Copyright © 1996 Edvard Radzinsky.All rights reserved.
"Look at the map. You will see that the Caucasus is the center of theworld. "--An English traveler
It is 1878. The little Georgian town of Gori, birthplace ofJoseph (Iosif) Dzhugashvili, slumbers against a background of distantmountains.
Soso, his mother called him, Georgian fashion.
Maxim Gorky, who was to be Stalin's favorite writer, wanderingaround the Caucasus at the end of the nineteenth century, describedGori as follows:
Gori, a town at the mouth of the river Kura, quite small, no bigger than a fair-sized village. There is a high hill in the middle of it. On the hill stands a fortress. The whole place has a picturesque wildness all its own. The sultry sky over the town, the noisy, turbulent waters of the Kura, mountains in the near distance, with their "City of Caves," and farther away the Caucasus range, with its sprinkling of snow that never melts.
This sets the scene in which our hero's life begins. An ominousnote is introduced into this idyllic landscape by the grim ruinslooking down on the town from a steep cliff--the ruins of the castlefrom which Georgian feudal princes once ruled that region andwaged bloody war on the Georgian kings.
We cross the bridge over the Kura into the little town. Goriwakes at sunrise, before the burning heat sets in. Herdsmen gofrom yard to yard to collect the cows. Sleepy people sit on littlebalconies. Church doors are unlocked and old women in blackhurry to the morning service. Rafts speed down the boisterousKura. Listless water carriers follow the movements of the daringraftsmen as they fill the leather bottles which they will then carry fromhouse to house on the backs of their skinny nags.
The long main street bisects the town. It used to be calledTsarskaya Street, because Tsar Nicholas I once visited Gori. Later, ofcourse, it became Stalin Street. Little shops and two-storied houseshide among trees. This is the lower part of the town, in which the richlive. From Gori, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Jewish merchants oncetraded with the whole world. As you would expect in an Eastern town,the center of its life was the market--a typical oriental bazaar. Along itsdark aisles innumerable little shops sold everything imaginable, frommatches to precious stones. Tailors measured their clients outside in thestreet: the tailor sprinkled soot on the ground, the client lay down, andthe tailor sat on him, pressing him into the soot. Nearby, barbers wouldgive haircuts and shampoos, or draw teeth with pliers. Shopkeepersdrank wine and played nardy (a board game like chess). The town madmanmight turn up in the market, followed by a crowd of teasing boys. Little Soso often came to bazaar. His mother did the laundry for a Jewish merchant who traded there. Soso never teased the madman. Soso defended him. The Jewish merchant was soft-hearted. He pitied the madman and often gave Soso presents for being kind to him. Soso shared the money with us to buy sweets. Although Soso's family was poor, he despised money. (Letter from N. Goglidze, Kiev)
Life was quite different in the upper town, where the futureLeader's father, the cobbler Vissarion (Beso) Dzhugashvili, lived. He hadset up house in a hovel after marrying Ekaterina (Keke) GeorgievnaGeladze, who had been born into the family of a serf. Her father diedearly, but although money was short her mother somehow saw to it thatKeke learned to read and write. She was not yet sixteen when she metDzhugashvili, who had only recently arrived in Gori from his family's littlevillage of Didi Lilo.
A Dangerous Great-Grandfather
There is a story attached to the family's arrival in Didi Lilo. Beso'sforebears had previously lived in a mountain hamlet in the LiakhvisRavine. Like Keke's, they were serfs. Their masters were Georgian warriorprinces--the princely Asatiani family. Soso's great-grandfather ZazaDzhugashvili took part in a bloody peasant revolt. He was seized, cruellyflogged, and thrown into jail. He escaped, rebelled again, was arrestedagain, and again escaped. That was when he settled in the village ofDidi Lilo, near Tiflis (now Tbilisi), got married, and at last found peace.
The old rebel's son Vano took no part in peasant risings, but lived alife of peace and quiet. He, however, left two sons, Beso and Georgi.Their grandfather's spirit was reborn in them. The wild Georgi wasknifed in a drunken brawl, and Beso, no mean brawler and drunkardhimself, left the quiet village for Tiflis. It was there that the semiliterateBeso became a shoemaker, working in the big Adelkhanov leather factory,which supplied boots to the troops in the Caucasus.
