Iwas happy to meet the mountain eagle of our Party, a great man, not only politically but also physically too,” Stalin reflected, “because Lenin had taken shape in my imagination as a stately and imposing giant.” On 26 November 1905, a Party meeting elected Stalin and two others to represent the Caucasus at a Bolshevik conference in St. Petersburg. On about 3 December, using the alias “Ivanovich,” Stalin set off for the imperial capital—to meet Lenin.
As Soso and his fellow delegates travelled north by train, the Emperor unleashed his backlash: Trotsky and the Soviet were arrested. Stalin reported as instructed to the Petersburg offices of the SD newspaper, Novaya Zhizn (New Life)—but it had been raided. The Georgians wandered the streets until they met a friend on Nevsky Prospect. It is one of the remarkable features of this period that a stranger like Stalin could stroll along the capital’s main boulevard and meet someone he knew. It happened repeatedly. But there was little time to see the sights. The friend put them up for two days until they found Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, who gave them money, code names and tickets for the new venue, Tammerfors in Finland, the Tsar’s semi - autonomous grand duchy where the freedoms of 1905 survived an extra year.
Stalin and the other forty Bolshevik delegates, poorly disguised as teachers on a day trip, left Petersburg by train and arrived in Tammerfors (now Tampere) at 9:08 a.m. on 24 December, checking into the Hotel Bauer by the station: many of them shared rooms. “How enthusiastic everyone was!” remembers Krupskaya. “The Revolution was reaching its zenith and every comrade seized this with the utmost enthusiasm.”
The next morning, Christmas Day, Lenin opened the conference in the People’s Hall where the Finnish Red Guards—Bolshevik worker - militiamen—were headquartered.* Stalin waited to see his hero, expecting him to turn up late, having kept his followers in rapt anticipation: he believed this was the way a leader should behave. But instead he was amazed that Lenin was already there “early, chatting with the most ordinary delegates!” And was he a giant? “Imagine my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary man, below average height, in no way different from ordinary mortals.”
Unimpressive in person but exceptional in personality, Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, known as Lenin, was small and stocky, prematurely bald with a bulging, intense forehead and piercing, slanted eyes. He was genial, his laughter was infectious, but his life was ruled by his fanatical dedication to Marxist revolution, to which he devoted his intelligence, his pitiless pragmatism and his aggressive political will. Back in Tiflis, Stalin told Davrichewy that it was Lenin’s blend of intellectual force and total practicality that made him so remarkable “among all those chatterboxes.”
A hereditary nobleman on both sides, Lenin was raised in a loving squire’s family. His father was the inspector of schools in Simbirsk, his mother the daughter of a landowning doctor raised to the rank of state counsellor. Descended from Jews, Swedes and Tartar Kalmyks (to whom he owed his slanting eyes), Lenin possessed the domineering confidence of a nobleman:* as a young man he had even sued peasants for damaging his estates. This helps explain Lenin’s contempt for old Russia—“Russian idiots” was a favourite curse. When criticized for his nobility, he replied: “What about me? I am the scion of landed gentry . . . I still haven’t forgotten the pleasant aspects of life on our estate . . . So go on, put me to death! Am I unworthy to be a revolutionary?” He was certainly never embarrassed about living off the income from his estates.
The rustic idyll on the family estate ended in 1887 when his elder brother Alexander was executed—it changed everything. Lenin qualified as a lawyer at Kazan University, where he read Chernychevsky and Nechaev, imbibing the discipline of Russian revolutionary terrorists even before he embraced Marx. After arrest and Siberian exile, he moved to western Europe, where he wrote “What Is to Be Done?”
“Cunts,” “bastards,” “filth,” “prostitutes,” “useful idiots,” “cretins” and “silly old maids” were just some of the insults Lenin heaped on his enemies. Revelling in the fight, he existed in an obsessional frenzy of political vibration, driven by an intense rage and a compulsion to dominate allies—and smash opposition.
He cared little for the arts or personal romance. Stern, bug - eyed Krupskaya was more manager and amanuensis than wife, but he did engage in a passionate romance with the wealthy, liberated and married beauty Inessa Armand. Once in power, Lenin indulged in little affairs with his secretaries, according to Stalin, who claimed that Krupskaya complained about them to the Politburo. But politics was everything to him.
