Only the neighbours shared her joy that a son was born . . .
OF the parents of Joseph Vissarion Djugashvili, better known to the world as Joseph Stalin, there is little to say. His father, Vissarion, was a Georgian shoemaker of generations of shoemakers. His mother, Ekaterina, was an Ossetian woman of great character. Their home in the little Georgian town of Gori was a very humble affair comprising a living-room five yards square adjoining a kitchen. The living-room had one small window. The floor was of brick, the walls of wood. An oil-lamp stood on a table in the middle of the room. A large sofa covered with a straw pallet stood on one side and a sideboard with a samovar on the other. Three wooden stools and a stove completed the furnishings. It had no doorstep, and the door led straight into a cobblestone alley down which trickled a dirty stream. Across the alley were more shanties with their inevitable stove-pipes poking out irregularly from roofs and walls.
This was the best accommodation Vissarion could afford, for shortly before Joseph’s birth his old craftsman’s occupation, inherited from his fathers, had been swept away by the new industrialism that had invaded the Caucasus from the west. He had become a factory hand, working for a pittance ten to twelve hours a day in a boot factory in Tiflis. His wife was only twenty when on December 21st, 1879, her fourth child was born. He was the only one of the four to survive birth, and she treasured him accordingly. She was a lovely woman, dark-eyed, oval-faced, and serious with the deeply religious seriousness of one who had dedicated herself to bear hardship with fortitude in the service of heavenly things. She had no knowledge of the world beyond Gori with its 5,000 inhabitants, and probably little of that.
Nevertheless, she must have prayed her son would escape the fate of his father. Though neither theologian nor politician, she was a Christian, to whom the Church gave consolation and hope. No higher service or better life could she conceive for her boy than that he should become a priest. And since there were none to tell her that her child was destined to become a giant among the leaders of the nations, only the neighbours shared her joy in his birth, and probably Vissarion, celebrating the event with his workmates, swore to make of him as good a cobbler as his long ancestry of cobblers.
So Ekaterina hummed her lullabies and dreamed of the day when he would become a priest of the Orthodox Church. The lullabies ceased as young Soso, as she called him, stepped out to meet the boys of his generation in the courtyard and alleys around his home, but the dream remained. At the age of seven the lad fell ill with smallpox, of which he bears the marks to this day.
Stalin himself says nothing about these formative years of his childhood. That it was spent amid surroundings of which the harshness was barely mitigated by his mother’s passionate love is self-evident. But more potent as a factor in the moulding of his character were his school years, from eight to eighteen, when he began to make contact with the larger world.
When he was eight his mother arranged for him to become a student at the Church Day School of Gori, and there he attended daily during the next six years. Like every school in Russia, the Gori Church School conducted all lessons in Russian: Stalin had to learn his natural Georgian from his mother. Had there been no other means of discovering that he belonged to a subject people, that fact would have impressed it on him. The evidences, however, were many. They were all round him. The conversations of his elders, the ever-present Czarist officials, the frequent appearance of the Cossack soldiers in the mountain passes and on the mountainsides which were the natural playgrounds of the boys and girls, all reinforced the fact that he was a Georgian.
Georgia is a small country on the southern side of the Caucasus range, with mountains towering to 18,000 feet. Its gorgeous valleys and rich lands stretch down to the shores of the Black Sea. Batum and Tuapse are its principal ports, to which oil now flows through pipe-lines from Baku on the shores of the Caspian. The rush for this new liquid wealth had hardly begun in the years of Stalin’s boyhood—the first railway in Georgia was constructed only the year before he was born. But the country was rich in other things, in manganese, copper, iron, vineyards, and semi-tropical crops. Wild animals still roamed the forests on the mountainsides, and the mountain eagles so captured the imagination of the young Stalin that in later days, when commenting on the genius of Lenin, he frequently used the expression “he was the mountain eagle of our party.”
Gori itself is an old battle-scarred town built round an ancient Byzantine mountain fort, which has been captured and re-captured countless times in the course of a thousand years of war between the Georgian tribes and Greek and Turk, Mongol and Persian, Finn and Russian.
