Based on ten years' astonishing new research, here is the thrilling story of how a charismatic, dangerous boy became a student priest, romantic poet, gangster mastermind, prolific lover, murderous revolutionary, and the merciless politician who shaped the Soviet Empire in his own brutal image: How Stalin became Stalin.
Russian historian and author Montefiore presents an exciting, exemplary biography of the nondescript peasant boy who would become the most ruthless leader in Soviet history, a prequel of sorts to his Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Born in 1878 in the Caucasus of Georgia to an overprotective mother (who had already lost two sons) and a father opposed to education ("I'm a shoemaker and my son will be one too"), Stalin possessed a talent for poetry and mischief. Amidst his mom's trysts (with men she hoped would further Stalin's education), his father's alcohol-fueled violence and the powder-keg environment of the Caucasus, Stalin turned from priesthood training to gang life and petty crime. As he grew, so did his hatred of Tsarist Russia, leading him to meet the initial Bolsheviks, and to more spectacular and violent capers. From the start, Stalin proved a remarkable talent for meticulous planning, a skill that would become vital to the revolutionaries and, later, to his iron-fisted reign. Using recently opened records, Montefiore turns up intriguing new information (like the "Fagin-like" role he played among "a prepubescent revolutionary street intelligence" network), Montefiore captures in an absorbing narrative both Stalin's conflicted character-marked by powerful charisma and deep paranoia-and the revolution's early years with stunning clarity.
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October 13, 2008
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Excerpt from Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
PROLOGUE: The Bank Robbery
At 10:30 a.m. on the sultry morning of Wednesday, 26 June 1907, in the seething central square of Tiflis, a dashing mustachioed cavalry captain in boots and jodhpurs, wielding a big Circassian sabre, performed tricks on horseback, joking with two pretty, well-dressed Georgian girls who twirled gaudy parasols-while fingering Mauser pistols hidden in their dresses.
Raffish young men in bright peasant blouses and wide sailor-style trousers waited on the street corners, cradling secreted revolvers and grenades. At the louche Tilipuchuri Tavern on the square, a crew of heavily armed gangsters took over the cellar bar, gaily inviting passers-by to join them for drinks. All of them were waiting to carry out the first exploit by Josef Djugashvili, aged twenty-nine, later known as Stalin, to win the attention of the world.
Few outside the gang knew of the plan that day for a criminal terrorist "spectacular," but Stalin had worked on it for months. One man who did know the broad plan was Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, hiding in a villa in Kuokola, Finland, far to the north. Days earlier, in Berlin, and then in London, Lenin had secretly met with Stalin to order the big heist, even though their Social-Democratic Party had just strictly banned all "expropriations," the euphemism for bank robberies. But Stalin's operations, heists and killings, always conducted with meticulous attention to detail and secrecy, had made him the "main financier of the Bolshevik Centre."
The events that day would make headlines all over the globe, literally shake Tiflis to its foundations, and further shatter the fragmented Social-Democrats into warring factions: that day would both make Stalin's career and almost ruin it-a watershed in his life.
In Yerevan Square, the twenty brigands who formed the core of Stalin's gang, known as "the Outfit," took up positions as their lookouts peered down Golovinsky Prospect, Tiflis's elegant main street, past the white Italianate splendour of the Viceroy's Palace. They awaited the clatter of a stagecoach and its squadron of galloping Cossacks. The army captain with the Circassian sabre caracoled on his horse before dismounting to stroll the fashionable boulevard.
Every street corner was guarded by a Cossack or policeman: the authorities were ready. Something had been expected since January. The informers and agents of the Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana, and his uniformed political police, the Gendarmes, delivered copious reports about the clandestine plots and feuds of the gangs of revolutionaries and criminals. In the misty twilight of this underground, the worlds of bandit and terrorist had merged and it was hard to tell tricks from truth. But there had been "chatter" about a "spectacular"-as today's intelligence experts would put it-for months.