Lenin was not a brilliant speaker. It was hard to hear his voice and he could not pronounce his r’s but “after a minute,” wrote Gorky on first seeing Lenin at this time, “I, like everyone else, was absorbed . . . as I heard complicated political questions treated so simply.” Stalin, watching Lenin speak, “was captivated by that irresistible force of logic which, though somewhat terse, thoroughly overpowered his audience, gradually electrified it and then carried it completely!”
Yet Stalin was not ever so lovestruck that he was afraid to contradict Lenin. He was unformed as a politician, but he was already distinguished by a haughty and truculent individuality. Once he had observed the “mountain eagle,” he made himself known. Lenin invited him to report on the Caucasus, but when they discussed the elections to the Imperial Duma the two clashed. Lenin advocated participation in the elections, but young Stalin stood up and sharply attacked him. There was silence in the hall until Lenin unexpectedly gave way, proposing that Stalin draft the resolution.
“In intervals of the conference,” writes Krupskaya, “we learned how to shoot” Mausers, Brownings and Winchesters. Indeed Stalin carried a pistol. After one debate, he supposedly stormed out and, in a fury, fired his gun into the air outside the hall, a Georgian hothead in the Finnish freeze. But the conference was already out of time: the Bolshevik militia in Moscow rose, too late, in open revolt. Now the delegates heard that the Tsar’s Semyonovsky Guards were brutally storming Presnaya, the workers’ redoubt. Blood flowed on the streets of Moscow.
Simultaneously in Tiflis, the tough commander of the Caucasus, General Fyodor Griiazanov, and General Alikhanov - Avarsky prepared to retake the Caucasus and destroy the Battle Squads. “The Reaction,” said Trotsky, “was in full swing!” The conference broke up in disarray.
Stalin considered himself superior to all the other delegates* except Lenin. “Among all these chatterboxes,” he boasted, “I was the only one who’d already organized and led men in combat.”
Soso headed back to Tiflis in the midst of battle.1
The generals massed their Cossacks, surrounded the workers’ districts, banned meetings, ordered shooting of rebels on sight and forbade anyone to wear Caucasian hoods or the cloaks that concealed weapons. On 18 January 1906, General Griiazanov began his assault. Jordania and Ramishvili ordered their partisans, who included Kamo and the Bolsheviks, to defend the Tiflis workers’ district.
There was still fighting on the streets when Stalin reached the Svanidze apartment around four days later. Anna Alliluyeva now watched from her window as the Cossacks “moved forward, shooting into the night. By dawn, troops had broken into Didube and Cossacks’ horses flashed by our windows, the streets ringed by Cossacks.” Tiflis rocked from “uninterrupted shooting, the rattle of artillery fire and cavalry on the streets.” Sixty rebels were killed, 250 wounded, 280 arrested. The woody hillsides, she recalls, were thick with dead bodies. She saw “two prisoners, one had blood on his face,” and cried out as she recognized “the most courageous and beloved of Stalin’s young pupils.”
As Griiazanov crushed Tiflis, General Alikhanov - Avarsky savagely reconquered western Georgia. The Battle Squads tried to block the railway - tunnel to Kutaisi, but the Cossacks shot, looted, burned and hanged as they advanced. They took Kutaisi. Their “troops, killing anyone they recognized, set fire to the city, robbing the taverns and shops,” remembers Tsintsadze. The west was reduced to “ashes and charcoal.” Once all was lost, Stalin, travelling in the west, tried to persuade the peasants to disarm, rather than perish, but they would not listen to him: “I was impotent.” Then Alikhanov - Avarsky moved eastwards to reconquer the lawless, scorched hinterland of Baku and the Tsar’s burning oilfields.
Tsintsadze and his pretty comrade Patsia Goldava arranged a killing - spree of all suspected traitors, who were murdered before they could escape to Tiflis. The gunmen, whom the Cossacks were seeking in the provinces, found refuge in the capital. But the days of Stalin’s Battle Squads were over. They returned to the underground where he re - formed them into a secret squad of assassins. He had a task for them already.2
Back in Tiflis, under the whip of the Cossacks, Stalin and the Mensheviks met to pass a death sentence. General Fyodor Griiazanov—nicknamed General Shitheap, a pun on his name—the nemesis of the Georgian Revolution, was the most hated man in the Caucasus. Stalin summoned chief assassin Tsintsadze. Soso and the Mensheviks, “working together,” jointly ordered another of their hit men, Arsene Jorjiashvili, “who belonged to Stalin’s gangsters,” to kill the General with the assistance of Kamo. But Stalin also simultaneously commissioned Tsintsadze: “Prepare some good fellows, and if Jorjiashvili fails to do the job in a week, we entrust it to you.” Tsintsadze and two of Soso’s best hit men started to stalk the General while the other group raced to kill him first.*
Within a few days, there were two abortive assassinations, each cancelled because the General was with his wife. Meanwhile, Griiazanov oversaw yet another massacre on the streets of Tiflis.
