Book: Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970‒2000

Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization

Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era

Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


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Stalin, Volume 1

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First published by Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen Kotkin

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-17010-0

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for John Birkelund

businessman, benefactor, fellow historian

Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads. But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)










Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


CHAPTER 1 | An Imperial Son

CHAPTER 2 | Lado’s Disciple

CHAPTER 3 | Tsarism’s Most Dangerous Enemy

CHAPTER 4 | Constitutional Autocracy


Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


CHAPTER 5 | Stupidity or Treason?

CHAPTER 6 | Kalmyk Savior

CHAPTER 7 | 1918: Dada and Lenin

CHAPTER 8 | Class War and a Party-State

CHAPTER 9 | Voyages of Discovery


Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


CHAPTER 10 | Dictator

CHAPTER 11 | “Remove Stalin”

CHAPTER 12 | Faithful Pupil

CHAPTER 13 | Triumphant Debacle

CHAPTER 14 | A Trip to Siberia


Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1








Stalin, in three volumes, tells the story of Russia’s power in the world and Stalin’s power in Russia, recast as the Soviet Union. In some ways the book builds toward a history of the world from Stalin’s office (at least that is what it has felt like to write it). Previously, I authored a case study of the Stalin epoch from a street-level perspective, in the form of a total history of a single industrial town. The office perspective, inevitably, is less granular in examination of the wider society—the little tactics of the habitat—but the regime, too, constituted a kind of society. Moreover, my earlier book was concerned with power, where it comes from and in what ways and with what consequences it is exercised, and so is this one. The story emanates from Stalin’s office but not from his point of view. As we observe him seeking to wield the levers of power across Eurasia and beyond, we need to keep in mind that others before him had grasped the Russian wheel of state, and that the Soviet Union was located in the same difficult geography and buffeted by the same great-power neighbors as imperial Russia, although geopolitically, the USSR was even more challenged because some former tsarist territories broke off into hostile independent states. At the same time, the Soviet state had a more modern and ideologically infused authoritarian institutional makeup than its tsarist predecessor, and it had a leader in Stalin who stands out in his uncanny fusion of zealous Marxist convictions and great-power sensibilities, of sociopathic tendencies and exceptional diligence and resolve. Establishing the timing and causes of the emergence of that personage, discernible by 1928, constitutes one task. Another entails addressing the role of a single individual, even Stalin, in the gigantic sweep of history.

Whereas studies of grand strategy tend to privilege large-scale structures and sometimes fail to take sufficient account of contingency or events, biographies tend to privilege individual will and sometimes fail to account for the larger forces at play. Of course, a marriage of biography and history can enhance both. This book aims to show in detail how individuals, great and small, are both enabled and constrained by the relative standing of their state vis-à-vis others, the nature of domestic institutions, the grip of ideas, the historical conjuncture (war or peace; depression or boom), and the actions or inactions of others. Even dictators like Stalin face a circumscribed menu of options. Accident in history is rife; unintended consequences and perverse outcomes are the rule. Reordered historical landscapes are mostly not initiated by those who manage to master them, briefly or enduringly, but the figures who rise to the fore do so precisely because of an aptitude for seizing opportunities. Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800‒91), chief of the Prussian and then German general staff for thirty-one years, rightly conceived of strategy as a “system of expedients” or improvisation, that is, an ability to turn unexpected developments created by others or by happenstance to one’s advantage. We shall observe Stalin extracting more from situations, time and again, than they seemed to promise, demonstrating cunning and resourcefulness. But Stalin’s rule also reveals how, on extremely rare occasions, a single individual’s decisions can radically transform an entire country’s political and socioeconomic structures, with global repercussions.

This is a work of both synthesis and original research over many years in many historical archives and libraries in Russia as well as the most important related repositories in the United States. Research in Russia is richly rewarding, but it can also be Gogol-esque: some archives are entirely “closed” to researchers yet materials from them circulate all the same; access is suddenly denied for materials that the same researcher previously consulted or that can be read in scanned files that researchers share. Often it is more efficient to work on archival materials outside the archives. This book is also based upon exhaustive study of scans as well as microfilms of archival material and published primary source documents, which for the Stalin era have proliferated almost beyond a single individual’s capacity to work through them. Finally, the book draws upon an immense international scholarly literature. It is hard to imagine what Part I of this volume would look like without its reliance on the scrupulous work of Aleksandr Ostrovskii concerning the young Stalin, for example, or Part III without Valentin Sakharov’s trenchant challenge to the conventional wisdom on Vladimir Lenin’s so-called Testament. It was Francesco Benvenuti who presciently demonstrated the political weakness of Trotsky already during the Russian civil war, findings that I amplify in chapter 8; it was Jeremy Smith who finally untangled the knot of the Georgian affair in the early 1920s involving Stalin and Lenin, which readers will find integrated with my own discoveries in chapter 11. Myriad other scholars deserve to be singled out; they are, like those above, recognized in the endnotes. (Most of the scholars I cite base their arguments on archival or other primary source documents, and often I have consulted the original documents myself, either before or after reading their works.) As for our protagonist, he offers little help in getting to the bottom of his character and decision making.

Stalin originated with my literary agent, Andrew Wylie, whose vision is justly legendary. My editor at Penguin Press, Scott Moyers, painstakingly went through the entire manuscript with a brilliantly deft touch, and taught me a great deal about books. Simon Winder, my editor in the UK, posed penetrating questions and made splendid suggestions. Colleagues—too numerous to thank by name—generously offered incisive criticisms, which vastly improved the text. My research and writing have been buoyed by an array of remarkable institutions as well, from Princeton University, where I have been privileged to teach since 1989 and been granted countless sabbaticals, to the New York Public Library, whose treasures I have been mining for multiple decades and where I benefited extraordinarily from a year at its Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers under Jean Strouse. I have been the very fortunate recipient of foundation grants, including those from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Perhaps the place from which I have drawn the greatest support has been the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, where I started out as a visiting graduate student from the University of California at Berkeley, eventually becoming a visiting faculty participant in Paul Gregory’s annual Soviet archives workshop, a National Fellow, and now an affiliated Research Fellow. Hoover’s comprehensive archives and rare-book library, now skillfully directed by Eric Wakin, remain unmatched anywhere outside Moscow for study of the Russian-Soviet twentieth century.

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1

Stalin, Volume 1


In all his stature he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the future. This is the most famous and at the same time the most unknown person in the world.

Henri Barbusse, Stalin (1935)

RUSSIA’S DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE NESTED across a greater expanse than that of any other state, before or since. The realm came to encompass not just the palaces of St. Petersburg and the golden domes of Moscow, but Polish and Yiddish-speaking Wilno and Warsaw, the German-founded Baltic ports of Riga and Reval, the Persian and Turkic-language oases of Bukhara and Samarkand (site of Tamerlane’s tomb), and the Ainu people of Sakhalin Island near the Pacific Ocean. “Russia” encompassed the cataracts and Cossack settlements of wildly fertile Ukraine and the swamps and trappers of Siberia. It acquired borders on the Arctic and Danube, the Mongolian plateau, and Germany. The Caucasus barrier, too, was breached and folded in, bringing Russia onto the Black and Caspian seas, and giving it borders with Iran and the Ottoman empire. Imperial Russia came to resemble a religious kaleidoscope with a plenitude of Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues, Old Believer prayer houses, Catholic cathedrals, Armenian Apostolic churches, Buddhist temples, and shaman totems. The empire’s vast territory served as a merchant’s paradise, epitomized by the slave markets on the steppes and, later, the crossroad fairs in the Volga valley. Whereas the Ottoman empire stretched over parts of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa), some observers in the early twentieth century imagined that the two-continent Russian imperium was neither Europe nor Asia but a third entity unto itself: Eurasia. Be that as it may, what the Venetian ambassador to the Sublime Porte (Agosto Nani) had once said of the Ottoman realm—“more a world than a state”—applied no less to Russia. Upon that world, Stalin’s rule would visit immense upheaval, hope, and grief.

Stalin’s origins, in the Caucasus market and artisan town of Gori, were exceedingly modest—his father was a cobbler, his mother, a washerwoman and seamstress—but in 1894 he entered an Eastern Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis, the grandest city of the Caucasus, where he studied to become a priest. If in that same year a subject of the Russian empire had fallen asleep and awoken thirty years later, he or she would have been confronted by multiple shocks. By 1924 something called a telephone enabled near instantaneous communication over vast distances. Vehicles moved without horses. Humans flew in the sky. X-rays could see inside people. A new physics had dreamed up invisible electrons inside atoms, as well as the atom’s disintegration in radioactivity, and one theory stipulated that space and time were interrelated and curved. Women, some of whom were scientists, flaunted newfangled haircuts and clothes, called fashions. Novels read like streams of dreamlike consciousness, and many celebrated paintings depicted only shapes and colors.1 As a result of what was called the Great War (1914–18), the almighty German kaiser had been deposed and Russia’s two big neighboring nemeses, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, had disappeared. Russia itself was mostly intact, but it was ruled by a person of notably humble origins who also hailed from the imperial borderlands.2 To our imaginary thirty-year Rip Van Winkle in 1924, this circumstance—a plebeian and a Georgian having assumed the mantle of the tsars—could well have been the greatest shock of all.

Stalin’s ascension to the top from an imperial periphery was uncommon but not unique. Napoleone di Buonaparte had been born the second of eight children in 1769 on Corsica, a Mediterranean island annexed only the year before by France; that annexation (from the Republic of Genoa) allowed this young man of modest privilege to attend French military schools. Napoleon (in the French spelling) never lost his Corsican accent, yet he rose to become not only a French general but, by age thirty-five, hereditary emperor of France. The plebeian Adolf Hitler was born entirely outside the country he would dominate: he hailed from the Habsburg borderlands, which had been left out of the 1871 German unification. In 1913, at age twenty-four, he relocated from Austria-Hungary to Munich, just in time, it turned out, to enlist in the imperial German army for the Great War. In 1923, Hitler was convicted of high treason for what came to be known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, but a German nationalist judge, ignoring the applicable law, refrained from deporting the non-German citizen. Two years later, Hitler surrendered his Austrian citizenship and became stateless. Only in 1932 did he acquire German citizenship, when he was naturalized on a pretext (nominally, appointed as a “land surveyor” in Braunschweig, a Nazi party electoral stronghold). The next year Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, on his way to becoming dictator. By the standards of a Hitler or a Napoleon, Stalin grew up as an unambiguous subject of his empire, Russia, which had annexed most of Georgia fully seventy-seven years before his birth. Still, his leap from the lowly periphery was improbable.

Stalin’s dictatorial regime presents daunting challenges of explanation. His power of life and death over every single person across eleven time zones—more than 200 million people at prewar peak—far exceeded anything wielded by tsarist Russia’s greatest autocrats. Such power cannot be discovered in the biography of the young Soso Jughashvili. Stalin’s dictatorship, as we shall see, was a product of immense structural forces: the evolution of Russia’s autocratic political system; the Russian empire’s conquest of the Caucasus; the tsarist regime’s recourse to a secret police and entanglement in terrorism; the European castle-in-the-air project of socialism; the underground conspiratorial nature of Bolshevism (a mirror image of repressive tsarism); the failure of the Russian extreme right to coalesce into a fascism despite all the ingredients; global great-power rivalries, and a shattering world war. Without all of this, Stalin could never have gotten anywhere near power. Added to these large-scale structural factors were contingencies such as the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II during wartime, the conniving miscalculations of Alexander Kerensky (the last head of the Provisional Government that replaced the tsar in 1917), the actions and especially inactions of Bolshevism’s many competitors on the left, Lenin’s many strokes and his early death in January 1924, and the vanity and ineptitude of Stalin’s Bolshevik rivals.

Consider further that the young Jughashvili could have died from smallpox, as did so many of his neighbors, or been carried off by the other fatal diseases that were endemic in the slums of Batum and Baku, where he agitated for socialist revolution. Competent police work could have had him sentenced to forced labor (katorga) in a silver mine, where many a revolutionary met an early death. Jughashvili could have been hanged by the authorities in 1906–7 as part of the extrajudicial executions in the crackdown following the 1905 revolution (more than 1,100 were hanged in 1905–6).3 Alternatively, Jughashvili could have been murdered by the innumerable comrades he cuckolded. If Stalin had died in childhood or youth, that would not have stopped a world war, revolution, chaos, and likely some form of authoritarianism redux in post-Romanov Russia. And yet the determination of this young man of humble origins to make something of himself, his cunning, his honing of organizational talents would help transform the entire structural landscape of the early Bolshevik revolution from 1917. Stalin brutally, artfully, indefatigably built a personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship. Then he launched and saw through a bloody socialist remaking of the entire former empire, presided over a victory in the greatest war in human history, and took the Soviet Union to the epicenter of global affairs. More than for any other historical figure, even Gandhi or Churchill, a biography of Stalin, as we shall see, eventually comes to approximate a history of the world.

 • • •

WORLD HISTORY IS DRIVEN BY GEOPOLITICS. Among the great powers, the British empire, more than any other state, shaped the world in modern times. Between 1688 and 1815, the French fought the British for global supremacy. Despite France’s greater land mass and population, Britain emerged the winner, mostly thanks to a superior, lean, fiscal-military state.4 By the final defeat of Napoleon, which was achieved in a coalition, the British were the world’s dominant power. Their ascendancy, moreover, coincided with China’s decline under the Qing dynasty, rendering British power—political, military, industrial, cultural, and fiscal—genuinely global. The felicitous phrase “the sun never sets” that was used to describe the extent of the empire’s holdings originated in connection with the earlier empire of Spain, but the saying was applied, and stuck, to the British. In the 1870s, however, two ruptures occurred in the British-dominated world: Prince Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, realized on the battlefield by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, which, in lightning fashion, led to the appearance of a surpassing new power on the European continent; and the Meiji restoration in Japan, which imparted tremendous drive to a new power in East Asia. All of a sudden, imperial Russia faced the world’s most dynamic new power on its restive western border, and Asia’s most dynamic on its underpopulated eastern border. Russia had entered a new world. This was the world into which Stalin was born.

Even the package of attributes that we call modernity was a result not of some inherent sociological process, a move out of tradition, but of a vicious geopolitical competition in which a state had to match the other great powers in modern steel production, modern militaries, and a modern, mass-based political system, or be crushed and potentially colonized.5 These were challenges that confronted conservative establishments especially. Everyone knows that Karl Marx, the radical German journalist and philosopher, loomed over imperial Russia like over no other place. But for most of Stalin’s lifetime, it was another German—and a conservative—who loomed over the Russian empire: Otto von Bismarck. A country squire from a Protestant Junker family in eastern Brandenburg who had attended the University of Gottingen, joined a Burschenschaften (fraternity), and was known as a solid drinker and devotee of the female of the species, Bismarck had held no administrative posts as late as 1862, although he had been ambassador to Russia and to France. But in fewer than ten years, he had risen to become the Iron Chancellor and, using Prussia as his base, forged a mighty new country. Prussia, the proverbial “army in search of a nation,” had found one. At the same time, the rightist German chancellor showed rulers everywhere how to uphold modern state power by cultivating a broader political base, developing heavy industry, introducing social welfare, and juggling alliances with and against an array of other ambitious great powers.

Bismarck the statesman was one for the ages. He craftily upended his legions of opponents, both outside and inside the German principalities, and instigated three swift, decisive, yet limited wars to crush Denmark, then Austria, then France, but he kept the state of Austria-Hungary on the Danube for the sake of the balance of power. He created pretexts to attack when in a commanding position or baited the other countries into launching the wars after he had isolated them diplomatically. He made sure to have alternatives, and played these alternatives off against each other. That said, Bismarck had had no master plan for German unity—his enterprise was an improvisation, driven partly by domestic political considerations (to tame the liberals in Prussia’s parliament). But he had constantly worked circumstances and luck to supreme advantage, breaking through structural limitations, creating new realities on the ground. “Politics is less a science than an art,” Bismarck would say. “It is not a subject that can be taught. One must have the talent for it. Even the best advice is of no avail if improperly carried out.”6 He further spoke of politics in terms of cards, dice, and other games of chance. “One can be as shrewd as the shrewdest in this world and still at any moment go like a child into the dark,” Bismarck had remarked on the victory in the war he instigated in 1864 against Denmark.7 This he complained was “a thankless job. . . . One has to reckon with a series of probabilities and improbabilities and base one’s plans upon this reckoning.” Bismarck did not invoke virtue, but only power and interests. Later this style of rule would become known as realpolitik, a term coined by August von Rochau (1810-73), a German National Liberal disappointed in the failure to break through to a constitution in 1848. In its origins, realpolitik signified effective practical politics to realize idealistic aims. Bismarck’s style was more akin to the term raison d’etat: calculating, amoral reason of state. Instead of principles, there were objectives; instead of morality, means.8 Bismarck was widely hated until he proved brilliantly successful, then lionized beyond reason for having smashed France, made a vassal out of Austria, and united Germany.

Bismarck went on to form the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy (1882) and sign a secret “reinsurance treaty” with Russia (1888), extracting neutrality in the event of a conflict, thereby obviating a possible two-front war against France and Russia and accentuating the new Germany’s mastery of the continent. His gifts were those of the inner sanctum. He did not possess a strong voice or self-confidence in speaking, and did not spend much time amid the public. Moreover, he was not the ruler: he served at the pleasure of the king (and then kaiser), Wilhelm I. In that all-important relationship, Bismarck showed psychological skill and tenacity, ceaselessly, efficaciously manipulating Wilhelm I, threatening his resignation, pulling all manner of histrionics. Wilhelm I, for his part, proved to be a diligent, considerate, and intelligent monarch, with the smarts to defer to Bismarck on policy and to attend to the myriad feathers his Iron Chancellor ruffled.9 Bismarck strategized to make himself indispensable partly by making everything as complex as possible, so that he alone knew how things worked (this became known as his combinations). He had so many balls up in the air at all times that he could never stop scrambling to prevent any from dropping, even as he was tossing up still more. It must also be kept in mind that Bismarck enjoyed the benefit of the world’s then-best land army (and perhaps second-best navy).

Other would-be statesmen across Europe went to school with Bismarck’s example of “politics as art.”10 To be sure, from the perspective of London, which had well-established rule of law, Bismarck appeared as a menace. But from the perspective of St. Petersburg, where the challenges were finding a bulwark against leftist extremism, he looked like salvation. From any vantage point, his aggrandizement of Prussia via a German unification—without the support of a mass movement, with no significant previous experience of government, and against an array of formidable interests—ranks among the greatest diplomatic achievements by any leader in the last two centuries.11 Moreover, paying indirect homage to a ruler he had vanquished, France’s Napoleon III, Bismarck introduced universal manhood suffrage, banking conservatives’ political fortunes on the peasants’ German nationalism to afford dominance of parliament. “If Mephistopheles climbed up the pulpit and read the Gospel, could anyone be inspired by this prayer?” huffed a newspaper of Germany’s outflanked liberals. What is more, Bismarck goaded Germany’s conservatives to agree to broad social welfare legislation, outflanking the socialists, too. What made Bismarck’s unification feat still more momentous was the added circumstance that the newly unified Germany soon underwent a phenomenal economic surge. Seemingly overnight the country vaulted past the world’s number one power, Great Britain, in key modern industries such as steel and chemicals. As Britain became consumed with its (relative) “decline,” the new Bismarckian Reich pushed to realign the world order. Germany was “like a great boiler,” one Russian observed, “developing surplus steam at extreme speed, for which an outlet is required.”12 As we shall see, Russia’s establishment—or, at least, its more able elements—became obsessed with Bismarck. Not one but two Germans, Bismarck and Marx, constituted imperial Russia’s other double-headed eagle.

 • • •

STALIN SEEMS WELL KNOWN TO US. An older image—that his father beat him; the Orthodox seminary oppressed him; he developed a “Lenin complex” to surpass his mentor, then studied up on Ivan the Terrible, all of which led to the slaughter of millions—has long been unconvincing, even in its sophisticated versions that combine analyses of Russian political culture and personality.13 Humiliation does often serve as the wellspring of savagery, but it is not clear that Stalin suffered the predominantly traumatic childhood usually attributed to him. Despite a malformed body and many illnesses, he exhibited a vigorous intellect, a thirst for self-improvement, and a knack for leadership. True, he had a mischievous streak. “Little Soso was very naughty,” recalled his companion Grigory Elisabedashvili. “He loved his catapult and homemade bow. Once, a herdsman was bringing his animals home when Soso jumped out and catapulted one in the head. The ox went crazy, the herd stampeded and the herdsman chased Soso, who disappeared.”14 But cousins who knew the young Stalin were able to keep in touch until his death.15 Many of his schoolteachers also survived to compose memoirs.16 Moreover, even if his childhood had been entirely miserable, as many have one-sidedly portrayed it, such a circumstance would explain little of the later Stalin. Nor can we find much help in Lev Trotsky’s dismissal of Stalin as a mere product of the bureaucracy, a “komitetchik (committeeman) par excellence”—that is, a supposedly lesser being than either a real proletarian or a real intellectual (aka Trotsky).17 Stalin’s father and mother were both born serfs and they never got any formal education, but he emerged from a family of strivers, including his much maligned father. And Stalin’s hometown, Gori, usually derided as a backwater, afforded an important measure of educational opportunity.

A newer image of the young Stalin, calling upon a wide array of recently available source materials (including reminiscences solicited and shaped in the 1930s by Lavrenti Beria), has recaptured the capable student and the talent. These memoirs, though, have also been used to depict an implausibly swashbuckling figure, a ladies’ man and macho bandit of the colorful Orientalist variety.18 This makes for gripping reading. It also contains several valuable revelations. Still, the new image, too, falls short of being persuasive. The young Stalin had a penis, and he used it. But Stalin was not some special Lothario. Both Marx and Engels fathered illegitimate children—Marx by his housekeeper, a paternity Engels protectively claimed—yet, obviously, that is not the reason Marx entered history.19 A young Saddam Hussein wrote poetry, too, but the Iraqi was a bona fide assassin decades before becoming dictator in Baghdad. The young Stalin was a poet but no assassin. Nor was he some kind of Mafia don of the Caucasus, however much Beria might have thought such an image flattering of Stalin.20 The young Stalin did attract small groups of followers at different times, but nothing permanent. Indeed, the overriding fact of Stalin’s underground revolutionary activity is that he never consolidated a political base in the Caucasus. Stalin did not bring with him to the capital the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s “Tikriti network.”21 Examined soberly, the young Stalin had decidedly mixed success in mounting illegal printing presses, fomenting strikes, and plotting financial expropriations. His behind-the-scenes role in a spectacular 1907 daylight robbery in Tiflis—a fact established by Miklós Kun and beautifully rendered by Simon Sebag Montefiore—does show that the young Stalin would do just about anything for the cause.22 But the robbery was not an end in itself. There was a cause: socialism and social justice, alongside the project of his own advancement. Nothing—not the teenage girls, the violence, the camaraderie—diverted him from what became his life mission.

This book will avoid speculative leaps or what is known as filling in the gaps in the record of Stalin’s life.23 It will seek to navigate with care among the vivid yet dubious stories. The future Stalin’s past of underground revolutionary activities in the Caucasus is bedeviled by regime lies, rivals’ slander, and missing documents.24 Still, we can say for sure that the assertions he was especially treacherous in betraying comrades are comical in the context of what went on in Social Democrat ranks. Stalin was imperious (as imperious as Lenin and Trotsky) and prickly (as prickly as Lenin and Trotsky). He remembered perceived slights, something of a cliche in the blood-feud Caucasus culture but also common among narcissists (another word for many a professional revolutionary). True, more than most, the young Stalin perpetually antagonized colleagues by asserting claims to leadership whatever his formal assignments and achievements; then, invariably, he viewed himself as the wronged party. Stalin was often gregarious but also moody and aloof, which made him seem suspicious. And he generally gravitated toward people like himself: parvenu intelligentsia of humble background. (He “surrounded himself exclusively with people who respected him unconditionally and gave in to him on every issue,” one foe later wrote.)25 The wild revolutionary years of 1905–8 notwithstanding, the young Stalin was really mostly a pundit for small-print-run publications. But they were illegal and he was constantly on the run, tailed by the police as he scurried between Tiflis, Batum, Chiatura, Baku, and elsewhere in the Caucasus; Tammerfors (Russian Finland), London, Stockholm, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere in Europe; Vologda in European Russia’s north and Turukhansk in Eastern Siberia.26 Though the future Stalin was unusual in never seeking to emigrate, his early life—which between 1901 and 1917 included a total of some seven years in Siberian exile and prison, as well as short stints abroad—was more or less typical for the revolutionary underground. Especially from 1908 onward, he lived a life of penury, begging everyone for money, nursing resentments, and spending most of his time, like other prisoners and exiles, bored out of his mind.

The man who would become Stalin was a product of both the Russian imperial garrisons in Georgia, for which his father moved to Gori to make shoes, and the imperial administrators and churchmen, whose Russification measures gave him an education, but also, unwittingly, amplified the late-nineteenth-century Georgian national awakening that greatly affected him, too.27 Later, Stalin’s young son would confide in his older sister that their father, in his youth, had been a Georgian—and it was true. “Be full of blossom, Oh lovely land, Rejoice, Iverians’ country, And you, Oh Georgian, by studying Bring joy to your motherland,” a seventeen-year-old Jughashvili wrote in one of his precocious Georgian romantic poems (“Morning”).28 He published only in the Georgian language for the first twenty-nine years of his life. “He spoke exceptionally pure Georgian,” recalled someone who met him in 1900. “His diction was clear, and his conversation betrayed a lively sense of humor.”29 To be sure, Stalin proved to be something of a bad Georgian, at least by stereotype: not honorable to a fault, not uncompromisingly loyal to friends and family, not mindful of old debts.30 At the same time, Georgia was a diverse land and the future Stalin picked up colloquial Armenian. He also dabbled in Esperanto (the constructed internationalist language), studied but never mastered German (the native tongue of the left), and tackled Plato in Greek. Above all, he became fluent in the imperial language: Russian. The result was a young man who delighted in the aphorisms of the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli (“A close friend turned out to be an enemy more dangerous than a foe”)31 but also in the ineffable, melancholy works of Anton Chekhov, whose Cherry Orchard (1903) depicted a speculator’s axes chopping down a minor nobleman’s trees (the estate and mansion had been sold off to a vulgar bourgeois). Stalin immersed himself in both imperial Russian and Georgian history, too.

What differentiated the young Stalin in the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary milieu beyond his Georgian origins was his tremendous dedication to self-improvement. He devoured books, which, as a Marxist, he did so in order to change the world. Perhaps nothing stands out more than his intense political sectarianism (even in a culture where up to one third of the religiously Eastern Orthodox were schismatics). His youthful years involved becoming a Marxist of Leninist persuasion and battling not just tsarism but the factions of other revolutionaries.32 Ultimately, though, the most important factor in shaping Stalin and his later rule, as we shall examine in detail, entailed something he encountered only partly as a youth: namely, the inner workings, imperatives, and failures of the imperial Russian state and autocracy. The immensity of that history reduces Stalin’s early life to proper perspective. But it also sets the stage for grasping the immensity of his subsequent impact.



My parents were uneducated people, but they treated me not so badly.

Stalin, December 1931, interview with Emil Ludwig, German journalist1

OVER THE MORE THAN FOUR CENTURIES from the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded an average of fifty square miles per day. The state came to fill a vast pocket bounded by two oceans and three seas: the Pacific and the Arctic; the Baltic, the Black, and the Caspian. Russia would come to have a greater length of coastline than any other state, and Russian fleets would be anchored at Kronstadt, Sevastopol, and (eventually) Vladivostok.2 Its forests linked Russia to Europe, and its steppe grasslands, 4,000 miles wide, connected Russia to Asia and afforded a kind of “new world” to discover.

That said, the Russian empire defied nearly every possible prerequisite: its continental climate was severe, and its huge open frontiers (borderless steppes, countourless forests) were expensive to defend or govern.3 Beyond that, much of the empire was situated extremely far to the north. (Canadian agriculture was generally on a line with Kiev, far below the farms surrounding Moscow or St. Petersburg.) And although land was plentiful, there never seemed to be enough bodies to work it. Incrementally, the autocracy had bound the peasantry in place through a series of measures known as serfdom. Peasant mobility was never fully eliminated—serfs could try to run away, and if they survived, were usually welcomed elsewhere as scarce labor—but serfdom remained coercively entrenched until its emancipation, beginning in 1861.4

Russia’s outward march, which overcame substantial resistance, transformed its ethnic and religious makeup. As late as 1719, Russia was perhaps 70 percent ethnic Great Russian (and more than 85 percent total Slav), but by the end of the following century Russians made up just 44 percent (Slavs around 73 percent); in other words, a majority of the population (56 percent) was other than Great Russian. Among the other Slavs, Little Russians (or Ukrainians) stood at 18 percent, Poles at 6 percent, and White Russians (or Belorussians) at 5 percent. There were smaller numbers of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars, Qalmyqs, and Siberian indigenes. In 1719, Russia had no Jews, but thanks to the late-eighteenth-century swallowing up of Poland, Jews would come to compose around 4 percent of the empire. They were legally confined (with exceptions) to the annexed territories in which they already lived—that is, old Poland-Lithuania and parts of western Ukraine, lands that constituted the Pale of Settlement.5 They were forbidden from owning land, rendering them more urban and more professional than the rest of Russia’s population. But for all the historical attention focused on Russia’s 5 million Jews, it was Russia’s Muslims, present going back to ancient Muscovy, who constituted the empire’s second largest religious grouping after Eastern Orthodox Christians. Imperial Russia’s Muslims had one of the realm’s highest birthrates, and would come to exceed 18 million people, more than 10 percent of the population. Many of Russia’s Muslims spoke a dialect of Persian, but most spoke Turkic languages, giving Russia several million more Turkic speakers than the “Turkish” Ottoman empire.

Russia’s territorial aggrandizement had often come at Ottoman expense, as in the conquest of the Caucasus. These formidable mountain redoubts, wedged between the Black and Caspian seas, were higher than the Alps, but on either side of the chain, adjacent to the seashores, could be found narrow, easily passable lowlands—paths to conquest. In the western parts of the Caucasus, Turkic long served as a lingua franca, reflecting Ottoman rule; in the eastern parts, it was Persian, reflecting Iranian rule. Troops loyal to the Russian tsar had first reached the Caspian Sea in 1556—for a time, Ivan the Terrible took a Caucasus Turkic princess as a wife—but the Russian empire did not manage to seize Baku, the main Caspian settlement, from the Persian shah until 1722.6 And it was not until the 1860s or so that generals in the Russian service managed to claim the entire uplands. In other words, the Russian advance into the Caucasus proceeded vertically, in essence a giant flanking maneuver around and then up the mountains that consumed more than 150 years and uncounted lives.7 In Dagestan (“the mountainous land”), a territory that resembled British India’s tribal northwest frontier, Russian counterinsurgency troops butchered entire indigenous villages to force them to give up suspected insurgents; the insurgents, for their part, directed vendettas against the indigenous Muslims, too, accused of cooperating with Russia. Also devastating were the axes of Slav peasant settlers, who moved into the steep yet fertile valleys and, to grow crops, removed the forest cover critical to the rebels. To top everything off, in the final drive to conquest in the 1860s and 70s, perhaps four hundred thousand of half a million highlander Circassians were driven or fled across the Ottoman border.8 These deportations and massacres, accompanied by Slavic peasant homesteading, facilitated Russia’s assimilation of the Caucasus, which is how the future Stalin would be born a subject of Russia.

All the ad hoc empire building—and there is no other kind—resulted in a jumble of contradictions. The so-called Old Believers, Eastern Orthodox Christians who refused to recognize the reformed Orthodox Church or the Russian state and had been banished or fled to the “remote” Caucasus, found they could survive only by supplying services to “the Antichrist,” that is, to the Russian imperial army. Even so, the empire’s Cossack shock troops, once free and wild frontiersmen who had become paladins of autocracy, remained chronically undersupplied and had to turn to the very mountaineers they were trying to subjugate in order to purchase weaponry. In turn, the antiempire mountaineers, with their picturesque cherkeskas—long woolen coats sporting rifle cartridges slotted across the chest—were recruited into the Retinue of the Tsar in St. Petersburg.9 Perhaps the greatest contradiction lay in the circumstance that the Russian empire had been implanted in the Caucasus largely by invitation: Georgia’s Christian rulers were battling both the Muslim Ottomans and the Muslim Safavids and invited Christian Russia’s protection. That “protection,” in practice, was effected by opportunistic imperial agents close to the scene, and soon took the form of annexations, in 1801 and 1810.10 Russia terminated the Georgian Bagrationi dynasty and replaced the patriarch of the formerly independent Georgian Orthodox Church with a Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan (called an exarch). And yet, in another contradiction, the local “Russian” administration overflowed with Georgians, who were favored as fellow Christians. Thanks to Russian rule, Georgian elites obtained powerful new instruments for imposing their will over the lower orders, and over the many other peoples in the Caucasus. Such is empire: a series of bargains empowering the ambitious.

Within the Russian empire, Georgia was its own imperial project.11 Of the 8.5 million inhabitants of the Caucasus enumerated in the late nineteenth century, about a third were Muslim, while one half were Eastern Orthodox, but of the latter only 1.35 million were ethnic Georgians (by language). This minority came to rule more than ever thanks to Russia. Of course, far from everything under Russian suzerainty was to Georgian liking. In 1840, imperial authorities in St. Petersburg decreed Russian as the sole language for official business in the Caucasus. This followed Russia’s suppression (in 1832) of a conspiracy to restore the Georgian monarchy (some Georgian nobles had planned to invite local Russian officials to a ball and murder them). Most of the conspirators were exiled elsewhere within the Russian empire, but soon they were allowed to return and resume careers in Russian state service: the empire needed them. A majority of Georgian elites would become and remain largely Russophile.12 At the same time, new infrastructure helped overcome barriers to tighter Russian incorporation. Between 1811 and 1864, a key military road was cut southward from the lowland settlement of Vladikavkaz (“rule the Caucasus”) up through the high mountain pass—above seemingly bottomless chasms—on to Tiflis, the capital. Before the century was out, the Transcaucasus Railway would link the Black and Caspian seas. Above all, career opportunities induced many Georgians to master the Russian language, the greatest element of imperial infrastructure. Georgians memorized and retold stories about Georgia’s heroic resistance to Russian conquest, but if they could, they also married into elite Russian families, indulged in Russian operas, and hankered after the peacock fan of imperial uniforms, titles, and medals along with the commodious state apartments, travel allowances, and cash “gifts.”13 What worked for elites became available on a lesser scale to the lower orders, who took advantage of the opportunities to go to new Russian-language schools in the Caucasus sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. Here, then, was the imperial scaffolding—conquest via Georgian collusion, Russification via the Orthodox Church—on which the future Stalin would climb.14


The future Stalin’s hometown of Gori (“hill”), nestled in the rolling uplands of the Eastern Georgian valley of the Mtkvari River (Kura River, in Russian), had for centuries served as a caravan stop at the junction of three roads: one westward to the Black Sea, one eastward to the Caspian, and one northward through the Tskhinvali Pass to the steppe grasslands.15 Gori, in other words, was no boondocks. In the heart of town, atop its highest hill, stood the yellow crenellated walls of a thirteenth-century fortress. Additional ruins, the gardens of grandees from when Gori had been the capital of the Georgian state of Kartli in the seventeenth century, could be found outside town. Also not far away were the famed mineral waters of Borzhomi, where Alexander II’s brother, viceroy of the Caucasus, had erected a summer residence. In Gori proper, directly below the ancient fortress ruin, lay the Old Town. A second district, the Central Quarter, boasted numerous Armenian and Georgian churches, while a third, housing the barracks of the imperial garrison, was christened the Russian Quarter.16 In 1871, this crossroads became a junction of the Russian empire railway that opened between Tiflis, the Caucasus capital, and Poti, a Black Sea port (conquered from the Ottomans in 1828). In the 1870s, Gori’s narrow, crooked, filthy streets were home to perhaps 7,000 inhabitants, of whom a slight majority was Armenian, the rest being Georgian, with a few hundred Russians as well as some Abkhaz and Ossetians, who had migrated from nearby tribal villages. Gori merchants traded with Iran, the Ottoman empire, and Europe. Thanks to its strong merchant presence, as well as to the Orthodox Church, Gori had four schools, including a solid two-story church school founded by church authorities in 1818, not long after Georgia’s incorporation into the Russian empire.17 The upshot was that whereas in Tiflis one in fifteen inhabitants attended school—versus one in thirty for the entire Caucasus—in Gori one in ten inhabitants were in school.18 For boys born on that “hill,” doors could open to the future.