Beso once visited friends of his in Gori, also shoemakers. Theirguild was the largest in the town, ninety-two strong. There he first seteyes on the sixteen-year-old Keke. Girls mature early in Georgia. A sixteen-year-oldhas been an adult woman for some time. Did she fall inlove with Beso? Among people so poor, struggling to exist, commonsense will pass for love. She had no dowry, and he was a shoemaker--inother words, he would never be short of a crust. It was a good match.
Excerpt from the register of marriages for 1874:
Joined in wedlock on May 17, Vissarion Dzhugashvili, peasant, temporarily resident in Gori, Orthodox Christian, age of bridegroom 24, and Ekaterina, daughter of Glakh Geladze, peasant, formerly resident in Gori, deceased. Orthodox Christian, her first marriage, aged 16.
This was how Beso Dzhugashvili became a Gori resident.
Wedding feasts go on for a long time in Georgia. The guests drinkto the music of pipers for days on end. So she was able to learn a greatdeal about her chosen one before the celebrations were over. Drinkingin Georgia is an occasion for jollity and for endless toasts. But Beso wasa morose and frightening drinker. He got drunk quickly. And instead ofdelivering the eulogies customary at a Georgian feast, he was soon lookingfor a fight. He was a man consumed by anger. He was dark, ofmedium height, lean, low-browed, with mustache and beard. Kobawould look very much like him. Keke was pretty, with a light complexionand freckles. She was religious and literate. She loved music.
In the early years of her marriage Keke gave birth regularly, but herchildren died one after another. In 1876 Mikhail died in his cradle, andGeorgi died soon after birth. Nature seemed to be against the birth of achild to the morose bootmaker.
The Devil Amiran
Near the ruined castle of Gori there is a strangely shaped boulder.A huge, perfectly spherical ball of stone. According to popular legend,the giant Amiran had played ball with it. Amiran was a Caucasian variantof Prometheus, but he was an evil Prometheus, a demon of destructionchained up somewhere on the summit of the Caucasus range.There was an ancient custom in Gori: once a year all the blacksmithshammered on their anvils in the night so that this terrible spirit of destructionwould not descend from his cliff.
But the Blacksmiths hammered in Vain
On December 6, 1878, a third boy was born to Keke. Keke prayedhard for God to grant the child life. And her prayer was answered: theinfant lived. He was christened on December 17. This boy would playwith the terrestrial globe as Amiran had played with his stone ball.
The shoemaker Beso's little home survives to this day. In the yearsof Stalin's greatness a marble pavilion was erected over his hovel. Stalin,the ex-seminarist, remembered that this had been done with the stablein which the Savior was born.
A little single-story brick house. . . . The morose Beso sat outsidecutting the leather for his boots. Father, mother, and son shared the oneand only room. There was also a dark, smoke-blackened basement.
The scant light through the basement window illuminates a woodencradle. His cradle, in which two infants before him--his dead brothers--hadonce wept and wailed.
Soso, then, survived. And Keke, in gratitude for the life vouchsafedhim, resolved to dedicate the infant to God's service.
Soselo ("Little Soso"), as she tenderly called him, must become apriest.
The part of the town in which Beso's house stood was known as theRussian quarter, because Russian soldiers were stationed in a barracksnearby. So other children often called Soso "the Russian." This wouldlodge in his subconscious, with strange results. He would never feel thestirring of Georgian nationalist sentiment. Only his first revolutionarypseudonym--almost a childish nickname--had any connection withGeorgia. As a professional revolutionary, he used only Russian nameswhen living underground. He would later describe his homeland sarcasticallyas "that small area of Russia which calls itself Georgia."
His Mother: Shameful Rumors
Our hero's childhood is dimly lit. The marble pavilion coveringBeso's little house conceals many secrets.
"My parents were simple people, but they treated me not so badly,"Stalin said in conversation with the German writer Emil Ludwig. A verydifferent story was sometimes told in Georgia.
