Crazy Beso - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Crazy Beso

Soso suffered bitterly, terrified of the drunk Beso. “My Soso was a very sensitive child,” reports Keke. “As soon as he heard the sound of his father’s singing balaam - balaam from the street, he’d immediately run to me asking if he could go and wait at our neighbours until his father fell asleep.”

Crazy Beso now spent so much on drink that he even had to sell his belt—and, explained Stalin later, “a Georgian has to be in desperate straits to sell his belt.”1 The more she despised Beso, the more Keke spoiled Soso: “I always wrapped him up warmly with his woollen scarf. He for his part loved me very much too. When he saw the drunken father, his eyes filled with tears, his lips turned blue and he cuddled me and begged me to hide him.”

Beso was violent to both Keke and Soso. A son was the pride of a Georgian man, but perhaps Soso had come to represent a husband’s greatest humiliation if the evil tongues were right after all. Once Beso threw Stalin so hard to the floor that there was blood in the child’s urine for days. “Undeserved beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as the father himself,” believed his schoolmate Josef Iremashvili, who published his memoirs. It was through his father “that he learned to hate people.” Young Davrichewy recalls how Keke “surrounded him with maternal love and defended him against all - comers,” while Beso treated him “like a dog, beating him for nothing.”

When Soso hid, Beso searched the house screaming, “Where is Keke’s little bastard? Hiding under the bed?” Keke fought back. Once, Soso arrived at Davrichewy’s house with his face covered in blood, crying: “Help! Come quickly! He’s killing my mother!” The officer ran round to the Djugashvilis to find Beso strangling Keke.

This took a toll on the four - year - old. His mother remembered how Soso would take stubborn offence at his father. He first learned violence at home: he once threw a knife at Beso to defend Keke. He grew up pugnacious and truculent, so hard to control that Keke herself, who adored him, needed physical discipline to govern her unruly treasure.

“The fist which had subdued the father was applied to the upbringing of the son,” said a Jewish lady who knew the family. “She used to thrash him,” says Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. When Stalin visited Keke for the last time, in the 1930s, he asked her why she had beaten him so much. “It didn’t do you any harm,” she replied. But that is open to question. Psychiatrists believe that violence always damages children, and it certainly did not instil love and sympathy. Many children abused by alcoholic fathers repeat the behaviour to become child - or wife - beaters themselves, but few become murderous tyrants.* Besides, this was far from the only culture of violence which helped form Stalin.

He himself believed in the redemptive effect and practical use of violence. When the Tsar’s Cossacks used their nagaika whips on demonstrators, he wrote, “the whiplash renders us great service.” In later life, he believed in violence as both the holy scythe of History and as a useful management tool, encouraging his henchmen to “smash people in the face as a means of checking up on them.” Yet he admitted that he “wept a lot” during his “terrible childhood.”

The family lost the home which was Stalin’s birthplace and became wanderers. They had at least nine different homes, depressing rented rooms, in the next ten years, hardly a stable upbringing.2 Now Keke and the child went to live with one of her brothers, but Beso promised to improve and brought her back. As he “could not stop the drinking,” however, she moved in with the priest, Father Charkviani.

Keke could see the effect on her little Soso: “He became very reserved, frequently sat alone and didn’t go out to play with other children any more. He said he wanted to learn to read. I wanted to send him to school but Beso was against it.” He wanted Stalin to learn shoemaking. In 1884, Beso had just begun to teach him the craft when Soso fell desperately ill.

Smallpox was raging in Gori that year. Keke could “hear weeping in every household.” Her dearest supporter Yakov Egnatashvili lost “three of his wonderful children all in one day. The poor man almost went mad with grief.” Two sons and a daughter survived. The death of children was something else Keke shared with “godfather Yakov.” She nursed her stricken Soso. By the third day, he was deliriously feverish. The young Stalin had inherited both his mother’s freckles and her auburn hair: now he was marked for life on his face and hands by the pox. One of his nicknames—and an Okhrana code name for him—would be “Chopura” (the Pockmarked). But he survived. The mother was exultant, but at this moment her life again lurched towards disaster. Beso left her.

