On the initiative and orders of Stalin,” said one of his top gangsters, Bachua Kupriashvili,* a permanent gang of brigands was now assembled. “Our tasks were procuring arms, organizing prison escapes, holding up banks and arsenals, and killing traitors.” Stalin commissioned Tsintsadze to set up “the Technical Group or the Bolshevik Expropriators Club, it was soon known by another nickname—Druzhina, the Group, or just Outfit.”
The “leader of the heists,” said Stalin later, “was Kote Tsintsadze, together with Kamo.” Stalin’s boyhood friend, arrested in the storming of Didube, had been tortured horribly by the Cossacks, who almost sliced off his nose. But Kamo admitted nothing and was released. “He could bear any pain,” marvelled Stalin, “an astonishing person.”
Soso strained his ingenuity to raise cash for Lenin, travelling widely to Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea, and Vladikavkaz, in Ossetia. In Tiflis, he ordered schools and the seminary to deliver cash from their teachers while he discreetly prepared the Outfit for his gangster rackets.
Stalin would order the delivery of a letter to a businessman, illustrated with “bombs, a lacerated corpse and two crossed daggers,” then come calling with a Mauser in his belt to collect the money, according to several sources. But Stalin’s first biographer, Essad Bey, unreliable though often well informed, claims that “Soso obtained his information” about wealthy targets “through his mistress, Marie Arensberg, [a] German businessman’s wife in Tiflis.” But bank robbery was the fastest way to raise large sums.
“It was Stalin,” says Davrichewy, the other notorious bank robber from Gori, “who really opened the age of bank heists in Georgia.” The Outfit managed to pull off a spree of daring bank robberies in 1906 even though, as the Menshevik Tatiana Vulikh says, “Tiflis was at war; patrols day and night, cordoning off whole city - blocks.”
First, Tsintsadze hit the city pawnshop, bursting in with revolvers blazing, and bagged a few thousand. “One day Stalin’s gangsters hit, pistols firing, the Georgian Bank of Agriculture opposite the Viceroy’s Palace in broad daylight in Tiflis,” recalls Davrichewy. “Shouting ‘Hands up!’ they grabbed bundles of notes and disappeared firing into the air. Kamo was in command according to a plan devised by Stalin, a superb organizer.”
The competition between the bank robbers intensified, but there was a comradeship too. “All the main bank - robbers,” boasted Davrichewy, “were from Gori!” It was Davrichewy who pulled off the biggest heist so far, bagging over 100,000 roubles for the Socialist - Federalists in a robbery at Dusheti. Stalin, Tsintsadze and Kamo responded with robberies of ever increasing daring. They held up a train at Kars, though it went wrong and several of the gang were killed in the shootout. Then, in November 1906, Kote held up the Borzhomi stagecoach, but the Cossack outriders fought back. In the shootout, the stagecoach’s horses bolted with the money.
Next they held up the Chiatura gold train, bearing wages for the mines. Stopping the train, the gangsters and the Cossack guards fought a two - hour gun - battle, killing a soldier and a Gendarme before the Outfit got away with 21,000 roubles, “of which we sent 15,000 to the Bolshevik faction [Lenin in Finland] and kept the rest for our group to plan for future expropriations,” recalls Tsintsadze.
Presently, Stalin’s highwaymen held up the Kadzhorskoe stagecoach, bagging another 20,000 roubles. Some was kept to fund Stalin’s newspaper Brdzola, but most was sent to Lenin, hidden in bottles of Georgian wine.
· · ·
“All of them were great friends and everyone loved them: sweet, kind, always cheerful . . . and ever ready to help anyone,” remembers Tatiana Vulikh, who knew the gangsters well. The Outfit was about ten strong, including the guntoting girls Patsia, Anneta and Alexandra. The gangsters lived in a couple of apartments, men in one room, women in another. None of them read much except two of the girls. Mostly consumptive, “They were so poor that they often had to stay in bed because there were not enough trousers to wear between them!”
Stalin socialized with Kamo and Tsintsadze, but he usually gave orders to the Outfit through a bodyguard whom he called his “Technical Assistant,”* though his comrades jokingly dubbed him “Soso’s Adjutant.” Thus that “great conspirator who rarely walked with other comrades” usually kept himself at least one remove from the ordinary gangsters. Behind the gunmen themselves, Stalin ran his own intelligence and courier network: the little boys at Tamamshev’s Caravanserai and at various printing - houses ran errands, delivered pamphlets, gathered intelligence.
