Our Ninika has grown old
His hero’s shoulders have failed him . . .
How did this desolate grey hair
Break an iron strength?
Oh mother! Many a time
With his “hyena” sickle swinging,
Bare - chested, at the end of the cornfield
He must have suddenly burst out with a roar.
He must have piled up mountains
Of sheaves side by side,
And on his face governed by dripping sweat
Fire and smoke must have poured out.
But now he can longer move his knees,
Scythed down by old age.
He lies down or he dreams or he tells
His children’s children of the past.
From time to time he catches the sound
Of singing in the nearby cornfields
And his heart that was once so tough
Begins to beat with pleasure.
He drags himself out, trembling.
He takes a few steps on his shepherd’s crook
And, when he catches sight of the lads,
He smiles with relief.
—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)
On the lush hills above Gagra on the Black Sea coast, an old Georgian man, small, squat, paunchy, with thinning grey hair and a moustache, wearing a grey tunic and baggy trousers, sat on the verandah of a clifftop mansion, a fortified eyrie, with panoramic views, and talked to his elderly guests about how they grew up together . . .
The mtsvadi kebabs and spicy vegetable dishes of a Georgian supra were spread around the table with bottles of local red wine as the men talked in Georgian about their boyhoods in Gori and Tiflis, their seminary studies and their youthful radicalism. It did not matter that they had parted and followed their different paths, because the host “had never forgotten his schoolmates and fellow seminarists.”
In the years before his death, Generalissimo Stalin, Premier of the Soviet government and General Secretary of the Communist Party, conqueror of Berlin and supreme pontiff of world Marxism, the old Soso, exhausted by more than fifty years of conspiracy, thirty years of government, four years of total war, would retire for many months to his favourite seaside villa on the semi - tropical Black Sea of his homeland, to spend the days gardening, conspiring and reading—and the warm evenings talking in remembrance of things past.
Sometimes he talked to his magnates Molotov or Voroshilov, sometimes to his younger Georgian viceroys and protégés, but often “Stalin invited Georgian houseguests whom he’d known in his youth. When he had time,” recalls Candide Charkviani, First Secretary of the Georgian Party, whose name reminded Stalin of his patron, Father Kote Charkviani of Gori, “he kept in touch with his schoolmates. Stalin used to tell stories of his childhood and then remember his friends and decide he wanted to see them. So it was arranged to invite them to the house in Gagra.” Stalin enjoyed planning this dinner - party: “Let’s invite Peter Kapanadze and Vaso Egnatashvili . . . I wonder how Tseradze is? He was a famous wrestler . . . It would be good to get him along and . . .”
Whereupon Kapanadze, Egnatashvili and the other old men were gathered and driven from Tiflis to the Black Sea up into the hills, along the precipitous drive, through the steel gates and the drive - through guardhouse, to Stalin’s secret and heavily guarded mansion, Coldstream.
There, the guards brought them to Stalin, who was often clipping roses or weeding around his lemon - trees, reading on the verandah, writing in the wooden summerhouse that was balanced on the edge of the cliff or playing billiards. Dinner would be laid by almost invisible ladies in aprons who then disappeared. Stalin opened the Georgian wine. Everyone helped themselves to food, set out as a buffet.
“The guests had a good time,” says Charkviani. Stalin was friendly and nostalgic—but there were also flashes of dictatorial fury. “During the dinner, there was an unpleasant moment when Stalin noticed a pack of Georgian cigarettes with an illustration of a saucily posed girl.” Abruptly, he lost his temper: “When have you ever seen a decent woman in such a pose? This is unacceptable!”
Charkviani and the other apparatchiks promised to redesign the cigarettes. Stalin calmed down. Mostly, Soso and the old friends “talked about theatre, art, literature and partially about politics.” He poignantly remembered his two wives, Kato and Nadya; he talked about the problems of his children—and Peter Kapanadze walked solemnly round the table to whisper his condolences for the death of Stalin’s son Yakov. Stalin nodded sadly: “Many families lost sons.” Then he recounted his father’s drinking, the Gori wrestling bouts, his adventures in 1905, the antics of Kamo, Tsintsadze and his bank robbers, and his increasingly Herculean exploits in exile. But always the fearsome shadow of the Terror, the shameful human cost of the Revolution and the wicked price of Stalin’s lust for power hung over them all.
“Stalin recalled the lives of other Old Bolsheviks and told anecdotes about them.” He mentioned names that made the guests shiver slightly, for they were people whom Stalin himself had wantonly murdered. Sometimes he mused that they had been wrongly executed—on his orders. “I was surprised,” says Charkviani, “that when he mentioned people who were unjustly liquidated, he talked with the calm detachment of a historian, showing neither sorrow nor rage—but speaking without rancour, with just a tone of light humour . . .” The only time Stalin explained this sentiment was, much earlier, in a letter to his mother: “You know the saying: ‘While I live, I’ll enjoy my violets, when I die the graveyard worms can rejoice.’”
Looking back into his secret past, the old dictator reflected: “Historians are the sort of people who’ll discover not only facts that are buried underground but even those at the very bottom of the ocean—and reveal them to the world.” He asked, almost to himself: “Can you keep a secret?”
