Brawlers, Wrestlers and Choirboys - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Brawlers, Wrestlers and Choirboys

Little Stalin now spent his spare time, away from Keke, on the streets of Gori, a liberated and violent place dominated by drinking, prayer and brawling.

Soso had every reason to escape from a home which was always dark and poor. “Day after day, Keke sat at her rickety sewing - machine.” There was nothing but “two wooden couches, a couple of stools, a lamp and a simple table covered in textbooks,” says a frequent visitor, Stalin’s singing - master Simon Gogchilidze. The tiny room was “always clean and tidy” but Stalin’s bed was made of planks: “As he got taller, his mother added a plank to make the bed longer.” But Soso now defied his mother. “If you knew how haughty and proud he is!” she grumbled.1

He was a typical Goreli, for the denizen of Gori was notorious throughout Georgia as a matrabazi, a boastful, violent scallywag. Gori was one of the last towns to practise the “picturesque and savage custom” of free - for - all town brawls with special rules but no - holds - barred violence. The boozing, praying and fighting were all interconnected, with drunken priests acting as referees. The saloon - bars of Gori were incorrigible stews of violence and crime.2

The Russian and Georgian administrators had tried to ban this dubious sport that originated as military training at a time when medieval Georgia was constantly at war. Despite the presence of a Russian barracks, the pristav—local police chief—Davrichewy and his few policemen could hardly cope: no one could quell Gori’s irrepressible lawlessness. It was no wonder too that, during the punch - ups, horses bolted and phaetons knocked down youngsters on the streets. Psychological historians attribute much of Stalin’s development to his drunken father, but this streetfighting culture was just as formative.

Gori, wrote the visiting writer Maxim Gorky, “has a picturesque and original wildness all of its own. The sultry sky, the noisy turbulent waters of the Kura, the mountains in the near distance with their cave city, and farther away the Caucasus with its snows that never melt.”

Gori’s yellow, turreted fortress was probably built by Queen Tamara in the twelfth century. When her empire fragmented, Gori became the capital of one of the Georgian principalities.* It was a stop on the route from Central Asia. Camels still passed through on their way to Tiflis, but the opening of the railway to the Black Sea in 1871 downgraded this once proud town into a chaotic provincial backwater with grand connections and a specially riotous tradition. With just one proper street (then Tsar Street, now Stalin Street) and one square, children played, amid ambling oxen, in winding alleys half flooded by open drains. There were just 7,000 Gorelis, half of them Georgians like the Djugashvilis, half of them Armenians, like Kamo’s family: the Armenians provided the entrepreneurs. There were just eighteen Jews. Much more important was Gori’s division into two main neighbourhoods because these were the teams in the town brawls: the Russian Quarter and the Fortress Quarter.

Town brawls, wrestling tournaments and schoolboy gang - warfare were the three Goreli fighting traditions. At festivals, Christmas or Shrovetide before Lent, both quarters fielded a parade led by transvestites or actors riding as “carnival kings” on camels and donkeys, surrounded by pipe players and singers in fancy dress. At the Keenoba carnival to celebrate Georgia’s 1634 victory over Persia, one actor played the Georgian Tsar, another the Persian Shah—who was soon pelted with fruit, then doused in water.

The males in each family, from children upwards, also paraded, drinking wine and singing until night fell, when the real fun began. This “assault of free boxing”—the sport of krivi—was a “mass duel with rules”: boys of three wrestled other three - year - olds, then children fought together, then teenagers and finally the men threw themselves into “an incredible battle,” by which time the town was completely out of control, a state that lasted into the following day—even at school, where classes fought classes. Shops were often pillaged.3

Gori’s favourite sport was the wrestling of champions, which resembled somewhat the biblical story of Goliath. It was a great leveller. Tournaments—tschidooba—took place in specially erected rings to the accompaniment of an orchestra of zurnas. Rich princes, like local landowner Prince Amilakhvari, and merchants, even villages, fielded their own champions, regarded with such esteem that they were addressed by the title palavani. Stalin’s godfather, Egnatashvili, was himself one of three champion brothers. Now he was older, and rich, Palavani Egnatashvili fielded his own champions. Even in old age, Stalin was still boasting about his godfather’s pugilistic triumphs:

Those Egnatashvilis were such famed wrestlers they were known through the whole of Kartli, but the first and strongest of them was Yakov.

Prince Amilakhvari had a bodyguard who was a Chechen giant. When he challenged the Gori champions, he beat everyone. So the Gorelis went to Yakov Egnatashvili, who said: “Let him fight my brother Kika; if he beats Kika, let him fight my brother Simon; if he beats him, I’ll fight him.” But Kika beat the Chechen Goliath.

