Keke’s Miracle: Soso - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs

PART ONE

Morning

The rose’s bud had blossomed out
Reaching out to touch the violet
The lily was waking up
And bending its head in the breeze

High in the clouds the lark
Was singing a chirruping hymn
While the joyful nightingale
With a gentle voice was saying—

“Be full of blossom, oh lovely land
Rejoice Iverians’ country
And you oh Georgian, by studying
Bring joy to your motherland.”

—SOSELO (Josef Stalin)

1

Keke’s Miracle: Soso

On 17 May 1872, a handsome young cobbler, the very model of a chivalrous Georgian man, Vissarion “Beso” Djugashvili, aged twenty - two, married Ekaterina “Keke” Geladze, seventeen, an attractive freckled girl with auburn hair, at the Uspensky Church in the small Georgian town of Gori.1

A matchmaker had visited Keke’s house to tell her about the suit of Beso the cobbler: he was a respected artisan in Baramov’s small workshop, quite a catch. “Beso,” says Keke in newly discovered memoirs,* “was considered a very popular young man among my friends and they were all dreaming of marrying him. My friends nearly burst with jealousy. Beso was an enviable groom, a true karachogheli [Georgian knight], with beautiful moustaches, very well dressed—and with the special sophistication of a town - dweller.” Nor was Keke in any doubt that she herself was something of a catch too: “Among my female friends, I became the desired and beautiful girl.” Indeed, “slender, chestnut - haired with big eyes,” she was said to be “very pretty.”

The wedding, according to tradition, took place just after sunset; Georgian social life, writes one historian, was “as ritualised as English Victorian behaviour.” The marriage was celebrated with the rambunctious festivity of the wild town of Gori. “It was,” Keke remembers, “hugely glamorous.” The male guests were true karachogheli, “cheerful, daring and generous,” wearing their splendid black chokhas, “broad - shouldered with slim waists.” The chief of Beso’s two best men was Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili, a strapping wrestler, wealthy merchant and local hero who, as Keke puts it, “always tried to assist us in the creation of our family.”

The groom and his friends gathered for toasts at his home, before parading through the streets to collect Keke and her family. The garlanded couple then rode to church together in a colourfully decorated wedding phaeton, bells tingling, ribbons fluttering. In the church, the choir gathered in the gallery; below them, men and women stood separately among the flickering candles. The singers burst into their elevating and harmonic Georgian melodies accompanied by a zurna, a Georgian wind instrument like a Berber pipe.

The bride entered with her bridesmaids, who were careful not to tread on the train, a special augur of bad luck. Father Khakhanov, an Armenian, conducted the ceremony, Father Kasradze recorded the marriage, and Father Christopher Charkviani, a family friend, sang so finely that Yakov Egnatashvili “generously tipped him 10 roubles,” no mean sum. Afterwards, Beso’s friends headed the traditional singing and dancing procession through the streets, playing duduki, long pipes, to the supra, a Georgian feast presided over by a tamada, a joke - telling and wisdom - imparting toastmaster.

The service and singing had been in the unique Georgian language—not Russian because Georgia was only a recent addition to the Romanov Empire. For a thousand years, ruled by scions of the Bagrationi dynasty, the Kingdom of Sakartvelo (Georgia to Westerners, Gruzia to Russians) was an independent Christian bulwark of knightly valour against the Islamic Mongol, Timurid, Ottoman and Persian Empires. Its apogee was the twelfth - century empire of Queen Tamara, made timeless by the national epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin by Rustaveli. Over the centuries, the kingdom splintered into bickering principalities. In 1801 and 1810, the Tsars Paul and Alexander I annexed principalities to their empire. The Russians had only finished the military conquest of the Caucasus with the surrender of Imam Shamyl and his Chechen warriors in 1859 after a thirty - year war—and Adjaria, the last slice of Georgia, was gained in 1878. Even the most aristocratic Georgians, who served at the courts of the Emperor in St. Petersburg or of the viceroy in Tiflis, dreamed of independence. Hence Keke’s pride in following Georgian traditions of manhood and marriage.