I lived in Tiflis up to the age of seventeen, and one close acquaintance of mine was an old woman who had previously lived in Gori. She told me that he invariably referred to his mother as "the prostitute." In Georgia even the most desperate criminals respect their mothers. After the age of seventeen Stalin visited his mother perhaps twice. He did not come to her funeral. (Marina Khachaturova, Russian journalist, in conversation with author)
His mother never went to see him in Moscow. Can you imagine a Georgian becoming Tsar and not sending for his mother? He never wrote to her. He didn't come to her funeral. . . . They say that he openly referred to her as "the old prostitute," or something of the sort. The fact is that Beso lived in Tiflis, and never sent them money. That drunkard spent it all on drink. Keke had to work for her living and to pay for her son's education, so she went round the houses of the rich, laundering and sewing. She was quite young. You can imagine the rest. Even in his lifetime, when everybody was afraid of everything, people said, "Stalin was not the son of that illiterate Beso." One name mentioned was that of Przhevalsky. (Letter from N. Goglidze, Kiev)
The Russian explorer Przhevalsky did indeed visit Gori. His mustachioedface, in encyclopedias published in Stalin's time, is suspiciouslylike that of Stalin.
After Stalin's death, when terror disappeared, people started naming several supposititious fathers. There was even one Jew, a merchant, among them. But the name most often mentioned was that of Yakov Egnatashvili. He was a wealthy wine merchant, a boxing enthusiast, and one of those Keke worked for. Yakov Egnatashvili must have had some reason for funding Soso's seminary education. People said that Stalin called his first son Yakov in honor of Egnatashvili. . . . I have seen a portrait of this Georgian hero . . . he was certainly nothing like the puny Soso. . . . But, obviously, whenever Beso came back from Tiflis he would hear all these rumors. Perhaps that is why he used to beat little Soso like he did. He would beat his wife half to death as well. Mother and son used to take refuge with neighbors. So when Stalin grew up, he could not help despising his fallen mother, as any Georgian would. That was why he never invited her to Moscow, and never wrote to her. (Letter from N. Goglidze, Kiev)
Even in his lifetime, when people vanished for a single wrong word about him, he was openly spoken of as the illegitimate son of the great Przhevalsky. These stories could go unpunished only because they had approval from on high. It wasn't just his hatred for his drunken father, but a matter of political importance. The point is that he had, by then, become Tsar of all Russia. So instead of the illiterate Georgian drunkard, he wanted an eminent Russian for his daddy. But in Georgia a married woman who goes astray is a fallen woman. This was the origin of the dirty legends about his mother. (Letter from I. Nodia, Tbilisi)
The Truth About His Mother
In the summer of 1993 I was given permission to work in the President'sArchive. I enter the Kremlin through the Spassky Gate--whichused to see the entrance of a long cortege of identical automobiles, withthe Leader's car concealed somewhere among them. A panorama opensout before me: golden domes, the Tsar Cannon (the biggest cannon inthe world in the seventeenth century, which proved incapable of firing)and nearby another giant, the Tsar Bell, which cracked as soon as it wascast and never rang. Stalin saw these two derisory symbols of old Russiaevery day.
I turn right, just as his car would have done, because in 1993 thePresident's Archive was in Stalin's former quarters in the Kremlin. Theapartment has been converted, but the high doors, with glass knobswhich once felt the warmth of his hands, are still there. As is the oldmirror which seems still to hold his reflection. I sit under Stalin's ceilingand look through his personal papers.
"Medical History of J. V. Stalin, Patient of the Kremlin Polyclinic". . .similar medical records for his wife, who died in mysteriouscircumstances . . . his correspondence with his wife, affectionate words,put on paper by a terrible man . . . his correspondence with his children. . . and . . . his letters to his mother.
Yes, it was all false--the story of his hatred for his mother, of hiscalling her "the prostitute." He had loved her and written to her as anyson should all those years, right up to her death. Little yellowing pages,covered with bold handwriting in the Georgian script. (His mothernever succeeded in learning Russian.)
After the Revolution, he installed the former laundress and housemaidin a palace, formerly that of the tsar's viceroy in the Caucasus. Butshe occupied only one tiny room, like her little room in their old hovel.She sat there with her friends, other lonely old women clad all in black,like so many crows.
His letters to her were brief. As his wife would explain later, hehated long personal letters. "16 April 1922: Dear mama. Greetings, keepwell, don't let sorrow enter your heart. Remember the saying `while I liveI will live joyously, when I die the graveyard worms will rejoice.'" Heends almost every letter with good wishes in traditional Georgian form:"Live ten thousand years, mama dear."
The sort of letters a loving son usually writes. He sends her photographsof his wife, money, medicines, begs her not to be downheartedin spite of her many ailments. And sees to it that his wife accompanieshis short letters with long ones of her own.