Once some bandits swaggered into town during a religious fete, wearing sheepskin hats and daggers.

They drank at the Egnatashvili tavern, then refused to pay. “We children,” recalled Stalin, watched in amazement as Kika Egnatashvili “smashed one of them, knocked him down, grabbed a dagger from the other’s scabbard and hit that one with the blunt end. The third one paid his bill.”4

The church schoolboys joined in the semi - casual bare - knuckle fighting on Gori Cathedral Street. On threat of the detention cell and ultimately expulsion, the schoolboys were absolutely banned from these vicious scrummages, “but Soso still took part.” Besides, his maths and geography teacher, Iluridze, loved to watch his boys in streetfights, yelling, “GO! Go! Well done!” and barely noticing if he was himself hit in the process or spattered with blood.5

“Little Stalin boxed and wrestled with a certain success,” agrees Davrichewy.* His singing teacher observed him setting up wrestling matches, but once he hurt his already fragile arm. “It started as a wrestling match then turned into real boxing,” recounts the master, “and they beat each other up.” Soso’s arm swelled up painfully and made it harder to fight by the rules.

His friend Iremashvili fought Stalin in the schoolyard. The bout was declared a draw, but as Iremashvili turned away Stalin ambushed him from behind, hurling him onto the grass. When he fearlessly took on stronger fighters, Soso was beaten within an inch of his life and Keke had to rescue him, running to the police chief crying, “My God, they’ve killed my son.” But Stalin remained the most sartorially immaculate street - fighter in his year: “Sometimes his mother even dressed him in a big white collar that, as soon as her back was turned, he would take it off and put in his pocket.”

The boys’ real energies were reserved for gang - warfare. “The kids of our hometown were organized into gangs based on the streets or quarter where they lived. These bands were in constant warfare”—though they were melting - pots too. “Gori’s kids were educated together in the street without distinction of religion, nationality or fortune.” A ragamuffin like Stalin played in the streets with the son of Prince Amilakhvari—a famous general—who tried to teach him to swim. The children, armed with knives, bows and arrows, or catapults, led a blissfully free if wild existence: they swam in the river, they sang their favourite songs, pillaged apples from Prince Amilakhvari’s orchard, mischievously ranging across the countryside. Once Stalin set the Prince’s orchards alight.

“Soso was very naughty,” his younger friend Giorgi Elisabedashvili recalls, “always running through the streets. He loved his catapult and homemade bow. Once a herdsman was bringing his herd home, when Soso jumped out and catapulted a cow in the head. The ox went crazy, the herd stampeded and the herdsman chased Soso who disappeared,” already elusive.* “He used to slip through my hands like a fish,” wrote another school friend, “and it was no use trying to catch him.” Soso once terrorized a shopkeeper by igniting some explosive cartridges that destroyed his shop. “His mother had to hear a lot of cursing about her son.”

Soso loved to lead his band on the steep climb up to Gorijvari—the mountain on which the “castle of high yellow walls” stood—where they sang, fought, debated religion and admired the views: “He loved the beauties of nature.” Six miles away, there was Uplis - Tsikhe, the “city of caves,” such a hard climb that initially Stalin failed to reach the top. He practised tirelessly, says Iremashvili, until he could make it.

He was ruthless to other children, but protective of his vassals. When he learned to swim (though he never swam well due to his arm), he pushed a small child who could not swim into the fast Kura waters. The boy protested that he had almost drowned. “Yes, but when you got into trouble, you had to learn to swim,” answered Soso. Yet when his pals were attacked by another gang, Soso “bombarded them with stones until they withdrew.” A friend was being soundly thrashed when Soso appeared and shouted, “Hey, why are you standing there like a donkey? Use your fists!” He beat off the enemy.

Stalin constantly defied lads “older and stronger than himself,” says young Josef Davrichewy. He was already chippy. He was too clumsy to master the Georgian lekuri dance, so he promptly deadlegged the boy who danced it most gracefully.

He displayed the will to power that remained with him until his last days. “Soso belonged to his local gang but he often crossed to the opposing band because he refused to obey his own gangleader,” who grumbled that the boy Stalin “undermined my authority and tried to dethrone me.” Iremashvili thought that “all people who, through greater age or strength, dominated others seemed like his father: he developed a vengeful feeling against everyone positioned above himself.” As soon as he was out of his mother’s control, Stalin, even as a child, had to be the leader.