“Look after the child,” he said, offering no help in paying for the family’s food. Beso, said Stalin, demanded that Keke take in laundry and send him the money. “How many nights did I spend in tears!” Keke remembers. “I didn’t dare cry in the child’s presence for it worried him so much.” Stalin “used to embrace me, peering fearfully into my face and say, ‘Mummy, don’t cry or I’ll cry too.’ So I’d control myself, laugh and kiss him. Then he’d ask again for a book.”

It was now, alone with a child, and with no support, that Keke became determined to send Soso to school, the first of either family to study. In her dreams, “I always wanted him to become a bishop because when a bishop visited from Tiflis, I couldn’t tear my eyes off him in admiration.” When Beso staggered back into her life again, he banned any such plan: “Over my dead body, Soso be educated!” They started to fight and “only the sound of my child crying separated us.”

Beso’s alcoholism undoubtedly made him pathologically jealous, but the rumours of infidelity and the wiles of a wife who overthrew his God - given power as a Georgian male, turning the town against him, must have contributed to his breakdown. Keke’s misery was indeed well known: Egnatashvili, Father Charkviani and the police chief Davrichewy did their bit to help her. Even Dato, the kind apprentice in Beso’s shop, reminded Stalin during the Second World War how he used to cuddle and protect him. On one occasion in the streets a Russian called the puny Soso a “locust.” Dato punched him and was arrested. But the judge laughed and the family protector, Egnatashvili, “paid for a feast for that Russian man.”

Keke’s life was falling apart. The business was failing, and even Dato left to set up his own cobbler’s shop.* “When I was ten,” Stalin recounted in 1938, “my father lost everything and became a proletarian. He swore all the time about his bad luck,” but, he joked, “he became a proletarian so his ruin was my advantage! When I was ten, I wasn’t happy he’d lost everything!”

Davrichewy employed Keke to do housework. She became the laundress for the Egnatashvilis: she was always in their house, where Soso would often have his dinner. It is clear from Keke’s memoirs that Egnatashvili loved Soso, as did his wife, Mariam, who gave them baskets of food. If there had not been an earlier affair with Egnatashvili, there surely was now. “The family survived only with his help,” says Keke. “He always helped us and he had his own family . . . and to tell the truth, I felt uneasy.”

The priest also supported her plan to educate Soso and she asked the Charkvianis to let their teenage sons teach him Russian with their younger children. She sensed that Soso was gifted. The teenage boys were teaching their younger sister, who could not answer their questions—but young Stalin could. Stalin boasted as an old man that he had learned to read and write faster than the older children: he ended up teaching the teenagers. “It had to be top secret,” says Father Charkviani’s son Kote, “because Uncle Beso was getting worse daily, threatening, ‘Don’t ruin my son or else!’ He’d drag Soso by the ear to the workshop, but as soon as his father went out, Soso joined us, we locked the door and studied.” The Davrichewys let him share their son’s lessons too.

Such was the charm of Keke and the horror of Beso that everyone wanted to help her. Now she had to inveigle Soso into Gori’s excellent church school so that he could become a bishop. She made several attempts. But the school was taking only the children of priests. Father Charkviani solved this problem by saying that Soso’s father was a deacon, but this appears in none of the documents. One wonders if he actually whispered to the school authorities that he himself or some other sinful priest was the natural father. Was it this chicanery that made Stalin claim that his father was a priest?