When Joseph attended the Gori school he was a slimly-built lad. His hair was thick and black as jet, growing rather low over his forehead. No one can look at a portrait of this youngster without recognising at a glance that here was a boy whose character was written clearly on his countenance. The eyes are bold. The mouth is firm, the nose straight, and the chin well up. Already, here is a boy one would not expect to be talkative or easy to turn from any course upon which he had decided. He proved, too, to be a good pupil and a favourite of his teacher. At the end of six years he won a scholarship which opened the doors of the Tiflis Ecclesiastical College and led to new experiences that decided the main direction of his life.
The years at the Gori school were not extraordinary. Young Soso played his games, learned Russian and (at home) Georgian, rambled with other boys into the mountain passes, the caves and woodlands, like any normal youngster of the district. When he was eleven years of age his father died, and from that time throughout his schooling he was dependent on his widowed mother, whose whole income henceforth was earned by washing and sewing for her neighbours.
This of course added to the generally sombre atmosphere of the home. No wonder he began to ask why there should be so much misery dimming the beauties and clouding the grandeur of the land. He felt it was all wrong, but neither teacher nor priest could help him in his search for an explanation. His schoolboy friends had little to offer beyond hatred of the Russians, derived from their parents.
He was still in this junior school when he read Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. The fact alone tells much concerning his swift progress towards maturity. When a boy under fourteen reads books of this kind he has begun to take life pretty seriously and has a native capacity for using his mind. But in Stalin’s circumstances it has another significance. It is certain he did not receive the books from his teacher or his boy friends. He had, in fact, made contact with the wider world, where there was a library into which the winds of western thought had blown ideas of vast import.
The effect of these books on Soso was profound. They destroyed whatever religious ideas he had derived from his mother or his school training. Yaroslavsky records in his reminiscences how a boyhood friend was shocked to hear young Stalin say, “You know, they are fooling us. There is no God.”
“How can you say such things, Soso?” exclaimed his friend.
“I’ll lend you a book to read; it will show you that the world and all living things are quite different from what you imagine and all this talk about God is sheer nonsense,” answered Soso as he urged his friend to read the works of Darwin.
It is characteristic of the shrewdness and secretiveness bred in one born under a repressive régime that, having come to such a conclusion, he could continue at the Church School and later pass on to a seminary for the training of students for the priesthood. Nor did he speak of these new ideas to his mother. It may have been that he did not wish to distress her, but it is equally likely that, nurtured in a country where women were regarded as domestics unqualified to discuss such questions, the idea of explaining his new notions to her did not even occur to him. That he was fond of her throughout her life is clear enough. But there is no evidence of her participation in his mental development, nor of any effort on his part to persuade her to think as he thought. Even when in later years her dreams of his becoming a priest were shattered, his decision was accepted as a matter of course and he was still her “good boy.”
Never should it be forgotten that every new idea in Imperial Russia was subversive and had to be spread in secret. Clandestine meetings and underground movements were natural to the Czarist political climate, and in no part of the Russian Empire was this more pronounced than in Georgia, which had for centuries been the gathering-place of secret revolutionary associations. To keep one’s tongue still and wait for the right moment to strike the decisive blow had become second nature to the Georgians; and in these qualities of secretiveness and cautiousness Stalin was but developing according to Georgian tradition.
Thus the atheism inspired by the great nineteenth-century scientific renaissance in England led him to exclaim, “They are fooling us. There is no God.” But he was not yet conscious whither such a conclusion would lead him. Conclusions are always new beginnings. The Russian Church had lost its hold on his mind. Russian oppression of his native land filled him with a hatred of Czarism. The squalor and the misery around him worried him, although as yet the causes of it remained obscure.
