Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

by Stephen Kotkin


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A magnificent new biography that revolutionizes our understanding of Stalin and his world

It has the quality of myth: a poor cobbler’s son, a seminarian from an oppressed outer province of the Russian empire, reinvents himself as a top leader in a band of revolutionary zealots. When the band seizes control of the country in the aftermath of total world war, the former seminarian ruthlessly dominates the new regime until he stands as absolute ruler of a vast and terrible state apparatus, with dominion over Eurasia. While still building his power base within the Bolshevik dictatorship, he embarks upon the greatest gamble of his political life and the largest program of social reengineering ever attempted: the collectivization of all agriculture and industry across one sixth of the earth. Millions will die, and many more millions will suffer, but the man will push through to the end against all resistance and doubts.

Where did such power come from?  In Stalin, Stephen Kotkin offers a biography that, at long last, is equal to this shrewd, sociopathic, charismatic dictator in all his dimensions. The character of Stalin emerges as both astute and blinkered, cynical and true believing, people oriented and vicious, canny enough to see through people but prone to nonsensical beliefs. We see a man inclined to despotism who could be utterly charming, a pragmatic ideologue, a leader who obsessed over slights yet was a precocious geostrategic thinker—unique among Bolsheviks—and yet who made egregious strategic blunders. Through it all, we see Stalin’s unflinching persistence, his sheer force of will—perhaps the ultimate key to understanding his indelible mark on history.

Stalin gives an intimate view of the Bolshevik regime’s inner geography of power, bringing to the fore fresh materials from Soviet military intelligence and the secret police. Kotkin rejects the inherited wisdom about Stalin’s psychological makeup, showing us instead how Stalin’s near paranoia was fundamentally political, and closely tracks the Bolshevik revolution’s structural paranoia, the predicament of a Communist regime in an overwhelmingly capitalist world, surrounded and penetrated by enemies. At the same time, Kotkin demonstrates the impossibility of understanding Stalin’s momentous decisions outside of the context of the tragic history of imperial Russia.

The product of a decade of intrepid research, Stalin is a landmark achievement, a work that recasts the way we think about the Soviet Union, revolution, dictatorship, the twentieth century, and indeed the art of history itself.

Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 will be published by Penguin Press in October 2017

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594203794
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/06/2014
Pages: 976
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen Kotkin is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He directs Princeton’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies program. He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times, among other publications, and is the author of several books, including Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, Uncivil Society, Armageddon Averted, and Magnetic Mountain.

Read an Excerpt

businessman, benefactor, fellow historian




In all his stature he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the future. This is the most famous and at the same time the most unknown person in the world.

Henri Barbusse, Stalin (1935)

RUSSIA’S DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE NESTED across a greater expanse than that of any other state, before or since. The realm came to encompass not just the palaces of St. Petersburg and the golden domes of Moscow, but Polish and Yiddish-speaking Wilno and Warsaw, the German-founded Baltic ports of Riga and Reval, the Persian and Turkic-language oases of Bukhara and Samarkand (site of Tamerlane’s tomb), and the Ainu people of Sakhalin Island near the Pacific Ocean. “Russia” encompassed the cataracts and Cossack settlements of wildly fertile Ukraine and the swamps and trappers of Siberia. It acquired borders on the Arctic and Danube, the Mongolian plateau, and Germany. The Caucasus barrier, too, was breached and folded in, bringing Russia onto the Black and Caspian seas, and giving it borders with Iran and the Ottoman empire. Imperial Russia came to resemble a religious kaleidoscope with a plenitude of Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues, Old Believer prayer houses, Catholic cathedrals, Armenian Apostolic churches, Buddhist temples, and shaman totems. The empire’s vast territory served as a merchant’s paradise, epitomized by the slave markets on the steppes and, later, the crossroad fairs in the Volga valley. Whereas the Ottoman empire stretched over parts of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa), some observers in the early twentieth century imagined that the two-continent Russian imperium was neither Europe nor Asia but a third entity unto itself: Eurasia. Be that as it may, what the Venetian ambassador to the Sublime Porte (Agosto Nani) had once said of the Ottoman realm—“more a world than a state”—applied no less to Russia. Upon that world, Stalin’s rule would visit immense upheaval, hope, and grief.

Stalin’s origins, in the Caucasus market and artisan town of Gori, were exceedingly modest—his father was a cobbler, his mother, a washerwoman and seamstress—but in 1894 he entered an Eastern Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis, the grandest city of the Caucasus, where he studied to become a priest. If in that same year a subject of the Russian empire had fallen asleep and awoken thirty years later, he or she would have been confronted by multiple shocks. By 1924 something called a telephone enabled near instantaneous communication over vast distances. Vehicles moved without horses. Humans flew in the sky. X-rays could see inside people. A new physics had dreamed up invisible electrons inside atoms, as well as the atom’s disintegration in radioactivity, and one theory stipulated that space and time were interrelated and curved. Women, some of whom were scientists, flaunted newfangled haircuts and clothes, called fashions. Novels read like streams of dreamlike consciousness, and many celebrated paintings depicted only shapes and colors.1 As a result of what was called the Great War (1914–18), the almighty German kaiser had been deposed and Russia’s two big neighboring nemeses, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, had disappeared. Russia itself was mostly intact, but it was ruled by a person of notably humble origins who also hailed from the imperial borderlands.2 To our imaginary thirty-year Rip Van Winkle in 1924, this circumstance—a plebeian and a Georgian having assumed the mantle of the tsars—could well have been the greatest shock of all.

Stalin’s ascension to the top from an imperial periphery was uncommon but not unique. Napoleone di Buonaparte had been born the second of eight children in 1769 on Corsica, a Mediterranean island annexed only the year before by France; that annexation (from the Republic of Genoa) allowed this young man of modest privilege to attend French military schools. Napoleon (in the French spelling) never lost his Corsican accent, yet he rose to become not only a French general but, by age thirty-five, hereditary emperor of France. The plebeian Adolf Hitler was born entirely outside the country he would dominate: he hailed from the Habsburg borderlands, which had been left out of the 1871 German unification. In 1913, at age twenty-four, he relocated from Austria-Hungary to Munich, just in time, it turned out, to enlist in the imperial German army for the Great War. In 1923, Hitler was convicted of high treason for what came to be known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, but a German nationalist judge, ignoring the applicable law, refrained from deporting the non-German citizen. Two years later, Hitler surrendered his Austrian citizenship and became stateless. Only in 1932 did he acquire German citizenship, when he was naturalized on a pretext (nominally, appointed as a “land surveyor” in Braunschweig, a Nazi party electoral stronghold). The next year Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, on his way to becoming dictator. By the standards of a Hitler or a Napoleon, Stalin grew up as an unambiguous subject of his empire, Russia, which had annexed most of Georgia fully seventy-seven years before his birth. Still, his leap from the lowly periphery was improbable.

Stalin’s dictatorial regime presents daunting challenges of explanation. His power of life and death over every single person across eleven time zones—more than 200 million people at prewar peak—far exceeded anything wielded by tsarist Russia’s greatest autocrats. Such power cannot be discovered in the biography of the young Soso Jughashvili. Stalin’s dictatorship, as we shall see, was a product of immense structural forces: the evolution of Russia’s autocratic political system; the Russian empire’s conquest of the Caucasus; the tsarist regime’s recourse to a secret police and entanglement in terrorism; the European castle-in-the-air project of socialism; the underground conspiratorial nature of Bolshevism (a mirror image of repressive tsarism); the failure of the Russian extreme right to coalesce into a fascism despite all the ingredients; global great-power rivalries, and a shattering world war. Without all of this, Stalin could never have gotten anywhere near power. Added to these large-scale structural factors were contingencies such as the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II during wartime, the conniving miscalculations of Alexander Kerensky (the last head of the Provisional Government that replaced the tsar in 1917), the actions and especially inactions of Bolshevism’s many competitors on the left, Lenin’s many strokes and his early death in January 1924, and the vanity and ineptitude of Stalin’s Bolshevik rivals.

Consider further that the young Jughashvili could have died from smallpox, as did so many of his neighbors, or been carried off by the other fatal diseases that were endemic in the slums of Batum and Baku, where he agitated for socialist revolution. Competent police work could have had him sentenced to forced labor (katorga) in a silver mine, where many a revolutionary met an early death. Jughashvili could have been hanged by the authorities in 1906–7 as part of the extrajudicial executions in the crackdown following the 1905 revolution (more than 1,100 were hanged in 1905–6).3 Alternatively, Jughashvili could have been murdered by the innumerable comrades he cuckolded. If Stalin had died in childhood or youth, that would not have stopped a world war, revolution, chaos, and likely some form of authoritarianism redux in post-Romanov Russia. And yet the determination of this young man of humble origins to make something of himself, his cunning, his honing of organizational talents would help transform the entire structural landscape of the early Bolshevik revolution from 1917. Stalin brutally, artfully, indefatigably built a personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship. Then he launched and saw through a bloody socialist remaking of the entire former empire, presided over a victory in the greatest war in human history, and took the Soviet Union to the epicenter of global affairs. More than for any other historical figure, even Gandhi or Churchill, a biography of Stalin, as we shall see, eventually comes to approximate a history of the world.

 • • • 

WORLD HISTORY IS DRIVEN BY GEOPOLITICS. Among the great powers, the British empire, more than any other state, shaped the world in modern times. Between 1688 and 1815, the French fought the British for global supremacy. Despite France’s greater land mass and population, Britain emerged the winner, mostly thanks to a superior, lean, fiscal-military state.4 By the final defeat of Napoleon, which was achieved in a coalition, the British were the world’s dominant power. Their ascendancy, moreover, coincided with China’s decline under the Qing dynasty, rendering British power—political, military, industrial, cultural, and fiscal—genuinely global. The felicitous phrase “the sun never sets” that was used to describe the extent of the empire’s holdings originated in connection with the earlier empire of Spain, but the saying was applied, and stuck, to the British. In the 1870s, however, two ruptures occurred in the British-dominated world: Prince Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, realized on the battlefield by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, which, in lightning fashion, led to the appearance of a surpassing new power on the European continent; and the Meiji restoration in Japan, which imparted tremendous drive to a new power in East Asia. All of a sudden, imperial Russia faced the world’s most dynamic new power on its restive western border, and Asia’s most dynamic on its underpopulated eastern border. Russia had entered a new world. This was the world into which Stalin was born.

Even the package of attributes that we call modernity was a result not of some inherent sociological process, a move out of tradition, but of a vicious geopolitical competition in which a state had to match the other great powers in modern steel production, modern militaries, and a modern, mass-based political system, or be crushed and potentially colonized.5 These were challenges that confronted conservative establishments especially. Everyone knows that Karl Marx, the radical German journalist and philosopher, loomed over imperial Russia like over no other place. But for most of Stalin’s lifetime, it was another German—and a conservative—who loomed over the Russian empire: Otto von Bismarck. A country squire from a Protestant Junker family in eastern Brandenburg who had attended the University of Gottingen, joined a Burschenschaften (fraternity), and was known as a solid drinker and devotee of the female of the species, Bismarck had held no administrative posts as late as 1862, although he had been ambassador to Russia and to France. But in fewer than ten years, he had risen to become the Iron Chancellor and, using Prussia as his base, forged a mighty new country. Prussia, the proverbial “army in search of a nation,” had found one. At the same time, the rightist German chancellor showed rulers everywhere how to uphold modern state power by cultivating a broader political base, developing heavy industry, introducing social welfare, and juggling alliances with and against an array of other ambitious great powers.

Bismarck the statesman was one for the ages. He craftily upended his legions of opponents, both outside and inside the German principalities, and instigated three swift, decisive, yet limited wars to crush Denmark, then Austria, then France, but he kept the state of Austria-Hungary on the Danube for the sake of the balance of power. He created pretexts to attack when in a commanding position or baited the other countries into launching the wars after he had isolated them diplomatically. He made sure to have alternatives, and played these alternatives off against each other. That said, Bismarck had had no master plan for German unity—his enterprise was an improvisation, driven partly by domestic political considerations (to tame the liberals in Prussia’s parliament). But he had constantly worked circumstances and luck to supreme advantage, breaking through structural limitations, creating new realities on the ground. “Politics is less a science than an art,” Bismarck would say. “It is not a subject that can be taught. One must have the talent for it. Even the best advice is of no avail if improperly carried out.”6 He further spoke of politics in terms of cards, dice, and other games of chance. “One can be as shrewd as the shrewdest in this world and still at any moment go like a child into the dark,” Bismarck had remarked on the victory in the war he instigated in 1864 against Denmark.7 This he complained was “a thankless job. . . . One has to reckon with a series of probabilities and improbabilities and base one’s plans upon this reckoning.” Bismarck did not invoke virtue, but only power and interests. Later this style of rule would become known as realpolitik, a term coined by August von Rochau (1810-73), a German National Liberal disappointed in the failure to break through to a constitution in 1848. In its origins, realpolitik signified effective practical politics to realize idealistic aims. Bismarck’s style was more akin to the term raison d’etat: calculating, amoral reason of state. Instead of principles, there were objectives; instead of morality, means.8 Bismarck was widely hated until he proved brilliantly successful, then lionized beyond reason for having smashed France, made a vassal out of Austria, and united Germany.

Bismarck went on to form the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy (1882) and sign a secret “reinsurance treaty” with Russia (1888), extracting neutrality in the event of a conflict, thereby obviating a possible two-front war against France and Russia and accentuating the new Germany’s mastery of the continent. His gifts were those of the inner sanctum. He did not possess a strong voice or self-confidence in speaking, and did not spend much time amid the public. Moreover, he was not the ruler: he served at the pleasure of the king (and then kaiser), Wilhelm I. In that all-important relationship, Bismarck showed psychological skill and tenacity, ceaselessly, efficaciously manipulating Wilhelm I, threatening his resignation, pulling all manner of histrionics. Wilhelm I, for his part, proved to be a diligent, considerate, and intelligent monarch, with the smarts to defer to Bismarck on policy and to attend to the myriad feathers his Iron Chancellor ruffled.9 Bismarck strategized to make himself indispensable partly by making everything as complex as possible, so that he alone knew how things worked (this became known as his combinations). He had so many balls up in the air at all times that he could never stop scrambling to prevent any from dropping, even as he was tossing up still more. It must also be kept in mind that Bismarck enjoyed the benefit of the world’s then-best land army (and perhaps second-best navy).

Other would-be statesmen across Europe went to school with Bismarck’s example of “politics as art.”10 To be sure, from the perspective of London, which had well-established rule of law, Bismarck appeared as a menace. But from the perspective of St. Petersburg, where the challenges were finding a bulwark against leftist extremism, he looked like salvation. From any vantage point, his aggrandizement of Prussia via a German unification—without the support of a mass movement, with no significant previous experience of government, and against an array of formidable interests—ranks among the greatest diplomatic achievements by any leader in the last two centuries.11 Moreover, paying indirect homage to a ruler he had vanquished, France’s Napoleon III, Bismarck introduced universal manhood suffrage, banking conservatives’ political fortunes on the peasants’ German nationalism to afford dominance of parliament. “If Mephistopheles climbed up the pulpit and read the Gospel, could anyone be inspired by this prayer?” huffed a newspaper of Germany’s outflanked liberals. What is more, Bismarck goaded Germany’s conservatives to agree to broad social welfare legislation, outflanking the socialists, too. What made Bismarck’s unification feat still more momentous was the added circumstance that the newly unified Germany soon underwent a phenomenal economic surge. Seemingly overnight the country vaulted past the world’s number one power, Great Britain, in key modern industries such as steel and chemicals. As Britain became consumed with its (relative) “decline,” the new Bismarckian Reich pushed to realign the world order. Germany was “like a great boiler,” one Russian observed, “developing surplus steam at extreme speed, for which an outlet is required.”12 As we shall see, Russia’s establishment—or, at least, its more able elements—became obsessed with Bismarck. Not one but two Germans, Bismarck and Marx, constituted imperial Russia’s other double-headed eagle.

 • • • 

STALIN SEEMS WELL KNOWN TO US. An older image—that his father beat him; the Orthodox seminary oppressed him; he developed a “Lenin complex” to surpass his mentor, then studied up on Ivan the Terrible, all of which led to the slaughter of millions—has long been unconvincing, even in its sophisticated versions that combine analyses of Russian political culture and personality.13 Humiliation does often serve as the wellspring of savagery, but it is not clear that Stalin suffered the predominantly traumatic childhood usually attributed to him. Despite a malformed body and many illnesses, he exhibited a vigorous intellect, a thirst for self-improvement, and a knack for leadership. True, he had a mischievous streak. “Little Soso was very naughty,” recalled his companion Grigory Elisabedashvili. “He loved his catapult and homemade bow. Once, a herdsman was bringing his animals home when Soso jumped out and catapulted one in the head. The ox went crazy, the herd stampeded and the herdsman chased Soso, who disappeared.”14 But cousins who knew the young Stalin were able to keep in touch until his death.15 Many of his schoolteachers also survived to compose memoirs.16 Moreover, even if his childhood had been entirely miserable, as many have one-sidedly portrayed it, such a circumstance would explain little of the later Stalin. Nor can we find much help in Lev Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin as a mere product of the bureaucracy, a “komitetchik (committeeman) par excellence”—that is, a supposedly lesser being than either a real proletarian or a real intellectual (aka Trotsky).17 Stalin’s father and mother were both born serfs and they never got any formal education, but he emerged from a family of strivers, including his much maligned father. And Stalin’s hometown, Gori, usually derided as a backwater, afforded an important measure of educational opportunity.

A newer image of the young Stalin, calling upon a wide array of recently available source materials (including reminiscences solicited and shaped in the 1930s by Lavrenti Beria), has recaptured the capable student and the talent. These memoirs, though, have also been used to depict an implausibly swashbuckling figure, a ladies’ man and macho bandit of the colorful Orientalist variety.18 This makes for gripping reading. It also contains several valuable revelations. Still, the new image, too, falls short of being persuasive. The young Stalin had a penis, and he used it. But Stalin was not some special Lothario. Both Marx and Engels fathered illegitimate children—Marx by his housekeeper, a paternity Engels protectively claimed—yet, obviously, that is not the reason Marx entered history.19 A young Saddam Hussein wrote poetry, too, but the Iraqi was a bona fide assassin decades before becoming dictator in Baghdad. The young Stalin was a poet but no assassin. Nor was he some kind of Mafia don of the Caucasus, however much Beria might have thought such an image flattering of Stalin.20 The young Stalin did attract small groups of followers at different times, but nothing permanent. Indeed, the overriding fact of Stalin’s underground revolutionary activity is that he never consolidated a political base in the Caucasus. Stalin did not bring with him to the capital the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s “Tikriti network.”21 Examined soberly, the young Stalin had decidedly mixed success in mounting illegal printing presses, fomenting strikes, and plotting financial expropriations. His behind-the-scenes role in a spectacular 1907 daylight robbery in Tiflis—a fact established by Miklós Kun and beautifully rendered by Simon Sebag Montefiore—does show that the young Stalin would do just about anything for the cause.22 But the robbery was not an end in itself. There was a cause: socialism and social justice, alongside the project of his own advancement. Nothing—not the teenage girls, the violence, the camaraderie—diverted him from what became his life mission.

This book will avoid speculative leaps or what is known as filling in the gaps in the record of Stalin’s life.23 It will seek to navigate with care among the vivid yet dubious stories. The future Stalin’s past of underground revolutionary activities in the Caucasus is bedeviled by regime lies, rivals’ slander, and missing documents.24 Still, we can say for sure that the assertions he was especially treacherous in betraying comrades are comical in the context of what went on in Social Democrat ranks. Stalin was imperious (as imperious as Lenin and Trotsky) and prickly (as prickly as Lenin and Trotsky). He remembered perceived slights, something of a cliche in the blood-feud Caucasus culture but also common among narcissists (another word for many a professional revolutionary). True, more than most, the young Stalin perpetually antagonized colleagues by asserting claims to leadership whatever his formal assignments and achievements; then, invariably, he viewed himself as the wronged party. Stalin was often gregarious but also moody and aloof, which made him seem suspicious. And he generally gravitated toward people like himself: parvenu intelligentsia of humble background. (He “surrounded himself exclusively with people who respected him unconditionally and gave in to him on every issue,” one foe later wrote.)25 The wild revolutionary years of 1905–8 notwithstanding, the young Stalin was really mostly a pundit for small-print-run publications. But they were illegal and he was constantly on the run, tailed by the police as he scurried between Tiflis, Batum, Chiatura, Baku, and elsewhere in the Caucasus; Tammerfors (Russian Finland), London, Stockholm, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere in Europe; Vologda in European Russia’s north and Turukhansk in Eastern Siberia.26 Though the future Stalin was unusual in never seeking to emigrate, his early life—which between 1901 and 1917 included a total of some seven years in Siberian exile and prison, as well as short stints abroad—was more or less typical for the revolutionary underground. Especially from 1908 onward, he lived a life of penury, begging everyone for money, nursing resentments, and spending most of his time, like other prisoners and exiles, bored out of his mind.

The man who would become Stalin was a product of both the Russian imperial garrisons in Georgia, for which his father moved to Gori to make shoes, and the imperial administrators and churchmen, whose Russification measures gave him an education, but also, unwittingly, amplified the late-nineteenth-century Georgian national awakening that greatly affected him, too.27 Later, Stalin’s young son would confide in his older sister that their father, in his youth, had been a Georgian—and it was true. “Be full of blossom, Oh lovely land, Rejoice, Iverians’ country, And you, Oh Georgian, by studying Bring joy to your motherland,” a seventeen-year-old Jughashvili wrote in one of his precocious Georgian romantic poems (“Morning”).28 He published only in the Georgian language for the first twenty-nine years of his life. “He spoke exceptionally pure Georgian,” recalled someone who met him in 1900. “His diction was clear, and his conversation betrayed a lively sense of humor.”29 To be sure, Stalin proved to be something of a bad Georgian, at least by stereotype: not honorable to a fault, not uncompromisingly loyal to friends and family, not mindful of old debts.30 At the same time, Georgia was a diverse land and the future Stalin picked up colloquial Armenian. He also dabbled in Esperanto (the constructed internationalist language), studied but never mastered German (the native tongue of the left), and tackled Plato in Greek. Above all, he became fluent in the imperial language: Russian. The result was a young man who delighted in the aphorisms of the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli (“A close friend turned out to be an enemy more dangerous than a foe”)31 but also in the ineffable, melancholy works of Anton Chekhov, whose Cherry Orchard (1903) depicted a speculator’s axes chopping down a minor nobleman’s trees (the estate and mansion had been sold off to a vulgar bourgeois). Stalin immersed himself in both imperial Russian and Georgian history, too.

What differentiated the young Stalin in the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary milieu beyond his Georgian origins was his tremendous dedication to self-improvement. He devoured books, which, as a Marxist, he did so in order to change the world. Perhaps nothing stands out more than his intense political sectarianism (even in a culture where up to one third of the religiously Eastern Orthodox were schismatics). His youthful years involved becoming a Marxist of Leninist persuasion and battling not just tsarism but the factions of other revolutionaries.32 Ultimately, though, the most important factor in shaping Stalin and his later rule, as we shall examine in detail, entailed something he encountered only partly as a youth: namely, the inner workings, imperatives, and failures of the imperial Russian state and autocracy. The immensity of that history reduces Stalin’s early life to proper perspective. But it also sets the stage for grasping the immensity of his subsequent impact.



My parents were uneducated people, but they treated me not so badly.

Stalin, December 1931, interview with Emil Ludwig, German journalist1

OVER THE MORE THAN FOUR CENTURIES from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day. The state came to fill a vast pocket bounded by two oceans and three seas: the Pacific and the Arctic; the Baltic, the Black, and the Caspian. Russia would come to have a greater length of coastline than any other state, and Russian fleets would be anchored at Kronstadt, Sevastopol, and (eventually) Vladivostok.2 Its forests linked Russia to Europe, and its steppe grasslands, 4,000 miles wide, connected Russia to Asia and afforded a kind of “new world” to discover.

That said, the Russian empire defied nearly every possible prerequisite: its continental climate was severe, and its huge open frontiers (borderless steppes, countourless forests) were expensive to defend or govern.3 Beyond that, much of the empire was situated extremely far to the north. (Canadian agriculture was generally on a line with Kiev, far below the farms surrounding Moscow or St. Petersburg.) And although land was plentiful, there never seemed to be enough bodies to work it. Incrementally, the autocracy had bound the peasantry in place through a series of measures known as serfdom. Peasant mobility was never fully eliminated—serfs could try to run away, and if they survived, were usually welcomed elsewhere as scarce labor—but serfdom remained coercively entrenched until its emancipation, beginning in 1861.4

Russia’s outward march, which overcame substantial resistance, transformed its ethnic and religious makeup. As late as 1719, Russia was perhaps 70 percent ethnic Great Russian (and more than 85 percent total Slav), but by the end of the following century Russians made up just 44 percent (Slavs around 73 percent); in other words, a majority of the population (56 percent) was other than Great Russian. Among the other Slavs, Little Russians (or Ukrainians) stood at 18 percent, Poles at 6 percent, and White Russians (or Belorussians) at 5 percent. There were smaller numbers of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars, Qalmyqs, and Siberian indigenes. In 1719, Russia had no Jews, but thanks to the late-eighteenth-century swallowing up of Poland, Jews would come to compose around 4 percent of the empire. They were legally confined (with exceptions) to the annexed territories in which they already lived—that is, old Poland-Lithuania and parts of western Ukraine, lands that constituted the Pale of Settlement.5 They were forbidden from owning land, rendering them more urban and more professional than the rest of Russia’s population. But for all the historical attention focused on Russia’s 5 million Jews, it was Russia’s Muslims, present going back to ancient Muscovy, who constituted the empire’s second largest religious grouping after Eastern Orthodox Christians. Imperial Russia’s Muslims had one of the realm’s highest birthrates, and would come to exceed 18 million people, more than 10 percent of the population. Many of Russia’s Muslims spoke a dialect of Persian, but most spoke Turkic languages, giving Russia several million more Turkic speakers than the “Turkish” Ottoman empire.

Russia’s territorial aggrandizement had often come at Ottoman expense, as in the conquest of the Caucasus. These formidable mountain redoubts, wedged between the Black and Caspian seas, were higher than the Alps, but on either side of the chain, adjacent to the seashores, could be found narrow, easily passable lowlands—paths to conquest. In the western parts of the Caucasus, Turkic long served as a lingua franca, reflecting Ottoman rule; in the eastern parts, it was Persian, reflecting Iranian rule. Troops loyal to the Russian tsar had first reached the Caspian Sea in 1556—for a time, Ivan the Terrible took a Caucasus Turkic princess as a wife—but the Russian empire did not manage to seize Baku, the main Caspian settlement, from the Persian shah until 1722.6 And it was not until the 1860s or so that generals in the Russian service managed to claim the entire uplands. In other words, the Russian advance into the Caucasus proceeded vertically, in essence a giant flanking maneuver around and then up the mountains that consumed more than 150 years and uncounted lives.7 In Dagestan (“the mountainous land”), a territory that resembled British India’s tribal northwest frontier, Russian counterinsurgency troops butchered entire indigenous villages to force them to give up suspected insurgents; the insurgents, for their part, directed vendettas against the indigenous Muslims, too, accused of cooperating with Russia. Also devastating were the axes of Slav peasant settlers, who moved into the steep yet fertile valleys and, to grow crops, removed the forest cover critical to the rebels. To top everything off, in the final drive to conquest in the 1860s and 70s, perhaps four hundred thousand of half a million highlander Circassians were driven or fled across the Ottoman border.8 These deportations and massacres, accompanied by Slavic peasant homesteading, facilitated Russia’s assimilation of the Caucasus, which is how the future Stalin would be born a subject of Russia.

All the ad hoc empire building—and there is no other kind—resulted in a jumble of contradictions. The so-called Old Believers, Eastern Orthodox Christians who refused to recognize the reformed Orthodox Church or the Russian state and had been banished or fled to the “remote” Caucasus, found they could survive only by supplying services to “the Antichrist,” that is, to the Russian imperial army. Even so, the empire’s Cossack shock troops, once free and wild frontiersmen who had become paladins of autocracy, remained chronically undersupplied and had to turn to the very mountaineers they were trying to subjugate in order to purchase weaponry. In turn, the antiempire mountaineers, with their picturesque cherkeskas—long woolen coats sporting rifle cartridges slotted across the chest—were recruited into the Retinue of the Tsar in St. Petersburg.9 Perhaps the greatest contradiction lay in the circumstance that the Russian empire had been implanted in the Caucasus largely by invitation: Georgia’s Christian rulers were battling both the Muslim Ottomans and the Muslim Safavids and invited Christian Russia’s protection. That “protection,” in practice, was effected by opportunistic imperial agents close to the scene, and soon took the form of annexations, in 1801 and 1810.10 Russia terminated the Georgian Bagrationi dynasty and replaced the patriarch of the formerly independent Georgian Orthodox Church with a Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan (called an exarch). And yet, in another contradiction, the local “Russian” administration overflowed with Georgians, who were favored as fellow Christians. Thanks to Russian rule, Georgian elites obtained powerful new instruments for imposing their will over the lower orders, and over the many other peoples in the Caucasus. Such is empire: a series of bargains empowering the ambitious.

Within the Russian empire, Georgia was its own imperial project.11 Of the 8.5 million inhabitants of the Caucasus enumerated in the late nineteenth century, about a third were Muslim, while one half were Eastern Orthodox, but of the latter only 1.35 million were ethnic Georgians (by language). This minority came to rule more than ever thanks to Russia. Of course, far from everything under Russian suzerainty was to Georgian liking. In 1840, imperial authorities in St. Petersburg decreed Russian as the sole language for official business in the Caucasus. This followed Russia’s suppression (in 1832) of a conspiracy to restore the Georgian monarchy (some Georgian nobles had planned to invite local Russian officials to a ball and murder them). Most of the conspirators were exiled elsewhere within the Russian empire, but soon they were allowed to return and resume careers in Russian state service: the empire needed them. A majority of Georgian elites would become and remain largely Russophile.12 At the same time, new infrastructure helped overcome barriers to tighter Russian incorporation. Between 1811 and 1864, a key military road was cut southward from the lowland settlement of Vladikavkaz (“rule the Caucasus”) up through the high mountain pass—above seemingly bottomless chasms—on to Tiflis, the capital. Before the century was out, the Transcaucasus Railway would link the Black and Caspian seas. Above all, career opportunities induced many Georgians to master the Russian language, the greatest element of imperial infrastructure. Georgians memorized and retold stories about Georgia’s heroic resistance to Russian conquest, but if they could, they also married into elite Russian families, indulged in Russian operas, and hankered after the peacock fan of imperial uniforms, titles, and medals along with the commodious state apartments, travel allowances, and cash “gifts.”13 What worked for elites became available on a lesser scale to the lower orders, who took advantage of the opportunities to go to new Russian-language schools in the Caucasus sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. Here, then, was the imperial scaffolding—conquest via Georgian collusion, Russification via the Orthodox Church—on which the future Stalin would climb.14


The future Stalin’s hometown of Gori (“hill”), nestled in the rolling uplands of the Eastern Georgian valley of the Mtkvari River (Kura River, in Russian), had for centuries served as a caravan stop at the junction of three roads: one westward to the Black Sea, one eastward to the Caspian, and one northward through the Tskhinvali Pass to the steppe grasslands.15 Gori, in other words, was no boondocks. In the heart of town, atop its highest hill, stood the yellow crenellated walls of a thirteenth-century fortress. Additional ruins, the gardens of grandees from when Gori had been the capital of the Georgian state of Kartli in the seventeenth century, could be found outside town. Also not far away were the famed mineral waters of Borzhomi, where Alexander II’s brother, viceroy of the Caucasus, had erected a summer residence. In Gori proper, directly below the ancient fortress ruin, lay the Old Town. A second district, the Central Quarter, boasted numerous Armenian and Georgian churches, while a third, housing the barracks of the imperial garrison, was christened the Russian Quarter.16 In 1871, this crossroads became a junction of the Russian empire railway that opened between Tiflis, the Caucasus capital, and Poti, a Black Sea port (conquered from the Ottomans in 1828). In the 1870s, Gori’s narrow, crooked, filthy streets were home to perhaps 7,000 inhabitants, of whom a slight majority was Armenian, the rest being Georgian, with a few hundred Russians as well as some Abkhaz and Ossetians, who had migrated from nearby tribal villages. Gori merchants traded with Iran, the Ottoman empire, and Europe. Thanks to its strong merchant presence, as well as to the Orthodox Church, Gori had four schools, including a solid two-story church school founded by church authorities in 1818, not long after Georgia’s incorporation into the Russian empire.17 The upshot was that whereas in Tiflis one in fifteen inhabitants attended school—versus one in thirty for the entire Caucasus—in Gori one in ten inhabitants were in school.18 For boys born on that “hill,” doors could open to the future.

The future Stalin’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (1850–1909), known as Vissarion in Russian and Beso for short, did not hail from Gori. His paternal grandfather (Zaza), a serf once arrested for his part in a peasant uprising, may have lived in a tribal Ossetian village; Beso’s father, Vano, also a serf, tended vines in a village called Didi Lilo (“Greater Lilo”), population under 500, where Beso was born. Vano would carry his grapes to nearby Tiflis, about ten miles away, but he died before the age of fifty. Soon thereafter, bandits killed Vano’s son Giorgi, an innkeeper, and Beso quit Didi Lilo to seek work in Tiflis, where he learned the shoemaker’s trade at an Armenian-owned shop. Beso spoke some Armenian, Azeri Turkish, and Russian, though it is unclear whether he could write in his native Georgian. Around 1870, when he was twenty, he relocated to Gori, evidently at the invitation of another Armenian entrepreneur, Baramyants (Russified as Iosif Baramov). The latter owned a shoe workshop that had been commissioned to supply the imperial garrison in Gori.19 The Russian empire was one far-flung garrison. By 1870, all of Siberia was secured by just 18,000 troops, but Kharkov, Odessa, and Kiev garrisoned 193,000 soldiers; Warsaw, another 126,000. At a time when British India counted 60,000 troops and 1,000 police, the Caucasus had 128,000 imperial soldiers. That made for a lot of feet needing boots. Baramyants hired a number of master artisans, including Beso, who seems to have enjoyed success and evidently was ambitious. Aided financially by “Prince” Yakobi “Yakov” Egnatashvili, a Gori wine grower, dukhan (pub) owner, and wrestling champion, Beso soon opened his own cobbler shop, becoming a self-standing artisan.20

Beso dispatched a matchmaker to win the hand of Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, said to be a slender, chestnut-haired teenage beauty with big eyes.21 She, too, was both the offspring of serfs and a striver. Her surname was common in southern Ossetia, leading to speculation that she also had Ossetian blood, but like Beso’s, her native tongue was Georgian. Keke’s father, a bricklayer and serf who gardened for a wealthy Armenian and lived in a village outside Gori, married another serf, but he seems to have passed away before (or right after) Keke was born. Unusually, Keke’s mother made sure the girl learned to read and write; at the time, very few Georgian females were literate. But Keke’s mother, too, died, and the girl was raised by her mother’s brother, also a serf. Serfdom in Georgia was extraordinary even by crazy-quilt imperial Russian standards: the leading Georgian nobles could own minor nobles as well as priests, while priests could own minor nobles. Partly that was because the tsarist state showed considerable deference to the expansive Georgian nobility, which accounted for 5.6 percent of Georgia’s population, versus 1.4 percent for nobles in the empire as a whole. Serfdom’s abolition in the Caucasus began three years later than in the rest of the Russian empire, in October 1864. That was about when Keke’s family relocated from the village to Gori. “What a happy journey it was!” she reminisced to an interviewer late in life. “Gori was festively decorated, crowds of people swelled like the sea.”22 The Geladzes were free, but they faced the challenge of making a new life.

