1917 Spring: Floundering Leader - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


To Raphael Eristavi

When the laments of the toiling peasants
Had moved you to tears of pity,
You groaned to the heavens, oh Bard,
Placed at the head of the people’s heads;
When the people’s welfare
Had pleasantly exalted you,
You made your strings sweetly sound,
Like a man sent forth by heaven;
When you sang hymns to the motherland,
That was your love,
For her your harp brought forth
A heart - enrapturing twang . . .
Then oh Bard, a Georgian
Would listen to you as to a heavenly monument
And for your labours and woes of the past
Has crowned you with the present.
Your words have in his heart
Now put down roots;
Reap, grey - haired saint,
What you sowed in your youth;
For a sickle, use the people’s
Heartfelt cry in the air:
“Hurray for Raphael! May there be many
Sons like thee in the fatherland!!”

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)


1917 Spring: Floundering Leader

Soft fluffy snow was falling,” says Vera Shveitzer. “As soon as we stepped off the train, we felt a gust of the political and revolutionary gale in the capital.” Stalin, CC member, was back, his lifelong dreams come true. Yet there was no welcome party at the Nicholas Station. Soso and Vera let the excitement carry them into the streets: “Flowing together with the city crowd, we walked along Nevsky Prospect.”

Stalin no longer needed to fear arrest or search for an old acquaintance to rescue him as he strolled the boulevards. The shooting, rioting and exhilaration of the February Revolution had completely changed the capital: it was now almost the freest city in Europe. Limousines, including requisitioned grand ducal Rolls - Royces, and armoured cars, raced around the city, honking horns, filled with workers, barely dressed girls and soldiers, waving flags and brandishing guns. Presses poured out newspapers to represent every political view while pamphlets of explicit pornography recounted the lubricious lesbian nymphomania of the fallen Empress and her orgies with Rasputin. The hated police—the pharaohs—were gone; the double - headed eagles had been smashed, but the class struggle had not truly started. The swaggering armed workers of the great factories threatened a nervous bourgeois, the burzois, yet the theatres still played—Lermontov’s Masquerade was on at the Alexandrinsky—and the smart restaurants were opening in the wake of the streetfighting.

“There were meetings* and speeches everywhere,” remembered Molotov, “the first experience of freedom in the full sense.” Even the whores and thieves held meetings and elected soviets. Everything was reversed: soldiers had their caps on back to front and wore a fancy - dress shop of uniforms; women borrowed military headgear and breeches. People felt suddenly unrestrained in this febrile carnival: “Sexual acts, from kissing and fondling to full intercourse,” writes Orlando Figes, were “openly performed on the streets in the euphoria.”1

Stalin and Vera headed directly to the centre of power. “While chatting with us, Comrade Stalin without realizing it reached the Taurida Palace,” where they bumped into Elena Stasova and Molotov. That night, Stalin, Molotov, Vera Shveitzer, Stasova and the Russian Bureau discussed the situation. No one was sure about the next move.

“Russia was an Empire” but “what is she now?” The political system they discovered functioning at the palace was, wrote Duma deputy Vasily Shulgin, “neither a republic nor a monarchy—a state formation without a name.” Prince Lvov, the decent Premier, presided over a cabinet of conservatives and liberal “Kadets,” Constitutional - Democrats. The Soviet, led by Chkheidze and containing Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and SRs, was as powerful as the government. Kerensky alone straddled both Soviet and government: “Only Kerensky knew how to dance upon the revolutionary quagmire.” But actually he did not know how; so far, no one did.

When the Tsar abdicated, the big beasts of the SD jungle were abroad—Trotsky and Bukharin in New York, Lenin and Martov in Switzerland. The bewildered Bolsheviks in Petrograd were led by the junior Alexander Shlyapnikov, a worker aged thirty - three, and the twenty - seven - year - old Molotov. There were fewer than 25,000 Bolsheviks in the whole of Russia and only about 1,000 veteran activists.