The future Stalin’s father, Besarion Jughashvili (1850–1909), known as Vissarion in Russian and Beso for short, did not hail from Gori. His paternal grandfather (Zaza), a serf once arrested for his part in a peasant uprising, may have lived in a tribal Ossetian village; Beso’s father, Vano, also a serf, tended vines in a village called Didi Lilo (“Greater Lilo”), population under 500, where Beso was born. Vano would carry his grapes to nearby Tiflis, about ten miles away, but he died before the age of fifty. Soon thereafter, bandits killed Vano’s son Giorgi, an innkeeper, and Beso quit Didi Lilo to seek work in Tiflis, where he learned the shoemaker’s trade at an Armenian-owned shop. Beso spoke some Armenian, Azeri Turkish, and Russian, though it is unclear whether he could write in his native Georgian. Around 1870, when he was twenty, he relocated to Gori, evidently at the invitation of another Armenian entrepreneur, Baramyants (Russified as Iosif Baramov). The latter owned a shoe workshop that had been commissioned to supply the imperial garrison in Gori.19 The Russian empire was one far-flung garrison. By 1870, all of Siberia was secured by just 18,000 troops, but Kharkov, Odessa, and Kiev garrisoned 193,000 soldiers; Warsaw, another 126,000. At a time when British India counted 60,000 troops and 1,000 police, the Caucasus had 128,000 imperial soldiers. That made for a lot of feet needing boots. Baramyants hired a number of master artisans, including Beso, who seems to have enjoyed success and evidently was ambitious. Aided financially by “Prince” Yakobi “Yakov” Egnatashvili, a Gori wine grower, dukhan (pub) owner, and wrestling champion, Beso soon opened his own cobbler shop, becoming a self-standing artisan.20

Beso dispatched a matchmaker to win the hand of Ketevan “Keke” Geladze, said to be a slender, chestnut-haired teenage beauty with big eyes.21 She, too, was both the offspring of serfs and a striver. Her surname was common in southern Ossetia, leading to speculation that she also had Ossetian blood, but like Beso’s, her native tongue was Georgian. Keke’s father, a bricklayer and serf who gardened for a wealthy Armenian and lived in a village outside Gori, married another serf, but he seems to have passed away before (or right after) Keke was born. Unusually, Keke’s mother made sure the girl learned to read and write; at the time, very few Georgian females were literate. But Keke’s mother, too, died, and the girl was raised by her mother’s brother, also a serf. Serfdom in Georgia was extraordinary even by crazy-quilt imperial Russian standards: the leading Georgian nobles could own minor nobles as well as priests, while priests could own minor nobles. Partly that was because the tsarist state showed considerable deference to the expansive Georgian nobility, which accounted for 5.6 percent of Georgia’s population, versus 1.4 percent for nobles in the empire as a whole. Serfdom’s abolition in the Caucasus began three years later than in the rest of the Russian empire, in October 1864. That was about when Keke’s family relocated from the village to Gori. “What a happy journey it was!” she reminisced to an interviewer late in life. “Gori was festively decorated, crowds of people swelled like the sea.”22 The Geladzes were free, but they faced the challenge of making a new life.

Keke’s wedding to Beso, in May 1874 in Gori’s Cathedral of the Assumption, took place in the grand Georgian style, with a boisterous, ostentatious procession through the town.23 Yakov Egnatashvili, Beso’s benefactor, served as one of Beso’s best men. Father Kristopore Charkviani, another family friend, was said to have sung so beautifully at the ceremony that Prince Yakov tipped the priest the princely sum of 10 rubles. Beso, like most Georgians—literate or illiterate—could quote from Shota Rustaveli’s twelfth-century The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, an epic about three chivalrous friends who rescue a damsel from being forced into a marriage. Beso liked to wear a long Circassian blackcoat, cinched with a leather belt, over baggy trousers, which he tucked into leather boots—an epigone of Caucasus manhood. True, he was known to drink some of his shoemaker earnings; then again, as per local custom, his customers often paid him with homemade wine. For all his typical faults, though, Keke viewed the artisan as a step up. “He was considered a very popular young man among my friends and they were all dreaming of marrying him,” she recalled to the interviewer. “My friends nearly burst with jealousy. Beso was an enviable groom, a true Georgian knight, with beautiful mustaches, very well dressed—and with the special sophistication of the town dweller.” Beso, she added, could be “unusual, peculiar, and morose,” but also “clever and proud.” “Among my friends,” Keke concluded, “I became the desired and beautiful girl.”24

In December 1878, four years into the marriage, when Keke was around twenty and Beso twenty-eight, the couple had a son, Ioseb—the future Stalin.25 Ioseb was actually Beso and Keke’s third son, which by Georgian and Eastern Orthodox tradition was viewed as a special gift of God. But their prior children had not survived. Beso and Keke’s firstborn, Mikheil, had died in early 1876, age two months; their second (Giorgi) had died in June 1877, after about half a year.26 Ioseb, whose diminutive in Georgian was “Soso” (or “Soselo”), grew up an only child, learning later of his brothers’ ghosts. The three-person family rented a small timber-and-brick, single-room house from an Ossetian artisan. It was located in Gori’s Russian Quarter, near the barracks of the imperial troops whose footwear Beso made. A mere ninety square feet, the structure had a table and four stools, a plank bed, a samovar, a trunk, and a kerosene lamp. Clothes and other belongings were placed on open shelves. There was a cellar, however, reached by winding stairs, and it was here that Beso kept his tools and opened his workshop, and Keke made a nursery for Soso.27 Stalin’s life, in other words, began in a basement.

The humble circumstances notwithstanding, the Jughashvili family story had the makings of a small-town idyll: the artisan, the beauty, and the (surviving) boy. Keke is said to have never let him out of her sight.28 From around the age of two, Soso suffered the litany of childhood diseases (measles, scarlet fever), and Keke, fearful of losing yet another child, went to church frequently to pray. She also produced insufficient milk, so Soso had to suck the breasts of their neighbors: Mrs. Egnatashvili as well as neighbor Masho Abramidze-Tsikhitatrishvili. Still, he grew, and was full of life. “He was a stubborn little boy,” recalled Masho. “When his mother called him and he didn’t feel like responding, he didn’t stop playing.”29


Running the streets of his Georgian hill town, little Soso was oblivious to the wider world, but in the same decade he was born, Germany had ostentatiously proclaimed the founding of the Second German Reich—the first had been the loose Holy Roman Empire—in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the great French Sun King Louis XIV had once received the many little German princes. Their geopolitical rupture of German unification and its follow-on rapid industrialization radically altered Russia’s geopolitical space. Less ostentatiously, but almost as consequentially, in Japan in 1868, a group of rebels overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo) and, as a way to legitimize their rebellion, nominally “restored” the dormant emperor, who took the name Meiji (enlightened rule). The process was by no means smooth, as major regions rebelled. But by 1872–73, nearly every important member of Japan’s new leadership had traveled in an embassy to Europe and America, seeing firsthand not only the marvels of the advanced world, but also seeing that the advanced world was not a monolith. Japan’s new leaders decided to take full advantage, adapting elements of each country separately: the centralized educational system of France appealed to them more than the looser American one, but instead of the French army, they eventually chose the German system of professional officers and a general staff, while opting for a British-style navy. “Knowledge,” proclaimed the Meiji emperor, “shall be sought throughout the world, and thereby shall be strengthened the foundation of the imperial polity.” This proclamation encapsulated the secret of great power ascendancy for the ages. To be sure, the new schools and other foreign imports were often resisted; it would take state power to force the transformation. Moreover, Japan’s follow-on industrialization did not match Germany’s. That said, Japan’s economy took off, too, and dramatically transformed the balance of power in Asia, as a new power rose on Russia’s other flank.

Also in the same decade the future Stalin was born, the United States of America had become the world’s largest integrated national economy. The United States had only recently descended into a civil war, which claimed 1 million casualties, including 600,000 dead out of a population of 32 million, while also introducing ironclad ships, overhead balloon reconnaissance, trench warfare, and long-range rifles. (The war cut off the German journalist Karl Marx’s freelance income from a New York Tribune no longer as interested in European affairs.) Contrary to Confederate hopes, however, the North’s mills were not dependent on the South’s supplies of raw cotton (growers in Egypt and India could make up the shortfalls). Some British statesmen, including William Gladstone, had cheered on the South, hoping for a diminution in U.S. power, but the British government never recognized the Confederacy’s independence. Had an independent agrarian nation been victorious and consolidated in the U.S. South—one of the largest slave systems in the modern world—the British would have been doomed in the twentieth century, and the entire course of world events would have been radically altered. In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads, representing more capital than any other American asset except land, but instead of the slave-based, cotton-growing South, the industrial North triumphed. Between 1870 and 1900, the reunited U.S. economy industrialized and tripled in size (with assistance from mass immigration from non-English-speaking, non-Protestant societies), producing a spectacular surge that eclipsed even the booms in Germany and Japan as the U.S. share of global output soared to nearly 30 percent. This American economic colossus, despite American colonial wars in the Philippines and Cuba, remained as yet mostly apart from world politics. Still, U.S. power had begun to loom over the world system, and would prove decisive in it.

These immense geopolitical facts that accompanied Stalin’s birth and early life—a unified industrial Germany, a consolidated industrial Japan, an American power greater than any other in world history—would shake the tsarist regime to its core and, one day, confront Stalin, too. Of course, young Soso Jughashvili could have no inkling of the geopolitical processes that were shaping his world. Meanwhile, in 1880s Gori, in a sign of middling success, the proud new father Beso Jughashvili took on two artisan apprentices. One of them remembered always seeing butter on the Jughashvili table, though the family appears to have lived modestly, eating mostly lobbio and lavash (red beans and flatbread) as well as potatoes and badrijani nigvzit (eggplants stuffed with spiced walnut paste).30 Another apprentice, Vano Khutsishvili, a mere one year younger than Soso, became like a foster brother for a time.31 Music filled the home—Keke would serenade Soso with the polyphonous harmonies of Georgian folk songs. Beso, like most Georgian men, could play traditional instruments such as the double-reed duduk (which he had played at their wedding). At the same time, Beso seems to have been something of a brooder. Few firsthand descriptions of him survive. One recalled him as “a thin man, taller than average. He had a long face and a long nose and neck. He wore a moustache and beard, and his hair was jet-black.” Later, various other men would be put forward as Stalin’s “real” father. But two witnesses have pegged Soso as Beso’s spitting image.32

Whatever Beso’s role as a father, and the original promise of his union with Keke, the marriage disintegrated. Most biographers, following Keke’s version, usually attribute the breakdown to Beso’s alcoholism and inner demons, asserting either that Beso was a natural drunkard or that he took to the bottle from grief after the early death of his firstborn son and never stopped.33 This may be true, although after that early tragedy, and particularly after the birth of Soso, Beso’s workshop seems to have operated for a time. To be sure, the traditional Georgian-style shoes that he made may have had trouble competing with newer European styles.34 That said, Keke, still young and pretty, may have been a cause of the trouble by flirting with married men: Yakov Egnatashvili, the Gori pub owner and wrestling champion; Damian Davrishevi, the Gori police officer; Kristopore Charkviani, the Gori priest—all of whom would be rumored as the future Stalin’s real father. Whether Keke was flirtatious, let alone promiscuous, is unclear. She had been ambitious in marrying Beso the artisan, and she may have moved on to more prestigious men. Perhaps they targeted her.35 Reliable evidence about the possible liaisons of the future Stalin’s mother is lacking. Still, gossip about Keke’s promiscuity circulated in Gori. Beso took to calling his son “Keke’s little bastard,” and once he appears to have tried to strangle his wife while denouncing her as a “whore.”36 (A common-enough epithet.) Beso is also thought to have vandalized the pub owned by Egnatashvili and to have attacked the police chief Davrishevi, who, in turn, may have ordered Beso to leave Gori. Around 1884, Beso did depart for Tiflis, hiring himself on at the Armenian-owned Adelkhanov Tannery.

Whoever was at fault, the result was a broken home.37 By 1883, Keke and little Soso began a vagabond existence, moving house at least nine times over the next decade. And that was not the young boy’s only misfortune. The same year his father left, little Soso contracted smallpox during an epidemic that ravaged many a Gori household. Three of their neighbor Egnatashvili’s six children perished. Keke appealed to a female faith healer. Soso survived the fevers. But his face was permanently scarred, and he got tagged with the moniker “Poxy” (Chopura). Probably around this time (1884), age six, Soso’s left elbow and shoulder began to develop abnormally, reducing the use of his left arm. Various causes have been put forward: a sleighing or wrestling accident; an accidental collision with a horse-drawn phaeton, which was followed by blood poisoning from an infected wound.38 Soso was indeed struck near Gori’s Roman Catholic cathedral by a rare (for Gori) phaeton, perhaps because he and other boys, in a game of chicken, would try to grab the axles.39 Still, his withering limb may have had a genetic cause. Be that as it may, the elbow worsened over time. Keke, though, proved ever resourceful. To support the two of them, she cleaned and repaired other people’s clothes and took care of their living quarters, including for the Egnatashvilis, where Soso often ate dinner. In 1886, she and Soso moved into the upper story of the home of Father Charkviani, one of Beso’s former boon drinking companions. The move was likely necessitated by poverty but also seems to have been calculated: Keke implored Charkviani to get Soso into the Gori church school for fall 1886, when he would be already nearly eight. Failing that, she begged the priest to allow his own teenage sons to include Soso in the Russian lessons they gave to their younger sister, on whom the young Stalin may have developed his first crush.

Keke’s scheming worked, thanks also to Soso’s own ambitions. Biographers have often singled out the future Stalin for leading a “street gang” in Gori, as if street running was somehow distinctive for male youths, in the Caucasus or elsewhere.40 Rather, what stood out were his bookworm and autodidact tendencies, which propelled him forward. In September 1888, nearing the age of ten, he joined some 150 boys, almost all of whom were seven or eight, in the parish school’s mandatory preparatory program for Georgian boys. It was a two-year course, but his bootstrapped Russian proved good enough to vault him through in a single year. In fall 1889, he began the main four-year school curriculum, where his studiousness as well as his sweet alto singing voice were prized—a source of pride for the boy. And finally, at least for part of the day, he was out of his mother’s grasp. On January 6, 1890, however, during the Feast of the Epiphany—celebrated in the Orthodox church as Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan—a runaway phaeton in Gori lurched into the onlookers where the church-school choir stood. Struck a second time! “Soso wanted to run across the street, but did not make it in time,” recalled Simon Goglichidze, the Gori school choirmaster. “The Phaeton hit him, its connecting pole striking him in the cheek.”41 Soso lost consciousness and was carried home. How close the future Stalin, then eleven, came to death we will never know.42 The driver was jailed for a month. “Fortunately,” concluded Goglichidze, “the wheels only ran over the boy’s legs,” rather than his head.43 But the accident permanently inhibited the future Stalin’s gait, leading to a second derogatory nickname—“Crimped” (Geza).

Beso, it seems, arrived and took his injured son to Tiflis for medical treatment; Keke seems to have accompanied them, moving to the capital while Soso recuperated.44 This may be the event that gave rise to the story, much repeated, that Beso “kidnapped” his son because the cobbler was hell-bent against his boy attending school.45 The truth is murky. Beso appears to have voiced a desire to snatch Soso out of school, perhaps the year before, in 1889, and he may have been talked out of it (or forced to return the boy quickly). But the “kidnapping” might simply refer to the circumstance in 1890, once Soso had recovered, when Beso kept him in Tiflis, apprenticing him at the Adelkhanov Tannery. That huge enterprise was built in 1875, when Beso was living in Gori, by the Moscow-born Armenian magnate Grigory Adelkhanov, who had moved to Tiflis and become head of the city’s Armenian-dominated credit association in the 1870s. Adelkhanov’s plant was equipped with machines and from 1885 could turn out 50,000 pairs of footwear annually as well as 100,000 felt cloaks for the imperial troops. Its yearly revenue exceeded 1 million rubles, a colossal local sum in those days.46 Beso and son lodged in a cheap room in an old section of Tiflis (Havlabar) and walked to work together across the metal bridge over the Mtkvari River, past the medieval Metekhi church high on the rocky cliffs, which the Russian empire had rebuilt as a prison.47 Like Soso, many of the Adelkhanov laborers were underage, usually the children of adult workers who were expected to add to their fathers’ wages, a practice common at Tiflis factories.48 In other words, Beso’s desire for his son to follow in his footsteps and learn his trade, however selfish, was the norm.49

Thanks to his father, the future leader of the world proletariat had an early brush with factory life, which was nasty. Adelkhanov’s enterprise had a medical station, a benefit no other leather-working plant in Tiflis offered, but workdays were long, wages low, and job security precarious. The same mechanization that undercut independent artisans like Beso rendered elements of the factory’s own workforce redundant over time. Adelkhanov’s adult cobblers, moreover, were a rough lot, preying on the youngsters. As an apprentice, Soso may have served only as elder workers’ fetcher, not even learning to make shoes. He was certainly subjected to the sickening stench of putrid raw leather in the dank basement, immeasurably worse than the cellar in which his mother had tried (and failed) to nurse him. Had Soso Jughashvili remained a proletarian in training at Adelkhanov, or run away and become a street urchin, there would likely have been no future Stalin. Instead—as every biographer has observed—Keke pressed her well-cultivated church connections to help her retrieve her beloved boy. Much like Klara Hitler, a pious Catholic who would dream that her son Adolf would rise to become a pastor, so Keke Geladze believed her boy Soso was destined for the Orthodox priesthood, a path that the abolition of serfdom had opened up for children of his modest background.50 The boy would owe his return to the upward path of disciplined study and self-improvement to his determined mother.

Keke brooked no compromise. She rejected the Tiflis church authorities’ proposed solution that Soso be allowed to sing in their Tiflis church-school choir while remaining with his father. She accepted nothing less than Soso’s return to Gori for the start of the next school year in September 1890.51 Her triumph over her husband in a deeply patriarchal society was supported by family friends, who took the woman’s side, and by the boy himself: In the parental tug-of-war between becoming a priest (school) or a cobbler, Soso preferred school and, therefore, his mother. Unlike Beso, Keke was always ready to do whatever it took to make sure he had clothes on his back and his bills were paid. Ioseb “Soso” Iremashvili, who met the future Stalin by wrestling him on the parish school playground, recalled that his friend “was devoted to only one person—his mother.”52 And Keke, in turn, was devoted to him. Still, we should not idealize her. She was also domineering. “Stalin’s severity came from his mother,” recalled another Gori chum who later served as a lower-level member of the dictator’s bodyguard detail (in charge of wine and foodstuffs). “His mother, Ekaterina Geladze, was a very severe woman, and in general a difficult person.”53 Beso, for his part, seems to have followed his wife and son back to Gori. If so, this was not the first time he had implored Keke for reconciliation. But the 1890 episode of Soso’s recuperation and factory apprenticeship in Tiflis marked the final break in their marriage.54 Beso refused to support the family financially (for what that was worth), and back at the Gori school, Soso was expelled for his family’s failure to pay the 25-ruble tuition. “Uncle Yakov” Egnatashvili evidently stepped in and cleared the debt.

Uncle Yakov became Soso’s valued surrogate father.55 Much has been made over the young Stalin’s infatuation with a celebrated novel, The Patricide (1882), by Aleksandre Qazbegi (1848–93), who was the scion of a princely Georgian family (whose grandfather had taken part in Georgia’s annexation by Russia and obtained a mountain fief for it). The Russian imperial authorities targeted by Qazbegi’s novel banned it, enhancing its considerable allure. In the story, a peasant boy, Iago, and a beautiful girl, Nunu, fall in love, despite family disapproval, but a Georgian official collaborating with the Russian empire rapes Nunu and imprisons Iago on trumped-up charges. Iago’s best friend, Koba, a brave, laconic mountaineer (mokheve), swears an oath of revenge—“I’ll make their mothers weep!”—and organizes a daring prison break for Iago. The Georgian official’s men, however, kill Iago. Nunu dies from sorrow. But Koba vows revenge, hunts down and executes the arrogant official—“It is I, Koba!”—enforcing rough justice. Koba is the novel’s only surviving character, outliving his enemies and his friends.56 Among the young Stalin’s several dozen early pseudonyms—including, briefly, Besoshvili (son of Beso)—Koba was the one that stuck. “He called himself ‘Koba’ and would not have us call him by any other name,” recalled the childhood friend Ioseb Iremashvili. “His face would shine with pride and pleasure when we called him ‘Koba.’”57 This was the boy about him, one friend recalled, “We, his friends, would often see Soso . . . pushing his left shoulder slightly forward, his right arm slightly bent, holding a cigarette in his hand, hurrying through the streets among the crowds.” The avenger Koba (meaning the indomitable, in Turkish) was certainly more flattering than Crimped or Poxy. But it is worth underscoring that Soso Jughashvili’s surrogate father, Yakov Egnatashvili, also went by the nickname Koba, a kind of diminutive for his Georgian given name Yakobi.

Too much has been made of Beso’s failings, and not enough of Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili’s support. Too much has also been made of the violence in Soso Jughashvili’s early life. Beso beat his son out of anger, humiliation, or for no reason; the doting Keke beat the boy, too. (Beso struck Keke, and Keke sometimes thrashed Beso for being a drunkard.)58 Of course, a sizable chunk of humanity was beaten by one or both parents. Nor did Gori suffer some especially violent Oriental culture. Sure, the annual commemoration of Great and Holy Monday (Easter week), recalling the 1634 expulsion of the Muslim Persians, entailed a nighttime all-Gori fistfight. The town divided into teams by ethnicity, reaching a thousand or more pugilists, and the brawl was refereed by drunken priests. Children launched the fisticuffs, before the adults joined, and Soso could not fail to take part.59 But such festive violence—madcap bare fists, followed by sloppy embraces—was typical of the Russian empire, from Ukrainian market towns to Siberian villages. Gori did not stand out in the least. Moreover, other violent activities attributed to the young Stalin are scarcely unheard of in boys. Wrestling tournaments were celebrated in Gori, and among schoolmates on the playground, the lanky, sinewy Soso was said to fight hard, albeit dirty, displaying significant strength despite his withered left arm. Some say he would not shrink from bouts with the strongest opponents and, on occasion, got beaten silly. But Soso was evidently trying to follow in the footsteps of his celebrated surrogate father—the Egnatashvili clan members, led by their patriarch, were Gori’s wrestling champions. “Little Stalin boxed and wrestled with a certain success,” recalled Iosif “Soso” Davrishevi, the policeman’s son.60

Beso’s trajectory, by contrast, was further downward. He appears to have left the Adelkhanov Tannery not long after he failed to reinstall his son there. He tried his luck repairing shoes at a stall in the Armenian bazaar in Tiflis, but that seems not to have panned out. Thereafter, nothing is reliably known of how he survived; some sources indicate that eventually Beso became a vagrant, though there are also indications he kept plying his trade, perhaps in a clothing repair shop.61 Later, the future Stalin would make light of his own “proletarian” origins resulting from his father’s downward social mobility. “My father was not born a worker, he had a workshop, with apprentices, he was an exploiter,” Stalin would tell his Red Army commanders in March 1938. “We lived none too badly. I was 10 when he went up in smoke [razorilsia] and became a proletarian. I would not say he entered the proletariat with joy. The whole time he cursed that he was unfortunate to enter the proletariat. But the circumstance that he was unlucky, that he went up in smoke, is made an achievement [zasluga] of mine. I assure you, this is a funny thing (laughter).”62 In point of fact, Beso had never gotten off the rolls of his village commune in Didi Lilo and, therefore, he remained a member of the peasant estate—a juridical status that Beso passed on to his son (as recorded on Stalin’s tsarist internal passports right through 1917). But although the future Soviet leader was a peasant de jure, and the son of a worker de facto, he himself, thanks to the support of Keke and “Uncle” Yakov, was rising up, into the demi-intelligentsia.


Back at school for the 1890-91 academic year, Soso was compelled to repeat the grade because of the phaeton accident, but he threw himself into his studies with ever greater determination. He was said never to have shown up late to classes, and to have spent his spare time behind books—subsequent reminiscences that ring true.63 “He was a very capable boy, always coming first in his class,” one former schoolmate recalled, adding “he was [also] first in all games and recreation.” Some classmates also recalled Soso as defiant when the Georgian boys were banished to the dunce corner for speaking their native tongue; some recalled he was not afraid, on other students’ behalf, to approach the teachers, who wore imposing state uniforms (tunics with gold buttons). If Soso did speak to the teachers on behalf of other boys, that was likely because he had been picked by the Russian-language teacher—christened the “gendarme”—to serve as class monitor, an enforcer of discipline. Whatever role he may have played as an intermediary, all the teachers, including the Georgian ones, appreciated Soso’s diligence and eagerness to be called upon.64 He sang Russian and Georgian folk songs, along with Tchaikovsky songs; studied Church Slavonic and Greek; and was chosen to read out the liturgy and sing the hymns at church. The school awarded him David’s Book of Psalms with the inscription: “To Iosif Jughashvili . . . for excellent progress, behavior and excellent recitation of the Psalter.”65 One schoolmate rhapsodized about Soso and other choirboys “wearing their surplices, kneeling, faces raised, singing Vespers with angelic voices while the other boys prostrated themselves filled with an ecstasy not of this world.”66

There was a prosaic side as well: To make ends meet, Keke cleaned the school (for 10 rubles a month). She may also have worked as a domestic at the home of the schoolmaster, though at some point she became a regular seamstress for a local “fancy” clothes shop and, finally, settled them into an apartment (on Gori’s Cathedral Street).67 But soon, for exemplary academic performance, Soso’s tuition was waived and on top of that he began receiving a monthly stipend of 3 rubles, later raised to 3.50 and then 7. This is perhaps the best evidence that the child from the broken home stood out as one of Gori’s best pupils.68 Graduating in spring 1894, at the advanced age of fifteen and a half, he could have gone on to the Gori Teachers Seminary, a further step up. An even better option presented itself: Choirmaster Simon Goglichidze was moving to the Tsar Alexander Teacher Training School in Tiflis and said he could bring his star Gori pupil along on a coveted fully funded state scholarship. That was no small matter for an indigent family. But instead, Soso sat the entrance examinations for the Theological Seminary in Tiflis, to become a priest. He excelled on the exams nearly across the board—Bible studies, Church Slavonic, Russian, catechism, Greek, geography, penmanship (though not in arithmetic)—and gained admission. It was a dream come true. The Tiflis seminary—alongside that city’s secular gymnasia (elite high schools) for the boys and girls of the prosperous—represented the highest rung of the educational ladder in the Caucasus, where the Russian imperial administration refused to countenance a university. The seminary’s six-year course of study (usually from age fourteen) led, at a minimum, to life as a parish priest or a village teacher in rural Georgia, but for those still more ambitious, the seminary could provide a stepping-stone to a university elsewhere in the empire.

In biography generally, the trope of the traumatic childhood—an outgrowth of the spread of Freudianism—came to play an outsized role.69 It is too pat, even for those with genuinely traumatic childhoods. The future Stalin’s childhood was certainly not easy: illnesses and accidents, forced house moving, straitened circumstances, a broken-down father, a loving but severe mother rumored to be a whore. But in adulthood, even as the dictator indulged roiling resentments that would seal the fate of most of his revolutionary colleagues, he would voice no special anger at his parents or his early life experiences. The future Kremlin leader experienced nothing of the bloody intrigues of the court childhoods of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great (to both of whom he would often be compared). Ivan’s father died from a boil when the boy was three; his mother was assassinated when he was seven. The orphaned Tsar Ivan the Terrible was reduced (by his regents) to begging for his food, and he witnessed the elites’ murderous struggle for power in his name, coming to fear his own pending bloody demise. The young Ivan took to tearing off birds’ wings and throwing cats and dogs off buildings. Peter the Great’s father died when he was four. Thereafter, the boy’s life was under threat by the warring court factions that were connected to his father’s two widows. After Peter was made tsar at age ten, the losing faction rebelled, and the young Peter witnessed relatives of his mother and friends being thrown onto upraised pikes. To be sure, some analysts have exaggerated the horrors of Ivan’s and Peter’s childhoods, offering pseudopsychological explanations for their often cruel reigns. Still, the most that could be claimed about the young Jughashvili was that he might have seen his father once come after his mother with a knife.

Next to what Ivan and Peter had gone through, what were the future Stalin’s childhood tribulations? Consider further the early life of Sergei Kostrikov, known later under the revolutionary name Kirov, who would become Stalin’s closest friend. Born in 1886 in a small town in Vyatka province, central Russia, Kirov would be considered as among the most popular of Stalinist party leaders. But his childhood was difficult: four of Kirov’s seven siblings died in infancy, his father was a drunkard who abandoned the family, and his mother died of TB when the boy was just seven. Kirov grew up in an orphanage.70 A similar fate befell another key member of Stalin’s inner circle, Grigol “Sergo” Orjonikidze, whose mother died when he was an infant, and whose father died when he was ten. By contrast, the young Stalin had his doting mother and a variety of important mentors, as the strikingly numerous memoirs from that time indicate. Keke’s extended family lived close by, including her brother Gio and his children (Keke’s other brother, Sandala, would be killed by the tsarist police). And Beso’s family (his sister’s children) remained a presence even after Beso lost the custody showdown in 1890.71 Family was the glue of Georgian society, and Soso Jughashvili had not only his own extended kin, but the surrogate kin provided by the Egnatashvilis (as well as the Davrishevis). Smalltown Gori took care of its own, forming a tight-knit community.

In addition to his extended family and Gori schooling (a ticket upward), the future Stalin’s childhood had one more vital redeeming aspect: faith in God. His destitute family had to find the means for the Orthodox seminary’s hefty annual tuition (40 rubles) and room and board (100 rubles), as well as for his surplice school uniform. The sixteen-year-old Jughashvili petitioned for a scholarship and was granted a partial one: free room and board.72 For tuition, Keke appealed to Soso’s surrogate father, Koba Egnatashvili. Big Koba had the means to send his two surviving natural sons to a gymnasium in Moscow, and he came through for little Koba (Soso), too. But if the well-heeled Egnatashvili, or others, had ceased to support Soso, or if the Russian rector at the seminary withdrew the partial state scholarship, Jughashvili’s studies would have been jeopardized. He had taken a big risk by declining the full state scholarship at the secular teacher training school arranged by Choirmaster Goglichidze. The reason must have been that not only Keke but her son, too, was devout. “In his first years of study,” allowed a Soviet-era publication of reminiscences, “Stalin was very much a believer, going to all the services, singing in the church choir. . . . He not only observed all religious rites but always reminded us to observe them.”73 Studying among the monks at the seminary, the future Stalin may have thought to become a monk himself. But changes in the Russian empire and in the wider world opened up a very different path.74



Others live off our labor; they drink our blood; our oppression quenches their thirst with the tears of our wives, children, and kin.

Leaflets, in Georgian and Armenian, distributed by Iosif Jughashvili, 19021

TIFLIS EXUDED A HAUNTING, magical beauty. Founded in a gorge in the fifth century, the residence of Georgian kings from the sixth, Tiflis—its Persian name, also employed in Russian—was centuries older than ancient Kiev, let alone upstart Moscow or St. Petersburg. In Georgian the city was called Tblisi (“warm place”), perhaps for its fabled hot springs. (“I must not omit to mention,” enthused one nineteenth-century visitor, “that the baths of the city cannot be surpassed even by those of Constantinople.”)2 Back when Russia annexed eastern Georgia, in 1801, Tiflis had about 20,000 inhabitants, fully three quarters of them Armenian. By century’s end, Tiflis had mushroomed to 160,000, with a plurality of Armenians (38 percent), followed by Russians and Georgians, and a smattering of Persians and Turks.3 The city’s Armenian, Georgian, and Persian neighborhoods ascended up the hills, their houses terraced in, with multilevel balconies perched one above the other in a style reminiscent of the Ottoman Balkans or Salonika. By contrast, the flat Russian quarter stood out for its wide boulevards where one could find the imposing Viceroy’s Palace, Opera House, Classical Gymnasium No. 1, Russian Orthodox cathedral, and the private homes of Russian functionaries (chinovniki) and of the Armenian haute bourgeoisie. Imperial Russia’s 1860s Great Reforms had introduced municipal governing bodies with restricted franchise elections, and wealthy Armenians came to compose the vast majority of those eligible to vote in Tiflis’ municipal elections, allowing Armenian merchants to control the city duma. But they had no hold on the imperial executive administration, which was run by appointed Russians, ethnic Germans, and Poles, often relying on Georgian nobles, who enriched themselves through state office.4 Still, the Georgians—no more than a quarter of the urban population—were to an extent upstaged in their own capital.

The urban distribution of power was glaring. On the wide tree-lined Golovin Prospect, named for a Russian general, the shops carried signs in French, German, Persian, and Armenian as well as Russian. Wares on offer included fashions from Paris and silks from Bukhara, useful for marking status, as well as carpets from nearby Iran (Tabriz), which helped distinguish interior spaces. By contrast, over at the city’s labyrinthine Armenian and Persian bazaars, underneath the ruins of a Persian fortress, “everyone washes, shaves, gets a haircut, dresses and undresses as if at home in their bedroom,” explained a Russian-language guide to the warrens of silversmiths and cooking stalls serving kebabs and inexpensive wines.5 Tatar (Azeri) mullahs could be seen in their green and white turbans, while Persians went about in caftans and black-fur caps, their hair and fingernails dyed red.6 One observer described a typical square (Maidan), near where Soso Jughashvili had briefly resided with his father in 1890, as “a porridge of people and beasts, sheepskin caps and shaved heads, fezzes and peaked caps,” adding that “all shout, bang, laugh, swear, jostle, sing, work, and shake in various tongues and voices.”7 But beyond the Oriental riot of its streets—which made the guidebook writers ooh and aah—the years of the 1870s through 1900 saw a crucial transformation of society by the railroad and other industrialization, as well as a Georgian national awakening facilitated by an expanding periodical press and the connections from modern transportation. By 1900, Tiflis had acquired a small but significant intelligentsia and a growing industrial-worker class.8

It was in this modernizing urban milieu that Jughashvili—who was back in Tiflis as of 1894—entered the seminary and came of age, becoming not a priest but a Marxist and revolutionary.9 Imported to Georgia in the 1880s, Marxism seemed to offer a world of certainties. But Jughashvili did not discover Marxism on his own. A headstrong twentysomething militant, Vladimir “Lado” Ketskhoveli (b. 1876) would serve as the revolutionary mentor for the future Stalin, who in looking back would call himself a disciple of Lado.10 Lado was the fifth of six children born to a priest from a village just outside Gori. Three years Jughashvili’s senior at the Gori church school and then at the Tiflis Theological Seminary, Lado acquired tremendous authority among the seminarians. Under Lado’s influence, the young Jughashvili, already an energetic autodidact, found a lifelong calling in being an agitator and a teacher, helping the dark masses see the light about social injustice and a purported all-purpose remedy.


Compared with small-town Gori, the Caucasus capital offered a grand drama of incipient modernity, but Iosif Jughashvili did not see much of the city, at least not initially. His immediate world, the theological seminary, was dubbed the Stone Sack—a four-story bastion of neoclassical façade. If the main classical gymnasium stood at the pinnacle of the local educational hierarchy, the seminary—more accessible to poor youth—was not far behind. The building, at the southern end of Golovin Prospect on Yerevan Square, had been purchased by the Orthodox Church from a sugar magnate (Constantine Zubalashvili) to serve as the new home of the seminary in 1873. For the hundreds of students who lived on the top floor in an open-style dormitory, their daily regime generally lasted from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Ringing bells summoned them to morning prayers, followed by tea (breakfast), classes until 2:00 p.m., a midday main meal at 3:00, then a mere hour or so outside the walls, roll call at 5:00, evening prayers, tea (a light supper) at 8:00, homework, and lights out. “Day and night we were worked within barrack walls and felt like prisoners,” recalled another Gori “Soso,” Ioseb Iremashvili, who like the young Stalin was attending the seminary by way of the Gori church school.11 Occasional leaves were granted to return to one’s native village or town, but otherwise Sundays alone afforded some free time—but only after Orthodox Church services, which meant standing for three to four hours on stone tiles. Trips to the theater and other blasphemies were proscribed. Some seminarians, however, dared to escape to town after nightly roll call, despite the random night dormitory checks to ferret out reading of illicit materials by candlelight or onanism.

The regimentation for the teenage seminarians accustomed to indulgent families and the free play of the streets had to be frustrating, but the seminary also offered endless opportunity for passionate discussions with fellow students about the meaning of existence and their own futures, as well as the discovery of books and learning. Emphasis fell on sacred texts, of course, and on Church Slavonic and Russian imperial history. Ioseb “Soso” Jughashvili, now known in Russified form as Iosif, was in his element, and he performed well. He became the school choir’s lead tenor, a high-profile achievement, given how much time the boys spent in church and preparing for church. He also developed into a voracious reader who started keeping a notebook of thoughts and ideas. In the classroom, he earned mostly grades of 4 (B), while achieving 5s (A’s) in ecclesiastical singing, and earned 5 rubles for occasional singing in the Opera House. In the beginning years his only 3s (C’s) came in final composition and Greek. He received the top mark (5) in conduct. As a freshman, Jughashvili placed eighth in a group of twenty-nine, and as a sophomore he rose to fifth. But in his third year, 1896-97, his rank slipped to sixteenth (of twenty-four), and by the fifth year he stood twentieth (of twenty-three), having failed scripture.12 Because classroom seating was determined by academic results, his desk kept being moved farther from the teachers. Even the choir he loved so much ceased to hold his interest, partly because of recurrent lung problems (chronic pneumonia).13 But the main cause of his declining interest and performance stemmed from a culture clash brought on by modernizing forces and political reactions.

