A Hanging in Gori - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


A Hanging in Gori

On 6 January 1890, the choirboys, shepherded by singing teacher Gogchilidze, were trooping out of church after the Epiphany Day blessing for Gori’s Russian garrison. “No one noticed a runaway phaeton,” recalled Gogchilidze, which galloped straight into the crowd. Stalin, now twelve, was just crossing the road when the carriage “hurtled towards him, a pole hit his cheek, knocking him off his feet, [the wheels] running over his legs. The crowd stood round him and picked up the child who had lost consciousness and we carried him away.” The coachman was arrested and later sentenced to a month in jail, but poor Keke again had her bloodied child borne home. When he came round, he saw his desperate mother. “Don’t worry, Mummy, I’m all right,” he said pluckily. “I’m not going to die.”1

The injuries were so grave that Soso was taken to hospital in Tiflis, the capital, missing school for months. His legs were seriously damaged. Years later at the seminary, he complained of “sore legs” and, even when he recovered, he walked in the heavy, sideways gait that won him another nickname. Already the Pockmarked (Chopura), he became the Loper (Geza). More than ever, he must have yearned to prove his strength yet also enjoyed the confidence of overcoming such adversity.

The accident brought Beso out of the shadows with a vengeance—the cobbler probably visited the boy in Tiflis. Keke had to let him know that the child was so ill. But Beso could not resist an opportunity to reimpose himself on his defiant family. As soon as Soso had recovered in Tiflis, his father kidnapped the boy and enrolled him as an apprentice cobbler at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory, where he himself worked.

“You want my son to be a bishop? Over my dead body, he’ll be educated!” he shouted at Keke. “I’m a shoemaker and my son will be one too.”

Beso and his son now toiled with the eighty - strong Adelkhanov workforce for long hours and low wages in a half - flooded cellar lit by kerosene lamps amid the almost faecal reek of tanning leather. The stink made grown men vomit. Even the Tsarist authorities were worried about the number of child workers in Adelkhanov’s grim rectangular factory. Living with his father in a room in the Avlabar workers’ district and walking into work over the bridge past the Metekhi Fortress - Prison, Soso had to carry shoes from the factory to the shop - warehouse in the bazaar off Yerevan Square. Apart from the short spell in his father’s Gori workshop, this was to be Stalin’s only experience of a worker’s existence during a life devoted to the proletariat. If Beso had succeeded, there would have been no Stalin, for he would have remained uneducated. Stalin owed his political success to his unusual combination of street brutality and classical education.

“The whole school missed Soso,” recalled the singing master, “no one more than Keke.” Once again, Keke flew into action, mobilizing all her allies. That formidable and good - looking woman arrived in Tiflis backed by the teachers at the school, Father Charkviani and Egnatashvili, who all tried to prevail over Beso. Even the Exarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church heard of the case and offered to find Soso a place as a chorister in Tiflis, but Keke was determined. Beso raged. The boy was consulted. He wanted to study at the church school in Gori. The priests returned him to Keke. Beso swore never to give another kopeck to his family, cutting them out of his life.

“Time passed,” says Keke. “Beso’s voice was heard no more. Nobody told me if he was dead or alive. I was even happy that, without him, I alone put the family on a firm footing again.” But Beso would rear up again in Stalin’s life—before disappearing forever.2

Stalin returned to the school where he again excelled as “the best pupil” (his mother’s proud words). Without Beso’s help, Keke could not pay the school bills. She worked herself ever harder, canvassing her patrons and finding new ones: she started to clean and launder for the decent chairman of the school board, Vasily Beliaev, with a wage of ten roubles a month. Egnatashvili and Davrichewy contributed more. The school itself, mobilized no doubt by Chairman Beliaev, Keke’s protectors and the devoted singing master, not only reinstated Soso but offered a scholarship of three roubles, thirty kopecks too.