On that dazzling steamy morning, the Oriental colour of Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia) hardly seemed to belong to the same world as the Tsar's capital, St. Petersburg, a thousand miles away. The older streets, without running water or electricity, wound up the slopes of Mtatsminda, Holy Mountain, until they were impossibly steep, full of crookedly picturesque houses weighed down with balconies, entwined with old vines. Tiflis was a big village where everyone knew everyone else.
Just behind the military headquarters, on genteel Freilinskaya Street, a stone's throw from the square, lived Stalin's wife, a pretty young Georgian dressmaker named Kato Svanidze, and their newborn son, Yakov. Theirs was a true love match: despite his black moods, Stalin was devoted to Kato, who admired and shared his revolutionary fervour. As she sunned herself and the baby on her balcony, her husband was about to give her, and Tiflis itself, an unholy shock.
This intimate city was the capital of the Caucasus, the Tsar's wild, mountainous viceroyalty between the Black and the Caspian Seas, a turbulent region of fierce and feuding peoples. Golovinsky Prospect seemed Parisian in its elegance. White neo-classical theatres, a Moorish-style opera house, grand hotels and the palaces of Georgian princes and Armenian oil barons lined the street, but, as one passed the military headquarters, Yerevan Square opened up into an Asiatic potpourri.
Exotically dressed hawkers and stalls offered spicy Georgian lobio beans and hot khachapuri cheesecake. Water-carriers, street-traders, pickpockets and porters delivered to or stole from the Armenian and Persian Bazaars, the alleyways of which more resembled a Levantine souk than a European city. Caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded with silks and spices from Persia and Turkestan, fruit and wineskins from the lush Georgian countryside, ambled through the gates of the Caravanserai. Its young waiters and errand boys served its clientele of guests and diners, carrying in the bags, unharnessing the camels-and watching the square. Now we know from the newly opened Georgian archives that Stalin, Faginlike, used the Caravanserai boys as a prepubescent revolutionary street intelligence and courier service. Meanwhile in one of the Caravanserai's cavernous backrooms, the chief gangsters gave their gunmen a pep talk, rehearsing the plan one last time. Stalin himself was there that morning.
The two pretty teenage girls with twirling umbrellas and loaded revolvers, Patsia Goldava and Anneta Sulakvelidze, "brown-haired, svelte, with black eyes that expressed youth," casually sashayed across the square to stand outside the military headquarters, where they flirted with Russian officers, Gendarmes in smart blue uniforms, and bowlegged Cossacks.
Tiflis was-and still is-a languid town of strollers and boulevardiers who frequently stop to drink wine at the many open-air taverns: if the showy, excitable Georgians resemble any other European people, it is the Italians. Georgians and other Caucasian men, in traditional chokha-their skirted long coats lined down the chest with bullet pouches-swaggered down the streets, singing loudly. Georgian women in black headscarves, and the wives of Russian officers in European fashions, promenaded through the gates of the Pushkin Gardens, buying ices and sherbet alongside Persians and Armenians, Chechens, Abkhaz and Mountain Jews, in a fancy-dress jamboree of hats and costumes.
Gangs of street urchins-kintos-furtively scanned the crowds for scams. Teenage trainee priests, in long white surplices, were escorted by their berobed, bearded priest-teachers from the pillared white seminary across the street, where Stalin had almost qualified as a priest nine years earlier. This un-Slavic, un-Russian and ferociously Caucasian kaleidoscope of East and West was the world that nurtured Stalin.
Checking the time, the girls Anneta and Patsia parted, taking up new positions on either side of the square. On Palace Street, the dubious clientele of the notorious Tilipuchuri Tavern-princes, pimps, informers and pickpockets-were already drinking Georgian wine and Armenian brandy, not far from the plutocratic grandeur of Prince Sumbatov's palace.
Just then David Sagirashvili, another revolutionary who knew Stalin and some of the gangsters, visited a friend who owned a shop above the tavern and was invited in by the cheerful brigand at the doorway, Bachua Kupriashvili, who "immediately offered me a chair and a glass of red wine, according to the Georgian custom." David drank the wine and was about to leave when the gunman suggested "with exquisite politeness" that he stay inside and "sample more snacks and wine." David realized that "they were letting people into the restaurant but would not let them out. Armed individuals stood at the door."