Stalin casually looked through a glass darkly as he remembered the lives of his family, friends and acquaintances whose mixed destinies form a microcosm of the colossal tragedy of his reign.1
Stalin “was a bad and neglectful son, as he was father and husband,” writes his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva Stalin. “He devoted his whole being to something else, to politics and struggle. And so people who weren’t personally close were always more important to him than those who were.” But, worse, he permitted, indeed encouraged, his politics to destroy and consume his loved ones.
By 1918, most of the Alliluyev children were working for Soso. When Stalin was sent down to Tsaritsyn (Stalingrad) in 1918 during the Civil War, he took his girlfriend Nadya Alliluyeva and her brother Fyodor on his armoured train as his assistants. When they returned, Nadya was effectively his wife, moving into his apartment in the Kremlin and blessing him with two children, a son, Vasily,* and a daughter, Svetlana. After the Civil War, Nadya worked for a while as one of Lenin’s secretaries.
Anna Alliluyeva also got married during the Civil War. She accompanied Stalin and Dzerzhinsky on their mission to investigate the fall of Perm, where she fell in love with Dzerzhinsky’s Polish assistant, Stanislas Redens, who became a senior secret policeman and a member of Stalin’s court. Their brother Pavel served as a diplomat and military commissar in the Defence Commissariat. All flourished in Stalin’s entourage. Yet Stalin’s effect on the family was nothing short of apocalyptic.
The first tragedy was that of the clever but fragile Fyodor. During the Civil War, he was recruited into special forces being trained by Kamo. The psychotic former bank robber was obsessed with tests of loyalty under fire. To this end, he devised a plan to simulate his unit’s capture by enemy Whites. “At night he would seize the comrades and lead them out to be shot. If any began to beg for mercy and turn traitor, he would shoot them . . . ‘That way,’ said Kamo, ‘you could be absolutely sure they wouldn’t let you down.’” One revealed himself—and was shot on the spot. Then came the ultimate test: he cut open the chest and tore out the heart. “Here,” he told Fyodor, “is the heart of your officer!”
Fyodor lost his mind. “He sat in silence for a number of years in hospital,” said his niece Svetlana. “Slowly speech came back and he became a human being again.” He never worked, but he outlived Stalin.
The marriage to Nadya was at first quite happy. Members of the Alliluyev family moved into Stalin’s apartment and his country house, Zubalovo, ironically the former home of a Baku oil baron. Nadya seemed content to be a housewife and mother but soon craved a serious career. The pressure of Stalin’s personality, the political stress of the war on the peasantry, the strain of raising two children and studying for a degree, as well as her manic jealousy of his habitual flirting, broke Nadya. Suffering from depression, she committed suicide in November 1932.
Stalin’s parents - in - law, Sergei and Olga, lived on in the Kremlin and the dacha even as he decimated their family. After Nadya’s death, a heartbroken Stalin became close to Zhenya Alliluyeva, the wife of Pavel, and this may have led to an affair. If so, it was over by the time Stalin unleashed the Great Terror.
Stanislas Redens was arrested and shot despite the pleas of his wife, Anna. Pavel Alliluyev died in suspicious circumstances. After the Second World War, Stalin’s sisters - in - law Anna and Zhenya irritated him by interfering in family and political matters, and becoming too close to various Jews under investigation. With Stalin’s permission, Anna wrote her memoirs, but they turned out to be characteristically tactless, especially about his stiff arm. He ordered the arrest of the two women. When they were released on his death, both were convinced that Stalin had freed them, refusing to believe that he himself had been responsible for their misery. Anna lost her mind in jail, but she lived until 1964.2
· · ·
Stalin’s other family, the Svanidzes, were just as unfortunate. His son Yakov did not see his father again until 1921 when his uncle, Alyosha Svanidze, and Kamo’s sister brought him to Moscow. He moved into Stalin’s and Nadya’s household, but his slow Georgian ways infuriated his father. When Yakov bungled a suicide, more of a cry for help, Stalin laughed that “he could not even shoot straight.”
Alyosha Svanidze, who married a beautiful Jewish soprano, remained an intimate friend. He and Soso were “like brothers.” He served abroad, then returned in the early 1930s as Deputy Chairman of the Soviet State Bank. After Nadya’s suicide, the Svanidzes, including Kato’s sisters, became even closer to Stalin: Mariko worked in Moscow as Abel Yenukidze’s secretary, while Sashiko Svanidze Monoselidze frequently stayed with Stalin.
Alyosha’s wife, Maria, and his sister Sashiko competed with the Alliluyev women, Anna and Zhenya, to care for Stalin. In the early 1930s, they virtually lived with him, but their competition irked the dictator.
In 1935, Sashiko’s husband, Monoselidze, asked Stalin for financial help, and he replied:
I’ve given 5,000 roubles to Sasha [Sashiko]. For the moment this will be enough for both of you. I have no more money or I’d send it. These are royalties I get for my speeches and articles . . . But this should remain between ourselves (you, me and Sasha). No one else should get to know about it, otherwise my other relatives and acquaintances will begin to pursue me and will never leave me alone. So this is how it must be.