Perhaps the trauma of the accident, the kidnapping and the harsh existence at the factory drained Soso. Just after Beso released him, the boy fell seriously ill with pneumonia. His mother “almost lost him but again Soso escaped death,” reports his singing master. This time, the school doubled the scholarship to seven roubles. Even when he was ill and feverish, his proud Keke reported that he raved, “Mother, let me go to school or teacher Iluridze will give me bad marks . . .”

For over a year, it had been one crisis after another. Now Stalin celebrated his return to school by taking to his studies with renewed enthusiasm. Yet he was becoming ever more rebellious. “He was punished almost on a daily basis,” says Iremashvili, who sang with him in the choir trio. Soso arranged a protest against the hated inspector Butyrsky that almost led to a riot: “This was the first rebellion instigated by Soso.”

His mother had to move into miserable rooms on Sobornaya Street, an “old, small and dirty house” with a roof that let in the wind and rain. “The room,” recalls Iremashvili, “was in eternal twilight. The musty air, thick with the smell of rain, wet clothes and cooking, could not escape from it”—but Stalin could. He had even more reason to stay out with his gang in the streets and up Gorijvari Mountain.

While still the finest choirboy at the church school, Stalin started to show an interest in the plight of the poor and to doubt his faith. He became close friends with three priests’ sons—the brothers Lado and Vano Ketskhoveli, who were to play a vital role in his future life, and Mikheil Davitashvili,* who, like Stalin, walked with a limp. The elder Ketskhoveli brother, Lado, soon entered the Tiflis Seminary and brought back news of how he had led a protest and strike that led to his being sent down. Stalin was inspired by these new friends and their books, but he still saw the priesthood as his vocation to help the poor. Now, however, he aspired to politics for the first time. Under Lado Ketskhoveli’s charismatic influence, he declared he wanted to be a local administrator with the power to improve conditions.

He talked about books all the time. If he coveted a volume, he was happy to steal it from another schoolboy and run home with it. When he was about thirteen, Lado Ketskhoveli took him to a little bookshop in Gori where he paid a five kopeck subscription and borrowed a book that was probably Darwin’s Origin of Species. Stalin read it all night, forgetting to sleep, until Keke found him.

“Time to go to bed,” she said. “Go to sleep—dawn is breaking.”

“I loved the book so much, Mummy, I couldn’t stop reading . . .” As his reading intensified, his piety wavered.

One day Soso and some friends, including Grisha Glurjidze, lay on the grass in town talking about the injustice of there being rich and poor when he amazed all of them by suddenly saying: “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just.”

“Soso! How can you say such things?” exclaimed Grisha.

“I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see.” He presented Glurjidze with a copy of Darwin.

Soso’s dreams of handing down justice merged with the stories of popular bandit - heroes and the resurgent Georgian nationalism. He revered the poems of the Georgian nationalist Prince Raphael Eristavi, memorizing his masterpiece Khevsur’s Motherland. “That wonderful poem,” Stalin enthused in old age. The schoolboy was now writing his own romantic poems. All the boys hung around Stalin’s place avidly discussing these forbidden ideas and works.3

By now, Stalin had fallen in love, another human moment that was cut out of the official memoirs and never published. His passion was for Father Charkviani’s daughter: he and his mother had rented rooms from the family. “In the third form, he fell in love with the Charkviani girl,” says Giorgi Elisabedashvili. “He used to tell me about this emotion and laugh at himself for the fact that he was carried away with the sentiment.” When she was learning Russian, “I often dropped by and took an interest in these lessons,” Stalin reminisced fifty years later. “Once when the pupil was in trouble, I gave her a hand . . .” We do not know whether the priest’s daughter returned his love, but the two of them had always been close in childhood as her brother Kote noticed: “He began to play dolls with my sister. He’d drive her to tears, but after a moment they’d reconcile and sit together with their books as real friends . . .”4

One event—the “most remarkable occasion in Gori in the late nineteenth century”—made a deep impression on Stalin. On 13 February 1892, the teachers of the church school ordered all their pupils to attend a gruesome mise - en - scène that they hoped “would arouse fear and respect in the boys”: a hanging.