On 16 February, the General, flanked by a formidable Cossack bodyguard, galloped out of the military headquarters, ignoring a few Georgian workmen painting the railings around Alexander Gardens opposite the Viceroy’s Palace. As his carriage passed, the workmen dropped their paints and threw “apples”—their homemade grenades—into his lap, tearing the Butcher of Tiflis to pieces. The Cossacks gave chase. The hit men scarpered, but the wounded Jorjiashvili was swiftly caught and executed, an instant hero in Tiflis.
Who else was on the hit - team? Historians used to agree that the Mensheviks carried out the hit, but actually it was a joint effort. Tsintsadze explains that Stalin and the Mensheviks at that time worked together “in the same organization.” An Armenian terrorist said Stalin had commissioned the hit. Davrichewy specifies that the other hit man was Kamo. In the 1920s, two Bolshevik terrorists claimed a pension for killing Griiazanov, their notes recently surfacing in the Georgian archives. Stalin, it seems, commissioned both Menshevik and Bolshevik hit men.
A workman later claimed that he saw Stalin watching nearby, and this rings true because it seems he was injured by bomb fragments or in the rush to escape the Cossacks.
That night, says Sashiko, Stalin did not come home. The girls were worried: had he been arrested? Afterwards, he claimed he had run for a tram, pursued by police, but slipped, hurting himself so badly that Tskhakaya took him to Mikhailovsky Hospital and hid him at Babe Bochoridze’s place, then at another safe house, using an old friend’s passport. But after the assassination the city was under curfew, with checkpoints everywhere. Soldiers raided the apartment and found “Giorgi Berdzenoshvili” (Stalin) in bed with one bandage round his head, another over his right eye and cuts and bruises across his face.
The Russian soldiers were confused because their orders did not specify what action to take on finding a bandaged man in bed. But, as he looked too ill to move, they left to consult their superiors, sending back a cart to convey the suspicious - looking patient to prison. By then, the patient had disappeared into the night. This was neither the first nor the last time he used the mystery - man - in - bandages trick to escape the police.
In the darkness, a comrade smuggled Stalin, “head and face damaged and hidden in a hood and a big cloak,” by phaeton to another safe house.
When Stalin turned up at home with the story of falling off the tram chased by pharaohs, the Svanidze girls were relieved, especially Kato. Sashiko and her husband realized something was happening between the two of them. “Gradually,” writes Monoselidze, “when Soso was living at our place, my wife and I noticed that Soso and Kato liked each other . . .”3
* Still the Lenin Museum, one of the last shrines to Lenin in the Western world.
† There were embarrassments in his ancestry: his mother was the granddaughter of Moishe Blank, a Jewish merchant who married a Swede. The prominence of Jews among the Bolsheviks was always an issue in Soviet Russia. Indeed in 1932 Lenin’s sister Anna wrote to Stalin about Lenin’s Jewish background. “Absolutely not one word about this letter!” Stalin scrawled on it. It remained secret until the 1990s.
* The most important of these delegates was Leonid Krasin, brilliant engineer, ladies’ man and Lenin’s financial, terrorism and explosives expert, whom Stalin already knew from Baku. There, Krasin had invented the electrical generating system for oil on behalf of big business while creating an underground printing - press for the Bolsheviks. In 1905, he helped Lenin raise funds through his contacts with the plutocratic industrialists such as Savva Morozov and with the actress Kommissarzhevskaya, who had donated her boxoffice receipts, but his specialities were terror, bank robbery and bomb - making. At Tam - merfors, Stalin also met Emelian Yaroslavsky, who became his chief propagandist in power; Yakov Sverdlov, who shared his exile, became Lenin’s chief organizer and first Soviet head of state; and Solomon Lozovsky, Stalin’s future Deputy Foreign Commissar, whom he tried and shot in 1952 during his anti - Semitic terror. Lozovsky was the only one of Stalin’s victims who had the courage to defy the dictator openly in court: see Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.
* This management by competition was typical—it resembles the way Stalin would later order Marshals Zhukov and Konev to race each other to take Berlin in 1945.