Misha! Live happily a thousand years! Give my greetings to our friends!
19 February 1935
P.S. If you meet my mother, give her my greetings
Sashiko died of cancer in 1936, but her sister Mariko was arrested in the case against her boss, Yenukidze. The next year, Stalin ordered the arrest of Alyosha Svanidze and his wife. He told the NKVD to demand that Alyosha confess to being a German spy in return for his life. Alyosha refused defiantly. “Such aristocratic pride,” said Stalin. Alyosha, his wife, Maria, and his sister Mariko were executed in 1941 as the Germans advanced. During the Terror, Stalin liked to excuse the arrest of other leading families: “What can I do? My own family is in jail!”
Stalin’s son Yakov, by Kato Svanidze, married during the 1930s and had a daughter, Galina, who is still alive. During the German invasion, he was captured by the Nazis. His father believed he had betrayed him and had his wife arrested. But Yakov committed suicide without breaking. Afterwards, Stalin regretfully admitted the boy had been “a real man.”3
As for the women in his life, their fates are often mysterious, but they received little favour when their lover became the Soviet leader.
“Glamourpuss,” the schoolgirl Pelageya Onufrieva, became a teacher, but in 1917 left her profession and married a mechanic named Fomin. Her father and brothers were targeted as kulaks during Stalin’s war on the peasantry in the early 1930s, and were exiled to Siberia. In 1937, her husband was arrested and held as a potential saboteur. As a result her son lost a scholarship to study at Leningrad University, whereupon she wrote to Stalin. The scholarship was restored. However, her husband was again arrested in 1947 and sentenced to ten years in prison as an Enemy of the People.
When she was interviewed in 1944 about the Leader, a secret policeman demanded the postcards and book given by Stalin. “But my life has been hard and nomadic,” she retorted, “I had a big family and I couldn’t keep everything, but I kept the book. So it’s a shame to give it to you because it’s my only memory, not so much of Stalin but of the man named Josef. That’s what I called him. I would say we were friends. The book’s precious to me and you can take it when I’m dead.” The apparatchik confiscated the book.
Ludmilla Stal worked for many years in the Central Committee, was decorated and helped edit Stalin’s works, dying before the Second World War. Tatiana Slavatinskaya prospered in the CC Secret Department, becoming a member of the Central Control Commission. But in 1937 her son - in - law, a general, was shot, her daughter and son arrested and exiled for eight years. She and her grandchildren were expelled from the House on the Embankment, where many of the elite lived. One grandson, Yury Trifonov, the writer, chronicled the experience in his novella House on the Embankment.
As far as we know, Stalin met up with only one of his girlfriends.* “In 1925,” recalls his companion in Solvychegodsk, Tatiana Sukhova, “I moved to Moscow and wanted to see Comrade Stalin very much. I wrote to him. I was very surprised to hear his voice on the phone that very evening.” Next day they met at his office on Old Square: “We talked about my work, our mutual friends and Solvychegodsk.”
In 1929, when Stalin was taking the waters in Matsesta, in the south, Sukhova, a teacher, contacted him again. “Three young men in white suits came and collected me” and took her to his villa, where she was welcomed by Nadya Alliluyeva and Stalin. They reminisced over supper. Nadya asked her about young Stalin in exile: “I described his appearance and said that Comrade Stalin was never parted from his white hood.” Nadya laughed, “saying she never imagined he was such a dandy!” Then Stalin proudly showed her his tomatoes in his vegetable garden and took her to a firing - range beside the house, where he hit a bull’s - eye with a rifle. He let her fire a “small English Montecristo” pistol—but she missed. “How will you defend yourself?” Stalin asked her. When she told him that she was badly treated at her resthouse, he muttered, “They must be reprimanded.”
But the next year Sukhova was implicated in Stalin’s trial of Ramzin and others. She appealed to him and he received her. “Is this the first time you’ve got into a scrape?” he asked, adding, “I’m always getting into trouble myself.” He then phoned her institute and protected her. “Henceforth you must fight for yourself.” They never met again.4
Stalin left at least two illegitimate children in his wake. Neither received any direct help from their father.
Constantine Kuzakov, the son of Stalin’s Solvychegodsk landlady, Maria, had the most interesting career of the two. When Kuzakova saw Stalin’s appointment to the government in 1917, she wrote to him asking for help. When she received no reply, she approached Lenin’s office, where Stalin’s, wife Nadya, still worked. Without telling Stalin, she increased Kuzakova’s benefits payments, but she informed the father afterwards.
Stalin must have helped get the boy into Leningrad University. In 1932, the NKVD made him sign a statement promising never to discuss his “origin.”
He taught philosophy at the Leningrad Military Mechanical Institute, and was promoted to work in the CC apparat in Moscow by Andrei Zhdanov, the magnate closest to Stalin. Constantine later said that Zhdanov knew his “origin.” He never met his father, though “once Stalin stopped and looked at me and I felt he wanted to tell me something. I wanted to rush to him, but something stopped me. He waved his pipe and moved on.” During the Second World War, Constantine was a decorated colonel, but his mother died of starvation in the Siege of Leningrad.
