One night in Tiflis in late 1905, Josef Davrichewy, Stalin’s Goreli friend, who now headed the armed wing of the Georgian Socialist - Federalists, heard fighting in a backstreet at the foot of Holy Mountain. He found Kamo, Stalin’s enforcer, threatening an unknown Armenian with his pistol.
“If you don’t return the banknotes to the safebox you were meant to guard, you’re a dead man!” Kamo was saying. “Think! I’ll count to three. One. . . two. . . careful my friend . . . three!”
Davrichewy ran up and seized Kamo’s arms. “Not here, you idiot. Not in this area. You know we run everything round here.” Those streets were controlled by Davrichewy’s militia. But the “overexcited” Kamo broke free and shot the other man three times.
“At the third blast,” says Davrichewy, “both of us ran for it.” The dying victim slid bleeding to the pavement.
“In God’s name, why stick your nose in our business?” asked Kamo when they were safe. “Koba’ll be furious—you know he’s not always accommodating.” Davrichewy was not happy either: “his” neighbourhood was soon crawling with policemen. But this was not the end of the affair.
Stalin sent Kamo to invite him for a powwow. When they met, Davrichewy “told him off for killing the Armenian in the neighbourhood where we maintain security.”
“Listen,” Stalin replied calmly. “Don’t worry about us. Kamo did what was necessary and you should do the same. Now I have a proposal for you: come with us. Leave the Federalists. We’re old Gorelis, I admire and remember our games. Come while there’s still time? If not . . .”
“If not, what?” demanded Davrichewy.
Stalin “didn’t answer but his eyes shrank and his expression became hard.”1
Just at that time of world - shattering events, Stalin entered the life of the other family, apart from the Alliluyevs, whose fate would be intertwined with his. He asked his protégé Svanidze to find him somewhere to live.* Svanidze, intelligent, blue - eyed and blond, knew just the place. The apartment at the townhouse of 3 Freilinskaya Street was right behind the military headquarters, in the centre of Tiflis, near Yerevan Square. It had many advantages: first it was populated by lovely Georgian girls. Svanidze’s three sisters, Alexandra (Sashiko), Maria (Mariko) and Ekaterina (Kato), ran Atelier Hervieu, a prosperous couture house named after its French couturier Madame Hervieu, making uniforms and dresses.
The girls were Rachvelians from Racha (in western Georgia), famous for its placid and loving beauties. Sashiko had recently married Mikheil Monoselidze, a Bolshevik who knew Stalin from the seminary, but the other two girls were single. The youngest was Kato, a curvaceous, “ravishingly pretty” brunette. Their atelier of young seamstresses made it a sunnily feminine place to be.
One day, Svanidze took Monoselidze aside and “said he wanted to bring Comrade Soso Djugashvili to stay at our place and told me not to say a word to his sisters. I agreed,” says Monoselidze.
“So, in 1905, Alyosha invited to stay in our place a fellow whom everyone considered the leader of the Bolshevik faction,” writes his wife, Sashiko. “He was poorly dressed, thin, with an olive complexion, his face slightly pockmarked, smaller than average: Soso Djugashvili.”
“Our place,” recalls Mikheil Monoselidze, “was above the suspicion of the police. While my fellows did illegal stuff in one room, my wife was fitting the dresses of generals’ wives next door.” The waiting - room was usually full of counts, generals and police officers—the ideal home and headquarters for an underworld boss. Indeed Stalin held many of his gangster and terrorist meetings at Madame Hervieu’s atelier. He hid his secret papers in the bodies of her fashion mannequins.
“Soso,” remembers Sashiko, “would sit and write for days preparing articles for Brdzola and the newspaper Akhali Tskhovreba [New Life], edited by Monoselidze. In the evenings, he would finish his work and disappear, not returning until two or three in the morning.” Stalin’s headquarters was the Mikhailovsky Hospital on the banks of the Kura, where he ran a printing - press in the basement. In such dangerous times, Stalin was, Davrichewy notes, “always ready to draw his gun.” But there was time too for flirtations and Stalin’s cruel games.
When Pimen Dvali, a Bolshevik cousin of the Svanidzes, was staying, he slept all day.