Keke’s wedding to Beso, in May 1874 in Gori’s Cathedral of the Assumption, took place in the grand Georgian style, with a boisterous, ostentatious procession through the town.23 Yakov Egnatashvili, Beso’s benefactor, served as one of Beso’s best men. Father Kristopore Charkviani, another family friend, was said to have sung so beautifully at the ceremony that Prince Yakov tipped the priest the princely sum of 10 rubles. Beso, like most Georgians—literate or illiterate—could quote from Shota Rustaveli’s twelfth-century The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, an epic about three chivalrous friends who rescue a damsel from being forced into a marriage. Beso liked to wear a long Circassian blackcoat, cinched with a leather belt, over baggy trousers, which he tucked into leather boots—an epigone of Caucasus manhood. True, he was known to drink some of his shoemaker earnings; then again, as per local custom, his customers often paid him with homemade wine. For all his typical faults, though, Keke viewed the artisan as a step up. “He was considered a very popular young man among my friends and they were all dreaming of marrying him,” she recalled to the interviewer. “My friends nearly burst with jealousy. Beso was an enviable groom, a true Georgian knight, with beautiful mustaches, very well dressed—and with the special sophistication of the town dweller.” Beso, she added, could be “unusual, peculiar, and morose,” but also “clever and proud.” “Among my friends,” Keke concluded, “I became the desired and beautiful girl.”24

In December 1878, four years into the marriage, when Keke was around twenty and Beso twenty-eight, the couple had a son, Ioseb—the future Stalin.25 Ioseb was actually Beso and Keke’s third son, which by Georgian and Eastern Orthodox tradition was viewed as a special gift of God. But their prior children had not survived. Beso and Keke’s firstborn, Mikheil, had died in early 1876, age two months; their second (Giorgi) had died in June 1877, after about half a year.26 Ioseb, whose diminutive in Georgian was “Soso” (or “Soselo”), grew up an only child, learning later of his brothers’ ghosts. The three-person family rented a small timber-and-brick, single-room house from an Ossetian artisan. It was located in Gori’s Russian Quarter, near the barracks of the imperial troops whose footwear Beso made. A mere ninety square feet, the structure had a table and four stools, a plank bed, a samovar, a trunk, and a kerosene lamp. Clothes and other belongings were placed on open shelves. There was a cellar, however, reached by winding stairs, and it was here that Beso kept his tools and opened his workshop, and Keke made a nursery for Soso.27 Stalin’s life, in other words, began in a basement.

The humble circumstances notwithstanding, the Jughashvili family story had the makings of a small-town idyll: the artisan, the beauty, and the (surviving) boy. Keke is said to have never let him out of her sight.28 From around the age of two, Soso suffered the litany of childhood diseases (measles, scarlet fever), and Keke, fearful of losing yet another child, went to church frequently to pray. She also produced insufficient milk, so Soso had to suck the breasts of their neighbors: Mrs. Egnatashvili as well as neighbor Masho Abramidze-Tsikhitatrishvili. Still, he grew, and was full of life. “He was a stubborn little boy,” recalled Masho. “When his mother called him and he didn’t feel like responding, he didn’t stop playing.”29


Running the streets of his Georgian hill town, little Soso was oblivious to the wider world, but in the same decade he was born, Germany had ostentatiously proclaimed the founding of the Second German Reich—the first had been the loose Holy Roman Empire—in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the great French Sun King Louis XIV had once received the many little German princes. Their geopolitical rupture of German unification and its follow-on rapid industrialization radically altered Russia’s geopolitical space. Less ostentatiously, but almost as consequentially, in Japan in 1868, a group of rebels overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo) and, as a way to legitimize their rebellion, nominally “restored” the dormant emperor, who took the name Meiji (enlightened rule). The process was by no means smooth, as major regions rebelled. But by 1872–73, nearly every important member of Japan’s new leadership had traveled in an embassy to Europe and America, seeing firsthand not only the marvels of the advanced world, but also seeing that the advanced world was not a monolith. Japan’s new leaders decided to take full advantage, adapting elements of each country separately: the centralized educational system of France appealed to them more than the looser American one, but instead of the French army, they eventually chose the German system of professional officers and a general staff, while opting for a British-style navy. “Knowledge,” proclaimed the Meiji emperor, “shall be sought throughout the world, and thereby shall be strengthened the foundation of the imperial polity.” This proclamation encapsulated the secret of great power ascendancy for the ages. To be sure, the new schools and other foreign imports were often resisted; it would take state power to force the transformation. Moreover, Japan’s follow-on industrialization did not match Germany’s. That said, Japan’s economy took off, too, and dramatically transformed the balance of power in Asia, as a new power rose on Russia’s other flank.

Also in the same decade the future Stalin was born, the United States of America had become the world’s largest integrated national economy. The United States had only recently descended into a civil war, which claimed 1 million casualties, including 600,000 dead out of a population of 32 million, while also introducing ironclad ships, overhead balloon reconnaissance, trench warfare, and long-range rifles. (The war cut off the German journalist Karl Marx’s freelance income from a New York Tribune no longer as interested in European affairs.) Contrary to Confederate hopes, however, the North’s mills were not dependent on the South’s supplies of raw cotton (growers in Egypt and India could make up the shortfalls). Some British statesmen, including William Gladstone, had cheered on the South, hoping for a diminution in U.S. power, but the British government never recognized the Confederacy’s independence. Had an independent agrarian nation been victorious and consolidated in the U.S. South—one of the largest slave systems in the modern world—the British would have been doomed in the twentieth century, and the entire course of world events would have been radically altered. In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads, representing more capital than any other American asset except land, but instead of the slave-based, cotton-growing South, the industrial North triumphed. Between 1870 and 1900, the reunited U.S. economy industrialized and tripled in size (with assistance from mass immigration from non-English-speaking, non-Protestant societies), producing a spectacular surge that eclipsed even the booms in Germany and Japan as the U.S. share of global output soared to nearly 30 percent. This American economic colossus, despite American colonial wars in the Philippines and Cuba, remained as yet mostly apart from world politics. Still, U.S. power had begun to loom over the world system, and would prove decisive in it.

These immense geopolitical facts that accompanied Stalin’s birth and early life—a unified industrial Germany, a consolidated industrial Japan, an American power greater than any other in world history—would shake the tsarist regime to its core and, one day, confront Stalin, too. Of course, young Soso Jughashvili could have no inkling of the geopolitical processes that were shaping his world. Meanwhile, in 1880s Gori, in a sign of middling success, the proud new father Beso Jughashvili took on two artisan apprentices. One of them remembered always seeing butter on the Jughashvili table, though the family appears to have lived modestly, eating mostly lobbio and lavash (red beans and flatbread) as well as potatoes and badrijani nigvzit (eggplants stuffed with spiced walnut paste).30 Another apprentice, Vano Khutsishvili, a mere one year younger than Soso, became like a foster brother for a time.31 Music filled the home—Keke would serenade Soso with the polyphonous harmonies of Georgian folk songs. Beso, like most Georgian men, could play traditional instruments such as the double-reed duduk (which he had played at their wedding). At the same time, Beso seems to have been something of a brooder. Few firsthand descriptions of him survive. One recalled him as “a thin man, taller than average. He had a long face and a long nose and neck. He wore a moustache and beard, and his hair was jet-black.” Later, various other men would be put forward as Stalin’s “real” father. But two witnesses have pegged Soso as Beso’s spitting image.32

Whatever Beso’s role as a father, and the original promise of his union with Keke, the marriage disintegrated. Most biographers, following Keke’s version, usually attribute the breakdown to Beso’s alcoholism and inner demons, asserting either that Beso was a natural drunkard or that he took to the bottle from grief after the early death of his firstborn son and never stopped.33 This may be true, although after that early tragedy, and particularly after the birth of Soso, Beso’s workshop seems to have operated for a time. To be sure, the traditional Georgian-style shoes that he made may have had trouble competing with newer European styles.34 That said, Keke, still young and pretty, may have been a cause of the trouble by flirting with married men: Yakov Egnatashvili, the Gori pub owner and wrestling champion; Damian Davrishevi, the Gori police officer; Kristopore Charkviani, the Gori priest—all of whom would be rumored as the future Stalin’s real father. Whether Keke was flirtatious, let alone promiscuous, is unclear. She had been ambitious in marrying Beso the artisan, and she may have moved on to more prestigious men. Perhaps they targeted her.35 Reliable evidence about the possible liaisons of the future Stalin’s mother is lacking. Still, gossip about Keke’s promiscuity circulated in Gori. Beso took to calling his son “Keke’s little bastard,” and once he appears to have tried to strangle his wife while denouncing her as a “whore.”36 (A common-enough epithet.) Beso is also thought to have vandalized the pub owned by Egnatashvili and to have attacked the police chief Davrishevi, who, in turn, may have ordered Beso to leave Gori. Around 1884, Beso did depart for Tiflis, hiring himself on at the Armenian-owned Adelkhanov Tannery.

Whoever was at fault, the result was a broken home.37 By 1883, Keke and little Soso began a vagabond existence, moving house at least nine times over the next decade. And that was not the young boy’s only misfortune. The same year his father left, little Soso contracted smallpox during an epidemic that ravaged many a Gori household. Three of their neighbor Egnatashvili’s six children perished. Keke appealed to a female faith healer. Soso survived the fevers. But his face was permanently scarred, and he got tagged with the moniker “Poxy” (Chopura). Probably around this time (1884), age six, Soso’s left elbow and shoulder began to develop abnormally, reducing the use of his left arm. Various causes have been put forward: a sleighing or wrestling accident; an accidental collision with a horse-drawn phaeton, which was followed by blood poisoning from an infected wound.38 Soso was indeed struck near Gori’s Roman Catholic cathedral by a rare (for Gori) phaeton, perhaps because he and other boys, in a game of chicken, would try to grab the axles.39 Still, his withering limb may have had a genetic cause. Be that as it may, the elbow worsened over time. Keke, though, proved ever resourceful. To support the two of them, she cleaned and repaired other people’s clothes and took care of their living quarters, including for the Egnatashvilis, where Soso often ate dinner. In 1886, she and Soso moved into the upper story of the home of Father Charkviani, one of Beso’s former boon drinking companions. The move was likely necessitated by poverty but also seems to have been calculated: Keke implored Charkviani to get Soso into the Gori church school for fall 1886, when he would be already nearly eight. Failing that, she begged the priest to allow his own teenage sons to include Soso in the Russian lessons they gave to their younger sister, on whom the young Stalin may have developed his first crush.

Keke’s scheming worked, thanks also to Soso’s own ambitions. Biographers have often singled out the future Stalin for leading a “street gang” in Gori, as if street running was somehow distinctive for male youths, in the Caucasus or elsewhere.40 Rather, what stood out were his bookworm and autodidact tendencies, which propelled him forward. In September 1888, nearing the age of ten, he joined some 150 boys, almost all of whom were seven or eight, in the parish school’s mandatory preparatory program for Georgian boys. It was a two-year course, but his bootstrapped Russian proved good enough to vault him through in a single year. In fall 1889, he began the main four-year school curriculum, where his studiousness as well as his sweet alto singing voice were prized—a source of pride for the boy. And finally, at least for part of the day, he was out of his mother’s grasp. On January 6, 1890, however, during the Feast of the Epiphany—celebrated in the Orthodox church as Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan—a runaway phaeton in Gori lurched into the onlookers where the church-school choir stood. Struck a second time! “Soso wanted to run across the street, but did not make it in time,” recalled Simon Goglichidze, the Gori school choirmaster. “The Phaeton hit him, its connecting pole striking him in the cheek.”41 Soso lost consciousness and was carried home. How close the future Stalin, then eleven, came to death we will never know.42 The driver was jailed for a month. “Fortunately,” concluded Goglichidze, “the wheels only ran over the boy’s legs,” rather than his head.43 But the accident permanently inhibited the future Stalin’s gait, leading to a second derogatory nickname—“Crimped” (Geza).

Beso, it seems, arrived and took his injured son to Tiflis for medical treatment; Keke seems to have accompanied them, moving to the capital while Soso recuperated.44 This may be the event that gave rise to the story, much repeated, that Beso “kidnapped” his son because the cobbler was hell-bent against his boy attending school.45 The truth is murky. Beso appears to have voiced a desire to snatch Soso out of school, perhaps the year before, in 1889, and he may have been talked out of it (or forced to return the boy quickly). But the “kidnapping” might simply refer to the circumstance in 1890, once Soso had recovered, when Beso kept him in Tiflis, apprenticing him at the Adelkhanov Tannery. That huge enterprise was built in 1875, when Beso was living in Gori, by the Moscow-born Armenian magnate Grigory Adelkhanov, who had moved to Tiflis and become head of the city’s Armenian-dominated credit association in the 1870s. Adelkhanov’s plant was equipped with machines and from 1885 could turn out 50,000 pairs of footwear annually as well as 100,000 felt cloaks for the imperial troops. Its yearly revenue exceeded 1 million rubles, a colossal local sum in those days.46 Beso and son lodged in a cheap room in an old section of Tiflis (Havlabar) and walked to work together across the metal bridge over the Mtkvari River, past the medieval Metekhi church high on the rocky cliffs, which the Russian empire had rebuilt as a prison.47 Like Soso, many of the Adelkhanov laborers were underage, usually the children of adult workers who were expected to add to their fathers’ wages, a practice common at Tiflis factories.48 In other words, Beso’s desire for his son to follow in his footsteps and learn his trade, however selfish, was the norm.49

Thanks to his father, the future leader of the world proletariat had an early brush with factory life, which was nasty. Adelkhanov’s enterprise had a medical station, a benefit no other leather-working plant in Tiflis offered, but workdays were long, wages low, and job security precarious. The same mechanization that undercut independent artisans like Beso rendered elements of the factory’s own workforce redundant over time. Adelkhanov’s adult cobblers, moreover, were a rough lot, preying on the youngsters. As an apprentice, Soso may have served only as elder workers’ fetcher, not even learning to make shoes. He was certainly subjected to the sickening stench of putrid raw leather in the dank basement, immeasurably worse than the cellar in which his mother had tried (and failed) to nurse him. Had Soso Jughashvili remained a proletarian in training at Adelkhanov, or run away and become a street urchin, there would likely have been no future Stalin. Instead—as every biographer has observed—Keke pressed her well-cultivated church connections to help her retrieve her beloved boy. Much like Klara Hitler, a pious Catholic who would dream that her son Adolf would rise to become a pastor, so Keke Geladze believed her boy Soso was destined for the Orthodox priesthood, a path that the abolition of serfdom had opened up for children of his modest background.50 The boy would owe his return to the upward path of disciplined study and self-improvement to his determined mother.

Keke brooked no compromise. She rejected the Tiflis church authorities’ proposed solution that Soso be allowed to sing in their Tiflis church-school choir while remaining with his father. She accepted nothing less than Soso’s return to Gori for the start of the next school year in September 1890.51 Her triumph over her husband in a deeply patriarchal society was supported by family friends, who took the woman’s side, and by the boy himself: In the parental tug-of-war between becoming a priest (school) or a cobbler, Soso preferred school and, therefore, his mother. Unlike Beso, Keke was always ready to do whatever it took to make sure he had clothes on his back and his bills were paid. Ioseb “Soso” Iremashvili, who met the future Stalin by wrestling him on the parish school playground, recalled that his friend “was devoted to only one person—his mother.”52 And Keke, in turn, was devoted to him. Still, we should not idealize her. She was also domineering. “Stalin’s severity came from his mother,” recalled another Gori chum who later served as a lower-level member of the dictator’s bodyguard detail (in charge of wine and foodstuffs). “His mother, Ekaterina Geladze, was a very severe woman, and in general a difficult person.”53 Beso, for his part, seems to have followed his wife and son back to Gori. If so, this was not the first time he had implored Keke for reconciliation. But the 1890 episode of Soso’s recuperation and factory apprenticeship in Tiflis marked the final break in their marriage.54 Beso refused to support the family financially (for what that was worth), and back at the Gori school, Soso was expelled for his family’s failure to pay the 25-ruble tuition. “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili evidently stepped in and cleared the debt.

Uncle Yakov became Soso’s valued surrogate father.55 Much has been made over the young Stalin’s infatuation with a celebrated novel, The Patricide (1882), by Aleksandre Qazbegi (1848–93), who was the scion of a princely Georgian family (whose grandfather had taken part in Georgia’s annexation by Russia and obtained a mountain fief for it). The Russian imperial authorities targeted by Qazbegi’s novel banned it, enhancing its considerable allure. In the story, a peasant boy, Iago, and a beautiful girl, Nunu, fall in love, despite family disapproval, but a Georgian official collaborating with the Russian empire rapes Nunu and imprisons Iago on trumped-up charges. Iago’s best friend, Koba, a brave, laconic mountaineer (mokheve), swears an oath of revenge—“I’ll make their mothers weep!”—and organizes a daring prison break for Iago. The Georgian official’s men, however, kill Iago. Nunu dies from sorrow. But Koba vows revenge, hunts down and executes the arrogant official—“It is I, Koba!”—enforcing rough justice. Koba is the novel’s only surviving character, outliving his enemies and his friends.56 Among the young Stalin’s several dozen early pseudonyms—including, briefly, Besoshvili (son of Beso)—Koba was the one that stuck. “He called himself ‘Koba’ and would not have us call him by any other name,” recalled the childhood friend Ioseb Iremashvili. “His face would shine with pride and pleasure when we called him ‘Koba.’”57 This was the boy about him, one friend recalled, “We, his friends, would often see Soso . . . pushing his left shoulder slightly forward, his right arm slightly bent, holding a cigarette in his hand, hurrying through the streets among the crowds.” The avenger Koba (meaning the indomitable, in Turkish) was certainly more flattering than Crimped or Poxy. But it is worth underscoring that Soso Jughashvili’s surrogate father, Yakov Egnatashvili, also went by the nickname Koba, a kind of diminutive for his Georgian given name Yakobi.

Too much has been made of Beso’s failings, and not enough of Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili’s support. Too much has also been made of the violence in Soso Jughashvili’s early life. Beso beat his son out of anger, humiliation, or for no reason; the doting Keke beat the boy, too. (Beso struck Keke, and Keke sometimes thrashed Beso for being a drunkard.)58 Of course, a sizable chunk of humanity was beaten by one or both parents. Nor did Gori suffer some especially violent Oriental culture. Sure, the annual commemoration of Great and Holy Monday (Easter week), recalling the 1634 expulsion of the Muslim Persians, entailed a nighttime all-Gori fistfight. The town divided into teams by ethnicity, reaching a thousand or more pugilists, and the brawl was refereed by drunken priests. Children launched the fisticuffs, before the adults joined, and Soso could not fail to take part.59 But such festive violence—madcap bare fists, followed by sloppy embraces—was typical of the Russian empire, from Ukrainian market towns to Siberian villages. Gori did not stand out in the least. Moreover, other violent activities attributed to the young Stalin are scarcely unheard of in boys. Wrestling tournaments were celebrated in Gori, and among schoolmates on the playground, the lanky, sinewy Soso was said to fight hard, albeit dirty, displaying significant strength despite his withered left arm. Some say he would not shrink from bouts with the strongest opponents and, on occasion, got beaten silly. But Soso was evidently trying to follow in the footsteps of his celebrated surrogate father—the Egnatashvili clan members, led by their patriarch, were Gori’s wrestling champions. “Little Stalin boxed and wrestled with a certain success,” recalled Iosif “Soso” Davrishevi, the policeman’s son.60

Beso’s trajectory, by contrast, was further downward. He appears to have left the Adelkhanov Tannery not long after he failed to reinstall his son there. He tried his luck repairing shoes at a stall in the Armenian bazaar in Tiflis, but that seems not to have panned out. Thereafter, nothing is reliably known of how he survived; some sources indicate that eventually Beso became a vagrant, though there are also indications he kept plying his trade, perhaps in a clothing repair shop.61 Later, the future Stalin would make light of his own “proletarian” origins resulting from his father’s downward social mobility. “My father was not born a worker, he had a workshop, with apprentices, he was an exploiter,” Stalin would tell his Red Army commanders in March 1938. “We lived none too badly. I was 10 when he went up in smoke [razorilsia] and became a proletarian. I would not say he entered the proletariat with joy. The whole time he cursed that he was unfortunate to enter the proletariat. But the circumstance that he was unlucky, that he went up in smoke, is made an achievement [zasluga] of mine. I assure you, this is a funny thing (laughter).”62 In point of fact, Beso had never gotten off the rolls of his village commune in Didi Lilo and, therefore, he remained a member of the peasant estate—a juridical status that Beso passed on to his son (as recorded on Stalin’s tsarist internal passports right through 1917). But although the future Soviet leader was a peasant de jure, and the son of a worker de facto, he himself, thanks to the support of Keke and “Uncle” Yakov, was rising up, into the demi-intelligentsia.


Back at school for the 1890-91 academic year, Soso was compelled to repeat the grade because of the phaeton accident, but he threw himself into his studies with ever greater determination. He was said never to have shown up late to classes, and to have spent his spare time behind books—subsequent reminiscences that ring true.63 “He was a very capable boy, always coming first in his class,” one former schoolmate recalled, adding “he was [also] first in all games and recreation.” Some classmates also recalled Soso as defiant when the Georgian boys were banished to the dunce corner for speaking their native tongue; some recalled he was not afraid, on other students’ behalf, to approach the teachers, who wore imposing state uniforms (tunics with gold buttons). If Soso did speak to the teachers on behalf of other boys, that was likely because he had been picked by the Russian-language teacher—christened the “gendarme”—to serve as class monitor, an enforcer of discipline. Whatever role he may have played as an intermediary, all the teachers, including the Georgian ones, appreciated Soso’s diligence and eagerness to be called upon.64 He sang Russian and Georgian folk songs, along with Tchaikovsky songs; studied Church Slavonic and Greek; and was chosen to read out the liturgy and sing the hymns at church. The school awarded him David’s Book of Psalms with the inscription: “To Iosif Jughashvili . . . for excellent progress, behavior and excellent recitation of the Psalter.”65 One schoolmate rhapsodized about Soso and other choirboys “wearing their surplices, kneeling, faces raised, singing Vespers with angelic voices while the other boys prostrated themselves filled with an ecstasy not of this world.”66

There was a prosaic side as well: To make ends meet, Keke cleaned the school (for 10 rubles a month). She may also have worked as a domestic at the home of the schoolmaster, though at some point she became a regular seamstress for a local “fancy” clothes shop and, finally, settled them into an apartment (on Gori’s Cathedral Street).67 But soon, for exemplary academic performance, Soso’s tuition was waived and on top of that he began receiving a monthly stipend of 3 rubles, later raised to 3.50 and then 7. This is perhaps the best evidence that the child from the broken home stood out as one of Gori’s best pupils.68 Graduating in spring 1894, at the advanced age of fifteen and a half, he could have gone on to the Gori Teachers Seminary, a further step up. An even better option presented itself: Choirmaster Simon Goglichidze was moving to the Tsar Alexander Teacher Training School in Tiflis and said he could bring his star Gori pupil along on a coveted fully funded state scholarship. That was no small matter for an indigent family. But instead, Soso sat the entrance examinations for the Theological Seminary in Tiflis, to become a priest. He excelled on the exams nearly across the board—Bible studies, Church Slavonic, Russian, catechism, Greek, geography, penmanship (though not in arithmetic)—and gained admission. It was a dream come true. The Tiflis seminary—alongside that city’s secular gymnasia (elite high schools) for the boys and girls of the prosperous—represented the highest rung of the educational ladder in the Caucasus, where the Russian imperial administration refused to countenance a university. The seminary’s six-year course of study (usually from age fourteen) led, at a minimum, to life as a parish priest or a village teacher in rural Georgia, but for those still more ambitious, the seminary could provide a stepping-stone to a university elsewhere in the empire.

In biography generally, the trope of the traumatic childhood—an outgrowth of the spread of Freudianism—came to play an outsized role.69 It is too pat, even for those with genuinely traumatic childhoods. The future Stalin’s childhood was certainly not easy: illnesses and accidents, forced house moving, straitened circumstances, a broken-down father, a loving but severe mother rumored to be a whore. But in adulthood, even as the dictator indulged roiling resentments that would seal the fate of most of his revolutionary colleagues, he would voice no special anger at his parents or his early life experiences. The future Kremlin leader experienced nothing of the bloody intrigues of the court childhoods of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great (to both of whom he would often be compared). Ivan’s father died from a boil when the boy was three; his mother was assassinated when he was seven. The orphaned Tsar Ivan the Terrible was reduced (by his regents) to begging for his food, and he witnessed the elites’ murderous struggle for power in his name, coming to fear his own pending bloody demise. The young Ivan took to tearing off birds’ wings and throwing cats and dogs off buildings. Peter the Great’s father died when he was four. Thereafter, the boy’s life was under threat by the warring court factions that were connected to his father’s two widows. After Peter was made tsar at age ten, the losing faction rebelled, and the young Peter witnessed relatives of his mother and friends being thrown onto upraised pikes. To be sure, some analysts have exaggerated the horrors of Ivan’s and Peter’s childhoods, offering pseudopsychological explanations for their often cruel reigns. Still, the most that could be claimed about the young Jughashvili was that he might have seen his father once come after his mother with a knife.

Next to what Ivan and Peter had gone through, what were the future Stalin’s childhood tribulations? Consider further the early life of Sergei Kostrikov, known later under the revolutionary name Kirov, who would become Stalin’s closest friend. Born in 1886 in a small town in Vyatka province, central Russia, Kirov would be considered as among the most popular of Stalinist party leaders. But his childhood was difficult: four of Kirov’s seven siblings died in infancy, his father was a drunkard who abandoned the family, and his mother died of TB when the boy was just seven. Kirov grew up in an orphanage.70 A similar fate befell another key member of Stalin’s inner circle, Grigol “Sergo” Orjonikidze, whose mother died when he was an infant, and whose father died when he was ten. By contrast, the young Stalin had his doting mother and a variety of important mentors, as the strikingly numerous memoirs from that time indicate. Keke’s extended family lived close by, including her brother Gio and his children (Keke’s other brother, Sandala, would be killed by the tsarist police). And Beso’s family (his sister’s children) remained a presence even after Beso lost the custody showdown in 1890.71 Family was the glue of Georgian society, and Soso Jughashvili had not only his own extended kin, but the surrogate kin provided by the Egnatashvilis (as well as the Davrishevis). Smalltown Gori took care of its own, forming a tight-knit community.

In addition to his extended family and Gori schooling (a ticket upward), the future Stalin’s childhood had one more vital redeeming aspect: faith in God. His destitute family had to find the means for the Orthodox seminary’s hefty annual tuition (40 rubles) and room and board (100 rubles), as well as for his surplice school uniform. The sixteen-year-old Jughashvili petitioned for a scholarship and was granted a partial one: free room and board.72 For tuition, Keke appealed to Soso’s surrogate father, Koba Egnatashvili. Big Koba had the means to send his two surviving natural sons to a gymnasium in Moscow, and he came through for little Koba (Soso), too. But if the well-heeled Egnatashvili, or others, had ceased to support Soso, or if the Russian rector at the seminary withdrew the partial state scholarship, Jughashvili’s studies would have been jeopardized. He had taken a big risk by declining the full state scholarship at the secular teacher training school arranged by Choirmaster Goglichidze. The reason must have been that not only Keke but her son, too, was devout. “In his first years of study,” allowed a Soviet-era publication of reminiscences, “Stalin was very much a believer, going to all the services, singing in the church choir. . . . He not only observed all religious rites but always reminded us to observe them.”73 Studying among the monks at the seminary, the future Stalin may have thought to become a monk himself. But changes in the Russian empire and in the wider world opened up a very different path.74



Others live off our labor; they drink our blood; our oppression quenches their thirst with the tears of our wives, children, and kin.

Leaflets, in Georgian and Armenian, distributed by Iosif Jughashvili, 19021

TIFLIS EXUDED A HAUNTING, magical beauty. Founded in a gorge in the fifth century, the residence of Georgian kings from the sixth, Tiflis—its Persian name, also employed in Russian—was centuries older than ancient Kiev, let alone upstart Moscow or St. Petersburg. In Georgian the city was called Tblisi (“warm place”), perhaps for its fabled hot springs. (“I must not omit to mention,” enthused one nineteenth-century visitor, “that the baths of the city cannot be surpassed even by those of Constantinople.”)2 Back when Russia annexed eastern Georgia, in 1801, Tiflis had about 20,000 inhabitants, fully three quarters of them Armenian. By century’s end, Tiflis had mushroomed to 160,000, with a plurality of Armenians (38 percent), followed by Russians and Georgians, and a smattering of Persians and Turks.3 The city’s Armenian, Georgian, and Persian neighborhoods ascended up the hills, their houses terraced in, with multilevel balconies perched one above the other in a style reminiscent of the Ottoman Balkans or Salonika. By contrast, the flat Russian quarter stood out for its wide boulevards where one could find the imposing Viceroy’s Palace, Opera House, Classical Gymnasium No. 1, Russian Orthodox cathedral, and the private homes of Russian functionaries (chinovniki) and of the Armenian haute bourgeoisie. Imperial Russia’s 1860s Great Reforms had introduced municipal governing bodies with restricted franchise elections, and wealthy Armenians came to compose the vast majority of those eligible to vote in Tiflis’ municipal elections, allowing Armenian merchants to control the city duma. But they had no hold on the imperial executive administration, which was run by appointed Russians, ethnic Germans, and Poles, often relying on Georgian nobles, who enriched themselves through state office.4 Still, the Georgians—no more than a quarter of the urban population—were to an extent upstaged in their own capital.

The urban distribution of power was glaring. On the wide tree-lined Golovin Prospect, named for a Russian general, the shops carried signs in French, German, Persian, and Armenian as well as Russian. Wares on offer included fashions from Paris and silks from Bukhara, useful for marking status, as well as carpets from nearby Iran (Tabriz), which helped distinguish interior spaces. By contrast, over at the city’s labyrinthine Armenian and Persian bazaars, underneath the ruins of a Persian fortress, “everyone washes, shaves, gets a haircut, dresses and undresses as if at home in their bedroom,” explained a Russian-language guide to the warrens of silversmiths and cooking stalls serving kebabs and inexpensive wines.5 Tatar (Azeri) mullahs could be seen in their green and white turbans, while Persians went about in caftans and black-fur caps, their hair and fingernails dyed red.6 One observer described a typical square (Maidan), near where Soso Jughashvili had briefly resided with his father in 1890, as “a porridge of people and beasts, sheepskin caps and shaved heads, fezzes and peaked caps,” adding that “all shout, bang, laugh, swear, jostle, sing, work, and shake in various tongues and voices.”7 But beyond the Oriental riot of its streets—which made the guidebook writers ooh and aah—the years of the 1870s through 1900 saw a crucial transformation of society by the railroad and other industrialization, as well as a Georgian national awakening facilitated by an expanding periodical press and the connections from modern transportation. By 1900, Tiflis had acquired a small but significant intelligentsia and a growing industrial-worker class.8

It was in this modernizing urban milieu that Jughashvili—who was back in Tiflis as of 1894—entered the seminary and came of age, becoming not a priest but a Marxist and revolutionary.9 Imported to Georgia in the 1880s, Marxism seemed to offer a world of certainties. But Jughashvili did not discover Marxism on his own. A headstrong twentysomething militant, Vladimir “Lado” Ketskhoveli (b. 1876) would serve as the revolutionary mentor for the future Stalin, who in looking back would call himself a disciple of Lado.10 Lado was the fifth of six children born to a priest from a village just outside Gori. Three years Jughashvili’s senior at the Gori church school and then at the Tiflis Theological Seminary, Lado acquired tremendous authority among the seminarians. Under Lado’s influence, the young Jughashvili, already an energetic autodidact, found a lifelong calling in being an agitator and a teacher, helping the dark masses see the light about social injustice and a purported all-purpose remedy.


Compared with small-town Gori, the Caucasus capital offered a grand drama of incipient modernity, but Iosif Jughashvili did not see much of the city, at least not initially. His immediate world, the theological seminary, was dubbed the Stone Sack—a four-story bastion of neoclassical façade. If the main classical gymnasium stood at the pinnacle of the local educational hierarchy, the seminary—more accessible to poor youth—was not far behind. The building, at the southern end of Golovin Prospect on Yerevan Square, had been purchased by the Orthodox Church from a sugar magnate (Constantine Zubalashvili) to serve as the new home of the seminary in 1873. For the hundreds of students who lived on the top floor in an open-style dormitory, their daily regime generally lasted from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Ringing bells summoned them to morning prayers, followed by tea (breakfast), classes until 2:00 p.m., a midday main meal at 3:00, then a mere hour or so outside the walls, roll call at 5:00, evening prayers, tea (a light supper) at 8:00, homework, and lights out. “Day and night we were worked within barrack walls and felt like prisoners,” recalled another Gori “Soso,” Ioseb Iremashvili, who like the young Stalin was attending the seminary by way of the Gori church school.11 Occasional leaves were granted to return to one’s native village or town, but otherwise Sundays alone afforded some free time—but only after Orthodox Church services, which meant standing for three to four hours on stone tiles. Trips to the theater and other blasphemies were proscribed. Some seminarians, however, dared to escape to town after nightly roll call, despite the random night dormitory checks to ferret out reading of illicit materials by candlelight or onanism.

The regimentation for the teenage seminarians accustomed to indulgent families and the free play of the streets had to be frustrating, but the seminary also offered endless opportunity for passionate discussions with fellow students about the meaning of existence and their own futures, as well as the discovery of books and learning. Emphasis fell on sacred texts, of course, and on Church Slavonic and Russian imperial history. Ioseb “Soso” Jughashvili, now known in Russified form as Iosif, was in his element, and he performed well. He became the school choir’s lead tenor, a high-profile achievement, given how much time the boys spent in church and preparing for church. He also developed into a voracious reader who started keeping a notebook of thoughts and ideas. In the classroom, he earned mostly grades of 4 (B), while achieving 5s (A’s) in ecclesiastical singing, and earned 5 rubles for occasional singing in the Opera House. In the beginning years his only 3s (C’s) came in final composition and Greek. He received the top mark (5) in conduct. As a freshman, Jughashvili placed eighth in a group of twenty-nine, and as a sophomore he rose to fifth. But in his third year, 1896-97, his rank slipped to sixteenth (of twenty-four), and by the fifth year he stood twentieth (of twenty-three), having failed scripture.12 Because classroom seating was determined by academic results, his desk kept being moved farther from the teachers. Even the choir he loved so much ceased to hold his interest, partly because of recurrent lung problems (chronic pneumonia).13 But the main cause of his declining interest and performance stemmed from a culture clash brought on by modernizing forces and political reactions.

In 1879, the year after Jughashvili had been born, two Georgian noblemen writers, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze (b. 1837) and Prince Akaki Tsereteli (b. 1840), had founded the Society for the Spread of Literacy Among Georgians. Georgians comprised many different groups—Kakhetis, Kartlians, Imeretians, Mingrelians—with a shared language, and Chavchavadze and Tsereteli hoped to spark an integrated Georgian cultural rebirth through schools, libraries, and bookshops. Their conservative populist cultural program intended no disloyalty to the empire.14 But in the Russian empire, administratively, there was no “Georgia,” just the two provinces (gubernias) of Tiflis and Kutaisi, and such was the hard-line stance of the imperial authorities that the censors forbade any publication of the term “Georgia” (Gruziya) in Russian. Partly because many censors did not know the Georgian language—which was written neither in Cyrillic nor Latin letters—the censors proved more lenient with Georgian publications, which opened a lot of space for Georgian periodicals. But at the Tiflis seminary, to compel Russification, Georgian language instruction had been abolished in favor of Russian in 1872. (Orthodox services in Georgia were conducted in Church Slavonic and thus were largely unintelligible to the faithful, as they were even in the predominantly ethnic Russian provinces of the empire.) From 1875, the seminary in the Georgian capital ceased teaching Georgian history. Of the seminary’s two dozen teachers, all of whom were formally appointed by the Russian viceroy, a few were Georgian but most were Russian monks, and the latter had been expressly assigned to Georgia because of their strong Russian nationalist views. (Several would later join radical-right movements.) In addition, the seminary employed two full-time inspectors to keep the students under “constant and unremitting supervision”—even in the seminarians’ free time—while recruiting snitches for extra eyes and ears.15

Expulsions for “unreliability” became commonplace, defeating the educational purpose of the seminary. In response to the heavy-handedness, Tiflis seminarians—many of them the sons of Orthodox priests—had begun (in the 1870s) to produce illegal newsletters and form secret discussion “circles.” In 1884, a member of one such Tiflis seminary circle, Silibistro “Silva” Jibladze (who had led a revolt back in his junior seminary), struck the Russian rector in the face for denigrating Georgian as “dogspeak.” As the boys well knew, the kingdom of Georgia had converted to the Christian faith half a millennium before the Russians did, and more than a century before the Romans. Jibladze was sentenced to three years in a punishment battalion. Then, in 1886, to empirewide notoriety, a different expelled student assassinated the Tiflis seminary rector using a traditional Caucasus dagger (kinjal).16 More than sixty seminarians were expelled. “Some go so far as to excuse the assassin,” reported the exarch of Georgia to the Holy Synod in St. Petersburg. “All in their hearts approve.”17 By the 1890s, the seminary students were staging strikes. In a boycott of classes in November 1893, they demanded better food (especially during Lent), an end to the brutal surveillance regime, a department of Georgian language, and the right to sing hymns in Georgian.18 The Russifying ecclesiastics responded by expelling eighty-seven students—including the strike’s seventeen-year-old leader, Lado Ketskhoveli—and shutting the doors in December 1893.19 The seminary reopened in fall 1894 with two first-year classes, the 1893 and the 1894 admissions, the latter being Iosif Jughashvili’s.