Somehow, the alternate bullying and crack - up of his father, the passionate adoration of his mother and his own natural intelligence and hauteur, created such a strong conviction that he was always right and must be obeyed that his infectious confidence won him followers. One follower was the son of one of his mother’s Armenian friends—Simon “Senko” Ter - Petrossian, later Kamo. The wealthy father, who had made a fortune supplying the army during Alexander II’s conquests of the Khiva and Bokhara Khanates, angrily asked his daughter “what on earth we saw in that penniless good - for - nothing Stalin. Aren’t there any decent people in Gori?” Not many, it seems.

Soso “could be a good friend as long as one bowed to his dictatorial will,” opines Iremashvili. When a boy sneaked on Kote Charkviani for eating communion bread, Stalin, in a puerile reenactment of his future purges, “cursed his life, called him an informer, a spy, made him hated by the other boys, then he even beat him black and blue. Soso was a devoted friend.”

Stalin showed poetical enthusiasm for the mountains and skies but rarely compassion for people. The police officer’s son remembers him at this time as the “very image of his mother.” He was deeply calm and cautious but “when anger took over, he became brutal, swore and pushed things to extremes.” With less to lose than others, with sparser emotional attachments, Stalin became a natural extremist.6

The streetfighting was legitimate not just because Goreli parents joined in the annual brawls and bet on the wrestling - bouts but because the boys were playing the Georgian bandit - heroes who fought the Russians in the nearby mountains. But now the schoolboys found themselves persecuted by the Russian Empire even at school.

The bovine Emperor Alexander III orchestrated a conservative backlash against the soft, liberal policies of his murdered father that would unite most Georgians against his Empire. The Tsar decreed that Georgians had to learn and study in Russian*—hence Stalin’s Russian lessons with the Charkvianis.

When he enrolled at the school in September 1890, Stalin shared the hatred of the new Russian rules. The boys were not even allowed to speak Georgian to each other. Unable to speak Russian very well, “our mouths had been locked in this prison for children,” says Iremashvili. “We loved our native country and mother tongue . . . They considered us Georgians to be an inferior culture into whom the blessing of Russian civilization had to be beaten.” Speaking Georgian in class was punished by “having to stand in a corner or holding a long piece of wood for a whole morning or being locked in a detention cell without food or water and in complete darkness until late evening.”

The Russian teachers* were brutal pedants in Russian uniforms—tunics with gold buttons and peaked caps—who disdained the Georgian language. But one teacher was beloved—the singing master Simon Gogchilidze, a kindly dandy who always wore the latest fashions: spats, winged collars and a buttonhole. The schoolgirls were in love with him and even wrote songs about him. His favourite choirboy was Stalin, whom he tried to help in every way: “In two years, he learned music and began to help the conductor. There were a lot of solos and Soso always sang them . . .” It was not just his “beautiful, sweet high voice,” writes the romantic teacher, but his “grand style of performance.” Stalin was often hired to sing at weddings: “People would turn up just to watch him sing, saying, ‘Let’s go see how the Djugashvili boy amazes everyone with that voice.’” When Stalin “appeared for the solo in the pulpit wearing his surplice and sang in his wondrous alto, it delighted everyone!”

During these first school years, Stalin was so devout that he barely missed a mass. “He not only performed the rites but always reminded us of their significance,” says a schoolfellow, A. Chelidze. Another, Suliashvili, remembers Stalin and two other boys in church, “wearing their surplices, kneeling, faces raised, singing Vespers with angelic voices while the other boys prostrated themselves filled with an ecstasy not of this world.” He was the “best reader of Psalms” in church. Others were only permitted to read after being tutored by Soso himself. The grateful school presented him with David’s Book of Psalms inscribed “To Josef Djugashvili . . . for excellent progress, behaviour and excellent recitation and singing of the Psalter.”

Soso also painted well and showed a taste for acting that would remain with him. He appeared in a satirical vaudeville that mocked Shakespeare: “Soso’s expression made the audience burst into laughter!” He was already starting to write poetry: “He wrote verses instead of letters to his friends.”*

He was also the school’s most outstanding pupil in class. “He was a very clever boy,” said the singing teacher. “Nobody remembers him scoring anything less than 5s [A grades].” Soso “spent his spare time reading books.” He “often carried volumes stuck into the belt of his trousers” and liked to help less intelligent children with their work. “He never missed a class or arrived late and aimed always to be first in everything,” says his classmate Petre Aadamshvili—whom he advised: “Improve yourself. Don’t be lazy or you’ll lose in life.”