Three gallows were erected on a sunny winter’s day on the banks of the Kura River beneath the mountain fortress. Many of the Gorelis came to watch and the uniforms of the church school pupils were visible in the crowd. But the boys were “deeply depressed by the execution.”

The condemned men had stolen a cow and, in the ensuing pursuit, had killed a policeman. But the boys learned that the criminals were actually just three “peasants who had been so oppressed by landowners that they escaped into the forest,” petty Robin Hoods, attacking only local squires and helping other peasants. Stalin and Peter Kapanadze wondered how it could be right to kill the bandits given that the priests taught them the Mosaic commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” The two schoolboys were especially appalled to see a priest standing at the gallows with a big cross.

The boys were fascinated. “Soso Djugashvili, me and four other schoolboys climbed a tree and watched the terrifying show from there,” remembers one of the group, Grigory Razmadze. (Yet the police chief Davrichewy banned his own son from attending.) Another spectator whom Stalin would later befriend and promote was Maxim Gorky, then a journalist, soon to be Russia’s most celebrated writer.

The Gorelis sympathized with these brave Caucasian bandits—two of them Ossetians, one an Imeretian. The executions were a Russian show of strength; young Davrichewy called the condemned men “holy martyrs.” The crowd became menacing; double ranks of Russian soldiers encircled the square. The drums began to beat. “The authorities in uniforms lingered around the scaffold,” wrote Gorky in his article. “Their dreary and severe faces looked strange and hostile.” They had reason to be nervous.

The three bandits in leg irons were marched onto the scaffold. One was separated from the others—he had been reprieved. The priest offered the two condemned men his blessings; one accepted and one refused. Both asked for a smoke and a sip of water. Sandro Khubuluri was silent, but the handsome and strong “ringleader,” Tato Jioshvili, smiled and joked valiantly before the admiring crowd. He leaned on the railings of the gallows and, noticed Gorky, “chatted to people who had come to see him die.” The crowd threw stones at the hangman, who was masked and clad completely in scarlet. He placed the condemned on stools and tightened the nooses around their necks. Sandro just twirled his moustache and readjusted the noose. The time had come.

The hangman kicked away the stools. As so often with Tsarist repression, it was inept: Sandro’s rope broke. The crowd gasped. The scarlet hangman replaced him on the stool, placed a new noose round his neck and hanged him again. Tato also took a while to die.

The townsfolk and the schoolboys hurried away. Stalin and his school friends discussed what would happen to the souls of the executed: would they go to hellfire? Stalin settled their doubts. “No,” he said. “They’ve been executed and it would be unjust to punish them again.” The boys thought this made sense. The hanging is often cited as an event that stimulated Stalin’s murderous nature, but all we know is that the boys sympathized with these Georgian outlaws, and disdained their Russian oppressors. If anything, the spectacle helped make Stalin a rebel, not a murderer.5

It was time to move on from Gori: Soso was about to graduate from the church school. Keke often sat at the head of his bed at dawn silently admiring her brilliant slumbering child. “My Soso had grown up,” she says, but they still spent much time together. “We’d hardly ever been separated. He was always beside me.” Even when he had been ill, “he used to read sitting next to me. His only other entertainment was walking along the river or up Mount Gorijvari.”

Yet now she realized that to fulfil her dreams she had to let him go even though “he couldn’t survive without me and I without him but his thirst for learning forced him to leave me.” This thirst was indeed something that never left him.* Naturally, after the church school, he had to go to the best religious educational establishment in the southern Empire: the Tiflis Seminary. In July 1893, aged fifteen, he passed his exams with flying colours. All his teachers, especially Simon Gogchilidze, recommended him to the seminary—but there was a problem.

“One day Soso came home” to his mother “with tears in his eyes.”

“What’s the matter, son?” asked Keke.

Soso explained that the strike and closure of the seminary in Tiflis, orchestrated partly by his radical friend Lado Ketskhoveli, meant “he could lose a year because there were no new entrants that summer who were not priests’ sons.”