The gangsters were not stealing for themselves. The gunmen of other gangs spent the cash on clothes, girls and wine, but Stalin never showed any interest in money, always sharing what he had with his comrades. “Stalin dressed poorly,” wrote Jordania, “was constantly in need of money and, in this way, he differed from other Bolshevik intellectuals who enjoyed the good life—such as Shaumian, Makharadze, Mdivani and Kavtaradze.” Soso’s gangsters shared his Marxist faith and ascetism. Their “gospel was Lenin’sWhat Is to Be Done? They would follow Lenin even against the Party,” says Vulikh. “Their simple - minded goal was to get 200,000–300,000 roubles and give them to Lenin saying, ‘You can do whatever you want with this money.’”
The gangster glamour concealed psychotic Mafia - style brutality: stealing any loot meant death. Stalin ordered Kamo, as Davrichewy witnessed, to execute a comrade suspected of pilfering. The bigger the success, the more dangerous the temptations. After Davrichewy’s 100,000 - rouble heist at Dusheti, the Federalist gangsters fell out among themselves, killing to carve up the swag. One of their leaders stole a tranche of cash, trying to cover his tracks by blaming the peasants in whose garden it had been initially buried. Showing the fraternity between bank robbers, the Federalist embezzler asked Stalin’s gunman Eliso Lominadze to recover the proceeds. Lominadze tortured the peasants for an entire night before realizing they had not stolen the cash. “Afterwards he despaired that he’d been so cruel to innocents,” says Vulikh. So he murdered the real culprit who had commissioned him. If he had found the cash, he probably would have stolen it for the Bolsheviks. In any case, the money was lost to the Socialist - Federalists: the Okhrana observed their leaders spending the rest of the booty in the casinos of the Côte d’Azur.
The secret police struggled to pin down the culprits of these heists: once they found out about Josef Davrichewy, they blamed him for most of them. But first they muddled him up with Stalin because they were both Goreli gangsters who shared the diminutive “Soso”—and then confused them both with Kamo and Tsintsadze. “‘Kamo’ is Tsintsadze,” reported the secret police, “who escaped from Batumi Prison and arrived in Tiflis where he co - operated with Josef Djugashvhili (whose alias must be ‘Soso’).”
In this world of swashbuckling heroics and sordid murders, Stalin evolved his stoical views on the value of human life: “When he heard that a comrade had been killed in an expropriation, Soso would say, ‘What can we do? One can’t pick a rose without pricking oneself on a thorn. Leaves fall from the trees in autumn—but fresh ones grow in the spring.’”1
Yet Soso’s heists were a means to an end: the seizure of power. Now the boy, who had studied Napoleon even in the midst of raucous drinking parties, kidded himself that he “could seize Tiflis and wanted to take it in armed rebellion—he found a map somewhere.” He liked to spread the map on the floor of his hideouts, deploying imaginary regiments in the shape of little tin soldiers. The son of one of his hosts ran to his father to tell him that “Uncle Soso” was “playing soldiers.” When the incredulous host peered into the room, he found Stalin lying on the floor moving tin soldiers around the Tiflis map. Stalin looked up and boasted: “I’ve been appointed commander of the Party’s headquarters to devise the plan.” He presumably planned his bank robberies with similar diligence.2
The stories of deluded but ambitious military operations are revealing because Stalin, who bragged that he had now commanded in battle, always regarded himself as a “military man,” a natural commander - inchief, according to his daughter, Svetlana. One day “Uncle Soso” would play real soldiers with the ten - million - strong Soviet armies that took Berlin, but these tin soldiers were the nearest he ever came to military training.
The bank robberies funded Stalin’s newspapers, which were expensively printed at the Party’s secret Avlabar press. Stalin edited them, and contributed articles under the bylines “Besoshvili” (Son of Beso) and “Koba.”
“I remember well,” says Monoselidze, “how Soso entrusted Makharadze [his co - editor] to write two articles and bring them to the press at 9 a.m. but he didn’t appear until midday the next day, saying he still hadn’t written them . . . Soso came in and he asked why the paper was held up and I told him. He gritted his teeth, stuck a cigarette in his mouth and confronted Makharadze, condemning him . . . Then Soso took the articles from his own pocket and we printed them.” Stalin had written them himself anyway.