Even the Georgia - phobe teachers were impressed with Stalin’s knowledge. School Inspector Butyrsky used to excuse himself from social events saying he had to go home to study because “if I’m not prepared [for tomorrow’s class], there’s a pupil named Djugashvili who’s sure to catch me out!” Stalin was such a goody - goody that when he was on class duty he marked down anyone who was late or tried to cheat. The other boys even nicknamed him “the Gendarme.”

Yet the class pet was never deferential. When the school went on an expedition and one of the boys let Inspector Butyrsky ride over a stream on his back, Stalin sneered: “What are you, a donkey? I’d never let God himself ride on my back, let alone some school inspector.” When the beloved Gogchilidze tried to persuade him to perform a song he did not like, Soso did not turn up on the day.

Lavrov, the most hated teacher and a persecutor of all things Georgian, appointed Stalin his “assistant,” a decision he soon regretted. When Lavrov tried to force his “assistant” to inform on anyone speaking Georgian, Stalin acted. Backed up by some tough eighteen - year - olds, he lured the teacher into an empty classroom and threatened to kill him. Lavrov became much more compliant.

At the end of the fourth year, Stalin decided that his choir should pose for a portrait. The singing master heard him “dividing the tasks—one boy was to gather money, another to book the photographer and when we gathered [Stalin] arrived with a bunch of flowers, ordering the boys to put them in their buttonholes and arranging them for the photograph.”

Yet there was always a shadow over Soso: Crazy Beso arrived drunk and seized him from the church school, demanding he become a cobbler. Keke appealed to her protectors: “I raised the entire world, my brothers, godfather Egnatashvili, the teacher. . .” and Beso “returned my son to me.” But Beso repeatedly “burst into the school drunkenly to grab Soso by force.” Henceforth, Soso had to be smuggled into school literally under the coat of Keke’s brothers while “everyone helped and hid the child, telling the infuriated Beso that Soso wasn’t even at the school.”

The schoolboy Stalin, like the politician he became, was a bundle of contradictions: “Soso Djugashvili,” Iremashvili sums up, “was the best but also the naughtiest pupil.” Stalin’s childhood had already been a triumph over misfortune. But just as he was prospering at school, he again faced a series of terrible blows that almost destroyed him.7

* Hence it was surrounded by the estates of semi - royals like the Princes Bagration - Mukhransky and grandees such as Prince Amilakhvari. The Georgian nobility was enormous—6 percent of the population—but impoverished and therefore much less isolated than in Russia proper. The viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaievich, brother of Alexander II, built his Gothic Likani Palace nearby at Borzhomi, where these Romanovs summered until the Revolution. When Stalin rose to power, he showed little interest in returning to Gori, but spent the first holiday after the Civil War with his young pregnant wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, at the Likani Palace. It is significant too that, as his health deteriorated, he took his last Georgian holiday in 1951 at Likani. It was and is a beautiful sanctuary, but it must also have symbolized the success of a local boy made good. It is now the summer residence of the Georgian President.

* Even the old Stalin prided himself as a macho wrestler: when he met Marshal Tito after the Second World War, the handsome Yugoslav somehow made Stalin feel older and weaker. He suddenly lifted Tito off the ground, boasting, “There’s still strength in me.” The Yugoslavs were appalled and bewildered, but here was his last display of Gori wrestling.

* These stories by Giorgi Elisabedashvili and his cousin Sandro of the vicious little urchin abusing and almost ruining the livelihood of an industrious workingman or streetfighting are found in the archives, but naturally they never appeared in Stalin’s biographies and remain unpublished.

* This foolish decree not only started Stalin on the road to rebellion but also ensured that his Russian, despite the strong Georgian accent which he never lost, was of a high enough standard that he could plausibly rule the Russian Imperium.

* School Inspector Butyrsky was typical—a dwarfish, rotund martinet with red moustaches. When he heard Georgian spoken, he shouted: “Don’t speak that language!”

* As a politician, Stalin was the consummate actor. Those magnates who knew him well in power felt he was often acting: Khrushchev called him a “man of faces;” Kaganovich remarked that there were four or five different versions of Stalin; Mikoyan and Molotov both sensed at various times that Stalin was just playacting. As for the drawing, the only relic of this was his habit of sketching wolves during long meetings.

All his life Stalin demanded that his subordinates be as prepared as he was: his deputy in the 1930s, Lazar Kaganovich, said he would prepare for meetings with Stalin like a schoolboy. In the archives there is a handwritten note from Stalin to his comrade Sergo Ordzhonikidze from the 1930s when they were the two most powerful Soviet leaders: “Sergo, tomorrow meeting on bank reform. Are you prepared? Necessary to be prepared.” During the Second World War, he tore to shreds anyone who was not fully prepared.

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