"Look at the map. You will see that the Caucasus is the center of the world. " -- An English traveler
It is 1878. The little Georgian town of Gori, birthplace of Joseph (Iosif) Dzhugashvili, slumbers against a background of distant mountains.
Soso, his mother called him, Georgian fashion.
Maxim Gorky, who was to be Stalin's favorite writer, wandering around the Caucasus at the end of the nineteenth century, described Gori 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 ominous note is introduced into this idyllic landscape by the grim ruins looking down on the town from a steep cliff--the ruins of the castle from which Georgian feudal princes once ruled that region and waged bloody war on the Georgian kings.
We cross the bridge over the Kura into the little town. Gori wakes at sunrise, before the burning heat sets in. Herdsmen go from yard to yard to collect the cows. Sleepy people sit on little balconies. Church doors are unlocked and old women in black hurry to the morning service. Rafts speed down the boisterous Kura. Listless water carriers follow the movements of the daring raftsmen as they fill the leather bottles which they will then carry from house to house on the backs of their skinny nags.
The long main street bisects the town. It used to be called Tsarskaya Street, because Tsar Nicholas I once visited Gori. Later, of course, it became Stalin Street. Little shops and two-storied houses hide among trees. This is the lower part of the town, in which the rich live. From Gori, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Jewish merchants once traded 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 its dark aisles innumerable little shops sold everything imaginable, from matches to precious stones. Tailors measured their clients outside in the street: the tailor sprinkled soot on the ground, the client lay down, and the tailor sat on him, pressing him into the soot. Nearby, barbers would give haircuts and shampoos, or draw teeth with pliers. Shopkeepers drank wine and played nardy (a board game like chess). The town madman might 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 future Leader's father, the cobbler Vissarion (Beso) Dzhugashvili, lived. He had set up house in a hovel after marrying Ekaterina (Keke) Georgievna Geladze, who had been born into the family of a serf. Her father died early, but although money was short her mother somehow saw to it that Keke learned to read and write. She was not yet sixteen when she met Dzhugashvili, who had only recently arrived in Gori from his family's little village of Didi Lilo.
A Dangerous Great-Grandfather
There is a story attached to the family's arrival in Didi Lilo. Beso's forebears had previously lived in a mountain hamlet in the Liakhvis Ravine. Like Keke's, they were serfs. Their masters were Georgian warrior princes--the princely Asatiani family. Soso's great-grandfather Zaza Dzhugashvili took part in a bloody peasant revolt. He was seized, cruelly flogged, and thrown into jail. He escaped, rebelled again, was arrested again, and again escaped. That was when he settled in the village of Didi 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 a life of peace and quiet. He, however, left two sons, Beso and Georgi. Their grandfather's spirit was reborn in them. The wild Georgi was knifed in a drunken brawl, and Beso, no mean brawler and drunkard himself, left the quiet village for Tiflis. It was there that the semiliterate Beso 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. Their guild was the largest in the town, ninety-two strong. There he first set eyes on the sixteen-year-old Keke. Girls mature early in Georgia. A sixteen-year-old has been an adult woman for some time. Did she fall in love with Beso? Among people so poor, struggling to exist, common sense will pass for love. She had no dowry, and he was a shoemaker--in other 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 great deal about her chosen one before the celebrations were over. Drinking in Georgia is an occasion for jollity and for endless toasts. But Beso was a morose and frightening drinker. He got drunk quickly. And instead of delivering the eulogies customary at a Georgian feast, he was soon looking for a fight. He was a man consumed by anger. He was dark, of medium height, lean, low-browed, with mustache and beard. Koba would look very much like him. Keke was pretty, with a light complexion and freckles. She was religious and literate. She loved music.
In the early years of her marriage Keke gave birth regularly, but her children died one after another. In 1876 Mikhail died in his cradle, and Georgi died soon after birth. Nature seemed to be against the birth of a child 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 variant of Prometheus, but he was an evil Prometheus, a demon of destruction chained up somewhere on the summit of the Caucasus range. There was an ancient custom in Gori: once a year all the blacksmiths hammered on their anvils in the night so that this terrible spirit of destruction would not descend from his cliff.
But the Blacksmiths hammered in Vain
On December 6, 1878, a third boy was born to Keke. Keke prayed hard for God to grant the child life. And her prayer was answered: the infant lived. He was christened on December 17. This boy would play with the terrestrial globe as Amiran had played with his stone ball.