Stalin “was a wonderful organizer,” believed Monoselidze, “and hugely serious, but he’d very rarely lose his temper. Soso often didn’t even have cash to buy cigarettes. Once at midnight Kato let him in. He showed me he had fresh vegetables, cucumbers, heads of boiled lamb and pig, and two bottles of red wine.”
“Come on, man,” exclaimed Stalin. “Let’s have a feast! The Party gave me a salary of 10 roubles!”
At the haute couture—cum—terrorist headquarters, the Revolution affected the sweet - natured Kato too: She was in Yerevan Square the day the Cossacks massacred students and workers there. Her sisters, fearing that she was dead, found her helping the wounded in a scene that resembled a minor battlefield.
Stalin and Kato were falling for one another: even when he was on the run, he crept back for trysts in Madame Hervieu’s salon. At one rendezvous in the atelier, Gendarme lieutenant Stroev approached the house with two man - hunting German dogs. Madame Hervieu rushed in and warned the lovers. Soso jumped out of the back window—though probably the Gendarme was innocently calling to order a new uniform. Stalin revelled in this sort of escapade. He so often visited his Menshevik friend Minadora Toroshelidze after dark that her mother - in - law started to grumble that her reputation would suffer.
“What can I do? If they see me by day they’ll nab me,” laughed Stalin. It was to Minadora that he liked to call himself “the Man in Grey.”3
· · ·
On 15 April, the Avlabar printing - press, the Party’s most invaluable treasure, was betrayed and raided by the police. Stalin’s Menshevik enemies accused him of turning double - agent, a story repeated as truth in most biographies. But did he really betray the printing - press?
In March 1906, Stalin attended a Party conference in Tiflis and Baku sporting “a great coat, and a beard on his sharp face—for he was all sharpness—and a many - coloured scarf in cross - stripes, resembling a Jewish prayer - shawl* plus a sort of bowler - hat.” After the conference, Razhden Arsenidze, a Menshevik, claimed that Stalin was arrested but mysteriously released. “I witnessed,” writes Arsenidze, “how Stalin was freed from the Gendarme Department and didn’t appear at Metekhi Prison despite his stories of his triumphant appearance there to the applause of the other prisoners—that was just the fantasy of a self - enamoured storyteller. There were lots of rumours about his treachery . . .”
Stalin was surely arrested after the conference, possibly detained in another Tiflis prison such as Ortachala, and then released. Most likely, he used his ill - gotten gains to bribe Gendarmes, who were in any case confused about his identity. But he attracted, almost courted, such accusations because he was rude and arrogant, and he specialized professionally in sailing close to the wind. There is not the slightest evidence of this treachery—and there is a rather large hole in the story.
This arrest was said to be at the time of the Avlabar raid, but in fact by 15 April Stalin was on a long, well - documented journey, a thousand miles away, in Sweden.4
Around 4 April 1906, Stalin left for Stockholm to see Lenin again, and arrived after a comical journey that featured a shipwreck and an onboard factional punch - up.
He took the train to Petersburg and thence to Hangö in Finland with a hundred others who boarded the ship Oihonna for Stockholm. The passengers included Stalin, Krasin and a circus of clowns and performing - horses. The snobbish Mensheviks tried to spend their funds on first - class tickets, despatching the rougher Bolsheviks to third - class. The delegates drank too much and then got into a fistfight, though whether this involved the clowns is not recorded. Sea air seems to have stimulated pugnacity in the revolutionaries.
Then to cap a truly bizarre scene, just outside the harbour, the Oihonna was shipwrecked and the rescue barge Solid was sent out but could do nothing. Stalin spent the night on a sinking ship wearing a life - jacket until rescued. They boarded another ship, theWellamo, which finally conveyed them to Sweden.
On arrival in Stockholm, Stalin had to report to the police station, where he was interrogated by the walrus - moustached Superintendent Bertil Mogren of the Swedish Criminal Investigation Department, who frequently served as a bodyguard to King Oscar II. Stalin was, he noted, “small, thin, [with] black hair and beard, pockmarked, big nose, grey Ulster coat and leather cap.” Stalin identified himself as “the journalist Ivan Ivanovich Vissarionovich wanted by the [Russian] police,” using his father’s name as his surname—“Son of Vissarion.” He also gave Superintendent Mogren his new birthday—21 December 1879. He had one hundred roubles in his pocket and said he was staying for two weeks at the shabby Hotel Bristol (which no longer exists) near Stockholm Station before heading for Berlin.