In 1879, the year after Jughashvili had been born, two Georgian noblemen writers, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze (b. 1837) and Prince Akaki Tsereteli (b. 1840), had founded the Society for the Spread of Literacy Among Georgians. Georgians comprised many different groups—Kakhetis, Kartlians, Imeretians, Mingrelians—with a shared language, and Chavchavadze and Tsereteli hoped to spark an integrated Georgian cultural rebirth through schools, libraries, and bookshops. Their conservative populist cultural program intended no disloyalty to the empire.14 But in the Russian empire, administratively, there was no “Georgia,” just the two provinces (gubernias) of Tiflis and Kutaisi, and such was the hard-line stance of the imperial authorities that the censors forbade any publication of the term “Georgia” (Gruziya) in Russian. Partly because many censors did not know the Georgian language—which was written neither in Cyrillic nor Latin letters—the censors proved more lenient with Georgian publications, which opened a lot of space for Georgian periodicals. But at the Tiflis seminary, to compel Russification, Georgian language instruction had been abolished in favor of Russian in 1872. (Orthodox services in Georgia were conducted in Church Slavonic and thus were largely unintelligible to the faithful, as they were even in the predominantly ethnic Russian provinces of the empire.) From 1875, the seminary in the Georgian capital ceased teaching Georgian history. Of the seminary’s two dozen teachers, all of whom were formally appointed by the Russian viceroy, a few were Georgian but most were Russian monks, and the latter had been expressly assigned to Georgia because of their strong Russian nationalist views. (Several would later join radical-right movements.) In addition, the seminary employed two full-time inspectors to keep the students under “constant and unremitting supervision”—even in the seminarians’ free time—while recruiting snitches for extra eyes and ears.15

Expulsions for “unreliability” became commonplace, defeating the educational purpose of the seminary. In response to the heavy-handedness, Tiflis seminarians—many of them the sons of Orthodox priests—had begun (in the 1870s) to produce illegal newsletters and form secret discussion “circles.” In 1884, a member of one such Tiflis seminary circle, Silibistro “Silva” Jibladze (who had led a revolt back in his junior seminary), struck the Russian rector in the face for denigrating Georgian as “dogspeak.” As the boys well knew, the kingdom of Georgia had converted to the Christian faith half a millennium before the Russians did, and more than a century before the Romans. Jibladze was sentenced to three years in a punishment battalion. Then, in 1886, to empirewide notoriety, a different expelled student assassinated the Tiflis seminary rector using a traditional Caucasus dagger (kinjal).16 More than sixty seminarians were expelled. “Some go so far as to excuse the assassin,” reported the exarch of Georgia to the Holy Synod in St. Petersburg. “All in their hearts approve.”17 By the 1890s, the seminary students were staging strikes. In a boycott of classes in November 1893, they demanded better food (especially during Lent), an end to the brutal surveillance regime, a department of Georgian language, and the right to sing hymns in Georgian.18 The Russifying ecclesiastics responded by expelling eighty-seven students—including the strike’s seventeen-year-old leader, Lado Ketskhoveli—and shutting the doors in December 1893.19 The seminary reopened in fall 1894 with two first-year classes, the 1893 and the 1894 admissions, the latter being Iosif Jughashvili’s.

When the future Stalin started at the seminary, the harsh disciplinary mechanisms remained, but in a concession, courses in Georgian literature and history were reinstituted. In summer 1895, after his first year, Jughashvili, then sixteen and a half, took his own Georgian-language verses in person to the publishing nobleman Ilya Chavchavadze, without seminary permission. The editor of Chavchavadze’s newspaper Iveria (a term for Eastern Georgia) published five of Jughashvili’s poems, under the widely used Georgian nickname for Ioseb/Iosif: Soselo.20 The verses, among other themes, depict the contrast between violence (in nature and man) and gentleness (in birds and music), as well as a wandering poet who is poisoned by his own people. Another poem served as a contribution to the fiftieth jubilee of the Georgian nobleman Prince Rapiel Eristavi, the young Stalin’s favorite poet.21 Eristavi’s verses, the dictator would later say, were “beautiful, emotional, and musical,” adding that the prince was rightly called the nightingale of Georgia—a role to which Jughashvili himself might have aspired. An affectionate sixth Jughashvili poem, “Old Ninika,” published in 1896 in Kvali (The Furrow), the journal of another Tsereteli, Giorgi (b. 1842), featured a heroic sage narrating “the past to his children’s children.” In a word, Jughashvili, too, was swept up in the emotional wave of the fin-de-siecle Georgian awakening.

The spirit of the times that affected the young Jughashvili was well captured in the poem “Suliko” (1895), or “Little Soul,” about lost love and lost national spirit. Written by Akaki Tsereteli, the cofounder of the Georgian Society, “Suliko” was set to music and became a popular anthem:

In vain I sought my loved one’s grave;

Despair plunged me in deepest woe.

Overwhelmed with bursting sobs I cried:

“Where are you, my Suliko?”

In solitude upon a thornbush

A rose in loveliness did grow;

With downcast eyes I softly asked:

“Isn’t that you, Oh Suliko?”

The flower trembled in assent

As low it bent its lovely head;

Upon its blushing cheek there shone

Tears that the morning skies had shed.22

As dictator, Stalin would sing “Suliko” often, in Georgian and Russian translation (in which form it would become a sentimental staple on Soviet radio). But in 1895–96, he had to conceal his own Georgian-language poetry publishing triumph from the Russifying seminary authorities.

Nationalism, of course, marked the age. Adolf Hitler, who had been born in 1889 near Brannau am Inn, in Austria-Hungary, was influenced by the shimmer of Bismarck’s German Reich almost from birth. Hitler’s father, Alois, a passionate German nationalist of Austrian citizenship, worked as a customs official in the border towns on the Austrian side; his mother, Klara, her husband’s third wife, was devoted to Adolf, one of only two of their five children to survive. Hitler moved with his family across the border, at age three, to Passau, Germany, where he learned to speak German in the lower Bavarian dialect. In 1894, the family moved back to Austria (near Linz), but Hitler, despite having been born and spending most of his formative years in the Habsburg empire, never acquired the distinctive Austrian version of German language. He would develop a disdain for polyglot Austria-Hungary and, with his Austrian-German speaking friends, sing the German anthem “Deutschland uber Alles”; the boys greeted each other with the German “Heil” rather than the Austrian “Servus.” Hitler attended church, sang in the choir, and, under his mother’s influence, spoke about becoming a Catholic priest, but mostly he grew up imagining himself becoming an artist. An elder brother’s death at age sixteen from measles (in 1900) appears to have severely affected Hitler, making him more moody, withdrawn, indolent. His father, who wanted the boy to follow in his footsteps as a customs official, sent him against his wishes to technical school in Linz, where Hitler clashed with his teachers. After his father’s sudden death (January 1903), Hitler’s performance in school suffered and his mother allowed him to transfer. Hitler would graduate (barely) and in 1905 move to Vienna, where he would fail to get into art school and lead a bohemian existence, jobless, selling watercolors and running through his small inheritance. The German nationalism, however, would stick. By contrast, the future Stalin would exchange his nationalism, that of the small nation of Georgia, for grander horizons.


“If he was pleased about something,” recalled a onetime close classmate, Peti Kapanadze, of Jughashvili, he “would snap his fingers, yell loudly, and jump around on one leg.”23 In the fall of his third year (1896), when his grades would start to decline, Jughashvili joined a clandestine student “circle” led by the upperclassman Seid Devdariani. Their conspiracy may have been aided partly by chance: along with others of weak health, Jughashvili had been placed outside the main dormitory in separate living quarters, where he evidently met Devdariani.24 Their group had perhaps ten members, several from Gori, and they read non-religious literature such as belles lettres and natural science—books not even banned by the Russian authorities but banned at the seminary, whose curriculum excluded Tolstoy, Lermontov, Chekhov, Gogol, and even works of the messianic Dostoyevsky.25 The boys obtained the secular books from the so-called Cheap Library run by Chavchavadze’s Georgian Literacy Society, or from a Georgian-owned secondhand bookshop. Jughashvili also acquired such books from a stall back in Gori operated by a member of Chavchavadze’s society. (The future Stalin, recalled the bookseller, “joked a lot, telling funny tales of seminary life.”)26 As at almost every school across the Russian empire, student conspirators smuggled in the works to be read surreptitiously at night, concealing them during the day. In November 1896, the seminary inspector confiscated from Jughashvili a translation of Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, having already found him with Hugo’s Ninety-Three (about the counterrevolution in France). Jughashvili also read Zola, Balzac, and Thackeray in Russian translation, and countless works by Georgian authors. In March 1897, he was caught yet again with contraband literature: a translation of a work by a French Darwinist that contradicted Orthodox theology.27

The monks at the seminary, unlike most Russian Orthodox priests, led a celibate existence, forswore meat, and prayed constantly, struggling to avoid the temptations of this world. But no matter their personal sacrifices, dedication, or academic degrees, to the Georgian students, they came across as “despots, capricious egotists who had in mind only their own prospects,” especially rising to bishop (a status in the Orthodox tradition linked to the apostles). Jughashvili, for his part, might well have lost his interest in holy matters as a matter of course, but the seminary’s policies and the monks’ behavior accelerated his disenchantment, while also affording him a certain determination in resistance. He appears to have been singled out by a newly promoted seminary inspector, Priestmonk Dmitry, who was derided by the students as the “Black Blob” (chernoe piatno). The rotund, dark-robed Dmitry had been the seminary’s teacher of holy scripture (1896) before becoming an inspector (1898). Even though he was a Georgian nobleman whose secular name was David Abashidze (1867–1943), he showed himself to be even more Georgia phobic than the chauvinist ethnic Russian monks. When Abashidze confronted Jughashvili over possession of forbidden books, the latter denounced the seminary surveillance regime, called him a Black Blob, and got five hours in a dark “isolation cell.”28 Later in life, during his dictatorship, Stalin would vividly recall the seminary’s “spying, penetrating into the soul, humiliation.” “At 9:00 am, the bell for tea,” he explained, “we go into the dining hall, and then return to our rooms, and it turns out that during that interval someone has searched and turned over all our storage trunks.”29

The estrangement process was gradual, and never total, but the seminary that Jughashvili had worked so hard to get into was alienating him. The illicit reading circle to which he belonged had not been revolutionary in intent, at first. And yet rather than accommodate and moderate student curiosity, for what was after all the best belles lettres and modern science, the theologians responded with interdiction and persecution, as if they had something to fear. In other words, it was less the circle than the seminary itself that was fomenting radicalism, albeit unwittingly. Trotsky, in his biography of Stalin, would colorfully write that Russia’s seminaries were “notorious for the horrifying savagery of their customs, medieval pedagogy, and the law of the fist.”30 True enough, but too pat. Many, perhaps most, graduates of Russian Orthodox seminaries became priests. And while it was true that almost all the leading lights of Georgia’s Social Democrats emerged from the Tiflis seminary—like the many radical members of the Jewish Labor Federation (Bund) produced at the famed Rabbinical School and Teachers’ Seminary in Wilno—that was partly because such places provided an education and strong dose of self-discipline.31 Seminarians populated the ranks of imperial Russia’s scientists (such as the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, of dog reflex fame), and the sons and grandsons of priests also became scientists (such as Dimitri Mendeleev, who invented the periodic table). Orthodox churchmen gave the entire Russian empire most of its intelligentsia through both their offspring and their teaching. Churchmen imparted values that endured their sons’ or students’ secularization: namely, hard work, dignified poverty, devotion to others, and above all, a sense of moral superiority.32

Jughashvili’s discovery of inconsistencies in the Bible, his poring over a translation of Ernest Renan’s atheistic Life of Jesus, and his abandonment of the priesthood did not automatically mean he would become a revolutionary. Revolution was not a default position. Another major step was required. In his case, he spent the 1897 summer vacation in the home village of his close friend Mikheil “Mikho” Davitashvili, “where he got to know the life of the peasants.”33 In Georgia, as in the rest of the Russian empire, the flawed serf emancipation had done little for the peasants, who found themselves trapped between land “redemption” payments to their former masters and newly uninhibited bandits who descended from mountain redoubts to exact tribute.34 The emancipation did “liberate” the children of the nobility, who, without serfs to manage, quit their estates for the cities and, alongside peasant youth, took up the peasantry’s cause.35 Jughashvili’s Georgian awakening evolved toward recognition of Georgian landlord oppression of Georgian peasants: the boy who had perhaps wanted to become a monk now “wished to become a village scribe” or elder.36 But his sense of violated social justice linked up with what appears to be his ambition for leadership. In the illegal circle at the seminary, Jughashvili and the elder Devdariani were boon companions but also competitors for top position.37 In May 1898, when Devdariani graduated and left for the Russian empire’s Dorpat (Yurev) University in the Baltic region, Jughashvili got his wish, taking over the circle and driving it in a more practical (political) direction.38

Iosif Iremashvili—the other Gori “Soso” at the seminary—recalled that “as a child and youth he [Jughashvili] was a good friend so long as one submitted to his imperious will.”39 And yet it was right around this time that the “imperious” Jughashvili acquired a transformative mentor—Lado Ketskhoveli. Lado, after his expulsion for leading the student strike in 1893, had spent the summer reporting for Chavchavadze’s newspaper Iveria on postemancipation peasant burdens in his native Gori district; after that, as per regulations, Lado was permitted to enroll in a different seminary, which he did (Kiev) in September 1894. In 1896, however, Lado was expelled from Kiev, too, arrested for possession of “criminal” literature, and deported to his native village under police surveillance. In fall 1897, Lado returned to Tiflis, joined a group of Georgian Marxists, and went to work in a printer’s shop to learn typesetting so he could produce revolutionary leaflets.40 He also reestablished contact with the Tiflis seminarians. Ketskhoveli was a recognized authority among them: his photograph hung on the wall of the seminarian Jughashvili’s room (along with photos of Mikho Davitashvili and Peti Kapanadze).41 Even though the Cheap Library of Chavchavadze’s Georgian Literacy Society might have had a few Marxist texts, including perhaps one by Marx himself (A Critique of Political Economy, part of the Das Kapital trilogy), book-wise Tiflis was a far cry from Warsaw.42 Lado, beginning in 1898, served as the main source of the young Stalin’s transition from the typical social-justice orientation known as Populism to Marxism.43


Karl Marx (1818–83), born to a well-off middle-class family in Prussia, was by no means the first modern socialist. “Socialism” (the neologism) dates from the 1830s and appeared around the same time as “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “feminism,” and many other “isms” in the wake of the French Revolution that began in 1789 and the concurrent spread of markets. One of the first avowed socialists was a cotton baron, Robert Owen (1771–1858), who wanted to create a model community for his employees by paying higher wages, reducing hours, building schools and company housing, and correcting vice and drunkenness—a fatherlike approach toward “his” workers. Other early socialists, especially French ones, dreamed of an entirely new society, not just ameliorating social conditions. The nobleman Count Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and his followers called for social engineers under public, not private, property, to perfect society, making it fraternal, rational, and just, in an updated version of Plato’s Republic. Charles Fourier (1772–1837) introduced a further twist, arguing that labor was the center of existence and should be uplifting, not dehumanizing; to that end, Fourier, too, imagined a centrally regulated society.44 Not all radicals embraced centralized authority, however: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) attacked the banking system, claiming that big bankers refused to grant credit to small property owners or the poor, and advocated for society to be organized instead on the basis of cooperation (mutualism) so that the state would become unnecessary. He called his smaller-scale and cooperative approach anarchism. But Marx, along with his close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95), a British factory owner, argued that socialism was not a choice but “the necessary outcome” of a larger historical struggle governed by scientific laws, so that, like it or not, the-then current epoch was doomed.

Many adherents of conservatism, too, denounced the evils of markets, but what made Marx stand out among the foes of the new economic order was his full-throated celebration of the power of capitalism and modern industry. Adam Smith’s Scottish Enlightenment tome, Wealth of Nations (1776), had put forth influential arguments about competition, specialization (the division of labor), and the power of self-interest to increase social betterment. But in The Communist Manifesto (1848), a crisply written pamphlet, the-then twenty-nine-year-old Marx waxed lyrical about how “steam and machinery revolutionized industrial production” and how “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.”45 These breakthroughs to “giant modern industry” and globalism, described by Marx in 1848 as accomplished facts, remained decades away, even in Britain, despite the industrial transformation there during Marx’s German childhood. But Marx anticipated them. When explicitly looking into the future, Marx, unlike Smith, stipulated that global capitalism would lose its dynamism. In 1867, he published the first volume of what would become the trilogy called Das Kapital, responding to the classical British political economist David Ricardo as well as Smith. Marx posited that all value was created by human labor, and that the owners of the means of production confiscated the “surplus value” of laborers. In other words, “capital” was someone else’s appropriated labor. The proprietors, Marx argued, invested their ill-gotten surplus value (capital) in labor-saving machinery, thereby advancing production and overall wealth, but also reducing wages or eliminating jobs; while the laborers, according to Marx, became locked in immiseration, capital tended to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, inhibiting further development. In the interest of further economic and social progress, Marx called for abolition of private property, the market, profit, and money.

Marx’s revision of French socialist thought (Fourier, Saint-Simon) and British political economy (Ricardo, Smith) rested on what the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had called the dialectic: that is, on a supposedly in-built logic of contradictions whereby forms clashed with their opposites, so that historical progress was achieved through negation and transcendence (Aufhebung). Thus, capitalism, because of its inherent contradictions, would give way, dialectically, to socialism. More broadly, Marx argued that history proceeded in stages—feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism (when everything would be plentiful)—and that the decisive motor was classes, such as the proletariat, who would push aside capitalism, just as the bourgeoisie had supposedly pushed aside feudalism and feudal lords. The proletariat in Marx became the bearer of Hegel’s universal Reason, a supposed “universal class because its sufferings are universal”—in other words, not because it worked in factories per se, but because the proletariat was a victim, a victim turned redeemer.

Marx intended his analysis of society to serve as the leading edge in efforts to change it. In 1864, he joined with a diverse group of influential leftists in London, including anarchists, to establish a transnational body for uniting the workers and radicals of the world called the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–76). By the 1870s, critics on the left had attacked Marx’s vision for the organization—to “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class”—as authoritarian, provoking recriminations and splits. After Marx’s death in 1883 in London (where he was buried), various socialist and labor parties founded a “Second International” in Paris (1889). In place of the “bourgeois-republican” “Marseillaise” of the 1789 French Revolution, the Second International adopted “L’Internationale”—the first stanza of which begins “Arise, ye wretched of the earth”—as the socialist anthem. The Second International also adopted the red flag, which had appeared in France as a stark contrast to the white flag of the Bourbon dynasty and of the counterrevolutionaries who wanted to restore the monarchy after its overthrow. Despite the French song and symbolism, however, German Social Democrats—devotees of the deceased Marx—came to dominate the Second International. Subjects of the Russian empire, many of them in European exile, would become the chief rivals to the Germans in the Second International.

In imperial Russia, the idea of socialism had taken hold nearly a half century before a proletariat had appeared and owed its phenomenal spread to the introspection of a self-described intelligentsia. The latter—literally, the intelligence of the realm—were educated yet frustrated individuals who initially came from the gentry, but over time also emerged from commoners granted access to high schools and universities. Russia’s intelligentsia absorbed the same German idealist philosophy that Marx had, only without the heavy materialism that came from British political economy. Organized in small circles (Russian kruzhok, German Kreis), Russian socialists defended the dignity of all by generalizing from a sense of their own violated dignity. Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin, two mid-nineteenth-century sons of great privilege who knew each other, led the way. Each believed that in Russia the peasantry could serve as the basis for socialism because of the institution of the commune.46 Communes furnished a collective buffer against frosts, droughts, and other challenges through periodic redistribution among households of land allotments (in separated strips) as well as other means.47 Many peasants did not live under the commune, especially in the east (Siberia) as well as the west and south (Ukraine), where there had been no serfdom. But in the central regions of the Russian empire, the commune’s powers were strengthened by the 1860s serf emancipation.48 Because peasants in communes held no private property as individuals—either before or after emancipation—thinkers such as Herzen and Bakunin imagined the empire’s peasants to be inherently socialist and therefore, they argued, in Russia socialism could appear essentially before capitalism. Armed with just such thinking in the aftermath of the 1860s serf emancipation, self-described Populists (narodniki), descended upon Russia’s villages to lift peasants out of backwardness.

The Populists were in a hurry: capitalism had begun to spread and the Populists feared that the freed serfs were being turned into wage slaves, with the exploitative bourgeoisie taking the place of serf owners. At the same time, the much idealized egalitarianism of village life was thought to be under threat by the appearance of the kulak, or rich peasant.49 But even poor peasants met the outside would-be tutors with hostility. After Populism’s tactic of agitation failed to foster mass peasant uprising, some turned to political terror to spark mass uprising in cities (which would also fail). Other radicals, however, shifted their hopes from peasants to the incipient proletariat, thanks to the growing influence of Marx in Russia. Georgi Plekhanov (b. 1857), the father of Marxism in Russia, attacked the Populist argument that Russia could obviate capitalism because it possessed some supposed indigenous tendency (the peasant commune) toward socialism. Plekhanov went into European exile in 1880 (for what would turn out to be thirty-seven years), but his works in the 1880s—Socialism and Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885)—filtered back into Russia and made the case that historical stages could not be skipped: Only capitalism made socialism possible, and therefore Russia, too, would have to have a “bourgeois revolution” first, before a socialist revolution, even if the proletariat had to help the bourgeoisie achieve the bourgeois revolution.50 This was what Marx had said. Late in life, though, Marx did seem to admit that England’s experience, from which he had generalized, might not be universal; that the bourgeoisie might not be uniquely progressive (in historical terms); and that Russia might be able to avoid the full-blown capitalist stage.51 This apparent heresy had emerged from Marx’s reliance on the Russian economist Nikolai F. Danielson, who served as his confidant and supplied him with books on Russia. Still, the late Marx’s quasi-Populist views on Russia were not widely known (they would not appear in Russian until December 1924). Plekhanov’s Marxist critique of Populism held intellectual sway.

Danielson himself fed this dominance by collaborating on a Russian translation of Das Kapital, Marx’s three-volume magnum opus, which appeared in the 1890s and attracted a fair audience of readers—including the future Stalin. In 1896, with publication of the third volume, the hesitant Russian censor finally recognized it as a “scientific” work, meaning it could circulate in libraries and be offered for sale.52 By this time, Marxist political economy had appeared as an academic subject at some Russian universities, and even the turn-of-the-century director of one of the empire’s largest textile plants in Moscow collected a vast trove of Marxiana.53 Russia was then a country of 1 million proletarians and more than 80 million peasants. But Marxism displaced Populism as “the answer.”

Marxism had spread to the Russian-controlled Caucasus as well, also beginning in the 1880s. It came partly from the leftist movements in Europe, via Russia, but also from the ferment in Russian Poland, whose influence reached Georgia through Poles sent into exile in the Caucasus or Georgians who studied in tsarist Poland. Georgian Marxism was also spurred by generational revolt. Noe Jordania emerged as the Plekhanov of the Caucasus. He had been born in 1869 into a noble family of western Georgia, attended the Tiflis Theological Seminary, and along with others like Silva Jibladze, the Tiflis seminarian who had slapped the Russian rector’s face in 1884, established the Third Group (Mesame Dasi) in 1892. They aimed to contrast their avowedly Marxist association with the conservative Populism of Ilya Chavchavadze (First Group) and the national (classical) liberalism of Giorgi Tsereteli (Second Group). Traveling in Europe, Jordania had come to know Karl Kautsky, the Prague-born leading German Social Democrat, as well as Plekhanov. In 1898, at the invitation of Giorgi Tsereteli, Jordania took over the editorship of the periodical Kvali.54 Under him, Kvali became the Russian empire’s first legal Marxist periodical, stressing self-government, development, and Georgian cultural autonomy within Russian borders (reminiscent of the Austrian Social Democrats in the multinational Habsburg realm). Before long, Marxist literature—including 100 mimeographed copies of The Communist Manifesto translated from Russian into Georgian—would be smuggled into Tiflis and bolster the widening circles of young Caucasus radicals such as Jughashvili.55

Tiflis became their organizing laboratory. The city of petty traders, porters, and artisans, surrounded by a restive countryside, had 9,000 registered craftsmen, mostly in one- and two-person artels. Around 95 percent of its “factories” were workshops with fewer than ten laborers. But the big railroad depots and workshops (which had opened in 1883), together with several industrial tobacco plants and the Adelkhanov Tannery, did assemble a proletariat of at least 3,000 (up to 12,500 in the province as a whole). Tiflis railway workers had walked off the job in 1887 and 1889, and in mid-December 1898 they did so again, for five days—a major strike that Lado Ketskhoveli and other workers organized. Jughashvili was in the seminary during that Monday-to-Saturday workweek job action.56 But thanks to Ketskhoveli, Jughashvili’s seminary student circle—which he had just come to control by May 1898—broadened to include half a dozen or so proletarians at the Tiflis railway depot and workshops. They usually met on Sundays, in Tiflis’ Nakhalovka (Nadzaladevi) neighborhood, which was bereft of sidewalks, streetlights, sewers, or running water.57 Jughashvili lectured workers on “the mechanics of the capitalist system,” and “the need to engage in political struggle to improve the workers’ position.”58 Through Lado, he met the firebrand Silva Jibladze, who seems to have played a role in teaching Jughashvili how to agitate among the workers and in assigning him new “circles.”59 Jibladze may also have been the person to introduce Jughashvili to Noe Jordania.

Sometime in 1898, Jughashvili went to call upon Jordania at Kvali, just as Jughashvili had once approached the aristocrat Chavchavadze at the periodical Iveria (which then published his poetry). Gentle and professorial, the aristocrat Jordania, who projected little of a radical countenance, later recalled that his brash young visitor told him, “I have decided to quit the seminary to propagate your ideas among the workers.” Jordania claims he quizzed the young Jughashvili on politics and society, then advised him to return to the seminary and to study Marxism more. The condescending advice was not well received. “I’ll think about it,” the future Stalin is said to have replied.60 In August 1898, Jughashvili did join the Third Group of Georgian Marxists, following in Lado Ketskhoveli’s footsteps.

The Third Group, technically, was not a political party, which were illegal in tsarist Russia, but in March 1898, in a private log house in the outskirts of Minsk, a small town in the empire’s Pale of Settlement, a founding “congress” of the Marxist-inspired, German copycat Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDRP)—the future ruling party of the Soviet Union—took place. This was the second attempt (a previous effort to found the party, in Kiev, had failed). The Jewish Labor Bund (or Federation), which had been established five months earlier, provided logistical support for the Minsk gathering. There were a mere nine attendees, and just one actual worker (leading some present to object to their prospective party’s name [“Workers’”].* The year 1898 happened to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and the delegates, during the three-day gathering, approved their own manifesto, a withering denunciation of “the bourgeoisie,” which they decided needed to be redrafted in order to be circulated, a task given to Pyotr Struve (b. 1870), the son of the Perm governor and an imperial law school graduate.61 (“The autocracy created in the soul, thoughts, and habits of educated Russians a psychology and tradition of state apostasy,” Struve later explained.)62 The tsarist political police knew nothing of the Minsk congress, but the attendees were already on watch lists and soon most were arrested.63 Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, learned of the 1898 Minsk congress while off in Eastern Siberia serving a three-year term of internal exile, following fifteen months in prison, for disseminating revolutionary leaflets and plotting to assassinate the tsar. Minsk would turn out to be the only prerevolutionary RSDRP congress held on Russian empire territory.64 But soon, in European exile, a group of socialist exiles that included Plekhanov, his two satellites Pinchas Borutsch (aka Pavel Axelrod) and Vera Zasulich as well as the upstarts Julius “Yuly” Tsederbaum (aka Martov) and Lenin, published a Russian-language newspaper, initially out of Stuttgart in December 1900. Aiming to unite Russia’s revolutionaries around a Marxist program, it was called Iskra (Spark), as in “from a spark a fire will ignite.”65


The future Stalin (like Lenin) would date his “party membership” from 1898. Back at the seminary, in fall and winter 1898–99, his infractions accumulated: arriving late at morning prayers; violating discipline at liturgy (evidently leaving early, complaining of leg pain while standing so long); arriving three days late from a leave in Gori; failing to greet a teacher (the former Inspector Murakhovsky); laughing in church; denouncing a search; leaving Vespers. Jughashvili received reprimands and had to do time in the seminary’s solitary-confinement cell. On January 18, 1899, he was forbidden to leave the premises for the city proper for one month, evidently in connection with a discovery of a large cache of forbidden books. (Another student caught was expelled.)66 More consequentially, following the Easter break, Jughashvili failed to sit his year-end exams. A May 29, 1899, entry in a Georgian exarchate official organ noted of Jughashvili: “dismissed [uvolniaetsia] from seminary for failure to appear at the examination for unknown reason.”67 This dismissal, with its enigmatic phrase “unknown reason,” has been the subject of varying interpretations, including Stalin’s own (subsequent) boast that he was “kicked out of an Orthodox theological seminary for Marxist propaganda.”68 But on more than one occasion, before he became ruler, he would state that he had suddenly been assessed a fee and could not pay it, and that going into his final year he faced the loss of his partial state financial support. Each time, however, he neglected to specify why he lost his state scholarship.69 There also seems to be no extant indication that he appealed for financial help to Egnatashvili or another benefactor. And no such failure to pay was recorded in the formal expulsion resolution. Still, his straitened circumstances were well known (many times Jughashvili had implored the rector for financial assistance), and it could be that the disciplinarians, led by Inspector Abashidze, contrived to rid themselves of Jughashvili by exploiting his poverty.70

Four years after Jughashvili’s 1899 expulsion, Abashidze would be promoted—ordained a bishop, a clear stamp of approval for his work.71 In fact, the seminary’s Russification policies had failed. Already in 1897–98, the Caucasus authorities seem to have concluded that the Tiflis seminary was harming Russia’s interests and should be closed (according to the memoirs of one teacher). Rather than closing it right away, however, the ecclesiastics decided to institute a purge of the ethnic Georgian students.72 The seminary forwarded lists of transgressing students to the gendarmerie.73 In September 1899, forty to forty-five seminarians were forced out “at their own request.” Soon, Georgian students would disappear from the seminary entirely. (The seminary would be altogether shuttered in 1907.)74 Jughashvili could have been expelled as part of the large group in fall 1899. But Abashidze’s vendetta may explain why Jughashvili’s expulsion was done individually instead. Even so, we are left with the curiosity that no reason was given for Jughashvili’s failure to sit his exams, and that he apparently did not petition to resit them. One possible clue: the year Jughashvili left the seminary he may have fathered a baby girl—Praskovya “Pasha” Georgievna Mikhailovskaya, who, in her adulthood, resembled him strongly.75 Jughashvili’s student circle was renting a hovel in Tiflis at the foot of holy Mount Mtatsminda for conspiratorial meetings, but the young men could also have used it for trysts.76 Later, Stalin would place a letter he received about the paternity in his archive. If such circumstantial evidence can be accepted, that might explain why Jughashvili faced the loss of his state scholarship and did not appeal to resit his exams or to have his state funding reinstated.77

But biographers have noted further curiosities. Upon dismissal, Jughashvili owed the state more than 600 rubles—a fantastic sum—for failing to enter the priesthood or otherwise serve the Orthodox Church (or at least become a schoolteacher). The rectorate wrote him a letter suggesting he become a teacher at a lower-level church school, but he did not take up the offer; yet the seminary does not appear to have employed the secular authorities to force him to make good his financial obligation.78 And then this: in October 1899, without having paid the money he owed, Jughashvili requested and received an official seminary document testifying to his completion of four years of study (since his fifth remained incomplete). The expellee was assigned an overall “excellent” (5) for conduct.79 These curiosities, in which, ordinarily, payment of a bribe would be suspected, may or may not be meaningful. When all is said and done, the future Stalin may have just outgrown the seminary, being two years older than his cohort and already deeply involved in Lado’s revolutionary activities. Jughashvili was not going to join the priesthood, and a seminary recommendation to continue his studies at university seemed unlikely. The expulsion, Jughashvili supposedly confided to one schoolmate, was a “blow,” but if so, he did not fight to stay.80

Jughashvili remained a book person, and more and more imagined himself in the role of teacher. He spent the summer of 1899 not in Gori but, again, in the village of Tsromi, with his buddy Mikho Davitashvili, a priest’s son. They were visited by Lado Ketskhoveli. The police searched the Davitashvili’s household but, it seems, the family had been forewarned, and the search turned up nothing. Still, Mikho was among the large group who did not continue at the seminary in September 1899 “at his own request.”81 Jughashvili would add many of the newly expelled boys from the seminary to the self-study circle he led.82 He also continued to meet with and give lectures to workers. Then, in December 1899, not long after he had obtained his official seminary four-year study document—which he may have sought for employment purposes—Jughashvili landed a paying job at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory, a state agency. It was a stroke of luck, but also linked to his association with the Ketskhovelis: Vano Ketskhoveli, Lado’s younger brother, worked at the observatory and Jughashvili had already moved in with Vano in October 1899; a bit later, conveniently, one of the six employees left.83 Jughashvili got paid relatively good money: 20–25 rubles per month (at a time when the average wage in the Caucasus was 14–24 rubles for skilled labor, and 10–13 for unskilled).84 Besides shoveling snow in winter and sweeping dust in summer, he recorded temperatures and barometric pressures hourly. The future Stalin also spent a great deal of time reading and he became a dedicated agitator. When he had the night shift, during the day he could read up on Marxism or lecture groups of workers, which became his absolute passion.

Further inspiration came from questioning the socialist establishment. In solidarity with Lado Ketskhoveli, who sometimes hid overnight at the observatory, Jughashvili looked askance at Jordania’s Kvali. As a legal publication, Kvali had to pass censorship and show restraint, offering a “diluted Marxism” that was anathema to younger radicals. Kvali’s feuilletons, Ketskhoveli and Jughashvili argued, “did nothing” for actual workers. Lado dreamed about starting his own illegal periodical and recruiting more young propagandists like Jughashvili.85 Jordania and his supporters opposed an illicit periodical, fearing it would cast a shadow over their legal one. When Jughashvili wrote a critique of Kvali’s seeming docility and inaction, Jordania and the editors refused to publish it. Word got back to Jibladze and Jordania that Jughashvili was agitating against Kvali behind their backs.86 But whatever the bad personal blood, a genuine difference in tactics was at stake: the future Stalin, in sync with Lado, insisted that the Marxist movement shift from educational work to direct action. Lado showed the way by organizing a strike of the city’s horse-drawn tram drivers for January 1, 1900. The drivers, for their thirteen-hour workday, earned 90 kopecks, part of which was taken back in dubious workplace “fines.” Their walkout briefly brought the capital to a halt, and forced a wage increase. That was power. There were risks, however, as Jordania and Jibladze had noted. One of the tram workers informed on Lado and in mid-January 1900 he barely escaped the Tiflis gendarmes, fleeing to Baku.87 That same month, Jughashvili was arrested—for the first time. He had just turned twenty-one, legal age, a few weeks before.

The nominal charge was that his father, Beso, owed back taxes in Didi Lilo, the village Beso had left more than three decades earlier without, however, formally exiting the village rolls. Jughashvili was incarcerated in the Metekhi Prison fortress—the one on the cliff that he had walked past at age eleven on his way to work with his father at the Adelkhanov Tannery. Mikho Davitashvili and other friends seem to have assembled the money and paid off Beso’s outstanding village debt, so Jughashvili was released. Keke arrived from Gori and, for a time, insisted on staying with him in his room at the observatory—this had to be embarrassing. She “lived in permanent anxiety over her son,” recalled a neighbor and distant relative (Maria Kitiashvili). “I remember well how she would come over to our place and cry about her dear Soso—Where is he now, did the gendarmes arrest him?”88 Soon, Keke herself would be monitored by the police and occasionally summoned for questioning. It remains unclear why the gendarmes did not arrest Beso, who was living in Tiflis (Iosif received handmade boots from his father on occasion).89 Nor is it clear why Jughashvili was not arrested for his own debt to the state from the seminary scholarship. Police incompetence cannot be ruled out. But the arrest for Beso’s debt does seem like a pretext, a warning to a young radical or perhaps a maneuver to mark him: Jughashvili was photographed for the police archive. He returned to his job at the observatory, but also continued his illegal political lectures and remained under surveillance. “According to agent information, Jughashvili is a Social Democrat and conducts meetings with workers,” the police noted. “Surveillance has established that he behaves in a highly cautious manner, always looking back while walking.”90


Amid the cock fighting, banditry, and prostitution (political and sexual) in the Caucasus, illegal socialist agitation hardly stood out, at least initially. As late as 1900, the overwhelming preponderance of Tiflis inhabitants under police surveillance were Armenians, who were watched for fear they maintained links to their coethnics across the border in the Ottoman empire. But just a few years later, most of the police dossiers on “political” suspects were of Georgians and Social Democrats—238 of them, including Jughashvili’s.91 On March 21, 1901, the police raided the Tiflis Observatory premises. Although Jughashvili was absent when the search of his and other employees’ possessions took place, he may have been observing from not far away, been spotted and had his person searched, too.92 If so, the police did not arrest him, perhaps because they wanted to keep him under further surveillance, to uncover others. Be that as it may, the future Stalin’s meteorological career was over. He went underground, permanently.