The shoemaker Beso's little home survives to this day. In the years of Stalin's greatness a marble pavilion was erected over his hovel. Stalin, the ex-seminarist, remembered that this had been done with the stable in which the Savior was born.
A little single-story brick house. . . . The morose Beso sat outside cutting the leather for his boots. Father, mother, and son shared the one and only room. There was also a dark, smoke-blackened basement.
The scant light through the basement window illuminates a wooden cradle. His cradle, in which two infants before him--his dead brothers--had once wept and wailed.
Soso, then, survived. And Keke, in gratitude for the life vouchsafed him, resolved to dedicate the infant to God's service.
Soselo ("Little Soso"), as she tenderly called him, must become a priest.
The part of the town in which Beso's house stood was known as the Russian quarter, because Russian soldiers were stationed in a barracks nearby. So other children often called Soso "the Russian." This wouldlodge in his subconscious, with strange results. He would never feel the stirring of Georgian nationalist sentiment. Only his first revolutionary pseudonym--almost a childish nickname--had any connection with Georgia. As a professional revolutionary, he used only Russian names when living underground. He would later describe his homeland sarcastically as "that small area of Russia which calls itself Georgia."
His Mother: Shameful Rumors
Our hero's childhood is dimly lit. The marble pavilion covering Beso'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 very different 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 mustachioed face, in encyclopedias published in Stalin's time, is suspiciously like 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's Archive. I enter the Kremlin through the Spassky Gate--which used to see the entrance of a long cortege of identical automobiles, with the Leader's car concealed somewhere among them. A panorama opens out before me: golden domes, the Tsar Cannon (the biggest cannon in the world in the seventeenth century, which proved incapable of firing) and nearby another giant, the Tsar Bell, which cracked as soon as it was cast and never rang. Stalin saw these two derisory symbols of old Russia every day.
I turn right, just as his car would have done, because in 1993 the President's Archive was in Stalin's former quarters in the Kremlin. The apartment has been converted, but the high doors, with glass knobs which once felt the warmth of his hands, are still there. As is the old mirror which seems still to hold his reflection. I sit under Stalin's ceiling and 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 mysterious circumstances . . . 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 his calling her "the prostitute." He had loved her and written to her as any son should all those years, right up to her death. Little yellowing pages, covered with bold handwriting in the Georgian script. (His mother never succeeded in learning Russian.)
After the Revolution, he installed the former laundress and housemaid in a palace, formerly that of the tsar's viceroy in the Caucasus. But she 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, he hated long personal letters. "16 April 1922: Dear mama. Greetings, keep well, don't let sorrow enter your heart. Remember the saying `while I liveI will live joyously, when I die the graveyard worms will rejoice.'" He ends 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 photographs of his wife, money, medicines, begs her not to be downhearted in spite of her many ailments. And sees to it that his wife accompanies his short letters with long ones of her own.
From one of his wife's letters to his mother: "Everything is fine with us. We . . . were expecting you here, but it seems you couldn't manage it." Yes, it was the other way round: they invite his mother, they ask her to come and see them. But she will not come. Yet his mother never overlooks the slightest sign of neglect on the part of her busy son. He has to make excuses: "Greetings, Mama dear. . . . It's a long time since I got a letter from you. I must have offended you, but what can I do, God knows how busy I am." . . . "Greetings, Mama dear. Of course I owe you an apology for not writing recently. But what can I do--I'm snowed under with work and couldn't take time out to write."
They continually invited his mother to Moscow. And she continually refused 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. But why don't you come to us sometime? It's very embarrassing the way you spoil us with presents." So then--she spoiled them by sending presents but would not go to see them, however much they begged her. They had installed 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 may be, it was not until 1935, when he knew that she was very ill and that he might never see her again, that he went there. Stalinist propaganda converted their meeting into a Christmas story. But two snippets of truth slipped through the net (remembered by N. Kipshidze, a doctor who treated Keke in her old age).
"Why did you beat me so hard?" he asked his mother. "That's why you 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 portrait was displayed on every street. She was simply inviting him to boast a bit. And he did. "Remember the tsar? Well, I'm like a tsar." To which she 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 the whole secret of her relations with her son.
His Childhood: Beat Him!
Drunken Beso was, of course, Soso's real father--you have only to compare 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 at that time, making boots to order for the Adelkhanov factory in Tiflis. And drinking. There were dreadful scenes. N. Kipshidze remembered stories she told him: "One day when his father was drunk he picked him up and threw him violently to the floor. There was blood in the boy's urine for days afterwards." The big fistfights with no holds barred--that was what little Soso saw from the day he was born.