From one of his wife's letters to his mother: "Everything is fine withus. We . . . were expecting you here, but it seems you couldn't manageit." Yes, it was the other way round: they invite his mother, they ask herto come and see them. But she will not come. Yet his mother never overlooksthe slightest sign of neglect on the part of her busy son. He has tomake excuses: "Greetings, Mama dear. . . . It's a long time since I got aletter from you. I must have offended you, but what can I do, Godknows how busy I am." . . . "Greetings, Mama dear. Of course I owe youan apology for not writing recently. But what can I do--I'm snowed underwith work and couldn't take time out to write."
They continually invited his mother to Moscow. And she continuallyrefused to come. In one of her last letters, his wife writes despairingly:"Still, summer is not that far off, maybe we shall see each other. Butwhy don't you come to us sometime? It's very embarrassing the way youspoil us with presents." So then--she spoiled them by sending presentsbut would not go to see them, however much they begged her. They hadinstalled her in a palace, but she persisted in living in one room.
Yes, but he spent his holidays in the Caucasus, not very far away,and wouldn't go to see her. Or was he afraid to? Whatever the truth maybe, it was not until 1935, when he knew that she was very ill and thathe might never see her again, that he went there. Stalinist propagandaconverted their meeting into a Christmas story. But two snippets oftruth slipped through the net (remembered by N. Kipshidze, a doctorwho treated Keke in her old age).
"Why did you beat me so hard?" he asked his mother. "That's whyyou turned out so well," Keke answered.
And: "Joseph--who exactly are you now?" his mother asked him.
It was difficult not to know who her son had become, when his portraitwas displayed on every street. She was simply inviting him to boasta bit. And he did. "Remember the tsar? Well, I'm like a tsar." To whichshe said something so naive that the whole country laughed heartily:"You'd have done better to have become a priest."
But this reply, from a pious woman, sums up his tragedy, and thewhole secret of her relations with her son.
His Childhood: Beat Him!
Drunken Beso was, of course, Soso's real father--you have only tocompare pictures of father and son. It could not have been otherwise:Keke was a chaste and deeply religious girl. And anyway, husband andwife were never apart in the year of Soso's birth. Beso lived in Gori atthat time, making boots to order for the Adelkhanov factory in Tiflis.And drinking. There were dreadful scenes. N. Kipshidze rememberedstories she told him: "One day when his father was drunk he picked himup and threw him violently to the floor. There was blood in the boy'surine for days afterwards." The big fistfights with no holds barred--thatwas what little Soso saw from the day he was born.
In the early years, when these drunken horrors occurred, the haplessKeke would grab the terrified child and run off to the neighbors.But a more mature Keke, toughened by heavy work, resisted her husbandmore stubbornly from year to year, while drunken Beso grewweaker. The time came when she fearlessly exchanged blow for blow,and Beso began feeling more and more uncomfortable at home, wherehe was no longer lord and master. It was more than the morose Besocould bear. That, evidently, was why he took it into his head to leave forTiflis and the Adelkhanov factory. Mother and son were left to themselves.
It was not only in his features that the boy resembled his father."His harsh home life left him embittered. He was an embittered, insolent,rude, stubborn child with an intolerable character." Thus was hedescribed by 112-year-old Hana Moshiashvili, a Georgian Jewishwoman, once a friend of Keke, who emigrated to Israel in 1972. "Hismother was head of the family now, and the fist which had subdued hisfather was now applied to the upbringing of their son. She beat him unmercifullyfor disobedience."
The verb to beat lodged forever in his subconscious. To beat alsomeans "to educate." It was to be his favorite word in the fight with politicalopponents.
The seeds of another cruel feeling were planted in his childhood.
Anti-Semitism is not a Caucasian characteristic. From ancient timesinnumerable peoples have lived in the Caucasus, side by side. TheGeorgian Prince A. Sumbatov writes, "Persecution of the Jews was unknownin Georgia. Significantly, there is no Georgian equivalent of theinsulting Russian word zhid. The only word used is uria, correspondingto the Russian evrei [Hebrew]." The Jews had been in Georgia sincetime immemorial, as small tailors, moneylenders, shoemakers. Jewishcobblers were expert at making Georgian boots to suit any taste: becausethey were well-to-do and consummate masters of their craft, theywere hated by the drunken peter-do-well Beso. As a small child Sosowas given his first lessons in malice toward the Jews by his father.