He did not know in these young days, nor did anyone else at the time, that the world stage was already almost set for the great clash of empires, the “Russian Colossus” already stumbling toward disaster. He had not yet heard of Marx or Lenin, nor of the modern Labour and Socialist movement which was soon to capture him body and soul. Modern capitalism had only just begun to plough the Caucasus and tear up the Georgian soil ready for the seeds of modern Socialism. But when the young Stalin left provincial Gori to study at the Tiflis Seminary for the training of priests, it was a landmark in his life.
He was fourteen years old, and in many respects as mature as the Western youth of seventeen or eighteen. He had visited Tiflis many times before; it was from a Tiflis library that he had secured the Darwin books; but to live in Tiflis was another and bigger thing. Tiflis had then a population of 160,000 people. It was (and is) the capital of Georgia and with its libraries, museums, and university, was the centre of the country’s intellectual life. There, too, gathered the revolutionary committees of Georgians, Armenians, Ossetians and refugees from other Caucasian countries. In the first year of Joseph’s new student life occurred the massacre of more than 100,000 Armenians by the Turks. This slaughter stirred the world and almost brought England and Turkey to war. Thousands of Armenians found refuge in Tiflis. England heard the cries from afar. Young Stalin lived on the threshold of the calamity and breathed the atmosphere of hatred and suffering it entailed.
The theological college was more than a place for the training of priests. It was a centre of subversive ideas that streamed into it from the turbulent environment around. Not that the monks in charge and responsible for the curriculum encouraged any interest in the outer world. They were the instruments of the Church, and the Church was the instrument of the Russian Government, repressive and brutal. The college had cells in which to confine students for breaches of discipline. The regulations forbade them to belong to any public library or to hold meetings for any purpose outside the curriculum. The teachers spied on the pupils, searched their cupboards for forbidden books, and reported suspicious circumstances to the Head of the college. This college had a reputation. In the years just before Stalin entered its precincts it had been closed for periods because of the students’ anti-Russian demonstrations. It was here too that one of the rectors had been killed by a student for being too vocal in his contempt for the Georgians.
It would be folly, therefore, to compare this theological college with an English or American college of any denomination; and for that matter this applies to all colleges in the Russia of the ’90’s. All were centres of repression, and by consequence all were prone to breed groups of students ready to revolt. Many well-known revolutionaries came from these student ranks and left their mark on the history of their times. The Tiflis Seminary in particular contained youths in abundance whose ideas were hardly in strict accord with the teachings of their masters. It was astir with latent national revolt, while all around changes were taking place which were transforming Tiflis itself into a cosmopolitan city of modern capitalism.
When Joseph arrived here he did nothing rash. Even at this time he showed that poise which has characterised all his later life. He did not air abroad his atheistic views, for that would have meant expulsion straight away, and he did not want to be expelled; he regarded his enrolment in this college, with all its limitations, as an opportunity to acquire knowledge, and accordingly he quietly proceeded not only to learn but to reach out to the wider world for the knowledge which the Seminary could not provide. Beyond the ambition to be a student he had no clear purpose as yet. The priesthood was ruled out (though his mother did not yet know it) by his convictions, but the alternative was not by any means clear. Certainly he wanted to be neither priest nor peasant, nor cobbler nor factory hand. He was already deeply interested in literature, history, sociology, and other sciences. Poetry attracted him, and his old school friends tell of Sundays spent together on the slopes of Mt. Goridjvari reading the poems of the Georgian Ilya Chavchavadza and other national writers.
In these days, however, he had travelled far beyond the range of the purely national writers. Many translations came his way besides those of the works of Darwin. Lyal’s Antiquity of Man, Flammarion’s books on Copernicus and Galileo and his Wonders of the Universe, all absorbed his attention. The Russian writers Chernyshevsky and Pisarev, Tolstoy and Chekhov and Gogol, fascinated him; and the echoes of these youthful affections are often heard in his speeches of later years.
He had been in the Seminary for about a year when the Rector summoned him to his study. Joseph’s tutors had reported their suspicions of his wider interests. He was duly lectured and warned. Soon there appeared in the Conduct Book this passage:
It seems that Djugashvili has a ticket to the Cheap Library, from which he borrows books. To-day I confiscated Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, in which I found the said library ticket.