Soso sat the examination—prayers, reading, arithmetic and Russian—and his performance was so outstanding that the church school accepted him into the second grade. “My happiness was endless,” said Keke, but Beso, who could no longer work, “was infuriated.”3

Crazy Beso smashed the windows of Egnatashvili’s tavern. When Keke grumbled to Davrichewy, Beso attacked the policeman, stabbing him in the street with a cobbler’s tool. Ironically, Mayor Jourouli presented this as proof that the policeman was Soso’s father. But Davrichewy did not arrest Crazy Beso. According to his son, the police officer’s wound was minor, and he had had some sort of relationship with the “very pretty” Keke: he always “took a special interest in Soso.” Davrichewy merely ordered Beso to leave Gori, whereupon he took a job at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory in Tiflis where he had started out. Sometimes Beso missed his son and sent Keke money, asking for a reconciliation. Keke agreed occasionally, but it never worked.

Stalin’s father had lost the respect due to him as a man, let alone as a karachogeli. In the honour - and - shame society of Georgia, this was a sort of death. “He was a half - man now,” said Keke, and this pushed him over the edge. For the moment, he was gone, but he was never far away.4

Keke got a proper job at the atelier of the Kulijanav sisters, who had just opened a lady’s couture shop in Gori. Keke worked there for seventeen years. Now that she earned her own money, she tried to “make sure my child’s heart didn’t wither with sorrow—I gave him everything necessary.”

She brought him up to be the Georgian knight, an ideal he transferred to himself as a knight of the working class. “A strong person,” he wrote to her in her old age, “must always be valiant.” He believed that he resembled Keke more than Beso. Stalin “loved her,” said his daughter, Svetlana, “and he loved to talk about her though she beat him mercilessly. All the love Father had was for me and he told me it was because I looked like his mother.” Yet he began to pull away from Keke.

Stalin “did not love his mother,” claims Beria’s son; others, mainly Georgians, swear he called her “whore.” But these were often stories to dehumanize Stalin told by his enemies. Psychiatrists suggest he was confused by Keke’s combination of virgin and whore, which may have made him suspicious of sexual women later in life.

Was he shocked by Keke’s earthiness? Did he disapprove of her male protectors? Certainly he became prudish later, but so do many people as they get older. All we know for sure is that he was raised in a rigid, hypocritical and macho culture—yet his sexual morals as a young revolutionary were easygoing, almost liberated.

Soso was “devoted to only one person—his mother,” according to Iremashvili, who knew them both well—and is a hostile witness. But the more likely reason for the growing distance between them was her sarcastic outspokenness—she “never hesitated to voice her opinion on everything,” reports Beria’s son—and her domineering drive to control his life. Her love—just as his would be for his own children and friends—was suffocating and severe. Mother and son were rather similar, and there lay the problem.

Yet in his own way he appreciated her intense love. During the Second World War, he laughed fondly about Keke mollycoddling him, telling Marshal Zhukov that she “never let him out of her sight until he was six.”5

In late 1888, at the age of ten, Soso triumphantly enrolled at the Gori Church School,* a handsome two - storey redbrick building near the new station. Poor as she was, Keke was determined that her Soso would not stand out for his poverty among the well - off sons of priests. On the contrary, he would be positively the best - dressed pupil in the whole school of 150 boys.

So it turned out: many of the schoolboys remembered Stalin’s first day decades later. “I saw among the schoolchildren an unknown boy wearing a long arkhalukhi [formal Georgian coat] down to his knees, new boots with high legs, a tight wide leather belt and a black peak - cap with a lacquered visor shining in the sun,” recalled Vano Ketskhoveli, soon a friend. “This very short person, quite thin, was wearing tight trousers and boots and a pleated shirt with a scarf” and a “red chintz schoolbag.” Vano was amazed: “No one else was dressed like that in the whole class, the whole school. Schoolboys surrounded him” in fascination. The poorest boy was outfitted the best, the Fauntleroy of Gori. Who had paid for these beautiful clothes? Priests, tavern owners and police officers had surely played their part.

