The Robinson Crusoe of Siberia - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


The Robinson Crusoe of Siberia

The child died soon afterwards. Stalin made no comment about this, but he was definitely in Kureika at the time and the whole settlement must have been aware of it. Whether or not Lidia’s brothers forgave their libidinous tenant, the relationship with Lidia continued.

Stalin’s new policeman, Merzliakov, made his life much more pleasant. He did not spy on his charge, follow him or search him, and he allowed him to meet friends, go on long hunting expeditions and even disappear for weeks on end. “In the summer we went by boat . . . pulled by dogs and on return we rowed back. In winter we went on horseback,” and the fur - clad, pipe - puffing Stalin would despatch the half - policeman, half - valet Merzliakov to collect his mail. Almost twenty years later, Stalin was still grateful to Merzliakov—and probably saved his life.*

In February 1915, “during the months when it was always dark with no distinction between day and night,” he was visited by Spandarian and his mistress Vera Shveitzer. They had driven 125 miles up the frozen Yenisei on sledges, propelled by dog - power, harrassed by wolves. At last they had seen the tiny settlement from afar and Soso’s snow - covered izba, whence he emerged, smiling, to greet them. Most of the inhabitants and the Gendarme welcomed them too.

“We stayed at Josef Vissarionovich’s place for two days.” Vera noticed that Soso, suffering from arthritis, was “wearing a jacket but he had only one ofhis arms through the sleeve. Later I realized he likes to dress in such a way so as to keep his right arm free.” Stalin, who was delighted to see them, went out to the river and proudly returned with an enormous three - pud sturgeon over his shoulder: “There are no small fish in my ice - hole.”

Spandarian and Shveitzer came to discuss the trial in Petersburg of the five Bolshevik Duma deputies and Pravda editor Kamenev. Lenin had declared that he wished the Germans to defeat Russia, thereby accelerating the Revolution and a “European civil war.” The Mensheviks supported Russia’s patriotic war providing it was “defencist.” In November 1914, Kamenev and the deputies were arrested for treason; during his trial Kamenev refused to follow Lenin’s unpatriotic defeatism, but was still found guilty and exiled to Siberia.

Stalin and Spandarian were disgusted by Kamenev’s behaviour. “That man’s not trustworthy,” declared Stalin, “he could betray the Revolution,” whereupon, wrapped in tarpaulins, dressed head to foot in reindeer furs and guided by Tungus tribesmen, Spandarian and Vera took Stalin back with them to Monastyrskoe, the Northern Lights gorgeously illuminating the tundra. “Suddenly Stalin started singing,” writes Shveitzer. “Suren joined in and it was so lovely to hear well - known melodies carrying me away” as the sleigh rushed for two days across the ice in that endless twilight.

Spandarian and Stalin wrote to Lenin. Stalin, the Bolshevik hunter, no longer whining about owed money and unsent books, struck the very pose of militant virility that would be the Bolshevik style in power:

My greetings to you, dear Vladimir Illich, the very warmest greetings. Greetings to Zinoviev, greetings to Nadezhda! How are things, how is your health? I live as before, I munch my bread and am getting through half my sentence. Boring—but what can you do? And how are things with you? You must be having a jollier time . . . I’ve read a little article by Plekhanov in Rech—what an incorrigible blabbing old woman! Eh! . . . And the Liquidators with their [Duma] deputy - agents . . .? There’s no one to give them a beating, the devil knows! Surely they won’t remain unpunished? Cheer us up and inform us there’ll soon be an organ to give them a right good punching straight in their gobs!

Lenin remembered his “fiery Colchian” in exile. “Koba is well,” he informed his comrades; then a few months later, he asked: “Big request—find out last name of Koba (Josef Dj—? Have forgotten). It’s important.”

When Stalin’s exeat was over, he returned to Kureika for the rest of the long winter. The ice thawed on the Yenisei. In May 1915, the steamboats brought interesting companions upriver from Krasnoyarsk. Kamenev arrived in Monastyrskoe with the Duma deputies. Sverdlov and Spandarian were nearby. During July 1915, Stalin was summoned to a meeting at the house shared by Kamenev and Petrovsky in Monastyrskoe.

The Bolsheviks enjoyed an idyllic summer reunion. They even took group photographs.* But for the Bolsheviks even the picnics were political, involving denunciations and trials. Stalin and Spandarian supported Lenin and decided to put Kamenev on trial in Monastyrskoe.

Kamenev gave Stalin The Prince by Machiavelli, perhaps an unwise gift for someone who was already Machiavellian enough. At a boozy dinner, Kamenev asked everyone round the table to declare their greatest pleasure in life. Some cited women, others earnestly replied that it was the progress of dialectical materialism towards the workers’ paradise. Then Stalin answered: “My greatest pleasure is to choose one’s victim, prepare one’s plans minutely, slake an implacable vengeance, and then go to bed. There’s nothing sweeter in the world.”