S. MURAKHOVSKY, ASS. SUPERVISOR; FATHER GERMOGEN, SUPERVISOR.
For this Joseph was sentenced to a period in the punishment cell, as he had already been warned for being found with a copy of Hugo’s Ninety-Three. On a later occasion he was caught with a copy of Letourneau’s Literary Evolution of the Nations, and again was sent to the punishment cell. This was the thirteenth time books deemed subversive had got him into trouble.
Had this been the only kind of offence he committed in the course of these student years, he would probably have been able to complete his academic terms at the Seminary. But more serious things were afoot. He spread new ideas among others. He had been there little more than a year when he became associated with an illegal group of Russian Marxists that had been formed in Tiflis, and through them first learned of Plekhanov and Marx and a whole group of Russian Socialist writers.
The Russian Marxists had not yet sorted themselves into those sharp divisions which were soon to characterise the Russian political scene. They merely testified to the increasing penetration of the most revolutionary theories of the Western Labour movement, as modern capitalism furrowed ever more deeply into Russia’s economic and social life. The Marxists were young. As yet they had no traditions—the working-class of Russia was not conscious of itself as a class. The labour for the factories, the mills and the mines, the oil wells and all the new enterprises which capitalism produces, had only recently been drawn from the peasantry and craftsmen of the countryside and villages. Russian Marxism was therefore in the great formative period during which a rising movement has to decide who shall direct it, how it shall be directed, and whither it shall go. The decisions still lay ahead when Joseph made his first contact with the Tiflis group.
The membership introduced him to the works of Marx and Engels, of Plekhanov and Kautsky, of Adam Smith and Ricardo, of Buckle and Letourne, of Feuerbach and many more, with which to supplement his already wide reading of Russian and Georgian writers. Later, but only later, he was to learn of Lenin through this group. It was not easy to get some of the works of these writers. There was only one copy of Marx’s Capital in the whole of Tiflis, and this was laboriously copied by hand and passed from group to group, section by section, and read aloud to its members.
Soon the young student was busy forming other groups of workers for the study of Marxism, and inevitably the time came when he felt confident enough to become the central figure of such an illegal group within the Seminary itself. All the intensity of aim and absorbing passion characteristic of those who have found a purpose in life, now began to mark everything he did. This did not mean he had suddenly become a convert to a new cause through the persuasion of some exponent. The new associations had attracted him because he was searching the world for the meaning of the social contrasts which confronted him at every turn. The associations brought him into contact with Marxism, and this both answered many of his questions direct and pointed indirectly toward the answers to many more.
With such developments proceeding apace the sequel was inevitable. On September 29th, 1898, the Rector of the Seminary received a report which said:
At 9 p.m. a group of students gathered in the dining-hall around Joseph Djugashvili, who read them books not sanctioned by the seminary authorities, in view of which the student was searched.
On May 27th, 1899, Father Dimitry proposed to the Seminary Council to “expel Joseph Djugashvili as politically unreliable.” He was expelled.
Much has been made of this incident, as if it were the deciding point in the young man’s life. The really decisive moment of his career, which set him on the tracks that have led him to where he is to-day, is that at which he joined the Marxist group in Tiflis. Stalin himself said later: “I became a Marxist, thanks, one may say, to my social position—my father was an operative in a shoe factory, and my mother too was a worker—and also because there was a stir of revolt in the milieu in which I moved, which was of the same social level as my parents, and finally because of jesuitic repression and martinet intolerance of the Orthodox Church seminary where I spent some years. The whole atmosphere round me was saturated with hatred of Tsarist oppression, and I threw myself whole-heartedly into revolutionary work.”
He was eighteen when he was expelled. He had then had nearly four years of association with the Marxist group, and in the last two years had actively participated in the agitation of the workers’ organisations newly formed in Tiflis. A few months before his expulsion he had become a foundation member of the Tiflis branch of the Russian Social Democratic Party formed in 1898.
Next: II. West Meets East