Beso, mused Keke, “appeared to be a good family man . . . He believed in God and always went to church.” The parents of both bride and groom had been serfs of local princes, freed in the 1860s by the Tsar - Liberator, Alexander II. Beso’s grandfather Zaza was an Ossetian* from the village of Geri, north of Gori.2 Zaza, like Stalin, his great - grandson, became a Georgian rebel: in 1804, he joined the uprising of Prince Elizbar Eristavi against Russia. Afterwards, he was settled with other “baptized Ossetians” in the village of Didi - Lilo, nine miles from Tiflis, as a serf of Prince Badur Machabeli. Zaza’s son Vano tended the Prince’s vineyards and had two sons: Giorgi, who was murdered by bandits, and Beso, who got a job in Tiflis in the shoe factory of G. G. Adelkhanov but was headhunted by the Armenian Josef Baramov to make boots for the Russian garrison in Gori.3 There young Beso noticed the “fascinating, neatly dressed girl with chestnut hair and beautiful eyes.”

Keke was also new to Gori, daughter of Glakho Geladze, a peasant serf of the local grandee, Prince Amilakhvari. Her father worked as a potter nearby before becoming the gardener for a wealthy Armenian, Zakhar Gambarov, who owned fine gardens at Gambareuli, on Gori’s outskirts. As her father died young, Keke was raised by her mother’s family. She remembered the excitement of moving to unruly Gori: “What a happy journey it was! Gori was festively decorated, crowds of people swelled like the sea. A military parade dazzled our eyes. Music blared. Sazandari [a band of four percussion and wind instruments], and sweet duduki played, and everyone sang.”4

Her young husband was a thin dark figure with black eyebrows and moustaches, always sporting a black Circassian coat, tightly belted, a peaked cap and baggy trousers tucked into high boots. “Unusual, peculiar and morose,” but also “clever and proud,” Beso was able to speak four languages (Georgian, Russian, Turkish and Armenian) and quote the Knight in the Panther Skin.5

The Djugashvilis prospered. Many houses in Gori were so poor they were made of mud and dug out of the earth. But for the wife of the busy cobbler Beso there was no fear of such poverty. “Our family happiness,” declared Keke, “was limitless.”

Beso “left Baramov to open his own workshop,” backed by his friends, especially his patron Egnatashvili, who bought him the “machine - tools.” Keke was soon pregnant. “Many married couples would envy our family happiness.” Indeed, her marriage to the desired Beso still caused jealousy among her contemporaries: “Evil tongues didn’t stop even after the marriage.” It is interesting that Keke stresses this gossip: perhaps someone else had expected to marry Beso. Whether or not Keke stole him from another fiancée, “evil tongues,” later citing the best man Egnatashvili, the priest Charkviani, Gori’s police officer Damian Davrichewy and a host of celebrities and aristocrats, started wagging early in the marriage.

Just over nine months after the wedding, on 14 February 1875, “our happiness was marked by the birth of our son. Yakov Egnatashvili helped us so very much.” Egnatashvili stood godfather and “Beso laid on a grand christening. Beso was almost mad with happiness.” But two months later the little boy, named Mikheil, died. “Our happiness turned to sorrow. Beso started to drink from grief.” Keke fell pregnant again. A second son, Giorgi, was born on 24 December 1876. Again Egnatashvili stood godfather, again unluckily. The baby died of measles on 19 June 1877.

“Our happiness was shattered.” Beso was manic with grief and blamed “the icon of Geri,” the shrine of his home village. The couple had appealed to the icon for the life of their child. Keke’s mother, Melania, started visiting fortune - tellers. Beso kept drinking. The icon of St. George was brought into the house. They climbed the Gorijvari mountain, towering over the town, to pray in the church that stood beside the medieval fortress. Keke fell pregnant for the third time and swore that, if the child survived, she would go on pilgrimage to Geri to thank God for the miracle of St. George. On 6 December 1878, she gave birth to a third son.6 *

“We sped up the christening so he wouldn’t die unchristened.” Keke cared for him in the poky two - room one - storey cottage that contained little except a samovar, bed, divan, table and kerosene lamp. A small trunk held almost all the family’s belongings. Spiral stairs led down to the musky cellar with three niches, one for Beso’s tools, one for Keke’s sewing - kit and one for the fire. There Keke tended the baby’s cot. The family lived on the basic Georgian fare: lobio beans, badridjani aubergine and thick lavashi bread. Only rarely did they eat mtsvadi, Georgian shashlik.

On 17 December the baby was christened Josef, known as Soso—the boy who would become Stalin. Soso was “weak, fragile, thin,” said his mother. “If there was a bug, he was sure to catch it first.” The second and third toes of his left foot were webbed.

Beso decided not to ask the family’s benefactor Egnatashvili to be godfather. “Yakov’s hand was unlucky,” said Beso, but even if the merchant missed the church formalities, Stalin and his mother always called him “godfather Yakov.”