“What can one do with him?” grumbled Stalin, shaking him. Dvali woke up. “Is anything disturbing you?” asked Stalin ironically.
“No, Soso dear,” replied the sleepyhead, falling into another slumber. Stalin “went to him, rolled up cigarette - papers, stuck them between Pimen’s toes—and lit them. Pimen’s toes were burned and he leaped up. We laughed!”*
Stalin sat and read socialistic pamphlets or novels to the sisters and seamstresses, says Sashiko, “or he would tell jokes, play the fool or tease sleepy Pimen again.” Once when the girls’ parents were visiting from Kutaisi, “Stalin sang a romantic song with such powerful emotion that all were enchanted, even though they could see he was rough and devoted to revolution,” says one of Kato’s cousins. Being Stalin, he would play mischievous power games. One day, the seamstresses suddenly demanded higher salaries. “My wife and Kato were stunned,” explains Monoselidze, “because these women were working in good conditions. But then everything became clear: Soso had put them up to it. We were very amused and so was Soso . . .”
Kato, the youngest and prettiest, was especially charmed.2
· · ·
Far from Soso’s Tiflis atelier, at the court of the Romanovs, Grand Duke Nicholas told the Emperor he would rather shoot himself than become military dictator. Nicholas II had few choices remaining to him. On 17 October, he bitterly agreed to grant Russia’s first ever constitution, an elected parliament, the “Imperial Duma,” and a free press. Nicholas soon regretted this generosity: his manifesto accelerated a haemorrhage of ecstatic turbulence and savage violence across the Empire.
The next day on the Caspian, the paraffin - fuelled tinderbox of Baku burst into flames, figurative and real. The Armenians, led by their well - armed Dashnaks, avenged the pogroms of February, heading into the countryside to massacre Azeri villages. Soon the oilfields were burning. In Russia itself, 3,000 Jews were slaughtered in an orgy of pogroms that climaxed on the streets of Odessa.
Stalin was in the boulevards of Tiflis: “Crowds of demonstrators, brandishing the flags of revolution and free Georgia thronged the streets. A huge crowd assembled before the Opera House and, under an emerald - green shining sky, sang songs of freedom,” recalls Josef Iremashvili. The excitement was “so great,” remembers another participant, “that one richly dressed woman took off her red skirt . . . and made an impromptu red flag.” Iremashvili spotted his friend Stalin. “I saw him climbing on to the roof of a tram and gesticulating as he addressed the crowd.” But Stalin’s excitement was tempered by distrust of the Tsar’s concession: if it was shoved a little harder, the rotten throne would surely come crashing down.
The Duma was “a negation of the people’s revolution,” wrote Stalin. “Smash this trap and wage a ruthless struggle against liberal enemies of the people.” The Emperor had lost Russia—and to get it back, he would have to start again and “conquer boundless Russia for a second time.”3
Stalin and his friends the Svanidzes and the Alliluyevs were living in special times: the viceroy only controlled central Tiflis and his garrisons. In the rest of the city, “Armed workers patrolled the streets as popular militias,” says Anna Alliluyeva. “Their ranks were swollen by new friends who appeared on the outskirts of Tiflis on short lean little horses. We always stopped to admire these skilled horsemen in their cowls, enormous sheepskin coats and soft high leather boots . . . peasants and shepherds from the hills.”4Soso gloried in the drama. “The thunder of revolution is roaring!” he wrote. “We hear the call of the brave . . . Life is seething!”5
In the streets, Jibladze led the Menshevik militias. Stalin, Tskhakaya and Budu Mdivani formed the Bolshevik high command. The factions were allies, each controlling their own working neighbourhoods.6 “The Tiflis suburbs,” wrote Trotsky, “were in the hands of armed workers.” Didube and Nadzaladevi were so free they were nicknamed “Switzerland.” Yet even a year after the Credo, Stalin was still deviating towards his Georgian version of Marxism, which was attacked at the Union Committee. The rambunctious Sergo Kavtaradze, one of his Kutaisi henchmen, lost his temper and called Stalin a “traitor.”