At Kamenev’s “trial,” Stalin had the casting vote. Slippery as ever and always building new alliances, he attacked Kamenev and then departed for Kureika before the final vote, thus saving the victim. Kamenev patronized the cruder Georgian, while Stalin found him congenial but disdained him as a man and politician: “I saw Gradov [Kamenev] and company in the summer,” he wrote to Zinoviev. “They all rather resemble wet hens. So these are our ‘hawks’ are they!”

Stalin returned to another long winter in Kureika. In early November, after the snows had descended, he got permission to see the doctor in Monastyrskoe. Arriving in full furs on a four - dog sleigh, he burst into Spandarian’s house and kissed his friend on the cheeks—and Vera twice on the lips.

“Oh Koba!” she exclaimed, delighted to see him. “Oh Koba!”

Spandarian, consumptive and suffering from nervous tension, was “sometimes so frantic that a gnat bite would drive him to tear his clothes to shreds. Suren was depressed,” but “Stalin was very cheerful,” recalls a fellow exile, Boris Ivanov, “and his arrival always reinvigorated him.”

Stalin collected a letter from Zinoviev, to which he replied sarcastically:

Dear friend!

I’ve finally got your letter. I thought you’d completely forgotten me, a slave of God, and yet it turned out you did not. . . And what can I do with a complete lack of serious books? . . . I have lots of questions and subjects in my mind but no source - materials. I’m dying to write but I have nothing to study . . . You ask about my finances. And why do you ask about that? You probably have some money—aren’t you thinking of sharing it with me? Go on then! I swear it’ll come just in time!

   Yours Djugashvili

On arrival, Stalin helped embitter a local feud, the sort that he always relished, both as mean - spirited sport and political stimulant. The Bolshevik exiles in Monastyrskoe, led by Spandarian, had found themselves so short of sugar and furs that winter that they robbed the local Revelion trading shop of its precious goodies. When the police investigated, an exile named Petukhov sneaked on the thieves. Isolated and paranoid in their Siberian time warp, exiles took sides with either the robbers or the informer. Spandarian wanted to punish Petukhov and try him at another Party trial. Sverdlov backed Petukhov and wanted to try Spandarian for the robbery itself. But Sverdlov himself had become too close to the local police, giving officers German lessons. Spandarian and his allies accused Sverdlov of being a “morally tainted” Okhrana spy.

Sverdlov boycotted the Party trial at which Spandarian, Vera and five others voted to condemn Petukhov. Stalin, who had himself faced expulsion at similar sittings, grandly sat on the fence, abstaining from the vote for Petukhov’s expulsion, explaining that “they should expel both Petukhov and Sverdlov.” The row became so heated that some of Sverdlov’s group were beaten up.

“Exile is the worst,” wrote Sverdlov, “there’s no trace of community or comradeship: isolation and distance are infernal and murderous.” Now Spandarian “fell seriously ill . . . starting to cough blood.”1

“We spent a long time in the village,” says Stalin’s police - batman, Merzliakov. “I had no idea who he was seeing. J. V. [Stalin] eventually returned to the police station himself to say that we could go back.”

In Kureika again, Stalin survived the winter of 1915–16 in his sooty room chez Pereprygin, continuing his sexual relationship with Lidia. He was delighted to receive a parcel from Olga Alliluyeva in Petersburg that inspired a rare sentimentality:

I’m so grateful to you, deeply respected Olga, for your good and pure feeling towards me! I shall never forget your caring attitude to me. I look forward to the moment when I’m freed from exile and can come to Petersburg and personally thank you and Sergei for everything. I’ve only got two years left. I got the parcel. Thanks. I only ask one thing—don’t waste any more money on me; you yourselves need the money but—do send me postcards of scenes of nature . . . .

Anna and Nadya Alliluyeva, the latter now fourteen, also sent their exiled hero a new suit, and hid a little note to him in the pocket.

In March 1916, when it was possible to use the sledge on the Yenisei, Stalin headed back to see Spandarian in Monastyrskoe “to send his letters,” recalls Vera. “By the way,” he complained to a comrade on 25 February, “tell me please what is going on with an article by K. Stalin ‘On Cultural - National Autonomy’—was it published or somehow lost? I’ve been trying to find out for more than a year and have found out nothing. . . What am I doing? Certainly I’m not wasting my time! Yours Josef.” The article had been sent to Lenin via Alliluyev—but somewhere it was lost forever.

Stalin found Spandarian seriously ill with TB and heart failure: the Armenian petitioned to be moved from Turukhansk. Worried about Spandarian, Stalin also petitioned the authorities. After a few days, he sledged back to Kureika. “That,” says Vera Shveitzer, “was the last time he met Suren Spandarian.”*

During the summer, the Georgian lodger impregnated Lidia for the second time—and then typically made himself scarce. Local exiles, wrote one of them, Ivanov, “got to know that [Stalin] had disappeared from Kureika—he escaped,” for some months. Where was he? Merzliakov was not quite sure himself. He allowed “JV” to fish alone downstream on Polovinka Island in the Yenisei River “for the whole summer . . . I just followed the rumours that he hadn’t escaped yet.” The policeman did wonder what Stalin could be doing on this remote island. “It’s an empty (uninhabited) place, this Polovinka. Just sand. Where was he fishing? There was nobody else there.” But it turns out Stalin did spend time on the “empty Polovinka.”