Spotting the convoy galloping down the boulevard, Patsia Goldava, the slim brunette on lookout, sped round the corner to the Pushkin Gardens where she waved her newspaper to Stepko Intskirveli, waiting by the gate.
"We're off!" he muttered.
Stepko nodded at Anneta Sulakvelidze, who was across the street just outside the Tilipuchuri, where she made a sign summoning the others from the bar. The gunmen in the doorway beckoned them. "At a given signal" Sagirashvili saw the brigands in the tavern put down their drinks, cock their pistols and head out, spreading across the square-thin, consumptive young men in wide trousers who had barely eaten for weeks. Some were gangsters, some desperadoes and some, typically for Georgia, were poverty-stricken princes from roofless, wall-less castles in the provinces. If their deeds were criminal, they cared nothing for money: they were devoted to Lenin, the Party and their puppet-master in Tiflis, Stalin.
"The functions of each of us had been planned in advance," remembered a third girl in the gang, Alexandra Darakhvelidze, just nineteen, a friend of Anneta, and already veteran of a spree of heists and shootouts.
The gangsters each covered the square's policemen-the gorodovoi, known in the streets as pharaohs. Two gunmen marked the Cossacks outside the City Hall; the rest made their way to the corner of Velyaminov Street and the Armenian Bazaar, not far from the State Bank itself. Alexandra Darakhvelidze, in her unpublished memoirs, recalled guarding one of the street corners with two gunmen.
Now Bachua Kupriashvili, nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper, spotted in the distance the cloud of dust thrown up by the horses' hooves. They were coming! Bachua rolled up his newspaper, poised . . . The cavalry captain with the flashing sabre, who had been promenading the square, now warned passers-by to stay out of it, but when no one paid any attention he jumped back onto his fine horse. He was no officer but the ideal of the Georgian beau sabreur and outlaw, half-knight, half-bandit. This was Kamo, aged twenty-five, boss of the Outfit and, as Stalin put it, "a master of disguise" who could pass for a rich prince or a peasant laundrywoman. He moved stiffly, his half-blind left eye squinting and rolling: one of his own bombs had exploded in his face just weeks before. He was still recuperating.
Kamo "was completely enthralled" by Stalin, who had converted him to Marxism. They had grown up together in the violent town of Gori forty-five miles away. He was a bank robber of ingenious audacity, a Houdini of prison-escapes, a credulous simpleton-and a half-insane practitioner of psychopathic violence. Intensely, eerily tranquil with a weird "lustreless face" and a blank gaze, he was keen to serve his master, often begging Stalin: "Let me kill him for you!" No deed of macabre horror or courageous flamboyance was beyond him: he later plunged his hand into a man's chest and cut out his heart.
Throughout his life, Stalin's detached magnetism would attract, and win the devotion of, amoral, unbounded psychopaths. His boyhood henchman Kamo and these gangsters were the first in a long line. "Those young men followed Stalin selflessly . . . Their admiration for him allowed him to impose on them his iron discipline." Kamo often visited Stalin's home, where he had earlier borrowed Kato's father's sabre, explaining that he was "going to play an officer of the Cossacks." Even Lenin, that fastidious lawyer, raised as a nobleman, was fascinated by the daredevil Kamo, whom he called his "Caucasian bandit." "Kamo," mused Stalin in old age, "was a truly amazing person."
"Captain" Kamo turned his horse towards the boulevard and trotted audaciously right past the advancing convoy, coming the other way. Once the shooting started, he boasted, the whole thing "would be over in three minutes."
The Cossacks galloped into Yerevan Square, two in front, two behind and another alongside the two carriages. Through the dust, the gangsters could make out that the stagecoach contained two men in frockcoats-the State Bank's cashier Kurdyumov and accountant Golovnya-and two soldiers with rifles cocked, while a second phaeton was packed with police and soldiers. In the thunder of hooves, it took just seconds for the carriages and horsemen to cross the square ready to turn into Sololaki Street, where stood the new State Bank: the statues of lions and gods over its door represented the surging prosperity of Russian capitalism.