Stalin’s suffering had made him tough, for all his pretty clothes. “We avoided him out of fear,” says Iremashvili, “but we were interested in him” because there was something peculiarly “unchildish” and “excessively passionate” about him. He was an odd child: when he was happy, “he’d express his satisfaction in the most peculiar way. He’d snap his fingers, yell loudly and jump around on one leg!”* Whether written within the oppressive cult of personality when Stalin was dictator or in vicious opposition to him, all memoirs of his childhood agree that Stalin, even aged ten, exerted a singular magnetism.6

Somewhere around this time, perhaps just as he started school, he had another close brush with death. “I sent him out to school healthy in the morning,” says Keke, “and they bore him home unconscious in the afternoon.” He had been hit in the street by a phaeton. The boys enjoyed playing “chicken,” grabbing the axles of galloping carriages. Perhaps this was how Stalin was hurt. Once again the poor mother was “mad with fear” but the doctors treated him for free—or Egnatashvili was quietly paying the bills. Keke, her son said later, also called in a village quack who doubled as the local barber.

The accident gave him yet another reason, on top of the webbed foot, pockmarks and rumours of bastardy, for vigilance and inferiority, for being different. It permanently damaged his left arm, which meant he could never be the beau ideal of the Georgian warrior—he later said it prevented him dancing properly, but he still managed to fight. On the other hand it would save him from conscription and probable death in the trenches of the First World War. Yet Keke was worried about how it would affect the future bishop. “When you’re a priest, sonny,” she asked him, “how will you hold the chalice?”

“Never mind, Mummy!” replied Soso. “Before I’m a priest, my arm will heal so that I’ll be able to hold up the whole church!”7

Playing chicken was not the only danger in the streets of Gori, which were notoriously out of the control of the Tsarist authorities. Henceforth, even though he would swiftly become the best scholar at his school, young Stalin lived a Jekyll and Hyde existence—choirboy - cum - streetfighter, half—overdressed mummy’s boy, half - urchin.

“There was hardly a day,” says Father Charkviani’s son, Kote, when “someone had not beaten him up, sent him home crying—or when he hadn’t beaten up someone else.”8 Gori was that sort of town.

* For what it is worth, Adolf Hitler was beaten by his drunken father, Alois. Stalin did not become a wife - or child - beater, although he was a destructive husband and father. He was at least partly to blame for the early deaths of both his wives. He abandoned his illegitimate children, ignored his son Yakov for almost fifteen years and then bullied him. Of the children of his second marriage, he both overpromoted and crushed his son Vasily. He sometimes smacked him but then the dictator’s son developed into a spoiled and unmanageable little tyrant himself. Vasily became a hopeless alcoholic, the condition perhaps inherited from Beso. Stalin was loving to his daughter, Svetlana, until she became independent: he once slapped her as a teenager—but only when she was having an affair with a married womanizer in his forties. For the story of his second marriage and the fate of his children, see this author’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

* Dato was still a cobbler fifty years later, in 1940, when Stalin ordered one of the Egnatashvilis to invite him to Moscow for a reunion. See Epilogue.

* The school still stands in Gori and was being renovated in 2006: until Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 it bore the inscription HERE IN THE FORMER CHURCH SCHOOL THE GREAT STALIN STUDIED FROM 1 SEPTEMBER 1888 TO JULY 1894.

* This is one of the reminiscences of Peter Kapanadze, Stalin’s close friend with whom he maintained friendly contact. Kapanadze’s very complimentary memoirs were published in the 1930s but this was one of the details that were left out of the official version—it appears in the archival original.

This damaged left arm is variously blamed on a sledge accident, a birth defect, a childhood infection, a wrestling injury, a fight over a woman in Chiatura, a carriage accident and a beating from his father, all (except the birth defect) suggested by Stalin himself. There is much confusion about Stalin’s accident probably because there were in facttwoaccidents: there was this, less serious accident when he had just started school (according to Keke) or aged six (according to later health reports), which probably damaged the arm, an injury that became more noticeable in old age. Then, not long afterwards, there was a much graver accident in which he was seriously hurt and for which he needed treatment in Tiflis: this damaged his legs. In her memoirs Keke, aged eighty, seems to have merged them together.

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