Stalin’s Reindeer - Propelled Sleigh and a Siberian Son - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Stalin’s Reindeer - Propelled Sleigh
and a Siberian Son

In October 1916, Stalin, a fanatical Marxist with a damaged arm, was conscripted with his fellow exiles. He had successfully dodged the draft for over a decade. The call - up of exiles shows the manpower shortage of the Romanov war machine, but both Stalin and local officials must have known that his arm would not pass the medical examination. Turukhansk locals claim that Stalin persuaded Kibirov to put his name on the conscription list with “a false certificate,” a shenanigan he may have arranged on his long summer exeat. Had he volunteered in order to escape his marital obligations and last months of exile in Kureika?

“Police Chief Kibirov,” recalls Vera Shveitzer, “formed the first group of nine exiles to be sent to Krasnoyarsk.” Stalin did not hang around in Kureika. He quickly said goodbye, giving one lady who had looked after him the “present of a signed photograph and two overcoats.” Then, “seen off like a real hero,” he set out with Merzliakov for Monastyrskoe.

After he was gone, in roughly April 1917, Lidia gave birth to a son whom she named Alexander. She did not inform the father for a long time—and Stalin never contacted her. But somehow he heard: he told the Alliluyev sisters that he had fathered a Siberian son during his last exile. He was utterly unfettered by paternal feelings, or even sentimental curiosity.

Stalin abandoned his son, but Turukhansk somehow made him more of a Russian. Perhaps Siberia froze some of the Georgian exoticism out of him. He brought the self - reliance, vigilance, frigidity and solitude of the Siberian hunter with him to the Kremlin. Generalissimo Stalin told the truth when in 1947 he wrote to one of his Kureika fishing pals: “I have not forgotten you and my friends in Turukhansk. Probably I’ll never forget you.” Molotov put it best: “A little piece of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life.”*

Around 12 December 1916, Kibirov put together the two groups of exiles, twenty in all, for the trip to Krasnoyarsk—“Stalin,” writes Sverdlov, “was among the comrades.” Sverdlov was barred from the glory of almost certain death on some forgotten field of the Eastern Front because he was a Jew, one of the few benefits of Romanov anti - Semitism. The others begged Stalin to make up with Sverdlov and shake hands. Stalin refused.

The conscripts departed in a picturesque parade of bunting - emblazoned sleighs, pulled by reindeer. The exiles, waving mandolins and balalaikas, “were given a Siberian sakun, which was a fur coat, reindeer bokari—fur boots—and gloves and hats made of reindeer fur,” remembers another passenger, Boris Ivanov. “Only one person travelled in each sledge in a kind of linen cradle,” but the policemen accompanied them as they galloped down the frozen Yenisei, passing through twenty - five little settlements which were all ordered to provide “beds, plump feather pillows, milk, meat and fish. In some places we stayed for days.”

Stalin, taking command, decided that “we had no reason to hurry. We were exhausted but why should we hurry to be drafted?” records a fellow traveller. “‘There’ll be plenty of time,’ he said, ‘for the Germans to make mincemeat of us.’”

The exiles sometimes had “a party on two or three nights” with Stalin leading the singing. The policemen complained and telegraphed Kibirov, who threatened to “send the Cossacks after us but we telegraphed back: ‘We’re ready for your Cossacks.’ Stalin took part in wording the telegram.” He had managed to turn the trip into an almost two - month reindeer - propelled debauch. Somewhere along the way, the carousing convicts celebrated the New Year: 1917.

Finally, around 9 February, the sleighs arrived in Krasnoyarsk. On their word of honour, the police let the exiles settle for a few days before reporting to the Military Command. Stalin moved into the apartment of Ivan Samoilov, a Bolshevik, then he summoned Vera Shveitzer over from Achinsk. She told him Spandarian was dead.

Stalin reported to the medical examiner, who found him “unfit for military service” because of his arm. This was convenient but embarrassing for a future Supreme Commander - in - Chief who in his own eyes was as much a soldier as a politician. When Anna Alliluyeva revealed he was “unfit” in memoirs published just after the Second World War, Stalin never forgave her.

On 16 February, he applied to the Yeniseisk governor to spend the last four months of his exile in nearby Achinsk, “a large village of 6,000 inhabitants, two churches, and one - storey cottages,” further west along the Trans - Siberian Railway, where Vera Shveitzer and Kamenev were living.

On 21 February, he moved into Vera Shveitzer’s Achinsk apartment—just as, thousands of miles to the west, the Empress Alexandra started to lose control of Petrograd. On the 23rd, crowds rioted in the capital as Stalin settled into one of Achinsk’s cottages. “He had no stuff,” recalls his landlady’s daughter, “just wearing a black overcoat, grey Astrakhan hat. He left the house after lunch and returned late at night.” But he was often visited by “a swarthy woman with a Greek nose and yellow jacket and they spent much time together—he used to see her to the door, closing the doors himself.” The woman was Vera Shveitzer, from whom he was inseparable during these ten days: “She was staying with him.” The memoirs imply that they were living together, but we do not know if they were anything other than roommates—though Shveitzer always greeted him with kisses on the lips: “Oh Koba! Oh Koba!”