When the future Stalin started at the seminary, the harsh disciplinary mechanisms remained, but in a concession, courses in Georgian literature and history were reinstituted. In summer 1895, after his first year, Jughashvili, then sixteen and a half, took his own Georgian-language verses in person to the publishing nobleman Ilya Chavchavadze, without seminary permission. The editor of Chavchavadze’s newspaper Iveria (a term for Eastern Georgia) published five of Jughashvili’s poems, under the widely used Georgian nickname for Ioseb/Iosif: Soselo.20 The verses, among other themes, depict the contrast between violence (in nature and man) and gentleness (in birds and music), as well as a wandering poet who is poisoned by his own people. Another poem served as a contribution to the fiftieth jubilee of the Georgian nobleman Prince Rapiel Eristavi, the young Stalin’s favorite poet.21 Eristavi’s verses, the dictator would later say, were “beautiful, emotional, and musical,” adding that the prince was rightly called the nightingale of Georgia—a role to which Jughashvili himself might have aspired. An affectionate sixth Jughashvili poem, “Old Ninika,” published in 1896 in Kvali (The Furrow), the journal of another Tsereteli, Giorgi (b. 1842), featured a heroic sage narrating “the past to his children’s children.” In a word, Jughashvili, too, was swept up in the emotional wave of the fin-de-siecle Georgian awakening.

The spirit of the times that affected the young Jughashvili was well captured in the poem “Suliko” (1895), or “Little Soul,” about lost love and lost national spirit. Written by Akaki Tsereteli, the cofounder of the Georgian Society, “Suliko” was set to music and became a popular anthem:

In vain I sought my loved one’s grave;

Despair plunged me in deepest woe.

Overwhelmed with bursting sobs I cried:

“Where are you, my Suliko?”

In solitude upon a thornbush

A rose in loveliness did grow;

With downcast eyes I softly asked:

“Isn’t that you, Oh Suliko?”

The flower trembled in assent

As low it bent its lovely head;

Upon its blushing cheek there shone

Tears that the morning skies had shed.22

As dictator, Stalin would sing “Suliko” often, in Georgian and Russian translation (in which form it would become a sentimental staple on Soviet radio). But in 1895–96, he had to conceal his own Georgian-language poetry publishing triumph from the Russifying seminary authorities.

Nationalism, of course, marked the age. Adolf Hitler, who had been born in 1889 near Brannau am Inn, in Austria-Hungary, was influenced by the shimmer of Bismarck’s German Reich almost from birth. Hitler’s father, Alois, a passionate German nationalist of Austrian citizenship, worked as a customs official in the border towns on the Austrian side; his mother, Klara, her husband’s third wife, was devoted to Adolf, one of only two of their five children to survive. Hitler moved with his family across the border, at age three, to Passau, Germany, where he learned to speak German in the lower Bavarian dialect. In 1894, the family moved back to Austria (near Linz), but Hitler, despite having been born and spending most of his formative years in the Habsburg empire, never acquired the distinctive Austrian version of German language. He would develop a disdain for polyglot Austria-Hungary and, with his Austrian-German speaking friends, sing the German anthem “Deutschland uber Alles”; the boys greeted each other with the German “Heil” rather than the Austrian “Servus.” Hitler attended church, sang in the choir, and, under his mother’s influence, spoke about becoming a Catholic priest, but mostly he grew up imagining himself becoming an artist. An elder brother’s death at age sixteen from measles (in 1900) appears to have severely affected Hitler, making him more moody, withdrawn, indolent. His father, who wanted the boy to follow in his footsteps as a customs official, sent him against his wishes to technical school in Linz, where Hitler clashed with his teachers. After his father’s sudden death (January 1903), Hitler’s performance in school suffered and his mother allowed him to transfer. Hitler would graduate (barely) and in 1905 move to Vienna, where he would fail to get into art school and lead a bohemian existence, jobless, selling watercolors and running through his small inheritance. The German nationalism, however, would stick. By contrast, the future Stalin would exchange his nationalism, that of the small nation of Georgia, for grander horizons.


“If he was pleased about something,” recalled a onetime close classmate, Peti Kapanadze, of Jughashvili, he “would snap his fingers, yell loudly, and jump around on one leg.”23 In the fall of his third year (1896), when his grades would start to decline, Jughashvili joined a clandestine student “circle” led by the upperclassman Seid Devdariani. Their conspiracy may have been aided partly by chance: along with others of weak health, Jughashvili had been placed outside the main dormitory in separate living quarters, where he evidently met Devdariani.24 Their group had perhaps ten members, several from Gori, and they read non-religious literature such as belles lettres and natural science—books not even banned by the Russian authorities but banned at the seminary, whose curriculum excluded Tolstoy, Lermontov, Chekhov, Gogol, and even works of the messianic Dostoyevsky.25 The boys obtained the secular books from the so-called Cheap Library run by Chavchavadze’s Georgian Literacy Society, or from a Georgian-owned secondhand bookshop. Jughashvili also acquired such books from a stall back in Gori operated by a member of Chavchavadze’s society. (The future Stalin, recalled the bookseller, “joked a lot, telling funny tales of seminary life.”)26 As at almost every school across the Russian empire, student conspirators smuggled in the works to be read surreptitiously at night, concealing them during the day. In November 1896, the seminary inspector confiscated from Jughashvili a translation of Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, having already found him with Hugo’s Ninety-Three (about the counterrevolution in France). Jughashvili also read Zola, Balzac, and Thackeray in Russian translation, and countless works by Georgian authors. In March 1897, he was caught yet again with contraband literature: a translation of a work by a French Darwinist that contradicted Orthodox theology.27

The monks at the seminary, unlike most Russian Orthodox priests, led a celibate existence, forswore meat, and prayed constantly, struggling to avoid the temptations of this world. But no matter their personal sacrifices, dedication, or academic degrees, to the Georgian students, they came across as “despots, capricious egotists who had in mind only their own prospects,” especially rising to bishop (a status in the Orthodox tradition linked to the apostles). Jughashvili, for his part, might well have lost his interest in holy matters as a matter of course, but the seminary’s policies and the monks’ behavior accelerated his disenchantment, while also affording him a certain determination in resistance. He appears to have been singled out by a newly promoted seminary inspector, Priestmonk Dmitry, who was derided by the students as the “Black Blob” (chernoe piatno). The rotund, dark-robed Dmitry had been the seminary’s teacher of holy scripture (1896) before becoming an inspector (1898). Even though he was a Georgian nobleman whose secular name was David Abashidze (1867–1943), he showed himself to be even more Georgia phobic than the chauvinist ethnic Russian monks. When Abashidze confronted Jughashvili over possession of forbidden books, the latter denounced the seminary surveillance regime, called him a Black Blob, and got five hours in a dark “isolation cell.”28 Later in life, during his dictatorship, Stalin would vividly recall the seminary’s “spying, penetrating into the soul, humiliation.” “At 9:00 am, the bell for tea,” he explained, “we go into the dining hall, and then return to our rooms, and it turns out that during that interval someone has searched and turned over all our storage trunks.”29

The estrangement process was gradual, and never total, but the seminary that Jughashvili had worked so hard to get into was alienating him. The illicit reading circle to which he belonged had not been revolutionary in intent, at first. And yet rather than accommodate and moderate student curiosity, for what was after all the best belles lettres and modern science, the theologians responded with interdiction and persecution, as if they had something to fear. In other words, it was less the circle than the seminary itself that was fomenting radicalism, albeit unwittingly. Trotsky, in his biography of Stalin, would colorfully write that Russia’s seminaries were “notorious for the horrifying savagery of their customs, medieval pedagogy, and the law of the fist.”30 True enough, but too pat. Many, perhaps most, graduates of Russian Orthodox seminaries became priests. And while it was true that almost all the leading lights of Georgia’s Social Democrats emerged from the Tiflis seminary—like the many radical members of the Jewish Labor Federation (Bund) produced at the famed Rabbinical School and Teachers’ Seminary in Wilno—that was partly because such places provided an education and strong dose of self-discipline.31 Seminarians populated the ranks of imperial Russia’s scientists (such as the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, of dog reflex fame), and the sons and grandsons of priests also became scientists (such as Dimitri Mendeleev, who invented the periodic table). Orthodox churchmen gave the entire Russian empire most of its intelligentsia through both their offspring and their teaching. Churchmen imparted values that endured their sons’ or students’ secularization: namely, hard work, dignified poverty, devotion to others, and above all, a sense of moral superiority.32

Jughashvili’s discovery of inconsistencies in the Bible, his poring over a translation of Ernest Renan’s atheistic Life of Jesus, and his abandonment of the priesthood did not automatically mean he would become a revolutionary. Revolution was not a default position. Another major step was required. In his case, he spent the 1897 summer vacation in the home village of his close friend Mikheil “Mikho” Davitashvili, “where he got to know the life of the peasants.”33 In Georgia, as in the rest of the Russian empire, the flawed serf emancipation had done little for the peasants, who found themselves trapped between land “redemption” payments to their former masters and newly uninhibited bandits who descended from mountain redoubts to exact tribute.34 The emancipation did “liberate” the children of the nobility, who, without serfs to manage, quit their estates for the cities and, alongside peasant youth, took up the peasantry’s cause.35 Jughashvili’s Georgian awakening evolved toward recognition of Georgian landlord oppression of Georgian peasants: the boy who had perhaps wanted to become a monk now “wished to become a village scribe” or elder.36 But his sense of violated social justice linked up with what appears to be his ambition for leadership. In the illegal circle at the seminary, Jughashvili and the elder Devdariani were boon companions but also competitors for top position.37 In May 1898, when Devdariani graduated and left for the Russian empire’s Dorpat (Yurev) University in the Baltic region, Jughashvili got his wish, taking over the circle and driving it in a more practical (political) direction.38

Iosif Iremashvili—the other Gori “Soso” at the seminary—recalled that “as a child and youth he [Jughashvili] was a good friend so long as one submitted to his imperious will.”39 And yet it was right around this time that the “imperious” Jughashvili acquired a transformative mentor—Lado Ketskhoveli. Lado, after his expulsion for leading the student strike in 1893, had spent the summer reporting for Chavchavadze’s newspaper Iveria on postemancipation peasant burdens in his native Gori district; after that, as per regulations, Lado was permitted to enroll in a different seminary, which he did (Kiev) in September 1894. In 1896, however, Lado was expelled from Kiev, too, arrested for possession of “criminal” literature, and deported to his native village under police surveillance. In fall 1897, Lado returned to Tiflis, joined a group of Georgian Marxists, and went to work in a printer’s shop to learn typesetting so he could produce revolutionary leaflets.40 He also reestablished contact with the Tiflis seminarians. Ketskhoveli was a recognized authority among them: his photograph hung on the wall of the seminarian Jughashvili’s room (along with photos of Mikho Davitashvili and Peti Kapanadze).41 Even though the Cheap Library of Chavchavadze’s Georgian Literacy Society might have had a few Marxist texts, including perhaps one by Marx himself (A Critique of Political Economy, part of the Das Kapital trilogy), book-wise Tiflis was a far cry from Warsaw.42 Lado, beginning in 1898, served as the main source of the young Stalin’s transition from the typical social-justice orientation known as Populism to Marxism.43


Karl Marx (1818–83), born to a well-off middle-class family in Prussia, was by no means the first modern socialist. “Socialism” (the neologism) dates from the 1830s and appeared around the same time as “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “feminism,” and many other “isms” in the wake of the French Revolution that began in 1789 and the concurrent spread of markets. One of the first avowed socialists was a cotton baron, Robert Owen (1771–1858), who wanted to create a model community for his employees by paying higher wages, reducing hours, building schools and company housing, and correcting vice and drunkenness—a fatherlike approach toward “his” workers. Other early socialists, especially French ones, dreamed of an entirely new society, not just ameliorating social conditions. The nobleman Count Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and his followers called for social engineers under public, not private, property, to perfect society, making it fraternal, rational, and just, in an updated version of Plato’s Republic. Charles Fourier (1772–1837) introduced a further twist, arguing that labor was the center of existence and should be uplifting, not dehumanizing; to that end, Fourier, too, imagined a centrally regulated society.44 Not all radicals embraced centralized authority, however: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) attacked the banking system, claiming that big bankers refused to grant credit to small property owners or the poor, and advocated for society to be organized instead on the basis of cooperation (mutualism) so that the state would become unnecessary. He called his smaller-scale and cooperative approach anarchism. But Marx, along with his close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95), a British factory owner, argued that socialism was not a choice but “the necessary outcome” of a larger historical struggle governed by scientific laws, so that, like it or not, the-then current epoch was doomed.

Many adherents of conservatism, too, denounced the evils of markets, but what made Marx stand out among the foes of the new economic order was his full-throated celebration of the power of capitalism and modern industry. Adam Smith’s Scottish Enlightenment tome, Wealth of Nations (1776), had put forth influential arguments about competition, specialization (the division of labor), and the power of self-interest to increase social betterment. But in The Communist Manifesto (1848), a crisply written pamphlet, the-then twenty-nine-year-old Marx waxed lyrical about how “steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production” and how “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.”45 These breakthroughs to “giant modern industry” and globalism, described by Marx in 1848 as accomplished facts, remained decades away, even in Britain, despite the industrial transformation there during Marx’s German childhood. But Marx anticipated them. When explicitly looking into the future, Marx, unlike Smith, stipulated that global capitalism would lose its dynamism. In 1867, he published the first volume of what would become the trilogy called Das Kapital, responding to the classical British political economist David Ricardo as well as Smith. Marx posited that all value was created by human labor, and that the owners of the means of production confiscated the “surplus value” of laborers. In other words, “capital” was someone else’s appropriated labor. The proprietors, Marx argued, invested their ill-gotten surplus value (capital) in labor-saving machinery, thereby advancing production and overall wealth, but also reducing wages or eliminating jobs; while the laborers, according to Marx, became locked in immiseration, capital tended to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, inhibiting further development. In the interest of further economic and social progress, Marx called for abolition of private property, the market, profit, and money.

Marx’s revision of French socialist thought (Fourier, Saint-Simon) and British political economy (Ricardo, Smith) rested on what the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had called the dialectic: that is, on a supposedly in-built logic of contradictions whereby forms clashed with their opposites, so that historical progress was achieved through negation and transcendence (Aufhebung). Thus, capitalism, because of its inherent contradictions, would give way, dialectically, to socialism. More broadly, Marx argued that history proceeded in stages—feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism (when everything would be plentiful)—and that the decisive motor was classes, such as the proletariat, who would push aside capitalism, just as the bourgeoisie had supposedly pushed aside feudalism and feudal lords. The proletariat in Marx became the bearer of Hegel’s universal Reason, a supposed “universal class because its sufferings are universal”—in other words, not because it worked in factories per se, but because the proletariat was a victim, a victim turned redeemer.

Marx intended his analysis of society to serve as the leading edge in efforts to change it. In 1864, he joined with a diverse group of influential leftists in London, including anarchists, to establish a transnational body for uniting the workers and radicals of the world called the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–76). By the 1870s, critics on the left had attacked Marx’s vision for the organization—to “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class”—as authoritarian, provoking recriminations and splits. After Marx’s death in 1883 in London (where he was buried), various socialist and labor parties founded a “Second International” in Paris (1889). In place of the “bourgeois-republican” “Marseillaise” of the 1789 French Revolution, the Second International adopted “L’Internationale”—the first stanza of which begins “Arise, ye wretched of the earth”—as the socialist anthem. The Second International also adopted the red flag, which had appeared in France as a stark contrast to the white flag of the Bourbon dynasty and of the counterrevolutionaries who wanted to restore the monarchy after its overthrow. Despite the French song and symbolism, however, German Social Democrats—devotees of the deceased Marx—came to dominate the Second International. Subjects of the Russian empire, many of them in European exile, would become the chief rivals to the Germans in the Second International.

In imperial Russia, the idea of socialism had taken hold nearly a half century before a proletariat had appeared and owed its phenomenal spread to the introspection of a self-described intelligentsia. The latter—literally, the intelligence of the realm—were educated yet frustrated individuals who initially came from the gentry, but over time also emerged from commoners granted access to high schools and universities. Russia’s intelligentsia absorbed the same German idealist philosophy that Marx had, only without the heavy materialism that came from British political economy. Organized in small circles (Russian kruzhok, German Kreis), Russian socialists defended the dignity of all by generalizing from a sense of their own violated dignity. Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, two mid-nineteenth-century sons of great privilege who knew each other, led the way. Each believed that in Russia the peasantry could serve as the basis for socialism because of the institution of the commune.46 Communes furnished a collective buffer against frosts, droughts, and other challenges through periodic redistribution among households of land allotments (in separated strips) as well as other means.47 Many peasants did not live under the commune, especially in the east (Siberia) as well as the west and south (Ukraine), where there had been no serfdom. But in the central regions of the Russian empire, the commune’s powers were strengthened by the 1860s serf emancipation.48 Because peasants in communes held no private property as individuals—either before or after emancipation—thinkers such as Herzen and Bakunin imagined the empire’s peasants to be inherently socialist and therefore, they argued, in Russia socialism could appear essentially before capitalism. Armed with just such thinking in the aftermath of the 1860s serf emancipation, self-described Populists (narodniki), descended upon Russia’s villages to lift peasants out of backwardness.

The Populists were in a hurry: capitalism had begun to spread and the Populists feared that the freed serfs were being turned into wage slaves, with the exploitative bourgeoisie taking the place of serf owners. At the same time, the much idealized egalitarianism of village life was thought to be under threat by the appearance of the kulak, or rich peasant.49 But even poor peasants met the outside would-be tutors with hostility. After Populism’s tactic of agitation failed to foster mass peasant uprising, some turned to political terror to spark mass uprising in cities (which would also fail). Other radicals, however, shifted their hopes from peasants to the incipient proletariat, thanks to the growing influence of Marx in Russia. Georgi Plekhanov (b. 1857), the father of Marxism in Russia, attacked the Populist argument that Russia could obviate capitalism because it possessed some supposed indigenous tendency (the peasant commune) toward socialism. Plekhanov went into European exile in 1880 (for what would turn out to be thirty-seven years), but his works in the 1880s—Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885)—filtered back into Russia and made the case that historical stages could not be skipped: Only capitalism made socialism possible, and therefore Russia, too, would have to have a “bourgeois revolution” first, before a socialist revolution, even if the proletariat had to help the bourgeoisie achieve the bourgeois revolution.50 This was what Marx had said. Late in life, though, Marx did seem to admit that England’s experience, from which he had generalized, might not be universal; that the bourgeoisie might not be uniquely progressive (in historical terms); and that Russia might be able to avoid the full-blown capitalist stage.51 This apparent heresy had emerged from Marx’s reliance on the Russian economist Nikolai F. Danielson, who served as his confidant and supplied him with books on Russia. Still, the late Marx’s quasi-Populist views on Russia were not widely known (they would not appear in Russian until December 1924). Plekhanov’s Marxist critique of Populism held intellectual sway.

Danielson himself fed this dominance by collaborating on a Russian translation of Das Kapital, Marx’s three-volume magnum opus, which appeared in the 1890s and attracted a fair audience of readers—including the future Stalin. In 1896, with publication of the third volume, the hesitant Russian censor finally recognized it as a “scientific” work, meaning it could circulate in libraries and be offered for sale.52 By this time, Marxist political economy had appeared as an academic subject at some Russian universities, and even the turn-of-the-century director of one of the empire’s largest textile plants in Moscow collected a vast trove of Marxiana.53 Russia was then a country of 1 million proletarians and more than 80 million peasants. But Marxism displaced Populism as “the answer.”

Marxism had spread to the Russian-controlled Caucasus as well, also beginning in the 1880s. It came partly from the leftist movements in Europe, via Russia, but also from the ferment in Russian Poland, whose influence reached Georgia through Poles sent into exile in the Caucasus or Georgians who studied in tsarist Poland. Georgian Marxism was also spurred by generational revolt. Noe Jordania emerged as the Plekhanov of the Caucasus. He had been born in 1869 into a noble family of western Georgia, attended the Tiflis Theological Seminary, and along with others like Silva Jibladze, the Tiflis seminarian who had slapped the Russian rector’s face in 1884, established the Third Group (Mesame Dasi) in 1892. They aimed to contrast their avowedly Marxist association with the conservative Populism of Ilya Chavchavadze (First Group) and the national (classical) liberalism of Giorgi Tsereteli (Second Group). Traveling in Europe, Jordania had come to know Karl Kautsky, the Prague-born leading German Social Democrat, as well as Plekhanov. In 1898, at the invitation of Giorgi Tsereteli, Jordania took over the editorship of the periodical Kvali.54 Under him, Kvali became the Russian empire’s first legal Marxist periodical, stressing self-government, development, and Georgian cultural autonomy within Russian borders (reminiscent of the Austrian Social Democrats in the multinational Habsburg realm). Before long, Marxist literature—including 100 mimeographed copies of The Communist Manifesto translated from Russian into Georgian—would be smuggled into Tiflis and bolster the widening circles of young Caucasus radicals such as Jughashvili.55

Tiflis became their organizing laboratory. The city of petty traders, porters, and artisans, surrounded by a restive countryside, had 9,000 registered craftsmen, mostly in one- and two-person artels. Around 95 percent of its “factories” were workshops with fewer than ten laborers. But the big railroad depots and workshops (which had opened in 1883), together with several industrial tobacco plants and the Adelkhanov Tannery, did assemble a proletariat of at least 3,000 (up to 12,500 in the province as a whole). Tiflis railway workers had walked off the job in 1887 and 1889, and in mid-December 1898 they did so again, for five days—a major strike that Lado Ketskhoveli and other workers organized. Jughashvili was in the seminary during that Monday-to-Saturday workweek job action.56 But thanks to Ketskhoveli, Jughashvili’s seminary student circle—which he had just come to control by May 1898—broadened to include half a dozen or so proletarians at the Tiflis railway depot and workshops. They usually met on Sundays, in Tiflis’ Nakhalovka (Nadzaladevi) neighborhood, which was bereft of sidewalks, streetlights, sewers, or running water.57 Jughashvili lectured workers on “the mechanics of the capitalist system,” and “the need to engage in political struggle to improve the workers’ position.”58 Through Lado, he met the firebrand Silva Jibladze, who seems to have played a role in teaching Jughashvili how to agitate among the workers and in assigning him new “circles.”59 Jibladze may also have been the person to introduce Jughashvili to Noe Jordania.

Sometime in 1898, Jughashvili went to call upon Jordania at Kvali, just as Jughashvili had once approached the aristocrat Chavchavadze at the periodical Iveria (which then published his poetry). Gentle and professorial, the aristocrat Jordania, who projected little of a radical countenance, later recalled that his brash young visitor told him, “I have decided to quit the seminary to propagate your ideas among the workers.” Jordania claims he quizzed the young Jughashvili on politics and society, then advised him to return to the seminary and to study Marxism more. The condescending advice was not well received. “I’ll think about it,” the future Stalin is said to have replied.60 In August 1898, Jughashvili did join the Third Group of Georgian Marxists, following in Lado Ketskhoveli’s footsteps.

The Third Group, technically, was not a political party, which were illegal in tsarist Russia, but in March 1898, in a private log house in the outskirts of Minsk, a small town in the empire’s Pale of Settlement, a founding “congress” of the Marxist-inspired, German copycat Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDRP)—the future ruling party of the Soviet Union—took place. This was the second attempt (a previous effort to found the party, in Kiev, had failed). The Jewish Labor Bund (or Federation), which had been established five months earlier, provided logistical support for the Minsk gathering. There were a mere nine attendees, and just one actual worker (leading some present to object to their prospective party’s name [“Workers’”].* The year 1898 happened to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and the delegates, during the three-day gathering, approved their own manifesto, a withering denunciation of “the bourgeoisie,” which they decided needed to be redrafted in order to be circulated, a task given to Pyotr Struve (b. 1870), the son of the Perm governor and an imperial law school graduate.61 (“The autocracy created in the soul, thoughts, and habits of educated Russians a psychology and tradition of state apostasy,” Struve later explained.)62 The tsarist political police knew nothing of the Minsk congress, but the attendees were already on watch lists and soon most were arrested.63 Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, learned of the 1898 Minsk congress while off in Eastern Siberia serving a three-year term of internal exile, following fifteen months in prison, for disseminating revolutionary leaflets and plotting to assassinate the tsar. Minsk would turn out to be the only prerevolutionary RSDRP congress held on Russian empire territory.64 But soon, in European exile, a group of socialist exiles that included Plekhanov, his two satellites Pinchas Borutsch (aka Pavel Axelrod) and Vera Zasulich as well as the upstarts Julius “Yuly” Tsederbaum (aka Martov) and Lenin, published a Russian-language newspaper, initially out of Stuttgart in December 1900. Aiming to unite Russia’s revolutionaries around a Marxist program, it was called Iskra (Spark), as in “from a spark a fire will ignite.”65


The future Stalin (like Lenin) would date his “party membership” from 1898. Back at the seminary, in fall and winter 1898–99, his infractions accumulated: arriving late at morning prayers; violating discipline at liturgy (evidently leaving early, complaining of leg pain while standing so long); arriving three days late from a leave in Gori; failing to greet a teacher (the former Inspector Murakhovsky); laughing in church; denouncing a search; leaving Vespers. Jughashvili received reprimands and had to do time in the seminary’s solitary-confinement cell. On January 18, 1899, he was forbidden to leave the premises for the city proper for one month, evidently in connection with a discovery of a large cache of forbidden books. (Another student caught was expelled.)66 More consequentially, following the Easter break, Jughashvili failed to sit his year-end exams. A May 29, 1899, entry in a Georgian exarchate official organ noted of Jughashvili: “dismissed [uvolniaetsia] from seminary for failure to appear at the examination for unknown reason.”67 This dismissal, with its enigmatic phrase “unknown reason,” has been the subject of varying interpretations, including Stalin’s own (subsequent) boast that he was “kicked out of an Orthodox theological seminary for Marxist propaganda.”68 But on more than one occasion, before he became ruler, he would state that he had suddenly been assessed a fee and could not pay it, and that going into his final year he faced the loss of his partial state financial support. Each time, however, he neglected to specify why he lost his state scholarship.69 There also seems to be no extant indication that he appealed for financial help to Egnatashvili or another benefactor. And no such failure to pay was recorded in the formal expulsion resolution. Still, his straitened circumstances were well known (many times Jughashvili had implored the rector for financial assistance), and it could be that the disciplinarians, led by Inspector Abashidze, contrived to rid themselves of Jughashvili by exploiting his poverty.70

Four years after Jughashvili’s 1899 expulsion, Abashidze would be promoted—ordained a bishop, a clear stamp of approval for his work.71 In fact, the seminary’s Russification policies had failed. Already in 1897–98, the Caucasus authorities seem to have concluded that the Tiflis seminary was harming Russia’s interests and should be closed (according to the memoirs of one teacher). Rather than closing it right away, however, the ecclesiastics decided to institute a purge of the ethnic Georgian students.72 The seminary forwarded lists of transgressing students to the gendarmerie.73 In September 1899, forty to forty-five seminarians were forced out “at their own request.” Soon, Georgian students would disappear from the seminary entirely. (The seminary would be altogether shuttered in 1907.)74 Jughashvili could have been expelled as part of the large group in fall 1899. But Abashidze’s vendetta may explain why Jughashvili’s expulsion was done individually instead. Even so, we are left with the curiosity that no reason was given for Jughashvili’s failure to sit his exams, and that he apparently did not petition to resit them. One possible clue: the year Jughashvili left the seminary he may have fathered a baby girl—Praskovya “Pasha” Georgievna Mikhailovskaya, who, in her adulthood, resembled him strongly.75 Jughashvili’s student circle was renting a hovel in Tiflis at the foot of holy Mount Mtatsminda for conspiratorial meetings, but the young men could also have used it for trysts.76 Later, Stalin would place a letter he received about the paternity in his archive. If such circumstantial evidence can be accepted, that might explain why Jughashvili faced the loss of his state scholarship and did not appeal to resit his exams or to have his state funding reinstated.77

But biographers have noted further curiosities. Upon dismissal, Jughashvili owed the state more than 600 rubles—a fantastic sum—for failing to enter the priesthood or otherwise serve the Orthodox Church (or at least become a schoolteacher). The rectorate wrote him a letter suggesting he become a teacher at a lower-level church school, but he did not take up the offer; yet the seminary does not appear to have employed the secular authorities to force him to make good his financial obligation.78 And then this: in October 1899, without having paid the money he owed, Jughashvili requested and received an official seminary document testifying to his completion of four years of study (since his fifth remained incomplete). The expellee was assigned an overall “excellent” (5) for conduct.79 These curiosities, in which, ordinarily, payment of a bribe would be suspected, may or may not be meaningful. When all is said and done, the future Stalin may have just outgrown the seminary, being two years older than his cohort and already deeply involved in Lado’s revolutionary activities. Jughashvili was not going to join the priesthood, and a seminary recommendation to continue his studies at university seemed unlikely. The expulsion, Jughashvili supposedly confided to one schoolmate, was a “blow,” but if so, he did not fight to stay.80

Jughashvili remained a book person, and more and more imagined himself in the role of teacher. He spent the summer of 1899 not in Gori but, again, in the village of Tsromi, with his buddy Mikho Davitashvili, a priest’s son. They were visited by Lado Ketskhoveli. The police searched the Davitashvili’s household but, it seems, the family had been forewarned, and the search turned up nothing. Still, Mikho was among the large group who did not continue at the seminary in September 1899 “at his own request.”81 Jughashvili would add many of the newly expelled boys from the seminary to the self-study circle he led.82 He also continued to meet with and give lectures to workers. Then, in December 1899, not long after he had obtained his official seminary four-year study document—which he may have sought for employment purposes—Jughashvili landed a paying job at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, a state agency. It was a stroke of luck, but also linked to his association with the Ketskhovelis: Vano Ketskhoveli, Lado’s younger brother, worked at the observatory and Jughashvili had already moved in with Vano in October 1899; a bit later, conveniently, one of the six employees left.83 Jughashvili got paid relatively good money: 20–25 rubles per month (at a time when the average wage in the Caucasus was 14–24 rubles for skilled labor, and 10–13 for unskilled).84 Besides shoveling snow in winter and sweeping dust in summer, he recorded temperatures and barometric pressures hourly. The future Stalin also spent a great deal of time reading and he became a dedicated agitator. When he had the night shift, during the day he could read up on Marxism or lecture groups of workers, which became his absolute passion.

Further inspiration came from questioning the socialist establishment. In solidarity with Lado Ketskhoveli, who sometimes hid overnight at the observatory, Jughashvili looked askance at Jordania’s Kvali. As a legal publication, Kvali had to pass censorship and show restraint, offering a “diluted Marxism” that was anathema to younger radicals. Kvali’s feuilletons, Ketskhoveli and Jughashvili argued, “did nothing” for actual workers. Lado dreamed about starting his own illegal periodical and recruiting more young propagandists like Jughashvili.85 Jordania and his supporters opposed an illicit periodical, fearing it would cast a shadow over their legal one. When Jughashvili wrote a critique of Kvali’s seeming docility and inaction, Jordania and the editors refused to publish it. Word got back to Jibladze and Jordania that Jughashvili was agitating against Kvali behind their backs.86 But whatever the bad personal blood, a genuine difference in tactics was at stake: the future Stalin, in sync with Lado, insisted that the Marxist movement shift from educational work to direct action. Lado showed the way by organizing a strike of the city’s horse-drawn tram drivers for January 1, 1900. The drivers, for their thirteen-hour workday, earned 90 kopecks, part of which was taken back in dubious workplace “fines.” Their walkout briefly brought the capital to a halt, and forced a wage increase. That was power. There were risks, however, as Jordania and Jibladze had noted. One of the tram workers informed on Lado and in mid-January 1900 he barely escaped the Tiflis gendarmes, fleeing to Baku.87 That same month, Jughashvili was arrested—for the first time. He had just turned twenty-one, legal age, a few weeks before.

The nominal charge was that his father, Beso, owed back taxes in Didi Lilo, the village Beso had left more than three decades earlier without, however, formally exiting the village rolls. Jughashvili was incarcerated in the Metekhi Prison fortress—the one on the cliff that he had walked past at age eleven on his way to work with his father at the Adelkhanov Tannery. Mikho Davitashvili and other friends seem to have assembled the money and paid off Beso’s outstanding village debt, so Jughashvili was released. Keke arrived from Gori and, for a time, insisted on staying with him in his room at the observatory—this had to be embarrassing. She “lived in permanent anxiety over her son,” recalled a neighbor and distant relative (Maria Kitiashvili). “I remember well how she would come over to our place and cry about her dear Soso—Where is he now, did the gendarmes arrest him?”88 Soon, Keke herself would be monitored by the police and occasionally summoned for questioning. It remains unclear why the gendarmes did not arrest Beso, who was living in Tiflis (Iosif received handmade boots from his father on occasion).89 Nor is it clear why Jughashvili was not arrested for his own debt to the state from the seminary scholarship. Police incompetence cannot be ruled out. But the arrest for Beso’s debt does seem like a pretext, a warning to a young radical or perhaps a maneuver to mark him: Jughashvili was photographed for the police archive. He returned to his job at the observatory, but also continued his illegal political lectures and remained under surveillance. “According to agent information, Jughashvili is a Social Democrat and conducts meetings with workers,” the police noted. “Surveillance has established that he behaves in a highly cautious manner, always looking back while walking.”90


Amid the cock fighting, banditry, and prostitution (political and sexual) in the Caucasus, illegal socialist agitation hardly stood out, at least initially. As late as 1900, the overwhelming preponderance of Tiflis inhabitants under police surveillance were Armenians, who were watched for fear they maintained links to their coethnics across the border in the Ottoman empire. But just a few years later, most of the police dossiers on “political” suspects were of Georgians and Social Democrats—238 of them, including Jughashvili’s.91 On March 21, 1901, the police raided the Tiflis Observatory premises. Although Jughashvili was absent when the search of his and other employees’ possessions took place, he may have been observing from not far away, been spotted and had his person searched, too.92 If so, the police did not arrest him, perhaps because they wanted to keep him under further surveillance, to uncover others. Be that as it may, the future Stalin’s meteorological career was over. He went underground, permanently.