In the summer of 1947, Kuzakov was called into Zhdanov’s office where he found the fearsome but flashy secret - police chief Victor Abakumov. They accused Kuzakov’s deputy of being an American spy, and Kuzakov was implicated. Stalin would not sanction his arrest, but Kuzakov was tried by a court of honour and dismissed from the Party. He had three children, but could not even get a job as a janitor.
After Stalin’s death and Beria’s arrest, he rejoined the Party and rose to become the longtime director of Soviet television in the Culture Ministry, dying in 1996.
Stalin left Lidia Pereprygina with a son, Alexander, probably born early in 1917. She then married a peasant fisherman, Yakov Davydov, who adopted Alexander as his own. Lidia became a hairdresser in Igarka and had eight more children. “Stalin never helped her,” reported KGB chief General Serov. Alexander “was told [the truth] by his mother Lidia years after her affair with Stalin,” says his son Yury. They “kept quiet about it and only the few locals in Kureika knew whose son he really was.”
Alexander became a postman and Komsomol instructor, but in 1935 the NKVD called him to Krasnoyarsk to sign a promise, similar to Kuzakov’s, never to talk about his origins. Then it was suggested he might move to Moscow, but he refused, “always scared of what could happen to him.” Alexander Davydov served in the Second World War as a private, was wounded thrice, then promoted to major after World War II. He ran the canteen in the mining - town Novokuznetsk, where he married and had three children, dying in 1987. “My father told me I was Stalin’s grandson,” says Yury, who lives with his family in Novosibirsk.5
· · ·
Until Stalin organized the reconquest of Georgia in 1921,* his mother lived in a different country. Afterwards, Soso was reunited with Keke during his bitter visit to Tiflis, where he found himself hated as a bloody conqueror and former bandit.
Stalin wrote Keke regular letters, but kept his distance. “Lively and chatty,” she was the only person in Stalin’s world who dared ask: “I wonder why my son was not able to share power with Trotsky?” Stalin could never tolerate such independence.
Keke came on a short visit to Moscow and met Nadya. “This woman is my wife,” Stalin warned Keke. “Try not to give her any trouble.” She preferred to live in a two - room apartment in the old Viceroy’s Palace on Golovinsky Prospect in Tiflis. Nadya sent her letters with news and photographs of the children. When Stalin was climbing to power, his letters were short:
My Mama, Live 10,000 years!
1 January 1923
Keke grumbled that he did not pay her enough attention: “Mama, I know you’re disappointed in me but what can I do? I’m very busy and can’t write too often. Day and night I’m up to my neck in it. Yours. Kiss. Soso, 25 January 1925.” Or she ignored him and went on with her own life: “Mama, How are you? You didn’t write for a long time. Maybe you’re annoyed with me. But what to do? I’m so busy. I sent you 150 roubles, I can’t send more. If you need more, tell me how much. Yr Soso.”
Their lack of intimacy was clearer after Nadya’s suicide:
Greetings Mother dear
I got the jam, the ginger and the chukhcheli [Georgian candy]. The children are very pleased and send you their thanks. I am well, so don’t worry about me. I can endure my destiny. I don’t know whether or not you need money. I’m sending you 500 roubles just in case. I’m sending also a photograph of me and the children . . . .
Keep well dear Mother and keep your spirits up. A kiss.
Your son Soso
24 March 1934
P.S. The children bow to you. After Nadya’s death, my private life has been very hard, but a strong man must always be valiant.
When he visited her for the last time in 1936, she said she wished he had become a priest. This half - amused Stalin. He sent her medicines and clothes. When she deteriorated, he encouraged her. “Glad your health is good,” he wrote in 1937. “Evidently our clan is strong!” She died soon afterwards amid the Great Terror. Stalin did not attend her funeral, but his wreath read: “Dear and beloved mother. From her son Josef Djugashvili.” She was buried splendidly in the church on Holy Mountain.6
Stalin kept in contact with old friends from Gori and Tiflis. Sometimes he wrote them a note or just sent them money out of the blue. If they appealed to him, he liked to help. In 1933, he wrote to Kapanadze:
Hi Peta, as you see . . . I’m sending you 2,000 roubles. I haven’t got more now. This money is a publishing royalty and we don’t accept many royalties, but your needs are a special occasion for me . . . Apart from this money, you’ll be given a3,000 - rouble loan. I’ve told Beria about this . . .
Live long and be happy
During the war, Kapanadze and Glurjidze, both ex - priests, and Tseradze, his wrestling friend, got even luckier. On 9 May 1944, Stalin noticed the cash piling up in his safe (from his salaries as Party Secretary - General, Premier, Supreme Commander - in - Chief, People’s Commissar of Defence and Supreme Soviet deputy). He could not spend the money so he scrawled this note:
1. To my friend Peter Kapanadze—40,000 roubles;
2. 30,000 roubles to Grisha Glurjidze;
3. 30,000 roubles to Mikhail Tseradze.