Only a few local hunters stayed on this remote island, which was rich in game. Stepanida Dubikova reveals that “Osip” spent much of the summer there. “We helped him build a small hut for just one person out of birch branches.” Stepanida and her family, who built their own birch hut, were the only others on Polovinka. “Osip used to visit our hut and I’d cook him his favourite, grilled sterlet.” Stalin spent weeks totally alone in this one - man hut, fishing for himself, content in the extreme solitude. But sometimes he was not on his island either.

“Stalin arrived to see us,” reports Badaev, the Duma deputy, in Yeniseisk, “and we met there . . . Despite the secrecy of his visit, all the exiles got to hear Comrade Stalin was here and dropped in to see us.” He must have visited Kostino too, because on his way back he called in at Miroedikha, where he partied with a Georgian exile, Nestor Rukhadze, who “played the accordion and balalaika.” Stalin, in “long coat, hat with earflaps and red galoshes,” joined the local youths who “spent the evenings talking, singing and dancing.”

Merzliakov had not kept his Captain Kibirov informed of Stalin’s summer disappearance. The news spread, but Kibirov, whether bribed or charmed, the latest in a line of policemen to be suborned by Stalin, did nothing until his superiors heard that the Georgian exile had vanished, whereupon he arrested Fyodor Taraseev. Taraseev got one and a half years in prison for aiding an escape by lending his boat. Stalin was not punished.*

What was Stalin doing in the summer of 1916? Most likely, his need to get out of Kureika was connected with Lidia’s second pregnancy, hence Merzliakov’s suspicious but tactful vagueness. The Pereprygin brothers may have been cross again: when Stalin returned in early autumn he moved out of the Pereprygins’ into Alexei Taraseev’s house before returning to the Pereprygins’ again where Lidia, now aged fifteen, was heavily pregnant. He seems to have caroused and visited friends on his local tour as far as Yeniseisk and Krasnoyarsk, but locals claim that he was devising a way to avoid marrying his pregnant teenage mistress.2 By 1916, the rot at the head of the Empire had reached its outlying limbs—the Siberian police were loosening their grip. “We managed to escape all police officers and guards,” said Badaev.

The war was not going well. The Emperor had left Petersburg (renamed Petrograd to sound less Germanic) and taken command of his armies. In Petrograd, his foolish, neurotic and ham - handed Empress, Alexandra, dominated the government. Prompted by Rasputin and a mediocre crew of mountebanks and war - profiteers, she hired and fired her ever more corrupt and inept ministers. No one knew it, but three centuries of Romanov rule had only months to run.

* In 1930, Merzliakov was accused of being a kulak, one of the richer peasants, whom Stalin was determined to liquidate in his brutal war on the peasantry. He appealed to Stalin: “I think you won’t have forgotten how I was.” Stalin responded: “I knew Mikhail Merzliakov at the time of my exile in the village of Kureika where he was my guard 1914–16. He only had one order—to look after me (the only exile in Kureika at the time). It is clear I could not have ‘friendly’ relations with Merzliakov. But I have to testify that even if our relations were not ‘friendly,’ they were not hostile as usual between guard and exile. It seems to me this can be explained by Merzliakov’s lip - service to his duties without the usual police zeal, he didn’t spy on me, didn’t persecute me . . . colluded in my long absences and often criticized his officers for his ‘tedious’ orders . . . So in 1914–16, Merzliakov distinguished himself from other policemen. It is my duty to testify this before you.”

* Stalin poses with his trademark black fedora at a rakish angle, in his usual position at the centre in the back, flanked by Spandarian and Kamenev. Sverdlov also stands in the back row, while at the front, sitting on the floor, is Sverdlov’s little son Andrei, who later became one of Stalin’s top NKVD investigators and torturers.

Stalin was to repeat this philosophy in the early 1920s. Kamenev called it “Stalin’s Theory of Sweet Revenge” after his defeat by the dictator in the mid - 1920s. But he did not take it, or Stalin, seriously until it was too late.

* Spandarian was allowed to move to Krasnoyarsk in August, but it was too late. Stalin inquired after his friend but the letters went astray.

* Fyodor was apparently not the only person punished for Stalin’s absence. This author received a letter from Mrs. Eva Purins of Downham Market, Norfolk, who writes that her great - grandmother, an exile named Jefinia Nogornova, was imprisoned in Krasnoyarsk for “helping to hide Stalin.” If true, it must have been on this occasion.

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