Bachua lowered his newspaper, giving the sign, then tossed it aside, reaching for his weapons. The gangsters drew out what they nicknamed their "apples"-powerful grenades which had been smuggled into Tiflis by the girls Anneta and Alexandra, hidden inside a big sofa.
The gunmen and the girls stepped forward, pulled the fuses and tossed four grenades which exploded under the carriages with a deafening noise and an infernal force that disemboweled horses and tore men to pieces, spattering the cobbles with innards and blood. The brigands drew their Mauser and Browning pistols and opened fire on the Cossacks and police around the square who, caught totally unawares, fell wounded or ran for cover. More than ten bombs exploded. Witnesses thought they rained from every direction, even the rooftops: it was later said that Stalin had thrown the first bomb from the roof of Prince Sumbatov's mansion.
The bank's carriages stopped. Screaming passers-by scrambled for cover. Some thought it was an earthquake: was Holy Mountain falling on to the city? "No one could tell if the terrible shooting was the boom of cannons or explosion of bombs," reported the Georgian newspaper Isari (Arrow). "The sound caused panic everywhere . . . almost across the whole city, people started running. Carriages and carts were galloping away . . ." Chimneys had toppled from buildings; every pane of glass was shattered as far as the Viceroy's Palace.
Kato Svanidze was standing on her nearby balcony tending Stalin's baby with her family, "when all of a sudden we heard the sound of bombs," recalled her sister, Sashiko. "Terrified, we rushed into the house." Outside, amid the yellow smoke and the wild chaos, among the bodies of horses and mutilated limbs of men, something had gone wrong.
One horse attached to the front carriage twitched, then jerked back to life. Just as the gangsters ran to seize the moneybags in the back of the carriage, the horse reared up out of the mayhem and bolted down the hill towards the Soldiers Bazaar, disappearing with the money that Stalin had promised Lenin for the Revolution.
 This account of the Tiflis expropriation is based on the many sources listed in this note. On her role and that of others: GF IML 22.214.171.124, Alexandra Darakhvelidze- Margvelashvili, recorded 21 Feb. 1959. On his role, on cowardly comrades, who did what: GF IML 126.96.36.1994.1--26, Bachua Kupriashvili. Kote Tsintsadze, Rogor vibrdzolot proletariatis diktaturistvis: chemi mogonebani (henceforth Tsintsadze), pp. 40--49.
GF IML 8.5.384.3--10, Autobiographical notes by Kamo; GF IML 8.5.380.5--6, Personal File and Questionnaire, filled in by Kamo on day of his death. GF IML 188.8.131.52.239--55, D. A. Khutulashvili (sister of Kamo). The gang; Eliso hides; Stalin head of that organization: Archives of the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford (henceforth Stanford), Boris Nikolaevsky Collection (henceforth Nikolaevsky), box 207, folder 207--10, letter from Tatiana Vulikh; folder 207--11. Tiflis Committee approves robbery: Razhden Arsenidze, interviews nos. 1--3, 103--4, Nikolaevsky box 667, series 279, folder 4-5, Inter-University Project on History of Menshevik Movement.
On Okhrana investigation/suspicions of coming robbery in Caucasus; 14 and 18 Jan. 1908: Stanford, Paris Okhrana archives, box 209, folder XXB.2, letter on suspects, 13 Feb. 1907. Arrest of Kamo and full biography, 31 Oct./13 Nov. and 27/14 Nov. 1908; and 14 Nov./21 Oct. 1907: Suspect in Tiflis expropriation-Josef/Soso Davrichewy: Stanford, Okhrana box 209, folder XXB.1.
Letter, R. Arsenidze to Boris Nikolaevsky, 8 Jan. 1957, on investigation by Silvester Jibladze and fights with Menshevik about Kvirili expropriation money: Nikolaevsky box 472, folder 2.