The note to Glurjidze read: “Grisha! Accept this small gift from me. Your Soso.” He was indulgent to those who never dabbled in politics but it is unlikely he would have spared Iremashvili and Davrichewy. They opposed him politically.*
When Stalin seized Georgia in 1921, Iremashvili attended the funerals of those who fell in battle and found himself standing next to Keke Djugashvili. “Keke, it’s your son who is to blame for this,” said Iremashvili, who knew her well from Gori. “Write to him in Moscow: he’s no longer my friend!” When Stalin visited Tiflis later that year, Iremashvili was arrested, but his sister appealed to Stalin, “who showed benevolent kindness to her: ‘What a pity! It hurts me greatly for him. Hopefully [Iremashvili] will find his way back to me!’” Stalin ordered him to be freed and then invited him over. Iremashvili refused. He was arrested again and found himself under the control of Tsintsadze, Stalin’s gangster, now a senior secret policeman. Stalin had him expelled to Germany, where he flirted with Fascism and wrote his hostile memoirs.
The colourful Davrichewy, Gori police officer’s son and fellow bank robber, escaped to Paris. Under the name “Jean Violan,” he became a famous First World War pilot and served as a French spy. Some accounts claim that he had an affair with the notorious courtesan Mata Hari, executed as a traitor in 1917, but the real story of his sexual espionage is no less dramatic. The French secret service suspected a beautiful young adventuress and aviatrix, Marthe Richard, of being a German spy. They enrolled the flying ace Davrichewy to watch her. She fell in love with “Zozo” Davrichewy and they started an affair so passionate that he threatened to kill himself if she was arrested. He managed to prove her innocence; she joined French intelligence and was despatched to Madrid, where she seduced the septuagenarian German intelligence chief.
In 1936, Stalin contacted Davrichewy and invited him to return. Wisely, Davrichewy stayed in Paris. Just after Stalin’s death, Davrichewy declared in an interview: “I am Stalin’s half brother.” He himself died in 1975 after a life described in an obituary as “astonishing—revolutionary, aviator, spy, author.” His remarkable memoirs were obscurely published in French in 1979.7
Kamo remained a Bolshevik hero, despite his macabre behaviour with Fyodor Alliluyev. But this dangerous simpleton was unsuited to peacetime work. He became a Chekist but his cruelty was too deranged even for them. By 1922, he was back in Tiflis employed in the customs service. When Lenin considered a Caucasian holiday, Kamo insisted on accompanying him: Lenin never came. According to Tiflis legend, Kamo drank too much, chattering about Stalin’s role in the Tiflis bank robbery, a sensitive subject.*He was bicycling home after starting his memoirs when he was run over by a truck. It was said Stalin had him killed: after all, went the joke, it seemed a bit of a coincidence that the only bicycle in Tiflis should be hit by the only truck.
Kamo was buried in the Pushkin Gardens outside the Tilipuchuri Tavern in Yerevan Square, scene of his notorious exploit. His statue replaced that of Pushkin. Later Stalin ordered the removal of his monument. Kamo was reburied elsewhere.8
Egnatashvili, Soso’s protector and possibly father, educated his two surviving sons, Sasha and Vaso, at a private school in Moscow. The family were restaurant entrepreneurs and soon expanded outside Gori. Egnatashvili and his sons established restaurants in Baku, while Vaso qualified from Kharkov University, becoming a history teacher.
Old Egnatashvili died in 1929, “very close to Stalin until his last day.” Sasha Egnatashvili ran five restaurants in Tiflis until about 1929. In the early 1930s, both brothers were arrested. Sasha contacted Yenukidze, who had him released and brought to Moscow, where he was received by Stalin. Vaso was also released immediately. Stalin enrolled Sasha in the NKVD, and appointed him to run a Politburo dacha in the Crimea before promoting him to his own Guards Department. Sasha, the former capitalist restaurateur, was made chief of Stalin’s catering department, known as the Base, a trusted position for a paranoid dictator who used poison on others and feared it himself. Egnatashvili became the dictator’s food - taster, hence his nickname in the NKVD: “the Rabbit.” Within the NKVD, he was quietly known as “Stalin’s relative” or “brother,” even by General Vlasik, who knew the dictator better than anyone. (One of Sasha’s underlings was a cook who had contrived, in an astonishing culinary career hidden in the catering shadows of the NKVD universe, to serve not only Rasputin in his early days but also Lenin and Stalin: this world - historical chef was the grandfather of President Vladimir Putin.)
Vaso, who had been a Socialist - Federalist, not even a Menshevik, was promoted to editor of a Tiflis newspaper, then to Secretary of the Georgian Supreme Soviet, Stalin’s eyes and ears in Georgia.
Sasha the Rabbit lived near Stalin’s Kuntsevo mansion, his main residence, and often attended his dinners. When Vaso visited Moscow, he always stayed with Stalin. They remained close to Keke. Sasha Egnatashvili’s letter to Stalin’s mother on her birthday in 1934 reveals their special relationship: “My dear spiritual mother, Yesterday I visited Soso and we talked a long time . . . He’s put on weight . . . Over the last four years, I’ve never seen him so healthy. More handsome than you can imagine. He was joking a lot. Who says he’s older? He’s younger than four years ago—no one thinks he’s more than forty - seven!”