The Fourth Congress, opening on 10 April, was a much more important meeting than the Finnish conference because its 156 delegates represented the union of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Polish Socialists and Jewish Bundists. Most of the Mensheviks were Georgians: the Bolsheviks were outnumbered. Jordania, Isidore Ramishvili and Uratadze from Kutaisi Prison were among the sixteen Georgians, of whom Stalin was the only Bolshevik.
In Stockholm, he met many of the men* who would be important in his own road to power: he shared his hotel room with a metalworker, mounted postman and working - class dandy (who favoured winged - collars and ballroom - dancing) named Klimenti Voroshilov, who would become his Defence Commissar, First Marshal and accomplice in the 1937 slaughter of the Soviet military. Blond, rosy - cheeked and blue - eyed Voroshilov, another choirboy, was charmed by the “jolly and zestful” Stalin, “a bundle of nervous energy” who liked to sit on his bed reciting poems by heart.
At the Congress, Stalin listened to the titans of Marxism, Plekhanov, Martov and Lenin, but remained proudly his own man on the two main issues: on the peasantry, Lenin proposed nationalization of the land, while the Mensheviks suggested municipalization. Stalin rejected both: the man who would one day oversee the deaths of 10 million peasants in his collectivization campaign, at this time proposed giving land to the peasants. Lenin was defeated with Stalin’s help.
When the Congress debated whether to run in elections for the Imperial Duma, most Bolsheviks were against, but Lenin supported the idea and voted with the winning Mensheviks. Stalin abstained. The gathering optimistically called itself the Unity Congress, but the Bolsheviks were simply outvoted. Lenin and Krasin, his urbane money - laundering and terrorism maestro, made themselves scarce when the Congress passed a resolution to ban the bank robberies. Defeat, wrote Stalin, “transformed Lenin into a spring of compressed energy which inspired his followers.” But Lenin had no intention of giving up his bank robbing—he needed the money.
Lenin and Krasin must have discussed more bank robberies with Stalin because he arranged for Kamo to travel north from Tiflis to collect guns and bombs from their Finnish villa. If so, this was the first time that Lenin observed Stalin’s value as a ruthless underground operator as well as a forceful independent politician.5
On the way home, Soso met up in Berlin with Alyosha Svanidze, who was studying at Leipzig University, but he was in Tiflis by June.6
“When Soso returned,” recalls Sashiko, “it was hard to recognize him. In Stockholm, the comrades had made him buy a suit, a felt hat and a pipe so he looked like a real European. It was the first time we saw him well dressed.” Sashiko was not the only sister who was impressed.
“Soso and Kato declared their emotions to us,” says Monoselidze. “We started to take the matter in hand.”
On 15 July, Soso addressed a secret meeting at the Avlabar People’s Theatre until the lookouts ran in to warn that the police were surrounding the building. The Bolsheviks burned their papers. But it was too late to vanish. “When the police asked for an explanation,” writes Minadora Toroshelidze, “they all claimed they were ‘rehearsing a play.’”
“I know very well what kind of actors you are!” replied the police - men—but let them go.
Outside Stalin greeted Minadora Toroshelidze, pulling her aside with his patron Tskhakaya. “Kato Svanidze and I are getting married tonight,” he told them. “You’re both invited to come to the party tonight at their house.”
Kato “was very sweet and beautiful: she melted my heart,” Stalin was to tell his daughter, Svetlana. He later confided in a girlfriend “how much he loved her. You can’t imagine what beautiful dresses she used to make!”
A letter he wrote from Berlin, probably on his way home from Stockholm, shows that he respected her. “The news from here promises nothing good,” he wrote, “but no use dwelling on it. Perhaps I’ll find Alyosha and lead him down the ‘wrong path.’ Unless this would make Ekaterina Semyonovna [Kato] unhappy. Your friend Soso.”
