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Stalin, from Child to Bolshevik Leader

Josef Stalin, born Josef Jughashvili, was the son of a shoe cobbler in the relatively affluent Georgian town of Gori – a town with a lot of handicraft and light industry. His father became a drunkard who beat little Josef and his mother, Keke, who did housework to keep Josef, her sole surviving son, and herself going.

Little Josef fought back against his father and was affectionate toward his mother. He told her on one occasion, "Mummy, don't cry or I'll cry too." But writes Stalin's biographer, Simone Sebag Montefiore, Keke believed she had to beat little Josef to "govern her unruly treasure." Keke told Stalin in her later years that it did him no harm. And Stalin in his later years admitted that he wept a lot during his "terrible childhood." note18

The estranged father, Besarion, insisted that Josef become a cobbler like himself, but Josef had an interest in books that he saw people reading. He asked for books. Keke sensed that little Josef was gifted, and she wanted him to become a priest. note19

From ages 9 to 14, Josef studied at an Eastern Orthodox theological school in Gori, a town of about 7,000. Josef was small for his age, but he survived well enough the town's tradition of school-boy gang warfare. He is said to have boxed and wrestled with some success. And he was also the leading choir boy and so devout that he "barely missed a mass." note20 

StalinStalin, 1911

Stalin's police photos following his arrest in 1911, at the age of 32. He is recognized among the Bolsheviks as an independent thinker and leader.

His intelligence made him an aggressive leader among boys bigger than he. He was a good pupil and frequently talked about books. When he was thirteen he got his hands on Darwin's Origin of Species, and Keke discovered that he had stayed up all night reading it. He is reported to have said, "I loved the book so much, Mummy, that I couldn't stop reading it." Soon after, while talking to friends, Josef said that God didn't exist. That if God did, "He would have made the world more just. note21

At the age of sixteen, Josef left home and studied at a theological school in the city of Tiflis, a monastic school with boys from families more wealthy than his. There the students were forbidden to leave the school's premises or to read printed material other than that supplied by the school. Josef had not grown as much as other boys. The self-confidence he had learned earlier stayed with him, but the domination he had learned as a smaller boy he had to abandon. He continued his studious ways while alienated from his fellow students. His face was marked by smallpox, and he was subjected to derisive jokes and cruel remarks. His body was damaged by his having been run over by a horse and carriage, an accident that left his left arm two inches shorter than his right arm.

The students were always scheming and reading forbidden books, and to counter this the school encouraged students to inform on one another. Some were to claim that it was here that he learned denunciations and conspiracy. And Stalin himself was to admit that he had denounced several of his fellow students to school authorities.

Josef Jughashvili like others suffered under the authority of the school's monks, and was known to be ill-tempered. In his last two years at the monastery school he no longer maintained his good discipline and devotion to study, and he failed to graduate.

Josef's dropping out of the seminary was no doubt a big disappointment to his mother. His father was now dead, and for months Josef existed without any known source of income. He knew no craft or trade, and military service was closed to him because of his bad arm. Bitter, lonely, penniless, friendless and with no source of income, Josef Jughashvili wandered into Marxist meetings, largely attended or at least run by Marxists of the Menshevik persuasion – Bolsheviks being practically non-existent in Georgia at the time. The Mensheviks looked upon Jughashvili with suspicion. They led the labor movement in Georgia. In 1899 a strike by railway workers took place in Tiflis, but, contrary to accounts by the Soviet union's official biographers, Jughashvili had no part in planning or in leading it.

By the age of nineteen, according to Montefiore, Josef was an ideological Marxist. He believed in the class struggle and that the revolutionary proletariat had a mission to liberate humanity and bring the world happiness. Stalin saw himself as the leader in Georgia for this point of view, and in the manner of young men who believe that they have found the truth he disliked and did not tolerate criticism. He had friends, and around this time he discovered the works of Lenin and told his friends he had to meet Lenin at all costs.

Many others recognized Stalin as a leader, some of them with wealth, and they helped him with a little money. In December 1899, Jughashvili finally had a job. He began working part-time at the Tiflis Geophysical Observatory. It was a job that was conveniently part-time, offering him time to mingle with revolutionary activists. He remained an avid reader. When asked by comrades who were partying what he was reading, he held up Napoleon's Memoirs and said he was learning from Napoleon's mistakes.

Stalin worked at the observatory for only a little over a year – until March 1901. His next job, in early 1902, was at an oil refinery storehouse in Batumi, a seaside city on the Black Sea. Working conditions were horrible while foreign oil company executives were living in mansions and sailing their yachts. Stalin had no trouble organizing workers into action. He had a little printing press. Workers clashed with the police. Blood flowed, and Stalin was forced to flee town.