In 1940, Stalin remembered his father’s old cobbling apprentice Dato Gasitashvili, who had been very kind to him as a boy. “Is Dato still alive?” he suddenly asked Sasha. “I haven’t seen him for ages.” Egnatashvili summoned Dato, still a Gori cobbler, to Moscow.
One day Stalin, his chief of personal security, Vlasik, and Beria arrived at the Egnatashvilis’ for a Georgian feast: Stalin was reunited with Dato. When Stalin teased him, the old cobbler fearlessly replied: “Do you think you’re Stalin to me as you are to others? To me you are the same little boy I held in my arms. And if you carry on, I’ll pull down your trousers and spank your bottom until it’s redder than your flag!” Stalin laughed. But, ominously, he noticed Sasha’s wife: the Rabbit had happily but dangerously married an ethnic German ex - wife of a Jewish - Armenian businessman: their daughter lived in America.
“Your wife’s in a bad mood,” Stalin said. “Is she offended with me?”
Sasha explained that, being German, she was afraid for herself and for her daughter in America.
“We’ve an agreement with Germany but it doesn’t mean anything,” Stalin reassured her, according to Sasha’s grandson, Guram Ratishvili. “War is inevitable. America and Britain will be our allies.”
When the Germans invaded in 1941, Egnatashvili’s wife was arrested and shot. “She just disappeared and never returned,” says Sasha’s grandson, “but Sasha never mentioned this to Stalin.” Egnatashvili knew the rules of Stalin’s court.
During the war, Egnatashvili, now a general, accompanied Stalin to Teheran and Yalta. “A Georgian chef in charge of supplying wine and shashlik was made lieutenant - general!” carps Khrushchev in his memoirs. “Whenever I came back from the front, I noticed he’d been awarded one or two more medals! And I remember Stalin once even gave me a dressing - down in front of this Lieutenant - General for provisions: he even got drunk with Stalin and the rest of us.” Stalin the Russian warlord was sensitive to such attitudes—and he also learned from Beria about the corruption* in his households, transferring Egnatashvili to be director of the State Dachas in the Crimea to prepare the Big Three Yalta Conference. But afterwards he left Egnatashvili behind.
The Rabbit died of diabetes in 1948. Vaso Egnatashvili remained close to Stalin, attending those dinners of old Gori friends. But on Stalin’s death Beria fired Vaso and jailed him. When Beria fell, Vaso was released, dying in 1956.9
The fate of Stalin’s Bolshevik comrades was tragic, never mind the fate of the Soviet people. Kamenev and Zinoviev were shot in 1936, Bukharin in 1938; Trotsky was murdered with an icepick in 1940—all on Stalin’s orders. During 1937–38, around one and a half million people were shot. Stalin personally signed deathlists for almost 39,000 people, many of them old acquaintances. Georgia, where Stalin’s rising magnate Beria was in charge, was hit especially severely: 10 percent of the Communist Party were purged; 425 out of the 644 delegates to the Tenth Georgian Party Congress were shot.
The star victim was Stalin’s old friend, Budu “the Barrel” Mdivani, who had several times saved his life in earlier days. But Mdivani had resisted Stalin in 1921 and the loquacious ex - actor irreverently joked that Beria should put an armed guard around Keke’s house—not for her protection, but so she never gave birth to another Stalin. Stalin was reconciled with Budu in the 1920s. When he was in Moscow, Budu usually stayed with him. Stalin often visited the Mdivanis in Georgia—even becoming godfather to their son. But Stalin had not forgotten Mdivani’s opposition. In 1937, he was arrested for plotting to kill Stalin and shot soon afterwards, along with most of his family.
The case of three of Soso’s closest Georgian acquaintances reveals how differently things could turn out in the universe of diabolical randomness. Sunny, genial, hedonistic and conciliatory, Abel Yenukidze, Nadya Stalin’s godfather, became Secretary of the Central Executive Committee, in charge of the Kremlin, the Party villas and the Bolshoi Ballet, which he used as his own private dating agency, becoming notorious for his taste for teenage ballerinas (and their mothers).
Uncle Abel was close friends with Stalin, but always preserved his own opinion. In his memoirs about the Baku printing - presses, he refused to praise Stalin for things he had not done. “Koba wants me to tell him he’s a genius but I won’t do it,” he complained. He was sceptical of the growing repression, priding himself on sheltering persecuted Georgian comrades. Yet he and Stalin often holidayed together, sending each other affectionate notes. However, in 1936 Stalin selected Yenukidze as the first of his inner circle to be liquidated, even though he had never been a member of any formal opposition. He was arrested and shot in 1937.
Kavtaradze, on the other hand, had been a member of every opposition from the 1920s onwards. He not only threw a lantern at Stalin but later backed first Mdivani, then the Trotskyites. Yet each time Stalin saved, helped and promoted him.