Jughashvili now had no means of support, other than being paid for some private tutoring and sponging off colleagues, girlfriends, and the proletarians he sought to lead. He threw himself into conspiratorial activities, like establishing safe houses and opening illegal presses to help strikes and May Day marches. May Day had been established as a holiday by socialists around the world in order to commemorate the Haymarket riots in Chicago in 1886, when police had fired on strikers who sought an eight-hour workday. In Tiflis, May Day marches with red flags had been initiated in 1898 by railway workers. Held outside the city proper, the first three marches drew 25 people (1898), 75 (1899), then 400 (1900). For May Day 1901, Jughashvili was involved in plans for a bold, risky march right down Golovin Prospect, in the heart of Tiflis. He agitated among the city’s largest concentration of workers, the Tiflis Main Railway Shops. The tsarist police made preemptive arrests and arrayed mounted Cossacks with sabers and long whips, but at least 2,000 workers and onlookers defied them, chanting “Down with autocracy!” After a forty-five-minute melee involving hand-to-hand combat, the streets of the Caucasus capital were soaked with blood.93

Russian Social Democrats were exiled for revolutionary activity by the tsarist police to the Caucasus—where, of course, they helped foment revolutionary activity—and Jughashvili met Mikhail Kalinin, among others.94 But the twenty-six-year-old militant Ketskhoveli remained a key link to the imperial Russian Social Democrats and a role model for Jughashvili. Underground in Baku, Lado did start up a Georgian-language competitor to Kvali, christened Brdzola (the Struggle), a rowdy broadsheet that began appearing in September 1901. Referring to the bloody 1901 May Day clash in Tiflis, an (unsigned) essay in Brdzola (November-December 1901) defiantly rationalized that “the sacrifices we make today in street demonstration will be compensated a hundredfold,” adding that “every militant who falls in the struggle or is torn from our ranks [by arrest] rouses hundreds of new fighters.”95 The illegal printing press, which Ketskhoveli established along with Avel Yenukidze, Leonid Krasin, and other Social Democrats in Baku, was hidden in the city’s Muslim quarter and code-named “Nina”—Russian for Nino (the female patron saint of Georgia). It also published reprints of the recently founded Russian-language Marxist emigre newspaper Iskra, original copies of which were smuggled from Central Europe to Baku via Tabriz (Iran) on horseback.96 Nina very soon became the largest underground Social Democrat printing press in the entire Russian empire, and would confound the tsarist police (from 1901 to 1907).97 It was through the Nina printing press, as well as Lado’s Brdzola, that the young Jughashvili became acquainted with the ideas of Lenin, who wrote many of the blistering (unsigned) editorials in the thirteen issues of Iskra that had appeared by the end of 1901.98

Ketskhoveli, obviating Jordania, afforded Jughashvili direct access to the pulse of Russian Social Democracy, helping him become an informed Marxist and militant street agitator. The latter persona was grafted onto Jughashvili’s already deep-set autodidact disposition and his heartfelt vocation to enlighten the masses. From personal experience, however, Jughashvili would lament that workers often did not appreciate the importance of studying and self-improvement. During a meeting on November 11, 1901, of the newly formed Tiflis Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, he championed not the worker members but the demi-intelligentsia members—that is, types like himself and Lado. He argued that inviting workers to join the party was incompatible with “conspiracy” and would expose members to arrest. Lenin had propagated this vision in the pages of Iskra. He also wrote a wide-ranging pamphlet What Is to Be Done? (March 1902), a self-defense against a slashing attack (in September 1901) by other Marxists in the Iskra group. Lenin’s advocacy for an intelligentsia-centric party would soon come to divide the Iskra group.99 At the November 1901 Tiflis Committee meeting, meanwhile, a majority of Caucasus Social Democrats voted to admit workers to the party, against Jughashvili’s Lenin-like urgings.100 At the same time, the Tiflis Committee decided to send Jughashvili to agitate among workers in the Black Sea port of Batum.101

Batum was a high-profile assignment. Just twelve miles from the Ottoman border, the port had been seized from the Ottomans with the rest of Islamic Adjara (Ajaria) in the 1877–78 war and, after being joined to Russia’s Transcaucasus Railway, became the terminal for exporting Russia’s Caspian Sea oil. The world’s longest pipeline from Baku to Batum was under construction (it would open in 1907) and its sponsors—the Swedish Nobel brothers of dynamite fame, the French Rothschild brothers of banking fame, and the Armenian magnate Alexander Mantashyan (b. 1842), known in Russified form as Mantashov—endeavored to break U.S. Standard Oil’s near-monopoly in supplying kerosene to Europe.102 Jughashvili, too, sought to ride the oil boom, for leftist purposes. (Soon Iskra, along with other Russian Marxist literature, began arriving there by boat from Marseilles.) The port city already had “Sunday Schools” for workers, established by Nikoloz “Karlo” Chkheidze (b. 1864), one of the founders of the Third Group, and Isidor Ramishvili (b. 1859), both close comrades of Noe Jordania.

The younger Jughashvili immersed himself in the workers’ milieu, where he “spoke without an orator’s refinement,” a hostile fellow Georgian later recalled. “His words were imbued with power, determination. He spoke with sarcasm, irony, hammering away with crude severities,” but then “apologized, explaining that he was speaking the language of the proletariat who were not taught subtle manners or aristocratic eloquence.”103 Jughashvili’s worker pose became real when an acquaintance got him hired at the Rothschild oil company. There, on February 25, 1902, amid slackening customer demand, 389 workers (of around 900) were let go with just two weeks’ notice, provoking a total walkout two days later.104 Mass arrests ensued. Secretly, the Caucasus military chief confided to the local governors that Social Democrat “propaganda” was finding “receptive soil” because of the workers’ dreadful living and laboring conditions.105 Moreover, the policy of deporting protesting workers to their native villages was only magnifying the rebellious waves in the Georgian countryside.106 On March 9, a crowd carrying cobblestones sought to free comrades at the transit prison awaiting deportation. “Brothers, don’t be afraid,” one imprisoned worker shouted, “they can’t shoot, for God’s sake free us.” The police opened fire, killing at least fourteen.107

The “Batum massacre” reverberated around the Russian empire, but for Jughashvili—who had distributed incendiary leaflets—it brought arrest on April 5, 1901. A police report characterized him as “of no specific occupation and unknown residence,” but “a teacher of the workers.”108 Whether Jughashvili had any influence on worker militancy is unclear. But he was charged with “incitement to disorder and insubordination against higher authority.”109 Batum also set in motion the profound bad blood that would haunt Jughashvili in Caucasus Social Democrat circles. To replace him there, the Tiflis Committee sent David “Mokheve” Khartishvili. Back in Tiflis, Mokheve had argued that only workers ought to be full members of the Tiflis Committee, denying such status to intelligentsia (like Jughashvili). Once in Batum, Mokheve accused the imprisoned Jughashvili of having deliberately provoked the police massacre.110 While Jughashvili was in prison, however, his Batum loyalists resisted Mokheve’s authority. A police report—drawn from informants—observed that “Jughashvili’s despotism has enraged many people and the organization has split.”111 It was during this imprisonment that Jughashvili began regularly using the pseudonym Koba, “avenger of injustice.”112 Members of the Tiflis Committee got angry at him. They would likely have been even angrier had they known that while wallowing for a year in the Batum remand prison in 1902–3, the future Stalin twice begged the Caucasus governor-general for release, citing “a worsening, choking cough and the helpless position of my elderly mother, abandoned by her husband twelve years ago and seeing me as her sole support in life.”113 (Keke also petitioned the governor-general for her son in January 1903.) Such groveling, if it were to become known, could have tainted a revolutionary’s reputation. A prison doctor examined Jughashvili, but the gendarmerie opposed clemency.114 Fifteen months after his arrest, in July 1903, Koba Jughashvili was sentenced by administrative fiat to three years’ exile in the Mongol-speaking Buryat lands of Eastern Siberia.

Outside the bars of his cattle car, in November 1903, the future Stalin likely saw real winter for the first time—snow-blanketed earth, completely iced rivers. As a Georgian in Siberia, Koba the avenger nearly froze to death on his first escape attempt. But already by January 1904 he had managed to elude the village police chief, make it forty miles to the railhead, and arrive illegally all the way back in Tiflis.115 He would tell three different stories about his escape, including one about hitching a ride with a deliveryman whom he plied with vodka. In fact, the future Stalin appears to have used a real or forged gendarmerie identity card—a trick that compounded the suspicions about his quick escape. (Was he a police collaborator?)116 During his absence from Tiflis, there had been a congress to unify the South Caucasus Social Democrats and create a “union committee” of nine members; Jughashvili would be added to it.117 Even so, his former Batum committee shunned him. He was associated with the police bloodbath and political split there, and after his quick return, he was distrusted as a possible agent provocateur.118 Wanted by the police, he roamed: back to Gori (where he got new false papers), then Batum and Tiflis. His sometime landlady and mistress in the Batum underground, Natasha Kirtava-Sikharulidze, then twenty-two, had refused to accompany him to Tiflis; he cursed her.119 Police surveillance in the Caucasus capital was intense and Jughashvili changed residences at least eight times in a month. He met up again with Lev Rozenfeld, better known as Kamenev, who helped him find a hideaway. One safe-house apartment belonged to Sergei Alliluyev, a skilled machinist who had been sent to Tiflis, hired on at the railway workshops, and married. The family home of the Alliluyevs (Stalin’s future second father-in-law) in the Tiflis outskirts became a Social Democrat meeting center, providing refuge for agitators who, for a time, escaped arrest and deportation.120

Kamenev would also give Jughashvili a copy of the Russian translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1869), although Russia’s revolutionaries hardly needed the Italian political theorist.121 Sergei Nechayev (1847–82), the son of a serf and the founder of the secret society the People’s Retaliation, had observed in 1871, “Everything that allows the triumph of the revolution is moral, and everything that stands in its way is immoral.”122

 • • •

SUCH WERE THE LADO-INSPIRED early revolutionary years (1898–1903) in the life of the future dictator—a vocation as an agitator and teacher of the workers; a bloody confrontational May Day strategy in Tiflis; an illegal Marxist press as a rival to a legal one; accusations of provoking a police massacre and splitting the party in Batum; a long, rough prison stint in western Georgia; privately groveling before the Caucasus governor-general; a brief, freezing Siberian exile; suspicions of police collaboration; a life on the run. Almost in the blink of an eye, a pious boy from Gori, Jughashvili had gone from smuggling Victor Hugo into the Tiflis seminary to becoming a participant—albeit a completely obscure one—in a global socialist movement. That was largely thanks not to some Caucasus outlaw culture, but to tsarist Russia’s profound injustices and repression. Open confrontation with the regime had been willfully pursued by young hotheads who imagined they were plumbing the depths of the autocracy’s intransigence. Soon, however, this combative, risky approach would be adopted even by those Marxist socialists who had long resisted it, men such as Jordania and Jibladze of Kvali. The tsarist political system and conditions in the empire promoted militancy. In the Caucasus, as in the empire as a whole, leftists essentially leaped the stage of agitating for trade unionism—which remained illegal in Russia far later than in Western Europe—and went straight to violent overthrow of the abusive order.123

Even officialdom showed awareness (in internal correspondence) of the strong impetus to revolt: the factory regime was beyond brutal; landowners and their enforcers treated postemancipation peasants as chattel; any attempt to alleviate such conditions was treated as treason.124 “First one becomes convinced that existing conditions are wrong and unjust,” Stalin would later explain, persuasively. “Then one resolves to do the best one can to remedy them. Under the tsar’s regime, any attempt genuinely to help the people put one outside the pale of the law; one found oneself hunted and hounded as a revolutionist.”125 If living under tsarism made him, like many other young people, a street-fighting revolutionary, Jughashvili also styled himself an enlightener—so far, almost exclusively in oral form—as well as an outsider and an underdog, an up-and-comer who bucked not only the tsarist police but also the uncomprehending revolutionary establishment under Jordania.126 In seeking to lead protesting workers, Jughashvili had mixed success. Still, he did prove adept at cultivating a tight-knit group of young men like himself. “Koba distinguished himself from all other Bolsheviks,” one hostile Georgian emigre recalled, “by his unquestionably greater energy, indefatigable capacity for hard work, unconquerable lust for power, and above all his enormous, particularistic organizational talent” aimed at forging “disciples through whom he could . . . hold the whole organization in his grasp.”127

Before Jughashvili was launched on his own, however, Lado Ketskhoveli exemplified for him the daring professional revolutionary—battling injustice, living underground off his wits, defying tsarist police.128 Leonid Krasin judged Lado an organizational genius. Sergei Alliluyev would deem Lado the most magnetic personality of the Caucasus socialist movement. But in spring 1902, Brdzola had ceased publication after just four issues, following extensive arrests of the Baku Social Democrats. (Its rival Kvali would soon be shuttered as well.) In September 1902, Ketskhoveli himself had been arrested and incarcerated in Tiflis’ Metekhi Prison fortress. Distraught over the arrests of his comrades, Lado may have precipitated his own arrest by giving his real name during a police search of someone else’s apartment. Standing by the extralarge cell embrasures and shouting out to fellow inmates and passersby, Lado, “a rebel [buntar],” “feared and hated” by the prison administration, appears to have baited the prison guards daily. A note he tried to smuggle out of Metekhi may have gotten Avel Yenukidze arrested. In August 1903, when Lado refused to stand down from the window, a prison guard, after a warning, shot and killed Lado, age twenty-seven, through the outside window of his locked cell.129 The story would be told that Lado had been defiantly shouting “Down with the autocracy!” He seems to have been willing, perhaps even eager, to die for the cause.

Later, Stalin would not erase Lado’s independent revolutionary exploits or existence, even as almost everyone else connected to the dictator at one time or another would be airbrushed.130 (Lado’s birth house would be included in newsreels featuring Soviet Georgia.)131 The earliness of Lado’s martyrdom certainly helped in this regard. But that circumstance highlights the fact that Iosif Jughashvili himself could have suffered the same fate as his first mentor: early death in a tsarist prison.



The Russian empire is everywhere in ferment. Unrest and apprehension prevail in all classes. This applies equally to labor, students, the nobility, including the highest Court society, industrialists, merchants, shopkeepers, and, last but not least, the peasants . . . The only proven method of dealing with this situation, which is often proposed abroad, is the granting of a constitution; if this were done here, the consequences would almost certainly be revolution.

Austro-Hungarian attache in St. Petersburg, memo to Vienna, 19021

RUSSIAN EURASIA—104 NATIONALITIES SPEAKING 146 languages, as enumerated in the 1897 census—was the world’s most spectacular kaleidoscope, but in truth, empire everywhere presented a crazy patchwork.2 The key to empire in Russia, too, was not the multinationalism per se but the political system. The onset of Russia’s modern state administration is usually attributed to Peter I, or Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725), even though major changes attributed to him often had roots in his father’s and even his grandfather’s reign.3 Peter is also credited with Westernization, even though he distrusted the West and used it as a means to an end: namely, the source of technical skills.4 Peter, whose mother was a (distant) Tatar descendant, did render Russia even more European culturally. Institutionally, he regularized a state administration on the Swedish model. And he introduced a Table of Ranks, a ladder of incentives to enhance competition for honor and privilege and to open state service to new men. By detaching status from birthright—or to put it another way, by making birthright a reward conferred by the state—Peter extended the governing authority’s capacity. But he undercut all his own state building by involving himself in everything. As one foreign ambassador observed, Peter “finds daily, more and more, that in the whole realm not one of his blood relatives and boyars can be found to whom he can entrust an important office. He is therefore forced to take over the heavy burden of the realm himself, and to put his hand to a new and different government, pushing back the boyars (whom he calls disloyal dogs).”5 In 1722, Peter unilaterally upgraded himself to “Emperor” (Imperator), a claim of parity with the (nonreigning) Holy Roman emperor. (He opted for “Emperor of All the Russias” rather than a proposed “Emperor of the East.”) Above all, Peter built up his own persona, partly via court hazing rituals—dildo debauches, mock weddings—which accentuated the centrality of and access to the autocrat’s person.6 The drive for a strong state became conflated with an intense personalism.

Peter’s method of state building also reinforced the circumstance whereby Russia’s elites remained joined at the hip to the autocratic power. Russia never developed a fully fledged aristocracy with its own corporate institutions that would, eventually, decapitate the absolutism (although, finally, in 1730 some nobles in Russia did try).7 True, Russia’s gentry accumulated as much wealth as their counterparts in Austria or even England. And unlike in Austria or England, the Russian gentry also produced cultural figures of world distinction—Lermontov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Skryabin, Mussorgsky. Further, Russia’s gentry was an open estate: even bastards (such as Alexander Herzen) could attain noble status. But a still greater difference was that England’s aristocracy acquired political experience as a ruling class in a constitutional monarchy. Russia’s serf owners were all-powerful on their estates, but, ultimately, they lived under the autocrat’s sufferance. Elite status in Russia was predicated on rendering service in exchange for rewards—which could be withdrawn.8 In addition to serving the sovereign by employment in the state, Russian nobles had to work constantly just to maintain their standing in the hierarchy. True, most of Russia’s privileged families managed to survive through the centuries under the autocrats. Still, not all Russia’s elite clans did survive, and the difference between prosperous endurance versus exile or imprisonment could seem arbitrary.9 Russia’s high and mighty needed still higher-placed patrons to protect their property holdings and, sometimes, their very persons.

Multitudes of observers, including Karl Marx, asserted that “modern Russia is but a metamorphosis of Muscovy.”10 They were wrong: the post-Petrine Russian state and its capital, St. Petersburg, more closely resembled European absolutism than ancient Muscovy. But that circumstance was obscured. Russia’s “soulless” pushers of paper, “brainless” bootlickers, and “craven” collectors of state decorations took an immortal drubbing in belles lettres, nowhere better than in Nikolai Gogol’s Inspector General. Court circles too mocked Russia’s parvenu “Your Excellencies.” Aside from these memoirs and Gogol’s sublime pen, which continue to beguile historians, we can find other important voices. Prince Boris A. Vasilchikov, for example, an aristocrat elected to the local governing council (zemstvo) near his estate, and later the governor of Pskov, had shared the contempt for imperial officialdom before he got inside. “During my two years’ service as a minister I gained a very high opinion of the qualities of Petersburg officialdom,” he wrote. “The level of personnel of the Petersburg chancelleries and ministries was extremely high as regards knowledge, experience and fulfillment of official duties . . . besides this, I was struck by their immense capacity for hard work.”11 To be sure, Vasilchikov also observed that few imperial Russian functionaries possessed broad horizons and many officials who did have vision remained averse to risk, unwilling to venture their views against opinions expressed above them.12 Sycophancy could reach breathtaking heights. And officials relied upon school ties, blood and marriage relations, cliques, all of which could cover for mistakes and incompetence. Nonetheless, the authority of all-important patrons and protectors often stemmed from accomplishments, not just connections. Facts cannot compete with great stories from Gogol but they can be stubborn: imperial Russia developed a formidable fiscal-military state that proved capable of mobilizing impressive resources, certainly compared with its rivals the Ottoman or Habsburg empires.13

As late as the 1790s, when Prussia—with 1 percent of Russia’s size in land—had 14,000 officials, the tsarist empire had only 16,000 and just a single university, which was then a mere few decades old, but over the course of the 1800s, Russian officialdom grew seven times more rapidly than the population, and by 1900 had reached 385,000, leaping some 300,000 only since 1850. True, although many of Russia’s maligned provincial governors developed great administrative experience and skill, the low-prestige provincial apparatuses under them continued to suffer an extreme dearth of competent and honest clerks.14 And some territories were woefully undergoverned: in the Ferghana valley, for example, the most populous district of tsarist Turkestan, Russia posted just 58 administrators and a mere 2 translators for at least 2 million inhabitants.15 Overall, in 1900, while imperial Germany had 12.6 officials per 1,000 people, imperial Russia still had fewer than 4, a proportion reflecting Russia’s huge population—130 million versus Germany’s 50 million.16 The Russian state was top heavy and spread thin.17 Most of the provincial empire was left to be governed by local society, whose scope of governance, however, was restricted by imperial laws and whose degree of organization varied widely.18 Some provinces, such as Nizhny Novgorod, did remarkably well.19 Others, such as Tomsk, were mired in disabling corruption. Incompetence flourished most at the very top of the system. Many a deputy undertook machinations to depose his superior, which reinforced the inclination to hire mediocrities into the upper ranks, at least as top deputies, nowhere more so than in the tsars’ appointments of ministers.20 But despite the absence of a civil service examination in Russia—such as the one that guided recruitment of officialdom in imperial Germany and Japan—administrative needs did slowly begin to dictate hiring on the basis of university education and expertise.21 Russia’s functionaries (chinovniki) began to be recruited from all social ranks, and countless thousands of plebeians became nobles because of their state service, a path upward that would be tightened but never closed.

At the same time, unlike the absolutism in Prussia, Austria, Britain, or France, Russia’s autocracy endured deep into modern times. Prussia’s Frederick the Great (r. 1772–86) had called himself “the first servant of the state,” thereby marking the state’s separate existence from the sovereign. Russia’s tsars would hand out a Siberian silver mine’s worth of medals to state officials but, jealous of their autocratic prerogatives, they hesitated to recognize a state independent of themselves. The “autocratic principle” held even through the gravest crises. In 1855, when Alexander II succeeded his father, a dying Nicholas I had said to his son, “I want to take with me all the unpleasantness and the troubles and pass on to you an orderly, calm and happy Russia.”22 But Nicholas I had embroiled the empire in a costly Crimean War (1853–56), seeking to take advantage of a contracting Ottoman empire. Britain led a European concert against St. Petersburg, and Alexander II, at a loss of 450,000 imperial Russian subjects, found himself forced to accept defeat just before the conflict tipped into a world war.23 After the debacle—Russia’s first lost war in 145 years—Alexander II was constrained to countenance a series of Great Reforms, including a belated serf emancipation. (“It is better that this come from above than from below,” the tsar warned the unconvinced nobles, who were scarcely mollified by the huge redemption payments the state collected on their behalf from peasants.)24 But the tsar’s own autocratic prerogatives remained sacrosanct. Alexander II permitted an unprecedented degree of domestic freedom in the universities, the press, the courts, but as soon as Russian subjects exercised that civil freedom, he pushed back.25 The Tsar-Liberator—as he came to be known—refused a constitution, because, as his interior minister noted, Alexander II “was genuinely convinced that it would harm Russia and would lead to its dissolution.”26 But the tsar would not even let state law be applied to state officials, lest that diminish the autocrat’s dispensation.27 On the contrary, the granting of some local self-rule, some independence to the judiciary, and some autonomy to universities, alongside the freeing of the serfs, made a reassertion of autocratic power seem all the more urgent to Alexander II. Thus, the Great Reform moment to establish a parliament when it might have stuck—in the 1860s, and again in the 1880s—was fatally missed.28

Russia lacked not only a parliament but even a coordinated government, so as not to infringe on the autocrat’s prerogatives. To be sure, Alexander II had approved a Council of Ministers to coordinate government affairs, but the effort (1857) was stillborn. In practice, the tsar shrank from relinquishing the power of having individual ministers obviate the collective body and report to him directly, and privately; the ministers colluded in the government reform’s sabotage, not wanting to forgo the influence gained via private access to the autocrat.29 Meetings of the Council, like any imperial audiences, mostly involved efforts to divine the “autocratic will,” to avoid the catastrophe of being on the wrong side of decisions. Only the most skillful could manage, every now and then, to implant an idea as the tsar’s own.30 Courtiers and “unofficial” advisers, meanwhile, continued to make policy, even for the ministries, and the Russian government’s operation remained uncoordinated and secretive—from officialdom. Tsarism suffered a debilitation it could not overcome: the imperatives of autocracy undermined the state. Of the resulting political regime, wags called it fairly simple: autocracy, tempered by occasional assassination. Open season had commenced in 1866, with the first of six attempts on Alexander II. He was finally blown to bits in 1881. Alexander III survived several close calls, including one in the company of his son Nicholas, the future tsar. In 1887, after a failed plot on Alexander III, Alexander Ulyanov, a member of the underground People’s Will—and the elder brother of the-then seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov (the future Lenin)—refused an offer of clemency and was hanged. The inflexible autocracy had many enemies, including Iosif Jughashvili. But its most dangerous enemy was itself.


By the turn of the century, at least 100 political murders had been notched in imperial Russia. After that the pace picked up, as terrorist-assassins pursued what they called disorganization—provoking the police to make arrests and shed blood, which, in twisted terrorist logic, would galvanize society to revolt. The next royal family member hit was Moscow’s governor, Grand Duke Sergei, a younger son of Alexander II (and an uncle of Nicholas II), who was decapitated by a bomb right inside the Kremlin in 1905. Until that year, politics in Russia was essentially illegal: political parties and trade unions were banned; censorship meant that few options for political discourse existed, other than tossing a “pomegranate” at an official’s carriage and watching the body parts fly. (Grand Duke Sergei’s fingers were found on a nearby rooftop.)31 In response, the tsarist authorities had reorganized the political police, creating a formidable new body, the Okhrannoe otdelenie, which the terrorists promptly dubbed the okhranka— meaning, pejoratively, “the little security agency.” Of course, not only Russia but also the European dynasties (Bourbon France, Habsburg Austria) had invented the practice of “policing,” that is, using the institution of the police to help direct society; by comparison with its European peers, Russia’s political police were not especially nefarious.32 The okhranka intercepted mail via secret “black cabinets”—modeled on France’s cabinets noires—where operatives steamed open letters, read invisible ink, and cracked revolutionaries’ codes (such as they were).33 Inevitably, Russia’s police chiefs discovered their mail was perlustrated, too, and some tsarist officials took to sending letters to third parties that obsequiously flattered their bosses.34 Even working along with Russia’s regular Department of Police and Special Corps of Gendarmes, the shadowy okhranka never attained the societal coverage of its better-endowed French counterpart.35 But the okhranka’s mystique enhanced its reach.

Many okhranka operatives were highly educated, forming a kind of “police intelligentsia,” compiling libraries of revolutionary works in order to discredit the revolutionaries’ ideas.36 Operatives incorporated the latest international tradecraft, using E. R. Henry’s book on fingerprinting from the London police and file methods from the German police.37 Terror fighting proved sullying, however: the okhranka often felt constrained to allow terrorists to complete their assassinations so the police could track terror networks as fully as possible.38 Worse, many okhranka infiltrators carried out the political murders themselves, to prove their bona fides and remain in a position to continue surveillance. Tsarist police assassinating other tsarist officials was a nasty business that exacerbated the internal divisions of rivalrous police cabals. The upshot was that senior okhranka operatives themselves were placed under surveillance, though fewer of them turned rogue than were murdered by their own turncoat agents.39 The okhranka also suffered the disdain of Tsar Nicholas II, who almost never deigned to meet his okhranka chief.40 And yet, though almost entirely without connections at court, the okhranka was the only part of the state genuinely moored in society. Moreover, despite the police agency’s entanglement with the terrorists it was supposed to fight, and its alienation from the regime it was supposed to protect, the okhranka scored success after success.41 It cast effective clouds over genuine revolutionaries by falsely naming them as police agents, and supported those revolutionary elements whose ascendancy would hurt the terrorist organizations. Stalin would be dogged his entire life, and beyond, by rumors that he was an undercover police agent (accusations his many enemies failed to prove).42 Lev Trotsky, too, came under suspicion of police collaboration.43 As one former okhranka chief boasted, “the revolutionaries . . . fell to suspecting each other, so that in the end no conspirator could trust another.”44

Adroitly sowing discord among naturally fractious revolutionaries and stage-managing terrorists, however, could never redress the tsarist order’s most profound vulnerability. The autocracy’s core problem was not that it fell under political assault, or that authoritarianism was ipso facto incompatible with modernity, but that Russia’s autocracy was deliberately archaic. Tsarism choked on the very modernity that it desperately needed and, to an extent, pursued in order to compete as a great power.45

What we designate modernity was not something natural or automatic. It involved a set of difficult-to-attain attributes—mass production, mass culture, mass politics—that the greatest powers mastered. Those states, in turn, forced other countries to attain modernity as well, or suffer the consequences, including defeat in war and possible colonial conquest. Colonies, from the point of view of the colonizers, were not just geopolitical assets (in most cases), but in the words of one historian, also “a form of conspicuous consumption on a national scale”—markers of geopolitical status, or the lack thereof, which drove an aggressiveness in state-to-state rivalries, as those on the receiving end could attest.46 Modernity, in other words, was not a sociological process—moving from “traditional” to “modern” society—but a geopolitical process: a matter of acquiring what it took to join the great powers, or fall victim to them.47

Consider the invention of systems to manufacture steel (1850s), a strong and elastic form of iron that revolutionized weapons and made possible a global economy by transforming shipping. Steel took off thanks in part to the invention of the electric motor (1880s), which made possible mass production: the standardization of core aspects of products, the subdivision of work on assembly lines, the replacement of manual labor by machinery, the reorganization of flow among shops.48 These new production processes boosted world steel production from half a million tons in 1870 to twenty-eight million by 1900. But the United States accounted for ten million; Germany, eight; and Britain, five; a small number of countries had almost all the steel. To this picture one could add the manufacture of crucial industrial chemicals: synthetic fertilizers for boosting agricultural yields, chlorine bleach to make cotton, and explosives (Alfred Nobel’s nitroglycerine dynamite, 1866) for mining, railroad construction, and assassinations. As some countries succeeded at modern industry, the world became divided between advantaged industrializers (Western Europe, North America, Japan) and disadvantaged raw material suppliers (Africa, South America, much of Asia).

Competitive modern attributes also included finance and credit facilities, stable currencies, and stock companies.49 But in many ways, the new world economy rested upon peasants in the tropics who supplied the primary products (raw materials) necessary for industrial countries and, in turn, consumed many of the goods produced from their raw materials. Commercialization spurred specialization away from subsistence—in China, for example, vast acreage of subsistence agriculture had been converted to cotton to feed the English cotton mills—with the result that the spread of markets made possible huge increases in production. But that spread also undercut diverse crop raising (to minimize subsistence shortfalls) and reciprocal social networks (to enhance survival), meaning markets undercut the traditional methods for coping with cyclical drought, which was chronic. El Niño airflows (the recurrent warming of the Pacific Ocean) export heat and humidity to parts of the world, creating an unstable climate for farming: torrential rains, floods, landslides, and wildfires, as well as severe droughts. The upshot was three waves of famine and disease (1876–79, 1889–91, 1896–1900) that killed between 30 and 60 million people in China, Brazil, and India. In India alone, 15 million people died of famine, equal to half the population of England at the time. Not since the fourteenth-century Black Death or the sixteenth-century disease destruction of New World natives had there been such annihilation. Had such mass death occurred in Europe—the equivalent of thirty Irish famines—it would be regarded as a central episode of world history. Besides the effects of commercialization and weather, additional factors came into play: The collapse of a U.S. railroad bubble, for example, led to an abrupt decline in demand for key tropical products. Above all, colonial rulers compounded the market and climate uncertainties with inept and racist rule.50 Only in Ethiopia in 1889 was absolute scarcity an issue; these were not “natural” famines but man-made ones, the consequences of a world subjected to great power domination.

Modernity’s power could be woefully mismanaged. While India was experiencing mass starvation, between 1870–1900, grain exports to Britain were increased, from 3 million to 10 million, supplying one-fifth of British wheat consumption. “Famine,” admitted one British official in 1907, after thirty-five years of service, “is now more frequent than formerly and more severe.”51 But the British themselves were responsible. They had built the fourth largest railroad network in India to take advantage of their colony, but this technology that could have brought relief instead took food away. The British viceroy in India, Lord Lytton, opposed on principle local officials’ efforts to stock grain or interfere with market prices. He demanded that the emaciated and the dying work for food because, he insisted, food relief would encourage shirking from work (not to mention cost public funds). When starving women attempted to steal from gardens, they were subjected to branding, and sometimes had their noses cut off or were killed. Rural mobs assaulted landowners and pillaged grain stores. British officials observed the desperation and reported it back home. “One madman dug up and devoured part of a cholera victim, while another killed his son and ate part of the boy,” one report from India noted. The Qing rulers in China had resisted building railroads, fearing their use in colonialist penetration, so the capacity in China for famine relief was limited. Huge peasant revolts broke out—the Canudos war in Brazil, the Boxer rebellion in China (where posters noted: “No rain comes from Heaven. The Earth is parched and dry.”). But the peasants could not, at that time, overthrow formal or informal imperialism.

Markets and a world economy made possible previously unimaginable prosperity, but most of the world had a difficult time appreciating the benefits. To be sure, the new world economy was not all encompassing. Many pockets of territory lived outside the opportunities and the pressures. Still, the world economy could feel like a force of nature. Electricity spurred soaring demand for copper (wires), drawing Montana, Chile, and southern Africa into the world economy, a chance for newfound prosperity, but also for subjecting their populations to wild price swings on world commodities markets. The consequences were huge. Beyond the waves of famine, the collapse of one bank in Austria in 1873 could trigger a depression that spread as far as the United States, causing mass unemployment, while in the 1880s and 1890s, Africa was devastated by recessions outside the continent—and then swallowed up in an imperial scramble by the modernity-wielding Europeans.52

Imperial Russia faced the modernity challenge with considerable success. It became the world’s fourth or fifth largest industrial power, thanks to textiles, and Europe’s top agricultural producer, an achievement of Russia’s sheer size. But here was the rub: Russia’s per capita GDP stood at just 20 percent of Britain’s and 40 percent of Germany’s.53 St. Petersburg had the world’s most opulent court, but by the time the future Stalin was born, Russia’s average lifespan at birth was a mere thirty years, higher than in British India (twenty-three), but no better than in China, and well below Britain (fifty-two), Germany (forty-nine) and Japan (fifty-one). Literacy under Tsar Nicholas II hovered near 30 percent, lower than in Britain in the eighteenth century. The Russian establishment knew these comparisons intimately because they visited Europe often, and they evaluated their country not alongside third-rate powers—what we would call developing countries—but alongside the first-rank. Even if Russian elites had been more modest in their ambitions, however, their country could have expected little respite in the early twentieth century, given the unification and rapid industrialization of Germany and the consolidation and industrialization of Japan. When a great power suddenly knocks at your country’s door, with advanced military technology, officers who are literate and capable, motivated soldiers, and well-run state institutions and engineering schools back home, you cannot cry “unfair.” Russia’s socioeconomic and political advance had to be, and was, measured relative to that of its most advanced rivals.54

Even contemporary revolutionaries recognized Russia’s dilemmas. Nikolai Danielson, the lead translator of Marx’s Das Kapital into Russian, worried that his preferred path for Russia of an unhurried, organic evolution to socialism via the peasant commune (a small-scale, decentralized economic organization) could not survive the pressures of the international system, while Russia’s bourgeoisie was not up to the challenge either. “On the one hand, emulating England’s slow-paced, 300-year process of economic development might leave Russia vulnerable to colonial domination by one or another of the world’s great powers,” Danielson wrote in a preface to the 1890s Russian edition of Das Kapital. “On the other, a headlong, Darwinian introduction of ‘western-style’ free markets and privatization might produce a corrupt bourgeois elite and a destitute majority—without any increase in productivity rates.” Russia seemed to face a frightful choice between colonization by European countries or new depths of inequality and poverty.55

For the tsarist regime, the stakes were high and so were the costs. Even after conceding the Great Reforms, Russia’s rulers continued to feel increasing fiscal limits to their international aspirations. The Crimean War had clobbered state finances, but the revenge victory in the Russo-Ottoman War (1877–78) cost Russia still more treasure. Between 1858 and 1880, Russia’s budget deficit soared from 1.7 to 4.6 billion rubles, which required huge foreign borrowing—from Russia’s geopolitical rivals, the European great powers.56 Corruption meant that substantial sums of state money went unaccounted for. (Treatment of state revenue as private income was perhaps most outlandish in the Caucasus, a sinkhole of imperial finance.)57 True, Russia escaped the fate of the Ottomans, who became a financial and geopolitical client of Europe, or of the Qing (1636–1911), who doubled the size of China, in parallel to Russia’s expansion, only to go flat broke and be subjected to a series of profoundly unequal international treaties, including at the hands of Russia.58 By the early 1900s, Russia’s state budget tended to be in surplus, thanks to taxes on sugar, kerosene, matches, tobacco, imported goods, and above all, vodka. (The Russian empire’s per capita alcohol consumption was lower than elsewhere in Europe but the state ran a monopoly on sales.)59 At the same time, however, Russia’s army budget eclipsed state expenditure on education by a factor of ten. And even then, the war ministry incessantly complained of insufficient resources.60

Competitive great-power pressures did help drive an expansion of Russia’s higher education system in order to produce state functionaries, engineers, and doctors.61 But the autocracy came to dread the very students it desperately needed. When the autocracy tried to strangle moves for university autonomy, students went on strike, which led to campus lockdowns.62 Of those arrested in the Russian empire between 1900 and 1905, the vast majority were under thirty years of age.63 Similarly, industrialization had taken off from the 1890s, giving Russia many of the modern factories critical to international power, yet industrial workers were striking, too, for an eight-hour workday and humane living conditions, leading to lockdowns. Rather than permit legal organizations and try to co-opt the workers—as was initially tried by a talented Moscow okhranka chief—the autocracy fell back upon repressing the workers whom the state’s own vital industrialization was creating.64 In the countryside, whose harvest remained the state’s preeminent economic determinant, Russian grain exports fed large swaths of Europe while domestic food consumption grew, despite comparatively lower Russian yields on sown land.65 But in spring 1902, in the fertile Poltava and Kharkov provinces of the south, peasants burst into mass rebellion, looting and burning gentry estates, demanding land-rent reductions as well as free access to forests and waterways, thereby prompting the novelist Lev Tolstoy to address petitions to the tsar.66 The next year in western Georgia’s Kutaisi province, among the forty square miles of vineyards and tea leaves of Guria, peasants were provoked by inept tsarist repression, and rebelled. The province lacked even a single industrial enterprise, and the uprising threw the Social Democrats for a loop. But after the peasants gathered, drew up demands, elected leaders, and took mutual oaths to loyalty, Georgian Social Democrats sought to lead them. Rents paid to landowners were reduced, freedom of speech was allowed, and the police were replaced by a new “red” militia in an autonomous “Gurian Republic.”67

Imperial Russia had more than 100 million rural inhabitants living under extremely diverse conditions. Every country undergoing the modernization compelled by the international system was torn by social tensions. But Russia’s tensions were magnified by the autocratic system’s refusal to incorporate the masses into the political system, even by authoritarian means. And many would-be revolutionaries who had abandoned peasant-oriented Populism for worker-centric Marxism faced a rethinking.