On Sunday, 26 February, fifty people were killed in fighting between Petrograd crowds and Cossacks. Bloodshed emboldened the throng, and soldiers began to desert the Tsar. The next day, crowds stormed the Arsenal, seizing 150,000 guns, burning down police headquarters and lynching policemen. One was tossed from a fourth - storey window, before the mob, using sticks and rifle - butts, smashed him into a bloody pulp.

Achinsk was oblivious. Kamenev and his wife, Olga, who was Trotsky’s sister, held a salon. “I used to spend the evenings at the Kamenevs’,” reminisces Anatoly Baikalov, exiled son of a goldmining tycoon. “Djugashvili, or Osip as we called him, was a frequent guest at their home.” Kamenev, a “brilliant speaker and accomplished conversationalist,” overshadowed the “dull and dry Stalin, devoid of colour or witticisms.” When he did say something, “Kamenev dismissed it with brief, almost contemptuous remarks.” The “taciturn and morose” Stalin just puffed on his pipe while its “poisonous smoke irritated Kamenev’s pretty but vain and capricious wife,” who “coughed and implored Stalin to stop. But he never paid any attention to her.”

In Petrograd, the Tsar no longer reigned. On 1 March, in the Taurida Palace, a Provisional Government was formed under a new Premier, Prince Georgi Lvov. In the same building, a Soviet of Workers and Soldiers elected an Executive Committee, chaired by the Georgian Menshevik Karlo Chkheidze. These two parallel institutions took power. The Emperor, isolated, ill - informed, depressed, belatedly tried to return to the capital. But as the imperial train was stranded at Pskov, he haemorrhaged the support of his generals.

On 2 March, Nicholas II, declaring that “he was firmly convinced he had been born for unhappiness and that he had brought unhappiness to Russia,” abdicated in favour not of his haemophiliac son, Alexei, but of his brother Grand Duke Michael, who succeeded as Michael II. But only technically.

The new Justice Minister, Alexander Kerensky, telegraphed Achinsk to order the release of the exiled Duma deputies: “All is in the hands of the people. Prisons are empty, ministers arrested, Empress guarded by our people.” By that night, Achinsk knew that the Revolution had come at last—“but everyone spoke in whispers.”

“The day we received the telegram, it was market - day and I decided that the local peasants shouldn’t leave the market unawares . . . so I ran to tell them . . . there was no Tsar any more,” recalls a Bolshevik librarian named Alexandra Pomerantseva, who shared Stalin’s house. “On my way, I met Comrade Stalin” who “looked at my excited face.”

“Where are you running?” he asked.

“I’m running to the market to tell peasants about the Revolution.”

Stalin “approved of this”—and she headed for the marketplace.

On 3 March, Michael II abdicated when the government could not guarantee his safety. On the fourteenth, the Achinsk mayor opened a town meeting at which Kamenev proposed to send a telegram acclaiming Grand Duke Michael for his civic decency. Kamenev would live to regret his un - Bolshevik instinct for thanking Romanovs. “The next morning,” Stalin, who was away in Krasnoyarsk that day, recalled in the 1920s, “I got to hear about it from Comrade Kamenev himself who came to tell me that he had done a foolish thing.” Kamenev denied signing it and accused Stalin of lying.

Stalin telegraphed the Alliluyevs in Petrograd: he was on his way. He spent his last evening in Achinsk with Shveitzer. On 7 March, carriages took Kamenev, Shveitzer and Stalin to the station, whence they jubilantly departed. The trip took four days. At every station, the homecoming Bolsheviks competed with excited local orators to address crowds. Kamenev gave speeches; Stalin watched. He laughed at these speakers, later mimicking their overenthusiastic naivety: “Holy revolution, long - awaited, dear revolution has finally arrived!”

On the morning of 12 March 1917, Stalin, wearing the suit he had worn for that party in July 1913, and valenki (long padded Russian boots), and carrying just a small wicker suitcase and a typewriter, arrived in Petrograd.1

* Some of Stalin’s Kureika fishing friends kept in contact: V. G. Solomin wrote to ask for help, reminiscing about a giant sturgeon he caught for Stalin and Sverdlov. “Comrade Solomin,” answered Stalin on 5 March 1947, “I send you 6,000 roubles from my [Supreme Soviet] deputy’s salary. This sum is not so big, but it’ll be useful. J Stalin.” Molotov recalled how Stalin continued into old age to eat frozen nuggets of fish just as he had in Turukhansk. In 1934, a Stalin museum was founded in Stalin’s love nest, the Pereprygin izba, which was expanded on his official seventieth birthday in 1949 into a pillared pavilion with the hut preserved in a glass bell. A giant statue of Stalin was built. Upriver, Stalin developed the Norilsk nickel - mining and smelting plant into a vast Gulag prison - city. In 1949, he ordered the creation of an Arctic railway and port which he personally supervised: 200,000 prisoners worked in terrible conditions there with many dying, though the Railway of Death was never completed. In 1961, during de - Stalinization, the museum was destroyed, the statue pushed through a hole in the ice, the izba burned. The once deserted region is now dominated by a hydroelectric dam that powers Norilsk Nickel, which has become a multi - billion - dollar conglomerate controlled by one of Russia’s new oligarchs. As for the fate of Stalin’s Siberian mistress and son, see the Epilogue.

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