Stalin's usual ability and luck in escaping arrest failed him, and in 1902 he was arrested and put in prison. In August 1903 he was transferred to Siberia. But he was treated well. The state provided its prisoners a little cash with which to survive in Siberia – cheaper perhaps than having to house them in an actual prison.

In January 1904 he was able to walk away from exile and return to Georgia's largest city and capital, Tiflis, by 1905, supported by the generosity of others with revolutionist sympathies who recognized him as a leader.

In 1905, the war went badly for tsarist Russia against the Japanese. There was Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg and labor unrest across the tsar's empire, demands of constitutional government and demands for an end to the war with Japan. Stalin and others believed that the inevitable revolution that Marxism promised had begun. There was bloodshed: pogroms against Jews, Moslems slaughtering Christians and Christians slaughtering Muslims. In Russia's Caucasus region he was exercising leadership with others who shared his desire for revolution. Familiar with struggle, Stalin's group acquired pay from Armenians with wealth looking to escape slaughter. And, for the sake of revolution, Stalin's group distributed pamphlets, organized demonstrations and appealed for a unity among people rather than ethnic violence.

The revolution failed to materialize in 1905. That year in December, Stalin attended a Bolshevik conference held in Finland, and as the delegate from Tiflis he attended another conference held in April in Stockholm. He was among the few at these conferences attracted to Lenin's Marxism. It was the same as in Tiflis, where the Mensheviks (democratic or liberal socialists) numbered around 3,000 and Lenin's followers were only a few. Stalin met Lenin at the Stockholm conference and, according to Montefiore, Lenin viewed Stalin's value as a "ruthless underground operator." Stalin was organizing bank robberies that supplied Lenin and the Bolsheviks with money necessary to keep the organization functioning.

Montefiore claims that the evidence is "overwhelming" that Stalin was not working for the tsar's police, the Okhrana. Stalin is described as a receiver of information and not one who gave information to the Okhrana. The charge that Stalin had earned money working for the Okhrana appears to have been false. It was not a charge from people who knew him well but from political rivals – eventually Leon Trotsky. Witnesses attest to Stalin's consistent battle with the "spooks" who infiltrated leftist organizations. Stalin was adept at spotting who was a "spook" and who was not, and he was not averse to attacking them with his fists or having them shot. As "witchfinder-general," writes Montefiore, Stalin "no doubt ... ordered innocent people killed as traitors just as he would in the Terror." In the rough and tumble life of an organizer, Stalin, by the way, was in the habit of carrying a pistol.

With very few having joined the Bolsheviks, Lenin turned to Stalin to write an article that would appeal to the various ethnicities that had been under tsarist rule. Lenin wrote an outline for the article and had Stalin get in touch with Austrians named Bauer, Springer and Renne, whom he saw as experts on the subject. The article and Lenin's friendship helped Jughashvili gain prestige among the Bolsheviks, and in May 1912 he became an editor at Pravda. In early 1913, he began using a  nom de revolution – as did Lenin and others. Jughashvili was going by the name of Stalin, which in Russian meant steel. His position within the Bolshevik movement was now a source of livelihood.

Before 1917, many police agents were among the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, passing themselves off as revolutionaries. One such agent had been Father Gregory Gapon, leader of the general strike during the 1905 uprising against tsardom in wake of Russia's defeat by the Japanese. Later, numerous Okhrana agents entered the Bolshevik ranks – unknown to each other. One was a man close to Lenin by the name of Malinovsky, who, unknown to Lenin and other Bolsheviks, had been a rapist and a burglar. The police frequently arrested Malinovsky along with others, and Lenin came to believe Malinovsky to be a wonderful Bolshevik and an outstanding organizer. Another Okhrana agent was M. E. Chernomazov, among the first official editors of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda – appointed to that position by Malinovsky. Malinovsky organized a party and lent Stalin a silk tie for the occasion. There, Stalin was arrested again and sent to Turukhansk in Siberia. It was mid-1913, and there he remained until the revolution against the tsar in February 1917. During that uprising, workers in the palace of police in the capital, St. Petersburg, inspired perhaps by an Okhrana agent, burned the Okhrana files, destroying records that indicated which revolutionaries had been working for the police.

With the overthrow of the tsar and the freedom of political prisoners, Stalin resumed his position at Pravda. With the Bolshevik uprising and establishment of the Soviet government in November, Stalin was appointed Commissar of Nationalities, one of the fifteen cabinet ministers in the new Soviet government. And in 1919 he was appointed Commissar of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate – an inspector of the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus.

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