Kamo Goes Insane: The Game of Bandits and Cossacks - Young Stalin

Biographies & Memoirs


Kamo Goes Insane:
The Game of Bandits and Cossacks

On 10 May 1907, Kamo was setting the fuse on one of Krasin’s bombs when it exploded in his face. He almost lost an eye, but he managed to get secret treatment and recover sufficiently to lead the Outfit on the big day that was getting closer. The other gangsters missed their arrested chief, Tsintsadze, considering Kamo a self - promoting attention - seeker. “Kamo was very pleased with himself,” said Kupriashvili, “showing off his value to important comrades and bragging.”

Stalin got home by 4 June, just after Nicholas II’s energetic Premier, Peter Stolypin, launched his reactionary coup, resetting the Duma election rules to ensure a conservative majority and intensifying his harsh crackdown on the revolutionaries. Many were arrested, many deported to Siberia in prison - trains dubbed “Stolypin carriages,” and so many hanged that the noose was nicknamed “Stolypin’s necktie.” There had been 86,000 political prisoners in 1905; by 1909 there were 170,000.

Kamo gathered a large team of Georgia’s finest hoodlums and bank robbers, including the core of the Outfit and the five female shooters. They lived and waited in a small communal apartment while Kamo himself rented a grand residence, “living under cover as a prince.” The Okhrana believed there were about sixty brigands involved in the heist, so it is likely that the Bolsheviks recruited help from the SRs and other top triggermen: the terrorists often cooperated, most recently when Krasin provided the SRs with the bombs to dynamite Premier Stolypin’s home. If the SRs hoped for a cut of the booty, they were to be disappointed.

Stalin informed the Bolshevik Tiflis Committee of Lenin’s orders given to him in Berlin; they approved the operation. He must have expected local outrage and international scandal: Kamo and the gunmen resigned temporarily from the Party, on Lenin’s suggestion, thus technically liberating themselves from the London resolution. Stalin and Shaumian planned to move to Baku directly afterwards. The Bolsheviks were finished in Georgia, with as few as 500 supporters. Soso was consciously burning his Georgian bridges and starting afresh in a more ambitious enviroment.*

Early on 13 June, Kamo confirmed to Stalin and Shaumian that the heist would take place that day. The gangsters waited at the Tilipuchuri Tavern, where Stalin was supposedly seen early that morning. Somewhere before 10 a.m., rigged up in his officer’s uniform, swashbuckling his Circassian sabre, Kamo rode out into Yerevan Square; the gangster boys and girls took up their positions. It was a warm summer’s day.

When the bombs shook the city, Kato Svanidze Djugashvili was cuddling Stalin’s three - month - old baby, Laddie, on the balcony beside her sister, Sashiko. “We rushed inside, absolutely terrified,” says Sashiko Svanidze. For the rest of the day, the wounded were treated in makeshift surgeries. Cossacks and Gendarmes galloped through the city, raiding houses, cordoning off boroughs and blocks in the hope of recovering the money before it left Tiflis.

“That night,” reports Sashiko, “Soso came home and told us that Kamo and his gang had done it, stealing 250,000 roubles for the Party.” He must have told the sisters about Kamo’s playacting because they realized why he had just borrowed their father’s sword. The Svanidze memoirs show that, far from being innocently oblivious of Stalin’s double life, Kato was perfectly aware that she was married to the godfather of bank robberies in the Caucasus. But Stalin suddenly informed the family that his wife and baby were to leave imminently for Baku. The Svanidzes did not approve. They must have felt strongly, because even in the 1930s the family dared criticize Stalin for taking her on the thirteen - hour train ride “in such a hot summer” and with a baby. But it was to no avail: “Soso left for Baku and took Kato,” grabbing 15,000 roubles for his future plans.

Kamo lay low. Before leaving, he graciously offered Stalin’s “inside man” 10,000 roubles for his help. Voznesensky graciously accepted 5,000.

Now things again started to go wrong. The police announced that 100,000 roubles in 500 denomination notes were marked. Some gangsters wanted to burn the notes. Kamo refused. The rest of the cash was in smaller denominations.

