I- Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jughashvili was born December 18, 1878, in Gori, Georgia, then part of the Russian empire. His father Vissarion was a surprisingly proficient gambler, a violent drunk and a cobbler, who only went bankrupt when he decided to open his own shop. All three of Ioseb’s siblings died in childhood. His mother Ekaterina Geladze took most of the many beatings ever delivered by her husband, and liked to call their only surviving son “Soso”; Soso had his own share of violence, and soon learnt that weeping wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Ioseb fell ill with smallpox at seven; the next year, he started to attend the Gori Church School, and was forced to learn Russian by his teachers. Mauled, ugly, pockmarked, poor and smart, Ioseb was never a popular boy. When he was 10, Vissarion abandoned him and his mother and moved permanently to Tiflis, where he wasted away for forty five years, rarely sober or lucky. Ioseb seldom touched alcohol, and stared silently when other boys laughed at his clothes, his manners or his face. When attacked, he responded with the utmost aggression: he kept coming back, punching, biting and kicking, until his tormentors were exhausted, or the priests decided to intervene. He only smiled at the sight of blood, his or anyone else’s – when he graduated at the age of fourteen, he was a literate loner, resentful and hateful of all authority or lack thereof, and an excellent student who joined an Orthodox seminary because he had no other way to continue his studies. He sang in the choir, not terribly, for spare exchange: all the while dreaming of revenge.
At the seminary, Ioseb met other penniless, radical atheists like himself, who much preferred the simple truths and stoic manners of Marxism to the improbable flights of fancy and the corrupted priests of the Church. He gave himself the nickname Koba, after a Georgian mountaneer hero; then he dropped out before his final examinations, on the conviction that such a move condemned him to the perilous destiny of a job-seeking young man without a degree – so there could be no possible temptation to ever lead him away from his destiny of hardship, struggle and glorious martyrdom for the socialist cause.
Koba became Stalin, the “man of steel,” in the Caucasus mountains. There, he starved and smuggled weapons, took part in rash robberies at most of the few banks to be found in the countryside of Georgia and Armenia, and killed Russian policemen. He saw some of his mates die; he saw many more captured and taken away to the legendary wasteland of Siberia. In 1901, in a smoke-filled meeting at the apartment of a fellow traveler with some private means, the rugged and somewhat dashing gunman Stalin met Ekaterina Svanidze, one of several privileged children of a succesful local trader who had married a romantic Ossetian woman with an interest in novels, the Japanese culture as translated into Russian, and philosophical discussion. Ekaterina was tall, attractive in an expansive, liberated way, and intriguing: she was into Marxism, enjoyed long rambling conversations of the sort idle, moneyed revolutionaries prefer, and hoped to travel around the world some day; her older brother had been sent to a German school of arts with the aim of turning him into a thoroughly modern dilettante; two of her sisters had been given Japanese first names.
Soon after he started to meet Ekaterina with some regularity, mostly in the small, police-controlled Tiflis downtown, Stalin was eventually caught and sent to Siberia in 1902. He spent some months in a quiet town by the Baikal lake, missing Ekaterina, discussing politics and learning composure from an old Russian reformist named Balatov. When he escaped from Siberia, and made his way back to the Caucasus, he carried Balatov’s pistol and some of his ideas, an almost intact commitment to keep stealing and murdering until the world became a better place, and an urge to marry the bourgeois girl with the Marxist flair.
Improbably enough, Ekaterina was happy to see that Stalin had escaped confinement, and agreed to marry him, in a hurried, clandestine ceremony conducted in an abandoned church by a sympathetic priest of communist ideas, a drunk who reminded Stalin of his disgusting father. Just a few weeks later, Stalin was rearrested in the Georgian countryside, and found himself facing a very stark future: as a recidivist, exile to the Far East for a long period, away from Ekaterina and the party, was almost certain; he asked to see the local chief of police, and secured an interview with an agent of the Russian secret police, a chubby captain named Timowitz. He then made an intriguing offer: he would become a double agent; he would inform Timowitz from the inside of the Bolshevik movement; he would let him know who was dangerous and who wasn’t – he would make him look important before his bosses. All that in exchange for his freedom, only. And, as a guarantee for the police, some money for his mother, and a receipt of the money signed by Stalin himself. If Timowitz ever doubted his loyalty, all he had to do was let everyone know about that payment and disclose the damning proof – every Bolshevik would know what to do with the traitor.
Timowitz, an avid reader of detective novels and a bit of a romantic, accepted the offer. Stalin soon rejoined his wife and his terrorist cell and became a double agent.