Kato worshipped Soso “like a demigod” but understood him. She “was fascinated by Stalin, and enchanted by his ideas. He was charming and she really adored him,” but she knew he was devoted to the cause and that he had a rough temper. In old age, Stalin reminisced that “she was a Rachvelian you know,” meaning that she was good - hearted, beautiful and devoted—but there was more to her too. Kato was educated and emancipated by Georgian standards, and socially superior to Stalin. She helped organize SD fund - raisers and was capable of rescuing and treating the wounded after a Cossack massacre. As her sister’s memoirs make clear, Kato knew perfectly well that Stalin was organizing his bank robberies, including the Yerevan Square outrage.
She wanted a church wedding—and Soso agreed, even though he was an atheist. But most priests refused to marry him because Stalin, then using the name “Galiashvili,” only had false papers. Finally, Monoselidze found Father Kita Tkhinvaleli, of a nearby church, who knew the groom from the seminary. The priest would marry them only at two in the morning.
On the night of 15–16 July, family and friends saw Kato and Soso married in the romantic flickering of candlelight in a small church with Tskhakaya as the groom’s witness. The scruffy Stalin “wasn’t dressed like a bridegroom,” says Elisabedashvili, “and we all laughed throughout the ceremony especially Comrade Soso himself.”
Afterwards, Sashiko arranged a wedding supper attended by the hit men Kamo and Tsintsadze, with whom Stalin was already beginning to plot the Yerevan Square bank robbery. Tskhakaya, the tamada—the Georgian toastmaster—told jokes; Stalin “sang sweet songs in his sweet voice,” while Kamo laughed: “Where are the idiotic police? All their wanted men are here and they could come and trap us like goats!”
The couple were in love. “I was amazed how Soso, who was so severe in his work and to his comrades, could be so tender, affectionate and attentive to his wife,” said Monoselidze. But within weeks,* Kato would learn how hard it was to be married to a man whose real wife and mistress was the Revolution.
She was soon pregnant. “All the time he was thinking how to please her,” wrote Monoselidze, “when he had time . . . But when he was involved in his work, he forgot everything.” Keke, always the realist, was delighted, but she confided in her niece Anna Geladze: “Soso got married. She’s a little woman but what kind of family life is she supposed to conduct, I wonder?”7
There was no honeymoon. Stalin came alive at night, a risky, trigger - happy existence that stayed with him all his life. The Tsar’s ruthless forces of reaction often killed suspects, no questions asked. “It’s enough,” Soso wrote to the Svanidzes, “just to stay alive and the rest will take care of itself.”
Once, at 5 a.m., he and Monoselidze were locking up their secret printing - press when they were challenged as burglars by a policeman who reached for his revolver. But Stalin was quicker on the draw, pulling out his Berdana gun and shouting: “I’m going to shoot!”8
* Bachua Kupriashvili, one of the leading brigands in the Tiflis bank robbery, recorded his memoirs during the Stalin years. He confirms Stalin’s direct command of the Outfit but is careful not to link him directly to its heists. The memoirs have remained forgotten in the Georgian archives for sixty years.
* The word “technical” was a Bolshevik euphemism for terrorism or killing—both Krasin and the Mensheviks called their bomb - making laboratories their “Technical Departments.”
* This must be the scarf, resembling a Jewish prayer - shawl, that Stalin was wearing in the famous police mugshot (see this book’s cover) taken during this mysterious arrest.
* Stalin here met for the first time the Polish socialist Felix Dzerzhinsky, who would become founder of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and his ally in the power struggles after Lenin’s death; Grigory Radomyslsky, the Jewish milkman’s son soon known as “Zinoviev,” his triumvir after Lenin’s death, whom Stalin liquidated with Kamenev in 1936; and Alexei Rykov, Lenin’s successor as Premier, with whom Stalin would share power for a while and then liquidate in 1938. At the Congress, Stalin also met up with old friends Said Devdariani, from the seminary; Kalinin, his future Head of State, whom he knew through the Alliluyevs; and his Tiflis comrade Stepan Shaumian.
* According to Ketevan Gelovani, the granddaughter of Kato’s mother’s sister, whom this author interviewed in Tbilisi, Soso behaved gently towards her except for flashes of temper: “Soon after the wedding, he burned her hand with a cigarette in a fury, but she loved him and he was mostly so kind and tender to her.” There is a legend in Finland that he took her on honeymoon to Karelia; however, there is no evidence that she accompanied him to Sweden, and besides they were not yet married.