Jughashvili now had no means of support, other than being paid for some private tutoring and sponging off colleagues, girlfriends, and the proletarians he sought to lead. He threw himself into conspiratorial activities, like establishing safe houses and opening illegal presses to help strikes and May Day marches. May Day had been established as a holiday by socialists around the world in order to commemorate the Haymarket riots in Chicago in 1886, when police had fired on strikers who sought an eight-hour workday. In Tiflis, May Day marches with red flags had been initiated in 1898 by railway workers. Held outside the city proper, the first three marches drew 25 people (1898), 75 (1899), then 400 (1900). For May Day 1901, Jughashvili was involved in plans for a bold, risky march right down Golovin Prospect, in the heart of Tiflis. He agitated among the city’s largest concentration of workers, the Tiflis Main Railway Shops. The tsarist police made preemptive arrests and arrayed mounted Cossacks with sabers and long whips, but at least 2,000 workers and onlookers defied them, chanting “Down with autocracy!” After a forty-five-minute melee involving hand-to-hand combat, the streets of the Caucasus capital were soaked with blood.93

Russian Social Democrats were exiled for revolutionary activity by the tsarist police to the Caucasus—where, of course, they helped foment revolutionary activity—and Jughashvili met Mikhail Kalinin, among others.94 But the twenty-six-year-old militant Ketskhoveli remained a key link to the imperial Russian Social Democrats and a role model for Jughashvili. Underground in Baku, Lado did start up a Georgian-language competitor to Kvali, christened Brdzola (the Struggle), a rowdy broadsheet that began appearing in September 1901. Referring to the bloody 1901 May Day clash in Tiflis, an (unsigned) essay in Brdzola (November-December 1901) defiantly rationalized that “the sacrifices we make today in street demonstration will be compensated a hundredfold,” adding that “every militant who falls in the struggle or is torn from our ranks [by arrest] rouses hundreds of new fighters.”95 The illegal printing press, which Ketskhoveli established along with Avel Yenukidze, Leonid Krasin, and other Social Democrats in Baku, was hidden in the city’s Muslim quarter and code-named “Nina”—Russian for Nino (the female patron saint of Georgia). It also published reprints of the recently founded Russian-language Marxist emigre newspaper Iskra, original copies of which were smuggled from Central Europe to Baku via Tabriz (Iran) on horseback.96 Nina very soon became the largest underground Social Democrat printing press in the entire Russian empire, and would confound the tsarist police (from 1901 to 1907).97 It was through the Nina printing press, as well as Lado’s Brdzola, that the young Jughashvili became acquainted with the ideas of Lenin, who wrote many of the blistering (unsigned) editorials in the thirteen issues of Iskra that had appeared by the end of 1901.98

Ketskhoveli, obviating Jordania, afforded Jughashvili direct access to the pulse of Russian Social Democracy, helping him become an informed Marxist and militant street agitator. The latter persona was grafted onto Jughashvili’s already deep-set autodidact disposition and his heartfelt vocation to enlighten the masses. From personal experience, however, Jughashvili would lament that workers often did not appreciate the importance of studying and self-improvement. During a meeting on November 11, 1901, of the newly formed Tiflis Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, he championed not the worker members but the demi-intelligentsia members—that is, types like himself and Lado. He argued that inviting workers to join the party was incompatible with “conspiracy” and would expose members to arrest. Lenin had propagated this vision in the pages of Iskra. He also wrote a wide-ranging pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (March 1902), a self-defense against a slashing attack (in September 1901) by other Marxists in the Iskra group. Lenin’s advocacy for an intelligentsia-centric party would soon come to divide the Iskra group.99 At the November 1901 Tiflis Committee meeting, meanwhile, a majority of Caucasus Social Democrats voted to admit workers to the party, against Jughashvili’s Lenin-like urgings.100 At the same time, the Tiflis Committee decided to send Jughashvili to agitate among workers in the Black Sea port of Batum.101

Batum was a high-profile assignment. Just twelve miles from the Ottoman border, the port had been seized from the Ottomans with the rest of Islamic Adjara (Ajaria) in the 1877–78 war and, after being joined to Russia’s Transcaucasus Railway, became the terminal for exporting Russia’s Caspian Sea oil. The world’s longest pipeline from Baku to Batum was under construction (it would open in 1907) and its sponsors—the Swedish Nobel brothers of dynamite fame, the French Rothschild brothers of banking fame, and the Armenian magnate Alexander Mantashyan (b. 1842), known in Russified form as Mantashov—endeavored to break U.S. Standard Oil’s near-monopoly in supplying kerosene to Europe.102 Jughashvili, too, sought to ride the oil boom, for leftist purposes. (Soon Iskra, along with other Russian Marxist literature, began arriving there by boat from Marseilles.) The port city already had “Sunday Schools” for workers, established by Nikoloz “Karlo” Chkheidze (b. 1864), one of the founders of the Third Group, and Isidor Ramishvili (b. 1859), both close comrades of Noe Jordania.

The younger Jughashvili immersed himself in the workers’ milieu, where he “spoke without an orator’s refinement,” a hostile fellow Georgian later recalled. “His words were imbued with power, determination. He spoke with sarcasm, irony, hammering away with crude severities,” but then “apologized, explaining that he was speaking the language of the proletariat who were not taught subtle manners or aristocratic eloquence.”103 Jughashvili’s worker pose became real when an acquaintance got him hired at the Rothschild oil company. There, on February 25, 1902, amid slackening customer demand, 389 workers (of around 900) were let go with just two weeks’ notice, provoking a total walkout two days later.104 Mass arrests ensued. Secretly, the Caucasus military chief confided to the local governors that Social Democrat “propaganda” was finding “receptive soil” because of the workers’ dreadful living and laboring conditions.105 Moreover, the policy of deporting protesting workers to their native villages was only magnifying the rebellious waves in the Georgian countryside.106 On March 9, a crowd carrying cobblestones sought to free comrades at the transit prison awaiting deportation. “Brothers, don’t be afraid,” one imprisoned worker shouted, “they can’t shoot, for God’s sake free us.” The police opened fire, killing at least fourteen.107

The “Batum massacre” reverberated around the Russian empire, but for Jughashvili—who had distributed incendiary leaflets—it brought arrest on April 5, 1901. A police report characterized him as “of no specific occupation and unknown residence,” but “a teacher of the workers.”108 Whether Jughashvili had any influence on worker militancy is unclear. But he was charged with “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority.”109 Batum also set in motion the profound bad blood that would haunt Jughashvili in Caucasus Social Democrat circles. To replace him there, the Tiflis Committee sent David “Mokheve” Khartishvili. Back in Tiflis, Mokheve had argued that only workers ought to be full members of the Tiflis Committee, denying such status to intelligentsia (like Jughashvili). Once in Batum, Mokheve accused the imprisoned Jughashvili of having deliberately provoked the police massacre.110 While Jughashvili was in prison, however, his Batum loyalists resisted Mokheve’s authority. A police report—drawn from informants—observed that “Jughashvili’s despotism has enraged many people and the organization has split.”111 It was during this imprisonment that Jughashvili began regularly using the pseudonym Koba, “avenger of injustice.”112 Members of the Tiflis Committee got angry at him. They would likely have been even angrier had they known that while wallowing for a year in the Batum remand prison in 1902–3, the future Stalin twice begged the Caucasus governor-general for release, citing “a worsening, choking cough and the helpless position of my elderly mother, abandoned by her husband twelve years ago and seeing me as her sole support in life.”113 (Keke also petitioned the governor-general for her son in January 1903.) Such groveling, if it were to become known, could have tainted a revolutionary’s reputation. A prison doctor examined Jughashvili, but the gendarmerie opposed clemency.114 Fifteen months after his arrest, in July 1903, Koba Jughashvili was sentenced by administrative fiat to three years’ exile in the Mongol-speaking Buryat lands of Eastern Siberia.

Outside the bars of his cattle car, in November 1903, the future Stalin likely saw real winter for the first time—snow-blanketed earth, completely iced rivers. As a Georgian in Siberia, Koba the avenger nearly froze to death on his first escape attempt. But already by January 1904 he had managed to elude the village police chief, make it forty miles to the railhead, and arrive illegally all the way back in Tiflis.115 He would tell three different stories about his escape, including one about hitching a ride with a deliveryman whom he plied with vodka. In fact, the future Stalin appears to have used a real or forged gendarmerie identity card—a trick that compounded the suspicions about his quick escape. (Was he a police collaborator?)116 During his absence from Tiflis, there had been a congress to unify the South Caucasus Social Democrats and create a “union committee” of nine members; Jughashvili would be added to it.117 Even so, his former Batum committee shunned him. He was associated with the police bloodbath and political split there, and after his quick return, he was distrusted as a possible agent provocateur.118 Wanted by the police, he roamed: back to Gori (where he got new false papers), then Batum and Tiflis. His sometime landlady and mistress in the Batum underground, Natasha Kirtava-Sikharulidze, then twenty-two, had refused to accompany him to Tiflis; he cursed her.119 Police surveillance in the Caucasus capital was intense and Jughashvili changed residences at least eight times in a month. He met up again with Lev Rozenfeld, better known as Kamenev, who helped him find a hideaway. One safe-house apartment belonged to Sergei Alliluyev, a skilled machinist who had been sent to Tiflis, hired on at the railway workshops, and married. The family home of the Alliluyevs (Stalin’s future second father-in-law) in the Tiflis outskirts became a Social Democrat meeting center, providing refuge for agitators who, for a time, escaped arrest and deportation.120

Kamenev would also give Jughashvili a copy of the Russian translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1869), although Russia’s revolutionaries hardly needed the Italian political theorist.121 Sergei Nechayev (1847–82), the son of a serf and the founder of the secret society the People’s Retaliation, had observed in 1871, “Everything that allows the triumph of the revolution is moral, and everything that stands in its way is immoral.”122

 • • • 

SUCH WERE THE LADO-INSPIRED early revolutionary years (1898–1903) in the life of the future dictator—a vocation as an agitator and teacher of the workers; a bloody confrontational May Day strategy in Tiflis; an illegal Marxist press as a rival to a legal one; accusations of provoking a police massacre and splitting the party in Batum; a long, rough prison stint in western Georgia; privately groveling before the Caucasus governor-general; a brief, freezing Siberian exile; suspicions of police collaboration; a life on the run. Almost in the blink of an eye, a pious boy from Gori, Jughashvili had gone from smuggling Victor Hugo into the Tiflis seminary to becoming a participant—albeit a completely obscure one—in a global socialist movement. That was largely thanks not to some Caucasus outlaw culture, but to tsarist Russia’s profound injustices and repression. Open confrontation with the regime had been willfully pursued by young hotheads who imagined they were plumbing the depths of the autocracy’s intransigence. Soon, however, this combative, risky approach would be adopted even by those Marxist socialists who had long resisted it, men such as Jordania and Jibladze of Kvali. The tsarist political system and conditions in the empire promoted militancy. In the Caucasus, as in the empire as a whole, leftists essentially leaped the stage of agitating for trade unionism—which remained illegal in Russia far later than in Western Europe—and went straight to violent overthrow of the abusive order.123

Even officialdom showed awareness (in internal correspondence) of the strong impetus to revolt: the factory regime was beyond brutal; landowners and their enforcers treated postemancipation peasants as chattel; any attempt to alleviate such conditions was treated as treason.124 “First one becomes convinced that existing conditions are wrong and unjust,” Stalin would later explain, persuasively. “Then one resolves to do the best one can to remedy them. Under the tsar’s regime, any attempt genuinely to help the people put one outside the pale of the law; one found oneself hunted and hounded as a revolutionist.”125 If living under tsarism made him, like many other young people, a street-fighting revolutionary, Jughashvili also styled himself an enlightener—so far, almost exclusively in oral form—as well as an outsider and an underdog, an up-and-comer who bucked not only the tsarist police but also the uncomprehending revolutionary establishment under Jordania.126 In seeking to lead protesting workers, Jughashvili had mixed success. Still, he did prove adept at cultivating a tight-knit group of young men like himself. “Koba distinguished himself from all other Bolsheviks,” one hostile Georgian emigre recalled, “by his unquestionably greater energy, indefatigable capacity for hard work, unconquerable lust for power, and above all his enormous, particularistic organizational talent” aimed at forging “disciples through whom he could . . . hold the whole organization in his grasp.”127

Before Jughashvili was launched on his own, however, Lado Ketskhoveli exemplified for him the daring professional revolutionary—battling injustice, living underground off his wits, defying tsarist police.128 Leonid Krasin judged Lado an organizational genius. Sergei Alliluyev would deem Lado the most magnetic personality of the Caucasus socialist movement. But in spring 1902, Brdzola had ceased publication after just four issues, following extensive arrests of the Baku Social Democrats. (Its rival Kvali would soon be shuttered as well.) In September 1902, Ketskhoveli himself had been arrested and incarcerated in Tiflis’ Metekhi Prison fortress. Distraught over the arrests of his comrades, Lado may have precipitated his own arrest by giving his real name during a police search of someone else’s apartment. Standing by the extralarge cell embrasures and shouting out to fellow inmates and passersby, Lado, “a rebel [buntar],” “feared and hated” by the prison administration, appears to have baited the prison guards daily. A note he tried to smuggle out of Metekhi may have gotten Avel Yenukidze arrested. In August 1903, when Lado refused to stand down from the window, a prison guard, after a warning, shot and killed Lado, age twenty-seven, through the outside window of his locked cell.129 The story would be told that Lado had been defiantly shouting “Down with the autocracy!” He seems to have been willing, perhaps even eager, to die for the cause.

Later, Stalin would not erase Lado’s independent revolutionary exploits or existence, even as almost everyone else connected to the dictator at one time or another would be airbrushed.130 (Lado’s birth house would be included in newsreels featuring Soviet Georgia.)131 The earliness of Lado’s martyrdom certainly helped in this regard. But that circumstance highlights the fact that Iosif Jughashvili himself could have suffered the same fate as his first mentor: early death in a tsarist prison.



The Russian empire is everywhere in ferment. Unrest and apprehension prevail in all classes. This applies equally to labor, students, the nobility, including the highest Court society, industrialists, merchants, shopkeepers, and, last but not least, the peasants . . . The only proven method of dealing with this situation, which is often proposed abroad, is the granting of a constitution; if this were done here, the consequences would almost certainly be revolution.

Austro-Hungarian attache in St. Petersburg, memo to Vienna, 19021

RUSSIAN EURASIA—104 NATIONALITIES SPEAKING 146 languages, as enumerated in the 1897 census—was the world’s most spectacular kaleidoscope, but in truth, empire everywhere presented a crazy patchwork.2 The key to empire in Russia, too, was not the multinationalism per se but the political system. The onset of Russia’s modern state administration is usually attributed to Peter I, or Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725), even though major changes attributed to him often had roots in his father’s and even his grandfather’s reign.3 Peter is also credited with Westernization, even though he distrusted the West and used it as a means to an end: namely, the source of technical skills.4 Peter, whose mother was a (distant) Tatar descendant, did render Russia even more European culturally. Institutionally, he regularized a state administration on the Swedish model. And he introduced a Table of Ranks, a ladder of incentives to enhance competition for honor and privilege and to open state service to new men. By detaching status from birthright—or to put it another way, by making birthright a reward conferred by the state—Peter extended the governing authority’s capacity. But he undercut all his own state building by involving himself in everything. As one foreign ambassador observed, Peter “finds daily, more and more, that in the whole realm not one of his blood relatives and boyars can be found to whom he can entrust an important office. He is therefore forced to take over the heavy burden of the realm himself, and to put his hand to a new and different government, pushing back the boyars (whom he calls disloyal dogs).”5 In 1722, Peter unilaterally upgraded himself to “Emperor” (Imperator), a claim of parity with the (nonreigning) Holy Roman emperor. (He opted for “Emperor of All the Russias” rather than a proposed “Emperor of the East.”) Above all, Peter built up his own persona, partly via court hazing rituals—dildo debauches, mock weddings—which accentuated the centrality of and access to the autocrat’s person.6 The drive for a strong state became conflated with an intense personalism.

Peter’s method of state building also reinforced the circumstance whereby Russia’s elites remained joined at the hip to the autocratic power. Russia never developed a fully fledged aristocracy with its own corporate institutions that would, eventually, decapitate the absolutism (although, finally, in 1730 some nobles in Russia did try).7 True, Russia’s gentry accumulated as much wealth as their counterparts in Austria or even England. And unlike in Austria or England, the Russian gentry also produced cultural figures of world distinction—Lermontov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Skryabin, Mussorgsky. Further, Russia’s gentry was an open estate: even bastards (such as Alexander Herzen) could attain noble status. But a still greater difference was that England’s aristocracy acquired political experience as a ruling class in a constitutional monarchy. Russia’s serf owners were all-powerful on their estates, but, ultimately, they lived under the autocrat’s sufferance. Elite status in Russia was predicated on rendering service in exchange for rewards—which could be withdrawn.8 In addition to serving the sovereign by employment in the state, Russian nobles had to work constantly just to maintain their standing in the hierarchy. True, most of Russia’s privileged families managed to survive through the centuries under the autocrats. Still, not all Russia’s elite clans did survive, and the difference between prosperous endurance versus exile or imprisonment could seem arbitrary.9 Russia’s high and mighty needed still higher-placed patrons to protect their property holdings and, sometimes, their very persons.

Multitudes of observers, including Karl Marx, asserted that “modern Russia is but a metamorphosis of Muscovy.”10 They were wrong: the post-Petrine Russian state and its capital, St. Petersburg, more closely resembled European absolutism than ancient Muscovy. But that circumstance was obscured. Russia’s “soulless” pushers of paper, “brainless” bootlickers, and “craven” collectors of state decorations took an immortal drubbing in belles lettres, nowhere better than in Nikolai Gogol’s Inspector General. Court circles too mocked Russia’s parvenu “Your Excellencies.” Aside from these memoirs and Gogol’s sublime pen, which continue to beguile historians, we can find other important voices. Prince Boris A. Vasilchikov, for example, an aristocrat elected to the local governing council (zemstvo) near his estate, and later the governor of Pskov, had shared the contempt for imperial officialdom before he got inside. “During my two years’ service as a minister I gained a very high opinion of the qualities of Petersburg officialdom,” he wrote. “The level of personnel of the Petersburg chancelleries and ministries was extremely high as regards knowledge, experience and fulfillment of official duties . . . besides this, I was struck by their immense capacity for hard work.”11 To be sure, Vasilchikov also observed that few imperial Russian functionaries possessed broad horizons and many officials who did have vision remained averse to risk, unwilling to venture their views against opinions expressed above them.12 Sycophancy could reach breathtaking heights. And officials relied upon school ties, blood and marriage relations, cliques, all of which could cover for mistakes and incompetence. Nonetheless, the authority of all-important patrons and protectors often stemmed from accomplishments, not just connections. Facts cannot compete with great stories from Gogol but they can be stubborn: imperial Russia developed a formidable fiscal-military state that proved capable of mobilizing impressive resources, certainly compared with its rivals the Ottoman or Habsburg empires.13

As late as the 1790s, when Prussia—with 1 percent of Russia’s size in land—had 14,000 officials, the tsarist empire had only 16,000 and just a single university, which was then a mere few decades old, but over the course of the 1800s, Russian officialdom grew seven times more rapidly than the population, and by 1900 had reached 385,000, leaping some 300,000 only since 1850. True, although many of Russia’s maligned provincial governors developed great administrative experience and skill, the low-prestige provincial apparatuses under them continued to suffer an extreme dearth of competent and honest clerks.14 And some territories were woefully undergoverned: in the Ferghana valley, for example, the most populous district of tsarist Turkestan, Russia posted just 58 administrators and a mere 2 translators for at least 2 million inhabitants.15 Overall, in 1900, while imperial Germany had 12.6 officials per 1,000 people, imperial Russia still had fewer than 4, a proportion reflecting Russia’s huge population—130 million versus Germany’s 50 million.16 The Russian state was top heavy and spread thin.17 Most of the provincial empire was left to be governed by local society, whose scope of governance, however, was restricted by imperial laws and whose degree of organization varied widely.18 Some provinces, such as Nizhny Novgorod, did remarkably well.19 Others, such as Tomsk, were mired in disabling corruption. Incompetence flourished most at the very top of the system. Many a deputy undertook machinations to depose his superior, which reinforced the inclination to hire mediocrities into the upper ranks, at least as top deputies, nowhere more so than in the tsars’ appointments of ministers.20 But despite the absence of a civil service examination in Russia—such as the one that guided recruitment of officialdom in imperial Germany and Japan—administrative needs did slowly begin to dictate hiring on the basis of university education and expertise.21 Russia’s functionaries (chinovniki) began to be recruited from all social ranks, and countless thousands of plebeians became nobles because of their state service, a path upward that would be tightened but never closed.

At the same time, unlike the absolutism in Prussia, Austria, Britain, or France, Russia’s autocracy endured deep into modern times. Prussia’s Frederick the Great (r. 1772–86) had called himself “the first servant of the state,” thereby marking the state’s separate existence from the sovereign. Russia’s tsars would hand out a Siberian silver mine’s worth of medals to state officials but, jealous of their autocratic prerogatives, they hesitated to recognize a state independent of themselves. The “autocratic principle” held even through the gravest crises. In 1855, when Alexander II succeeded his father, a dying Nicholas I had said to his son, “I want to take with me all the unpleasantness and the troubles and pass on to you an orderly, calm and happy Russia.”22 But Nicholas I had embroiled the empire in a costly Crimean War (1853–56), seeking to take advantage of a contracting Ottoman empire. Britain led a European concert against St. Petersburg, and Alexander II, at a loss of 450,000 imperial Russian subjects, found himself forced to accept defeat just before the conflict tipped into a world war.23 After the debacle—Russia’s first lost war in 145 years—Alexander II was constrained to countenance a series of Great Reforms, including a belated serf emancipation. (“It is better that this come from above than from below,” the tsar warned the unconvinced nobles, who were scarcely mollified by the huge redemption payments the state collected on their behalf from peasants.)24 But the tsar’s own autocratic prerogatives remained sacrosanct. Alexander II permitted an unprecedented degree of domestic freedom in the universities, the press, the courts, but as soon as Russian subjects exercised that civil freedom, he pushed back.25 The Tsar-Liberator—as he came to be known—refused a constitution, because, as his interior minister noted, Alexander II “was genuinely convinced that it would harm Russia and would lead to its dissolution.”26 But the tsar would not even let state law be applied to state officials, lest that diminish the autocrat’s dispensation.27 On the contrary, the granting of some local self-rule, some independence to the judiciary, and some autonomy to universities, alongside the freeing of the serfs, made a reassertion of autocratic power seem all the more urgent to Alexander II. Thus, the Great Reform moment to establish a parliament when it might have stuck—in the 1860s, and again in the 1880s—was fatally missed.28

Russia lacked not only a parliament but even a coordinated government, so as not to infringe on the autocrat’s prerogatives. To be sure, Alexander II had approved a Council of Ministers to coordinate government affairs, but the effort (1857) was stillborn. In practice, the tsar shrank from relinquishing the power of having individual ministers obviate the collective body and report to him directly, and privately; the ministers colluded in the government reform’s sabotage, not wanting to forgo the influence gained via private access to the autocrat.29 Meetings of the Council, like any imperial audiences, mostly involved efforts to divine the “autocratic will,” to avoid the catastrophe of being on the wrong side of decisions. Only the most skillful could manage, every now and then, to implant an idea as the tsar’s own.30 Courtiers and “unofficial” advisers, meanwhile, continued to make policy, even for the ministries, and the Russian government’s operation remained uncoordinated and secretive—from officialdom. Tsarism suffered a debilitation it could not overcome: the imperatives of autocracy undermined the state. Of the resulting political regime, wags called it fairly simple: autocracy, tempered by occasional assassination. Open season had commenced in 1866, with the first of six attempts on Alexander II. He was finally blown to bits in 1881. Alexander III survived several close calls, including one in the company of his son Nicholas, the future tsar. In 1887, after a failed plot on Alexander III, Alexander Ulyanov, a member of the underground People’s Will—and the elder brother of the-then seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov (the future Lenin)—refused an offer of clemency and was hanged. The inflexible autocracy had many enemies, including Iosif Jughashvili. But its most dangerous enemy was itself.


By the turn of the century, at least 100 political murders had been notched in imperial Russia. After that the pace picked up, as terrorist-assassins pursued what they called disorganization—provoking the police to make arrests and shed blood, which, in twisted terrorist logic, would galvanize society to revolt. The next royal family member hit was Moscow’s governor, Grand Duke Sergei, a younger son of Alexander II (and an uncle of Nicholas II), who was decapitated by a bomb right inside the Kremlin in 1905. Until that year, politics in Russia was essentially illegal: political parties and trade unions were banned; censorship meant that few options for political discourse existed, other than tossing a “pomegranate” at an official’s carriage and watching the body parts fly. (Grand Duke Sergei’s fingers were found on a nearby rooftop.)31 In response, the tsarist authorities had reorganized the political police, creating a formidable new body, the Okhrannoe otdelenie, which the terrorists promptly dubbed the okhranka— meaning, pejoratively, “the little security agency.” Of course, not only Russia but also the European dynasties (Bourbon France, Habsburg Austria) had invented the practice of “policing,” that is, using the institution of the police to help direct society; by comparison with its European peers, Russia’s political police were not especially nefarious.32 The okhranka intercepted mail via secret “black cabinets”—modeled on France’s cabinets noires—where operatives steamed open letters, read invisible ink, and cracked revolutionaries’ codes (such as they were).33 Inevitably, Russia’s police chiefs discovered their mail was perlustrated, too, and some tsarist officials took to sending letters to third parties that obsequiously flattered their bosses.34 Even working along with Russia’s regular Department of Police and Special Corps of Gendarmes, the shadowy okhranka never attained the societal coverage of its better-endowed French counterpart.35 But the okhranka’s mystique enhanced its reach.

Many okhranka operatives were highly educated, forming a kind of “police intelligentsia,” compiling libraries of revolutionary works in order to discredit the revolutionaries’ ideas.36 Operatives incorporated the latest international tradecraft, using E. R. Henry’s book on fingerprinting from the London police and file methods from the German police.37 Terror fighting proved sullying, however: the okhranka often felt constrained to allow terrorists to complete their assassinations so the police could track terror networks as fully as possible.38 Worse, many okhranka infiltrators carried out the political murders themselves, to prove their bona fides and remain in a position to continue surveillance. Tsarist police assassinating other tsarist officials was a nasty business that exacerbated the internal divisions of rivalrous police cabals. The upshot was that senior okhranka operatives themselves were placed under surveillance, though fewer of them turned rogue than were murdered by their own turncoat agents.39 The okhranka also suffered the disdain of Tsar Nicholas II, who almost never deigned to meet his okhranka chief.40 And yet, though almost entirely without connections at court, the okhranka was the only part of the state genuinely moored in society. Moreover, despite the police agency’s entanglement with the terrorists it was supposed to fight, and its alienation from the regime it was supposed to protect, the okhranka scored success after success.41 It cast effective clouds over genuine revolutionaries by falsely naming them as police agents, and supported those revolutionary elements whose ascendancy would hurt the terrorist organizations. Stalin would be dogged his entire life, and beyond, by rumors that he was an undercover police agent (accusations his many enemies failed to prove).42 Lev Trotsky, too, came under suspicion of police collaboration.43 As one former okhranka chief boasted, “the revolutionaries . . . fell to suspecting each other, so that in the end no conspirator could trust another.”44

Adroitly sowing discord among naturally fractious revolutionaries and stage-managing terrorists, however, could never redress the tsarist order’s most profound vulnerability. The autocracy’s core problem was not that it fell under political assault, or that authoritarianism was ipso facto incompatible with modernity, but that Russia’s autocracy was deliberately archaic. Tsarism choked on the very modernity that it desperately needed and, to an extent, pursued in order to compete as a great power.45

What we designate modernity was not something natural or automatic. It involved a set of difficult-to-attain attributes—mass production, mass culture, mass politics—that the greatest powers mastered. Those states, in turn, forced other countries to attain modernity as well, or suffer the consequences, including defeat in war and possible colonial conquest. Colonies, from the point of view of the colonizers, were not just geopolitical assets (in most cases), but in the words of one historian, also “a form of conspicuous consumption on a national scale”—markers of geopolitical status, or the lack thereof, which drove an aggressiveness in state-to-state rivalries, as those on the receiving end could attest.46 Modernity, in other words, was not a sociological process—moving from “traditional” to “modern” society—but a geopolitical process: a matter of acquiring what it took to join the great powers, or fall victim to them.47

Consider the invention of systems to manufacture steel (1850s), a strong and elastic form of iron that revolutionized weapons and made possible a global economy by transforming shipping. Steel took off thanks in part to the invention of the electric motor (1880s), which made possible mass production: the standardization of core aspects of products, the subdivision of work on assembly lines, the replacement of manual labor by machinery, the reorganization of flow among shops.48 These new production processes boosted world steel production from half a million tons in 1870 to twenty-eight million by 1900. But the United States accounted for ten million; Germany, eight; and Britain, five; a small number of countries had almost all the steel. To this picture one could add the manufacture of crucial industrial chemicals: synthetic fertilizers for boosting agricultural yields, chlorine bleach to make cotton, and explosives (Alfred Nobel’s nitroglycerine dynamite, 1866) for mining, railroad construction, and assassinations. As some countries succeeded at modern industry, the world became divided between advantaged industrializers (Western Europe, North America, Japan) and disadvantaged raw material suppliers (Africa, South America, much of Asia).

Competitive modern attributes also included finance and credit facilities, stable currencies, and stock companies.49 But in many ways, the new world economy rested upon peasants in the tropics who supplied the primary products (raw materials) necessary for industrial countries and, in turn, consumed many of the goods produced from their raw materials. Commercialization spurred specialization away from subsistence—in China, for example, vast acreage of subsistence agriculture had been converted to cotton to feed the English cotton mills—with the result that the spread of markets made possible huge increases in production. But that spread also undercut diverse crop raising (to minimize subsistence shortfalls) and reciprocal social networks (to enhance survival), meaning markets undercut the traditional methods for coping with cyclical drought, which was chronic. El Niño airflows (the recurrent warming of the Pacific Ocean) export heat and humidity to parts of the world, creating an unstable climate for farming: torrential rains, floods, landslides, and wildfires, as well as severe droughts. The upshot was three waves of famine and disease (1876–79, 1889–91, 1896–1900) that killed between 30 and 60 million people in China, Brazil, and India. In India alone, 15 million people died of famine, equal to half the population of England at the time. Not since the fourteenth-century Black Death or the sixteenth-century disease destruction of New World natives had there been such annihilation. Had such mass death occurred in Europe—the equivalent of thirty Irish famines—it would be regarded as a central episode of world history. Besides the effects of commercialization and weather, additional factors came into play: The collapse of a U.S. railroad bubble, for example, led to an abrupt decline in demand for key tropical products. Above all, colonial rulers compounded the market and climate uncertainties with inept and racist rule.50 Only in Ethiopia in 1889 was absolute scarcity an issue; these were not “natural” famines but man-made ones, the consequences of a world subjected to great power domination.

Modernity’s power could be woefully mismanaged. While India was experiencing mass starvation, between 1870–1900, grain exports to Britain were increased, from 3 million to 10 million, supplying one-fifth of British wheat consumption. “Famine,” admitted one British official in 1907, after thirty-five years of service, “is now more frequent than formerly and more severe.”51 But the British themselves were responsible. They had built the fourth largest railroad network in India to take advantage of their colony, but this technology that could have brought relief instead took food away. The British viceroy in India, Lord Lytton, opposed on principle local officials’ efforts to stock grain or interfere with market prices. He demanded that the emaciated and the dying work for food because, he insisted, food relief would encourage shirking from work (not to mention cost public funds). When starving women attempted to steal from gardens, they were subjected to branding, and sometimes had their noses cut off or were killed. Rural mobs assaulted landowners and pillaged grain stores. British officials observed the desperation and reported it back home. “One madman dug up and devoured part of a cholera victim, while another killed his son and ate part of the boy,” one report from India noted. The Qing rulers in China had resisted building railroads, fearing their use in colonialist penetration, so the capacity in China for famine relief was limited. Huge peasant revolts broke out—the Canudos war in Brazil, the Boxer rebellion in China (where posters noted: “No rain comes from Heaven. The Earth is parched and dry.”). But the peasants could not, at that time, overthrow formal or informal imperialism.

Markets and a world economy made possible previously unimaginable prosperity, but most of the world had a difficult time appreciating the benefits. To be sure, the new world economy was not all encompassing. Many pockets of territory lived outside the opportunities and the pressures. Still, the world economy could feel like a force of nature. Electricity spurred soaring demand for copper (wires), drawing Montana, Chile, and southern Africa into the world economy, a chance for newfound prosperity, but also for subjecting their populations to wild price swings on world commodities markets. The consequences were huge. Beyond the waves of famine, the collapse of one bank in Austria in 1873 could trigger a depression that spread as far as the United States, causing mass unemployment, while in the 1880s and 1890s, Africa was devastated by recessions outside the continent—and then swallowed up in an imperial scramble by the modernity-wielding Europeans.52

Imperial Russia faced the modernity challenge with considerable success. It became the world’s fourth or fifth largest industrial power, thanks to textiles, and Europe’s top agricultural producer, an achievement of Russia’s sheer size. But here was the rub: Russia’s per capita GDP stood at just 20 percent of Britain’s and 40 percent of Germany’s.53 St. Petersburg had the world’s most opulent court, but by the time the future Stalin was born, Russia’s average lifespan at birth was a mere thirty years, higher than in British India (twenty-three), but no better than in China, and well below Britain (fifty-two), Germany (forty-nine) and Japan (fifty-one). Literacy under Tsar Nicholas II hovered near 30 percent, lower than in Britain in the eighteenth century. The Russian establishment knew these comparisons intimately because they visited Europe often, and they evaluated their country not alongside third-rate powers—what we would call developing countries—but alongside the first-rank. Even if Russian elites had been more modest in their ambitions, however, their country could have expected little respite in the early twentieth century, given the unification and rapid industrialization of Germany and the consolidation and industrialization of Japan. When a great power suddenly knocks at your country’s door, with advanced military technology, officers who are literate and capable, motivated soldiers, and well-run state institutions and engineering schools back home, you cannot cry “unfair.” Russia’s socioeconomic and political advance had to be, and was, measured relative to that of its most advanced rivals.54

Even contemporary revolutionaries recognized Russia’s dilemmas. Nikolai Danielson, the lead translator of Marx’s Das Kapital into Russian, worried that his preferred path for Russia of an unhurried, organic evolution to socialism via the peasant commune (a small-scale, decentralized economic organization) could not survive the pressures of the international system, while Russia’s bourgeoisie was not up to the challenge either. “On the one hand, emulating England’s slow-paced, 300-year process of economic development might leave Russia vulnerable to colonial domination by one or another of the world’s great powers,” Danielson wrote in a preface to the 1890s Russian edition of Das Kapital. “On the other, a headlong, Darwinian introduction of ‘western-style’ free markets and privatization might produce a corrupt bourgeois elite and a destitute majority—without any increase in productivity rates.” Russia seemed to face a frightful choice between colonization by European countries or new depths of inequality and poverty.55

For the tsarist regime, the stakes were high and so were the costs. Even after conceding the Great Reforms, Russia’s rulers continued to feel increasing fiscal limits to their international aspirations. The Crimean War had clobbered state finances, but the revenge victory in the Russo-Ottoman War (1877–78) cost Russia still more treasure. Between 1858 and 1880, Russia’s budget deficit soared from 1.7 to 4.6 billion rubles, which required huge foreign borrowing—from Russia’s geopolitical rivals, the European great powers.56 Corruption meant that substantial sums of state money went unaccounted for. (Treatment of state revenue as private income was perhaps most outlandish in the Caucasus, a sinkhole of imperial finance.)57 True, Russia escaped the fate of the Ottomans, who became a financial and geopolitical client of Europe, or of the Qing (1636–1911), who doubled the size of China, in parallel to Russia’s expansion, only to go flat broke and be subjected to a series of profoundly unequal international treaties, including at the hands of Russia.58 By the early 1900s, Russia’s state budget tended to be in surplus, thanks to taxes on sugar, kerosene, matches, tobacco, imported goods, and above all, vodka. (The Russian empire’s per capita alcohol consumption was lower than elsewhere in Europe but the state ran a monopoly on sales.)59 At the same time, however, Russia’s army budget eclipsed state expenditure on education by a factor of ten. And even then, the war ministry incessantly complained of insufficient resources.60

Competitive great-power pressures did help drive an expansion of Russia’s higher education system in order to produce state functionaries, engineers, and doctors.61 But the autocracy came to dread the very students it desperately needed. When the autocracy tried to strangle moves for university autonomy, students went on strike, which led to campus lockdowns.62 Of those arrested in the Russian empire between 1900 and 1905, the vast majority were under thirty years of age.63 Similarly, industrialization had taken off from the 1890s, giving Russia many of the modern factories critical to international power, yet industrial workers were striking, too, for an eight-hour workday and humane living conditions, leading to lockdowns. Rather than permit legal organizations and try to co-opt the workers—as was initially tried by a talented Moscow okhranka chief—the autocracy fell back upon repressing the workers whom the state’s own vital industrialization was creating.64 In the countryside, whose harvest remained the state’s preeminent economic determinant, Russian grain exports fed large swaths of Europe while domestic food consumption grew, despite comparatively lower Russian yields on sown land.65 But in spring 1902, in the fertile Poltava and Kharkov provinces of the south, peasants burst into mass rebellion, looting and burning gentry estates, demanding land-rent reductions as well as free access to forests and waterways, thereby prompting the novelist Lev Tolstoy to address petitions to the tsar.66 The next year in western Georgia’s Kutaisi province, among the forty square miles of vineyards and tea leaves of Guria, peasants were provoked by inept tsarist repression, and rebelled. The province lacked even a single industrial enterprise, and the uprising threw the Social Democrats for a loop. But after the peasants gathered, drew up demands, elected leaders, and took mutual oaths to loyalty, Georgian Social Democrats sought to lead them. Rents paid to landowners were reduced, freedom of speech was allowed, and the police were replaced by a new “red” militia in an autonomous “Gurian Republic.”67

Imperial Russia had more than 100 million rural inhabitants living under extremely diverse conditions. Every country undergoing the modernization compelled by the international system was torn by social tensions. But Russia’s tensions were magnified by the autocratic system’s refusal to incorporate the masses into the political system, even by authoritarian means. And many would-be revolutionaries who had abandoned peasant-oriented Populism for worker-centric Marxism faced a rethinking.