Grigory Uratadze, Vospominaniya (henceforth Uratadze), pp. 163--66-Stalin, the main financier of the Bolshevik centre, did not participate personally; pp. 71--72 on giving expro money to Shaumian.
On Kamo's role: I. M. Dubinsky-Mukhadze, Kamo, pp. 71--84; David Shub, "Kamo." Obeying Stalin from Gendarme report, R. Imnaishvili, Kamo, section 1, pp. 52--55; the expropriation, p. 59; betrayal of Kamo by Arsen Karsidze, p. 34. Account of expropriation as told by Kamo to his wife: S. F. Medvedeva-Ter-Petrossian, "Tovarish
Kamo." Jacques Baynac, Kamo, pp. 90--100. Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill, pp. 112-16, 212 and 299, including Kamo killing for Stalin. On psychology of Kamo and terrorists: "Introduction" in Anna Geifman (ed.), Russia under the Last Tsar, pp. 1--14. Jonathan Daly, The Watchful State, p. 67. Radzinsky, Stalin, p. 61. Robert C. Williams, The Other Bolsheviks (henceforth Williams), pp. 113--15.
Pretty girls, Stalin's iron discipline: Khariton Chavichvili, Patrie, prison, exil, p. 145. Lenin under attack from Mensheviks: Khariton Chavichvili, R�volutionnaires russes � Gen�ve en 1908, pp. 80--83. Stalin and Shaumian in London, permission for expropriation, morning meeting, division of spoils: G. S. Akopian, Stepan Shaumian, pp. 44, 64. Vahtang Guruli, Svodnaya Gruzia no. 152 (225), 24 Sept. 1994, p. 4: SR theory and also Kamo accompanied by daughter of deputy police chief of Shorapani. On Okhrana informer reports that SRs conducted Tiflis expropriation and money stolen by Kamo, Tiflis Okhrana agents "N" and "Bolshaya" on 2 July and 15 July 1907:Vahtang Guruli, Josef Stalin Materials for the Biography, pp. 9--11, in Central Georgian State Historical Archive 184.108.40.206, 21, 23.
Lenin and Krasin create the "Technical Group," bombs and money: L. B. Krasin, "Bolshevistskaya partiianaya tekhnika," pp. 8--13.
Lenin and Krasin fight for the money under Menshevik attack: Boris Nikolaevsky, "Bolshevistskiy Tsentre," Rodina no. 2, 1992, pp. 33--35, and no. 5, pp. 25--31. Kamo on train with girl, policeman's daughter: Baron Bibineishvili, Za chetvet veka (henceforth Bibineishvili), pp. 92--94.
Memoir of boys working for Stalin and other comrades by D. Chachanidze: GF IML 220.127.116.11. Joint operations and assassinations with Anarchists and no mention of arrest at time of expropriation: Tsintsadze, p. 111. Kamo confides in Davrichewy that Stalin in charge, viceroy furious, Stalin's operations; Stalin opens era of the holdup, Gori connection, Kamo kills for Stalin: Josef Davrichewy, Ah! Ce qu'on rigolait bien avec mon copain Staline (henceforth Davrichewy), pp. 237--39, 174--77, 188--89. Stalin in Tiflis engaged in preparations, in Baku by 17 June, quote from L. D. Trotsky, Stalin on roof by G. Besedovsky, expulsion from Caucasus Regional Committee but supported by Lenin and CC: Alexander Ostrovsky, Kto stoyal za spinoi Stalina? (henceforth Ostrovsky), pp. 259--62. The other insider in bank/mail, G. Kasradze introduced to Kamo and Kasradze later interrogated by N. Jordania and admitted role in expropriation thanks to Stalin: GF IML 18.104.22.168.
That day on Yerevan Square: Roy Stanley De Lon, Stalin and Social Democracy,
1905--1922: The Political Diaries of David A. Sagirashvili (henceforth Sagirashvili), pp.