Keke’s mother reminded Beso that they had sworn to take a pilgrimage to the church at Geri if the baby lived. “Just let the child survive,” answered Beso, “and I’ll crawl to Geri on my knees with the child on my shoulders!” But he delayed it until the child caught another chill which shocked him into prayer: they travelled to Geri, “facing much hardship on the way, donated a sheep, and ordered a thanksgiving service there.” But the Geri priests were conducting an exorcism, holding a little girl over a precipice to drive out evil spirits. Keke’s baby “was horrified and screamed,” and they returned to Gori where little Stalin “shuddered and raved even in his sleep”—but he lived and became his mother’s beloved treasure.

“Keke didn’t have enough milk,” so her son also shared the breasts of the wives of Tsikhatatrishvili (his formal godfather) and Egnatashvili. “At first the baby didn’t accept my mother’s milk,” says Alexander Tsikhatatrishvili, “but gradually he liked it providing he covered his eyes so he couldn’t see my mother.” Sharing the milk of the Egnatashvili children made them “like milk brothers with Soso,” says Galina Djugashvili, Stalin’s granddaughter.

Soso started to speak early. He loved flowers and music, especially when Keke’s brothers Gio and Sandala played the duduki pipes. The Georgians love to sing and Stalin never lost his enjoyment of the haunting Georgian melodies.* In later life, he remembered hearing the “Georgian men singing on their way to market.”7

Beso’s little business was flourishing—he took on apprentices and as many as ten employees. One of the apprentices, Dato Gasitashvili, who loved Soso and helped bring him up, recalled Beso’s prosperity: “He lived better than anyone else of our profession. They always had butter in their house.” There were later whispers about this prosperity, embarrassing for a proletarian hero. “I’m not the son of a worker,” Stalin admitted. “My father had a shoe workshop, employing apprentices, an exploiter. We didn’t live badly.” It was during this happy time that Keke became friends with Maria and Arshak Ter - Petrossian, a wealthy Armenian military contractor, whose son Simon would become infamous as the bank robber Kamo.8

Keke adored her child and “in old age, I still can see his first steps, a vision that burns like a candle.” She and her mother taught him to walk by exploiting his love of flowers: Keke would hold out a camomile, and Soso ran to grasp it. When she took Soso to a wedding, he noticed a flower in the bride’s veil and grabbed it. Keke told him off but godfather Egnatashvili lovingly “kissed the child and caressed him, saying, ‘If even now you want to steal the bride, God knows what you’ll do when you’re older.’”

Soso’s survival seemed miraculous to the grateful mother. “How happy we were, how we laughed!” reminisces Keke. Her reverence must have instilled in Soso a sense of specialness: the Freudian dictum that the mother’s devotion made him feel like a conqueror was undoubtedly true. “Soselo,” as she lovingly called him, grew up super - sensitive but also displayed a masterful confidence from an early age.

Yet at the height of Beso’s success there was a shadow: his clients paid him partly in wine, which was so plentiful in Georgia that many workers received alcohol instead of cash. Furthermore, he did some business in the corner of a friend’s dukhan (tavern), which encouraged him to drink too much. Beso befriended a drinking partner, a Russian political exile named Poka, possibly a narodnik populist or a radical connected to the People’s Will, the terrorists who were at that time repeatedly attempting to assassinate Emperor Alexander II. So Stalin grew up knowing a Russian revolutionary. “My son made friends with him,” says Keke, “and Poka bought him a canary.” But the Russian was a hopeless alcoholic who lived in rags. One winter, he was found dead in the snow.

Beso found he “could not stop drinking. A good family man was destroyed,” declares Keke. The booze started to ruin the business: “His hands began shaking and he couldn’t sew shoes. The business was only kept going by his apprentices.”

Learning nothing from Poka’s demise, Beso acquired a new boon drinking companion in the priest Charkviani. Provincial Georgia was priest - ridden, but these men of God enjoyed their worldly pleasures. Once church services were over, the priests spent much of their time drinking wine in Gori’s taverns until they were blind drunk. As an old man, Stalin remembered: “As soon as Father Charkviani finished his service, he dropped in and the two men hurried to the dukhan.”* They returned home leaning on each other, hugging and “singing out of tune,” totally sozzled.

“You’re a good bloke, Beso, even for a shoemaker,” drawled the priest.