For Russia, the inherent geopolitical imperative of achieving the attributes of modernity was rendered still costlier because of its geography. Great Britain’s attempted containment of Russia failed: the Crimean War defeat on Russian soil had helped provoke a spasm of Russian conquest into Central Asia (1860s–80s) on top of a seizure of the Amur River basin from China (1860). But those land grabs had deepened Russia’s challenge of having sprawling geography and a difficult neighborhood. The Russian empire—unlike the world’s other great continental power—was not safely nestled between the two great oceans and two harmless neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Russia simultaneously abutted Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. Such a circumstance should have argued for caution in foreign policy. But Russia had tended to be expansionist precisely in the name of vulnerability: even as forces loyal to the tsar had seized territory, they imagined they were preempting attacks. And once Russia had forcibly acquired a region, its officials invariably insisted they had to acquire the next one over, too, in order to be able to defend their original gains. A sense of destiny and insecurity combined in a heady mix.

Russia had reached the Pacific in the seventeenth century but never developed its vast Asian territories. Dreams of trade with the Far East went unrealized, owing to the lack of reliable, cost-effective transport.68 But then Russia built the Trans-Siberian Railway (1891–1903) linking the imperial capital with the Pacific.69 (The United States had completed its transcontinental railroad in 1869.) Military and strategic considerations dominated Russia’s railroad project as military circles clamored for a railroad not out of fear of Japan but of China. (Opponents of the railroad favored a naval buildup.)70 But some officials put forward visions of force marching Siberia’s economic development (in 1890, all of Siberia had 687 industrial enterprises, most of them artisanal and nearly 90 percent of them in food-processing and livestock).71 The Trans-Siberian proved to be the most expensive peaceful undertaking in modern history up to that time, involving colossal waste, unmechanized exertion, and press-ganged peasant and convict labor, all of which paralleled construction of the contemporaneous Panama Canal (and presaged Stalin’s pharaonic Five-Year Plans).72 Russia’s engineers had been dispatched on study trips to the United States and Canada in the 1880s, but back home they employed none of the lessons on the need for stronger rails and sturdy ballast.73 Still, against domestic opposition and long odds, the line had been built, thanks to the willpower and clever manipulations of Finance Minister Sergei Witte.

Witte had been born in 1849 in Tiflis to a Swedish-Lutheran family (on his father’s side) that had converted to Orthodoxy and served the Russian state in midlevel positions on the empire’s southern frontier. His mother’s family had higher status. Witte completed gymnasium in Kishinev and university in Odessa, where he began his long career by managing the Odessa railroads, making them profitable. In 1892, in the aftermath of the famine of 1891, he became finance minister in St. Petersburg. Just forty-three years old, with low imperial rank initially, widely dismissed as some kind of “merchant” (kupets), and with Ukrainian-accented Russian, Witte nonetheless became the dominant figure in turn-of-the-century imperial Russian politics, forcing even foreign policy into the purview of his finance ministry.74

Witte did not have the entire field to himself, of course. Just in terms of the executive branch of the state, he had to reckon with the ministry of internal affairs, the umbrella for the okhranka, as well as the regular police. In many ways, Russian governance, and even Russian politics, pivoted on the two great ministries, internal affairs and finance, and the rivalry between them. Both finance and internal affairs connived to expand at the central level, and to extend their writ into locales.75 On the occasion of their joint one hundredth jubilee in 1902, each published a history of itself. Internal affairs told a story of imposing and maintaining domestic order, especially in rural Russia; finance, of the productive exploitation of Russia’s natural and human resources, whence revenues could be collected.76 Despite being overwhelmingly a peasant country, Russia had no separate agricultural ministry per se, though it did have an evolving, relatively small-scale (until 1905–6) ministry that was responsible for land, most of which belonged to the state or the imperial household.77 A ministry of communications (railways) as well as one of commerce and industry existed as satellites of the powerful finance ministry. By the early 1900s, the budgetary resources commanded by the finance ministry exceeded by several times those available to internal affairs and its police.78 The finance ministry was the great bureaucratic empire within the Russian empire.79

Witte also had to contend with the court. He came from a merely middling family background, was ill mannered, and had married a Jewish woman, all of which raised hackles in court society. But the physically imposing Witte, who had a massive head and torso, on short legs, imposed order on imperial budgets, filling state coffers by introducing the alcohol monopoly.80 Also, he vastly broadened a recent finance ministry practice of vigorously pushing industrialization, and he did so by attracting foreign capital, playing off the French and Germans. Witte saw foreign debt as a way to help spur the accumulation of native capital. He also cherished the state machinery. Above all, Witte emphasized the geopolitical imperative of industrializing. “No matter how great the results so far, in relation to the needs of the country and in comparison with foreign countries our industry is still very backward,” he wrote in a memorandum in 1900, urging Nicholas II to maintain protective tariffs. Witte added that “even the military preparedness of a country is determined not only by the perfection of its military machine but by the degree of its industrial development.” Without energetic actions, he warned, “the slow growth of our industries will endanger the fulfillment of the great political tasks of the monarchy.” Russia’s rivals would seize the upper hand abroad and achieve economic and possibly “triumphant political penetration” of Russia itself.81 Like Stalin would, Witte lopsidedly prioritized heavy and large-scale industry at the expense of light industry and the welfare of the overwhelmingly rural population. Witte’s ministry put out deliberately inflated consumption statistics to cover up the burdens imposed.82 As it happened, Witte also scribbled his orders in pencil directly on the memoranda of subordinates (“Discuss this again”) (“Write a summary abstract”), and worked late into the evenings, both viewed as distinguishing traits of the future Soviet dictator. Witte further anticipated Stalin by a habit of pacing his office while others in attendance had to sit.

Witte imagined himself a Russian Bismarck, drawing inspiration from the Iron Chancellor’s use of the state to promote economic development as well as his foreign policy realism. Witte also championed, at least rhetorically, what he called Bismarck’s “social monarchy”—that is, a conservative program of social welfare to preempt socialism.83 Witte possessed immense administrative abilities as well as the profound self-regard required of a top politician.84 Besides being awarded the Order of St. Anne, first class—a tsarist precursor of the Order of Lenin—he received more than ninety state awards from foreign governments (unthinkable in the Soviet context). In turn, using finance ministry funds, he bestowed medals, state apartments, country homes, travel allowances, and “bonuses” on his minions, allies, clans at court, and journalists (for favorable coverage). From the finance ministry’s offices on the Moika Canal, Witte enjoyed a grand vista onto the Winter Palace and Palace Square, but he also assiduously frequented the salons in the nobles’ palaces lining the Fontanka Canal. In the autocracy, for a minister to become a genuinely independent actor was near impossible. Witte depended utterly on the tsar’s confidence (doverie). Witte understood that another key to power entailed remaining well informed amid a deliberate non-sharing of information inside the government.85 This required a broad informal network coursing through all the top layers of society. (“As a minister,” wrote Witte’s successor at the finance ministry, “one had no option but to play a role in Court and in Petersburg society if one was to defend the interests of one’s department and maintain one’s position.”)86 In other words, in tsarist government relentless intrigues were not personal but structural, and Witte was a master: he developed close links to dubious types in the okhranka, whom he employed for a variety of purposes, but his underlings in the finance ministry, too, had been tasked with overhearing and recording conversations of rivals, which Witte would edit and send to the tsar. After a decade of high-profile power at the top of the Russian state, which elicited endless attacks against Witte by rivals and societal critics of his harsh taxation policies, Nicholas II would finally lose confidence in him in 1903, shunting him to a largely ceremonial post (Witte “fell upward,” contemporaries said). But his historic run at the finance ministry lasted a decade, making him one of Stalin’s most important forerunners.

Witte emulated not just Bismarck but also his British contemporary in Africa, the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), and looked upon the Far East as his personal imperial space.87 In order to shorten the route from St. Petersburg to the terminal point at Vladivostok (“rule the east”), Witte constructed a southerly branch of the Trans-Siberian right through the Chinese territory of Manchuria. Under the slogan of “peaceful penetration,” he and other Russian officials imagined they were preempting Russia’s rival imperialists (Britain, Germany, France) from carving up China the way they had the African continent.88 Other Russian officials, while insisting that each forcible conquest had to be followed by another, in order to be able to defend the original gains, competed to gain the tsar’s favor, one-upping Witte’s supposedly measured push into China. The war ministry seized, then leased, Port Arthur (Lushun), a deep warm-water entrepot on China’s Liaodong Peninsula, which jutted ever so strategically into the Yellow Sea. But Russia’s overall increasingly forward position in East Asia, in which Witte was complicit, ran smack up against not the European powers that so transfixed St. Petersburg elites, but an aggressive, imperialist Japan.89

Japan was in no way a power on the order of the world leader, Great Britain. Living standards in Japan were perhaps only one fifth of Britain’s, and Japan, like Russia, remained an agriculture-dominated economy.90 Japan’s real wages, measured against rice prices, had probably been only one third of Britain’s in the 1830s, and would still be only one third in the early twentieth century. Still, that meant that during Britain’s leap, real wages in Japan had improved at the same rate as real wages improved in the leading power.91 Although Japan was still exporting primary products or raw materials (raw silk) to Europe, within Asia, Japan exported consumer goods. Indeed, Japan’s rapidly increasing trade had shifted predominantly to within East Asia, where it gained widespread admiration or envy for discovering what looked like a shortcut to Western-style modernity.92 Japan was also rapidly building up a navy, just like Germany. (The conservative modernizer Bismarck was in his day the most popular foreign figure in Japan, too.)93 Moreover, as an ally of Britain, rather than be subjected to informal imperialism, Japan led a shift in East Asia toward free trade, the ideology of the strong. Japan had defeated China in a war over the Korean Peninsula (1894–95) and seized Taiwan. Already in the 1890s, Russia’s general staff began to draft contingency planning for possible hostilities with Japan, following the shock of Japan’s crushing defeat of China. But partly for wont of military intelligence on Japan, although mostly because of racial prejudice, Russian ruling circles belittled the “Asiatics” as easily conquerable.94 Whereas the Japanese general staff had estimated no better than a fifty-fifty chance of prevailing, perhaps hedging their bets, Russian ruling circles were certain they would win if it came to war.95 The British naval attache similarly reported widespread feeling in Tokyo that Japan would “crumple up.”96 Of all people, Nicholas II should have known better. As tsarevich, he had seen Japan with his own eyes, during an unprecedented (for a Russian royal) grand tour of the Orient (1890–91), where the sword of a Japanese assassin nearly killed the future tsar, and left a permanent scar on his forehead. (A cousin in Nicholas’s party parried a second saber blow with a cane.) But as tsar, facing possible war, Nicholas dismissed the Japanese as “macaques,” an Asian species of short-tailed monkey.97

Russo-Japanese negotiators had tried to find a modus vivendi through a division of spoils, exchanging recognition of a Russian sphere in Manchuria for recognition of a Japanese sphere in Korea, but each side’s “patriots” kept arguing that they absolutely had to have both Manchuria and Korea to protect either one. Japan, which felt its weakness in the face of a combination of European powers encroaching in East Asia, would likely have compromised if Russia had been willing to do so as well, but it remained unclear what Russia actually would settle for. A clique of courtier intriguers, led by Alexander Bezobrazov, exacerbated Japan’s suspicions with a scheme to penetrate Korea while enriching themselves via a forestry concession. Bezobrazov held no ministerial position, yet Nicholas, as an assertion of “autocratic prerogative,” afforded the courtier frequent access, cynically using Bezobrazov to keep his own ministers, Witte included, off balance. Nicholas II’s changeable and poorly communicated views, and his failure to keep his own government informed, let alone seek its members’ expertise, rendered Russia’s Far Eastern policy that much more opaque and incoherent.98 Japanese ruling circles decided, before negotiations for a deal with Russia had been exhausted, and after prolonged internal debate and disagreement, to launch an all-out preventative war. In February 1904, Japan severed diplomatic relations and attacked Russian vessels at anchor at Port Arthur, a quick strike against the slow-moving Russian giant to demonstrate its underestimated prowess, before possibly seeking third-party mediation.99 Russia’s Pacific fleet fell to the Japanese, who also managed to land infantry on the Korean Peninsula to march on Russian positions in Manchuria. The shock was profound. “It is no longer possible to live this way,” editorialized even the archconservative Russian paper New Times on January 1, 1905. That same day, Vladimir Lenin called the autocracy’s immense military structure “a beautiful apple rotten at the core.”100 Russia dispatched its Baltic fleet halfway around the world, 18,000 nautical miles. Seven and a half months later, upon reaching the theater of hostilities in May 1905, eight modern battleships, built by St. Petersburg’s skilled workers, were promptly sunk in the Tsushima Strait with the colors flying.101

The Russian state had subordinated everything to military priorities and needs, and the Romanovs had tied their image and legitimacy to Russia’s international standing, so the Tsushima shock was devastating.102 On land, too, the Japanese achieved startling victories over Russia, including the Battle of Mukden, then the largest military engagement in world history (624,000 combined forces), where Russia enjoyed a numerical advantage.103 The stinging Mukden defeat came on the anniversary of Nicholas II’s coronation.104

This debacle in the very arena that justified the autocracy’s existence—great power status—not only exposed tsarism’s political failings but threatened political collapse. Strikes had erupted at the military factories producing the weaponry for the war, so that by January 8, 1905, Russia’s wartime capital was bereft of electricity and information (newspapers). On Sunday, January 9, 1905, seven days after a besieged Port Arthur fell to Japanese forces, thousands of striking workers and their families assembled at six points in the working-class neighborhoods, beyond the Narva and Nevsky gates, to march on the Winter Palace in order to present a petition to the “tsar-father” for the improvement of workers’ lives, protection of their rights, and dignity by means of the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.105 They were led by a conservative priest, carried Orthodox icons and crosses, and sang religious hymns and “God Save the Tsar” as church bells tolled. Nicholas II had repaired to his main residence, the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, outside the city, and had no intention of meeting the petitioners. The haphazard authorities on hand in the capital decided to seal off the city center with troops. The priest’s group got only as far as the Narva Gate in the southwest, where imperial troops met them with gunfire when they sought to proceed farther. Amid dozens of bodies, the priest exclaimed, “There is no God anymore, there is no Tsar!” Shooting also halted unarmed marching men, women, and children at the Trinity Bridge, the Alexander Gardens, and elsewhere. Panic ensued and some petitioners trampled others to death. Around 200 people were killed across the capital that day, and another 800 were wounded—workers, wives, children, bystanders.106 St. Petersburg’s “Bloody Sunday” provoked far greater strikes, the looting of liquor and firearm shops, and all around fury.

Nicholas II’s image as father of the people would never be the same. (“All classes condemn the authorities and most particularly the Emperor,” observed the U.S. consul in Odessa. “The present ruler has lost absolutely the affection of the Russian people.”)107 In February 1905, the tsar vaguely promised an elected “consultative” Duma or assembly, which sent alarms through conservative ranks, while failing to quell the unrest. The next month, all universities were (again) locked down.108 Strikers closed down the empire’s railway system, forcing government officials to travel by riverboat to meet with the tsar in his suburban palace. In June 1905, sailors seized control of the battleship Potemkin, part of the Black Sea fleet—which was all Russia had left after the loss of its Pacific and Baltic fleets—and bombarded Odessa before seeking asylum in Romania. “The chaos was all-encompassing,” one police insider wrote, adding that political police work “ground to a halt.”109 Strike waves swept Russian Poland, the Baltics, and the Caucasus, where “the whole administrative apparatus fell into confusion,” recalled Jordania, the leader of Georgia’s Marxists. “A de facto freedom of assembly, strike and demonstration was established.”110 The governor of Kutaisi province of the Caucasus went over to the revolutionaries. In Kazan and Poltava provinces, the governors had nervous breakdowns. Others lost their heads. “You risk your life, you wear out your nerves maintaining order so that people can live like human beings, and what do you encounter everywhere?” complained Governor Ivan Blok of Samara. “Hate-filled glances as if you were some kind of monster, a drinker of human blood.” Moments later Blok was decapitated by a bomb. Placed in a traditional open casket, his twisted body was stuffed into his dress uniform, a ball of batting substituted for his missing head.111

The homefront had imploded. On the war’s two sides, some 2.5 million men had been mobilized, with each side suffering between 40,000 and 70,000 killed. (Around 20,000 Chinese civilians also died.) In fact, because Japan could not replace its losses, its big victories like Mukden may have actually edged Tokyo closer to defeat.112 But if Nicholas II was tempted to continue the war to reverse his military setbacks, he had no such opportunity. The failure of the Japanese to have sabotaged the Trans-Siberian—one of the critical transport modes for the enemy’s troops and materiel—remains mysterious.113 But the peasants were refusing to pay taxes and would destroy or damage more than 2,000 manor houses. Already by March 1905, the interior ministry had concluded that owing to uprisings, military call-ups had become impossible in thirty-two of the fifty provinces of European Russia.114 European credits, on which the Russian state relied for cash flow, dried up, threatening a default.115 On August 23, 1905 [September 5, in the West], Russia and Japan signed a peace treaty in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, brokered by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Invited to intercede by Japan, Roosevelt proved eager to curb Tokyo’s might in the Pacific (a harbinger of the future). Russia was well represented by Witte, who regained his lost luster and made the best of a bad situation.116 Russia had to acknowledge defeat, but was absolved of paying war indemnities, while the only Russian territory relinquished was half of remote Sakhalin Island (a penal colony). Still, the defeat reverberated internationally (far more than the Ethiopian victory over Italy in 1896). Russia became the first major European power to be defeated in a symmetric battle by an Asian country—and in front of the world press corps. In a typical contemporary assessment, one observer called news of the victory “of a non-white people over a white people” nothing less than “the most important event which has happened, or is likely to happen, in our lifetime.”117


Japan’s military attache in Stockholm was spreading bushels of money to tsarism’s array of political opponents in European exile, but he expressed considerable frustration. “All of the so-called opposition parties are secret societies, where no one can distinguish opponents of the regime from Russian agents,” the attache reported to superiors, adding that the revolutionaries—or provocateurs?—all went by false names. In any case, his work, which okhranka mail interception exposed, proved utterly superfluous.118 Russia’s revolutionaries got far more assistance from the autocracy itself. While Russia’s army, the empire’s main forces of order, had been removed beyond its borders—for a war with Japan on the territories of China and Korea—Russia’s revolutionaries were kept out of the battle. Even married peasants more than forty years old were targets of military recruiters, but subjects without permanent residence and with a criminal record were free to pursue rebellion at home.

The twenty-seven-year-old future Stalin, as described in a tsarist police report (May 1, 1904):

Jughashvili, Iosif Vissarionovich: [legal status of] peasant from the village of Didi-Lido, Tiflis county, Tiflis province; born 1881 of Orthodox faith, attended Gori church school and Tiflis theological seminary; not married. Father, Vissarion, whereabouts unknown. Mother, Yeketerina, resident of the town of Gori, Tiflis province . . . Description: height, 2 arshins, 4.5 vershki [about 5' 5"], average build; gives the appearance of an ordinary person.119

Although his date of birth (1878) and height (5'6") were wrongly recorded, this deceptively “ordinary person,” precisely because of his political activities, was exempt from military service—and as a result could position himself to be right in the thick of the 1905 uprising. The Georgian branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party assigned him to Chiatura, a hellhole in western Georgia where hundreds of small companies employed a combined 3,700 miners and sorters to extract and haul manganese ore.

Witte’s father, the midlevel tsarist official, had opened Chiatura’s manganese deposits around the middle of the nineteenth century.120 By 1905, thanks to Sergei Witte’s integration of Russia into the new world economy, the artisanal, privately held mines had come to account for no less than 50 percent of global manganese output. Tall piles of the excavated ore dominated the “skyline,” waiting to be washed, mostly by women and children, before being exported for use in the production of German and British steel. With wages averaging a meager 40 to 80 kopecks per day, rations doused in manganese dust, and “housing” under the open sky (in winter workers slept in the mines), Chiatura was, in the words of one observer, “real penal labor (katorga)”—but the laborers had not been convicted of anything.121 Even by tsarist Russia standards, the injustices in Chiatura stood not. When the workers rebelled, however, the regime summoned imperial troops as well as right-wing vigilantes, who called themselves Holy Brigades but were christened Black Hundreds. In response to the physical attacks, Jughashvili helped transform Social Democratic agitation “circles” into red combat brigades called Red Hundreds.122 By December 1905, the worker Red Hundreds, assisted by young radical thugs, seized control of Chiatura and thus of half of global manganese output.

Only the previous year, Jughashvili had been calling for an autonomous Georgian Social Democratic Workers’ Party separate from the All-Russia (imperial) Social Democrats—a vestige, perhaps, of his Russification battles at the seminary and in Georgia more broadly. But Social Democrats in Georgia rejected a struggle for national independence, reasoning that even if they somehow managed to break away, liberty for Georgia would never stick without liberty for Russia. Georgian comrades condemned Jughashvili as a “Georgian Bundist” and forced him to recant publicly. The future Stalin wrote out a Credo (February 1904) of his beliefs, evidently repudiating the idea of a separate Georgian party; seventy copies were distributed within Social Democratic Party circles.123 Other than youthful romantic poetry, and two unsigned editorials in Lado’s Brdzola that were later attributed to Stalin, the Credo was one of his first-ever publications (subsequent party historians assembling his writings never found it). This mea culpa was followed by an extended essay—which essentially launched his punditry career—in Georgian, dated September-October 1904, and titled “How Social Democracy Understands the National Question.” Jughashvili targeted a recently formed party of Social Federalists whose Paris-based periodical demanded Georgian autonomy in both the Russian empire and in the socialist movement. He strongly repudiated the idea of separate “national” leftist parties, and resorted to sarcasm about Georgian nationalism.124 In April 1905, a pamphlet addressed to the Batum proletariat noted that “Russian social democracy is responsible not only to the Russian proletariat but to all peoples of Russia, groaning under the yoke of the barbarian autocracy—it is responsible to all of humankind, to all of modern civilization.”125 Russia, not Georgia. The Credo episode had been a turning point.

In Chiatura, meanwhile, organizing mass direct action, Jughashvili was in his radical element—he helped transform nearly every mine into a battleground of Social Democratic Party factions, importing loyalists from his previous underground activity, especially Batum. Some observers marveled at his clique’s intense loyalty. All the same, the Chiatura workers elected as their leader not Jughashvili but a tall, thin, charismatic Georgian youth named Noe Ramishvili (b. 1881). Ramishvili won over the mine workers partly by touting the superior role that his “Menshevik” faction of Caucasus Social Democrats accorded to rank-and-file workers in the party.126 Jughashvili, who adhered to the Bolshevik faction of Caucasus Social Democrats, cursed his rivals as “worker-lovers.”127 From Chiatura, he wrote reports to the Bolshevik faction leader Vladimir Lenin, in European exile, about the life-and-death struggle—not against the tsarist regime, but against Menshevism.128

Bolshevik-Menshevik factionalism had broken out two years earlier, in July 1903, in a club room in London at the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party’s Second Congress (the first one since the founding effort, attended by nine people in Minsk in 1898). Beyond the reach of the tsarist police, the delegates adopted a charter and program (“The dictatorship of the proletariat is the prerequisite of the social revolution”), but two strong personalities, Lenin and Martov, clashed over party structure. The row started over a proposal by Lenin to reduce the editorial board of the periodical Iskra from six to three (Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov), a sensible proposition that nonetheless exploded in the hall (the minutes record “threatening shouts” and cries of “shame”). But the differences went deeper. All Russian Social Democrats viewed capitalism as an evil to be transcended, but Marxism held that history was supposed to proceed in stages and most of Russia’s Marxists, following the elder statesman Plekhanov, held to the proposition that socialist revolution could triumph only after a “bourgeois revolution” had first taken place and accelerated Russia’s capitalist development. In that view, Russia’s workers were supposed to help Russia’s weak bourgeoisie bring about constitutionalism, so that, decades hence, the workers could then transcend capitalism and advance to socialism. But what if the workers proved unable to take up this role? Martov captured the nub, writing that the “reconciliation of revolutionary-democratic with socialist tasks”—that is, the bourgeois revolution with the socialist revolution—“is the riddle which the fate of Russian society has posed to Russian social democracy.”129

The question of workers’ role in the historical process had already split the German Social Democrats. In Germany, it seemed that proletarians were not developing revolutionary but merely trade union consciousness (and capitalism was not breaking down)—a position stated plainly by Eduard Bernstein, who concluded that socialists ought to embrace amelioration and evolution, achieving socialism via capitalism, not organizing capitalism’s annihilation. Karl Kautsky, a rival to Bernstein, branded him a Marxist “revisionist,” and insisted that socialism and then communism would still be reached via revolution. Tsarist conditions, meanwhile, did not allow a Bernstein “revisionist” approach in Russia, even had Lenin been so inclined—and he was not—because trade unionism and constitutionalism remained illegal. Lenin admired Kautsky, but went further, arguing for a conspiratorial approach because imperial Russia was different from Germany in the severity of the restrictions on freedom. In What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin foresaw revolution if “a few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as the imperial security police, were allowed to organize it.”130 His stance was denounced as un-Marxist—indeed, as Blanquist, after the Frenchman Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), who had dismissed the efficacy of popular movements in favor of revolution by a small group via a temporary dictatorship using force.131 In some ways, however, Lenin was just reacting to the intense worker militancy in the Russian empire, such as the May Day march in Kharkov in 1900—about which he had written—and the violent clashes the next year between workers and police in Obukhov. True, Lenin did at times seem to be saying, like Bernstein, that workers, left to their own devices, would develop only trade union consciousness. But this made Lenin more, not less, radical. Most fundamentally, Lenin sought a party of professional revolutionaries to overcome the well-organized tsarist state, whose hyperrepressiveness militated against ordinary organizational work.132 Lenin, however, could not convince the others: at the 1903 Congress, even though there were only four genuine workers out of fifty-one delegates, Martov’s vision—a party organization more capacious than just “professional” revolutionaries—won the vote in a slim majority (28 to 23). Lenin refused to accept the result and announced the formation of a faction, which he called Bolsheviks (majoritarians) because he had won a majority on other, secondary questions. Martov’s majority, incredibly, allowed itself to become known as Mensheviks (minoritarians).

Charges, countercharges—and misunderstandings—related to the split in summer 1903 would reverberate for the better part of a century. The okhranka could scarcely believe its good fortune: the Social Democrats had turned on each other! It was no longer enough for Social Democrat revolutionaries merely to struggle to evade arrest, while competing against rivals on the left like Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), now they also had to battle the “other faction” in their own party at every party committee throughout the empire and abroad, even when they had a hard time articulating Bolshevik-Menshevik differences.133 Of course, sectarianism among revolutionaries was as common as cuckolding. Still, Lenin’s schismatism angered his heretofore close friend Martov, as well as Martov’s allies, because they had just conspired with Lenin to curb the power of the Jewish Bund inside Russian Social Democratic ranks (only five Bundist delegates had been allowed to attend the 1903 Social Democratic Congress, despite the large Jewish proletariat).134 And then—betrayal. Martov and his faction rejected various offers of mediation. Lenin’s doctrinal position unmistakably involved a bid for power in the movement, but the split had begun as, and remained, at least partly personal. The internal polemics became mutually vicious—accusations of lies, treachery.

Once word of the split became widely known, Lenin was roundly denounced. In 1904, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born revolutionary who would not meet Lenin for three more years, condemned his vision of organization as “military ultra-centralism.” Trotsky, who sided with Martov, compared Lenin to the Jesuitical Catholic Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes—suspicious toward other people, fanatically attached to the idea, inclined to be dictator while claiming to put down supposedly ubiquitous sedition. Plekhanov would soon call Lenin a Blanquist. Lenin, for his part, worked diligently from his base in Geneva to recruit the strategically important, populous Caucasus branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party to his side, writing of the “reptilian vileness” of the party’s Central Committee (his opponents). He might well have succeeded: after all, many members of Lenin’s faction were exiled from European Russia to the Caucasus, where they spread Bolshevik influence. The future Stalin—who missed the 1903 London congress (he was in a tsarist remand prison)—got to know Lev Kamenev, an adherent of Lenin’s faction, in Tiflis in 1904. But in January 1905, the leader of Georgian Marxists, Noe Jordania, returned to Georgia from European exile and steered the vast majority of Caucasus Marxists away from Lenin to Menshevism. Jughashvili had already clashed with Jordania as early as November 1901 by championing a narrower intelligentsia-centric party. Now he bucked Jordania again, remaining in the Bolshevik faction. For Jughashvili, therefore, the divide was partly personal, too. Doctrinally, the Leninist position of favoring professional revolutionaries over workers also suited Jughashvili’s temperament and self-image.

Inevitably, Lenin’s alleged personal influence came to be cited as the explanation for Jughashvili’s early loyalties: the future Stalin is said to have long admired the Bolshevik leader from afar. But if he felt any hero worship for Lenin from a distance, their first encounter blunted it.135 The two met in December 1905 at the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tammerfors, in Russian-ruled Finland, where Jughashvili was one of the three delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the Caucasus.136 Lenin had returned from Swiss exile to Russia only in November 1905, having chosen to sit out most of the revolutionary events of that year. Just shy of thirty-six, he was nearly a decade older than Jughashvili.137 (The “patriarch” of all delegates, Mikho Tskhakaya from the Caucasus, was thirty-nine.) But Jughashvili observed at the Party Congress how provincial delegates, himself among them, attacked the elder Lenin’s policy proposals and how the Bolshevik leader backed down, rationalizing that he was an emigre out of touch. “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately, representative figure of a man,” Stalin would recall. “What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”138 (Stalin’s writings between 1906 and 1913 would contain a mere two citations of Lenin.) Eventually, of course, Lenin would become Stalin’s indispensable mentor, but it would take time for the Georgian—and most everyone else on the left—to appreciate Lenin’s history-bending force of will. In any case, even as Russia’s would-be Social Democratic revolutionaries were fighting tooth and nail among themselves over the nature of the coming revolution (bourgeois or socialist) and over party structure (inclusive or “professional”), tsarist political authority had already fallen into headlong disintegration, making revolution imminent.


While Jughashvili was organizing Red Hundreds in Chiatura, on October 8, 1905—following the signing of the Russo-Japanese peace treaty—a general strike shut down St. Petersburg. Within five days, more than 1 million workers had walked out empirewide, paralyzing the telegraph and rail systems. Troops could neither be brought home from the war—more than 1 million Russian soldiers were still in the Far Eastern theater, after the cessation of hostilities—nor deployed for internal police duty. Around October 13, a St. Petersburg soviet (or council) was established as a strike-coordinating committee; it would last some fifty days, and for two weeks of that period be headed by Lev Trotsky, a prolific writer and prominent Social Democrat who recently had returned from exile.139 Warnings of a crackdown were announced on October 14, and the next day the authorities shuttered the capital’s prestigious university for the year. Establishment figures, including members of the extended Romanov family, urged Nicholas II to make political concessions to close the breach between regime and society. In all of Europe, only the Ottoman empire, the Principality of Montenegro, and the Russian empire still lacked a parliament. Told to countenance changes that infringed on the autocratic principle and established a coordinated government, the tsar wrote to his mother, the Danish-born dowager empress, “Ministers, like chicken-hearts, assemble and discuss how to achieve unity of all ministers instead of acting decisively.”140 Fresh from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the newly ascendant, proautocratic Sergei Witte moved to seize the moment, suggesting to the tsar that he had two choices to save the autocracy: grant a constitution, civil liberties, and above all, a coordinated ministerial government, or find someone who could implement a crackdown.141 On October 15, Nicholas II asked his most trusted courtier, the hard-line Dmitry Trepov, Witte’s archrival, whether Trepov—recently named governor-general of the capital—could restore order short of a civilian massacre. The latter replied on October 16 that “sedition has attained a level at which it is doubtful whether bloodshed could be avoided.”142

The tsar wavered. He commissioned a draft manifesto for a merely consultative Duma.143 Apparently, he also turned to his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, to assume dictatorial powers under a military dictatorship, to which the latter replied that the army had been depleted by the ongoing war in the Far East, and that if the tsar did not consent to Witte’s program of political concessions, the grand duke would shoot himself.144 Reluctantly, on October 17, crossing himself, Nicholas II signed the Manifesto on the Improvement of State Order, published the next day, “imposing”—in autocratic parlance—civil liberties as well as a bicameral legislature. No longer “consultative,” as originally proposed back in February, the State Duma would be a lower house of “people’s representatives” to be elected, albeit by a narrow suffrage—narrower than absolutist Spain had granted in 1680 for its towns in the New World—but with the right to issue laws. The franchise was granted to male citizens over twenty-five years of age, excluding soldiers and officers, but elections proceeded through four electoral colleges, and extra weight was given to communal, as opposed to individual, peasants.145 At the same time, Russia’s State Council—heretofore a largely ceremonial advisory body of appointed elites, as depicted in Ilya Repin’s 1903 wall-sized oil painting—would become an upper house. The plan was that the upper house would serve as a conservative brake on the Duma. Half the new State Council’s members would continue to be appointed by the tsar from among former ministers, governors-general, ambassadors—that is, “venerable old men, white haired or bald, with wrinkled skin and often bent with age, wearing uniforms and adorned with all of their decorations,” as one insider described them. The other half was to be elected by designated bodies: the Orthodox Church, provincial assemblies, the stock exchange, the Academy of Sciences. By comparison, the United States would pass the Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election of senators in 1911; the entire British House of Lords was filled by hereditary peers.146

Far less dramatically, but no less consequentially, the tsar also conceded—for the first time—a unified government with a prime minister. Sergei Kryzhanovsky, who as deputy interior minister was tasked with outlining the need for and structure of a cabinet, assailed the “fragmentation” and fratricide of Russia’s ministries. He warned that the convocation of a Duma would—like France’s calling of the Estates General in 1789—provide a potent forum. The government had to be strong and united to manage the legislature, or else there could be French-style consequences for the monarchy. But ministers wanted strong government not solely because of a perceived need to manage the legislature. The model that Witte had in mind was Prussia’s, which afforded the minister-president the authority—used to great effect by Bismarck—to control all contact between individual ministers and the monarch.147

A strong cabinet coordinated by a prime minister might seem an obvious necessity in any modern state, but globally it had arisen relatively recently. In Great Britain, the prime ministership owed its largely unplanned origins to the circumstance that King George I (r. 1714–27), of the Brunswick House of Hanover (a German state), could not speak English (he spent at least half the year in Hanover), so responsibility for chairing cabinet sessions fell to a newly created post of prime or first minister, a circumstance that would become institutionalized. Prussia acquired a prime minister equivalent—minister-president—and a cabinet of ministers in stages from 1849 through 1852 in an improvisation to deal with the surprise advent of a legislature in 1848.148 (Russia’s stillborn cabinet government of 1857 had not even included a prime minister.) But whereas the British prime minister post was awarded to the majority leader in the House of Commons, meaning he owed his status not to royal whim but to elected parliamentary majorities, Prussia’s minister-president was appointed or removed by the monarch alone, without consideration of parliamentary (electoral) majorities.

