking all bourgeois sentimentality but always displaying Arctic stoicism even when beset by tragedy. For the rest of his life, he regaled Alliluyevs or Politburo grandees with tales of his Siberian adventures. Even when he ruled Russia he was still that solitary hunter.

“Osip” or “Pockmarked Oska,” as they called him, venturing out alone in a head - to - foot reindeer - fur outfit, became a skilled hunter and close companion of the tribesmen. Laletin did not permit him to own a rifle, so, one local remembers, “We took the rifle to the woods and left it on a pre - agreed tree so he’d find it.” He shot Arctic foxes, partridges and ducks on long expeditions.

The villagers began to respect Pockmarked Oska, with his pipe and books. “The locals liked him,” says Merzliakov. “They visited him and sat all night with him. He visited them too and attended their merry parties.” They brought him fish and venison, which he purchased. He appreciated their laconic tranquillity and was amused by their respect for shamans and by their persistent belief, despite nominal Orthodoxy, in the masters and spirits who inhabited the spaces of Siberia. Above all, he studied and copied their fishing and hunting techniques.

Fish and reindeer were their staples. The reindeer, who are able to live on blankets of lichen, were treated with sacred respect by the tribesmen, providing transport (pulling sleighs), clothing (furs), investment (the wealthiest chiefs owned herds of 10,000) and food (boiled reindeer meat), all in one. Peterin, probably an Ostyak creole, taught his friend the art of Yenisei fishing. Stalin made his own fishing - line and dug his own personal ice - hole, remembers Merzliakov, whose memoir, recorded in 1936, is the best account of his life in Kureika. According to Stalin’s own somewhat Gothic account, he learned to fish with such dexterity at his ice - hole that the Ostyak whispered awestruck: “Thou ist possessed by the Word.” Stalin enjoyed the fish diet: “There were lots of fish, but salt was as precious as gold, so they just threw the fish into their outhouse where in the—20° freeze they piled up like frozen pieces of wood. Then we’d break flakes off and let them melt in our mouths.” He started to catch huge sturgeons.

“Once,” he recounted, “a tempest caught me on the river. It seemed I was done for, but I made it to the bank.” Another time, he was coming home with Ostyak friends with a good catch of sturgeon and sea - salmon when he got separated from the others. A purga, the blinding blizzard of the tundra, blew up suddenly. Kureika was far away, but he could not abandon his fish, sustenance for weeks, so he trudged on until he saw figures ahead. He called after them, but they disappeared: they were his companions but, seeing him embroidered from beard to feet in white ice, they believed him a demon spirit and fled. When he finally reached a hut and burst in, the Ostyaks cried out: “Is that you, Osip?”

“Of course it’s me and I’m not a wood - spirit!” he retorted, before falling into a deep sleep for eighteen hours.

He was not imagining that he was in danger—the tribesmen were accustomed to losing men on their fishing expeditions. “I remember in spring at high water, thirty men went out fishing and in the evening when we came back, one was missing,” Stalin recounted. They casually explained that their companion had “remained out there.” Stalin was puzzled until one said that “He drowned.” Their nonchalance perplexed Stalin, but they explained: “Why should we have pity for men? We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!” Stalin used this in a 1935 speech to illustrate the value of human life, but actually it must have been another experience that taught him its cheapness.

“I went on a hunt one winter,” Stalin told his magnates Khrushchev and Beria at one of his dinners after the Second World War, “took my gun, and crossed the Yenisei on skis for about 12 versts and saw some partridges on a tree. I had twelve rounds and there were twenty - four partridges. I killed twelve and the rest just sat there, so I thought I’d go back for twelve more rounds. When I came back they were still sitting there.”

“Still sitting there?” prompted Khrushchev. Beria urged Stalin to continue.

“That’s right,” boasted Stalin, “so I killed the remaining twelve, tied them to my belt and dragged them home with me.” By the time he told this to his son - in - law Yuri Zhdanov, he boasted he had shot thirty birds, the temperature was—40° and another wild storm forced him to abandon partridges and gun—and even hope. But luckily, the women (possibly Lidia) found him swooning in a snowdrift and rescued him—and he slept for thirty - six hours.*

Stalin amassed a little medicine cabinet and became the closest thing Kureika had to a doctor: “J. V. helped people with medicine, dressed wounds with iodine and gave drugs.” He “taught the tribesmen to wash,” says Merzliakov, “and I remember how he washed one of them with soap.” He suffered from rheumatism, which he eased in the bathhouse, but the pain remained into old age, when he used to perch on the Kremlin’s heaters during long meetings. He was good at playing with the Tungus children, singing and romping with them, sometimes telling them about his own unhappy childhood. Little Dasha Taraseeva “used to ride on his back, pulling his thick dark hair and crying, ‘Neigh like a horse, uncle!’” When Fyodor Taraseev’s cow sickened with colic, Stalin impressed him with the skills he had learned as a boy in Georgia: he “slaughtered the cow and carved the meat like a real master.”

Stalin still enjoyed partying. “At the Taraseevs’ place, the young gathered in a circle for a party—Stalin danced in the middle beating time, then he started singing,” recalls a visitor to Kureika, Daria Ponamareva, “‘I’m burying the gold, burying the gold,’” always that favourite song. “He was expert in dancing,” says Anfisa Taraseeva, “and taught the young.”