Days earlier Lenin had confessed that the Revolution “might not happen in our lifetime.” When they heard, Krupskaya wondered, “Perhaps it’s another hoax.” “It’s staggering,” exclaimed Lenin. “Such a surprise!” He started to send instructions to Molotov and Shlyapnikov: the war must be stopped; the Provisional Government opposed. But now, at the meeting of the Bureau, Stalin, aged thirty - eight, and Kamenev, just thirty - four, wished to take control and overrule Lenin, temporarily willing to support the Provisional Government provided it fought a defensive war and established essential civic liberties.

There was a “row.” The Bureau totally rejected Kamenev, demanding an explanation for his betrayals, and only agreed to co - opt Stalin “in an advisory role . . . in the light of certain personal features which are basic to him.” His egotism, rudeness (and possibly his sexual adventures) were notorious.2

When Anna Alliluyeva came home to the family apartment, now in the suburbs, reachable only by a small suburban train, she found some comrades talking there (Yenukidze had been an early arrival), but “I looked at the hat - stand and didn’t recognize the black coat and long striped scarf on the table.”

“Who’s here?” she asked.

“Stalin’s back,” said one. “From exile. Just arrived!” She ran in to greet him—“We were expecting him!” He was pacing up and down. Anna was amazed how he had changed. “The clothes were the same—the black suit and blue shirt,” but “his face had changed, not only was he tired, thin, hollow - cheeked, but he seemed older. Only the eyes were the same, that mocking smile.”

“See! I found you!” said Stalin. “I got the train and I thought I’d never find you! How are you? How’s Olga, Sergei, Pavel, Fedya? And where is Nadya?” Sergei managed a power station; Olga worked as a nurse; Pavel was at the front; Fyodor was studying; Nadya at a music lesson.

“Are you hungry?” asked Anna, lighting the samovar—just as their father got home. The men exchanged news in “agitated voices.” Then Nadya, black - eyed, intense and exuberant, appeared in coat and hat. “Josef is here.” The parents and children greeted and surrounded Stalin, who found himself the hero of a cosy Chekhovian family living in middle - class comfort, something he had never known.

“Everyone was laughing” as “Stalin mimicked the provincial orators speaking at stations on his return from exile.” Anna and Nadya laid the table as he dashingly recounted his adventures in exile. He agreed to spend the night, bedding down in the dining - room beside Sergei.

“What time do we get up in the morning? Tomorrow morning I’ve got to go to Pravda.”

“We wake up early,” said Olga. “We’ll wake you.” Olga and her daughters retired next door, but they could not sleep—especially when Nadya started repeating Soso’s stories about the speakers. “It was so funny we burst out laughing,” said Anna. “We tried to stop but couldn’t help ourselves, laughing louder and louder.”

“Shut up, you youngsters!” called their father.

“Leave them, Sergei,” intervened Stalin. “They’re young, let them laugh!”

In the morning, they caught the train for the city, telling Soso they were inspecting a new apartment on Tenth Rozhdestvensky Street. As he jumped off the tram, Stalin called: “That’s good—but make sure you keep a room for me . . .”3

Stalin staked his claim to leadership, not at the Taurida Palace but at the Bolshevik headquarters, which now occupied the sin - drenched mansion of “that Tsarist concubine” Mathilde Kseshinskaya.* “This den of luxury, spurs and diamonds located opposite the Winter Palace,” in Trotsky’s words, was strategically vital, close to the Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the Vyborg factories.

In the ballerina’s boudoirs and ballrooms, Stalin reasserted himself, overturning the whippersnapper Molotov and the Russian Bureau. On 15 March, Stalin and Kamenev assumed control of Pravda and joined the Presidium of the Bureau. “I was thrown out,” said Molotov. “Stalin and Kamenev delicately but skilfully expelled me because they had more authority and were ten years older, so I didn’t resist.” Appointed as a Bolshevik representative to the Executive Committee of the Soviet, Stalin was welcomed at the Taurida Palace by his fellow Georgians Chkheidze and Iraki Tsereteli, its star orator. Stalin was exhilarated by the new politics, but even in those dizzy days he saw life as a Manichean struggle between light and darkness. “The chariot of the Russian Revolution,” declared Stalin, “is advancing with lightning speed,” but “glance around and you will see the sinister work ofdark forces going on incessantly.” He was quiet and vigilant. “In the work of the Soviet,” recalls the Menshevik diarist Nikolai Sukhanov, “the impression made on me . . . was that ofa grey blur.”