For Russia, the inherent geopolitical imperative of achieving the attributes of modernity was rendered still costlier because of its geography. Great Britain’s attempted containment of Russia failed: the Crimean War defeat on Russian soil had helped provoke a spasm of Russian conquest into Central Asia (1860s–80s) on top of a seizure of the Amur River basin from China (1860). But those land grabs had deepened Russia’s challenge of having sprawling geography and a difficult neighborhood. The Russian empire—unlike the world’s other great continental power—was not safely nestled between the two great oceans and two harmless neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Russia simultaneously abutted Europe, the Near East, and the Far East. Such a circumstance should have argued for caution in foreign policy. But Russia had tended to be expansionist precisely in the name of vulnerability: even as forces loyal to the tsar had seized territory, they imagined they were preempting attacks. And once Russia had forcibly acquired a region, its officials invariably insisted they had to acquire the next one over, too, in order to be able to defend their original gains. A sense of destiny and insecurity combined in a heady mix.

Russia had reached the Pacific in the seventeenth century but never developed its vast Asian territories. Dreams of trade with the Far East went unrealized, owing to the lack of reliable, cost-effective transport.68 But then Russia built the Trans-Siberian Railway (1891–1903) linking the imperial capital with the Pacific.69 (The United States had completed its transcontinental railroad in 1869.) Military and strategic considerations dominated Russia’s railroad project as military circles clamored for a railroad not out of fear of Japan but of China. (Opponents of the railroad favored a naval buildup.)70 But some officials put forward visions of force marching Siberia’s economic development (in 1890, all of Siberia had 687 industrial enterprises, most of them artisanal and nearly 90 percent of them in food-processing and livestock).71 The Trans-Siberian proved to be the most expensive peaceful undertaking in modern history up to that time, involving colossal waste, unmechanized exertion, and press-ganged peasant and convict labor, all of which paralleled construction of the contemporaneous Panama Canal (and presaged Stalin’s pharaonic Five-Year Plans).72 Russia’s engineers had been dispatched on study trips to the United States and Canada in the 1880s, but back home they employed none of the lessons on the need for stronger rails and sturdy ballast.73 Still, against domestic opposition and long odds, the line had been built, thanks to the willpower and clever manipulations of Finance Minister Sergei Witte.

Witte had been born in 1849 in Tiflis to a Swedish-Lutheran family (on his father’s side) that had converted to Orthodoxy and served the Russian state in midlevel positions on the empire’s southern frontier. His mother’s family had higher status. Witte completed gymnasium in Kishinev and university in Odessa, where he began his long career by managing the Odessa railroads, making them profitable. In 1892, in the aftermath of the famine of 1891, he became finance minister in St. Petersburg. Just forty-three years old, with low imperial rank initially, widely dismissed as some kind of “merchant” (kupets), and with Ukrainian-accented Russian, Witte nonetheless became the dominant figure in turn-of-the-century imperial Russian politics, forcing even foreign policy into the purview of his finance ministry.74

Witte did not have the entire field to himself, of course. Just in terms of the executive branch of the state, he had to reckon with the ministry of internal affairs, the umbrella for the okhranka, as well as the regular police. In many ways, Russian governance, and even Russian politics, pivoted on the two great ministries, internal affairs and finance, and the rivalry between them. Both finance and internal affairs connived to expand at the central level, and to extend their writ into locales.75 On the occasion of their joint one hundredth jubilee in 1902, each published a history of itself. Internal affairs told a story of imposing and maintaining domestic order, especially in rural Russia; finance, of the productive exploitation of Russia’s natural and human resources, whence revenues could be collected.76 Despite being overwhelmingly a peasant country, Russia had no separate agricultural ministry per se, though it did have an evolving, relatively small-scale (until 1905–6) ministry that was responsible for land, most of which belonged to the state or the imperial household.77 A ministry of communications (railways) as well as one of commerce and industry existed as satellites of the powerful finance ministry. By the early 1900s, the budgetary resources commanded by the finance ministry exceeded by several times those available to internal affairs and its police.78 The finance ministry was the great bureaucratic empire within the Russian empire.79

Witte also had to contend with the court. He came from a merely middling family background, was ill mannered, and had married a Jewish woman, all of which raised hackles in court society. But the physically imposing Witte, who had a massive head and torso, on short legs, imposed order on imperial budgets, filling state coffers by introducing the alcohol monopoly.80 Also, he vastly broadened a recent finance ministry practice of vigorously pushing industrialization, and he did so by attracting foreign capital, playing off the French and Germans. Witte saw foreign debt as a way to help spur the accumulation of native capital. He also cherished the state machinery. Above all, Witte emphasized the geopolitical imperative of industrializing. “No matter how great the results so far, in relation to the needs of the country and in comparison with foreign countries our industry is still very backward,” he wrote in a memorandum in 1900, urging Nicholas II to maintain protective tariffs. Witte added that “even the military preparedness of a country is determined not only by the perfection of its military machine but by the degree of its industrial development.” Without energetic actions, he warned, “the slow growth of our industries will endanger the fulfillment of the great political tasks of the monarchy.” Russia’s rivals would seize the upper hand abroad and achieve economic and possibly “triumphant political penetration” of Russia itself.81 Like Stalin would, Witte lopsidedly prioritized heavy and large-scale industry at the expense of light industry and the welfare of the overwhelmingly rural population. Witte’s ministry put out deliberately inflated consumption statistics to cover up the burdens imposed.82 As it happened, Witte also scribbled his orders in pencil directly on the memoranda of subordinates (“Discuss this again”) (“Write a summary abstract”), and worked late into the evenings, both viewed as distinguishing traits of the future Soviet dictator. Witte further anticipated Stalin by a habit of pacing his office while others in attendance had to sit.

Witte imagined himself a Russian Bismarck, drawing inspiration from the Iron Chancellor’s use of the state to promote economic development as well as his foreign policy realism. Witte also championed, at least rhetorically, what he called Bismarck’s “social monarchy”—that is, a conservative program of social welfare to preempt socialism.83 Witte possessed immense administrative abilities as well as the profound self-regard required of a top politician.84 Besides being awarded the Order of St. Anne, first class—a tsarist precursor of the Order of Lenin—he received more than ninety state awards from foreign governments (unthinkable in the Soviet context). In turn, using finance ministry funds, he bestowed medals, state apartments, country homes, travel allowances, and “bonuses” on his minions, allies, clans at court, and journalists (for favorable coverage). From the finance ministry’s offices on the Moika Canal, Witte enjoyed a grand vista onto the Winter Palace and Palace Square, but he also assiduously frequented the salons in the nobles’ palaces lining the Fontanka Canal. In the autocracy, for a minister to become a genuinely independent actor was near impossible. Witte depended utterly on the tsar’s confidence (doverie). Witte understood that another key to power entailed remaining well informed amid a deliberate non-sharing of information inside the government.85 This required a broad informal network coursing through all the top layers of society. (“As a minister,” wrote Witte’s successor at the finance ministry, “one had no option but to play a role in Court and in Petersburg society if one was to defend the interests of one’s department and maintain one’s position.”)86 In other words, in tsarist government relentless intrigues were not personal but structural, and Witte was a master: he developed close links to dubious types in the okhranka, whom he employed for a variety of purposes, but his underlings in the finance ministry, too, had been tasked with overhearing and recording conversations of rivals, which Witte would edit and send to the tsar. After a decade of high-profile power at the top of the Russian state, which elicited endless attacks against Witte by rivals and societal critics of his harsh taxation policies, Nicholas II would finally lose confidence in him in 1903, shunting him to a largely ceremonial post (Witte “fell upward,” contemporaries said). But his historic run at the finance ministry lasted a decade, making him one of Stalin’s most important forerunners.

Witte emulated not just Bismarck but also his British contemporary in Africa, the diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), and looked upon the Far East as his personal imperial space.87 In order to shorten the route from St. Petersburg to the terminal point at Vladivostok (“rule the east”), Witte constructed a southerly branch of the Trans-Siberian right through the Chinese territory of Manchuria. Under the slogan of “peaceful penetration,” he and other Russian officials imagined they were preempting Russia’s rival imperialists (Britain, Germany, France) from carving up China the way they had the African continent.88 Other Russian officials, while insisting that each forcible conquest had to be followed by another, in order to be able to defend the original gains, competed to gain the tsar’s favor, one-upping Witte’s supposedly measured push into China. The war ministry seized, then leased, Port Arthur (Lushun), a deep warm-water entrepot on China’s Liaodong Peninsula, which jutted ever so strategically into the Yellow Sea. But Russia’s overall increasingly forward position in East Asia, in which Witte was complicit, ran smack up against not the European powers that so transfixed St. Petersburg elites, but an aggressive, imperialist Japan.89

Japan was in no way a power on the order of the world leader, Great Britain. Living standards in Japan were perhaps only one fifth of Britain’s, and Japan, like Russia, remained an agriculture-dominated economy.90 Japan’s real wages, measured against rice prices, had probably been only one third of Britain’s in the 1830s, and would still be only one third in the early twentieth century. Still, that meant that during Britain’s leap, real wages in Japan had improved at the same rate as real wages improved in the leading power.91 Although Japan was still exporting primary products or raw materials (raw silk) to Europe, within Asia, Japan exported consumer goods. Indeed, Japan’s rapidly increasing trade had shifted predominantly to within East Asia, where it gained widespread admiration or envy for discovering what looked like a shortcut to Western-style modernity.92 Japan was also rapidly building up a navy, just like Germany. (The conservative modernizer Bismarck was in his day the most popular foreign figure in Japan, too.)93 Moreover, as an ally of Britain, rather than be subjected to informal imperialism, Japan led a shift in East Asia toward free trade, the ideology of the strong. Japan had defeated China in a war over the Korean Peninsula (1894–95) and seized Taiwan. Already in the 1890s, Russia’s general staff began to draft contingency planning for possible hostilities with Japan, following the shock of Japan’s crushing defeat of China. But partly for wont of military intelligence on Japan, although mostly because of racial prejudice, Russian ruling circles belittled the “Asiatics” as easily conquerable.94 Whereas the Japanese general staff had estimated no better than a fifty-fifty chance of prevailing, perhaps hedging their bets, Russian ruling circles were certain they would win if it came to war.95 The British naval attache similarly reported widespread feeling in Tokyo that Japan would “crumple up.”96 Of all people, Nicholas II should have known better. As tsarevich, he had seen Japan with his own eyes, during an unprecedented (for a Russian royal) grand tour of the Orient (1890–91), where the sword of a Japanese assassin nearly killed the future tsar, and left a permanent scar on his forehead. (A cousin in Nicholas’s party parried a second saber blow with a cane.) But as tsar, facing possible war, Nicholas dismissed the Japanese as “macaques,” an Asian species of short-tailed monkey.97

Russo-Japanese negotiators had tried to find a modus vivendi through a division of spoils, exchanging recognition of a Russian sphere in Manchuria for recognition of a Japanese sphere in Korea, but each side’s “patriots” kept arguing that they absolutely had to have both Manchuria and Korea to protect either one. Japan, which felt its weakness in the face of a combination of European powers encroaching in East Asia, would likely have compromised if Russia had been willing to do so as well, but it remained unclear what Russia actually would settle for. A clique of courtier intriguers, led by Alexander Bezobrazov, exacerbated Japan’s suspicions with a scheme to penetrate Korea while enriching themselves via a forestry concession. Bezobrazov held no ministerial position, yet Nicholas, as an assertion of “autocratic prerogative,” afforded the courtier frequent access, cynically using Bezobrazov to keep his own ministers, Witte included, off balance. Nicholas II’s changeable and poorly communicated views, and his failure to keep his own government informed, let alone seek its members’ expertise, rendered Russia’s Far Eastern policy that much more opaque and incoherent.98 Japanese ruling circles decided, before negotiations for a deal with Russia had been exhausted, and after prolonged internal debate and disagreement, to launch an all-out preventative war. In February 1904, Japan severed diplomatic relations and attacked Russian vessels at anchor at Port Arthur, a quick strike against the slow-moving Russian giant to demonstrate its underestimated prowess, before possibly seeking third-party mediation.99 Russia’s Pacific fleet fell to the Japanese, who also managed to land infantry on the Korean Peninsula to march on Russian positions in Manchuria. The shock was profound. “It is no longer possible to live this way,” editorialized even the archconservative Russian paper New Times on January 1, 1905. That same day, Vladimir Lenin called the autocracy’s immense military structure “a beautiful apple rotten at the core.”100 Russia dispatched its Baltic fleet halfway around the world, 18,000 nautical miles. Seven and a half months later, upon reaching the theater of hostilities in May 1905, eight modern battleships, built by St. Petersburg’s skilled workers, were promptly sunk in the Tsushima Strait with the colors flying.101

The Russian state had subordinated everything to military priorities and needs, and the Romanovs had tied their image and legitimacy to Russia’s international standing, so the Tsushima shock was devastating.102 On land, too, the Japanese achieved startling victories over Russia, including the Battle of Mukden, then the largest military engagement in world history (624,000 combined forces), where Russia enjoyed a numerical advantage.103 The stinging Mukden defeat came on the anniversary of Nicholas II’s coronation.104

This debacle in the very arena that justified the autocracy’s existence—great power status—not only exposed tsarism’s political failings but threatened political collapse. Strikes had erupted at the military factories producing the weaponry for the war, so that by January 8, 1905, Russia’s wartime capital was bereft of electricity and information (newspapers). On Sunday, January 9, 1905, seven days after a besieged Port Arthur fell to Japanese forces, thousands of striking workers and their families assembled at six points in the working-class neighborhoods, beyond the Narva and Nevsky gates, to march on the Winter Palace in order to present a petition to the “tsar-father” for the improvement of workers’ lives, protection of their rights, and dignity by means of the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.105 They were led by a conservative priest, carried Orthodox icons and crosses, and sang religious hymns and “God Save the Tsar” as church bells tolled. Nicholas II had repaired to his main residence, the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, outside the city, and had no intention of meeting the petitioners. The haphazard authorities on hand in the capital decided to seal off the city center with troops. The priest’s group got only as far as the Narva Gate in the southwest, where imperial troops met them with gunfire when they sought to proceed farther. Amid dozens of bodies, the priest exclaimed, “There is no God anymore, there is no Tsar!” Shooting also halted unarmed marching men, women, and children at the Trinity Bridge, the Alexander Gardens, and elsewhere. Panic ensued and some petitioners trampled others to death. Around 200 people were killed across the capital that day, and another 800 were wounded—workers, wives, children, bystanders.106 St. Petersburg’s “Bloody Sunday” provoked far greater strikes, the looting of liquor and firearm shops, and all around fury.

Nicholas II’s image as father of the people would never be the same. (“All classes condemn the authorities and most particularly the Emperor,” observed the U.S. consul in Odessa. “The present ruler has lost absolutely the affection of the Russian people.”)107 In February 1905, the tsar vaguely promised an elected “consultative” Duma or assembly, which sent alarms through conservative ranks, while failing to quell the unrest. The next month, all universities were (again) locked down.108 Strikers closed down the empire’s railway system, forcing government officials to travel by riverboat to meet with the tsar in his suburban palace. In June 1905, sailors seized control of the battleship Potemkin, part of the Black Sea fleet—which was all Russia had left after the loss of its Pacific and Baltic fleets—and bombarded Odessa before seeking asylum in Romania. “The chaos was all-encompassing,” one police insider wrote, adding that political police work “ground to a halt.”109 Strike waves swept Russian Poland, the Baltics, and the Caucasus, where “the whole administrative apparatus fell into confusion,” recalled Jordania, the leader of Georgia’s Marxists. “A de facto freedom of assembly, strike and demonstration was established.”110 The governor of Kutaisi province of the Caucasus went over to the revolutionaries. In Kazan and Poltava provinces, the governors had nervous breakdowns. Others lost their heads. “You risk your life, you wear out your nerves maintaining order so that people can live like human beings, and what do you encounter everywhere?” complained Governor Ivan Blok of Samara. “Hate-filled glances as if you were some kind of monster, a drinker of human blood.” Moments later Blok was decapitated by a bomb. Placed in a traditional open casket, his twisted body was stuffed into his dress uniform, a ball of batting substituted for his missing head.111

The homefront had imploded. On the war’s two sides, some 2.5 million men had been mobilized, with each side suffering between 40,000 and 70,000 killed. (Around 20,000 Chinese civilians also died.) In fact, because Japan could not replace its losses, its big victories like Mukden may have actually edged Tokyo closer to defeat.112 But if Nicholas II was tempted to continue the war to reverse his military setbacks, he had no such opportunity. The failure of the Japanese to have sabotaged the Trans-Siberian—one of the critical transport modes for the enemy’s troops and materiel—remains mysterious.113 But the peasants were refusing to pay taxes and would destroy or damage more than 2,000 manor houses. Already by March 1905, the interior ministry had concluded that owing to uprisings, military call-ups had become impossible in thirty-two of the fifty provinces of European Russia.114 European credits, on which the Russian state relied for cash flow, dried up, threatening a default.115 On August 23, 1905 [September 5, in the West], Russia and Japan signed a peace treaty in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, brokered by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Invited to intercede by Japan, Roosevelt proved eager to curb Tokyo’s might in the Pacific (a harbinger of the future). Russia was well represented by Witte, who regained his lost luster and made the best of a bad situation.116 Russia had to acknowledge defeat, but was absolved of paying war indemnities, while the only Russian territory relinquished was half of remote Sakhalin Island (a penal colony). Still, the defeat reverberated internationally (far more than the Ethiopian victory over Italy in 1896). Russia became the first major European power to be defeated in a symmetric battle by an Asian country—and in front of the world press corps. In a typical contemporary assessment, one observer called news of the victory “of a non-white people over a white people” nothing less than “the most important event which has happened, or is likely to happen, in our lifetime.”117


Japan’s military attache in Stockholm was spreading bushels of money to tsarism’s array of political opponents in European exile, but he expressed considerable frustration. “All of the so-called opposition parties are secret societies, where no one can distinguish opponents of the regime from Russian agents,” the attache reported to superiors, adding that the revolutionaries—or provocateurs?—all went by false names. In any case, his work, which okhranka mail interception exposed, proved utterly superfluous.118 Russia’s revolutionaries got far more assistance from the autocracy itself. While Russia’s army, the empire’s main forces of order, had been removed beyond its borders—for a war with Japan on the territories of China and Korea—Russia’s revolutionaries were kept out of the battle. Even married peasants more than forty years old were targets of military recruiters, but subjects without permanent residence and with a criminal record were free to pursue rebellion at home.

The twenty-seven-year-old future Stalin, as described in a tsarist police report (May 1, 1904):

Jughashvili, Iosif Vissarionovich: [legal status of] peasant from the village of Didi-Lido, Tiflis county, Tiflis province; born 1881 of Orthodox faith, attended Gori church school and Tiflis theological seminary; not married. Father, Vissarion, whereabouts unknown. Mother, Yeketerina, resident of the town of Gori, Tiflis province . . . Description: height, 2 arshins, 4.5 vershki [about 5' 5"], average build; gives the appearance of an ordinary person.119

Although his date of birth (1878) and height (5'6") were wrongly recorded, this deceptively “ordinary person,” precisely because of his political activities, was exempt from military service—and as a result could position himself to be right in the thick of the 1905 uprising. The Georgian branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party assigned him to Chiatura, a hellhole in western Georgia where hundreds of small companies employed a combined 3,700 miners and sorters to extract and haul manganese ore.

Witte’s father, the midlevel tsarist official, had opened Chiatura’s manganese deposits around the middle of the nineteenth century.120 By 1905, thanks to Sergei Witte’s integration of Russia into the new world economy, the artisanal, privately held mines had come to account for no less than 50 percent of global manganese output. Tall piles of the excavated ore dominated the “skyline,” waiting to be washed, mostly by women and children, before being exported for use in the production of German and British steel. With wages averaging a meager 40 to 80 kopecks per day, rations doused in manganese dust, and “housing” under the open sky (in winter workers slept in the mines), Chiatura was, in the words of one observer, “real penal labor (katorga)”—but the laborers had not been convicted of anything.121 Even by tsarist Russia standards, the injustices in Chiatura stood not. When the workers rebelled, however, the regime summoned imperial troops as well as right-wing vigilantes, who called themselves Holy Brigades but were christened Black Hundreds. In response to the physical attacks, Jughashvili helped transform Social Democratic agitation “circles” into red combat brigades called Red Hundreds.122 By December 1905, the worker Red Hundreds, assisted by young radical thugs, seized control of Chiatura and thus of half of global manganese output.

Only the previous year, Jughashvili had been calling for an autonomous Georgian Social Democratic Workers’ Party separate from the All-Russia (imperial) Social Democrats—a vestige, perhaps, of his Russification battles at the seminary and in Georgia more broadly. But Social Democrats in Georgia rejected a struggle for national independence, reasoning that even if they somehow managed to break away, liberty for Georgia would never stick without liberty for Russia. Georgian comrades condemned Jughashvili as a “Georgian Bundist” and forced him to recant publicly. The future Stalin wrote out a Credo (February 1904) of his beliefs, evidently repudiating the idea of a separate Georgian party; seventy copies were distributed within Social Democratic Party circles.123 Other than youthful romantic poetry, and two unsigned editorials in Lado’s Brdzola that were later attributed to Stalin, the Credo was one of his first-ever publications (subsequent party historians assembling his writings never found it). This mea culpa was followed by an extended essay—which essentially launched his punditry career—in Georgian, dated September-October 1904, and titled “How Social Democracy Understands the National Question.” Jughashvili targeted a recently formed party of Social Federalists whose Paris-based periodical demanded Georgian autonomy in both the Russian empire and in the socialist movement. He strongly repudiated the idea of separate “national” leftist parties, and resorted to sarcasm about Georgian nationalism.124 In April 1905, a pamphlet addressed to the Batum proletariat noted that “Russian social democracy is responsible not only to the Russian proletariat but to all peoples of Russia, groaning under the yoke of the barbarian autocracy—it is responsible to all of humankind, to all of modern civilization.”125 Russia, not Georgia. The Credo episode had been a turning point.

In Chiatura, meanwhile, organizing mass direct action, Jughashvili was in his radical element—he helped transform nearly every mine into a battleground of Social Democratic Party factions, importing loyalists from his previous underground activity, especially Batum. Some observers marveled at his clique’s intense loyalty. All the same, the Chiatura workers elected as their leader not Jughashvili but a tall, thin, charismatic Georgian youth named Noe Ramishvili (b. 1881). Ramishvili won over the mine workers partly by touting the superior role that his “Menshevik” faction of Caucasus Social Democrats accorded to rank-and-file workers in the party.126 Jughashvili, who adhered to the Bolshevik faction of Caucasus Social Democrats, cursed his rivals as “worker-lovers.”127 From Chiatura, he wrote reports to the Bolshevik faction leader Vladimir Lenin, in European exile, about the life-and-death struggle—not against the tsarist regime, but against Menshevism.128

Bolshevik-Menshevik factionalism had broken out two years earlier, in July 1903, in a club room in London at the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party’s Second Congress (the first one since the founding effort, attended by nine people in Minsk in 1898). Beyond the reach of the tsarist police, the delegates adopted a charter and program (“The dictatorship of the proletariat is the prerequisite of the social revolution”), but two strong personalities, Lenin and Martov, clashed over party structure. The row started over a proposal by Lenin to reduce the editorial board of the periodical Iskra from six to three (Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov), a sensible proposition that nonetheless exploded in the hall (the minutes record “threatening shouts” and cries of “shame”). But the differences went deeper. All Russian Social Democrats viewed capitalism as an evil to be transcended, but Marxism held that history was supposed to proceed in stages and most of Russia’s Marxists, following the elder statesman Plekhanov, held to the proposition that socialist revolution could triumph only after a “bourgeois revolution” had first taken place and accelerated Russia’s capitalist development. In that view, Russia’s workers were supposed to help Russia’s weak bourgeoisie bring about constitutionalism, so that, decades hence, the workers could then transcend capitalism and advance to socialism. But what if the workers proved unable to take up this role? Martov captured the nub, writing that the “reconciliation of revolutionary-democratic with socialist tasks”—that is, the bourgeois revolution with the socialist revolution—“is the riddle which the fate of Russian society has posed to Russian social democracy.”129

The question of workers’ role in the historical process had already split the German Social Democrats. In Germany, it seemed that proletarians were not developing revolutionary but merely trade union consciousness (and capitalism was not breaking down)—a position stated plainly by Eduard Bernstein, who concluded that socialists ought to embrace amelioration and evolution, achieving socialism via capitalism, not organizing capitalism’s annihilation. Karl Kautsky, a rival to Bernstein, branded him a Marxist “revisionist,” and insisted that socialism and then communism would still be reached via revolution. Tsarist conditions, meanwhile, did not allow a Bernstein “revisionist” approach in Russia, even had Lenin been so inclined—and he was not—because trade unionism and constitutionalism remained illegal. Lenin admired Kautsky, but went further, arguing for a conspiratorial approach because imperial Russia was different from Germany in the severity of the restrictions on freedom. In What Is to Be Done? (1902), Lenin foresaw revolution if “a few professionals, as highly trained and experienced as the imperial security police, were allowed to organize it.”130 His stance was denounced as un-Marxist—indeed, as Blanquist, after the Frenchman Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), who had dismissed the efficacy of popular movements in favor of revolution by a small group via a temporary dictatorship using force.131 In some ways, however, Lenin was just reacting to the intense worker militancy in the Russian empire, such as the May Day march in Kharkov in 1900—about which he had written—and the violent clashes the next year between workers and police in Obukhov. True, Lenin did at times seem to be saying, like Bernstein, that workers, left to their own devices, would develop only trade union consciousness. But this made Lenin more, not less, radical. Most fundamentally, Lenin sought a party of professional revolutionaries to overcome the well-organized tsarist state, whose hyperrepressiveness militated against ordinary organizational work.132 Lenin, however, could not convince the others: at the 1903 Congress, even though there were only four genuine workers out of fifty-one delegates, Martov’s vision—a party organization more capacious than just “professional” revolutionaries—won the vote in a slim majority (28 to 23). Lenin refused to accept the result and announced the formation of a faction, which he called Bolsheviks (majoritarians) because he had won a majority on other, secondary questions. Martov’s majority, incredibly, allowed itself to become known as Mensheviks (minoritarians).

Charges, countercharges—and misunderstandings—related to the split in summer 1903 would reverberate for the better part of a century. The okhranka could scarcely believe its good fortune: the Social Democrats had turned on each other! It was no longer enough for Social Democrat revolutionaries merely to struggle to evade arrest, while competing against rivals on the left like Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), now they also had to battle the “other faction” in their own party at every party committee throughout the empire and abroad, even when they had a hard time articulating Bolshevik-Menshevik differences.133 Of course, sectarianism among revolutionaries was as common as cuckolding. Still, Lenin’s schismatism angered his heretofore close friend Martov, as well as Martov’s allies, because they had just conspired with Lenin to curb the power of the Jewish Bund inside Russian Social Democratic ranks (only five Bundist delegates had been allowed to attend the 1903 Social Democratic Congress, despite the large Jewish proletariat).134 And then—betrayal. Martov and his faction rejected various offers of mediation. Lenin’s doctrinal position unmistakably involved a bid for power in the movement, but the split had begun as, and remained, at least partly personal. The internal polemics became mutually vicious—accusations of lies, treachery.

Once word of the split became widely known, Lenin was roundly denounced. In 1904, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born revolutionary who would not meet Lenin for three more years, condemned his vision of organization as “military ultra-centralism.” Trotsky, who sided with Martov, compared Lenin to the Jesuitical Catholic Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes—suspicious toward other people, fanatically attached to the idea, inclined to be dictator while claiming to put down supposedly ubiquitous sedition. Plekhanov would soon call Lenin a Blanquist. Lenin, for his part, worked diligently from his base in Geneva to recruit the strategically important, populous Caucasus branch of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party to his side, writing of the “reptilian vileness” of the party’s Central Committee (his opponents). He might well have succeeded: after all, many members of Lenin’s faction were exiled from European Russia to the Caucasus, where they spread Bolshevik influence. The future Stalin—who missed the 1903 London congress (he was in a tsarist remand prison)—got to know Lev Kamenev, an adherent of Lenin’s faction, in Tiflis in 1904. But in January 1905, the leader of Georgian Marxists, Noe Jordania, returned to Georgia from European exile and steered the vast majority of Caucasus Marxists away from Lenin to Menshevism. Jughashvili had already clashed with Jordania as early as November 1901 by championing a narrower intelligentsia-centric party. Now he bucked Jordania again, remaining in the Bolshevik faction. For Jughashvili, therefore, the divide was partly personal, too. Doctrinally, the Leninist position of favoring professional revolutionaries over workers also suited Jughashvili’s temperament and self-image.

Inevitably, Lenin’s alleged personal influence came to be cited as the explanation for Jughashvili’s early loyalties: the future Stalin is said to have long admired the Bolshevik leader from afar. But if he felt any hero worship for Lenin from a distance, their first encounter blunted it.135 The two met in December 1905 at the Third Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in Tammerfors, in Russian-ruled Finland, where Jughashvili was one of the three delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the Caucasus.136 Lenin had returned from Swiss exile to Russia only in November 1905, having chosen to sit out most of the revolutionary events of that year. Just shy of thirty-six, he was nearly a decade older than Jughashvili.137 (The “patriarch” of all delegates, Mikho Tskhakaya from the Caucasus, was thirty-nine.) But Jughashvili observed at the Party Congress how provincial delegates, himself among them, attacked the elder Lenin’s policy proposals and how the Bolshevik leader backed down, rationalizing that he was an emigre out of touch. “I expected to see the mountain eagle of our party, a great man, not only politically but physically, for I had formed for myself a picture of Lenin as a giant, as a stately, representative figure of a man,” Stalin would recall. “What was my disappointment when I saw the most ordinary individual, below average height, distinguished from ordinary mortals by, literally, nothing.”138 (Stalin’s writings between 1906 and 1913 would contain a mere two citations of Lenin.) Eventually, of course, Lenin would become Stalin’s indispensable mentor, but it would take time for the Georgian—and most everyone else on the left—to appreciate Lenin’s history-bending force of will. In any case, even as Russia’s would-be Social Democratic revolutionaries were fighting tooth and nail among themselves over the nature of the coming revolution (bourgeois or socialist) and over party structure (inclusive or “professional”), tsarist political authority had already fallen into headlong disintegration, making revolution imminent.


While Jughashvili was organizing Red Hundreds in Chiatura, on October 8, 1905—following the signing of the Russo-Japanese peace treaty—a general strike shut down St. Petersburg. Within five days, more than 1 million workers had walked out empirewide, paralyzing the telegraph and rail systems. Troops could neither be brought home from the war—more than 1 million Russian soldiers were still in the Far Eastern theater, after the cessation of hostilities—nor deployed for internal police duty. Around October 13, a St. Petersburg soviet (or council) was established as a strike-coordinating committee; it would last some fifty days, and for two weeks of that period be headed by Lev Trotsky, a prolific writer and prominent Social Democrat who recently had returned from exile.139 Warnings of a crackdown were announced on October 14, and the next day the authorities shuttered the capital’s prestigious university for the year. Establishment figures, including members of the extended Romanov family, urged Nicholas II to make political concessions to close the breach between regime and society. In all of Europe, only the Ottoman empire, the Principality of Montenegro, and the Russian empire still lacked a parliament. Told to countenance changes that infringed on the autocratic principle and established a coordinated government, the tsar wrote to his mother, the Danish-born dowager empress, “Ministers, like chicken-hearts, assemble and discuss how to achieve unity of all ministers instead of acting decisively.”140 Fresh from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the newly ascendant, proautocratic Sergei Witte moved to seize the moment, suggesting to the tsar that he had two choices to save the autocracy: grant a constitution, civil liberties, and above all, a coordinated ministerial government, or find someone who could implement a crackdown.141 On October 15, Nicholas II asked his most trusted courtier, the hard-line Dmitry Trepov, Witte’s archrival, whether Trepov—recently named governor-general of the capital—could restore order short of a civilian massacre. The latter replied on October 16 that “sedition has attained a level at which it is doubtful whether bloodshed could be avoided.”142

The tsar wavered. He commissioned a draft manifesto for a merely consultative Duma.143 Apparently, he also turned to his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, to assume dictatorial powers under a military dictatorship, to which the latter replied that the army had been depleted by the ongoing war in the Far East, and that if the tsar did not consent to Witte’s program of political concessions, the grand duke would shoot himself.144 Reluctantly, on October 17, crossing himself, Nicholas II signed the Manifesto on the Improvement of State Order, published the next day, “imposing”—in autocratic parlance—civil liberties as well as a bicameral legislature. No longer “consultative,” as originally proposed back in February, the State Duma would be a lower house of “people’s representatives” to be elected, albeit by a narrow suffrage—narrower than absolutist Spain had granted in 1680 for its towns in the New World—but with the right to issue laws. The franchise was granted to male citizens over twenty-five years of age, excluding soldiers and officers, but elections proceeded through four electoral colleges, and extra weight was given to communal, as opposed to individual, peasants.145 At the same time, Russia’s State Council—heretofore a largely ceremonial advisory body of appointed elites, as depicted in Ilya Repin’s 1903 wall-sized oil painting—would become an upper house. The plan was that the upper house would serve as a conservative brake on the Duma. Half the new State Council’s members would continue to be appointed by the tsar from among former ministers, governors-general, ambassadors—that is, “venerable old men, white haired or bald, with wrinkled skin and often bent with age, wearing uniforms and adorned with all of their decorations,” as one insider described them. The other half was to be elected by designated bodies: the Orthodox Church, provincial assemblies, the stock exchange, the Academy of Sciences. By comparison, the United States would pass the Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election of senators in 1911; the entire British House of Lords was filled by hereditary peers.146

Far less dramatically, but no less consequentially, the tsar also conceded—for the first time—a unified government with a prime minister. Sergei Kryzhanovsky, who as deputy interior minister was tasked with outlining the need for and structure of a cabinet, assailed the “fragmentation” and fratricide of Russia’s ministries. He warned that the convocation of a Duma would—like France’s calling of the Estates General in 1789—provide a potent forum. The government had to be strong and united to manage the legislature, or else there could be French-style consequences for the monarchy. But ministers wanted strong government not solely because of a perceived need to manage the legislature. The model that Witte had in mind was Prussia’s, which afforded the minister-president the authority—used to great effect by Bismarck—to control all contact between individual ministers and the monarch.147

A strong cabinet coordinated by a prime minister might seem an obvious necessity in any modern state, but globally it had arisen relatively recently. In Great Britain, the prime ministership owed its largely unplanned origins to the circumstance that King George I (r. 1714–27), of the Brunswick House of Hanover (a German state), could not speak English (he spent at least half the year in Hanover), so responsibility for chairing cabinet sessions fell to a newly created post of prime or first minister, a circumstance that would become institutionalized. Prussia acquired a prime minister equivalent—minister-president—and a cabinet of ministers in stages from 1849 through 1852 in an improvisation to deal with the surprise advent of a legislature in 1848.148 (Russia’s stillborn cabinet government of 1857 had not even included a prime minister.) But whereas the British prime minister post was awarded to the majority leader in the House of Commons, meaning he owed his status not to royal whim but to elected parliamentary majorities, Prussia’s minister-president was appointed or removed by the monarch alone, without consideration of parliamentary (electoral) majorities.