Sometimes, the Georgian from the lush mountainous Caucasus peered out at the taiga. “In this damned land, nature is abominably barren—the river in summer, snow in winter, that’s all that nature provides here,” he wrote poignantly to Olga Alliluyeva on 25 November 1915, “and I’m driven mad with longing for scenes of nature . . .”

He also spent much time alone, writing at night. “My dog Tishka was my companion,” Stalin reminisced. “In winter nights, if I had kerosene and could read and write, he’d come in, press close to my legs and whimper as if he was talking to me. I leaned down patting his head, saying, ‘Are you frozen, Tishka? Warm yourself up!’” He joked that he “liked to discuss international politics with the dog, Stepan Timofeevich,” clearly the world’s first canine pundit. For Stalin, pets had advantages over people: they provided selfless affection and passionate admiration yet never betrayed their masters (nor became pregnant by them), and yet they could be abandoned without guilt.

The inactivity, isolation from the political game and lack of reading materials sometimes depressed him bitterly, especially when he brooded about Lenin and Zinoviev. Had they forgotten him? Where was his latest article? And why had he not been paid? In the winter of 1915, he sarcastically asked them: “How am I? What am I doing? I’m not all right. I’m doing almost nothing. And what can I do with a complete lack of serious books? . . . In all my exiles, I’ve never had such a miserable life as here.”

Even this fanatical Marxist, convinced that the progress of history would bring about revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, must have sometimes doubted if he would ever return. Even Lenin doubted the Revolution, asking Krupskaya, “Will we ever live to see it?” Yet Stalin never seems to have lost faith. “The Russian Revolution is as inevitable as the rising of the sun,” he had written back in 1905 and he had not changed his view. “Can you prevent the sun from rising?”

When he could get his hands on newspapers, the future Supreme Commander - in - Chief eagerly discussed “the ulcers of war” with Merzliakov. During the Second World War, he sometimes quoted examples from the battles of the First that he had followed in Kureika.* As the Tsar tottered from one bungled defeat to another, Stalin must have anticipated that this war would, like that of 1904, finally bring Revolution. Perhaps he was not just misleading the Okhrana when he told Petrovsky in Petersburg: “Someone spread a rumour that I wouldn’t be staying for my whole sentence. What nonsense! I swear and I’ll be damned if I don’t keep my word, that this won’t happen. I’ll remain in exile until my sentence ends [in 1917]. At times I’ve considered escaping but now I’ve finally rejected the idea.” One senses his weariness: if Lenin and Zinoviev would not help him, then he would not help them.

Somewhere around December 1914, Lidia gave birth to a baby.1

* The payments have attracted suspicion, but they are much too meagre for the wages of an Okhrana agent. They included some of his CC salary; and, as we have seen, Sverdlov received far more. Yet during the Great Terror in 1938 Stalin’s secret police chief, “poison dwarf” Nikolai Yezhov, who had become his closest henchman and was presiding over the slaughter of over a million innocent people, began to realize that he was dispensable. Yezhov, sinking into alcoholism and sexual debauchery under the terrible strain of killing and torturing, gathered materials to use as security or blackmail against his master and the rival magnates Beria, Georgi Malenkov and Khrushchev. He procured Stalin’s ten money orders and kept them in his personal safe, but there is no smoking gun here. Three of them were money from Gori, probably from his mother or Egnatashvili. The other seven, from Moscow and Petersburg, adding up to 100 roubles, delivered 10 roubles here, 10 roubles there, though two were a more considerable 25 roubles each. They did not save Yezhov, who was dismissed in late 1938 and shot in 1940. Interestingly Stalin did not deign to destroy the money orders, just filing them in Yezhov’s papers where they were found by Professor Arch Getty, who has generously shared them with me. For the full story of the rise and fall of Yezhov, see Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

* Just before telling his henchmen this story, the ageing Stalin had suffered a similar accident to that of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in 2006: while showing off his shooting skills, he had misfired, closely missing Politburo grandee Anastas Mikoyan and peppering two of his guards. Already beginning to hate and scorn the ailing dictator in the postwar years, Beria and Khrushchev had heard this story of Stalin’s exploit repeatedly. They did not believe it. “After dinner,” writes Khrushchev, “we were spitting with scorn in the bathroom: ‘So Stalin claimed to have skied 12 versts in winter, shot twelve partridges, skied back 12 versts and returned, another 12 versts, shot another twelve partridges and skied another 12 versts home—48 versts on skis!’” (48 versts equals 32 miles.) “Listen,” exclaimed Beria, “how can a man from the Caucasus who never had the chance to ski, travel a distance like that? He’s lying.” Khrushchev agreed: “Of course, he was lying! I’d seen with my own eyes that Stalin couldn’t shoot at all!” In fact, in the 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin enjoyed hunting on holiday, though he regarded it as a waste of time.

* After the débâcle of the 1942 Kharkov offensive, Stalin gave Khrushchev a dressing - down. “During the First World War,” he said, “when one of the armies was encircled in East Prussia, the commander of the neighbouring army fled to the rear. He was put on trial—and hanged.”

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