“I don’t intend to have a row about this. You do as you like!” answered Stalin calmly. Then he lit a cigarette and stared unblinkingly right into Kavtaradze’s eyes. It was probably then, after the meeting, that the two came to blows. Kavtaradze threw a lamp at Stalin.7*
The Svanidze sisters hosted a theatrical fund - raiser for radical causes and proudly introduced Stalin to Minadora Toroshelidze, who was impressed by his speech. “Comrades,” he said, “do you think we can defeat the Tsar with empty hands? Never! We need three things: one—guns, two—guns and three, again and again—guns!” He set about getting them. “One of his first coups—and the most insolent—was the pillage in broad daylight of three arms arsenals in Tiflis,” says Davrichewy. “In those times, everyone was arming themselves no matter how or what the price!”8
The massacres in Baku and the pogroms in Odessa raised the tension in Georgia. Stalin rushed between Baku and Tiflis as mobs in both cities tried to storm the jails. The Revolution seemed on the verge of triumph. In Petersburg, the Soviet, led by Trotsky, defied the Tsar, brazenly promoting itself as a parallel government.† In Moscow, the Bolshevik militia fortified the cavernous factories of Presnaya. But the worm was about to turn: the Tsar, planning vengeance, backed the anti - Semitic Black Hundred nationalists who set up their own death squads to kill Jews and socialists all over Russia. Hardline generals were in the ascendant, troops massed. In Georgia, the Emperor ordered Major - General Alikhanov - Avarsky to crush the Gurian peasants and Chanturian miners: the Cossacks were coming.
On 22 October, seven Georgian schoolboys at the smart Tiflis Gymnasium were killed by Russian Black Hundreds. In the ensuing fighting, forty - one died with sixty - five wounded. Stalin’s terrorists repeatedly retaliated against the Russian Cossacks and Black Hundreds.9
On 21 November, a firefight broke out in Tiflis’s Armenian Bazaar between Armenians and Azeris. Twenty - five Muslims were killed. Stalin and the Social - Democrats fielded their gangs to keep the sides apart, believing that the strife was being fomented by the Okhrana. Tiflis was like a “seething cauldron,” wrote Trotsky, on the edge of civil war. The desperate viceroy, acknowledging that he had lost control, offered Jibladze the Menshevik 500 rifles to keep the peace. The Battle Squads kept the two sides apart but refused to return the guns.
Davrichewy noticed that the Bolshevik gangsters did not take part because, without Stalin, Kamo could not decide what to do. “During the conflict, Stalin wasn’t in Tiflis.” Where was he?10
As Nicholas prepared to reconquer his turbulent Empire, as the tide of revolution reached its high - water mark, Stalin travelled to Finland to meet his “mountain eagle” for the first time: Lenin.
* Stalin did not only know the Svanidzes via Alyosha. Simon Svanidze, father of Alyosha and his three sisters, was a teacher in Kutaisi; the mother, Sipora, one of the noble Dvali clan. In Kutaisi, Sipora’s cousin, a Dvali, was chief of police. Both the Svanidzes and Police Chief Dvali hid Stalin from the secret police, another example of how Georgian connections were more important than loyalty to the state.
* The memoirs of Sashiko Svanidze and her husband, Monoselidze, are invaluable. Both were recorded in the early to mid - 1930s when Stalin was already dictator, but they are nonetheless astonishingly honest. Sashiko’s memoirs are unpublished; portions of Monoselidze’s memoirs were used in the cult literature, but most of their reminiscences were deemed unsuitable. At this time, 1905–6, Bolsheviks arriving from the provinces reported to Stalin at the hospital, but the leaders—Shaumian, Spandarian, Abel Yenukidze (another Rachvelian) and Budu “the Barrel” Mdivani—were regulars at the Svanidzes’ along with Soso’s hit men, Kamo and Tsintsadze.
* Stalin’s reaction to this insult was a surprising one, and he never forgot it. For Kavtaradze’s fate, see the Epilogue. The Union Committee united both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
† Stalin, writes Trotsky, “spent 1905 in an unpretentious office writing dull comments on brilliant events.” Most historians have followed Trotsky’s line.