Russia followed not the British example—a genuinely parliamentary system—but the Prussian one. True, the Duma could summon ministers for a report, but the tsar retained absolute power over ministers’ appointment or dismissal, as well as an absolute veto over legislation, the right to dismiss the Duma and announce new elections, and the right to declare martial law. In addition, the ministers of foreign affairs, war, the navy, and the court fell outside the prime minister’s portfolio. These circumstances allowed Nicholas II, not without Witte’s connivance, to delude himself into thinking the concessions had not contravened his coronation oath to uphold autocracy. But he had: the work of Russia’s then fourteen ministers—with the enumerated exceptions—would be coordinated by someone other than the tsar.149

That person turned out to be Witte, whom Nicholas II chose as Russia’s first-ever prime minister.

Nicholas II had asked Witte to draft the October Manifesto, but knowing the tsar all too well and probably desirous of maintaining some distance from the document, Witte had passed the drafting task to an associate who happened to be staying at his home.150 Still, Witte edited the drafts and was universally seen as the prime mover.151 And yet, although at the pinnacle of power, Witte found himself suspended in the air, fully supported by no one—not by the stunned establishment, who were mostly proponents of unbridled autocracy and who, additionally, disliked Witte for his pedigree, gruffness, and Jewish wife; not by the narrow stratum of constitutionalists, who were still waiting for the promised constitution to be drafted and enacted; not by the elected representatives to the Petersburg Soviet, who in many cases expected the Duma would be a “bourgeois” sham; not by the striking workers and students, whose general strike had ebbed but who still desired social justice; and not by the rebellious peasantry, who freely interpreted the October Manifesto as a promise of pending land redistribution, which sparked new agrarian disturbances.152 Witte was not even fully supported by Nicholas II, who promoted him yet still found him insolent. Nonetheless, by sheer force of personality, especially his drive to be informed, Witte proved able to impose coordination on much of the government, even in foreign policy and military affairs, whose ministers technically did not even report to the prime minister.153

Whatever Witte’s impressive abilities, however, the introduction of a prime minister, alongside the promise of the still-to-come Duma, did not restore public order. On the contrary, opposition became more violent after the proclamation of the October Manifesto. The tsarist autocracy was saved—literally—by a tough conservative official who had once been fired for abusing his police power in connection with sexual indiscretions. Pyotr Durnovó (b. 1845), the scion of ancient nobility and a naval academy graduate, had been at sea during the 1860s Great Reforms. He then forsook the navy and became a longtime director of police (1884–93). After one of the “black cabinets” that he oversaw intercepted a love letter to the Brazilian charge d’affaires from Durnovó’s own mistress, he had the police break into the diplomat’s apartment to steal the rest of her correspondence. The woman complained about the theft to her diplomat paramour, who at a court ball raised the matter with Tsar Alexander III. The latter is said to have remarked to his interior minister, “Get rid of this swine within twenty-four hours.”154 Durnovó retreated abroad, dismissed from state service, seemingly forever. Yet in 1895, after Alexander III’s surprise death from illness at age forty-nine, Durnovó managed to resume his career, rising to deputy interior minister. On October 23, 1905, Witte named him acting interior minister, against the vociferous objections of liberals, and the hesitancy of Tsar Nicholas II.155 Within three days, the Baltic sailors mutinied. By October 28, Durnovó had crushed their chaotic mutiny, ordering hundreds of executions. He contemplated an empirewide crackdown, but Witte (initially) insisted that Durnovó act within the parameters of the October Manifesto—after all, it had been signed by the tsar. Soon, however, Durnovó began to implement harsher measures, which, of course, greatly pleased the signatory of the October Manifesto, as well as much of state officialdom, once the measures appeared to be successful. “Everyone started to work, the machinery went into high gear” recalled one top okhranka official. “Arrests began.”156 Indeed, between the tsar’s promise of a constitution (October 1905) and the promulgation six months later of the Fundamental Laws—Nicholas II refused to allow it to be called a constitution—Durnovó’s police arrested many tens of thousands (by some estimates, up to 70,000).157 Durnovó also sacked numerous governors and, more important, goaded the rest to seize back all public spaces.

Durnovó showed initiative. In mid-November 1905, when a new strike shut down the postal and telegraph system, he broke it by organizing citizen replacements. On December 3—the day after the Petersburg Soviet called for workers to withdraw their savings from state banks—he arrested around 260 deputies to the Soviet, half the membership, including Chairman Trotsky. Many officials warned this would provoke a repeat of the October 1905 general strike, but Durnovó countered that a show of force would shift the political dynamic. On December 7, 1905, an uprising broke out in Moscow, and Durnovó’s critics looked prescient. But he went to Nicholas II at Tsarskoe Selo to report and seek instructions—without Prime Minister Witte, his (nominal) superior, whom Durnovó no longer bothered to consult even though by now Witte had come around to a hard-line approach. Durnovó did not even appear at the meetings of the government (Council of Ministers), or explain his absences therefrom.158 The tsar, predictably, was keen to encourage the pre-1905 practice whereby ministers like Durnovó reported directly and privately to him. Nicholas II wrote to his mother, the dowager empress, “Durnovó—the interior minister—acts superbly.”159 Now, confronted by an uprising in Russia’s ancient capital, Durnovó ordered it crushed: some 424 people were killed and 2,000 wounded.160 Crackdowns took place all around the empire as well. “I earnestly request, in this and similar cases, that you order the use of armed force without the slightest leniency and that insurgents be annihilated and their homes burned,” Durnovó bluntly instructed officials in Kiev province. “Under the present circumstances, the restoration of the authority of the Government is possible only by these means.”161 In Georgia, imperial troops bloodily recaptured the manganese mining settlement of Chiatura, removing the political base of Jughashvili and his Bolshevik followers. Imperial forces and Black Hundreds also routed the Georgian Menshevik peasant-citadel of the Gurian Republic. Crushed, the world’s first-ever peasant republic led by Marxists, as one scholar wrote, would find echoes “in the fields, hills, and jungles of Asia.”162 For now, however, by the end of 1907, mass peasant uprisings had been snuffed out across the empire.163 It was a stunning achievement.

 • • • 

RUSSIA’S AUTOCRACY had undergone a near-death experience. Altogether, an army of nearly 300,000, a size close to the land force that had battled the Japanese, was needed to suppress domestic unrest.164 Such a vast mobilization for repression and regime survival would have been impossible had Russia’s foes on its western flank, Germany and Austria-Hungary, decided to take what would have been easy advantage of the situation. Not even an actual attack from the West, merely a mobilization, would have paralyzed and likely doomed the tsarist regime.165 Equally critical, the Russian forces of domestic repression were the same peasants in uniform who had been mutinying when—and becausethe tsarist regime had appeared weak, and who now, when the regime showed its teeth again, resumed enforcing state order against rebellious workers, students, and fellow peasants.166 Durnovó rallied them. This is one of those moments in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed. When “the regime had tottered on the brink of an abyss,” Vladimir Gurko, his deputy rightly concluded, it “was saved by . . . Durnovó, who adopted an almost independent policy and by merciless persecution of the revolutionary elements re-established a certain degree of order in the country.”167

But this was also a moment when a statesman’s talent, rather than shortcomings, proved detrimental to his country. Durnovó’s rescue of Russia’s autocracy—when it should have fallen—would end up having the perverse consequence of preparing the country for a far worse crash during a far worse war, which would serve as a template for a radical new order. Of course, it is impossible to know what would have transpired had Durnovó’s exceptional resoluteness and police skill not saved tsarism in 1905–6. Still, one wonders whether the history of one sixth of the earth, and beyond, would have been as catastrophic, and would have seen the appearance of Stalin’s inordinately violent dictatorship. Be that as it may, the respite Durnovó furnished to Russia would prove short-lived, frenetic, and full of rampant insecurities. “Long before the World War,” recalled one contemporary, “all politically conscious people lived as on a volcano.”168



We are tired of everything. We are loyal people and cannot go against the Government, but neither can we support the current Government. We are forced to step to the side and be silent. This is the tragedy of Russian life.

A. I. Savenko, political rightist and anti-Semite, private letter intercepted by the okhranka, 19141

Looking at that low and small head, you had the feeling that if you pricked it, the whole of Karl Marx’s Capital would come hissing out of it like gas from a container. Marxism was his element, there he was invincible. No power on earth could dislodge him from a position once taken, and he could find an appropriate Marx formula for every phenomenon.”

A former fellow tsarist political prisoner speaking about the young Stalin in Baku prison, 19082

RUSSIA’S STATE HAD ARISEN out of military exigencies, in an extraordinarily challenging geopolitical environment, but also out of ideals, above all the autocratic ideal, yet Russia’s long-enduring autocracy was anything but stable. Nearly half the Romanovs, following Peter the Great, left their thrones involuntarily, as a result of coups or assassinations. Peter himself had his eldest son and heir killed for disobedience (thirteen of Peter’s fifteen children by two wives predeceased him). Peter was succeeded by his second wife, a peasant girl from the Baltic coast, who took the name Catherine I, and then by his grandson, Peter II. In 1730, when Peter II died from smallpox on the day of his wedding, the Romanov male line expired. The throne passed to Peter II’s relations, first to his father’s cousin Anna (r. 1730–40), and then, in a palace coup, to his half aunt Elizabeth (r. 1741–61). Neither produced a male heir. The Romanov House avoided perishing altogether only thanks to the marriage of one of Peter the Great’s two surviving daughters to the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. This made the Romanovs a Russian-German family. Karl Peter Ulrich, the first Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov—who became Peter III—was an imbecile. He wore a Prussian military uniform to Russian state functions and lasted six months before being deposed in a putsch by his wife, a minor German princess named Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, who assumed the throne as Catherine II (or the Great). She fancied herself an enlightened despot, and made high culture a partner in the autocracy (something Stalin would emulate, ruling as he would from Catherine’s imperial Senate in Moscow). The German Catherine was a Romanov only by marriage, but Russia’s ruling family continued to emphasize its links, via the female line, back to Peter and to employ the Russian surname only. In 1796, Catherine was succeeded by her son Paul, who was assassinated in 1801; then came Paul’s son Alexander I (r. 1801–25); Alexander’s brother Nicholas I (r. 1825–55); Alexander II, who died in agony in 1881, his legs shattered by a terrorist’s bomb; Alexander III, who became heir following the sudden death of his elder brother and who, in power, succumbed to kidney disease (nephritis) at age forty-nine in 1894; and finally, Nicholas II.3

Except for Alexander III, who married a Danish princess—his deceased elder brother’s fiancee—all the “Romanov” descendants of the German Catherine took German-born wives. Such intermarriage transformed almost all of Europe’s royalty into relations. Nicholas II’s German spouse—Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice, Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt—was the favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. Born in 1872, the year after German unification, Alix first met the tsarevich “Nicky” when she was eleven and he fifteen, during the wedding of her sister, Ella, to Nicholas’s uncle. They met again six years later and fell madly in love. Tsar Alexander III and his wife, Empress Consort Maria Fyodorovna, initially opposed their son Nicholas’s marriage to the shy, melancholic Alix, despite the fact that she was their goddaughter. Russia’s monarchs preferred the daughter of the pretender to the French throne, to solidify Russia’s new alliance with France. Queen Victoria, for her part, had favored Alix for the Prince of Wales of the United Kingdom, but she, too, came around. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany supported the Alix-Nicky match from the get-go, hoping to strengthen German-Russian bonds. Alix’s arrival in Russia, however, proved ill starred, coinciding with the early death of Emperor Alexander III. “She has come to us behind a coffin,” the crowd noted in their first glimpse of her, at the state funeral. “She brings misfortune with her.”4 The new empress consort dutifully converted to Orthodoxy (from Lutheranism) and took the name Alexandra. Her honeymoon with Nicholas II consisted of twice-daily Orthodox services and visits by notables to convey condolences about her father-in-law’s untimely passing. She gave birth to four daughters in succession, which also set everyone on edge, because an imperial succession law passed in 1797 under Paul I (r. 1796–1801), the son of Catherine the Great, forbade another female to occupy the throne. Finally, in August 1904, in the tenth year of marriage, Alexandra produced a long-awaited male heir. Nicholas II named the boy for his favorite early Romanov ruler, Alexei, Peter the Great’s father, harkening back to the Moscow days before the building of St. Petersburg.

Possessing an heir, finally, Nicholas II reveled in Interior Minister Pyotr Durnovó’s tenacious crackdown a little more than a year later, but the tsar had not retracted the October Manifesto. And so, on April 27, 1906, the newly created State Duma opened in the Winter Palace with the monarch’s (terse) address from the throne, in emulation of British custom. Nicholas II uncannily resembled his cousin King George V. But facing all the standing dignitaries, domestic and foreign, as well as the commoner-elected representatives, who had gathered in St. George’s Hall, the tsar, raised on a dais, spoke a mere 200 words, which were followed by a tomblike silence.5 Russia had become something that had never before existed: a constitutional autocracy, in which the word “constitution” was forbidden.6 It was a liberal-illiberal muddle. The Duma met in the Tauride Palace, which had been given by the autocrat Catherine the Great to her court favorite, Prince Potëmkin, in 1783, for his conquest of Crimea; it had been repossessed from his family after his death, and used, most recently, to warehouse props of the imperial theater. The Tauride’s interior winter garden was converted into a nearly 500-seat chamber, christened the White Hall. Despite the exclusion from the Duma of the small central Asian “protectorates” of Khiva and Bukhara as well as the Grand Duchy of Finland (which had its own legislature), many of the Russian delegates experienced shock at the stunning diversity of the empire’s representatives, as if elites in the capital had been living somewhere other than imperial Russia. Inside the White Hall, under a gigantic portrait of Nicholas II, the principal advocates for constitutionalism, the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets)—a group led by Moscow University history professor Paul Miliukov—constituted the opposition.7 Who, if anyone, supported the new constitutional autocracy remained unclear.

Prime Minister Sergei Witte, who had done more than anyone to urge the Duma on the tsar, at its successful launch handed in his resignation, exhausted, infirm, and scorned.8 Witte earned no special dispensation from the fact that he had been the lead locomotive behind Russia’s spectacular industrial surge from the 1890s, or had helped bridge the chasm of 1905 between regime and society. Nicholas II found Witte devious and unprincipled (“Never have I seen such a chameleon of a man.”).9 The tsar immediately and everlastingly regretted the political concessions that Witte had helped wring. With Witte’s fall, Durnovó, too, was obliged to step down, his historic service as interior minister having also lasted a mere six months, although Nicholas II allowed Durnovó to continue receiving his salary of 18,000 rubles per annum and awarded him a staggering cash gift of 200,000 rubles. (Witte received the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, with diamonds.)10 Durnovó yielded his portfolio to the Saratov province governor, Pyotr Stolypin, who in July 1906 managed to add the post of prime minister, thereby replacing both Durnovó and Witte.11

Tall, with blue eyes and a black beard, a figure of immense charm and sensitive to form—so unlike the abrasive Witte—Stolypin was a discovery. He had been born in 1862 in Dresden (where his mother was visiting relatives abroad) to an ancient Russian noble family. His father, who was related to the renowned writer Mikhail Lermontov, owned a Stradivarius that he himself played, and had served as adjutant to Alexander II and as commandant of Moscow’s Grand Kremlin Palace; Stolypin’s well-educated mother was the daughter of the general who had commanded the Russian infantry during the Crimean War and rose to viceroy of tsarist Poland. The boy grew up on his wealthy family’s estates in tsarist Lithuania, territories of the bygone Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and graduated in natural sciences (not law) from St. Petersburg Imperial University. (Dimitri Mendeleev, of the periodic table, was one of Stolypin’s teachers.) Like Stalin, Stolypin suffered a withered arm, from a mysterious teenage malady; he wrote by using his good left hand to guide his right. The deformity precluded following his father and mother’s relatives into a military career.12 But in 1902, at age forty, Stolypin became governor of Grodno, in the Polish-Lithuanian western borderlands, encompassing his own properties. He was the youngest person in the Russian empire to hold a governorship. In 1903, he had been transferred to governor of Saratov, in central Russia’s Volga valley, whose villages, unlike those in the western borderlands, had communes that periodically redistributed strips of land among peasants (the “repartitional” commune). Saratov also became known for political turbulence. The tsar had had occasion to tour the province, and Stolypin toiled indefatigably to ensure he would be surrounded by admiring subjects. During the brutal 1905–6 crackdown, Stolypin proved to be imperial Russia’s most energetic governor, as well as an executive of courage and vision, willing to explain to assembled crowds his rationale for upholding the law and, if that failed, personally leading troops in repression. Stolypin’s performance impressed the courtiers; Nicholas II telegrammed congratulations for “exemplary efficiency.”

When Nicholas II had summoned him to his Alexander Palace residence in Tsarskoe Selo, just outside St. Petersburg, to inform him of his elevation to the premiership in the capital, Stolypin protested that he was unfit for such a high post and did not know the capital’s elites. The tsar, tears in his eyes, grateful, perhaps, for the professed modesty and deference, grasped Stolypin’s hand with both of his.13 This handclasp has been seen, even more in retrospect than in prospect, as a historic opportunity that might have saved imperial Russia. Stolypin certainly stands out as one of the most commanding officials ever to hold a position of power in Russia: self-confident in a milieu of toadying, an accomplished orator as well as manager, a rare state official with a longer-term perspective. “If the state does not retaliate against evil deeds,” Stolypin stated upon his appointment, “then the very meaning of the state is lost.”14 The provincial proved himself adept at gaining the tsar’s confidence, and he quickly came to overshadow the entire establishment in St. Petersburg.15 But the tasks before him were daunting. The critical keys to unlocking modernity included not just steel output and mass production, which Russia more or less did manage to attain, but also the successful incorporation of the masses into political systems, that is, mass politics.

Stolypin was determined to take full advantage of the new lease on life afforded to the regime by Durnovó’s bravura crackdown, within the new situation created by Witte’s successful urging on Nicholas II of the October Manifesto quasi-constitutionalism. During Stolypin’s premiership (1906–1911), he endeavored, in his way, to reinvent the Russian political system. But Russia’s conservative political establishment, furious at the constitutional autocracy, opposed outright Stolypin’s efforts to conjure into being a polity on their behalf. The left, for different reasons—they were sobered by the defeat of the 1905 uprising and Stolypin’s repression—would fall into despair as well. To be sure, our leftist protagonist Iosif “Koba” Jughashvili would perpetrate his most infamous revolutionary exploits under Stolypin. But whether those incendiary activities amounted to much remains questionable. By contrast, the aims and frustrations of Stolypin’s reform programs, like those of Witte before him, tell us a great deal about the future Stalin’s regime. At the time, viewing the world through a canonical Marxist prism, the future Stalin comprehended next to nothing of what Stolypin went through at the time. Stalin never met the tsarist prime minister, but to a very great extent he would later walk in his shoes.


Two attributes seemed to define imperial Russia. First, its agriculture fed both Germany and England via exports but remained far from efficient: Russia had the lowest harvest yields in Europe (below Serbia, considered merely a “little brother”); its per-acre grain yields remained less than half those of France or even Austria-Hungary.16 This made the peasants seem like an urgent problem that had to be addressed. Second, Russian political life had become riotous, self-defeating, insane. Many in the elite, not least Nicholas II, had expected the initial 1906 elections to yield a conservative peasant-monarchist Duma. Instead, the Constitutional Democrats enjoyed electoral success, which surprised even the Cadets. Once empowered by the ballot box, Russia’s classical liberals showed no intention of cooperating with the autocracy, and Nicholas II had no intention of compromising with them.17 Moreover, although the socialist parties had boycotted the First Duma elections, they changed their stance and got dozens of deputies elected to the Second Duma (thanks partly to peasant ballots). The okhranka, naturally, kept the deputies under surveillance, using informants and listening in on telephone conversations.18 But the political police had no answer to the political intransigence on all sides. The latter, moreover, was greatly facilitated by the Duma’s abysmal legislative procedures. No mechanisms existed to distinguish major from minor matters, so all were taken up as legislation rather than via mundane government regulations. Also, incredibly, the Duma lacked any fixed timetable for the progression of legislation; populous commissions of deputies would handle bills before they could be brought to the floor, and some commissions would deliberate on a single bill for eighteen months. When the bills did finally move to the next stage, they would be debated in the full Duma again without time limits.19 In such procedural minutiae can institutions founder, especially when opposing political forces prove beyond reconciliation.

From the point of view of the Constitutional Democrats, the problem was that Russia’s constitutional revolution had not removed the autocracy. And indeed, Nicholas II used his prerogative to dismiss the Duma’s first convocation after a mere seventy-three days. The autocrat was able, thanks to Article 87 of the Fundamental Laws, to issue laws by fiat during legislative recess. (Such laws were in theory supposed to be confirmed when the legislature resumed, but they remained in force while debate proceeded.)20 The Second Duma in 1907, which served even more as a platform of antigovernment speechifying, was tolerated for fewer than ninety days. Then, on June 3, 1907, Stolypin unilaterally narrowed Duma suffrage still further by having Nicholas II employ Article 87 to alter the electoral provisions, a step that the Fundamental Laws expressly forbade.21 “Coup d’etat!” screamed the Constitutional Democrats, one of Stolypin’s two main targets in the maneuver (the other target were those further to the left). It was a coup. But from Stolypin’s point of view, the Cadets were hardly angels: in 1905–7, they colluded in antistate terrorism, condemning it publicly but covertly encouraging it, in order to weaken the autocracy. Many humble tsarist officials were killed in that collusion.22 But whereas the intriguers at court egged on Nicholas II to terminate the Duma “experiment,” Stolypin was trying to work with the legislature in order to root Russia’s suspended-in-the-air government in some kind of political base that was compatible with the autocracy. “We want not professors, but men with roots in the country, the local gentry, and such like,” Stolypin told the professor Bernard Pares, the founder of Russian studies in Britain, in May 1908.23

Stolypin was correct that passing legislation necessitated more than some “mystical union” between tsar and people. He imagined himself, like his very short-lived predecessor, Sergei Witte, as a Russian Bismarck. “I am in no way in favor of an absolutist government,” the Iron Chancellor had told the German Reichstag. “I consider parliamentary cooperation—if properly practiced—necessary and useful, as much as I consider parliamentary rule harmful and impossible.”24 Russia’s prime minister, too, accepted a parliament but not parliamentarism (a government controlled by parliament), and the Russian Duma, like the German Reichstag, was a representative institution that expressly strove not to be representative. To be sure, the German franchise had been much more inclusive: all German males over twenty-five had the right to vote. Moreover, thanks to its June 3, 1907, origins, imperial Russia’s Third Duma would be relentlessly shadowed by predictions of new coups, a source of instability. But in Stolypin’s calculation, all this was a necessary price to pay for acquiring the legal wherewithal to modernize the country.

In Saratov, Stolypin had observed the same injustices the radical young Stalin had observed in the Caucasus: workers suffering frequent trauma and long hours for low pay, nobles owning enormous tracts of land while peasants in rags worked tiny plots. As prime minister, Stolypin embarked on far-reaching social reforms. German industrial workers, thanks to the second plank of Bismarck’s strategy (stealing the thunder of the left), had come to enjoy sickness, accident, and old-age insurance as well as access to subsidized canteens; Stolypin, at a minimum, wanted to introduce workmen’s social insurance.25 Most prominently, though, he wanted to encourage peasants to abandon the repartitional commune and consolidate farm land into more productice units.

Russian elites tended to view peasant society as backward and alien, and shared a determination to transform it.26 (In fact, an observer could have looked at the Russian government as a distinct society alienated from the empire at large, especially from peasant society—the vast majority of the population.)27 This elite view took on a predominantly economic inflection as the Russian establishment came to believe the peasants were becoming increasingly impoverished; a few officials, like Witte, back in his days as finance minister, had blamed “the poor condition of our peasantry” as the main brake on the Russian state’s industrialization and geopolitical aggrandizement.28 Stolypin went further, treating the peasantry as a regime-defining political problem. Such an analysis was not unique to Russia. In Prussia, reformers in the 1820s, seeking to counter the influence of the French Revolution, had argued that peasant property owners were the only reliable defenders of law and order and the state.29 This was precisely Stolypin’s view as well. Instead of blaming outside “revolutionary agitators” for rural disturbances, Stolypin pinpointed low rural living standards, and further noted that much of the peasant unrest in 1905–6 had been communally organized.30 On the basis of his experience in the communeless western borderlands, moreover, he concluded that a prosperous individualist village was a peaceful village. Thus, his agrarian reforms, enabled by a November 9, 1906, decree, aimed to drive agricultural productivity and remove the basis for peasant unrest by creating an independent property-owning class among the peasants, who, once furnished with state credits and access to technology, would strike out on their own. In other words, Stolypin sought to transform both the physical rural landscape, overcoming the separated communal strips of land with consolidated farms, and the psychology of the rural inhabitant.31

Globally, the period of Stolypin’s premiership was one of heightened striving to enlarge the capacities of the state. From the French Third Republic to the Russian empire, states of all types pursued ambitious projects such as the building of canals, roads, and railroads to integrate their territories and markets. They also promoted the settlement of new lands via subsidizing homesteading, draining marshes, damming rivers, and irrigating fields. Such statist transformationalism—building infrastructure, managing populations and resources—was often tested first in overseas possessions (colonies), then reapplied back home; sometimes it was developed first at home, then taken abroad, or to what were designated as imperial peripheries. Rule-of-law states when governing abroad often implemented many of the social engineering practices characteristic of non-rule-of-law states, but at home liberal orders differed from authoritarian ones in what practices were deemed acceptable or possible.32 What stands out in all cases of state-led social engineering, though, was how the would-be “technocrats” rarely perceived the benefits, let alone the necessity, of converting subjects (domestic or imperial) into citizens. Technocrats generally saw “politics” as a hindrance to efficient administration. In that regard, Stolypin’s idea of incorporating peasants—at least the “strong and the sober” among the peasantry—into the sociopolitical order on equal terms with other subjects was radical. To be sure, he intended property ownership to impart a stake more than a formal voice. Still, one adviser to the prime minister called him a “new phenomenon” on the Russian scene for seeking political support in parts of the wider populace.33

The reform proved to be a flexibly designed experiment, amalgamating years of prior discussion and effort, and allowing for adjustments along the way.34 But both the political boost from newly created loyal yeoman and the full economic takeoff that Stolypin envisioned proved elusive. Of course, in any political system, major reforms are always fraught because institutions are more complex than perceived. Russia’s peasant communes, in practice, were actually more flexible institutions than their critics understood.35 But the commune’s division of land into separated strips required coordination with others in the village, and rendered impossible the sale, lease, mortgage, or legal transfer of land by individuals, while inhibiting investment in lands that might be taken away. Communes did shield peasants from catastrophe in hard times, although that, too, depended on permanently pooling resources, inducing communes to resist any loss of members. With the reform, the formal consent of the commune was no longer required for exit. Exits were still complicated by red tape (court backlogs), as well as social tensions, but a substantial minority, perhaps 20 percent of European Russia’s 13 million peasant households, would manage to leave the commune during the reform. These new small private landowners, however, generally did not escape commune-style strip farming.36 (A single holding could sometimes be divided into forty or fifty strips.) A shortage of land surveyors, among other factors, meant that many peasants who had privatized could not always consolidate.37 Often, the most individually oriented peasants just decamped for Siberia, as the reform’s enhancement of secure property rights significantly spurred migration in search of new land, but that reduced productivity at the farms they left.38 The land question’s complexity could be stupefying. But where privatized or even non-privatized farms were consolidated—the key aim of Stolypin’s economic reforms—productivity rose significantly.39

In the end, however, Stolypin’s economic and other reforms came up against the stubborn limits to structural reform imposed by politics. Stolypin had to initiate his bold agrarian transformation with the Fundamental Law’s emergency Article 87, during a Duma recess, and the changes sparked deep resistance among the propertied establishment. They, as well as others, blocked Stolypin’s related modernization efforts.40

Russia’s prime minister would attempt not just to rearrange peasant landholdings and credit and introduce workers’ accident and sickness insurance, but also to expand local self-government to the empire’s Catholic west, lift juridical restrictions on Jews, broaden civil and religious rights, and overall invent a workable central government and general polity.41 But his government found it had to bribe many of the elected conservative Duma deputies for votes on bills. And even then, Stolypin could not get the votes for his key legislation. Only the agrarian reforms and a watered down version of worker insurance made the statute books. Conservatives circumscribed Stolypin’s room for maneuver. He was partly the victim of his own success: he had garroted the 1905–6 revolution and, the next year, emptied the Duma of many liberals and socialists, thereby making possible a working relationship between the quasi-parliament and the tsar’s appointed government, but the urgency had vanished. At a deeper level, he had miscalculated. In Stolypin’s June 1907 new franchise, the societal groups that had the most to gain from his reform programs were either excluded from the Duma or outnumbered in it by traditional interests—the landholding gentry—that had the most to lose but that Stolypin’s electoral coup had entrenched.42 To put the matter another way, the political interests that most accepted autocracy least accepted modernizing reforms.


That the Russian autocracy would experience severe difficulties developing a political base is not self-evident. The number of Social Democrats shot up from a mere 3,250 in 1904 to perhaps 80,000 by 1907—a vault, to be sure, but less impressive in relative terms. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party achieved little success among Ukrainian speakers, especially peasants, publishing next to nothing in the Ukrainian language. On the territory of what would become Ukraine, the party had no more than 1,000 members.43 The leftist Jewish Labor Bund drew most of its membership not from the empire’s southwest (Ukraine) but the northwest (Belorussia, tsarist Poland). Be that as it may, even adding the Bund—with whom most Russian Social Democrats did not desire a close relationship—and adding the empire’s separate Polish and Latvian Social Democrat‒equivalent parties as well as the semiautonomous Georgian Social Democrats, the combined Social Democratic strength in imperial Russia probably did not exceed 150,000.44 By comparison, the classical liberal (proprivate property, proparliament) Constitutional Democrats—said to have no real social base in Russia—grew to around 120,000, and another constitutionalist party (Octobrists) just to the right of the Cadets enrolled 25,000 more.45 The Socialist Revolutionaries who aimed to represent the agricultural proletariat, failed to achieve mass peasant support in 1905–7, though the SRs did attract urban workers and attained a formal membership of at least 50,000.46 Dwarfing them all, however, was the staunchly monarchical and national chauvinist Union of the Russian People, founded in November 1905, with rallies under the roof at the Archangel Michael Riding Academy as a church choir sang “Praise God” and “Tsar Divine”; already by 1906, it had ballooned to perhaps 300,000, with branches across the empire—including in small towns and villages.47

During the revolutionary uprising, in which liberal constitutionalism was pushed to the forefront, while socialism emerged as an empirewide aspiration, the rise of the illiberal Union of the Russian People constituted a remarkable story. Until 1905, self-styled patriotic elements faced legal limitations in expressing themselves publicly, having to be content with religious processionals, military-victory commemorations, imperial funerals and coronations. That revolutionary year, moreover, most conservatives found themselves caught out, unwilling to enter, let alone master, the political arena. But the Union of the Russian People was different.48 As the most prominent of many upstart rightist organizations in Russia, the Union brought together courtiers, professionals, and churchmen—including many from the young Stalin’s old Tiflis seminary—with townspeople, workers, and peasants. Drawing in the disaffected and the disoriented, as well as the patriotic, the Union managed to sweep in the lower orders and middle strata “for Tsar, faith, and fatherland,” stealing a march on the left.49 The tsarist regime, stymied by rightist establishment opposition in the Duma and State Council, appeared to have the option of grassroots mobilization.

The Union of the Russian People helped invent a new style of right-wing politics—novel not just for Russia but for most of the world—a politics in a new key oriented toward the masses, public spaces, and direct action, a fascism avant la lettre.50 The Union’s members and leaders, such as the grandson of a Bessarabian village priest, Vladimir Purishkevich—who liked to exclaim, “To the right of me there is only the wall”—were antiliberal, anticapitalist, and anti-Semitic (the triad being redundant, in their eyes).51 They emphasized the uniqueness of Russia’s historical trajectory, rejected Europe as a model, preached the need for Orthodox primacy over Jews and Catholics (Poles), and demanded “restoration” of Russia’s traditions. The Union disdained the Russian government’s cowardly preoccupation with its own security, which they saw as indicative of a lack of will to crush the liberals (and socialists). The Union also abhorred the modernizing state as tantamount to socialist revolutionaries. Union members held that the autocrat alone must rule, not the bureaucracy, let alone the Duma. Unionists overlapped with right-wing vigilantes known as Black Hundreds, who became notorious for pogroms against the Jews in the Pale of Settlement and for fighting alongside imperial troops in crackdowns against rebellious peasants and workers. Russian rightists of all stripes, after a slow start, mobilized to a stunning degree, widely disseminating pamphlets and newspapers, organizing rallies in the name of defending autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality against Jews and European encroachments such as Western-style constitutionalism.

The empire’s socialists did not shrink from confronting the rightist upsurge. The socialists often forced the Union of the Russian People to hold rallies indoors, under the threat of leftist counterdemonstrations, and then, to use ticket checkers to keep out leftist terrorists who would blow the rightists to smithereens. The left also drew considerable strength and cohesion of its own from Karl Marx and his “Song of Songs” Communist Manifesto (1848). Still, Russia’s rightists possessed real Biblical scripture and what should have been genuinely electrifying material—a Russian right-wing newspaper had introduced the world to the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This fabricated transcript of a purported Jewish organization’s meetings portrayed Jews as a global conspiracy—visible yet somehow invisible—preying on Christians while plotting to dominate the world.52 It was first published in Russian, serialized over nine days (August 28 through September 7, 1903), in Znamya (St. Petersburg), which was financed by Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve and published by the anti-Semitic Moldavian Pavalаchii Cruseveanu (b. 1860). Known as Pavel Krushevan, he not only oversaw the text’s compilation in 1902–3 but instigated the major pogrom in Kishenëv (Chişinau) in 1903 and founded the Bessarabian branch of the Union of the Russian People in 1905.53 Anti-Semitism, whether in earnest or in cynicism, could serve as a political elixir: everything that went awry could be, and was, blamed on the Jews. In the Pale of Settlement and western borderlands (Volhynia, Bessarabia, Minsk), the rightists nearly took the entire peasant vote, and in the central agricultural heartland (Tula, Kursk, Oryol), site of major agrarian disturbances, rightists won around half the peasant vote.54 In fact, across the expanse of imperial Russian, sympathy for the political right was there to be galvanized.55

Just as the autocracy had refused to use the word “constitution” (or even “parliament”), from the start, the “Union” of the Russian People had abjured the designation “political party” and presented itself as a spontaneous movement, an organic union of the people or folk (narod). Even so, senior government officials in St. Petersburg were unwilling to accept the movement on a permanent basis. Stolypin maintained the expedient of surreptitiously financing the rightist organizations and their anti-Semitic publications, among many newspapers that his government funded, but Stolypin’s deputy in the interior ministry from 1906 to 1911, Sergei Kryzhanovsky, who handled the disbursements to the Union of Russian People and similar organizations, saw no distinction between the political techniques and social program of the far right—redistribution of private property from plutocrats to the poor—and that of the leftist revolutionary parties.56 The government had not created these mass movements and remained wary of them. Thus, even if the far right’s calls for social leveling seemed mostly bluff, the policy of the okhranka was still to treat right-wing organizations as another revolutionary movement. Some factions inside the okhranka ignored or subverted this policy. But mostly, okhranka operatives deemed the far right’s leaders “uncultured” and “unreliable” and kept them under close surveillance, with good reason. Exactly like the radical left, the Union of the Russian People compiled lists of current and former government officials to be assassinated.57 Stolypin was one of their targets.58 His influential top domestic adviser, a former rabbi converted to Orthodoxy, was an anti-Semite, but the prime minister also tried to ease residence, occupational, and educational restrictions on Jews, for both principled and instrumentalist reasons, to diminish the perceived cause of Jewish radicalism and improve Russia’s image abroad.59 Stolypin succeeded in enraging the hard right.