Russia followed not the British example—a genuinely parliamentary system—but the Prussian one. True, the Duma could summon ministers for a report, but the tsar retained absolute power over ministers’ appointment or dismissal, as well as an absolute veto over legislation, the right to dismiss the Duma and announce new elections, and the right to declare martial law. In addition, the ministers of foreign affairs, war, the navy, and the court fell outside the prime minister’s portfolio. These circumstances allowed Nicholas II, not without Witte’s connivance, to delude himself into thinking the concessions had not contravened his coronation oath to uphold autocracy. But he had: the work of Russia’s then fourteen ministers—with the enumerated exceptions—would be coordinated by someone other than the tsar.149

That person turned out to be Witte, whom Nicholas II chose as Russia’s first-ever prime minister.

Nicholas II had asked Witte to draft the October Manifesto, but knowing the tsar all too well and probably desirous of maintaining some distance from the document, Witte had passed the drafting task to an associate who happened to be staying at his home.150 Still, Witte edited the drafts and was universally seen as the prime mover.151 And yet, although at the pinnacle of power, Witte found himself suspended in the air, fully supported by no one—not by the stunned establishment, who were mostly proponents of unbridled autocracy and who, additionally, disliked Witte for his pedigree, gruffness, and Jewish wife; not by the narrow stratum of constitutionalists, who were still waiting for the promised constitution to be drafted and enacted; not by the elected representatives to the Petersburg Soviet, who in many cases expected the Duma would be a “bourgeois” sham; not by the striking workers and students, whose general strike had ebbed but who still desired social justice; and not by the rebellious peasantry, who freely interpreted the October Manifesto as a promise of pending land redistribution, which sparked new agrarian disturbances.152 Witte was not even fully supported by Nicholas II, who promoted him yet still found him insolent. Nonetheless, by sheer force of personality, especially his drive to be informed, Witte proved able to impose coordination on much of the government, even in foreign policy and military affairs, whose ministers technically did not even report to the prime minister.153

Whatever Witte’s impressive abilities, however, the introduction of a prime minister, alongside the promise of the still-to-come Duma, did not restore public order. On the contrary, opposition became more violent after the proclamation of the October Manifesto. The tsarist autocracy was saved—literally—by a tough conservative official who had once been fired for abusing his police power in connection with sexual indiscretions. Pyotr Durnovó (b. 1845), the scion of ancient nobility and a naval academy graduate, had been at sea during the 1860s Great Reforms. He then forsook the navy and became a longtime director of police (1884–93). After one of the “black cabinets” that he oversaw intercepted a love letter to the Brazilian charge d’affaires from Durnovó’s own mistress, he had the police break into the diplomat’s apartment to steal the rest of her correspondence. The woman complained about the theft to her diplomat paramour, who at a court ball raised the matter with Tsar Alexander III. The latter is said to have remarked to his interior minister, “Get rid of this swine within twenty-four hours.”154 Durnovó retreated abroad, dismissed from state service, seemingly forever. Yet in 1895, after Alexander III’s surprise death from illness at age forty-nine, Durnovó managed to resume his career, rising to deputy interior minister. On October 23, 1905, Witte named him acting interior minister, against the vociferous objections of liberals, and the hesitancy of Tsar Nicholas II.155 Within three days, the Baltic sailors mutinied. By October 28, Durnovó had crushed their chaotic mutiny, ordering hundreds of executions. He contemplated an empirewide crackdown, but Witte (initially) insisted that Durnovó act within the parameters of the October Manifesto—after all, it had been signed by the tsar. Soon, however, Durnovó began to implement harsher measures, which, of course, greatly pleased the signatory of the October Manifesto, as well as much of state officialdom, once the measures appeared to be successful. “Everyone started to work, the machinery went into high gear” recalled one top okhranka official. “Arrests began.”156 Indeed, between the tsar’s promise of a constitution (October 1905) and the promulgation six months later of the Fundamental Laws—Nicholas II refused to allow it to be called a constitution—Durnovó’s police arrested many tens of thousands (by some estimates, up to 70,000).157 Durnovó also sacked numerous governors and, more important, goaded the rest to seize back all public spaces.

Durnovó showed initiative. In mid-November 1905, when a new strike shut down the postal and telegraph system, he broke it by organizing citizen replacements. On December 3—the day after the Petersburg Soviet called for workers to withdraw their savings from state banks—he arrested around 260 deputies to the Soviet, half the membership, including Chairman Trotsky. Many officials warned this would provoke a repeat of the October 1905 general strike, but Durnovó countered that a show of force would shift the political dynamic. On December 7, 1905, an uprising broke out in Moscow, and Durnovó’s critics looked prescient. But he went to Nicholas II at Tsarskoe Selo to report and seek instructions—without Prime Minister Witte, his (nominal) superior, whom Durnovó no longer bothered to consult even though by now Witte had come around to a hard-line approach. Durnovó did not even appear at the meetings of the government (Council of Ministers), or explain his absences therefrom.158 The tsar, predictably, was keen to encourage the pre-1905 practice whereby ministers like Durnovó reported directly and privately to him. Nicholas II wrote to his mother, the dowager empress, “Durnovó—the interior minister—acts superbly.”159 Now, confronted by an uprising in Russia’s ancient capital, Durnovó ordered it crushed: some 424 people were killed and 2,000 wounded.160 Crackdowns took place all around the empire as well. “I earnestly request, in this and similar cases, that you order the use of armed force without the slightest leniency and that insurgents be annihilated and their homes burned,” Durnovó bluntly instructed officials in Kiev province. “Under the present circumstances, the restoration of the authority of the Government is possible only by these means.”161 In Georgia, imperial troops bloodily recaptured the manganese mining settlement of Chiatura, removing the political base of Jughashvili and his Bolshevik followers. Imperial forces and Black Hundreds also routed the Georgian Menshevik peasant-citadel of the Gurian Republic. Crushed, the world’s first-ever peasant republic led by Marxists, as one scholar wrote, would find echoes “in the fields, hills, and jungles of Asia.”162 For now, however, by the end of 1907, mass peasant uprisings had been snuffed out across the empire.163 It was a stunning achievement.

 • • •

RUSSIA’S AUTOCRACY had undergone a near-death experience. Altogether, an army of nearly 300,000, a size close to the land force that had battled the Japanese, was needed to suppress domestic unrest.164 Such a vast mobilization for repression and regime survival would have been impossible had Russia’s foes on its western flank, Germany and Austria-Hungary, decided to take what would have been easy advantage of the situation. Not even an actual attack from the West, merely a mobilization, would have paralyzed and likely doomed the tsarist regime.165 Equally critical, the Russian forces of domestic repression were the same peasants in uniform who had been mutinying when—and becausethe tsarist regime had appeared weak, and who now, when the regime showed its teeth again, resumed enforcing state order against rebellious workers, students, and fellow peasants.166 Durnovó rallied them. This is one of those moments in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed. When “the regime had tottered on the brink of an abyss,” Vladimir Gurko, his deputy rightly concluded, it “was saved by . . . Durnovó, who adopted an almost independent policy and by merciless persecution of the revolutionary elements re-established a certain degree of order in the country.”167

But this was also a moment when a statesman’s talent, rather than shortcomings, proved detrimental to his country. Durnovó’s rescue of Russia’s autocracy—when it should have fallen—would end up having the perverse consequence of preparing the country for a far worse crash during a far worse war, which would serve as a template for a radical new order. Of course, it is impossible to know what would have transpired had Durnovó’s exceptional resoluteness and police skill not saved tsarism in 1905–6. Still, one wonders whether the history of one sixth of the earth, and beyond, would have been as catastrophic, and would have seen the appearance of Stalin’s inordinately violent dictatorship. Be that as it may, the respite Durnovó furnished to Russia would prove short-lived, frenetic, and full of rampant insecurities. “Long before the World War,” recalled one contemporary, “all politically conscious people lived as on a volcano.”168



We are tired of everything. We are loyal people and cannot go against the Government, but neither can we support the current Government. We are forced to step to the side and be silent. This is the tragedy of Russian life.

A. I. Savenko, political rightist and anti-Semite, private letter intercepted by the okhranka, 19141

Looking at that low and small head, you had the feeling that if you pricked it, the whole of Karl Marx’s Capital would come hissing out of it like gas from a container. Marxism was his element, there he was invincible. No power on earth could dislodge him from a position once taken, and he could find an appropriate Marx formula for every phenomenon.”

A former fellow tsarist political prisoner speaking about the young Stalin in Baku prison, 19082

RUSSIA’S STATE HAD ARISEN out of military exigencies, in an extraordinarily challenging geopolitical environment, but also out of ideals, above all the autocratic ideal, yet Russia’s long-enduring autocracy was anything but stable. Nearly half the Romanovs, following Peter the Great, left their thrones involuntarily, as a result of coups or assassinations. Peter himself had his eldest son and heir killed for disobedience (thirteen of Peter’s fifteen children by two wives predeceased him). Peter was succeeded by his second wife, a peasant girl from the Baltic coast, who took the name Catherine I, and then by his grandson, Peter II. In 1730, when Peter II died from smallpox on the day of his wedding, the Romanov male line expired. The throne passed to Peter II’s relations, first to his father’s cousin Anna (r. 1730–40), and then, in a palace coup, to his half aunt Elizabeth (r. 1741–61). Neither produced a male heir. The Romanov House avoided perishing altogether only thanks to the marriage of one of Peter the Great’s two surviving daughters to the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. This made the Romanovs a Russian-German family. Karl Peter Ulrich, the first Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov—who became Peter III—was an imbecile. He wore a Prussian military uniform to Russian state functions and lasted six months before being deposed in a putsch by his wife, a minor German princess named Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst, who assumed the throne as Catherine II (or the Great). She fancied herself an enlightened despot, and made high culture a partner in the autocracy (something Stalin would emulate, ruling as he would from Catherine’s imperial Senate in Moscow). The German Catherine was a Romanov only by marriage, but Russia’s ruling family continued to emphasize its links, via the female line, back to Peter and to employ the Russian surname only. In 1796, Catherine was succeeded by her son Paul, who was assassinated in 1801; then came Paul’s son Alexander I (r. 1801–25); Alexander’s brother Nicholas I (r. 1825–55); Alexander II, who died in agony in 1881, his legs shattered by a terrorist’s bomb; Alexander III, who became heir following the sudden death of his elder brother and who, in power, succumbed to kidney disease (nephritis) at age forty-nine in 1894; and finally, Nicholas II.3

Except for Alexander III, who married a Danish princess—his deceased elder brother’s fiancee—all the “Romanov” descendants of the German Catherine took German-born wives. Such intermarriage transformed almost all of Europe’s royalty into relations. Nicholas II’s German spouse—Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice, Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt—was the favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. Born in 1872, the year after German unification, Alix first met the tsarevich “Nicky” when she was eleven and he fifteen, during the wedding of her sister, Ella, to Nicholas’s uncle. They met again six years later and fell madly in love. Tsar Alexander III and his wife, Empress Consort Maria Fyodorovna, initially opposed their son Nicholas’s marriage to the shy, melancholic Alix, despite the fact that she was their goddaughter. Russia’s monarchs preferred the daughter of the pretender to the French throne, to solidify Russia’s new alliance with France. Queen Victoria, for her part, had favored Alix for the Prince of Wales of the United Kingdom, but she, too, came around. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany supported the Alix-Nicky match from the get-go, hoping to strengthen German-Russian bonds. Alix’s arrival in Russia, however, proved ill starred, coinciding with the early death of Emperor Alexander III. “She has come to us behind a coffin,” the crowd noted in their first glimpse of her, at the state funeral. “She brings misfortune with her.”4 The new empress consort dutifully converted to Orthodoxy (from Lutheranism) and took the name Alexandra. Her honeymoon with Nicholas II consisted of twice-daily Orthodox services and visits by notables to convey condolences about her father-in-law’s untimely passing. She gave birth to four daughters in succession, which also set everyone on edge, because an imperial succession law passed in 1797 under Paul I (r. 1796–1801), the son of Catherine the Great, forbade another female to occupy the throne. Finally, in August 1904, in the tenth year of marriage, Alexandra produced a long-awaited male heir. Nicholas II named the boy for his favorite early Romanov ruler, Alexei, Peter the Great’s father, harkening back to the Moscow days before the building of St. Petersburg.

Possessing an heir, finally, Nicholas II reveled in Interior Minister Pyotr Durnovó’s tenacious crackdown a little more than a year later, but the tsar had not retracted the October Manifesto. And so, on April 27, 1906, the newly created State Duma opened in the Winter Palace with the monarch’s (terse) address from the throne, in emulation of British custom. Nicholas II uncannily resembled his cousin King George V. But facing all the standing dignitaries, domestic and foreign, as well as the commoner-elected representatives, who had gathered in St. George’s Hall, the tsar, raised on a dais, spoke a mere 200 words, which were followed by a tomblike silence.5 Russia had become something that had never before existed: a constitutional autocracy, in which the word “constitution” was forbidden.6 It was a liberal-illiberal muddle. The Duma met in the Tauride Palace, which had been given by the autocrat Catherine the Great to her court favorite, Prince Potëmkin, in 1783, for his conquest of Crimea; it had been repossessed from his family after his death, and used, most recently, to warehouse props of the imperial theater. The Tauride’s interior winter garden was converted into a nearly 500-seat chamber, christened the White Hall. Despite the exclusion from the Duma of the small central Asian “protectorates” of Khiva and Bukhara as well as the Grand Duchy of Finland (which had its own legislature), many of the Russian delegates experienced shock at the stunning diversity of the empire’s representatives, as if elites in the capital had been living somewhere other than imperial Russia. Inside the White Hall, under a gigantic portrait of Nicholas II, the principal advocates for constitutionalism, the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets)—a group led by Moscow University history professor Paul Miliukov—constituted the opposition.7 Who, if anyone, supported the new constitutional autocracy remained unclear.

Prime Minister Sergei Witte, who had done more than anyone to urge the Duma on the tsar, at its successful launch handed in his resignation, exhausted, infirm, and scorned.8 Witte earned no special dispensation from the fact that he had been the lead locomotive behind Russia’s spectacular industrial surge from the 1890s, or had helped bridge the chasm of 1905 between regime and society. Nicholas II found Witte devious and unprincipled (“Never have I seen such a chameleon of a man.”).9 The tsar immediately and everlastingly regretted the political concessions that Witte had helped wring. With Witte’s fall, Durnovó, too, was obliged to step down, his historic service as interior minister having also lasted a mere six months, although Nicholas II allowed Durnovó to continue receiving his salary of 18,000 rubles per annum and awarded him a staggering cash gift of 200,000 rubles. (Witte received the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, with diamonds.)10 Durnovó yielded his portfolio to the Saratov province governor, Pyotr Stolypin, who in July 1906 managed to add the post of prime minister, thereby replacing both Durnovó and Witte.11

Tall, with blue eyes and a black beard, a figure of immense charm and sensitive to form—so unlike the abrasive Witte—Stolypin was a discovery. He had been born in 1862 in Dresden (where his mother was visiting relatives abroad) to an ancient Russian noble family. His father, who was related to the renowned writer Mikhail Lermontov, owned a Stradivarius that he himself played, and had served as adjutant to Alexander II and as commandant of Moscow’s Grand Kremlin Palace; Stolypin’s well-educated mother was the daughter of the general who had commanded the Russian infantry during the Crimean War and rose to viceroy of tsarist Poland. The boy grew up on his wealthy family’s estates in tsarist Lithuania, territories of the bygone Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and graduated in natural sciences (not law) from St. Petersburg Imperial University. (Dimitri Mendeleev, of the periodic table, was one of Stolypin’s teachers.) Like Stalin, Stolypin suffered a withered arm, from a mysterious teenage malady; he wrote by using his good left hand to guide his right. The deformity precluded following his father and mother’s relatives into a military career.12 But in 1902, at age forty, Stolypin became governor of Grodno, in the Polish-Lithuanian western borderlands, encompassing his own properties. He was the youngest person in the Russian empire to hold a governorship. In 1903, he had been transferred to governor of Saratov, in central Russia’s Volga valley, whose villages, unlike those in the western borderlands, had communes that periodically redistributed strips of land among peasants (the “repartitional” commune). Saratov also became known for political turbulence. The tsar had had occasion to tour the province, and Stolypin toiled indefatigably to ensure he would be surrounded by admiring subjects. During the brutal 1905–6 crackdown, Stolypin proved to be imperial Russia’s most energetic governor, as well as an executive of courage and vision, willing to explain to assembled crowds his rationale for upholding the law and, if that failed, personally leading troops in repression. Stolypin’s performance impressed the courtiers; Nicholas II telegrammed congratulations for “exemplary efficiency.”

When Nicholas II had summoned him to his Alexander Palace residence in Tsarskoe Selo, just outside St. Petersburg, to inform him of his elevation to the premiership in the capital, Stolypin protested that he was unfit for such a high post and did not know the capital’s elites. The tsar, tears in his eyes, grateful, perhaps, for the professed modesty and deference, grasped Stolypin’s hand with both of his.13 This handclasp has been seen, even more in retrospect than in prospect, as a historic opportunity that might have saved imperial Russia. Stolypin certainly stands out as one of the most commanding officials ever to hold a position of power in Russia: self-confident in a milieu of toadying, an accomplished orator as well as manager, a rare state official with a longer-term perspective. “If the state does not retaliate against evil deeds,” Stolypin stated upon his appointment, “then the very meaning of the state is lost.”14 The provincial proved himself adept at gaining the tsar’s confidence, and he quickly came to overshadow the entire establishment in St. Petersburg.15 But the tasks before him were daunting. The critical keys to unlocking modernity included not just steel output and mass production, which Russia more or less did manage to attain, but also the successful incorporation of the masses into political systems, that is, mass politics.

Stolypin was determined to take full advantage of the new lease on life afforded to the regime by Durnovó’s bravura crackdown, within the new situation created by Witte’s successful urging on Nicholas II of the October Manifesto quasi-constitutionalism. During Stolypin’s premiership (1906–1911), he endeavored, in his way, to reinvent the Russian political system. But Russia’s conservative political establishment, furious at the constitutional autocracy, opposed outright Stolypin’s efforts to conjure into being a polity on their behalf. The left, for different reasons—they were sobered by the defeat of the 1905 uprising and Stolypin’s repression—would fall into despair as well. To be sure, our leftist protagonist Iosif “Koba” Jughashvili would perpetrate his most infamous revolutionary exploits under Stolypin. But whether those incendiary activities amounted to much remains questionable. By contrast, the aims and frustrations of Stolypin’s reform programs, like those of Witte before him, tell us a great deal about the future Stalin’s regime. At the time, viewing the world through a canonical Marxist prism, the future Stalin comprehended next to nothing of what Stolypin went through at the time. Stalin never met the tsarist prime minister, but to a very great extent he would later walk in his shoes.


Two attributes seemed to define imperial Russia. First, its agriculture fed both Germany and England via exports but remained far from efficient: Russia had the lowest harvest yields in Europe (below Serbia, considered merely a “little brother”); its per-acre grain yields remained less than half those of France or even Austria-Hungary.16 This made the peasants seem like an urgent problem that had to be addressed. Second, Russian political life had become riotous, self-defeating, insane. Many in the elite, not least Nicholas II, had expected the initial 1906 elections to yield a conservative peasant-monarchist Duma. Instead, the Constitutional Democrats enjoyed electoral success, which surprised even the Cadets. Once empowered by the ballot box, Russia’s classical liberals showed no intention of cooperating with the autocracy, and Nicholas II had no intention of compromising with them.17 Moreover, although the socialist parties had boycotted the First Duma elections, they changed their stance and got dozens of deputies elected to the Second Duma (thanks partly to peasant ballots). The okhranka, naturally, kept the deputies under surveillance, using informants and listening in on telephone conversations.18 But the political police had no answer to the political intransigence on all sides. The latter, moreover, was greatly facilitated by the Duma’s abysmal legislative procedures. No mechanisms existed to distinguish major from minor matters, so all were taken up as legislation rather than via mundane government regulations. Also, incredibly, the Duma lacked any fixed timetable for the progression of legislation; populous commissions of deputies would handle bills before they could be brought to the floor, and some commissions would deliberate on a single bill for eighteen months. When the bills did finally move to the next stage, they would be debated in the full Duma again without time limits.19 In such procedural minutiae can institutions founder, especially when opposing political forces prove beyond reconciliation.

From the point of view of the Constitutional Democrats, the problem was that Russia’s constitutional revolution had not removed the autocracy. And indeed, Nicholas II used his prerogative to dismiss the Duma’s first convocation after a mere seventy-three days. The autocrat was able, thanks to Article 87 of the Fundamental Laws, to issue laws by fiat during legislative recess. (Such laws were in theory supposed to be confirmed when the legislature resumed, but they remained in force while debate proceeded.)20 The Second Duma in 1907, which served even more as a platform of antigovernment speechifying, was tolerated for fewer than ninety days. Then, on June 3, 1907, Stolypin unilaterally narrowed Duma suffrage still further by having Nicholas II employ Article 87 to alter the electoral provisions, a step that the Fundamental Laws expressly forbade.21 “Coup d’etat!” screamed the Constitutional Democrats, one of Stolypin’s two main targets in the maneuver (the other target were those further to the left). It was a coup. But from Stolypin’s point of view, the Cadets were hardly angels: in 1905–7, they colluded in antistate terrorism, condemning it publicly but covertly encouraging it, in order to weaken the autocracy. Many humble tsarist officials were killed in that collusion.22 But whereas the intriguers at court egged on Nicholas II to terminate the Duma “experiment,” Stolypin was trying to work with the legislature in order to root Russia’s suspended-in-the-air government in some kind of political base that was compatible with the autocracy. “We want not professors, but men with roots in the country, the local gentry, and such like,” Stolypin told the professor Bernard Pares, the founder of Russian studies in Britain, in May 1908.23

Stolypin was correct that passing legislation necessitated more than some “mystical union” between tsar and people. He imagined himself, like his very short-lived predecessor, Sergei Witte, as a Russian Bismarck. “I am in no way in favor of an absolutist government,” the Iron Chancellor had told the German Reichstag. “I consider parliamentary cooperation—if properly practiced—necessary and useful, as much as I consider parliamentary rule harmful and impossible.”24 Russia’s prime minister, too, accepted a parliament but not parliamentarism (a government controlled by parliament), and the Russian Duma, like the German Reichstag, was a representative institution that expressly strove not to be representative. To be sure, the German franchise had been much more inclusive: all German males over twenty-five had the right to vote. Moreover, thanks to its June 3, 1907, origins, imperial Russia’s Third Duma would be relentlessly shadowed by predictions of new coups, a source of instability. But in Stolypin’s calculation, all this was a necessary price to pay for acquiring the legal wherewithal to modernize the country.

In Saratov, Stolypin had observed the same injustices the radical young Stalin had observed in the Caucasus: workers suffering frequent trauma and long hours for low pay, nobles owning enormous tracts of land while peasants in rags worked tiny plots. As prime minister, Stolypin embarked on far-reaching social reforms. German industrial workers, thanks to the second plank of Bismarck’s strategy (stealing the thunder of the left), had come to enjoy sickness, accident, and old-age insurance as well as access to subsidized canteens; Stolypin, at a minimum, wanted to introduce workmen’s social insurance.25 Most prominently, though, he wanted to encourage peasants to abandon the repartitional commune and consolidate farm land into more productice units.

Russian elites tended to view peasant society as backward and alien, and shared a determination to transform it.26 (In fact, an observer could have looked at the Russian government as a distinct society alienated from the empire at large, especially from peasant society—the vast majority of the population.)27 This elite view took on a predominantly economic inflection as the Russian establishment came to believe the peasants were becoming increasingly impoverished; a few officials, like Witte, back in his days as finance minister, had blamed “the poor condition of our peasantry” as the main brake on the Russian state’s industrialization and geopolitical aggrandizement.28 Stolypin went further, treating the peasantry as a regime-defining political problem. Such an analysis was not unique to Russia. In Prussia, reformers in the 1820s, seeking to counter the influence of the French Revolution, had argued that peasant property owners were the only reliable defenders of law and order and the state.29 This was precisely Stolypin’s view as well. Instead of blaming outside “revolutionary agitators” for rural disturbances, Stolypin pinpointed low rural living standards, and further noted that much of the peasant unrest in 1905–6 had been communally organized.30 On the basis of his experience in the communeless western borderlands, moreover, he concluded that a prosperous individualist village was a peaceful village. Thus, his agrarian reforms, enabled by a November 9, 1906, decree, aimed to drive agricultural productivity and remove the basis for peasant unrest by creating an independent property-owning class among the peasants, who, once furnished with state credits and access to technology, would strike out on their own. In other words, Stolypin sought to transform both the physical rural landscape, overcoming the separated communal strips of land with consolidated farms, and the psychology of the rural inhabitant.31

Globally, the period of Stolypin’s premiership was one of heightened striving to enlarge the capacities of the state. From the French Third Republic to the Russian empire, states of all types pursued ambitious projects such as the building of canals, roads, and railroads to integrate their territories and markets. They also promoted the settlement of new lands via subsidizing homesteading, draining marshes, damming rivers, and irrigating fields. Such statist transformationalism—building infrastructure, managing populations and resources—was often tested first in overseas possessions (colonies), then reapplied back home; sometimes it was developed first at home, then taken abroad, or to what were designated as imperial peripheries. Rule-of-law states when governing abroad often implemented many of the social engineering practices characteristic of non-rule-of-law states, but at home liberal orders differed from authoritarian ones in what practices were deemed acceptable or possible.32 What stands out in all cases of state-led social engineering, though, was how the would-be “technocrats” rarely perceived the benefits, let alone the necessity, of converting subjects (domestic or imperial) into citizens. Technocrats generally saw “politics” as a hindrance to efficient administration. In that regard, Stolypin’s idea of incorporating peasants—at least the “strong and the sober” among the peasantry—into the sociopolitical order on equal terms with other subjects was radical. To be sure, he intended property ownership to impart a stake more than a formal voice. Still, one adviser to the prime minister called him a “new phenomenon” on the Russian scene for seeking political support in parts of the wider populace.33

The reform proved to be a flexibly designed experiment, amalgamating years of prior discussion and effort, and allowing for adjustments along the way.34 But both the political boost from newly created loyal yeoman and the full economic takeoff that Stolypin envisioned proved elusive. Of course, in any political system, major reforms are always fraught because institutions are more complex than perceived. Russia’s peasant communes, in practice, were actually more flexible institutions than their critics understood.35 But the commune’s division of land into separated strips required coordination with others in the village, and rendered impossible the sale, lease, mortgage, or legal transfer of land by individuals, while inhibiting investment in lands that might be taken away. Communes did shield peasants from catastrophe in hard times, although that, too, depended on permanently pooling resources, inducing communes to resist any loss of members. With the reform, the formal consent of the commune was no longer required for exit. Exits were still complicated by red tape (court backlogs), as well as social tensions, but a substantial minority, perhaps 20 percent of European Russia’s 13 million peasant households, would manage to leave the commune during the reform. These new small private landowners, however, generally did not escape commune-style strip farming.36 (A single holding could sometimes be divided into forty or fifty strips.) A shortage of land surveyors, among other factors, meant that many peasants who had privatized could not always consolidate.37 Often, the most individually oriented peasants just decamped for Siberia, as the reform’s enhancement of secure property rights significantly spurred migration in search of new land, but that reduced productivity at the farms they left.38 The land question’s complexity could be stupefying. But where privatized or even non-privatized farms were consolidated—the key aim of Stolypin’s economic reforms—productivity rose significantly.39

In the end, however, Stolypin’s economic and other reforms came up against the stubborn limits to structural reform imposed by politics. Stolypin had to initiate his bold agrarian transformation with the Fundamental Law’s emergency Article 87, during a Duma recess, and the changes sparked deep resistance among the propertied establishment. They, as well as others, blocked Stolypin’s related modernization efforts.40

Russia’s prime minister would attempt not just to rearrange peasant landholdings and credit and introduce workers’ accident and sickness insurance, but also to expand local self-government to the empire’s Catholic west, lift juridical restrictions on Jews, broaden civil and religious rights, and overall invent a workable central government and general polity.41 But his government found it had to bribe many of the elected conservative Duma deputies for votes on bills. And even then, Stolypin could not get the votes for his key legislation. Only the agrarian reforms and a watered down version of worker insurance made the statute books. Conservatives circumscribed Stolypin’s room for maneuver. He was partly the victim of his own success: he had garroted the 1905–6 revolution and, the next year, emptied the Duma of many liberals and socialists, thereby making possible a working relationship between the quasi-parliament and the tsar’s appointed government, but the urgency had vanished. At a deeper level, he had miscalculated. In Stolypin’s June 1907 new franchise, the societal groups that had the most to gain from his reform programs were either excluded from the Duma or outnumbered in it by traditional interests—the landholding gentry—that had the most to lose but that Stolypin’s electoral coup had entrenched.42 To put the matter another way, the political interests that most accepted autocracy least accepted modernizing reforms.


That the Russian autocracy would experience severe difficulties developing a political base is not self-evident. The number of Social Democrats shot up from a mere 3,250 in 1904 to perhaps 80,000 by 1907—a vault, to be sure, but less impressive in relative terms. The Social Democratic Workers’ Party achieved little success among Ukrainian speakers, especially peasants, publishing next to nothing in the Ukrainian language. On the territory of what would become Ukraine, the party had no more than 1,000 members.43 The leftist Jewish Labor Bund drew most of its membership not from the empire’s southwest (Ukraine) but the northwest (Belorussia, tsarist Poland). Be that as it may, even adding the Bund—with whom most Russian Social Democrats did not desire a close relationship—and adding the empire’s separate Polish and Latvian Social Democrat‒equivalent parties as well as the semiautonomous Georgian Social Democrats, the combined Social Democratic strength in imperial Russia probably did not exceed 150,000.44 By comparison, the classical liberal (proprivate property, proparliament) Constitutional Democrats—said to have no real social base in Russia—grew to around 120,000, and another constitutionalist party (Octobrists) just to the right of the Cadets enrolled 25,000 more.45 The Socialist Revolutionaries who aimed to represent the agricultural proletariat, failed to achieve mass peasant support in 1905–7, though the SRs did attract urban workers and attained a formal membership of at least 50,000.46 Dwarfing them all, however, was the staunchly monarchical and national chauvinist Union of the Russian People, founded in November 1905, with rallies under the roof at the Archangel Michael Riding Academy as a church choir sang “Praise God” and “Tsar Divine”; already by 1906, it had ballooned to perhaps 300,000, with branches across the empire—including in small towns and villages.47

During the revolutionary uprising, in which liberal constitutionalism was pushed to the forefront, while socialism emerged as an empirewide aspiration, the rise of the illiberal Union of the Russian People constituted a remarkable story. Until 1905, self-styled patriotic elements faced legal limitations in expressing themselves publicly, having to be content with religious processionals, military-victory commemorations, imperial funerals and coronations. That revolutionary year, moreover, most conservatives found themselves caught out, unwilling to enter, let alone master, the political arena. But the Union of the Russian People was different.48 As the most prominent of many upstart rightist organizations in Russia, the Union brought together courtiers, professionals, and churchmen—including many from the young Stalin’s old Tiflis seminary—with townspeople, workers, and peasants. Drawing in the disaffected and the disoriented, as well as the patriotic, the Union managed to sweep in the lower orders and middle strata “for Tsar, faith, and fatherland,” stealing a march on the left.49 The tsarist regime, stymied by rightist establishment opposition in the Duma and State Council, appeared to have the option of grassroots mobilization.

The Union of the Russian People helped invent a new style of right-wing politics—novel not just for Russia but for most of the world—a politics in a new key oriented toward the masses, public spaces, and direct action, a fascism avant la lettre.50 The Union’s members and leaders, such as the grandson of a Bessarabian village priest, Vladimir Purishkevich—who liked to exclaim, “To the right of me there is only the wall”—were antiliberal, anticapitalist, and anti-Semitic (the triad being redundant, in their eyes).51 They emphasized the uniqueness of Russia’s historical trajectory, rejected Europe as a model, preached the need for Orthodox primacy over Jews and Catholics (Poles), and demanded “restoration” of Russia’s traditions. The Union disdained the Russian government’s cowardly preoccupation with its own security, which they saw as indicative of a lack of will to crush the liberals (and socialists). The Union also abhorred the modernizing state as tantamount to socialist revolutionaries. Union members held that the autocrat alone must rule, not the bureaucracy, let alone the Duma. Unionists overlapped with right-wing vigilantes known as Black Hundreds, who became notorious for pogroms against the Jews in the Pale of Settlement and for fighting alongside imperial troops in crackdowns against rebellious peasants and workers. Russian rightists of all stripes, after a slow start, mobilized to a stunning degree, widely disseminating pamphlets and newspapers, organizing rallies in the name of defending autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality against Jews and European encroachments such as Western-style constitutionalism.

The empire’s socialists did not shrink from confronting the rightist upsurge. The socialists often forced the Union of the Russian People to hold rallies indoors, under the threat of leftist counterdemonstrations, and then, to use ticket checkers to keep out leftist terrorists who would blow the rightists to smithereens. The left also drew considerable strength and cohesion of its own from Karl Marx and his “Song of Songs” Communist Manifesto (1848). Still, Russia’s rightists possessed real Biblical scripture and what should have been genuinely electrifying material—a Russian right-wing newspaper had introduced the world to the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This fabricated transcript of a purported Jewish organization’s meetings portrayed Jews as a global conspiracy—visible yet somehow invisible—preying on Christians while plotting to dominate the world.52 It was first published in Russian, serialized over nine days (August 28 through September 7, 1903), in Znamya (St. Petersburg), which was financed by Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve and published by the anti-Semitic Moldavian Pavalаchii Cruseveanu (b. 1860). Known as Pavel Krushevan, he not only oversaw the text’s compilation in 1902–3 but instigated the major pogrom in Kishenëv (Chişinau) in 1903 and founded the Bessarabian branch of the Union of the Russian People in 1905.53 Anti-Semitism, whether in earnest or in cynicism, could serve as a political elixir: everything that went awry could be, and was, blamed on the Jews. In the Pale of Settlement and western borderlands (Volhynia, Bessarabia, Minsk), the rightists nearly took the entire peasant vote, and in the central agricultural heartland (Tula, Kursk, Oryol), site of major agrarian disturbances, rightists won around half the peasant vote.54 In fact, across the expanse of imperial Russian, sympathy for the political right was there to be galvanized.55

Just as the autocracy had refused to use the word “constitution” (or even “parliament”), from the start, the “Union” of the Russian People had abjured the designation “political party” and presented itself as a spontaneous movement, an organic union of the people or folk (narod). Even so, senior government officials in St. Petersburg were unwilling to accept the movement on a permanent basis. Stolypin maintained the expedient of surreptitiously financing the rightist organizations and their anti-Semitic publications, among many newspapers that his government funded, but Stolypin’s deputy in the interior ministry from 1906 to 1911, Sergei Kryzhanovsky, who handled the disbursements to the Union of Russian People and similar organizations, saw no distinction between the political techniques and social program of the far right—redistribution of private property from plutocrats to the poor—and that of the leftist revolutionary parties.56 The government had not created these mass movements and remained wary of them. Thus, even if the far right’s calls for social leveling seemed mostly bluff, the policy of the okhranka was still to treat right-wing organizations as another revolutionary movement. Some factions inside the okhranka ignored or subverted this policy. But mostly, okhranka operatives deemed the far right’s leaders “uncultured” and “unreliable” and kept them under close surveillance, with good reason. Exactly like the radical left, the Union of the Russian People compiled lists of current and former government officials to be assassinated.57 Stolypin was one of their targets.58 His influential top domestic adviser, a former rabbi converted to Orthodoxy, was an anti-Semite, but the prime minister also tried to ease residence, occupational, and educational restrictions on Jews, for both principled and instrumentalist reasons, to diminish the perceived cause of Jewish radicalism and improve Russia’s image abroad.59 Stolypin succeeded in enraging the hard right.