All the hoodlums wanted to meet Lenin, but Kamo’s eye needed foreign treatment, so it was he, bearing most of the money, who took the train via Baku to Lenin in Finland. Prince Koki Dadiani, whose family had once ruled Mingrelia, again lent Kamo his passport. Adding a new layer to this favourite disguise, Kamo now posed as the Prince accompanied by his new young bride (one of the female gangsters, ironically, but usefully, a policeman’s daughter) on the day after his wedding. The Outfit’s girls were already experienced in hiding money and dynamite on their persons: the dynamite gave off a harsh acidic stench especially when strapped to a sweating body, so the ladies had to douse themselves in scent. Money was easier, the swag travelled in the bride’s lingerie and clothes. Venal policemen had probably been bribed to turn a blind eye.

Kamo delivered the equivalent of around £1.7 million ($3.4 million) in today’s money to Lenin, enough to fund the faction for some time. Kamo spent the summer with his hero, planning a giant “spectacular.” But the reaction soon caught up with Lenin, who fled to Geneva, where “the Swiss burghers,” writes Krupskaya, “were frightened to death . . . and could talk of nothing except the Russian expropriations.” “Georgia” became a byword for gangsterism: when Tskhakaya visited them in a chokha coat, their landlady almost fainted with alarm and “with a shriek of fright, she slammed the door in his face.”

This was far from the end of the story: the Tiflis bank robbery made Kamo a legend,* but its repercussions would help shatter the Party and were still threatening to damage Stalin as late as 1918.1

As in every successful criminal enterprise, the hoodlums were soon fighting over the spoils. The police had published the serial numbers of 100,000 roubles of the notes. They would be very hard to cash, but Krasin’s Technical Group forger, known as Fat Fanny, changed some of the numbers on the notes. Lenin and Krasin decided to proceed, particularly since the rest of the heist - money was clean. The money was instantly smuggled abroad. Some was laundered through the Credit Lyonnais Bank. Litvinov distributed the cash to his operatives to change the money in different cities.

Meanwhile the secret police frantically pulled out the stops to catch the culprits, but they could discover nothing concrete. Their Tiflis informers, particularly one code - named “the Fat Lady,” revealed that SR gunmen had participated but had been robbed of their share of the spoils.

Their first suspect was the other Gori bank robber, Davrichewy, who was (according to Okhrana reports) “hiding in Lausanne under the name of Kamo.”

The Okhrana knew that “Kamo sent all the money to Krasin and Lenin,” but now the revolutionaries started to fall out. Lenin cashed at least 140,000 roubles from the proceeds of Kamo’s robbery. But in 1908 he embarked on a vicious if esoteric feud that would again tear the Party in half. He broke with Bogdanov and Krasin, who purloined about 40,000 roubles of the Tiflis money for themselves. Litvinov sent “two Georgian terrorists” to tell them that if they did not return it fast, the Georgians would “bump off” one of the Central Committee.

Lenin was soon short of money again. Bank robberies were not his only dubious source of funding. He ordered a pair of roguish Bolshevik con men to seduce two unprepossessing sisters who had inherited the huge fortune of their uncle, Schmidt, the late industrialist. The double seductions were successful, though Lenin admitted that he would not have been able to do it himself. One of the seducers, Victor Taratuta, stole considerable sums of the inheritance to spend on high living before passing on the remainder to Lenin.

Kamo, now in Berlin, decided to help out by pulling off the biggest bank robbery of all, a 15 - million - rouble heist “that would fund the Party for six years but cost at least 200 lives.” Hoarding stocks of dynamite and using a passport in the name of Mirsky, an insurance agent, he travelled in August to Berlin to procure explosives. But Lenin’s man in Berlin was Dr. Zhitomirsky, the double - agent who had informed the Okhrana about the London Congress. Zhitomirsky now betrayed Kamo.

On 27 October/9 November 1907, the German police raided Kamo’s hotel room and found numbered banknotes and 200 dynamite fuses, twelve fulminates of mercury and twenty electric batteries. The Okhrana were excited but they still did not know the identity of “Mirsky.” On 31 October/13 November, Garting, director of the Tsar’s Foreign Intelligence Service, announced triumphantly that “Mirsky” was planning a “vast heist” and that he had some of the Tiflis banknotes, but there was no proof of his participation in the actual outrage. The Okhrana still believed that Davrichewy was “Kamo.” So who was “Mirsky”?