Many rightist movements, refraining from hyperinflammatory rhetoric or arming vigilante “brotherhoods” to combat leftists and Jews and assassinate public figures, were considerably less volatile than the Union of the Russian People. And yet, Nicholas II and others throughout the regime continued to look askance on large public gatherings by supporters. The tsar and most government officials, including Stolypin, frowned on the public “disorder” of political mobilization, and wanted politics to return from the street to the corridors of power. This rebuff of the street held even though the supportive conservative movements pushed not for a right-wing revolution but, mostly, for a restoration of the archaic autocracy that had existed prior to the advent of the Duma.60 No less fundamentally, many rightist organizations themselves would have refrained from mobilizing patriotic social constituencies on behalf of the regime even if they had been permitted, or encouraged, to do so: After all, what kind of autocracy needed help? The autocracy’s very existence in a sense handcuffed the Russian right, both moderate and radical.61

Most rightists wanted an autocracy without asterisk—that is, a mystical unity of monarch and folk—and they rejected anything more than a consultative Duma, but the autocrat himself had created the Duma. This circumstance confused and divided the right. Almost all rightists believed that autocracy ipso facto ruled out opposition, which of course ruled out their own opposition. “In the West, where the government is elected, the concept of ‘opposition’ makes sense; there it refers to ‘opposition to the government’; this is both clear and logical,” explained the editor of the rightist Petersburg weekly Unification. “But here, the government is appointed by the monarch and invested with his confidence. . . . To be in opposition to the imperial government means to oppose the monarch.”62 Still, many rightists despised Stolypin merely for his willingness to engage with the Duma, even though that was the law and the prime minister’s manipulations of the Duma were government triumphs. For some, including Nicholas II, the mere existence of a prime minister was an affront to autocracy.63 In August 1906, assassins dressed in state uniforms nearly killed Stolypin by dynamiting his state dacha where he received petitioners. “Everywhere one could see shreds of human flesh and blood,” one witness recalled of the twenty-seven instant deaths. Another witness observed how Stolypin “came into his half-demolished study, with plaster stains on his coat and an ink spot on the back of his neck. The top of his writing desk had been lifted off by the explosion, which took place in the hall at a distance of about thirty feet from the study, and the inkstand had hit his neck.” A few months later, a time bomb was discovered in former Prime Minister Witte’s home, although it failed to detonate (the clock had stopped). Both acts against proautocratic, conservative prime ministers went unsolved; circumstantial evidence pointed to possible involvement of right-wing circles.64

Stolypin gained in stature from the failed assassination, thanks to his display of composure and resolve, but he felt constrained to move his family into the Winter Palace (near his offices), which was considered more secure than the prime minister’s official residence on the Fontanka Canal. Even then, the police compelled the Russian prime minister to constantly alter the exits and entrances he used. Unsafe leaving or entering the Winter Palace! Many disgusted rightists, at a minimum, hoped Stolypin would be replaced by Durnovó or another hardliner who would emasculate or outright abolish the Duma. At the same time, other diehard monarchists—who in principle were no less against voting and political parties—found themselves organizing to compete in the elections they rejected if only to deny use of the Duma to the “opposition” (liberals and socialists, lumped together). But the rightists who accepted the Duma became anathema to the rest. Modern street politics fractured the Russian right.65 The gulf between the politics of parliament participation and of assassination was never bridged.66


When first subjected to Durnovó’s ferocious assault, the factionalized Social Democrats had tried to close ranks. In the two weeks before the first Duma opened, between April 10 and 25, 1906, the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party convoked its 4th Congress under the slogan of “unity.” Held across the border in the safety of Stockholm, which allowed emigres to attend, the gathering brought together, at least physically, the recently divided Mensheviks (62 delegates) and Bolsheviks (46 delegates), as well as the separate parties of Latvian and Polish Social Democrats and the Bund.67 Among Caucasus Social Democrats, the second most numerous contingent in the empire after the Russian Social Democrats, there was already near unity because Caucasus Bolsheviks were so few.68 Unity, however, proved elusive in policy. Jughashvili turned out to be the only Bolshevik among the eleven Caucasus delegates in Stockholm, but, taking the congress podium to speak on the vexing agrarian question, he boldly rejected the Bolshevik Lenin’s proposal for complete land nationalization as well as a Russian Menshevik call for land municipalization. Instead, the future collectivizer of agriculture recommended that the peasants get the land. Land redistribution, Jughashvili argued, would facilitate a worker-peasant alliance, an unacknowledged tip of his hat to his Georgian Menshevik adversaries. More than even that, Jughashvili argued, reiterating the comment of another speaker, offering the land to the peasants would rob the peasant Socialist Revolutionary Party—the Social Democrats’ competition on the left—of its platform.69 What impression these suggestions made at the 4th Congress remains unclear. 70 For the time being, among Russian Social Democrats, the decisive issue of a land redistribution to the peasants—in the overwhelmingly peasant Russian empire—would go unresolved.

What could not be left unresolved was the survival of their party. In 1905, both Menshevik and Bolshevik factions had concurred on the need to form combat squads for self-defense: after all, the unjust tsarist system used terror. The factions also agreed, in order to obtain weapons and party funds, on conducting “expropriations,” often in concert with the criminal underworld.71 As a result, the Russian empire became even more of a cauldron of political terrorism after it had become a quasi-constitutional order.

Until this time, imperial Russia’s regular police had been remarkably few and far between. In towns the police presence was often sparse, and outside the towns in 1900 Russia had fewer than 8,500 constables and sergeants (uriadniki) for the rural population of nearly 100 million. Many constables (assisted by a handful of sergeants) “oversaw” 50,000 to 100,000 subjects, over more than 1,000 square miles. In 1903, the state created the position of guardsmen (strazhniki), deploying some 40,000 in the countryside, which brought the ratio of state officers to rural inhabitants only to roughly 1 for every 2,600 inhabitants. Salaries rose but remained low, as did levels of education and training. Abusive, arbitrary behavior, and graft, rendered the police profoundly unpopular. The regular police routinely brought criminal cases or detained people without incidence of a crime, and resorted to physical abuse in what they called “the law of the fist.” Peasant-born sergeants acted like petty tyrants toward villagers, boasting of their power, under the theory that the more severe they were, the greater would be their authority.72

The mass revolts beginning in 1905 precipitated a vast increase in police personnel. But between 1905 and 1910, more than 16,000 tsarist officials, from village policemen up to ministers, would be killed or wounded by terrorist-revolutionaries (including in many cases by Menshevik assassins).73 Countless carriage drivers and railway personnel—proletarians—perished as well. One top police official complained that the details of bombmaking “became so widespread that practically any child could produce one and blow up his nanny.”74

This leftist political terror instilled fear throughout tsarist officialdom, but the regime fought back savagely.75 Stolypin “seized the revolution by the throat.” His government deported tens of thousands to forced labor or internal exile. It also introduced special field courts that used summary justice to send more than 3,000 accused political opponents to the gallows, strung up in demonstrative public executions, a deterrent that became known as the Stolypin necktie.76 No regime could let go unanswered the pervasive assassination of its officials, but the courts bore little resemblance to due process. Be that as it may, people got the point. Lenin, who named Stolypin Russia’s “hangman-in-chief,” and other prominent revolutionaries fled, having only just returned to Russia in 1905’s (briefly) freer circumstances.77 The would-be revolutionaries rejoined some 10,000 expatriates already resident in Russian colonies around Europe as of 1905. The emigre leftists fell under the surveillance of the 40 operatives and 25 informants in the okhranka’s foreign department, run out of Russia’s Paris embassy, which amassed dramatic documentation on the exiles’ often pathetic endeavors.78

Koba Jughashvili was among those committed socialists who did not seek to flee abroad. In Stockholm, he had met not only Klimenty “Klim” Voroshilov, a lifelong acquaintance, but also the Polish nobleman and Bolshevik Felix Dzierzynski and the Russian Bolshevik Grigory Radomylsky (better known as Zinoviev). And Jughashvili had encountered his old Tiflis seminary nemesis Seid Devdariani, by now a Georgian Menshevik. From Stockholm Jughashvili returned to the Caucasus in spring 1906. He wore a suit with a real hat, and carried a pipe, like a European. Only the pipe would last.

Back home, in a pamphlet in Georgian (1906) reporting on the Stockholm Congress, Jughashvili stridently dismissed Russia’s first-ever legislative body. “Who sits between two stools betrays the revolution,” he wrote. “Who is not with us is against us! The pitiful Duma and its pitiful Constitutional Democrats got stuck precisely between two stools. They want to reconcile the revolution with the counter-revolution, so that the wolves and the sheep can pasture together.”79

Jughashvili also got married.80 Ketevan “Kato” Svanidze, then twenty-six, was the youngest of the three Svanidze sisters of Tiflis, whom Jughashvili had met either through the Svanidzes’ son, Alyosha, a Bolshevik (married to a Tiflis opera singer), or through Mikheil Monoselidze, an old seminary friend who had married another Svanidze sister, Sashiko.81 The Svanidzes’ apartment stood right behind the South Caucasus military district headquarters, in the heart of the city, and thus was considered an ultrasafe shelter for revolutionaries: no one would suspect. In the hideaway, the scruffy Jughashvili wrote articles, regaled the sisters with talk of books and revolution, and brazenly received members of his small revolutionary posse. Koba and Kato also evidently met for lovemaking in the Atelier Madame Hervieu, the private salon where the sisters, all expert seamstresses, worked. Sometime during that summer of 1906, Kato informed him she was pregnant. He agreed to marry her. But because Jughashvili had false papers and was wanted by the police, a legal marriage faced complications. They lucked upon a former seminary classmate, Kita Tkhinvaleli, who had become a priest and agreed to perform the ceremony, in the dead of night (2:00 a.m., on July 15–16, 1906). At the “banquet” for ten, where the bridegroom showed off his voice and charm, the honored role of toastmaster (tamada) was performed by Mikho Tskhakaya, the former Tiflis seminarian and Bolshevik elder statesmen (then aged thirty-nine). Jughashvili seems not to have invited his mother, Keke, though it could hardly escape notice that the old woman shared a given name—Ketevan (Ekaterina in Russian)—with the young bride.82 In fact, just like Keke, Kato was devout, and she, too, prayed for Jughashvili’s safety, but unlike Keke, Kato was demure.

The beautiful and educated Kato—a world away from the Chiatura manganese dust—was a class above the future Stalin’s usual girlfriends, and she evidently pierced his heart.83 “I was amazed,” Mikheil Monoselidze observed, “how Soso, who was so severe in his work and to his comrades, could be so tender, affectionate and attentive to his wife.”84 That said, the shotgun marriage did not alter his obsession with revolution. Almost immediately after the conspiratorial summer 1906 wedding, he took off on underground business, abandoning his pregnant wife in Tiflis. As a precaution, she had not recorded the marriage in her internal passport as required by law. Still, the gendarmerie, somehow tipped off, arrested Kato on a charge of sheltering revolutionaries. She was four months pregnant. Her sister Sashiko, appealing to the wife of a top officer whose gowns the girls made, managed to get Kato released—after a month and a half in jail—into the custody of the police chief’s wife. (The Svanidze sisters made her gowns, too.) On March 18, 1907, some eight months after her wedding, Kato gave birth to a son. They christened the boy Yakov, perhaps in honor of Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili, Jughashvili’s surrogate father. The future Stalin was said to be over the moon. But if so, he continued to be rarely home. Like other revolutionaries—at least those still at large—he was constantly on the run, rotating living quarters and battling his leftist rivals. The Georgian Mensheviks controlled most of the revolutionary publications in the Caucasus, but he came to play an outsized role in the small-circulation Bolshevik press, becoming editor of Georgian Bolshevik periodicals one by one. On the eve of Yakov’s birth, Jughashvili, together with Suren Spandaryan (b. 1882) and others, established the newspaper Baku Proletarian. He had found a calling in punditry.

Stolypin’s resolute campaign of arrests, executions, and deportations crippled the revolutionary movement, however. Instead of the grand May Day processionals of recent years, displays of proletarian power, leftists had to content themselves with collecting pitiful sums for the families of the legions who were arrested, and staging “red funerals” for the prematurely departed. Among those lost to the struggle was Giorgi Teliya (1880–1907). Born in a Georgian village, Teliya completed a few years of the village school and, in 1894, at age fourteen, made his way to Tiflis, where he was hired by the railway and, still a teenager, helped organize strikes in 1898 and 1900. He was fired, then arrested. Like Jughashvili, Teliya suffered lung problems, but his proved far more serious: having contracted tuberculosis in a tsarist prison, he succumbed to the disease in 1907.85 “Comrade Teliya was not a ‘scholar,’” the future Stalin remarked at the funeral in Teliya’s native village, but he had passed through the “school” of the Tiflis railway workshops, learned Russian, and developed a love for books, exemplifying the celebrated worker-intelligentsia.86 “Inexhaustible energy, independence, profound love for the cause, heroic determination, and an apostolic gift,” Jughashvili said of his martyred friend.87 He further divulged that Teliya had written a major essay, “Anarchism and Social Democracy,” which remained unpublished supposedly because the police confiscated it. Georgian anarchists had made their appearance in late 1905, early 1906—yet another challenge on the fractious left—and the topic of how to respond was widely discussed.88 From June 1906 to January 1907, Jughashvili published his own articles under a nearly identical rubric as Teliya, “Anarchism or Socialism?,” and for the very same Georgian periodicals.

“Anarchism or Socialism?” was nowhere near the level of The Communist Manifesto (1848) or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louís Bonaparte (1852), which the pundit Karl Marx (born in 1818) had written when similarly youthful. Still Jughashvili’s derivative antianarchist essays dropped a plethora of names: Kropotkin, Kautsky, Proudhon, Spencer, Darwin, Cuvier, in addition to Marx.89 It also showed that in Marxism he had found his theory of everything. “Marxism is not only a theory of socialism, it is a complete worldview, a philosophical system,” he wrote. “This philosophical system is called dialectical materialism.”90 “What was materialism?” he asked in the catechism style for which he would later become famous. “A simple example,” he wrote: “Imagine a cobbler who had his own modest shop, but then could not withstand the competition from big shops, closed his and, say, hired himself out to the Adelkhanov factory in Tiflis.” The goal of the cobbler, Jughashvili continued, without mentioning his father, Beso, by name, was to accumulate capital and reopen his own business. But eventually, the “petit-bourgeois” cobbler realized he would never accumulate the capital and was in fact a proletarian. “A change in the consciousness of the cobbler,” Jughashvili concluded, “followed a change in his material circumstances.”91 Thus, in order to explain Marx’s concept of materialism (social existence determines consciousness), the future Stalin had rendered his father a victim of historical forces. Moving to the practical, he wrote that “the proletarians worked day and night but nonetheless remain poor. The capitalists do not work but nonetheless they get richer.” Why? Labor was commodified and the capitalists owned the means of production. Ultimately, Jughashvili asserted, the workers would win. But they would have to fight hard—strikes, boycotts, sabotage—and for that they needed the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party and a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”92

Here we see more than a glimpse of the future Stalin: the militancy, the confident verities, the ability to convey, accessibly, both a worldview and practical politics. His ideational world—Marxist materialism, Leninist party—emerges as derivative and catechismic, yet logical and deeply set.

Right after the essay series appeared, Jughashvili stole across the border to attend the 5th Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party Congress, held between April 30 and May 19, 1907, in north London’s Brotherhood Church. Congress luminaries were lodged in Bloomsbury, but Jughashvili stayed with the mass of delegates in the East End. One night, utterly drunk, he got into a pub scrape with a drunken Brit, and the owner summoned the police. Only the intercession of the quick-witted, English-speaking Bolshevik Meir Henoch Mojszewicz Wallach, known as Maxim Litvinov, saved Jughashvili from arrest. In the capital of world imperialism, the future Stalin also encountered Lev Bronstein (aka Trotsky), the high-profile former head of the 1905 Petrograd Soviet, but what impression the two might have made on each other remains undocumented. Stalin did not speak from the dais; Trotsky maintained his distance even from the Mensheviks.93

According to Jordania, Lenin was pursuing a back-room scheme: if the Georgian Mensheviks would refrain from taking sides in the Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute among the Russians in the party, Lenin would offer them carte blanche at home at the expense of Caucasus Bolsheviks. No other evidence corroborates this story of Lenin’s possible sellout of Jughashvili, who had expended so much blood and sweat fighting for Bolshevism in the Caucasus.94 Lenin often proposed or cut deals that he had no intention of honoring. Whatever the case here, Jordania, in later exile, was trying to distance Stalin from Lenin. What we know for sure is that when shouts at the congress were raised because Jughashvili, along with a few others, had not been formally elected a delegate—which provoked the Russian Menshevik Martov to exclaim, “Who are these people, where do they come from?”—the crafty Lenin, chairing a session, got Jughashvili and the others recognized as “consultative” delegates.


Alongside everything else, Stolypin had to work diligently to keep Russia out of foreign trouble. Tensions with Britain were particularly high, and Britain was a preeminent global power. Britons invested one fourth of their country’s wealth overseas, financing the building of railroads, harbors, mines, you name it—all outside Europe. Indeed, even as American and German manufacturing surpassed the British in many areas, the British still dominated the world flows of trade, finance, and information. On the oceans, where steamship freighters had jumped in size from 200 tons in 1850 to 7,500 tons by 1900, the British owned more than half of world shipping. In the early 1900s, two thirds of the world’s undersea cables were British, affording them a predominant position in global communications. Nine tenths of international transactions used British pounds sterling.95 Reaching an accord with Britain seemed very much in the Russian interest, provided that such a step did not antagonize Germany.

In the aftershock of the defeat by Japan in 1905–6, Russia had undergone a vigorous internal debate about what was called foreign orientation (what we would call grand strategy). St. Petersburg already had a defensive alliance with Third Republic France, dating to 1892, but Paris had not helped in Russia’s war in Asia. By contrast, Germany had offered Russia benevolent neutrality during the difficult Russo-Japanese War, and Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, had refrained from taking advantage in southeastern Europe. A space had opened for a conservative reorientation away from democratic France toward an alliance based on “monarchical principle”—meaning a Russian alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, something of a return to Bismarck’s old Three Emperors’ League. Arrayed against this, however, stood Russia’s Constitutional Democrats, Anglophiles who wanted to preserve the alliance with republican France and achieve rapprochement with liberal Britain in order to strengthen Russia’s Duma at home.96 In August 1907, just two months after Stolypin’s constitutional coup d’etat introducing narrower voting rules for the Duma, he opted for an Anglo-Russian entente.97 Stolypin was something of a Germanophile and no friend of British-style constitutional monarchy, but in foreign policy, the Constitutional Democrats, his sworn enemies, had gotten their way because rapprochement with Britain seemed Russia’s best path for securing external peace while, in Stolypin’s mind, not precluding friendly relations with Germany, too.98 This was logical enough. And the content of the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente was modest, mostly just delimitation of spheres of influence in Iran and Afghanistan.99 But without a parallel treaty with Germany, even on a symbolic level, the humble 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente constituted a tilt.

Nicholas II, in fact, had signed a treaty with Germany: A scheming Wilhelm II, on his annual summer cruise in 1905, which he took in the Baltic Sea, had invited Nicholas II on July 6 (July 19 in the West) to a secret rendezvous, and Nicholas had heartily agreed. The kaiser aimed to create a continental bloc centered on Germany. “Nobody has slightest idea of [the] meeting,” Wilhelm II telegrammed in English, their common language. “The faces of my guests will be worth seeing when they behold your yacht. A fine lark . . . Willy.”100 On Sunday evening July 23, he dropped anchor off Russian Finland (near Vyborg), close by Nicholas II’s yacht. The next day the kaiser produced a draft of a short secret mutual defense accord, specifying that Germany and Russia would come to each other’s aid if either went to war with a third country. Nicholas knew that such a treaty with Germany violated Russia’s treaty with France and had urged Wilhelm to have it first be shown to Paris, a suggestion the kaiser rejected. Nicholas II signed the Treaty of Bjorko, as it was called, anyway. The Russian foreign minister as well as Sergei Witte (recently returned from Portsmouth, New Hampshire) went into shock, and insisted that the treaty could not take effect until France signed it, too. Nicholas II relented and signed a letter, drafted by Witte, for Wilhelm II on November 13 (November 26 in the West), to the effect that until the formation of a Russian-German-French alliance, Russia would observe its commitments to France. This provoked Wilhelm II’s fury. The German-Russian alliance, although never formally renounced, was aborted.101

This fiasco inadvertently reinforced the importance of Russia’s signing of the entente with Britain, which seemed to signal a firm geopolitical orientation and, correspondingly, the defeat of the conservatives and Germanophiles. Moreover, given that Britain and France already had concluded an entente cordiale, Russia’s treaty with Britain in effect created a triple entente, with each of the three now carrying a “moral obligation” to support the others if any went to war. And because of the existence of the German-led Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy, the British-French-Russian accord gave the impression of being more of an alliance than a mere entente. Events further solidified this sense of the two opposed alliances. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed the Slavic province of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman empire, and although Austria had been in occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1878, apoplectic Russian rightists denounced the failure of a strong Russian response to the formal annexation, calling it a “diplomatic Tsushima” (evoking the ignominious sinking of Russia’s Baltic fleet by Japan).102 But Stolypin, despite being charged by some rightists with abandoning Russia’s supposed “historic mission” in the world, had told a conference of Russian officials that “our internal situation does not allow us to conduct an aggressive foreign policy,” and he held firm.103 Still, given the Anglo-German antagonism as well as the opposing European alliance system, Russia’s entry into the Triple Entente carried risks driven by world events beyond its control.

In Asia, Russia remained without help to deter possible further Japanese aggression. The British-Japanese alliance, signed in 1902 and extended in scope in 1905, would be renewed again in 1911.104 The two Pacific naval powers, although wary of each other, had been thrust together by a British sense that their Royal Navy was overstretched defending a global empire as well as a joint Anglo-Japanese perception of the need to combat Russian expansion in Asia, in Central Asia, and in Manchuria. And so, when the Japanese had promised not to support indigenous nationalists in British India, Britain had assented to the Japanese making Korea a protectorate, or colony. Besides Korea, which bordered Russia, the Imperial Japanese Army had also pushed as far north as Changchun during the Russo-Japanese war, conquering southern Manchuria (provinces of China). Even though the United States had acted as something of a constraining influence in the Portsmouth treaty negotiations, Japan had nonetheless gotten Russia evicted from southern Manchuria and claimed the Liaodung region (with Port Arthur), which the Japanese renamed Kwantung Leased Territory, and which commanded the approaches to Peking. Japan also took over the Changchun‒Port Arthur stretch of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which the Russians had built and which was recast as the Southern Manchurian Railway. The Japanese civilian population of both the Kwantung Leased Territory and the Southern Manchurian Railway zone would increase rapidly, reaching more than 60,000 already by 1910. Predictably, a need to “defend” these nationals, the railroad right of way, and sprouting economic concessions spurred the introduction of Japanese troops and, soon, the formation of a special Kwantung army. China’s government was forced to accept the deployment of Japanese troops on Chinese soil, hoping their presence would be temporary. But as contemporaries well understood, Japan’s sphere of influence in southern Manchuria would be a spearhead for further expansion on the Asian mainland, including northward, in the direction of Russia.105

Thus did foreign policy entanglements pose a dilemma at least as threatening as the autocracy’s absence of a reliable domestic political base. In combination, each dilemma made the other far more significant. Both of Russia’s effective strategic choices—line up with France and Britain against Germany, or accept a junior partnership in a German-dominated Europe that risked the wrath of France and Britain—contained substantial peril. Stolypin had been right to ease tensions with Britain while trying to avoid a hard choice between London and Berlin, but in the circumstances of the time he had proved unable to thread this needle. Japan’s posture compounded the Russian predicament. After 1907, Britain carried no obligations toward Russia should the Japanese ramp up their aggressiveness, but Russia was on the hook should the Anglo-German antagonism heat up. Stolypin’s determined stance of nonintervention in the Balkans in 1908 did not alter the underlying strategic current toward foreign imbroglio.


Having arrived back in Baku, in May 1907, Jughashvili reported on the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in the pages of the Bolshevik-faction underground newspaper Baku Proletarian. He noted that the congress had been dominated by Mensheviks, many of whom were Jews. “It wouldn’t hurt,” he wrote in the report, recalling another Bolshevik’s remarks at the congress, “for us Bolsheviks to organize a pogrom in the party.”106 Such a remark—which had been made by someone from the Russian empire’s Pale of Settlement, and which Jughashvili was repeating—indicated the animosities and high level of frustration that by 1907 accompanied the now frayed unity hopes of 1905. Significantly, this was the future Stalin’s first signed article in Russian; he would never publish anything in the Georgian language again. The historical record contains no explanation for this shift. One hypothesis may be the future Stalin’s desire for assimilation. The great triangle of social democracy encompassing the Russian empire’s northwest—St. Petersburg down to Moscow, and over to tsarist Poland and Latvia—was European in culture and physiognomy. Below that, in the southwest (lower half of the Pale of Settlement), social democracy was largely absent; farther south, it was strongly present, in the Caucasus, but predominantly of the Menshevik persuasion. The upshot was that every time Jughashvili attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out. The Jews among the Bolshevik faction of Social Democrats were often deeply Russified, as were many of the Poles (some of them Jewish) and the Latvians; but even when the latter were not deeply Russified, they were still recognizably European. Thus, although the other non-Russian Bolsheviks also stood apart from the ethnic Russians to an extent, Jughashvili was a recognizable Asiatic. That may explain why he returned from the 1906 Party Congress in a European suit. More enduringly, this circumstance may have motivated his 1907 abrupt abandonment of the Georgian language in favor of Russian in his punditry.

Asiatic pedigree was not the only way this Caucasus Bolshevik stood out, or tried to stand out. The Menshevik-dominated Social Democratic Workers’ Party 5th Congress in 1907 was notable for a decision to change tactics. Even though the autocracy continued to prohibit normal legal politics—beyond the very narrow-suffrage Duma, which hardly met—the Mensheviks argued that the combat-squad/expropriation strategy had failed to overturn the existing order. Instead, the Mensheviks wanted to emphasize cultural work (workers’ clubs and people’s universities) as well as standing for Duma elections. Martov observed that the German Social Democrats had survived Bismarck’s antisocialist laws by engaging in legal activities in the Reichstag and other venues.107 Five Caucasus Social Democratic representatives would get elected to the Duma, including the patriarch Noe Jordania. In the meantime, a resolution to ban “expropriations” was put to a vote at the 5th Congress. Lenin and thirty-four other Bolsheviks voted against it, but it became party law. Still, just as Lenin had refused to abide the 1903 vote won by Martov on party structure, now Lenin plotted with Leonid Krasin, an engineer and skilled bomb maker, as well as with Jughashvili, on a big expropriation in the Caucasus in violation of party policy.108

On June 13, 1907, in broad daylight in the heart of Tiflis, on Yerevan Square, two mail coaches delivering cash to the Tiflis branch of the State Bank were attacked with at least eight homemade bombs and gunfire. The thieves’ take amounted to around 250,000 rubles, a phenomenal sum (more than Durnovó had gotten in a prize the year before for having saved tsarism). The scale of the brazen heist was not unprecedented: the year before in St. Petersburg, Socialist Revolutionaries had stormed a heavily guarded carriage en route from the customs office to the treasury and looted 400,000 rubles, the greatest of the politically motivated robberies in 1906.109 Still, the 1907 Tiflis robbery—one of 1,732 that year in the province by all groups—was spectacular.110

Koba Jughashvili did not risk coming out onto the square himself. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in plotting the heist. The brigands (up to twenty) included many members of his squad from the bang-bang Chiatura days, and in some cases, before that. On the square that day the man who took the lead was Simon “Kamo” Ter-Petrosyan (b. 1882), a half-Armenian, half-Georgian gunrunner, then twenty-five, whom the future Stalin had known since Gori days.111 Kamo was said to be “completely enthralled” by “Koba.”112 That June 13, 1907, Kamo’s “apples” blew to pieces three of the five mounted Cossack guards, the two accompanying bank employees, and many bystanders. At least three dozen people died; flying shrapnel seriously wounded another two dozen or so.113 Amid the blinding smoke and confusion, Kamo himself seized the bloodstained loot. Traveling by train (first class) disguised as a Georgian prince with a new bride (one of the gang), Kamo delivered the money to Lenin, who was underground in tsarist Finland. (According to Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Kamo also brought candied nuts and a watermelon.)114 The bravado and defiance of Social Democratic party policy notwithstanding, the robbery resembled an act of desperation, threatening to elide completely the Social Democrats’ cause with banditry. No less important, the Russian State Bank had been prepared: it had recorded the serial numbers of the 500-ruble notes and sent these to European financial institutions. How much—if any—of the Yerevan Square loot proved useful to the Bolshevik cause remains unclear. “The Tiflis booty,” Trotsky would write, “brought no good.”115

Stool pigeons eager to ingratiate themselves with the tsarist authorities offered up a welter of conflicting theories about who had perpetrated the theft, but the okhranka, rightly, surmised that the plot went back to Lenin. Feeling the heat, Lenin would flee his sanctuary in tsarist Finland back into European exile in December 1907, seemingly for good. Several Bolsheviks, such as Maxim Litvinov, whom Lenin tasked with fencing the stolen rubles in Europe on the party’s behalf, were arrested.116 That arrest provoked three different Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party investigations, which lasted years. The inquisitions were sponsored by the Mensheviks, who saw an opportunity to strike at Lenin’s leadership. Jordania led one internal investigation. Silva Jibladze, the old Jughashvili nemesis from the Tiflis and Batum days, led another. The Mensheviks obtained the testimony of a bribed tsarist postal clerk who had provided inside information on the mail coach schedule and fingered Jughashvili. The future Stalin may have been expelled temporarily from the party. Into old age, he would smart from the rumors of having been a common criminal and suffered party expulsion.117 Whatever the outcome of the purported party disciplinary hearing, Jughashvili would never reside in Tiflis again. He decamped to Baku, with his wife, Kato Svanidze, and infant son, Yakov.118

Baku was Chiatura all over again, only on a far grander scale. Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Caspian, the oil port offered a combination of spectacular natural amphitheater, labyrinthine ancient Muslim settlement, violent boomtown of casinos, slums, vulgar mansions—one plutocrat’s villa resembled playing cards—and oil derricks.119 By the early 1900s, tsarist Russia was producing more than half the global oil output, much of it in Baku, and as the oil bubbled up, and the surrounding sea burned, staggering fortunes were made. East of Baku’s railway station lay the refineries built by the Swedish Nobel brothers, and farther east lay the Rothschilds’ petroleum and trading company. Workers toiled twelve-hour shifts, suffering deadly chemical exposure, rabbit-hutch living quarters, and miserly wages of 10 to 14 rubles per month, before the “deductions” for factory-supplied meals. By Caucasus standards, the oppressed proletariat in Baku was immense: at least 50,000 oil workers. That mass became the special focus of radical Bolshevik agitators like Jughashvili.120

Jughashvili’s Baku exploits included not just propagandizing and political organizing, but also hostage taking for ransom, protection rackets, piracy, and, perhaps, ordering a few assassinations of suspected provocateurs and turncoats.121 How distinctive was he in this regard? Even by the wild standards of the 1905–8 Russian empire, political murder in the Caucasus was extraordinary. That said, the majority of Caucasus revolutionary killings were the work not of Bolsheviks but of the Armenian Dashnaks. The Dashnaks—the Armenian Revolutionary Federation—had been founded in Tiflis in the 1890s, initially to liberate their compatriots in the Ottoman empire, but soon enough they rocked the Russian empire as well.122 The okhranka also feared the anarchists. Still, even if the future Stalin’s mayhem was hardly the most impressive, he would recall his Baku bandit days with gusto. “Three years of revolutionary work among the workers of the oil industry forged me,” he would observe in 1926. “I received my second baptism in revolutionary combat.”123 The future dictator was fortunate not to be treated to a “Stolypin necktie.”

“On the basis of the Tiflis expropriations,” Trotsky would write, Lenin “valued Koba as a person capable of going or conducting others to the end.” Trotsky added that “during the years of reaction, [the future Stalin] belonged not to those thousands who quit the party but to those few hundreds who, despite everything, remained loyal to it.”124

Baku’s toxic environment, meanwhile, exacerbated his young wife Kato’s frailty and she died a frightful death in December 1907 from typhus or tuberculosis, hemorrhaging blood from her bowels.125 At her funeral, the future Stalin is said to have tried to throw himself into her grave. “My personal life is damned,” one friend recalled him exclaiming in self-pity.126 Belatedly, he is said to have reproached himself for neglecting his wife, even as he abandoned his toddler son, Yakov, to Kato’s mother and sisters for what turned out to be the next fourteen years.

As for his exhilarating revolutionary banditry, it was over, quickly. Already by March 1908, Jughashvili was back in a tsarist jail, in Baku, where he studied Esperanto—one fellow inmate recalled him “always with a book”—but was again dogged by accusations of betraying comrades (other revolutionaries were arrested right after him).127 By November, he was on his way, once more, to internal exile, in Solvychegodsk, an old fur-trading post in northern Russia and “an open air prison without bars.”128 There, hundreds of miles northeast of St. Petersburg in the taiga forest, every tiresome argumentative political tendency, and every variety of criminal career, could be found among the 500-strong exile colony living in log houses. Nearly succumbing to a serious bout of typhus, Jughashvili romanced Tatyana Sukhova, another exile, who would recall his poverty and his penchant for reading in bed, in the daytime. “He would joke a lot, and we would laugh at some of the others,” she noted. “Comrade Koba liked to laugh at our weaknesses.”129 Comrade Koba’s life had indeed become a sad, even bitter affair following the failed 1905 experience of a socialist breakthrough. His beautiful, devoted wife was dead; his son, a stranger to him. And all the exploits of the heady years—Batum (1902), Chiatura (1905), Tiflis (1907), and Baku (1908), as well as the Party Congresses in Russian Finland (1905), Stockholm (1906), and London (1907)—had come to naught. Some, such as the mail coach robbery, had boomeranged.

In summer 1909, Jughashvili found himself dependent on Tatyana Sukhova to escape woebegone Solvychegodsk by boat. He was always something of a brooder, like his father Beso, and increasingly took to nursing perceived slights. Grigol “Sergo” Orjonikidze, who would come to know his fellow Georgian as well as anyone, remarked upon Stalin’s “touchiness” (obidchivy kharakter) many years before he had become dictator.130 (The hothead Orjonikidze knew whereof he spoke—he was one of the touchiest of all.) Jughashvili seems to have been prone to outbursts of anger, and many contemporaries found him enigmatic, although none (at the time) deemed him a sociopath. But brooding, touchy, and enigmatic though the future Stalin might have been, his life was unenviable. Not long after his escape, on August 12, 1909, his father, Beso, died of cirrhosis of the liver. The funeral service was attended by a single fellow cobbler, who closed Beso’s eyes. The father of the future dictator was buried in an unmarked grave.131

And what had the younger Jughashvili himself achieved?

Soberly speaking, what did his life amount to? Nearly thirty-one years of age, he had no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry, which was illegal in the forms in which he practiced it. He had written some derivative Marxist journalism. He had learned the art of disguise and escape, whether in hackneyed fashion (female Muslim veil) or more inventive ways, and like an actor, he had tried on a number of personas and aliases—“Oddball Osip,” “Pockmarked Oska,” “the Priest,” “Koba.”132 Perhaps the best that could be said about Oddball, Pockmarked Oska, and Koba the Priest was that he was the quintessential autodidact, never ceasing to read, no doubt as solace, but also because he remained determined to improve and advance himself. He could also exude charm and inspire fervid loyalty in his small posse. The latter, however, were now dispersed, and none of them would ever amount to much.