In faraway Switzerland, Lenin was vainly attacking the Provisional Government and demanding immediate peace with Germany, but in Petrograd, Stalin and Kamenev swung rightwards towards mild conciliation, hoping to lure radical, internationalist Mensheviks into the Party—hardly a foolish idea, especially since they insisted on a radical foreign policy.* But they “created confusion and indignation among Party members,” grumbled Shlyapnikov. Molotov relished being correct in opposing “their defensist line, a big mistake, Stalin’s mistake.” Kamenev and Stalin, sneered Trotsky, had turned the Bolsheviks into “a behind - the - scenes parliamentary group for putting pressure on the bourgeoisie.”

Yet Stalin’s critics exaggerated his folly. He was certainly cautious and colourless during those ten days, but his policies were sensible, realistic and tactical in their moderation. Trotsky admits that Stalin “had been giving expression to the hidden convictions of many Old Bolsheviks”—and of most Mensheviks. Even Krupskaya, on hearing Lenin’s extremist ranting, muttered, “It seems Illich is out of his mind.” The Bolsheviks then had no hope of overthrowing the Provisional Government—Lenin was audacious but out of touch. Besides, Lenin himself did not stick to his radical programme: he immediately made retreats and compromises before returning to it at the end of the year.

In Swiss exile, Lenin exploded while reading a speech by Chkheidze about conciliation with the Bolsheviks. “It’s simply shit!” he shouted.

“Vladimir, what language!” replied Krupskaya. “I repeat: shit!”

Lenin started to scribble out his Letters from Afar to correct Kamenev’s and Stalin’s folly. Stalin’s articles were being published almost daily.

Then on 18 March, Stalin stopped writing for a week, perhaps to reassess his policies: Lenin was coming.4

* There were so many meetings, day and night, on every street corner that the ever adaptable Russian language coined the verb miningovat—to make meetings—just as during another revolution, in 1991, Russian created the word khappening—a happening—to describe the bizarre events of the new freedom.

On 26 February, Shlyapnikov declared, “There is no and will be no revolution,” but once it developed, he and Molotov managed to relaunch Pravda. When Molotov joined the Soviet Executive Committee, he wrote, “I had to speak against Kerensky. Lenin was far away. We had to decide everything ourselves.”

* She was the lissom Polish ballerina who became Nicholas II’s first and only real mistress while he was heir to the throne. He had been in love with her, but when he fell for Alix of Hesse, who became Empress Alexandra, he continued to back Kseshinskaya’s rise to become the dominant prima ballerina of the Mariinsky. Afterwards, she entered an imperial ménage à trôis with her two Romanov lovers, Grand Dukes Sergei and Andrei. Between the sheets with the Emperor and the Grand Dukes and on stage in a stellar career built on imperial favour, Kseshinskaya gathered a collection of diamonds and residences that culminated in her building of the mansion. Its modernist style boasted parquet floors, crystal chandeliers, huge mirrors. A white hall had marble consoles and sofas inlaid with ormolu; its walls were covered in damask silk; its curtains were velvet. There was a small Louis XVI drawing - room with yellow silk walls—and the ballerina’s bathroom, in white marble with walls of inlaid blue and silver mosaic, and a sunken bath, “resembled a Greek bathing pool.” As a popular verse bawdily put it, she had “without sparing her legs, danced her way to a palace.” The mansion is today the Museum of Modern Russian History.

* On 17 March, in his article “The War,” Stalin merely called for “pressure on the Provisional Government” about ending the war, while Lenin was already demanding its “overthrow.” He did not attack the Mensheviks but only wanted alliance with those who backed his belief in a defensist war. He wanted the Soviet to keep mastery over the Provisional Government and he demanded the urgent calling of a Constituent Assembly. On one hand, he only proposed “pressure” on the government; on the other, when the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks held a joint debate on the Provisional Government, he damned it as the organ of “the elites” who simply substituted “one Tsar for another.” He was still a Conciliator, as he explained at a Party conference at the end of March, held in the mansion and then in the Taurida.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!