In 1937, Kavtaradze was arrested (again) as a member of Mdivani’s “conspiracy” and sentenced to death for planning to murder Stalin. The others were all killed, but the dictator spared Kavtaradze by placing a dash next to his name on the deathlist. In 1940 Stalin, deciding that he missed him, freed him and invited him to dinner the same night. They got on well, even though Stalin teased him, “To think you wanted to kill me.” A few days later, he and Beria dined at Kavtaradze’s apartment: their host was made head of the State Publishing House, then Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Rumania. He survived Stalin, dying in 1961.
Sergo Ordzhonikidze was, by the 1930s, the last Old Bolshevik with the prestige to challenge Stalin. As Stalin’s enforcer he conquered the Caucasus in 1920–21, helped defeat the oppositions in the 1920s and ran heavy industry in the Five Year Plan into the 1930s. He and Stalin were inseparable, living in the same building, writing each other cosy notes, holidaying together. But in 1937 they clashed. Sergo committed suicide in the Kremlin.
Yet some of the earlier comrades survived.* Kalinin served from 1919 until his death in 1946 as head of state (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet). Marshal Voroshilov served as Defence Commissar, a vicious henchman during the Terror, and an inept bungler in the Finnish and Great Patriotic Wars. Stalin tormented Voroshilov with being “an English agent.” Yet he outlived his master to become Soviet head of state until 1960.
Meyer Wallach became Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs during the 1930s, later Soviet Ambassador in Washington. He was outspoken in his criticisms of Stalin, who planned a fatal car crash for him yet allowed him to survive, perhaps because he remembered Litvinov saving him from the dockers in London but more likely because of his international prestige. Stalin promoted his host in Vienna, Troyanovsky, making him the first Soviet Ambassador to the United States, and allowed him to live, even though he and Litvinov privately criticized him.
When he met Stalin again in 1918, Vyshinsky was clever enough neither to hide his unreliable political past nor to try to remind Stalin of the favours he had done him in Bailov Prison: he just formally, politely offered his services. As rebarbative, bloodthirsty and terrifying as he was cowardly and terrorized, he became the Soviet Procurator - General, the star inquisitor of the 1930s show - trials, and, in 1949, Stalin’s last Foreign Minister. He died in 1954.
Molotov served as Premier from 1930 to 1941 and Foreign Commissar from 1939 until 1949. Stalin started to view him as a potential successor and, in 1952, viciously denounced his old partner. Chosen for liquidation,* Molotov was saved by Stalin’s death but remained devoted to him. He became Foreign Minister again but failed to overthrow Khrushchev in 1957. Exiled as Ambassador to Mongolia, he lived until 1985, still seeing Stalin in his dreams.10
Until his last day, Stalin never ceased trying to glorify his past and conceal his early mistakes. The cult served his shameless vainglory and contributed to his political potency, yet he liked to assume a becoming modesty in front of colleagues. At heart, he was too intelligent not to appreciate that many of the paeans to his youth were ridiculous. When he saw Georgian writer Gamsakhurdia’s Youth of the Leader, he wrote: “I ask you to prohibit publication of Gamsakhurdia’s book in Russian. J. Stalin.”
He was even more outraged by Fedorov’s Kartvelian Novelties, published in 1940, scribbling in green pencil: “Comrade Pospelov was idiotic and tactless to approve Fedorov’s book about me without my agreement and knowledge. Fedorov’s book must be pulped—and Pospelov must be punished. Stalin.”
When Samoilova, an Old Bolshevik acquaintance from Baku days, asked if she could exhibit proofs of Stalin’s earlier books and articles in her museum, she received this handwritten note: “I never thought you’d be so stupid in your old age! If the book’s published in millions, why’d you need the manuscript? I burned all the manuscripts!” When a book was compiled of memoirs from 1905, Soso wrote three words: “Don’t publish! Stalin.”11
At dinner in his seaside villa, the ageing Stalin told stories to his old friends about these people from the past, some of whom had perished in their beds, many of whom had died in his dungeons with a bullet in the back of the head.
The old men had their say too. “They complained,” observes Molotov, “about bribery and corruption everywhere.” Another of these old Georgians “of whom Stalin was particularly fond,” says Khrushchev, “told Stalin about the bad situation among youngsters in Georgia.” Stalin was incensed and launched a purge of his homeland.
Presently the old men, several of whom had sung with Soso in the Gori and seminary choirs in white surplices, started to sing. “Georgian songs were heard late at night wafting from the Coldstream villa, sometimes accompanied by the host—a good old singer with a sweet voice . . .”
Soso was old, sclerotic and forgetful, yet until his death aged seventy - four, on 5 March 1953, the ageing choirboy remained the peerless politician, paranoid megalomaniac and aberrant master of human misery on a scale only paralleled by Hitlerite Germany. Responsible for the deaths of around 20 to 25 million people, Stalin imagined he was a political, military, scientific and literary genius, a people’s monarch, a red Tsar.
Perhaps the young Stalin should have the last word. In August 1905, Soso, aged twenty - seven, mocked just such a deluded megalomaniac in a rarely read but weirdly self - prophesying article for Proletariatis Brdzola. “Before your eyes,” he writes, “rises the hero of Gogol’s story who, in a state of aberration, imagined he was the King of Spain. Such,” concluded the young Stalin, “is the fate of all megalomaniacs.”12
* Since he used Vasily as his Party alias, he in some ways named his son after himself.