183--86. Candide Charkviani, "Memoirs," p. 15, on Kamo and Kote. Robert Service,
Stalin, p. 163. Okhrana on Kamo spending all July with Lenin at dacha: Edward
Ellis Smith, The Young Stalin (henceforth Smith), pp. 200--206. Boris Souvarine,
Staline, pp. 93--110. Essad Bey, Stalin (henceforth Essad Bey), p. 82. L. D. Trotsky,
Stalin, pp. 96--100. Miklos Kun, Stalin: An Unknown Portrait (henceforth Kun), pp.
On Tiflis: Stephen F. Jones, Socialism in Georgian Colors (henceforth Jones), pp. 160--67. Razhden Arsenidze, "Iz vospominaniya o Staline" (henceforth Arsenidze). Boris Bazhanov, Stalin, p. 107. A. V. Baikaloff, I Knew Stalin, p. 20. Arrest of Djugashvili, known as teacher of workers and said to be always holding himself apart: GMIKA 116, Report of Chief of Kutaisi Province Gendarmerie to the Police Department, 9 Apr. 1902. Armenian Review no. 2 (3), 7 Sept. 1949, p. 114. Martov libel case: RGASPI 558.2.42. Kun, pp. 81--84; Pravda, 1 April 1918; Vperod, 31 March 1918. Stalin's role: interviews with Voznesensky, 20 Sept. 1907, and 10 June 1908, and with Comrade Koba ( J. Stalin), 19 Mar. 1908: RGASPI 332.1.53: 15 (2) O2. 23 (10), 1905--1910, TSL Organized Committee to Investigate Tiflis Expropriation. Stalin on the bank robbery: GDMS 87.1955-368.11--13, Alexandra "Sashiko" Svanidze-Monoselidze: Kamo's sword. The other inside man: GF IML 22.214.171.124.214--15, Kote Charkviani, in which the memoirist, recording his memoirs in 1936, specifies how Stalin and Kamo groomed Gigo Kasradze, who was the brother-in-law of the priest's son Kote Charkviani. International newspapers: Moskovskie Vedomosti, 14, 15, 16, 17, 21 June 1907. Isari, 14 July 1907. Le Temps, 27 June 1907. Daily Mirror, 27 June 1907. The Times, 27 and 29 June 1907.
 In 1903, the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks under Lenin and the Mensheviks under Martov, who fought one another but remained part of the same party until 1912 when they formally divided, never to reunite. Lenin organized and led a secret three-man cabal called the Bolshevik Centre to raise money using bank robbery and organized crime rackets.
 Berlin: Ostrovsky, pp. 256--59. I. V. Stalin, Sochineniya, 13:122 Stalin to Ludwig; also Smith, pp. 198--99.Trotsky, Stalin, pp. 96--107.
 Arsenidze, p. 220-young men followed Stalin. GF IML 8.5.384.3--10, Autobiographical notes by Kamo. Stalin's magnetism by Kamo's sister Dzhavaira Khutulashvili: Kun, p. 75. Kamo's face: Sergei Alliluyev and Anna Alliluyeva, Alliluyev Memoirs, pp. 220--21. Role of girls, etc.: GF IML 126.96.36.1994.1--26, Bachua Kupriashvili.
 GDMS 87.1955-368.11--13: Alexandra "Sashiko" Svanidze-Monoselidze.
 Davrichewy, pp. 174--77, 188--89, 237--39. Charkviani, "Memoirs," p. 15-Kamo truly amazing.
 The distances in this urban village are tiny. The seminary, Stalin's family home, the Viceroy's Palace and the bank are all about two minutes' walk from the site of the bank robbery. Most of the buildings in Yerevan (later Beria, then Lenin, now Freedom) Square that feature here remain standing: the Tilipuchuri Tavern (now empty of any princes or brigands), the seminary (now a museum), the City Hall, the HQ of the Caucasus Command, the State Bank and the Viceroy's Palace (where Stalin's mother lived so long) are all unchanged. The Caravanserai, Pushkin Gardens, Adelkhanov Shoe Warehouse (where Stalin had worked) and the bazaars are gone.
 On the balcony as the bombs explode: GDMS 87.1955-368.11--13, Alexandra "Sashiko" Svanidze-Monoselidze.