Many rightist movements, refraining from hyperinflammatory rhetoric or arming vigilante “brotherhoods” to combat leftists and Jews and assassinate public figures, were considerably less volatile than the Union of the Russian People. And yet, Nicholas II and others throughout the regime continued to look askance on large public gatherings by supporters. The tsar and most government officials, including Stolypin, frowned on the public “disorder” of political mobilization, and wanted politics to return from the street to the corridors of power. This rebuff of the street held even though the supportive conservative movements pushed not for a right-wing revolution but, mostly, for a restoration of the archaic autocracy that had existed prior to the advent of the Duma.60 No less fundamentally, many rightist organizations themselves would have refrained from mobilizing patriotic social constituencies on behalf of the regime even if they had been permitted, or encouraged, to do so: After all, what kind of autocracy needed help? The autocracy’s very existence in a sense handcuffed the Russian right, both moderate and radical.61

Most rightists wanted an autocracy without asterisk—that is, a mystical unity of monarch and folk—and they rejected anything more than a consultative Duma, but the autocrat himself had created the Duma. This circumstance confused and divided the right. Almost all rightists believed that autocracy ipso facto ruled out opposition, which of course ruled out their own opposition. “In the West, where the government is elected, the concept of ‘opposition’ makes sense; there it refers to ‘opposition to the government’; this is both clear and logical,” explained the editor of the rightist Petersburg weekly Unification. “But here, the government is appointed by the monarch and invested with his confidence. . . . To be in opposition to the imperial government means to oppose the monarch.”62 Still, many rightists despised Stolypin merely for his willingness to engage with the Duma, even though that was the law and the prime minister’s manipulations of the Duma were government triumphs. For some, including Nicholas II, the mere existence of a prime minister was an affront to autocracy.63 In August 1906, assassins dressed in state uniforms nearly killed Stolypin by dynamiting his state dacha where he received petitioners. “Everywhere one could see shreds of human flesh and blood,” one witness recalled of the twenty-seven instant deaths. Another witness observed how Stolypin “came into his half-demolished study, with plaster stains on his coat and an ink spot on the back of his neck. The top of his writing desk had been lifted off by the explosion, which took place in the hall at a distance of about thirty feet from the study, and the inkstand had hit his neck.” A few months later, a time bomb was discovered in former Prime Minister Witte’s home, although it failed to detonate (the clock had stopped). Both acts against proautocratic, conservative prime ministers went unsolved; circumstantial evidence pointed to possible involvement of right-wing circles.64

Stolypin gained in stature from the failed assassination, thanks to his display of composure and resolve, but he felt constrained to move his family into the Winter Palace (near his offices), which was considered more secure than the prime minister’s official residence on the Fontanka Canal. Even then, the police compelled the Russian prime minister to constantly alter the exits and entrances he used. Unsafe leaving or entering the Winter Palace! Many disgusted rightists, at a minimum, hoped Stolypin would be replaced by Durnovó or another hardliner who would emasculate or outright abolish the Duma. At the same time, other diehard monarchists—who in principle were no less against voting and political parties—found themselves organizing to compete in the elections they rejected if only to deny use of the Duma to the “opposition” (liberals and socialists, lumped together). But the rightists who accepted the Duma became anathema to the rest. Modern street politics fractured the Russian right.65 The gulf between the politics of parliament participation and of assassination was never bridged.66


When first subjected to Durnovó’s ferocious assault, the factionalized Social Democrats had tried to close ranks. In the two weeks before the first Duma opened, between April 10 and 25, 1906, the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party convoked its 4th Congress under the slogan of “unity.” Held across the border in the safety of Stockholm, which allowed emigres to attend, the gathering brought together, at least physically, the recently divided Mensheviks (62 delegates) and Bolsheviks (46 delegates), as well as the separate parties of Latvian and Polish Social Democrats and the Bund.67 Among Caucasus Social Democrats, the second most numerous contingent in the empire after the Russian Social Democrats, there was already near unity because Caucasus Bolsheviks were so few.68 Unity, however, proved elusive in policy. Jughashvili turned out to be the only Bolshevik among the eleven Caucasus delegates in Stockholm, but, taking the congress podium to speak on the vexing agrarian question, he boldly rejected the Bolshevik Lenin’s proposal for complete land nationalization as well as a Russian Menshevik call for land municipalization. Instead, the future collectivizer of agriculture recommended that the peasants get the land. Land redistribution, Jughashvili argued, would facilitate a worker-peasant alliance, an unacknowledged tip of his hat to his Georgian Menshevik adversaries. More than even that, Jughashvili argued, reiterating the comment of another speaker, offering the land to the peasants would rob the peasant Socialist Revolutionary Party—the Social Democrats’ competition on the left—of its platform.69 What impression these suggestions made at the 4th Congress remains unclear. 70 For the time being, among Russian Social Democrats, the decisive issue of a land redistribution to the peasants—in the overwhelmingly peasant Russian empire—would go unresolved.

What could not be left unresolved was the survival of their party. In 1905, both Menshevik and Bolshevik factions had concurred on the need to form combat squads for self-defense: after all, the unjust tsarist system used terror. The factions also agreed, in order to obtain weapons and party funds, on conducting “expropriations,” often in concert with the criminal underworld.71 As a result, the Russian empire became even more of a cauldron of political terrorism after it had become a quasi-constitutional order.

Until this time, imperial Russia’s regular police had been remarkably few and far between. In towns the police presence was often sparse, and outside the towns in 1900 Russia had fewer than 8,500 constables and sergeants (uriadniki) for the rural population of nearly 100 million. Many constables (assisted by a handful of sergeants) “oversaw” 50,000 to 100,000 subjects, over more than 1,000 square miles. In 1903, the state created the position of guardsmen (strazhniki), deploying some 40,000 in the countryside, which brought the ratio of state officers to rural inhabitants only to roughly 1 for every 2,600 inhabitants. Salaries rose but remained low, as did levels of education and training. Abusive, arbitrary behavior, and graft, rendered the police profoundly unpopular. The regular police routinely brought criminal cases or detained people without incidence of a crime, and resorted to physical abuse in what they called “the law of the fist.” Peasant-born sergeants acted like petty tyrants toward villagers, boasting of their power, under the theory that the more severe they were, the greater would be their authority.72

The mass revolts beginning in 1905 precipitated a vast increase in police personnel. But between 1905 and 1910, more than 16,000 tsarist officials, from village policemen up to ministers, would be killed or wounded by terrorist-revolutionaries (including in many cases by Menshevik assassins).73 Countless carriage drivers and railway personnel—proletarians—perished as well. One top police official complained that the details of bombmaking “became so widespread that practically any child could produce one and blow up his nanny.”74

This leftist political terror instilled fear throughout tsarist officialdom, but the regime fought back savagely.75 Stolypin “seized the revolution by the throat.” His government deported tens of thousands to forced labor or internal exile. It also introduced special field courts that used summary justice to send more than 3,000 accused political opponents to the gallows, strung up in demonstrative public executions, a deterrent that became known as the Stolypin necktie.76 No regime could let go unanswered the pervasive assassination of its officials, but the courts bore little resemblance to due process. Be that as it may, people got the point. Lenin, who named Stolypin Russia’s “hangman-in-chief,” and other prominent revolutionaries fled, having only just returned to Russia in 1905’s (briefly) freer circumstances.77 The would-be revolutionaries rejoined some 10,000 expatriates already resident in Russian colonies around Europe as of 1905. The emigre leftists fell under the surveillance of the 40 operatives and 25 informants in the okhranka’s foreign department, run out of Russia’s Paris embassy, which amassed dramatic documentation on the exiles’ often pathetic endeavors.78

Koba Jughashvili was among those committed socialists who did not seek to flee abroad. In Stockholm, he had met not only Klimenty “Klim” Voroshilov, a lifelong acquaintance, but also the Polish nobleman and Bolshevik Felix Dzierzynski and the Russian Bolshevik Grigory Radomylsky (better known as Zinoviev). And Jughashvili had encountered his old Tiflis seminary nemesis Seid Devdariani, by now a Georgian Menshevik. From Stockholm Jughashvili returned to the Caucasus in spring 1906. He wore a suit with a real hat, and carried a pipe, like a European. Only the pipe would last.

Back home, in a pamphlet in Georgian (1906) reporting on the Stockholm Congress, Jughashvili stridently dismissed Russia’s first-ever legislative body. “Who sits between two stools betrays the revolution,” he wrote. “Who is not with us is against us! The pitiful Duma and its pitiful Constitutional Democrats got stuck precisely between two stools. They want to reconcile the revolution with the counter-revolution, so that the wolves and the sheep can pasture together.”79

Jughashvili also got married.80 Ketevan “Kato” Svanidze, then twenty-six, was the youngest of the three Svanidze sisters of Tiflis, whom Jughashvili had met either through the Svanidzes’ son, Alyosha, a Bolshevik (married to a Tiflis opera singer), or through Mikheil Monoselidze, an old seminary friend who had married another Svanidze sister, Sashiko.81 The Svanidzes’ apartment stood right behind the South Caucasus military district headquarters, in the heart of the city, and thus was considered an ultrasafe shelter for revolutionaries: no one would suspect. In the hideaway, the scruffy Jughashvili wrote articles, regaled the sisters with talk of books and revolution, and brazenly received members of his small revolutionary posse. Koba and Kato also evidently met for lovemaking in the Atelier Madame Hervieu, the private salon where the sisters, all expert seamstresses, worked. Sometime during that summer of 1906, Kato informed him she was pregnant. He agreed to marry her. But because Jughashvili had false papers and was wanted by the police, a legal marriage faced complications. They lucked upon a former seminary classmate, Kita Tkhinvaleli, who had become a priest and agreed to perform the ceremony, in the dead of night (2:00 a.m., on July 15–16, 1906). At the “banquet” for ten, where the bridegroom showed off his voice and charm, the honored role of toastmaster (tamada) was performed by Mikho Tskhakaya, the former Tiflis seminarian and Bolshevik elder statesmen (then aged thirty-nine). Jughashvili seems not to have invited his mother, Keke, though it could hardly escape notice that the old woman shared a given name—Ketevan (Ekaterina in Russian)—with the young bride.82 In fact, just like Keke, Kato was devout, and she, too, prayed for Jughashvili’s safety, but unlike Keke, Kato was demure.

The beautiful and educated Kato—a world away from the Chiatura manganese dust—was a class above the future Stalin’s usual girlfriends, and she evidently pierced his heart.83 “I was amazed,” Mikheil Monoselidze observed, “how Soso, who was so severe in his work and to his comrades, could be so tender, affectionate and attentive to his wife.”84 That said, the shotgun marriage did not alter his obsession with revolution. Almost immediately after the conspiratorial summer 1906 wedding, he took off on underground business, abandoning his pregnant wife in Tiflis. As a precaution, she had not recorded the marriage in her internal passport as required by law. Still, the gendarmerie, somehow tipped off, arrested Kato on a charge of sheltering revolutionaries. She was four months pregnant. Her sister Sashiko, appealing to the wife of a top officer whose gowns the girls made, managed to get Kato released—after a month and a half in jail—into the custody of the police chief’s wife. (The Svanidze sisters made her gowns, too.) On March 18, 1907, some eight months after her wedding, Kato gave birth to a son. They christened the boy Yakov, perhaps in honor of Yakov “Koba” Egnatashvili, Jughashvili’s surrogate father. The future Stalin was said to be over the moon. But if so, he continued to be rarely home. Like other revolutionaries—at least those still at large—he was constantly on the run, rotating living quarters and battling his leftist rivals. The Georgian Mensheviks controlled most of the revolutionary publications in the Caucasus, but he came to play an outsized role in the small-circulation Bolshevik press, becoming editor of Georgian Bolshevik periodicals one by one. On the eve of Yakov’s birth, Jughashvili, together with Suren Spandaryan (b. 1882) and others, established the newspaper Baku Proletarian. He had found a calling in punditry.

Stolypin’s resolute campaign of arrests, executions, and deportations crippled the revolutionary movement, however. Instead of the grand May Day processionals of recent years, displays of proletarian power, leftists had to content themselves with collecting pitiful sums for the families of the legions who were arrested, and staging “red funerals” for the prematurely departed. Among those lost to the struggle was Giorgi Teliya (1880–1907). Born in a Georgian village, Teliya completed a few years of the village school and, in 1894, at age fourteen, made his way to Tiflis, where he was hired by the railway and, still a teenager, helped organize strikes in 1898 and 1900. He was fired, then arrested. Like Jughashvili, Teliya suffered lung problems, but his proved far more serious: having contracted tuberculosis in a tsarist prison, he succumbed to the disease in 1907.85 “Comrade Teliya was not a ‘scholar,’” the future Stalin remarked at the funeral in Teliya’s native village, but he had passed through the “school” of the Tiflis railway workshops, learned Russian, and developed a love for books, exemplifying the celebrated worker-intelligentsia.86 “Inexhaustible energy, independence, profound love for the cause, heroic determination, and an apostolic gift,” Jughashvili said of his martyred friend.87 He further divulged that Teliya had written a major essay, “Anarchism and Social Democracy,” which remained unpublished supposedly because the police confiscated it. Georgian anarchists had made their appearance in late 1905, early 1906—yet another challenge on the fractious left—and the topic of how to respond was widely discussed.88 From June 1906 to January 1907, Jughashvili published his own articles under a nearly identical rubric as Teliya, “Anarchism or Socialism?,” and for the very same Georgian periodicals.

“Anarchism or Socialism?” was nowhere near the level of The Communist Manifesto (1848) or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louís Bonaparte (1852), which the pundit Karl Marx (born in 1818) had written when similarly youthful. Still Jughashvili’s derivative antianarchist essays dropped a plethora of names: Kropotkin, Kautsky, Proudhon, Spencer, Darwin, Cuvier, in addition to Marx.89 It also showed that in Marxism he had found his theory of everything. “Marxism is not only a theory of socialism, it is a complete worldview, a philosophical system,” he wrote. “This philosophical system is called dialectical materialism.”90 “What was materialism?” he asked in the catechism style for which he would later become famous. “A simple example,” he wrote: “Imagine a cobbler who had his own modest shop, but then could not withstand the competition from big shops, closed his and, say, hired himself out to the Adelkhanov factory in Tiflis.” The goal of the cobbler, Jughashvili continued, without mentioning his father, Beso, by name, was to accumulate capital and reopen his own business. But eventually, the “petit-bourgeois” cobbler realized he would never accumulate the capital and was in fact a proletarian. “A change in the consciousness of the cobbler,” Jughashvili concluded, “followed a change in his material circumstances.”91 Thus, in order to explain Marx’s concept of materialism (social existence determines consciousness), the future Stalin had rendered his father a victim of historical forces. Moving to the practical, he wrote that “the proletarians worked day and night but nonetheless remain poor. The capitalists do not work but nonetheless they get richer.” Why? Labor was commodified and the capitalists owned the means of production. Ultimately, Jughashvili asserted, the workers would win. But they would have to fight hard—strikes, boycotts, sabotage—and for that they needed the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party and a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”92

Here we see more than a glimpse of the future Stalin: the militancy, the confident verities, the ability to convey, accessibly, both a worldview and practical politics. His ideational world—Marxist materialism, Leninist party—emerges as derivative and catechismic, yet logical and deeply set.

Right after the essay series appeared, Jughashvili stole across the border to attend the 5th Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party Congress, held between April 30 and May 19, 1907, in north London’s Brotherhood Church. Congress luminaries were lodged in Bloomsbury, but Jughashvili stayed with the mass of delegates in the East End. One night, utterly drunk, he got into a pub scrape with a drunken Brit, and the owner summoned the police. Only the intercession of the quick-witted, English-speaking Bolshevik Meir Henoch Mojszewicz Wallach, known as Maxim Litvinov, saved Jughashvili from arrest. In the capital of world imperialism, the future Stalin also encountered Lev Bronstein (aka Trotsky), the high-profile former head of the 1905 Petrograd Soviet, but what impression the two might have made on each other remains undocumented. Stalin did not speak from the dais; Trotsky maintained his distance even from the Mensheviks.93

According to Jordania, Lenin was pursuing a back-room scheme: if the Georgian Mensheviks would refrain from taking sides in the Bolshevik-Menshevik dispute among the Russians in the party, Lenin would offer them carte blanche at home at the expense of Caucasus Bolsheviks. No other evidence corroborates this story of Lenin’s possible sellout of Jughashvili, who had expended so much blood and sweat fighting for Bolshevism in the Caucasus.94 Lenin often proposed or cut deals that he had no intention of honoring. Whatever the case here, Jordania, in later exile, was trying to distance Stalin from Lenin. What we know for sure is that when shouts at the congress were raised because Jughashvili, along with a few others, had not been formally elected a delegate—which provoked the Russian Menshevik Martov to exclaim, “Who are these people, where do they come from?”—the crafty Lenin, chairing a session, got Jughashvili and the others recognized as “consultative” delegates.


Alongside everything else, Stolypin had to work diligently to keep Russia out of foreign trouble. Tensions with Britain were particularly high, and Britain was a preeminent global power. Britons invested one fourth of their country’s wealth overseas, financing the building of railroads, harbors, mines, you name it—all outside Europe. Indeed, even as American and German manufacturing surpassed the British in many areas, the British still dominated the world flows of trade, finance, and information. On the oceans, where steamship freighters had jumped in size from 200 tons in 1850 to 7,500 tons by 1900, the British owned more than half of world shipping. In the early 1900s, two thirds of the world’s undersea cables were British, affording them a predominant position in global communications. Nine tenths of international transactions used British pounds sterling.95 Reaching an accord with Britain seemed very much in the Russian interest, provided that such a step did not antagonize Germany.

In the aftershock of the defeat by Japan in 1905–6, Russia had undergone a vigorous internal debate about what was called foreign orientation (what we would call grand strategy). St. Petersburg already had a defensive alliance with Third Republic France, dating to 1892, but Paris had not helped in Russia’s war in Asia. By contrast, Germany had offered Russia benevolent neutrality during the difficult Russo-Japanese War, and Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, had refrained from taking advantage in southeastern Europe. A space had opened for a conservative reorientation away from democratic France toward an alliance based on “monarchical principle”—meaning a Russian alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, something of a return to Bismarck’s old Three Emperors’ League. Arrayed against this, however, stood Russia’s Constitutional Democrats, Anglophiles who wanted to preserve the alliance with republican France and achieve rapprochement with liberal Britain in order to strengthen Russia’s Duma at home.96 In August 1907, just two months after Stolypin’s constitutional coup d’etat introducing narrower voting rules for the Duma, he opted for an Anglo-Russian entente.97 Stolypin was something of a Germanophile and no friend of British-style constitutional monarchy, but in foreign policy, the Constitutional Democrats, his sworn enemies, had gotten their way because rapprochement with Britain seemed Russia’s best path for securing external peace while, in Stolypin’s mind, not precluding friendly relations with Germany, too.98 This was logical enough. And the content of the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente was modest, mostly just delimitation of spheres of influence in Iran and Afghanistan.99 But without a parallel treaty with Germany, even on a symbolic level, the humble 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente constituted a tilt.

Nicholas II, in fact, had signed a treaty with Germany: A scheming Wilhelm II, on his annual summer cruise in 1905, which he took in the Baltic Sea, had invited Nicholas II on July 6 (July 19 in the West) to a secret rendezvous, and Nicholas had heartily agreed. The kaiser aimed to create a continental bloc centered on Germany. “Nobody has slightest idea of [the] meeting,” Wilhelm II telegrammed in English, their common language. “The faces of my guests will be worth seeing when they behold your yacht. A fine lark . . . Willy.”100 On Sunday evening July 23, he dropped anchor off Russian Finland (near Vyborg), close by Nicholas II’s yacht. The next day the kaiser produced a draft of a short secret mutual defense accord, specifying that Germany and Russia would come to each other’s aid if either went to war with a third country. Nicholas knew that such a treaty with Germany violated Russia’s treaty with France and had urged Wilhelm to have it first be shown to Paris, a suggestion the kaiser rejected. Nicholas II signed the Treaty of Bjorko, as it was called, anyway. The Russian foreign minister as well as Sergei Witte (recently returned from Portsmouth, New Hampshire) went into shock, and insisted that the treaty could not take effect until France signed it, too. Nicholas II relented and signed a letter, drafted by Witte, for Wilhelm II on November 13 (November 26 in the West), to the effect that until the formation of a Russian-German-French alliance, Russia would observe its commitments to France. This provoked Wilhelm II’s fury. The German-Russian alliance, although never formally renounced, was aborted.101

This fiasco inadvertently reinforced the importance of Russia’s signing of the entente with Britain, which seemed to signal a firm geopolitical orientation and, correspondingly, the defeat of the conservatives and Germanophiles. Moreover, given that Britain and France already had concluded an entente cordiale, Russia’s treaty with Britain in effect created a triple entente, with each of the three now carrying a “moral obligation” to support the others if any went to war. And because of the existence of the German-led Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy, the British-French-Russian accord gave the impression of being more of an alliance than a mere entente. Events further solidified this sense of the two opposed alliances. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed the Slavic province of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman empire, and although Austria had been in occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1878, apoplectic Russian rightists denounced the failure of a strong Russian response to the formal annexation, calling it a “diplomatic Tsushima” (evoking the ignominious sinking of Russia’s Baltic fleet by Japan).102 But Stolypin, despite being charged by some rightists with abandoning Russia’s supposed “historic mission” in the world, had told a conference of Russian officials that “our internal situation does not allow us to conduct an aggressive foreign policy,” and he held firm.103 Still, given the Anglo-German antagonism as well as the opposing European alliance system, Russia’s entry into the Triple Entente carried risks driven by world events beyond its control.

In Asia, Russia remained without help to deter possible further Japanese aggression. The British-Japanese alliance, signed in 1902 and extended in scope in 1905, would be renewed again in 1911.104 The two Pacific naval powers, although wary of each other, had been thrust together by a British sense that their Royal Navy was overstretched defending a global empire as well as a joint Anglo-Japanese perception of the need to combat Russian expansion in Asia, in Central Asia, and in Manchuria. And so, when the Japanese had promised not to support indigenous nationalists in British India, Britain had assented to the Japanese making Korea a protectorate, or colony. Besides Korea, which bordered Russia, the Imperial Japanese Army had also pushed as far north as Changchun during the Russo-Japanese war, conquering southern Manchuria (provinces of China). Even though the United States had acted as something of a constraining influence in the Portsmouth treaty negotiations, Japan had nonetheless gotten Russia evicted from southern Manchuria and claimed the Liaodung region (with Port Arthur), which the Japanese renamed Kwantung Leased Territory, and which commanded the approaches to Peking. Japan also took over the Changchun‒Port Arthur stretch of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which the Russians had built and which was recast as the Southern Manchurian Railway. The Japanese civilian population of both the Kwantung Leased Territory and the Southern Manchurian Railway zone would increase rapidly, reaching more than 60,000 already by 1910. Predictably, a need to “defend” these nationals, the railroad right of way, and sprouting economic concessions spurred the introduction of Japanese troops and, soon, the formation of a special Kwantung army. China’s government was forced to accept the deployment of Japanese troops on Chinese soil, hoping their presence would be temporary. But as contemporaries well understood, Japan’s sphere of influence in southern Manchuria would be a spearhead for further expansion on the Asian mainland, including northward, in the direction of Russia.105

Thus did foreign policy entanglements pose a dilemma at least as threatening as the autocracy’s absence of a reliable domestic political base. In combination, each dilemma made the other far more significant. Both of Russia’s effective strategic choices—line up with France and Britain against Germany, or accept a junior partnership in a German-dominated Europe that risked the wrath of France and Britain—contained substantial peril. Stolypin had been right to ease tensions with Britain while trying to avoid a hard choice between London and Berlin, but in the circumstances of the time he had proved unable to thread this needle. Japan’s posture compounded the Russian predicament. After 1907, Britain carried no obligations toward Russia should the Japanese ramp up their aggressiveness, but Russia was on the hook should the Anglo-German antagonism heat up. Stolypin’s determined stance of nonintervention in the Balkans in 1908 did not alter the underlying strategic current toward foreign imbroglio.


Having arrived back in Baku, in May 1907, Jughashvili reported on the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in the pages of the Bolshevik-faction underground newspaper Baku Proletarian. He noted that the congress had been dominated by Mensheviks, many of whom were Jews. “It wouldn’t hurt,” he wrote in the report, recalling another Bolshevik’s remarks at the congress, “for us Bolsheviks to organize a pogrom in the party.”106 Such a remark—which had been made by someone from the Russian empire’s Pale of Settlement, and which Jughashvili was repeating—indicated the animosities and high level of frustration that by 1907 accompanied the now frayed unity hopes of 1905. Significantly, this was the future Stalin’s first signed article in Russian; he would never publish anything in the Georgian language again. The historical record contains no explanation for this shift. One hypothesis may be the future Stalin’s desire for assimilation. The great triangle of social democracy encompassing the Russian empire’s northwest—St. Petersburg down to Moscow, and over to tsarist Poland and Latvia—was European in culture and physiognomy. Below that, in the southwest (lower half of the Pale of Settlement), social democracy was largely absent; farther south, it was strongly present, in the Caucasus, but predominantly of the Menshevik persuasion. The upshot was that every time Jughashvili attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out. The Jews among the Bolshevik faction of Social Democrats were often deeply Russified, as were many of the Poles (some of them Jewish) and the Latvians; but even when the latter were not deeply Russified, they were still recognizably European. Thus, although the other non-Russian Bolsheviks also stood apart from the ethnic Russians to an extent, Jughashvili was a recognizable Asiatic. That may explain why he returned from the 1906 Party Congress in a European suit. More enduringly, this circumstance may have motivated his 1907 abrupt abandonment of the Georgian language in favor of Russian in his punditry.

Asiatic pedigree was not the only way this Caucasus Bolshevik stood out, or tried to stand out. The Menshevik-dominated Social Democratic Workers’ Party 5th Congress in 1907 was notable for a decision to change tactics. Even though the autocracy continued to prohibit normal legal politics—beyond the very narrow-suffrage Duma, which hardly met—the Mensheviks argued that the combat-squad/expropriation strategy had failed to overturn the existing order. Instead, the Mensheviks wanted to emphasize cultural work (workers’ clubs and people’s universities) as well as standing for Duma elections. Martov observed that the German Social Democrats had survived Bismarck’s antisocialist laws by engaging in legal activities in the Reichstag and other venues.107 Five Caucasus Social Democratic representatives would get elected to the Duma, including the patriarch Noe Jordania. In the meantime, a resolution to ban “expropriations” was put to a vote at the 5th Congress. Lenin and thirty-four other Bolsheviks voted against it, but it became party law. Still, just as Lenin had refused to abide the 1903 vote won by Martov on party structure, now Lenin plotted with Leonid Krasin, an engineer and skilled bomb maker, as well as with Jughashvili, on a big expropriation in the Caucasus in violation of party policy.108

On June 13, 1907, in broad daylight in the heart of Tiflis, on Yerevan Square, two mail coaches delivering cash to the Tiflis branch of the State Bank were attacked with at least eight homemade bombs and gunfire. The thieves’ take amounted to around 250,000 rubles, a phenomenal sum (more than Durnovó had gotten in a prize the year before for having saved tsarism). The scale of the brazen heist was not unprecedented: the year before in St. Petersburg, Socialist Revolutionaries had stormed a heavily guarded carriage en route from the customs office to the treasury and looted 400,000 rubles, the greatest of the politically motivated robberies in 1906.109 Still, the 1907 Tiflis robbery—one of 1,732 that year in the province by all groups—was spectacular.110

Koba Jughashvili did not risk coming out onto the square himself. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in plotting the heist. The brigands (up to twenty) included many members of his squad from the bang-bang Chiatura days, and in some cases, before that. On the square that day the man who took the lead was Simon “Kamo” Ter-Petrosyan (b. 1882), a half-Armenian, half-Georgian gunrunner, then twenty-five, whom the future Stalin had known since Gori days.111 Kamo was said to be “completely enthralled” by “Koba.”112 That June 13, 1907, Kamo’s “apples” blew to pieces three of the five mounted Cossack guards, the two accompanying bank employees, and many bystanders. At least three dozen people died; flying shrapnel seriously wounded another two dozen or so.113 Amid the blinding smoke and confusion, Kamo himself seized the bloodstained loot. Traveling by train (first class) disguised as a Georgian prince with a new bride (one of the gang), Kamo delivered the money to Lenin, who was underground in tsarist Finland. (According to Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Kamo also brought candied nuts and a watermelon.)114 The bravado and defiance of Social Democratic party policy notwithstanding, the robbery resembled an act of desperation, threatening to elide completely the Social Democrats’ cause with banditry. No less important, the Russian State Bank had been prepared: it had recorded the serial numbers of the 500-ruble notes and sent these to European financial institutions. How much—if any—of the Yerevan Square loot proved useful to the Bolshevik cause remains unclear. “The Tiflis booty,” Trotsky would write, “brought no good.”115

Stool pigeons eager to ingratiate themselves with the tsarist authorities offered up a welter of conflicting theories about who had perpetrated the theft, but the okhranka, rightly, surmised that the plot went back to Lenin. Feeling the heat, Lenin would flee his sanctuary in tsarist Finland back into European exile in December 1907, seemingly for good. Several Bolsheviks, such as Maxim Litvinov, whom Lenin tasked with fencing the stolen rubles in Europe on the party’s behalf, were arrested.116 That arrest provoked three different Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party investigations, which lasted years. The inquisitions were sponsored by the Mensheviks, who saw an opportunity to strike at Lenin’s leadership. Jordania led one internal investigation. Silva Jibladze, the old Jughashvili nemesis from the Tiflis and Batum days, led another. The Mensheviks obtained the testimony of a bribed tsarist postal clerk who had provided inside information on the mail coach schedule and fingered Jughashvili. The future Stalin may have been expelled temporarily from the party. Into old age, he would smart from the rumors of having been a common criminal and suffered party expulsion.117 Whatever the outcome of the purported party disciplinary hearing, Jughashvili would never reside in Tiflis again. He decamped to Baku, with his wife, Kato Svanidze, and infant son, Yakov.118

Baku was Chiatura all over again, only on a far grander scale. Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Caspian, the oil port offered a combination of spectacular natural amphitheater, labyrinthine ancient Muslim settlement, violent boomtown of casinos, slums, vulgar mansions—one plutocrat’s villa resembled playing cards—and oil derricks.119 By the early 1900s, tsarist Russia was producing more than half the global oil output, much of it in Baku, and as the oil bubbled up, and the surrounding sea burned, staggering fortunes were made. East of Baku’s railway station lay the refineries built by the Swedish Nobel brothers, and farther east lay the Rothschilds’ petroleum and trading company. Workers toiled twelve-hour shifts, suffering deadly chemical exposure, rabbit-hutch living quarters, and miserly wages of 10 to 14 rubles per month, before the “deductions” for factory-supplied meals. By Caucasus standards, the oppressed proletariat in Baku was immense: at least 50,000 oil workers. That mass became the special focus of radical Bolshevik agitators like Jughashvili.120

Jughashvili’s Baku exploits included not just propagandizing and political organizing, but also hostage taking for ransom, protection rackets, piracy, and, perhaps, ordering a few assassinations of suspected provocateurs and turncoats.121 How distinctive was he in this regard? Even by the wild standards of the 1905–8 Russian empire, political murder in the Caucasus was extraordinary. That said, the majority of Caucasus revolutionary killings were the work not of Bolsheviks but of the Armenian Dashnaks. The Dashnaks—the Armenian Revolutionary Federation—had been founded in Tiflis in the 1890s, initially to liberate their compatriots in the Ottoman empire, but soon enough they rocked the Russian empire as well.122 The okhranka also feared the anarchists. Still, even if the future Stalin’s mayhem was hardly the most impressive, he would recall his Baku bandit days with gusto. “Three years of revolutionary work among the workers of the oil industry forged me,” he would observe in 1926. “I received my second baptism in revolutionary combat.”123 The future dictator was fortunate not to be treated to a “Stolypin necktie.”

“On the basis of the Tiflis expropriations,” Trotsky would write, Lenin “valued Koba as a person capable of going or conducting others to the end.” Trotsky added that “during the years of reaction, [the future Stalin] belonged not to those thousands who quit the party but to those few hundreds who, despite everything, remained loyal to it.”124

Baku’s toxic environment, meanwhile, exacerbated his young wife Kato’s frailty and she died a frightful death in December 1907 from typhus or tuberculosis, hemorrhaging blood from her bowels.125 At her funeral, the future Stalin is said to have tried to throw himself into her grave. “My personal life is damned,” one friend recalled him exclaiming in self-pity.126 Belatedly, he is said to have reproached himself for neglecting his wife, even as he abandoned his toddler son, Yakov, to Kato’s mother and sisters for what turned out to be the next fourteen years.

As for his exhilarating revolutionary banditry, it was over, quickly. Already by March 1908, Jughashvili was back in a tsarist jail, in Baku, where he studied Esperanto—one fellow inmate recalled him “always with a book”—but was again dogged by accusations of betraying comrades (other revolutionaries were arrested right after him).127 By November, he was on his way, once more, to internal exile, in Solvychegodsk, an old fur-trading post in northern Russia and “an open air prison without bars.”128 There, hundreds of miles northeast of St. Petersburg in the taiga forest, every tiresome argumentative political tendency, and every variety of criminal career, could be found among the 500-strong exile colony living in log houses. Nearly succumbing to a serious bout of typhus, Jughashvili romanced Tatyana Sukhova, another exile, who would recall his poverty and his penchant for reading in bed, in the daytime. “He would joke a lot, and we would laugh at some of the others,” she noted. “Comrade Koba liked to laugh at our weaknesses.”129 Comrade Koba’s life had indeed become a sad, even bitter affair following the failed 1905 experience of a socialist breakthrough. His beautiful, devoted wife was dead; his son, a stranger to him. And all the exploits of the heady years—Batum (1902), Chiatura (1905), Tiflis (1907), and Baku (1908), as well as the Party Congresses in Russian Finland (1905), Stockholm (1906), and London (1907)—had come to naught. Some, such as the mail coach robbery, had boomeranged.

In summer 1909, Jughashvili found himself dependent on Tatyana Sukhova to escape woebegone Solvychegodsk by boat. He was always something of a brooder, like his father Beso, and increasingly took to nursing perceived slights. Grigol “Sergo” Orjonikidze, who would come to know his fellow Georgian as well as anyone, remarked upon Stalin’s “touchiness” (obidchivy kharakter) many years before he had become dictator.130 (The hothead Orjonikidze knew whereof he spoke—he was one of the touchiest of all.) Jughashvili seems to have been prone to outbursts of anger, and many contemporaries found him enigmatic, although none (at the time) deemed him a sociopath. But brooding, touchy, and enigmatic though the future Stalin might have been, his life was unenviable. Not long after his escape, on August 12, 1909, his father, Beso, died of cirrhosis of the liver. The funeral service was attended by a single fellow cobbler, who closed Beso’s eyes. The father of the future dictator was buried in an unmarked grave.131

And what had the younger Jughashvili himself achieved?

Soberly speaking, what did his life amount to? Nearly thirty-one years of age, he had no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry, which was illegal in the forms in which he practiced it. He had written some derivative Marxist journalism. He had learned the art of disguise and escape, whether in hackneyed fashion (female Muslim veil) or more inventive ways, and like an actor, he had tried on a number of personas and aliases—“Oddball Osip,” “Pockmarked Oska,” “the Priest,” “Koba.”132 Perhaps the best that could be said about Oddball, Pockmarked Oska, and Koba the Priest was that he was the quintessential autodidact, never ceasing to read, no doubt as solace, but also because he remained determined to improve and advance himself. He could also exude charm and inspire fervid loyalty in his small posse. The latter, however, were now dispersed, and none of them would ever amount to much.