“You’re a priest, but what a priest, I love you!” wheezed Beso. The two drunks would embrace. Keke begged Father Charkviani not to take Beso drinking. Keke and her mother beseeched Beso to stop. So did Egnatashvili, but that did not help—probably because of the rumours already spreading around town.9

Perhaps these were the same “evil tongues” Keke mentioned at the wedding because Josef Davrichewy, the son of Gori’s police chief, claims in his memoirs that “the birth was gossiped about in the neighbourhood—that the real father of the child was Koba Egnatashvili . . . or my own father Damian Davrichewy.” This could not have helped Beso, whom Davrichewy calls “a manically jealous runt,” already sinking into alcoholism.10

In the course of 1883, Beso became “touchy and very careless,” getting into drunken fights and earning the nickname “Crazy Beso.”

Paternity suits develop proportional to the power and fame of the child. Once Stalin became Soviet dictator, his rumoured fathers included the celebrated Central Asian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who resembled the adult Stalin and passed through Gori, and even the future Emperor Alexander III himself, who had visited Tiflis, supposedly staying at a palace where Keke toiled as a maid. But the explorer was a homosexual who was not near Georgia when Stalin was conceived, while Keke was not in Tiflis at the same time as the Tsarevich.

Leaving aside these absurdities, who was Stalin’s real father? Egnatashvili was indeed the patron of the family, comforter of the wife and sponsor of the son. He was married with children, lived affluently, owned several flourishing taverns and was a prosperous wine - dealer in a country that virtually floated on wine. More than that, this strapping athlete with the waxed moustaches was a champion wrestler in a town that worshipped fighters. As already noted, Keke herself writes that he “always tried to assist us in the creation of our family,” an unfortunate but perhaps revealing turn of phrase. It seems unlikely she meant it literally—or was she trying to tell us something?

Davrichewy the police chief, who helped Keke when she complained about her husband’s unruly drinking, was another potential father: “As far I know, Soso was the natural son of Davrichewy,” testified Davrichewy’s friend Jourouli, the town’s mayor. “Everyone in Gori knew about his affair with Soso’s pretty mother.”

Stalin himself once said his father was really a priest, which brings us to the third candidate, Father Charkviani. Egnatashvili, Davrichewy and Charkviani were all married, but in Georgia’s macho culture, men were almost expected to keep mistresses, like their Italian brethren. Gori’s priests were notoriously debauched. All three were prominent local men who enjoyed rescuing a pretty young wife in trouble.11

As for Keke herself, it has always been hard to match the pious old lady in her black nunnish headdress of the 1930s with the irrepressible young woman of the 1880s. Her piety is not in doubt, but religious observance has never ruled out sins of the flesh. She certainly took pride in being “the desired and beautiful girl” and there is evidence that she was much more worldly than she appeared. As an old lady, Keke supposedly encouraged Nina Beria, wife of Lavrenti, Stalin’s Caucasian viceroy, to take lovers and talked very spicily about sexual matters: “When I was young, I cleaned house for people and when I met a good - looking boy, I didn’t waste the opportunity.” The Berias are hostile witnesses, but there is a hint of earthy mischief even in Keke’s memoirs. In her garden, she recounts, her mother managed to attract Soso with a flower, at which Keke jovially pulled out her breasts and showed them to the toddler, who ignored the flower and dived for the breasts. But the drunken Russian exile Poka was spying on them and burst out laughing, so “I buttoned up my dress.”12

Stalin, in his elliptical, mendacious way, encouraged these stories. When he chatted in his last years to a Georgian protégé, Mgeladze, he gave him “the impression that he was Egnatashvili’s illegitimate son” and seemed to deny he was Beso’s. At a reception in 1934, he specifically said, “My father was a priest.” But, in Beso’s absence, all three paternal candidates helped bring him up: he lived with the Charkvianis, was protected by the Davrichewys and spent half his time at the Egnatashvilis’ so he surely felt filial fondness for them. There was another reason for the priest rumour: the church school accepted only the children of clergy, so his mother says he was passed off as the son of a priest.13

Stalin remained ambiguous about Crazy Beso: he despised him, but he also showed pride and sympathy too. They had some happy moments. Beso told Soso stories of Georgia’s heroic outlaws who “fought against the rich, stole from princes to help peasants.” At hard - drinking dinners, Stalin the dictator boasted to Khrushchev and other magnates that he had inherited his father’s head for alcohol. His father had fed him wine off his fingertips in his cot, and he insisted on doing the same with his own children, much to the fury of his wife, Nadya. Later he wrote touchingly about an anonymous shoemaker with a small workshop, ruined by cruel capitalism. “The wings of his dreams,” he wrote, were “clipped.” He once bragged that “my father could make two pairs of shoes in a single day” and, even as dictator, liked to call himself a shoemaker too. He later used the name Besoshvili—Son of Beso—as an alias, and his closest Gori friends called him “Beso.”14