Finally the Okhrana got lucky. On 1 March 1908, a former Bolshevik brigand in Kutaisi Prison, Arsen Karsidze, revealed that the chief bank robber was Simon Ter - Petrossian, known as Kamo, now held as “Mirsky” at Berlin’s Alt - Moabit Prison. Another report confirmed that Davrichewy was in exile in Switzerland and was not Kamo after all.

The Tsar’s government applied to extradite Kamo, who would face the death penalty. Krasin rushed to Berlin to orchestrate his defence and hired the German leftist attorney Oscar Kohn. Krasin advised Kamo to feign insanity, a role he was more qualified to play than most.

Kamo started to act like a madman in a way that only someone who had truly cracked could. He managed to maintain it for two whole years. First he started to bawl, cry, tear his clothes, beat the jailers. They moved him to a frozen dungeon where he was kept nude for nine days. He apparently did not sleep and spent the nights standing up for four months. Then he stopped eating; they force - fed him by tube. He pulled the hairs out of his head; tried to hang himself but was cut down; slit his wrists but was resuscitated. In May 1908, they moved him to Berlin’s Bukh psychiatric hospital for diagnosis. He copied other patients and adopted that great cliché of madness: he pretended to be Napoleon. The doctors were still sceptical and decided to put him through a series of torments that would have broken anyone else. He was burned by a red - hot iron and needles were driven under his nails, but he withstood it all. At last the Germans accepted that he was insane and, washing their hands of the troublesome loon, handed him over to the Russians, who, regardless, put him on trial for the Tiflis “outrage” and its fifty casualties. In court, the shambling, raving Kamo suddenly pulled a bird, Petka the greenfinch, out of his sleeve during the trial and talked crazily to his avian friend instead of the lawyers.

Premier Stolypin and the viceroy, Vorontsov - Dashkov, were determined to hang him. But his lawyer, Kohn, orchestrated such a successful European publicity campaign against the execution of a lunatic that Stolypin reluctantly decided that hanging would “unfavourably affect Russian interests.”

In tests, the Russian doctors found that Kamo’s skin did not register pain. They stuck more needles under his fingernails, then electrocuted him. “The burned flesh,” Kamo mused, “stung terribly.” Those doctors too were convinced.

In September 1910, Kamo was declared insane and locked up forever in the Metekhi Fortress’s unit for the criminally insane. The Bolsheviks acclaimed Kamo’s heroism, but one doctor explained that “only a terribly ill patient in a state of madness behaves this way.” Kamo, writes the historian Anna Geifman, was a creature of “unresolved passions and anxieties . . . unable to function normally . . . Feigning insanity, he actually was insane.”

Meanwhile the police tracked the marked banknotes which started turning up all over Europe. In Paris Litvinov found a detective under his hotel bed: he was arrested with twelve marked banknotes but was deported to London. Krasin was picked up in Finland. Other moneychangers were arrested in Munich, Zurich, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm.

“The Mensheviks did not get a penny [of the Tiflis heist cash],” reported the gleeful Okhrana, so “they demand on the basis of the resolutions of the London Congress to expel all these expropriators from the Party.”

Stalin was in trouble.2

The outraged Mensheviks commissioned three different committees, operating over two years, to investigate who had organized the Tiflis bank robbery, one headed by Jordania in Tiflis, a second by Jibladze in Baku, and a third abroad, under Chicherin. The murderous heists damaged their reputation, but they also wanted to destroy Lenin, using Stalin and Kamo.

The Mensheviks managed to interrogate virtually all the key culprits, including Stalin himself, interviewed as “Comrade Koba” in Baku. Astonishingly, this survives in the archives, the first direct evidence of his involvement. The “inside men,” Kasradze and Voznesensky, admitted everything, blaming Stalin. Lenin asserted his own innocence to Chicherin, since the heists “had been carried out by non - Party members.” The Committees in Tiflis and Baku, according to Arsenidze and Uratadze, voted to expel Stalin. But the Party was already split, hence it is questionable if the Mensheviks had the power to expel a Bolshevik.

They nonetheless collected the evidence against Stalin to confront Lenin. In August 1908, they met in Geneva, where Martov lambasted Lenin. Noe Ramishvili named names—including the usual suspects Kamo and Tsintsadze—then declared that “all of these acted under the direction of Comrade Koba.”