Just as the older vagrant Beso Jughashvili passed unnoticed from the world, his son, the fugitive vagrant Iosif Jughashvili made for St. Petersburg. He took refuge that fall of 1909 in the safe-house apartment of Sergei Alliluyev, the machinist who had been exiled to Tiflis but then returned to the capital where he would often shelter Jughashvili. (Sergei’s daughter, Nadya, would eventually become Stalin’s second wife.) From there, Jughashvili soon returned to Baku, where the okhranka tailed him for months—evidently to trace his underground network—before rearresting him in March 1910. Prison, exile, poverty: this had been his life since that day in March 1901 when he had had to flee the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory and go underground, and it would remain this way right through 1917. But Jughashvili’s marginal existence was not a personal failing. The empire’s many revolutionary parties all suffered from considerable frailty, despite the radicalism of Russia’s workers and the volatility of its peasants.133 But the okhranka had managed to put the revolutionary parties on a short leash, creating fake opposition groups to dilute them.134 The infiltrated Socialist Revolutionaries, especially their terrorist wing, had declined precipitously by 1909. (Their most accomplished terrorist, Evno Azef, a former embezzler nicknamed “Golden Hands,” was unmasked as a paid police agent.)135

Later, the failures and despondency would be forgotten when, retrospectively, revolutionary party history would be rewritten, and long stints in prison or exile would become swashbuckling tales of heroism and triumph. “Those of us who belong to the older generation . . . are still influenced up to 90 percent by the . . . old underground years,” Sergei Kostrikov, aka Kirov, would later muse to the Leningrad party organization that he would oversee. “Not only books but each additional year in prison contributed a great deal: it was there that we thought, philosophized, and discussed everything twenty times over.” And yet, details of Kostrikov’s life demonstrate that the underground was at best bittersweet. Not only were party ranks riddled with police agents, but blood feuds often ruined personal relations, too. The biggest problem was usually boredom. After a series of arrests, Kostrikov settled in Vladikavkaz, in the North Caucasus (1909–17), which is where he adopted the sonorous alias Kirov—perhaps after the fabled ancient Persian King Cyrus (Kir, in Russian). He managed to get paid for permanent work at a legal Russian-language newspaper of liberal bent (Terek), whose proprietor proved willing to endure many police fines, and he mixed in professional and technical circles while reading some Hugo, Shakespeare, Russian classics, as well as Marxism. Kirov was arrested again in 1911, for connections to an illegal printing press discovered back in Tomsk (where he had originally joined the Social Democrats), but acquitted. He later confessed that prior to 1917 he felt remote from the intellectual life of the rest of the empire and suffered terrible ennui—and he was not even in some frozen waste but in a mild clime, and drawing a salary, luxuries of which the forlorn Jughashvili could only dream.136


Thanks to the okhranka, the years between 1909 and 1913 would prove relatively peaceful, certainly compared with the madness of the preceding few years.137 Social Democratic party strength, which had peaked at perhaps 150,000 empirewide in 1907, had fallen below 10,000 by 1910. Members of the Bolshevik wing were scattered in European or Siberian exile. A mere five or six active Bolshevik committees existed on imperial Russian soil.138 At the same time, by 1909, the Union of the Russian People had splintered, and the entire far right had lost its dynamism.139 That year, Stolypin began to align himself overtly with Russian nationalists and to promote Orthodoxy as a kind of integrating national faith. He did so out of his own deep religious conviction as well as political calculation. Imperial Russia counted nearly 100 million Eastern Orthodox subjects, some 70 percent of the empire’s population. But Eastern Orthodoxy did not unite to a sufficient degree. “The mistake we have been making for many decades,” Sergei Witte recorded in his diary in 1910, “is that we have still not admitted to ourselves that since the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great there has been no such thing as Russia: there has only been the Russian empire.”140 To be sure, non-Russian nationalist and separatist movements remained relatively weak; armed rebellion had largely been confined to the Poles, who in retribution lost their separate constitution, and the Caucasus mountain tribes. Imperial loyalties remained strong, and Russia’s loyal ethnically diverse elites constituted an enormous asset, even in the global age of nationalism. But the very constituency to which Stolypin appealed, Russian nationalists, caused the greatest political disruption precisely for wanting to compel non-Russians to become a single Russian nation. In aiming for a single “Russian” nation defined in faith (Orthodoxy)—imagined to comprise Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians), and White Russians (Belorussians)—the nationalists had imposed severe prohibitions against Ukrainian language and culture. Predictably, this only stoked Ukrainian national consciousness further—and in the guise of opposition, rather than loyalty. These were the same detrimental processes that we have seen at work in the Caucasus at the Tiflis seminary and elsewhere, whereby hard-line Russifiers infuriated an otherwise loyal, and largely cultural, nationalism. It was the Russian nationalists, more than non-Russian nationalisms, who helped destabilize the Russian empire.141

Stolypin’s turn to Orthodoxy as nationalism, after his reform efforts had stalled, testified to weakness and reconfirmed the lack of an effective political base for the regime. Bismarck had managed for more than two decades to wield control over the legislative agenda, despite the growing power of Germany’s middle and working classes and the absence of his own political party. Stolypin’s herculean efforts at forging Bismarck-like parliamentary coalitions without his own political party failed. But if Stolypin’s ambitious (for Russia) modernization schemes were stymied by the Duma, they had ultimately depended abjectly on the whim of the autocrat. To be sure, notwithstanding Bismarck’s shrewdness vis-à-vis the Reichstag, the Iron Chancellor’s handiwork, too, had ultimately hung on his relationship with a single man, Wilhelm I. But Bismarck, a master psychologist, had managed to make the kaiser dependent on him for twenty-six years. (“It’s hard to be kaiser under Bismarck,” Wilhelm I once quipped.)142 Stolypin had to operate within a more absolute system and with a less-qualified absolutist, a figure more akin to Wilhelm II (who dismissed Bismarck) than Wilhelm I. Nicholas II and his German wife, Alexandra, were jealous of the most talented official who would ever serve them or imperial Russia. “Do you suppose I liked always reading in the papers that the chairman of the Council of Ministers had done this . . . the chairman had done that?” the tsar remarked pathetically to Stolypin’s successor. “Don’t I count? Am I nobody?”143 With Stolypin gone, “the autocrat” would reassert himself, appointing lesser prime ministers, and encouraging Russia’s ministers to obviate their own government. These actions flowed, in part, from Nicholas II’s personality. Whereas Alexander III would flatly state his faltering confidence to any given official, Nicholas II would say nothing but then secretly intrigue against the objects of his displeasure. He invariably sought escape from the incessant ministerial disputes even as he egged them on. Such behavior provoked officials’ quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, fury, and eroded their commitment not just to him personally but to the autocratic system.144 Nonetheless, the deeper patterns were systemic, not personal.

Nicholas II could not act as his own prime minister in part because he was not even part of the executive branch—the autocrat, by design, stood above all branches—while the Russian government he named, oddly, was never an instrument of his autocratic power, only a limitation on it. Nor had Nicholas begun the practices of deliberately exacerbating institutional and personal rivalries, encouraging informal advisers (courtiers) to wield power like formal ministers, playing off courtiers against ministers and formal institutions, in loops of intrigues, and making sure jurisdictions overlapped.145 The upshot was that some Russian ministries would prohibit something, others would allow it, intentionally stymying or discrediting each other. Russian officials even at the very top chased the least little gossip, no matter how third hand or implausible; those trafficking in rumors allegedly from “on high” could access the most powerful ears. Everyone talked, yet ministers, even the nominal prime minister, would often not know for sure what was being decided, how, or by whom. Officials tried to read “signals”: Were they in the tsar’s confidence? Who was said to be meeting with the tsar? Might they soon obtain an audience? In the meantime, as one high-level Russian official noted, the ministries felt constantly impelled to enlarge their fields of sway at others’ expense in order to get anything done at all. “There was really a continually changing group of oligarchs at the head of the different branches of administration,” this high official explained, “and a total absence of a single state authority directing their activities toward a clearly defined and recognizable goal.”146

During Stolypin’s ultimately futile effort to impose order on the government, let alone the country, Koba Jughashvili experienced a long stretch of squalor, years full of disappointment, and often desperation. To be sure, thanks to the Party Congresses or the common fate of exile, the future Stalin had come to know nearly everyone high up in the Bolshevik revolutionary milieu—Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev—and numerous others, such as Feliks Dzierzynski. But Stalin’s dabbling in banditry in 1907 in Tiflis had afforded him notoriety of a mostly negative sort, which he would have to work hard to suppress, and led to his decampment to Baku. There, in 1910, he had tried but failed to obtain permission in time to marry a woman, Stefania Petrovskaya, evidently in order to remain legally resident in the city; instead, he was deported north back to internal exile in Solvychegodsk. In late 1911, the landlady of his latest exile hut, the widow Matryona Kuzakova, gave birth to a son, Konstantin, likely Jughashvili’s.147

By then, the future Stalin was already gone from Solvychegodsk, having been allowed to relocate to Vologda, the northern province’s “capital,” where he continued to chase peasant skirts. He took up with another landlady’s divorcee daughter, the servant Sofia Kryukova, and briefly cohabitated with Serafima Khoroshenina, until her exile sentence ended and she left. Jughashvili bedded the teenage school pupil Pelageya Onufrieva as well. He further busied himself collecting postcards of classical Russian paintings. Vologda, unlike Solvychegodsk, at least had a public library, and the police observed him visiting the library seventeen times over a stretch of 107 days. He read Vasili Klyuchevsky, the great historian of Russia, and subscribed to periodicals that were mailed to him in Siberia.148 Still, thinning from a meager diet, hounded by surveillance, humiliated by surprise searches, the “Caucasian”—as the Vologda police called him—led a destitute existence. The okhranka’s handiwork had reduced the future Stalin’s life, yet again, to the offerings of a provincial library as well as an underaged girl (born 1892), to whom he moaned about his dead wife Kato. Young Pelageya—known in okhranka code as “the fashion plate”—was actually the girlfriend of Jughashvili’s closest Vologda comrade, the Bolshevik Pyotr Chizikov, whose period of exile had ended but who had stayed behind with her. Chizikov not only “shared” his girlfriend, he was tasked by the higher-ups with assisting “Comrade Koba’s” escape.149 In September 1911, carrying Chizikov’s legal papers, Jughashvili slipped out of Vologda and again made his way to St. Petersburg. In the boondocks of Vologda (or Siberia), tsarist police surveillance was laughable, but in the capital and large cities, such as St. Petersburg, Baku, or Tiflis, the okhranka proved vigilant and effective. In the capital, the okhranka tailed Jughashvili immediately, and arrested him three days after his arrival.

That same September 1911, while Jughashvili was being rearrested in St. Petersburg, farther south, at the Kiev Opera House during a performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Mordekhai “Dmitry” Bogrov, a twenty-four-year-old lawyer and anarchic terrorist—in the clandestine pay of the okhranka—assassinated Stolypin. Russia’s top statesman, by then in near isolation, amid rumors of his imminent transfer to the Caucasus or Siberia, had followed the imperial family southward for the dedication of a monument to Alexander II.150 Stolypin had been forewarned, again, of plots against him, yet he traveled anyway, without bodyguards, which he never used, or even a bullet-proof vest (such as they were at the time). “We had just left the box,” Nicholas II wrote to his mother of the second intermission, “when we heard two sounds as if something had dropped. I thought an opera glass might have fallen on somebody’s head, and ran back into the box to look.” When the tsar glanced down into the orchestra, he saw his prime minister standing in a bloodstained uniform; Stolypin, upon seeing Nicholas II, raised his hand to motion the tsar away to safety, then made the sign of the cross. He died a few days later in a hospital. This was the eighteenth attempt on Stolypin’s life. His assassin, Bogrov, was convicted and hanged in his jail cell ten days after the shooting. It became public knowledge that Bogrov had been suspected of police collaboration by his leftist terrorist colleagues and that he had entered the premises with a police-supplied pass, delivered to him a mere one hour before the performance. These circumstances fomented speculation that via the okhranka, Russia’s far right had finally dispatched the conservative prime minister they reviled. This unproven yet widely believed account testified to the fact that the prime minister never found the conservative political base he sought for the autocratic regime. Even before he was killed, Stolypin had been politically destroyed by the very people he was trying to save.151

As the tsarist government’s incoherence proceeded apace in Stolypin’s absence, and Russia’s still unreconciled political right wing continued to denounce the “constitutional monarchy,” Koba Jughashvili had been deported back to internal exile by December 1911.152 He found himself, once again, in remote Vologda. But suddenly the Georgian revolutionary rose to the pinnacle of Russian Bolshevism (such as it was), thanks to yet another underhanded internal party action. In January 1912, the Bolsheviks called a tiny party conference—not a congress—in Prague, where Lenin’s faction managed to claim eighteen of the twenty delegates; aside from two Mensheviks, most of the non-Bolshevik faction of Social Democrats refused to attend. On the dubious grounds that the party’s old Central Committee had “ceased to function,” the conference assigned itself the powers of a congress and named a new (and all-Bolshevik) Central Committee.153 In effect, the Bolshevik faction formally asserted a claim over the entire Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Immediately thereupon, at the first plenum of the new Central Committee, Lenin decided to co-opt Jughashvili (in Vologda exile) in absentia as a new Central Committee member. The Prague gathering also created a Central Committee “Russia bureau” (for those located on Russian territory), which Stalin had been insisting upon, and on which he was now placed. Stalin became one of twelve top Bolshevik insiders, and one of three such from the Caucasus.154 Lenin’s motives in promoting him are not well documented. Given their different places of exile (Western Europe versus eastern Russia), they had seen little of each other in the six odd years since their first meeting in December 1905. But already in 1910, when Stalin was part of the Baku underground, the Bolshevik leadership in exile had wanted to co-opt him into the Central Committee. For whatever reason it did not happen then. In 1911, Grigol Urutadze, the Georgian Menshevik who had once sat in prison with Jughashvili, poured poison into Lenin’s ear about Jughashvili’ s illegal expropriations and his supposed past expulsion from the Baku organization. “This means nothing!” Lenin is said to have exclaimed. “This is exactly the kind of person I need!”155 If Lenin said it, he was praising how Stalin recognized few if any limits on what he would do for the cause. The 1912 elevation to the Central Committee would become a momentous breakthrough in Stalin’s rise, allowing him to join the likes of Zinoviev, Lenin’s shadow in Genevan exile, as well as Lenin himself.

Splittism and a hard line against “reformist” socialists were not peculiar to Lenin.156 The young Italian socialist radical Benito Mussolini (b. 1883), the son of an impoverished artisan who named his boy for a Mexican revolutionary, relocated in 1902 to Switzerland, where he worked as a casual laborer, and might have met Lenin; Mussolini certainly read some Lenin.157 But he came up with his rejection of Italian economic anarcho-syndicalism and parliamentary socialism on his own. In 1904, Mussolini called for “an aristocracy of intelligence and will,” a vanguard to lead workers (a position that would remain with him into fascism).158 He pounded this theme in newspapers. At the Italian Socialist Party Congress in July 1912, a few months after Lenin had forced through the formation of a self-standing Bolshevik party, Mussolini, a delegate from the small town of Forlì who was not yet thirty years old, catapulted himself into the Italian Socialist Party leadership by leading the expulsion of moderate reformist socialists (Mussolini’s supporters, known as intransigents, included Antonio Gramsci).159 “A split is a difficult, painful affair,” Lenin, hailing Mussolini’s action, wrote in Pravda (July 15, 1912). “But sometimes it is necessary, and in such circumstances every weakness, every ‘sentimentality’ . . . is a crime. . . . When, to defend an error, a group is formed that spurns all the decisions of the party, all the discipline of the proletarian army, a split becomes indispensable. And the party of the Italian socialist proletariat has taken the right path by removing the syndicalists and Right reformists from its ranks.”160 Outre radicalism, whether Bolshevik or incipient fascist, was both political program and an impatient street-fighting disposition.

Stalin’s vault from godforsaken Vologda to the pinnacle of the new all‒Bolshevik Central Committee in 1912 would have been unthinkable without Lenin’s patronage. And yet, it must be said, Lenin was a user, using absolutely everyone, Stalin, too, as a non-Russian to afford his faction appeal. The rash of arrests, furthermore, made promotion of some people a necessity. Still, Stalin’s elevation went beyond tokenism or expediency. Stalin was loyal as well as effective: he could get things done. And, also important, he was a Bolshevik in the heavily Menshevik Caucasus milieu. True, two other Caucasus figures, Sergo Orjonikidze and the truly infamous womanizer Suren Spandaryan (about whom it was said, “all the children in Baku who are up to three years old look like Spandaryan”), were also in the top Bolshevik stratum at this time. Orjonikidze served as Lenin’s chief courier to Bolsheviks in the Russian empire, and he was the one who was tasked in early February 1912 with informing Koba of his Central Committee membership and his new 50-ruble monthly party allowance—a sum, however welcome, that would not free Jughashvili from continuing to scrounge and beg for handouts.161 Be that as it may, Stalin would come to dominate Orjonikidze; Spandaryan would die an early death. Consider further that Ivan “Vladimir” Belostotsky, a metalworker and labor-insurance clerk, was co-opted to the Bolshevik Central Committee at the same time, but he soon disappeared.162 Stalin, in other words, contrary to what would later be asserted, was no accidental figure raised up by circumstances. Lenin put him in the inner circle, but Stalin had called attention to himself and, moreover, would go on to prove his worth. He endured.

Predictably, Lenin’s socialist opponents—Bundists, Latvian Social Democrats, Mensheviks—denounced the Prague conference for the illegitimate maneuver that it was. Equally predictably, however, their own efforts to answer with their own Party Congress in August 1912 disintegrated into irreconcilable factionalism.163 Later that very same month, Jughashvili escaped Vologda again, returning to Tiflis, where by summer 1912 there were no more than perhaps 100 Bolsheviks. Nearly his entire adult life had been consumed in factional infighting, yet now even he took to advocating for unity among Social Democrats “at all costs” and, what is more, for reconciliation and cooperation with all forces opposed to tsarism.164 His head-snapping about-face testified to the dim prospects of all the leftist parties. In fairness, though, even the political forces nominally supporting the autocracy could not come together.

From the height of mass disturbances of only five years before, Stolypin’s left-right political demobilization of imperial Russian had been breathtakingly successful, but at the expense of establishing an enduring polity. On the latter score, many observers, especially in hindsight, have attributed Russia’s lack of a polity to an inherent inability to forge a nation. Ethnic Russians made up just 44 percent of the empire’s 130 million people, and even though the Orthodox numbered close to 100 million, they divided into Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian speakers—and they were not concentrated territorially. Every would-be internal nationalist mobilization inside Russia had to somehow manage substantial internal national minorities, too. But Stalin’s regime would find a way to cultivate loyalties through and across the different language groups of a reconstituted Russian empire. The biggest problem for imperial Russia was not the nation but the autocracy.

The autocracy integrated neither political elites nor the masses, and, meanwhile, the waves of militancy that Durnovó and Stolypin had crushed erupted again in a remote swath of deep Siberian forest in late February 1912. More than 1,000 miles north and east of Irkutsk on the Lena River—the source of Lenin’s pseudonym from his Siberian exile days—gold-mine workers struck against the fifteen-to-sixteen-hour workdays, meager salaries (which were often garnished for “fines”), watery mines (miners were soaked to the bone), trauma (around 700 incidents per 1,000 miners), and the high cost and low quality of their food. Rancid horse penises, sold as meat at the company store, triggered the walkout. The authorities refused the miners’ demands and a stalemate ensued. In April, as the strike went into its fifth week, government troops subsidized by the gold mine arrived and arrested the elected strike committee leaders (political exiles who, ironically, wished to end the strike). This prompted not the strike’s dissipation but a determined march for the captives’ release. Confronted by a peaceful crowd of perhaps 2,500 gold miners, a line of 90 or so soldiers opened fire at their officer’s command, killing at least 150 workers and wounding more than 100, many shot in the back trying to flee.

The image of workers’ lives extinguished for capitalist gold proved especially potent: among the British and Russian shareholders were banking clans, former prime minister Sergei Witte, and the dowager empress. Word of the Lena goldfields massacre spread via domestic newspaper accounts—overwhelming, in Russia, news of the Titanic’s contemporaneous sinking—and spurred empirewide job actions encompassing 300,000 workers on and after May Day 1912.165 The vast strikes caught the beaten-down socialist parties largely by surprise. “The Lena shots broke the ice of silence, and the river of popular resentment is flowing again,” Jughashvili noted in the newspaper. “The ice has broken. It has started!”166 The okhranka concurred, reporting: “Such a heightened atmosphere has not occurred for a long time. . . . Many are saying that the Lena shooting is reminiscent of the January 9 [1905] shooting” (Bloody Sunday).167 Conservatives lashed out at the government for the massacre, as well as at the gold company’s Jewish director and foreign shareholders. A Duma commission on the goldfields massacre deepened the public anger, thanks to the colorful reports provided by the commission chairman, a leftist Duma deputy and lawyer named Alexander Kerensky.


Even as rightists demanded unconditional obedience to the autocrat, behind closed doors some of them took to fantasizing about his assassination. They contemplated regicide despite the fact that Nicholas II’s son, Alexei, was a toddler—Russian law required a tsar to be sixteen—and most rightists viewed the regent, the tsar’s younger brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, as no better, and probably worse than Nicholas II.168 But by 1913, when the empire celebrated three centuries of Romanov rule with spectacular pageantry, the frail dynasty was the only overarching basis for loyalty that the autocracy permitted. The tercentenary celebrations opened on February 21 with a twenty-one-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress—the same guns that had announced Tsarevich Alexei’s birth nine years earlier. Next came an imperial procession from the Winter Palace to Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. Amid the clattering hoofs, fluttering banners, and peeling church bells, the noise grew deafening at sightings of the emperor and little Alexei riding in an open carriage. At the Winter Palace ball that evening, the ladies wore archaic Muscovite-style gowns and kokoshniks, the tall headdresses of medieval Russia. The next night at the capital’s storied Mariinsky Theater, the conductor Eduard Napravnik, the lyric tenors Nikolai Figner and Leonid Sobinov, and the ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Matylda Krzesinska (a one-time teenage lover of Nicholas II), joined in a glittering performance of Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar.

Public involvement in the tercentenary was kept conspicuously slight. The celebrations, moreover, focused not on the state (gosudarstvo) but on the grand Romanov personages who had ruled (gosudar). At the same time, Russia’s immense size was the main device used to burnish the dynasty. At the Kazan Cathedral—decorated with more than 100 of Napoleon’s state symbols captured by Russia—the Orthodox services had been accompanied by an imperial manifesto, read out at all the empire’s churches. “Muscovite Rus expanded and the Great Russian Empire now stood in the ranks of the first powers of the world,” proclaimed Nicholas II, the eighteenth Romanov.169 On the tercentenary Easter egg manufactured by special order in the workshops of Peter Carl Faberge, double-headed eagles as well as diamond-framed miniature portraits of all eighteen Romanov rulers graced the outer shell. The tiny egg’s customary “surprise” proved to be an interior rotating globe, which contrasted Russia’s boundaries of 1613 with the much-expanded empire of 1913.170 Whether the Romanov House was up to defending that patrimony, however, was widely doubted.

After Easter 1913, the imperial family devoted a celebratory fortnight to retracing the route of the first Romanov, Mikhail Fyodorovich, in reverse, from Moscow through the heartland to the ancient Romanov patrimony of Kostroma, and back to a triumphal entrance to Moscow. The face of the Our Lady of St. Theodore icon in Kostroma, the Romanov dynasty’s patron icon, had become so badly blackened, the image was nearly invisible, a terrible omen.171 But Nicholas II, emboldened by the renewal of seventeenth-century roots, renewed his scheming to end the constitutional autocracy by canceling the Duma’s legislative rights, rendering it purely advisory “in accordance with Russian tradition.” He shrank, however, from attempting what he and so many conservatives desperately craved.172 Amid the cult of autocratism, moreover, disquiet spread among the monarchy’s staunchest advocates. Despite the pageantry, many people in Russia’s upper and lower orders alike had come to doubt Nicholas II’s fitness to rule. “There is autocracy but no autocrat,” General Alexander Kireev, the Russian courtier and pundit, had complained in a diary entry as early as 1902, a sentiment that over the years had only widened, like a rock-thrown ripple across the entire pond of the empire.173 An imperial court hofmeister observing the Romanov processional to the Kazan Cathedral concluded that “the group had a most tragic look.”174 The immense Russian empire was ultimately a family affair, and the family appeared doomed. It was not simply that Nicholas II, a traditionally conservative man of family, duty, and faith, was piously committed to the “autocratic idea” without the personal wherewithal to realize it in practice. Had the hereditary tsar been a capable ruler, the future of Russia’s dynasty still would have been in trouble.175

Because of a genetic mutation that the German princess Alexandra had inherited from her grandmother Britain’s Queen Victoria, the Russian tsarevich Alexei came into the world with hemophilia, an incurable disease that impaired the body’s ability to stop bleeding. The tsarevich’s illness remained a state secret. But secrecy could not alter the likelihood that Alexei would die at a relatively early age, perhaps before fathering children. Nor was there a way around the improbability that a boy walking on eggshells, subject to death from internal bleeding by bumping into furniture, could ever serve as a vigorous, let alone autocratic, ruler. Nicholas II and Alexandra remained in partial denial about the dynasty’s full danger. The hemophilia, an unlucky additional factor piled on the autocracy’s deep structural failures, was actually an opportunity to face the difficult choice that confronted autocratic Russia, but Nicholas II and Alexandra, fundamentally sentimental beings, had none of the hard-boiled realism necessary for accepting a transformation to a genuine constitutional monarchy in order to preserve the latter.176

 • • • 

CONSTITUTIONAL AUTOCRACY was self-defeating. Nicholas II worked assiduously not just to stymie the realization of the parliament he had granted, but even to block the realization of a coordinated executive branch, as an infringement on autocracy. “Autocratic government” constituted an oxymoron, a collision of unconstrained sacral power with legal forms of administration, a struggle among functionaries to decide whether to heed the “will” of the autocrat or act within the laws and regulations.177 Blaming the failings of imperial Russia on “backwardness” and peasants, therefore, is misguided. Stolypin was undone primarily by the autocracy itself as well as by Russia’s uncomprehending elites. He wielded an arsenal of stratagems and possessed tremendous personal fortitude, but he met relentless resistance from the tsar, the court, and the rightist establishment, including from Sergei Witte, who now sat in the State Council.178 The establishment would not allow Stolypin to push through a full program of modernization to place Russia on the path of strength and prosperity in order to meet the array of geopolitical challenges. “I am certainly sorry for Stolypin’s death,” Pyotr Durnovó, another Stolypin nemesis in the State Council, remarked at a meeting of rightist politicians in 1911. “But at least now there is an end to the reforms.”179 True enough: reform died. At the same time, it was notable that Stolypin had not for the most part attempted to outflank the recalcitrant establishment by appealing directly to the masses, despite his eventual promotion of a broad Eastern Orthodox “nation.” Devoted to the monarchy, he sought to fuse divinely ordained autocratic power and legitimate authority, caprice and law, tradition and innovation, but he relied upon a deliberately antimass-politics Duma, aiming for a regime of country squires (like himself). In the emigration in 1928, a refugee forced to flee Russia would celebrate Stolypin as Russia’s Mussolini, the first “Eastern Orthodox fascist,” a national social leader.180 Not in the least. Stolypin’s contradictory five-year premiership lacked a radical ideology, and he remained a corridor politician even when he went out to address the people.

In international affairs, Stolypin had been unable to avoid a de facto posture of alignment with Britain against Germany. True, he did achieve an improbable and important policy victory at conservative expense, and despite lacking formal foreign affairs jurisdiction, by restraining Russian passions over the Balkans and elsewhere.181 That hard-won restraint, however, was destined not to last. Beginning just three years after Stolypin’s death, a world war would break out that, when combined with Russia’s alienated conservatives and the Romanov’s secret hemophilia, would sweep aside Russia’s constitutional autocracy and, in very short order, Russia’s constitutionalism entirely. Even then, a Russian fascism would not take hold.182 If anyone alive had been informed during the Romanov tercentenary celebrations of 1913 that soon a fascist right-wing dictatorship and a socialist left-wing dictatorship would assume power in different countries, would he or she have guessed that the hopelessly schismatic Russian Social Democrats dispersed across Siberia and Europe would be the ones to seize and hold power, and not the German Social Democrats, who in the 1912 elections had become the largest political party in the German parliament? Conversely, would anyone have predicted that Germany would eventually develop a successful anti-Semitic fascism rather than imperial Russia, the home of the world’s largest population of Jews and of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion?183

A focus not on leftist revolutionary activity but on geopolitics and domestic high politics reveals the central truth about imperial Russia: The tsarist regime found itself bereft of a firm political base to meet its international competition challenges. That circumstance made the regime more and more reliant on the political police, its one go-to instrument for every challenge. (Alexander Blok, the poet, who would study the files of the tsarist police after the revolution, deemed them Russia’s “only properly functioning institution,” marveling at their ability “to give a good characterization of the public moods.”)184 Indulgence of the police temptation did not result from any love of the okhranka or of police methods; on the contrary, the tsar and others roundly despised their ilk.185 Rather, the overreliance on the political police stemmed from an irreconcilable antagonism between the autocracy and the Constitutional Democrats, and from the tsarist system’s profound distaste for street mobilization on its behalf. In modern times, it was not enough to demobilize opponents; a regime had to mobilize proponents. A system deliberately limited to the narrow privileged strata, backed by police and a peasant army, was, in the modern age, no polity at all, certainly not for a would-be great power competing against the strongest states. A modern integrated polity needed more than gonfalons, processionals holding icons, polyphonic hymns (“Christ Is Risen”), and the retracing in 1913 of a pilgrimage to Moscow originally undertaken in the seventeenth century. Durnovó, in leading the rescue of the autocracy in 1905–6, had proved able to reset the political moment in Russia, but unable to alter the fundamental structures. Stolypin, equally ready to wield repression yet also far more creative politically, bumped up against tsarism’s political limits. Of all the failures of Russia’s autocracy with regard to modernity, none would be as great as its failure at authoritarian mass politics.

Autocratic Russia’s discouragement of modern mass politics would leave the masses—and the profound, widespread yearning among the masses in Russia for social justice—to the leftists. The latter, for their part, including the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, were riven by extreme factionalism, and crippled by the state’s severe repression. Under the autocracy, not just a Russian fascism but also opposition leftist parties largely failed. And yet, within a mere decade of Stolypin’s demise, the Georgian-born Russian Social Democrat Iosif “Koba” Jughashvili, a pundit and agitator, would take the place of the sickly Romanov heir and go on to forge a fantastical dictatorial authority far beyond any effective power exercised by imperial Russia’s autocratic tsars or Stolypin. Calling that outcome unforeseeable would be an acute understatement.



The trouble will start with the blaming of the government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitation throughout the country, with socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition . . . will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves.

Pyotr Durnovó, February 1914 memorandum to Nicholas II, on the consequences of a possible war against Germany

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Jennifer Siegel, The New York Times Book Review
“A masterly account... Kotkin offers the sweeping context so often missing from all but the best biographies... Stalin is a complex work... but it presents a riveting tale, one written with pace and aplomb. Kotkin has given us a textured, gripping examination of the foundational years of the man most responsible for the construction of the Soviet state in all its brutal glory.... This first volume leaves the reader longing for the story still to come.”

Richard Pipes, The New York Review of Books:
“This is a very serious biography that… is likely to well stand the test of time.” 

The Wall Street Journal:
“Superb . . . Mr. Kotkin’s volume joins an impressive shelf of books on Stalin. Only Mr. Kotkin’s book approaches the highest standard of scholarly rigor and general-interest readability.”

New Statesman (UK): 
“[Kotkin’s] viewpoint is godlike: all the world falls within his purview. He makes comparisons across decades and continents.... An exhilarating ride.”

Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic:
“An exceptionally ambitious biography… Kotkin builds the case for quite a different interpretation of Stalin—and for quite a few other things, too. The book’s signature achievement… is its vast scope: Kotkin has set out to write not only the definitive life of Stalin but also the definitive history of the collapse of the Russian empire and the creation of the new Soviet empire in its place.”

Robert Gellately, Times Higher Education (London)
“A brilliant portrait of a man of contradictions... In the vast literature on the Soviet Union, there is no study to rival Stephen Kotkin’s massive first instalment of a planned three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. When it is complete, it will surely become the standard work, and I heartily recommend it.”

John Thornhill, Financial Times: 
"It is a measure of Kotkin’s powers of research and explanation that Stalin’s decisions can almost always be understood within the framework of his ideology and the context of his times.... With a ferocious determination worthy of his subject, the author debunks many of the myths to have encrusted themselves around Stalin.... [A] magnificent biography. This reviewer, at least, is already impatient to read the next two volumes for their author’s mastery of detail and the swagger of his judgments.”

David Johnson, Johnson’s Russia List
“Required reading for serious Russia-watchers... As the product of years of work and careful thought, it is for me a reminder of what it takes to get close to the truth about important and controversial subjects. And the distance and time required to do so.”

Geoffrey Roberts, Irish Examiner
“Monumental... For Kotkin it was not Stalin’s personality that drove his politics but his politics that shaped his personality. His research, narrative and arguments are as convincing as they are exhaustive. The book is long but very readable and highly accessible to the general reader.... Magisterial.”

Donald Rayfield, Literary Review: 
"Masterful... No other work on Stalin incorporates so well the preliminary information needed by the general reader, yet challenges so thoroughly the specialist's preconceptions. Kotkin has chosen illustrations, many of them little known, which reveal the crippled psyches of his dramatis personae.”

Booklist (starred):
“An ambitious, massive, highly detailed work that offers fresh perspectives on the collapse of the czarist regime, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the seemingly unlikely rise of Stalin to total power over much of the Eurasian land mass....This is an outstanding beginning to what promises to be a definitive work on the Stalin era.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“Authoritative and rigorous…. Staggeringly wide in scope, this work meticulously examines the structural forces that brought down one autocratic regime and put in place another.” 

Publishers Weekly:
“This is an epic, thoroughly researched account that presents a broad vision of Stalin, from his birth to his rise to absolute power.”

Library Journal:
“Kotkin has been researching his magisterial biography of Stalin for a decade. Inescapably important reading.”

John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University; author of George F. Kennan: A Life, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography:
“In its size, sweep, sensitivity, and surprises, Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is a monumental achievement: the early life of a man we thought we knew, set against the world—no less—that he inhabited. It’s biography on an epic scale. Only Tolstoy might have matched it.”

William Taubman, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Amherst College; author of Khrushchev: The Man and his Era, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
“Stalin has had more than his fair share of biographies. But Stephen Kotkin’s wonderfully broad-gauged work surpasses them all in both breadth and depth, showing brilliantly how the man, the time, the place, its history, and especially Russian/Soviet political culture, combined to produce one of history’s greatest evil geniuses.”

David Halloway, Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, Stanford University; author of Stalin and the Bomb:
“Stephen Kotkin’s first volume on Stalin is ambitious in conception and masterly in execution. It provides a brilliant account of Stalin’s formation as a political actor up to his fateful decision to collectivize agriculture by force. Kotkin combines biography with historical analysis in a way that brings out clearly Stalin's great political talents as well as the ruthlessness with which he applied them and the impact his policies had on Russia and the world. This is a magisterial work on the grandest scale.”

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution:
“More than any of Stalin’s previous biographers, Stephen Kotkin humanizes one of the great monsters of history, thereby making the monstrosity more comprehensible than it has been before. He does so by sticking to the facts—many of them fresh, all of them marshalled into a gripping, fine-grained story.”

The Sunday Times (London):
“Staggeringly researched, exhaustively thorough... Kotkin has no patience for the idea that Stalin... was a madman or a monster. His personality and crimes, Kotkin thinks, are only explicable in the wider contexts of Russian imperial history and Marxist theory. So this is less a conventional biography than a colossal life and times.... Hugely impressive.”

Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Guardian:
“Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight.... [Kotkin] is an engaging interlocutor with a sharp, irreverent wit... making the book a good read as well as an original and largely convincing interpretation of Stalin that should provoke lively arguments in the field.”

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