When Beso left, Keke did not go back on her vow: little Soso mustbecome a priest. Needing money for his education, she would take onany job that was offered--helping with housework, sewing, laundering.Keke knew that the boy had an unusual memory and was capable oflearning. He was also musical, like his mother--and that was importantif he was to officiate in church.
Keke often worked now in the houses of rich Jewish traders. Herfriend Hana recommended her to them. And her skinny little boy wentwith her. While she did the chores, the bright boy amused the householders.They liked this clever child. David Pismamedov, a Gori Jew,was one of them: "I often gave him money and bought books for him. Iloved him like my own son, and he reciprocated." Had he but knownhow proud and touchy that boy was! How Soso hated every kopeck heaccepted!
Many years later, in 1924, David went to Moscow and decided tolook up the boy Soso, who had by then become General Secretary of theruling party: "They wouldn't let me in at first, but when he was told whowanted to see him he came out himself, embraced me, and said `Mygrandpa's come, my father.'"
Perhaps this meeting gave rise to the rumor about a rich Jewish father. . . .But Stalin simply wanted David, once a very rich man, to seewhat the miserable beggar Soso had become. To the end of his days hewent on naively settling accounts with his poverty-stricken childhood. Itwas then, in his childhood, that his beloved mother's humiliation, theireverlasting hunger, their poverty, sowed hatred and resentment in themorbidly touchy boy's mind. Hatred above all for them--those rich Jewishtraders.
Little Joseph got used to our family and was like a son to us. . . . They argued a lot, the little Joseph and the big one (my husband). When he got a bit older, Soso often said to big Joseph "I respect you greatly, but look out: if you don't give up trade I shan't spare you." As for Russian Jews, he disliked the lot of them. (Hana Moshiashvili)
(This was not something she had imagined. His son Yakov would expressexactly the same sentiments years later, as a POW in the Second WorldWar. He told an interrogator, "I have only one thing to say about theJews. They don't know how to work. As they see it, trade is what reallymatters.")
Soso's feelings were reinforced by jealousy and resentment. Insultinggossip about his mother and her visits to the homes of rich Jewsmade its furtive appearance at this time. This is how anti-Semitic feelings,so alien to the Caucasus, developed in little Soso. His friend Davrisheviremembered his grandmother reading the New Testament tothem--the story of Judas's kiss of betrayal. " `But why didn't Jesus drawhis saber?' little Soso asked indignantly. `He couldn't do that,' Grandmaanswered. `He had to sacrifice himself for our salvation."' That wassomething little Soso was incapable of understanding. All through hischildhood he had been taught to answer blow with blow. He resolved todo what seemed to him the obvious thing: to take vengeance on theJews! Even in those days he was a good organizer, but he himself remainedbehind the scenes for fear of his mother's heavy hand. Onetypical plan was carried out by little friends--they let a pig into thesynagogue. They were found out but did not give Soso away. Shortlyafterward an Orthodox priest told his parishioners in church, "There arethose among us, some lost sheep, who a few days ago committed asacrilege in one of God's houses." That was quite beyond Soso'sunderstanding. How could anyone defend people of another faith?!Angelic Voices
In 1888 Keke's dream came true. Soso entered the Gori ChurchSchool. His mother had seen to it that he was as good as the rest of them.Keke decided to change her clientele: from then on she laundered andcleaned in his teachers' houses.
The Gori Church School was a big, two-story building. It had its ownchapel in the upper story. It was there that another pupil, DavidSuliashvili, first saw him.
It was a church fast, and three singers sang the penitential prayers. Those with the best voices were always selected and Soso was always one of these. . . . At vespers three boys in surplices chanted the prayers on their knees . . . the angelic voices of the three children . . . the golden chancel gates were open . . . the priest lifted up his hands to heaven, and we prostrated ourselves, filled with an ecstasy not of this world.
Like Soso, David Suliashvili would complete his studies for thepriesthood only to become a professional revolutionary instead.Subsequently, their paths parted: Suliashvili's successful rival went on tobecome the country's Leader and dispatch him to a prison camp, togetherwith other old Bolsheviks.
But for the moment they were kneeling in their little church. Whocould have known that this angelic little boy would become the man whowould destroy more people than all the wars in history?