Weighing up all these stories, it is most likely that Stalin was the son of Beso despite the drunkard’s rantings about Soso as a “bastard.” A married woman was always expected to be respectable, but it is hardly outrageous if the pretty young Keke, a semi - widow, did become the mistress of Egnatashvili when her marriage disintegrated. In her memoirs, Egnatashvili appears as often as her husband, and is remembered much more fondly. She does say that he was so kind and helpful to her that it caused a certain “awkwardness.” Some of the Egnatashvili family claim there was a “genetic” connection with Stalin. However, Egnatashvili’s grandson, Guram Ratishvili, puts it best: “We simply do not know if he was Stalin’s father, but we do know that the merchant became the boy’s substitute father.”15

Rumours of bastardy, like those of Ossetian origins, were another way of diminishing the tyrant Stalin, widely hated in Georgia, which he conquered and repressed in the 1920s. It is true that great men of humble origins are often said to be the sons of other men. Yet sometimes they really are the offspring of their official fathers.

“When he was young,” testified a school friend, David Papitashvili, Stalin “closely resembled his father.” As he got older, says Alexander Tsikhatatrishvili, “he looked more and more like his father and when he grew his moustache, they looked identical.”16

By the time Soso was five, Crazy Beso was an alcoholic tormented by paranoia and prone to violence. “Day by day,” said Keke, “it got worse.”

* The memoirs have lain in the Georgian Communist Party archive, forgotten for seventy years. They were never used in the Stalinist cult. It seems Stalin neither read them nor knew they existed because, as far as this author can learn, they were not sent to Stalin’s Moscow archives. He did not want his mother’s views published. When Keke was interviewed Hello! magazine style in 1935 in the Soviet press, Stalin furiously reprimanded the Politburo: “I ask you to forbid the Philistine riffraff that has penetrated our press from publishing any more ‘interviews’ with my mother and all other crass publicity. I ask you to spare me from the importunate sensationalism of these scoundrels!” Keke, always strong - willed and unimpressed with her son’s power, must have recorded them secretly and in defiance of him on 23–27 August 1935, shortly before her death.

* The Ossetians were a semi - pagan mountain people who lived on the northern borders of Georgia proper, some becoming assimilated Georgians though most remain proudly separate: in 1991–93, South Ossetians fought the Georgians and are now autonomous. When Stalin’s dying father was admitted to hospital, significantly he was still registered as Ossetian. Stalin’s enemies, from Trotsky to the poet Mandelstam in his famous poem, relished calling him an “Ossete” because Georgians regarded Ossetians as barbarous, crude and, in the early nineteenth century, non - Christian. Djugashvili certainly sounds as if it has an Ossetian root: it means “son of Djuga” in Georgian. Stalin’s mother says Beso told her the name was based on the Georgian djogi, or “herd,” root because they were herdsmen and were driven out of Geri by marauding Ossetians. The real relevance is lost because, by the time of Stalin’s birth, the Djugashvilis were totally Georgianized. Stalin himself wrote about this: “What is to be done with the Ossetians . . . becoming assimilated by the Georgians?”

* Stalin later invented much about his life: his official birthday was 21 December 1879, over a year later, an invented date. He generally stuck to 6 December 1878 until an interview in 1920 with a Swedish newspaper. In 1925, he ordered his secretary Tovstukha to formalize the 1879 date. There are several explanations, including his desire to re - create himself. Most likely, he moved the date later to avoid conscription. As for the house where he was born, this is the hovel that now stands alone on Gori’s Stalin Boulevard, surrounded by the Grecian temple built during the 1930s by Stalin’s Caucasian viceroy and later secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, next to the cathedral - like Stalin Museum. The Djugashvilis did not live there long.

* Stalin the dictator became a keen gardener, growing lemons, tomatoes and, above all, roses and mimosas. His favourite Georgian songs were “Fly Away Black Swallow” and “Suliko.”

* These Georgian inns “provide nothing but unfurnished and dirty rooms, bread (with cheese), tea, wine and at best eggs and poultry,” warns German travel - book publisher Karl Baedeker. “Those who wish for meat must buy a whole sheep (4–5 roubles) or suckling pig (2–3 roubles).”

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