“I comforted my son,” Keke says, “and then I dressed up,” probably in her best headdress, and called on Soso’s teachers and patrons, who promised to help. The singing master offered to take Soso himself and enrol him in teacher - training college. But, for Keke, it had to be the best and it had to be the priesthood: that meant the seminary.

Keke set out for Tiflis with her son. Soso was excited but on the forty - five - mile train ride, he suddenly began to cry.

“Mummy,” sobbed Stalin, “what if, when we arrive in the city, Father finds me and forces me to become a shoemaker? I want to study. I’d rather kill myself than become a cobbler.”

“I kissed him,” reminisces Keke, “and wiped away his tears.”

“Nobody will stop you studying,” she reassured him, “nobody is going to take you away from me.”

Soso was impressed by Tiflis, the “throbbing bustle of the big city,” though both the Djugashvilis were “terrified that Beso would appear,” says Keke. “But we didn’t meet Beso.”

The indomitable Keke rented a room, and searched out her one well - connected relative in the capital, who was the tenant of an even better - connected priest with a resourceful wife.

“Please help this woman,” the relative told the priest’s wife, “and it will be as good a work as building a whole church.”* The priest’s wife appealed to more clergymen who spoke to the seminary and won Stalin the right to sit the entrance exam. That was all his mother wanted because “I knew he’d glorify me.” Indeed he did “glorify” her, but the cost for a non - priest’s son boarding at the seminary was 140 roubles a year, a sum Keke had no hope of raising on her own. Davrichewy, surely at Keke’s bidding, persuaded a well - known aristocrat, Princess Baratov, to help too. With Keke frantically pulling strings, Soso applied for a scholarship and was accepted as a half - boarder, which meant he still had to pay a considerable sum—forty roubles a year—and buy the surplice uniform. Keke did not mind: the “happiest mother in the world” returned to Gori and started to sew to raise the money. Egnatashvili and Davrichewy contributed to his fees.

“A month later,” says Keke, “I saw Soso in the uniform of the seminarist and I cried so much out of happiness. I grieved very much too . . .” Having enrolled around 15 August 1894, Soso entered the seminary boarding - school and the wider world of the capital of the Caucasus.

The lame, pockmarked, web - toed boy, humiliatingly beaten and deserted by his father, adored but beaten some more by his single mother, haunted by bastardy, surviving accident and disease, had overcome the odds.

It is hard to exaggerate what a vital moment this was. Without the seminary, without the mother’s determination, Soso would have missed the classical, if stifling, education that equipped the cobbler’s son to become Lenin’s successor.

“He wrote to me that he would save me from poverty soon,” recalls his mother, the first of a lifetime of dutiful but distant letters from her beloved son. “When he sent me letters, I pressed them to my heart, slept with them and kissed them.”

“Everyone at the school congratulated me,” adds Keke, “but only Simon Gogchilidze looked wistful: ‘The School seems somehow deserted,’ he said.* ‘Who’ll sing in the choir now?’”6

* The singing teacher was not the only master who helped Stalin. Davitashvili’s older cousin Zakhary was another inspiring teacher of Russian literature, and years later Keke wrote, “I remember how you distinguished my son Soso and he told me many times that it was you who helped him grow fond of studying and it was thanks to you, he learned Russian so well.”

* Even as a septuagenarian dictator and conqueror of Berlin, he kept studying. “Look at me,” he said in about 1950, “I’m old and I’m still studying.” His library books are all carefully marked with his notes and marginalia. It was the thoughtful and diligent autodidactic fervour, well concealed under the crude manners of a brutal peasant, that his opponents such as Trotsky ignored at their peril.

* This was ironic given the number of beautiful and ancient churches that Stalin would later demolish and the number of priests he would execute.

* Stalin never forgot his singing teacher. When he wrote to Keke from exile or the underground, he would often send his regards to Simon Gogchilidze. Keke would show Gogchilidze the message but keep her hand over the rest of the letter: “You can read the passage about you,” she said, “but there’s no need for you to read the rest and know where my son is now.”

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