* Sukhova’s later memoirs are unpublished. Natasha Kirtava and Alvasi Talakvadze became Party workers in Batumi and lived into old age, revered for their early association with Stalin. Stefania Petrovskaya, his fiancée in Baku, remained a Party member and was implicated in the Slepkov Case of 1932–33. Slepkov himself was spared in 1932, then shot in 1937, but her fate is unknown. Serafima Khoroshenina, Stalin’s partner in Vologda, was alive in the 1930s and recorded her memoirs, but her fate is likewise unknown.
* Georgia caused Stalin’s schism with Lenin. Menshevik Georgia became independent in 1918. The Old Man was content to leave Georgia, but in 1921 Stalin and Sergo Ordzhonikidze arranged a successful invasion. The dashing, merciless Sergo rode triumphantly into Tiflis on a white horse, but he soon earned the nicknamed “Stalin’s Ass” for his brutal suppression of the country. When it came time to define the status of Georgia, Stalin insisted that it join a Transcaucasian Federation, but the local Bolsheviks, led by the flamboyant Mdivani and the ideologue Makharadze, both associates of Stalin’s for decades, demanded a separate Georgian republic. In the ensuing row between the Stalinists and the so - called deviationists, Sergo punched one of their opponents. This outraged Lenin, who now supported the Georgians against Stalin and Sergo. This led to Stalin’s insulting Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya. Lenin wrote his Testament, which demanded Stalin’s removal from the General Secretaryship. But it was too late. Lenin suffered another stroke. Stalin survived.
* The Mensheviks enjoyed a strange trajectory: Karlo Chkheidze, as we saw, became the most powerful man in the early 1917 Revolution as Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, while his fellow Georgian Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli became a powerful Russian minister during the summer of 1917. But when the Bolsheviks seized power, Chkheidze, Jordania, Tsereteli and Noe Ramishvili became the leaders of the independent Georgia. When the Bolsheviks invaded, they managed to flee into exile. Chkheidze committed suicide in 1926, Ramishvili was murdered in Paris in 1930. Jordania, Uratadze, Arsenidze, Sagirashvili and Nikolaevsky all survived in exile and wrote their memoirs. Sukhanov, who called Stalin a “grey blur,” was shot in the Great Terror.
* Tsintsadze joined the Georgian Cheka in 1921, and he too wrote his memoirs, at the same time as Kamo—but he was considerably more tactful. He joined the Georgian “deviationists” opposition to Stalin and was dismissed. Arrested as a Trotskyite, he died of TB in prison in 1930.
* The Egnatashvilis had known Beria since 1918 in Baku, where he was a Bolshevik double - agent in the Azeri Musavist Party—or vice - versa. When Beria fell ill, the Egnatashvilis nursed their fellow Georgian. When Beria became Caucasian viceroy, then NKVD boss, he tried to keep a monopoly of information and influence in the Caucasus. Yet the Egnatashvilis were independent of Beria. Furthermore Sasha Egnatashvili served in Stalin’s Guards Department under chief bodyguard General Vlasik, which was also outside Beria’s power, a situation that Beria constantly tried to remedy. After the Second World War, Beria accused Vlasik of corruption in selling the gigantic quantities of food for Stalin prepared at the Base. Vlasik counteraccused Beria of corruption and managed to survive, but Egnatashvili, who ran the Base, would probably have been implicated. The duel between Beria and Vlasik for control of the guards lasted until Stalin’s death. This is the first time that the story of General Egnatashvili and his wife has been told. It fits into a pattern. After the suicide of his wife, Nadya, Stalin distrusted the spouses of his courtiers. The pretty young wives of Alexander Poskrebyshev, his chef de cabinet, and Marshal Kulik, his military crony, were shot; the wives of the head of state, Kalinin, and Foreign Minister, Molotov, were arrested. Yet all these men continued to serve him devotedly without a word. See Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
* Mikha Tskhakaya, the greybeard who had promoted and protected Stalin in the early years before turning against Lenin and retiring to Genevan exile, survived to die in 1950 in his bed, an honoured Old Bolshevik. Inexplicably, Makharadze was allowed to survive the Terror. Stepan Shaumian, Stalin’s roommate in London and junior partner in the Tiflis bank robbery and then Baku, was the brutal master of the Baku Commune in 1918 when he oversaw the murder of around 15,000 Azeris. He was then overthrown and shot by the Whites and the British as one of the legendary Twenty - six Commissars. Stalin then adopted Shaumian’s son, Levan, and brought him up in his own household. Stalin’s Siberian roommate and Soviet head of state Yakov Sverdlov died of influenza in 1919.
* His Jewish wife, Polina, was equally devoted to Stalin and became a Deputy Commissar in her own right, but her strident feminism irritated Stalin, while her friendship with Nadya made him uneasy. He almost destroyed her in 1939, considered having her murdered in a car crash and finally forced Molotov to vote for her arrest in 1949. The full story is in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.