Lenin jumped up to interrupt. “Don’t give the family name of this last,” he snapped.

“I won’t,” smiled Ramishvili, “because we all know that he’s well known as the Caucasian Lenin.” Stalin would have been proud.

“You take responsibility that these names won’t be divulged to the police?” insisted Lenin. The secrecy of Stalin’s meetings with Lenin had paid off: the Mensheviks could nail Stalin but could not implicate Lenin. But if any proof were needed of their relationship as early as 1907–8, Lenin’s protection of Stalin provides it.

It seems that Stalin was expelled, though surely not by the Central Committee but locally, in Tiflis and Baku. If proven, even this would have been a real blot on his revolutionary legitimacy.

When the Bolsheviks came to power with Stalin as one of Lenin’s closest henchmen, the Mensheviks tried to undermine them by resuscitating the whole affair. Martov published an article in 1918 that listed three examples of Stalin’s banditry—the Tiflis heist, the murder of a Baku worker, and the piratical holdup of another ship called the Nicholas I off Baku. Worse, Martov wrote that Stalin had been expelled from the Party in 1907. In 1918, Stalin needed the credentials of a long - serving Old Bolshevik and sensed danger in the expulsion story. So, somewhat hysterically, he attacked this “contemptible act of an unbalanced, defeated man” and sued Martov for “this filthy libel” before the Revolutionary Tribunal, one of the strangest trials in Soviet history.

Stalin neither denied nor admitted his role in the heists, but insisted, “Never in my life was I tried before any Party organization and expelled,” which was probably literally true because the Committees in Tiflis and Baku were Menshevik, not Bolshevik, and any expulsion was informal. Witnesses were going to be summoned to Moscow, but it was hard to do so during the Civil War. The trial was cancelled, and Martov reprimanded, but Stalin had made his point.

“You’re a wretched individual,” he snarled at Martov, who went into exile.* When Stalin returned to Tiflis in 1921 as a conquering Bolshevik, he was booed at a meeting and openly called a “bandit” to his face: he stormed out. Stalin’s brigandage and expulsion were never mentioned again during his reign.

Most important, Lenin did not take Stalin’s local expulsions seriously: “Such expulsions are almost always based on errors, unverified reports or misunderstandings . . .” Of course he knew more about it than he let on, but he increasingly recognized that Stalin, terrorist, gangster and covert organizer, had the “right stuff.”3

The uproar about the Georgian job had been spectactular, but the heists were not over yet. The game of “bandits and Cossacks” was rougher still in Baku, where the stakes were much higher than in Tiflis. They proved too high for Kato.

* The Bolshevik position in Georgia was undermined by the assassination of the hugely popular Prince Ilya Chavchavadze, who had published Soso’s poems, in August 1907. The Bolsheviks had attacked his patriarchical version of Georgian culture and, it was widely believed, had decided to kill him; there is some evidence that Stalin’s friend Sergo Ordzhonikidze organized or took part in the assassination. It may be that the SDs played no role in the murder at all. Stalin always praised Chavchavadze’s poetry in his old age and there is no evidence that he ordered the hit, but he was very close to Sergo and he was certainly more than capable of separating literary merit from cruel necessity: politics always came first.

Stalin himself later implied he was in the Tamamshev Caravanserai and saw Tsintsadze give the gangsters their pep talk, but Tsintsadze had just been arrested. Perhaps the old dictator was muddling this bank robbery with another, that of 1912 (see Chapter 29). In 1907 Kamo was presumably the pep talker.

* The other gangsters, who had actually conducted many more heists, were jealous of Kamo’s fame. “Our Outfit was called the Kamo Group,” says Bachua Kupriashvili, “but it wasn’t true. We accepted Kamo into the group over a year after it had been set up. He played his role in this big action after which everything was ascribed to him . . . But Kote Tsintsadze, Intskirveli, Eliso Lominadze . . . were not inferior and probably superior to Kamo.”

Lenin published an epistemological polemic, “Materialism and Empiricism,” which attacked Alexander Bogdanov’s mystical philosophical relativism, which he believed threatened Marxist materialism.

* After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin’s Bolshevik legitimacy became hugely important as he tried to prove himself worthy to become the heir. If Martov had proved Stalin’s expulsion, he might have saved Russia from Stalinism.

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