In the early years, when these drunken horrors occurred, the hapless Keke would grab the terrified child and run off to the neighbors. But a more mature Keke, toughened by heavy work, resisted her husband more stubbornly from year to year, while drunken Beso grew weaker. The time came when she fearlessly exchanged blow for blow, and Beso began feeling more and more uncomfortable at home, where he was no longer lord and master. It was more than the morose Beso could bear. That, evidently, was why he took it into his head to leave for Tiflis 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 he described by 112-year-old Hana Moshiashvili, a Georgian Jewish woman, once a friend of Keke, who emigrated to Israel in 1972. "His mother was head of the family now, and the fist which had subdued his father was now applied to the upbringing of their son. She beat him unmercifully for disobedience."
The verb to beat lodged forever in his subconscious. To beat also means "to educate." It was to be his favorite word in the fight with political opponents.
The seeds of another cruel feeling were planted in his childhood.
Anti-Semitism is not a Caucasian characteristic. From ancient times innumerable peoples have lived in the Caucasus, side by side. The Georgian Prince A. Sumbatov writes, "Persecution of the Jews was unknown in Georgia. Significantly, there is no Georgian equivalent of the insulting Russian word zhid. The only word used is uria, corresponding to the Russian evrei [Hebrew]." The Jews had been in Georgia since time immemorial, as small tailors, moneylenders, shoemakers. Jewish cobblers were expert at making Georgian boots to suit any taste: because they were well-to-do and consummate masters of their craft, they were hated by the drunken peter-do-well Beso. As a small child Soso was 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 must become a priest. Needing money for his education, she would take on any job that was offered--helping with housework, sewing, laundering. Keke knew that the boy had an unusual memory and was capable of learning. He was also musical, like his mother--and that was important if 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 went with 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. I loved him like my own son, and he reciprocated." Had he but known how proud and touchy that boy was! How Soso hated every kopeck he accepted!
Many years later, in 1924, David went to Moscow and decided to look up the boy Soso, who had by then become General Secretary of the ruling party: "They wouldn't let me in at first, but when he was told who wanted to see him he came out himself, embraced me, and said `My grandpa'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 see what the miserable beggar Soso had become. To the end of his days he went on naively settling accounts with his poverty-stricken childhood. It was then, in his childhood, that his beloved mother's humiliation, their everlasting hunger, their poverty, sowed hatred and resentment in the morbidly touchy boy's mind. Hatred above all for them--those rich Jewish traders.
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 express exactly the same sentiments years later, as a POW in the Second World War. He told an interrogator, "I have only one thing to say about the Jews. They don't know how to work. As they see it, trade is what really matters.")
Soso's feelings were reinforced by jealousy and resentment. Insulting gossip about his mother and her visits to the homes of rich Jews made its furtive appearance at this time. This is how anti-Semitic feelings, so alien to the Caucasus, developed in little Soso. His friend Davrishevi remembered his grandmother reading the New Testament to them--the story of Judas's kiss of betrayal. " `But why didn't Jesus draw his saber?' little Soso asked indignantly. `He couldn't do that,' Grandma answered. `He had to sacrifice himself for our salvation."' That was something little Soso was incapable of understanding. All through his childhood he had been taught to answer blow with blow. He resolved to do what seemed to him the obvious thing: to take vengeance on the Jews! Even in those days he was a good organizer, but he himself remained behind the scenes for fear of his mother's heavy hand. One typical plan was carried out by little friends--they let a pig into the synagogue. They were found out but did not give Soso away. Shortly afterward an Orthodox priest told his parishioners in church, "There are those among us, some lost sheep, who a few days ago committed a sacrilege in one of God's houses." That was quite beyond Soso's understanding. How could anyone defend people of another faith?! Angelic Voices
In 1888 Keke's dream came true. Soso entered the Gori Church School. 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 and cleaned in his teachers' houses.
The Gori Church School was a big, two-story building. It had its own chapel in the upper story. It was there that another pupil, David Suliashvili, 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 the priesthood only to become a professional revolutionary instead. Subsequently, their paths parted: Suliashvili's successful rival went on to become the country's Leader and dispatch him to a prison camp, together with other old Bolsheviks.
But for the moment they were kneeling in their little church. Who could have known that this angelic little boy would become the man who would destroy more people than all the wars in history?
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