Just as the older vagrant Beso Jughashvili passed unnoticed from the world, his son, the fugitive vagrant Iosif Jughashvili made for St. Petersburg. He took refuge that fall of 1909 in the safe-house apartment of Sergei Alliluyev, the machinist who had been exiled to Tiflis but then returned to the capital where he would often shelter Jughashvili. (Sergei’s daughter, Nadya, would eventually become Stalin’s second wife.) From there, Jughashvili soon returned to Baku, where the okhranka tailed him for months—evidently to trace his underground network—before rearresting him in March 1910. Prison, exile, poverty: this had been his life since that day in March 1901 when he had had to flee the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory and go underground, and it would remain this way right through 1917. But Jughashvili’s marginal existence was not a personal failing. The empire’s many revolutionary parties all suffered from considerable frailty, despite the radicalism of Russia’s workers and the volatility of its peasants.133 But the okhranka had managed to put the revolutionary parties on a short leash, creating fake opposition groups to dilute them.134 The infiltrated Socialist Revolutionaries, especially their terrorist wing, had declined precipitously by 1909. (Their most accomplished terrorist, Evno Azef, a former embezzler nicknamed “Golden Hands,” was unmasked as a paid police agent.)135

Later, the failures and despondency would be forgotten when, retrospectively, revolutionary party history would be rewritten, and long stints in prison or exile would become swashbuckling tales of heroism and triumph. “Those of us who belong to the older generation . . . are still influenced up to 90 percent by the . . . old underground years,” Sergei Kostrikov, aka Kirov, would later muse to the Leningrad party organization that he would oversee. “Not only books but each additional year in prison contributed a great deal: it was there that we thought, philosophized, and discussed everything twenty times over.” And yet, details of Kostrikov’s life demonstrate that the underground was at best bittersweet. Not only were party ranks riddled with police agents, but blood feuds often ruined personal relations, too. The biggest problem was usually boredom. After a series of arrests, Kostrikov settled in Vladikavkaz, in the North Caucasus (1909–17), which is where he adopted the sonorous alias Kirov—perhaps after the fabled ancient Persian King Cyrus (Kir, in Russian). He managed to get paid for permanent work at a legal Russian-language newspaper of liberal bent (Terek), whose proprietor proved willing to endure many police fines, and he mixed in professional and technical circles while reading some Hugo, Shakespeare, Russian classics, as well as Marxism. Kirov was arrested again in 1911, for connections to an illegal printing press discovered back in Tomsk (where he had originally joined the Social Democrats), but acquitted. He later confessed that prior to 1917 he felt remote from the intellectual life of the rest of the empire and suffered terrible ennui—and he was not even in some frozen waste but in a mild clime, and drawing a salary, luxuries of which the forlorn Jughashvili could only dream.136


Thanks to the okhranka, the years between 1909 and 1913 would prove relatively peaceful, certainly compared with the madness of the preceding few years.137 Social Democratic party strength, which had peaked at perhaps 150,000 empirewide in 1907, had fallen below 10,000 by 1910. Members of the Bolshevik wing were scattered in European or Siberian exile. A mere five or six active Bolshevik committees existed on imperial Russian soil.138 At the same time, by 1909, the Union of the Russian People had splintered, and the entire far right had lost its dynamism.139 That year, Stolypin began to align himself overtly with Russian nationalists and to promote Orthodoxy as a kind of integrating national faith. He did so out of his own deep religious conviction as well as political calculation. Imperial Russia counted nearly 100 million Eastern Orthodox subjects, some 70 percent of the empire’s population. But Eastern Orthodoxy did not unite to a sufficient degree. “The mistake we have been making for many decades,” Sergei Witte recorded in his diary in 1910, “is that we have still not admitted to ourselves that since the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great there has been no such thing as Russia: there has only been the Russian empire.”140 To be sure, non-Russian nationalist and separatist movements remained relatively weak; armed rebellion had largely been confined to the Poles, who in retribution lost their separate constitution, and the Caucasus mountain tribes. Imperial loyalties remained strong, and Russia’s loyal ethnically diverse elites constituted an enormous asset, even in the global age of nationalism. But the very constituency to which Stolypin appealed, Russian nationalists, caused the greatest political disruption precisely for wanting to compel non-Russians to become a single Russian nation. In aiming for a single “Russian” nation defined in faith (Orthodoxy)—imagined to comprise Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians), and White Russians (Belorussians)—the nationalists had imposed severe prohibitions against Ukrainian language and culture. Predictably, this only stoked Ukrainian national consciousness further—and in the guise of opposition, rather than loyalty. These were the same detrimental processes that we have seen at work in the Caucasus at the Tiflis seminary and elsewhere, whereby hard-line Russifiers infuriated an otherwise loyal, and largely cultural, nationalism. It was the Russian nationalists, more than non-Russian nationalisms, who helped destabilize the Russian empire.141

Stolypin’s turn to Orthodoxy as nationalism, after his reform efforts had stalled, testified to weakness and reconfirmed the lack of an effective political base for the regime. Bismarck had managed for more than two decades to wield control over the legislative agenda, despite the growing power of Germany’s middle and working classes and the absence of his own political party. Stolypin’s herculean efforts at forging Bismarck-like parliamentary coalitions without his own political party failed. But if Stolypin’s ambitious (for Russia) modernization schemes were stymied by the Duma, they had ultimately depended abjectly on the whim of the autocrat. To be sure, notwithstanding Bismarck’s shrewdness vis-à-vis the Reichstag, the Iron Chancellor’s handiwork, too, had ultimately hung on his relationship with a single man, Wilhelm I. But Bismarck, a master psychologist, had managed to make the kaiser dependent on him for twenty-six years. (“It’s hard to be kaiser under Bismarck,” Wilhelm I once quipped.)142 Stolypin had to operate within a more absolute system and with a less-qualified absolutist, a figure more akin to Wilhelm II (who dismissed Bismarck) than Wilhelm I. Nicholas II and his German wife, Alexandra, were jealous of the most talented official who would ever serve them or imperial Russia. “Do you suppose I liked always reading in the papers that the chairman of the Council of Ministers had done this . . . the chairman had done that?” the tsar remarked pathetically to Stolypin’s successor. “Don’t I count? Am I nobody?”143 With Stolypin gone, “the autocrat” would reassert himself, appointing lesser prime ministers, and encouraging Russia’s ministers to obviate their own government. These actions flowed, in part, from Nicholas II’s personality. Whereas Alexander III would flatly state his faltering confidence to any given official, Nicholas II would say nothing but then secretly intrigue against the objects of his displeasure. He invariably sought escape from the incessant ministerial disputes even as he egged them on. Such behavior provoked officials’ quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, fury, and eroded their commitment not just to him personally but to the autocratic system.144 Nonetheless, the deeper patterns were systemic, not personal.

Nicholas II could not act as his own prime minister in part because he was not even part of the executive branch—the autocrat, by design, stood above all branches—while the Russian government he named, oddly, was never an instrument of his autocratic power, only a limitation on it. Nor had Nicholas begun the practices of deliberately exacerbating institutional and personal rivalries, encouraging informal advisers (courtiers) to wield power like formal ministers, playing off courtiers against ministers and formal institutions, in loops of intrigues, and making sure jurisdictions overlapped.145 The upshot was that some Russian ministries would prohibit something, others would allow it, intentionally stymying or discrediting each other. Russian officials even at the very top chased the least little gossip, no matter how third hand or implausible; those trafficking in rumors allegedly from “on high” could access the most powerful ears. Everyone talked, yet ministers, even the nominal prime minister, would often not know for sure what was being decided, how, or by whom. Officials tried to read “signals”: Were they in the tsar’s confidence? Who was said to be meeting with the tsar? Might they soon obtain an audience? In the meantime, as one high-level Russian official noted, the ministries felt constantly impelled to enlarge their fields of sway at others’ expense in order to get anything done at all. “There was really a continually changing group of oligarchs at the head of the different branches of administration,” this high official explained, “and a total absence of a single state authority directing their activities toward a clearly defined and recognizable goal.”146

During Stolypin’s ultimately futile effort to impose order on the government, let alone the country, Koba Jughashvili experienced a long stretch of squalor, years full of disappointment, and often desperation. To be sure, thanks to the Party Congresses or the common fate of exile, the future Stalin had come to know nearly everyone high up in the Bolshevik revolutionary milieu—Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev—and numerous others, such as Feliks Dzierzynski. But Stalin’s dabbling in banditry in 1907 in Tiflis had afforded him notoriety of a mostly negative sort, which he would have to work hard to suppress, and led to his decampment to Baku. There, in 1910, he had tried but failed to obtain permission in time to marry a woman, Stefania Petrovskaya, evidently in order to remain legally resident in the city; instead, he was deported north back to internal exile in Solvychegodsk. In late 1911, the landlady of his latest exile hut, the widow Matryona Kuzakova, gave birth to a son, Konstantin, likely Jughashvili’s.147

By then, the future Stalin was already gone from Solvychegodsk, having been allowed to relocate to Vologda, the northern province’s “capital,” where he continued to chase peasant skirts. He took up with another landlady’s divorcee daughter, the servant Sofia Kryukova, and briefly cohabitated with Serafima Khoroshenina, until her exile sentence ended and she left. Jughashvili bedded the teenage school pupil Pelageya Onufrieva as well. He further busied himself collecting postcards of classical Russian paintings. Vologda, unlike Solvychegodsk, at least had a public library, and the police observed him visiting the library seventeen times over a stretch of 107 days. He read Vasili Klyuchevsky, the great historian of Russia, and subscribed to periodicals that were mailed to him in Siberia.148 Still, thinning from a meager diet, hounded by surveillance, humiliated by surprise searches, the “Caucasian”—as the Vologda police called him—led a destitute existence. The okhranka’s handiwork had reduced the future Stalin’s life, yet again, to the offerings of a provincial library as well as an underaged girl (born 1892), to whom he moaned about his dead wife Kato. Young Pelageya—known in okhranka code as “the fashion plate”—was actually the girlfriend of Jughashvili’s closest Vologda comrade, the Bolshevik Pyotr Chizikov, whose period of exile had ended but who had stayed behind with her. Chizikov not only “shared” his girlfriend, he was tasked by the higher-ups with assisting “Comrade Koba’s” escape.149 In September 1911, carrying Chizikov’s legal papers, Jughashvili slipped out of Vologda and again made his way to St. Petersburg. In the boondocks of Vologda (or Siberia), tsarist police surveillance was laughable, but in the capital and large cities, such as St. Petersburg, Baku, or Tiflis, the okhranka proved vigilant and effective. In the capital, the okhranka tailed Jughashvili immediately, and arrested him three days after his arrival.

That same September 1911, while Jughashvili was being rearrested in St. Petersburg, farther south, at the Kiev Opera House during a performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Mordekhai “Dmitry” Bogrov, a twenty-four-year-old lawyer and anarchic terrorist—in the clandestine pay of the okhranka—assassinated Stolypin. Russia’s top statesman, by then in near isolation, amid rumors of his imminent transfer to the Caucasus or Siberia, had followed the imperial family southward for the dedication of a monument to Alexander II.150 Stolypin had been forewarned, again, of plots against him, yet he traveled anyway, without bodyguards, which he never used, or even a bullet-proof vest (such as they were at the time). “We had just left the box,” Nicholas II wrote to his mother of the second intermission, “when we heard two sounds as if something had dropped. I thought an opera glass might have fallen on somebody’s head, and ran back into the box to look.” When the tsar glanced down into the orchestra, he saw his prime minister standing in a bloodstained uniform; Stolypin, upon seeing Nicholas II, raised his hand to motion the tsar away to safety, then made the sign of the cross. He died a few days later in a hospital. This was the eighteenth attempt on Stolypin’s life. His assassin, Bogrov, was convicted and hanged in his jail cell ten days after the shooting. It became public knowledge that Bogrov had been suspected of police collaboration by his leftist terrorist colleagues and that he had entered the premises with a police-supplied pass, delivered to him a mere one hour before the performance. These circumstances fomented speculation that via the okhranka, Russia’s far right had finally dispatched the conservative prime minister they reviled. This unproven yet widely believed account testified to the fact that the prime minister never found the conservative political base he sought for the autocratic regime. Even before he was killed, Stolypin had been politically destroyed by the very people he was trying to save.151

As the tsarist government’s incoherence proceeded apace in Stolypin’s absence, and Russia’s still unreconciled political right wing continued to denounce the “constitutional monarchy,” Koba Jughashvili had been deported back to internal exile by December 1911.152 He found himself, once again, in remote Vologda. But suddenly the Georgian revolutionary rose to the pinnacle of Russian Bolshevism (such as it was), thanks to yet another underhanded internal party action. In January 1912, the Bolsheviks called a tiny party conference—not a congress—in Prague, where Lenin’s faction managed to claim eighteen of the twenty delegates; aside from two Mensheviks, most of the non-Bolshevik faction of Social Democrats refused to attend. On the dubious grounds that the party’s old Central Committee had “ceased to function,” the conference assigned itself the powers of a congress and named a new (and all-Bolshevik) Central Committee.153 In effect, the Bolshevik faction formally asserted a claim over the entire Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Immediately thereupon, at the first plenum of the new Central Committee, Lenin decided to co-opt Jughashvili (in Vologda exile) in absentia as a new Central Committee member. The Prague gathering also created a Central Committee “Russia bureau” (for those located on Russian territory), which Stalin had been insisting upon, and on which he was now placed. Stalin became one of twelve top Bolshevik insiders, and one of three such from the Caucasus.154 Lenin’s motives in promoting him are not well documented. Given their different places of exile (Western Europe versus eastern Russia), they had seen little of each other in the six odd years since their first meeting in December 1905. But already in 1910, when Stalin was part of the Baku underground, the Bolshevik leadership in exile had wanted to co-opt him into the Central Committee. For whatever reason it did not happen then. In 1911, Grigol Urutadze, the Georgian Menshevik who had once sat in prison with Jughashvili, poured poison into Lenin’s ear about Jughashvili’ s illegal expropriations and his supposed past expulsion from the Baku organization. “This means nothing!” Lenin is said to have exclaimed. “This is exactly the kind of person I need!”155 If Lenin said it, he was praising how Stalin recognized few if any limits on what he would do for the cause. The 1912 elevation to the Central Committee would become a momentous breakthrough in Stalin’s rise, allowing him to join the likes of Zinoviev, Lenin’s shadow in Genevan exile, as well as Lenin himself.

Splittism and a hard line against “reformist” socialists were not peculiar to Lenin.156 The young Italian socialist radical Benito Mussolini (b. 1883), the son of an impoverished artisan who named his boy for a Mexican revolutionary, relocated in 1902 to Switzerland, where he worked as a casual laborer, and might have met Lenin; Mussolini certainly read some Lenin.157 But he came up with his rejection of Italian economic anarcho-syndicalism and parliamentary socialism on his own. In 1904, Mussolini called for “an aristocracy of intelligence and will,” a vanguard to lead workers (a position that would remain with him into fascism).158 He pounded this theme in newspapers. At the Italian Socialist Party Congress in July 1912, a few months after Lenin had forced through the formation of a self-standing Bolshevik party, Mussolini, a delegate from the small town of Forlì who was not yet thirty years old, catapulted himself into the Italian Socialist Party leadership by leading the expulsion of moderate reformist socialists (Mussolini’s supporters, known as intransigents, included Antonio Gramsci).159 “A split is a difficult, painful affair,” Lenin, hailing Mussolini’s action, wrote in Pravda (July 15, 1912). “But sometimes it is necessary, and in such circumstances every weakness, every ‘sentimentality’ . . . is a crime. . . . When, to defend an error, a group is formed that spurns all the decisions of the party, all the discipline of the proletarian army, a split becomes indispensable. And the party of the Italian socialist proletariat has taken the right path by removing the syndicalists and Right reformists from its ranks.”160 Outre radicalism, whether Bolshevik or incipient fascist, was both political program and an impatient street-fighting disposition.

Stalin’s vault from godforsaken Vologda to the pinnacle of the new all‒Bolshevik Central Committee in 1912 would have been unthinkable without Lenin’s patronage. And yet, it must be said, Lenin was a user, using absolutely everyone, Stalin, too, as a non-Russian to afford his faction appeal. The rash of arrests, furthermore, made promotion of some people a necessity. Still, Stalin’s elevation went beyond tokenism or expediency. Stalin was loyal as well as effective: he could get things done. And, also important, he was a Bolshevik in the heavily Menshevik Caucasus milieu. True, two other Caucasus figures, Sergo Orjonikidze and the truly infamous womanizer Suren Spandaryan (about whom it was said, “all the children in Baku who are up to three years old look like Spandaryan”), were also in the top Bolshevik stratum at this time. Orjonikidze served as Lenin’s chief courier to Bolsheviks in the Russian empire, and he was the one who was tasked in early February 1912 with informing Koba of his Central Committee membership and his new 50-ruble monthly party allowance—a sum, however welcome, that would not free Jughashvili from continuing to scrounge and beg for handouts.161 Be that as it may, Stalin would come to dominate Orjonikidze; Spandaryan would die an early death. Consider further that Ivan “Vladimir” Belostotsky, a metalworker and labor-insurance clerk, was co-opted to the Bolshevik Central Committee at the same time, but he soon disappeared.162 Stalin, in other words, contrary to what would later be asserted, was no accidental figure raised up by circumstances. Lenin put him in the inner circle, but Stalin had called attention to himself and, moreover, would go on to prove his worth. He endured.

Predictably, Lenin’s socialist opponents—Bundists, Latvian Social Democrats, Mensheviks—denounced the Prague conference for the illegitimate maneuver that it was. Equally predictably, however, their own efforts to answer with their own Party Congress in August 1912 disintegrated into irreconcilable factionalism.163 Later that very same month, Jughashvili escaped Vologda again, returning to Tiflis, where by summer 1912 there were no more than perhaps 100 Bolsheviks. Nearly his entire adult life had been consumed in factional infighting, yet now even he took to advocating for unity among Social Democrats “at all costs” and, what is more, for reconciliation and cooperation with all forces opposed to tsarism.164 His head-snapping about-face testified to the dim prospects of all the leftist parties. In fairness, though, even the political forces nominally supporting the autocracy could not come together.

From the height of mass disturbances of only five years before, Stolypin’s left-right political demobilization of imperial Russian had been breathtakingly successful, but at the expense of establishing an enduring polity. On the latter score, many observers, especially in hindsight, have attributed Russia’s lack of a polity to an inherent inability to forge a nation. Ethnic Russians made up just 44 percent of the empire’s 130 million people, and even though the Orthodox numbered close to 100 million, they divided into Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian speakers—and they were not concentrated territorially. Every would-be internal nationalist mobilization inside Russia had to somehow manage substantial internal national minorities, too. But Stalin’s regime would find a way to cultivate loyalties through and across the different language groups of a reconstituted Russian empire. The biggest problem for imperial Russia was not the nation but the autocracy.

The autocracy integrated neither political elites nor the masses, and, meanwhile, the waves of militancy that Durnovó and Stolypin had crushed erupted again in a remote swath of deep Siberian forest in late February 1912. More than 1,000 miles north and east of Irkutsk on the Lena River—the source of Lenin’s pseudonym from his Siberian exile days—gold-mine workers struck against the fifteen-to-sixteen-hour workdays, meager salaries (which were often garnished for “fines”), watery mines (miners were soaked to the bone), trauma (around 700 incidents per 1,000 miners), and the high cost and low quality of their food. Rancid horse penises, sold as meat at the company store, triggered the walkout. The authorities refused the miners’ demands and a stalemate ensued. In April, as the strike went into its fifth week, government troops subsidized by the gold mine arrived and arrested the elected strike committee leaders (political exiles who, ironically, wished to end the strike). This prompted not the strike’s dissipation but a determined march for the captives’ release. Confronted by a peaceful crowd of perhaps 2,500 gold miners, a line of 90 or so soldiers opened fire at their officer’s command, killing at least 150 workers and wounding more than 100, many shot in the back trying to flee.

The image of workers’ lives extinguished for capitalist gold proved especially potent: among the British and Russian shareholders were banking clans, former prime minister Sergei Witte, and the dowager empress. Word of the Lena goldfields massacre spread via domestic newspaper accounts—overwhelming, in Russia, news of the Titanic’s contemporaneous sinking—and spurred empirewide job actions encompassing 300,000 workers on and after May Day 1912.165 The vast strikes caught the beaten-down socialist parties largely by surprise. “The Lena shots broke the ice of silence, and the river of popular resentment is flowing again,” Jughashvili noted in the newspaper. “The ice has broken. It has started!”166 The okhranka concurred, reporting: “Such a heightened atmosphere has not occurred for a long time. . . . Many are saying that the Lena shooting is reminiscent of the January 9 [1905] shooting” (Bloody Sunday).167 Conservatives lashed out at the government for the massacre, as well as at the gold company’s Jewish director and foreign shareholders. A Duma commission on the goldfields massacre deepened the public anger, thanks to the colorful reports provided by the commission chairman, a leftist Duma deputy and lawyer named Alexander Kerensky.


Even as rightists demanded unconditional obedience to the autocrat, behind closed doors some of them took to fantasizing about his assassination. They contemplated regicide despite the fact that Nicholas II’s son, Alexei, was a toddler—Russian law required a tsar to be sixteen—and most rightists viewed the regent, the tsar’s younger brother, Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, as no better, and probably worse than Nicholas II.168 But by 1913, when the empire celebrated three centuries of Romanov rule with spectacular pageantry, the frail dynasty was the only overarching basis for loyalty that the autocracy permitted. The tercentenary celebrations opened on February 21 with a twenty-one-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress—the same guns that had announced Tsarevich Alexei’s birth nine years earlier. Next came an imperial procession from the Winter Palace to Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. Amid the clattering hoofs, fluttering banners, and peeling church bells, the noise grew deafening at sightings of the emperor and little Alexei riding in an open carriage. At the Winter Palace ball that evening, the ladies wore archaic Muscovite-style gowns and kokoshniks, the tall headdresses of medieval Russia. The next night at the capital’s storied Mariinsky Theater, the conductor Eduard Napravnik, the lyric tenors Nikolai Figner and Leonid Sobinov, and the ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Matylda Krzesinska (a one-time teenage lover of Nicholas II), joined in a glittering performance of Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar.

Public involvement in the tercentenary was kept conspicuously slight. The celebrations, moreover, focused not on the state (gosudarstvo) but on the grand Romanov personages who had ruled (gosudar). At the same time, Russia’s immense size was the main device used to burnish the dynasty. At the Kazan Cathedral—decorated with more than 100 of Napoleon’s state symbols captured by Russia—the Orthodox services had been accompanied by an imperial manifesto, read out at all the empire’s churches. “Muscovite Rus expanded and the Great Russian Empire now stood in the ranks of the first powers of the world,” proclaimed Nicholas II, the eighteenth Romanov.169 On the tercentenary Easter egg manufactured by special order in the workshops of Peter Carl Faberge, double-headed eagles as well as diamond-framed miniature portraits of all eighteen Romanov rulers graced the outer shell. The tiny egg’s customary “surprise” proved to be an interior rotating globe, which contrasted Russia’s boundaries of 1613 with the much-expanded empire of 1913.170 Whether the Romanov House was up to defending that patrimony, however, was widely doubted.

After Easter 1913, the imperial family devoted a celebratory fortnight to retracing the route of the first Romanov, Mikhail Fyodorovich, in reverse, from Moscow through the heartland to the ancient Romanov patrimony of Kostroma, and back to a triumphal entrance to Moscow. The face of the Our Lady of St. Theodore icon in Kostroma, the Romanov dynasty’s patron icon, had become so badly blackened, the image was nearly invisible, a terrible omen.171 But Nicholas II, emboldened by the renewal of seventeenth-century roots, renewed his scheming to end the constitutional autocracy by canceling the Duma’s legislative rights, rendering it purely advisory “in accordance with Russian tradition.” He shrank, however, from attempting what he and so many conservatives desperately craved.172 Amid the cult of autocratism, moreover, disquiet spread among the monarchy’s staunchest advocates. Despite the pageantry, many people in Russia’s upper and lower orders alike had come to doubt Nicholas II’s fitness to rule. “There is autocracy but no autocrat,” General Alexander Kireev, the Russian courtier and pundit, had complained in a diary entry as early as 1902, a sentiment that over the years had only widened, like a rock-thrown ripple across the entire pond of the empire.173 An imperial court hofmeister observing the Romanov processional to the Kazan Cathedral concluded that “the group had a most tragic look.”174 The immense Russian empire was ultimately a family affair, and the family appeared doomed. It was not simply that Nicholas II, a traditionally conservative man of family, duty, and faith, was piously committed to the “autocratic idea” without the personal wherewithal to realize it in practice. Had the hereditary tsar been a capable ruler, the future of Russia’s dynasty still would have been in trouble.175

Because of a genetic mutation that the German princess Alexandra had inherited from her grandmother Britain’s Queen Victoria, the Russian tsarevich Alexei came into the world with hemophilia, an incurable disease that impaired the body’s ability to stop bleeding. The tsarevich’s illness remained a state secret. But secrecy could not alter the likelihood that Alexei would die at a relatively early age, perhaps before fathering children. Nor was there a way around the improbability that a boy walking on eggshells, subject to death from internal bleeding by bumping into furniture, could ever serve as a vigorous, let alone autocratic, ruler. Nicholas II and Alexandra remained in partial denial about the dynasty’s full danger. The hemophilia, an unlucky additional factor piled on the autocracy’s deep structural failures, was actually an opportunity to face the difficult choice that confronted autocratic Russia, but Nicholas II and Alexandra, fundamentally sentimental beings, had none of the hard-boiled realism necessary for accepting a transformation to a genuine constitutional monarchy in order to preserve the latter.176

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CONSTITUTIONAL AUTOCRACY was self-defeating. Nicholas II worked assiduously not just to stymie the realization of the parliament he had granted, but even to block the realization of a coordinated executive branch, as an infringement on autocracy. “Autocratic government” constituted an oxymoron, a collision of unconstrained sacral power with legal forms of administration, a struggle among functionaries to decide whether to heed the “will” of the autocrat or act within the laws and regulations.177 Blaming the failings of imperial Russia on “backwardness” and peasants, therefore, is misguided. Stolypin was undone primarily by the autocracy itself as well as by Russia’s uncomprehending elites. He wielded an arsenal of stratagems and possessed tremendous personal fortitude, but he met relentless resistance from the tsar, the court, and the rightist establishment, including from Sergei Witte, who now sat in the State Council.178 The establishment would not allow Stolypin to push through a full program of modernization to place Russia on the path of strength and prosperity in order to meet the array of geopolitical challenges. “I am certainly sorry for Stolypin’s death,” Pyotr Durnovó, another Stolypin nemesis in the State Council, remarked at a meeting of rightist politicians in 1911. “But at least now there is an end to the reforms.”179 True enough: reform died. At the same time, it was notable that Stolypin had not for the most part attempted to outflank the recalcitrant establishment by appealing directly to the masses, despite his eventual promotion of a broad Eastern Orthodox “nation.” Devoted to the monarchy, he sought to fuse divinely ordained autocratic power and legitimate authority, caprice and law, tradition and innovation, but he relied upon a deliberately antimass-politics Duma, aiming for a regime of country squires (like himself). In the emigration in 1928, a refugee forced to flee Russia would celebrate Stolypin as Russia’s Mussolini, the first “Eastern Orthodox fascist,” a national social leader.180 Not in the least. Stolypin’s contradictory five-year premiership lacked a radical ideology, and he remained a corridor politician even when he went out to address the people.

In international affairs, Stolypin had been unable to avoid a de facto posture of alignment with Britain against Germany. True, he did achieve an improbable and important policy victory at conservative expense, and despite lacking formal foreign affairs jurisdiction, by restraining Russian passions over the Balkans and elsewhere.181 That hard-won restraint, however, was destined not to last. Beginning just three years after Stolypin’s death, a world war would break out that, when combined with Russia’s alienated conservatives and the Romanov’s secret hemophilia, would sweep aside Russia’s constitutional autocracy and, in very short order, Russia’s constitutionalism entirely. Even then, a Russian fascism would not take hold.182 If anyone alive had been informed during the Romanov tercentenary celebrations of 1913 that soon a fascist right-wing dictatorship and a socialist left-wing dictatorship would assume power in different countries, would he or she have guessed that the hopelessly schismatic Russian Social Democrats dispersed across Siberia and Europe would be the ones to seize and hold power, and not the German Social Democrats, who in the 1912 elections had become the largest political party in the German parliament? Conversely, would anyone have predicted that Germany would eventually develop a successful anti-Semitic fascism rather than imperial Russia, the home of the world’s largest population of Jews and of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion?183

A focus not on leftist revolutionary activity but on geopolitics and domestic high politics reveals the central truth about imperial Russia: The tsarist regime found itself bereft of a firm political base to meet its international competition challenges. That circumstance made the regime more and more reliant on the political police, its one go-to instrument for every challenge. (Alexander Blok, the poet, who would study the files of the tsarist police after the revolution, deemed them Russia’s “only properly functioning institution,” marveling at their ability “to give a good characterization of the public moods.”)184 Indulgence of the police temptation did not result from any love of the okhranka or of police methods; on the contrary, the tsar and others roundly despised their ilk.185 Rather, the overreliance on the political police stemmed from an irreconcilable antagonism between the autocracy and the Constitutional Democrats, and from the tsarist system’s profound distaste for street mobilization on its behalf. In modern times, it was not enough to demobilize opponents; a regime had to mobilize proponents. A system deliberately limited to the narrow privileged strata, backed by police and a peasant army, was, in the modern age, no polity at all, certainly not for a would-be great power competing against the strongest states. A modern integrated polity needed more than gonfalons, processionals holding icons, polyphonic hymns (“Christ Is Risen”), and the retracing in 1913 of a pilgrimage to Moscow originally undertaken in the seventeenth century. Durnovó, in leading the rescue of the autocracy in 1905–6, had proved able to reset the political moment in Russia, but unable to alter the fundamental structures. Stolypin, equally ready to wield repression yet also far more creative politically, bumped up against tsarism’s political limits. Of all the failures of Russia’s autocracy with regard to modernity, none would be as great as its failure at authoritarian mass politics.

Autocratic Russia’s discouragement of modern mass politics would leave the masses—and the profound, widespread yearning among the masses in Russia for social justice—to the leftists. The latter, for their part, including the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, were riven by extreme factionalism, and crippled by the state’s severe repression. Under the autocracy, not just a Russian fascism but also opposition leftist parties largely failed. And yet, within a mere decade of Stolypin’s demise, the Georgian-born Russian Social Democrat Iosif “Koba” Jughashvili, a pundit and agitator, would take the place of the sickly Romanov heir and go on to forge a fantastical dictatorial authority far beyond any effective power exercised by imperial Russia’s autocratic tsars or Stolypin. Calling that outcome unforeseeable would be an acute understatement.

Stalin, Volume 1


The trouble will start with the blaming of the government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitation throughout the country, with socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition . . . will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves.

Pyotr Durnovó, February 1914 memorandum to Nicholas II, on the consequences of a possible war against Germany

BETWEEN 1905 AND 1911, revolutions broke out in Mexico, Qajar Iran, the Ottoman empire, China, and Portugal, as well as Russia—countries that together accounted for one quarter of the earth’s population. Each led to the introduction of constitutions. It was a global moment, akin in some ways to the 1780s, when revolutions broke out in the United States, France, and the Caribbean. But the early-twentieth-century constitutional experiments were quickly undermined or reversed in every single case. (Only Portugal’s lasted a bit longer, through thirty-eight prime ministers, until a 1926 military coup.) Liberty exerted a powerful pull, but institutionalizing liberty was another matter. The push for constitutionalism usually entailed intellectual types—such as the leader of Russia’s Constitutional Democrat Party (Cadets), Paul Miliukov—coming to power and then looking to wield the state as an instrument to modernize what they perceived as backward societies. But the dream of an intellectual-led, classically liberal leap to modernity ran into a social wall made up of urban laboring populations and communally oriented rural majorities. In the tantalizing examples of Britain and the United States, classical liberal orders were institutionalized long before the dawn of mass politics.1 By the early twentieth century, the introduction of constitutionalism proved too narrow to satisfy the masses. The positive aspects of the changes involved in constitutionalism were often discredited by social disorder. (Russia recorded some 17,000 peasant disturbances between 1910 and 1914 just in the European part of the empire.)2 Furthermore, even though liberalizing intellectuals were inspired by the advanced countries of Europe, the European powers helped suppress the political openings, aiding the “forces of order” in China, Mexico, Iran, and elsewhere. In the Ottoman empire, the would-be modernizers backed away from liberalization. China’s constitutional experiment yielded to warlordism; Mexico erupted into civil war.3 In Russia, too, there was de facto civil war (1905–7), which was won by the forces of order.

If Russia stood out at the dawn of the twentieth century, it was because its forces of order were demoralized in victory: they hated the outcome, “constitutional autocracy,” and had come to disrespect the tsar, even though they were joined to him at the hip.4 At the same time, Russia’s would-be radical socialist revolution was mired in perhaps even greater disarray than the fraught constitutionalism. Socialists were dragged down by a harsh police regime and their own factionalism. More fundamentally, most Russian socialists supported the constitutionalism (“bourgeois” democracy) rather than socialism, as a necessary stage of history, while despising the bourgeoisie.

“Socialism,” concretely, meant a life in Siberia. True, thanks to the Romanov three-hundredth jubilee amnesty in 1913, many were released from internal exile. Lev Rozenfeld (Kamenev) returned to St. Petersburg to take up the editorship of Pravda. The newspaper had been established at the Bolshevik-dominated party conference in Prague in January 1912 and had commenced publication on April 22, 1912; Koba Jughashvili had written the lead article in the first issue, calling for “proletarian unity no matter what.”5 Jughashvili, newly a member of the illegally formed all‒Bolshevik Central Committee, had illegally sneaked back to St. Petersburg after escaping internal exile. The day of his article’s appearance, however, the okhranka ambushed him, and by summer he was deported to the remote far northern Siberian village of Kolpashëvo, near Narym (“marsh” in the Khanty language).6 In September 1912, before winter set in, he escaped by boat and made his way to Lenin in Habsburg Krakow, carrying the passport of a Persian merchant. Lenin considered himself one of the party’s top experts on national affairs. But Jughashvili surprised him with his own work on the nationalities, prompting Lenin to write to Gorky, “We have a marvelous Georgian who has sat down to write a big article for Enlightenment, for which he has collected all the Austrian and other materials.”7 “Marxism and the National Question,” not unlike Jughashvili’s only other lengthy publication (“Anarchism or Socialism?”), was partly derivative, defining “a nation” in terms of three characteristics borrowed from the German Karl Kautsky (common language, territory, and economic links), and one from the Austrian Marxist Otto Bauer (common national character).8 But the work was significant for confronting a crucial aspect of revolution in the polyglot Russian empire and largely repudiating the views of the Austro-Marxists and their Georgian Menshevik emulators. It was also significant for its signature—“Stalin” (“Man of Steel”).9 That strong, sonorous pseudonym was not only superior to Oddball Osip, Pockmarked Oska, or the very Caucasus-specific Koba, but also Russifying. By the time the essay came out in Russia, in the March-May 1913 issue of the journal Enlightenment, “Stalin” had again returned to St. Petersburg. There, at a fund-raising ball for International Women’s Day, he was ambushed yet again, betrayed by another member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Roman Malinowski, a thief who had risen to head of the metalworkers’ union but who was also a secret okhranka agent.10 Stalin was deported back to Siberia, where Kamenev, too, would end up.

Malinowski became the only high-level Bolshevik inside Russia left at liberty. Lenin had placed him in charge of directing the entire apparatus of Bolshevik activity inside the Russian empire.11 The Bolshevik leader’s vision of a party membership restricted to professional revolutionaries, a narrowness supposedly necessary in conditions of illegality—a stance Stalin, too, supported—had failed spectacularly. In fairness, the okhranka also ran the similarly hyperconspiratorial Socialist Revolutionary terror organization.12 Russia’s increasingly paranoid revolutionaries “looked in the mirror,” the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin would later recall, “and wondered if they themselves were provocateurs.”13

Despite the okhranka’s virtuosity, however, the autocracy remained under threat of nitroglycerine. In connection with the Romanov tercentenary, the St. Petersburg okhranka had bulked itself up while forbidding any appearance of crowds, fearing they would morph into demonstrations of workers carrying red flags, and that the tsar, like his grandfather Alexander II, might be assassinated.14 “The city,” recalled the chief of the Corps of Gendarmes, “was literally turned into an armed camp.” An “autocrat” unsafe in his own capital? The unseemly clampdown in the capital cast a pall over the celebrations. Despite the wide acclaim during the 1913 Romanov jubilee for the first-ever exhibition of Russian icons, the revivals of Modest Mussorgsky’s operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, and the gala culmination of the tercentenary in Moscow in May 1913, elites understood full well that the autocrat could not go about in public.

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GERMANY’S WILHELM II—who was Nicholas II’s cousin—launched his own “festive year” of pomp in 1913. It was the kaiser’s fifty-fourth birthday, the silver jubilee of his reign, and the centenary of the Prussian defeat of Napoleon. Never mind that it had been the Russians who had vanquished Napoleon and occupied Paris. Germany wanted to showcase its dynasty and impressive modernity.15 The combination of German power on the continent and terror dread in St. Petersburg was uppermost in the mind of the man who in 1905–6 had saved the Romanov dynasty.

Pyotr Durnovó viewed foreign affairs through the eyes of a policeman.16 Back in 1904, at the outbreak of what he had dismissed as the “senseless” Russo-Japanese War, he told his predecessor as Russia’s interior minister, “A naïve idea: to fix internal disorder with a foreign success!”17 After Durnovó’s April 1906 dismissal from the interior ministry, he served as leader of the rightist bloc in Russia’s upper house (State Council), a perch from which he went about subverting the post-1905 constitutional experiment (such as it was), and affording special grief to Stolypin.18 Durnovó became well known for expressing unwelcome views to people’s faces, rather than just behind their backs—and this applied even to the tsar.19 In February 1914, he submitted a long memorandum to Nicholas II, and some fifty recipients in the upper elite, seeking to reorient Russian policy.20 Durnovó scoffed at those who asserted that mere displays of Russian power and Anglo-French-Russian unity would deter Germany.21 “The central factor of the period of world history through which we are now passing is the rivalry between England and Germany,” he explained, adding that between them “a struggle for life and death is inevitable.” He argued that what had originally been just a Russian “understanding” (entente) with England had somehow become a formal alliance, and that taking the side of Britain in its confrontation with Germany was unnecessary, because there was no fundamental clash of interests between Germany and Russia. Further, unlike the foreign ministry personnel far removed from the roiling class hatreds that this ex-policeman had confronted, Durnovó emphasized how a war would be catastrophic domestically and the government blamed. “In the event of defeat,” he wrote in the February 1914 memorandum to Nicholas II, “social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.” Durnovó specifically forecast that the gentry’s land would be expropriated and that “Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.”22

The analysis—an avoidable war against a too-powerful Germany; Russia’s defeat; Russian elites heedlessly pressuring the autocracy only to be engulfed by extreme social revolution—was as hard-boiled as it was blunt. Nothing penned by Vladimir Lenin, not even his later celebrated polemic State and Revolution (August 1917), approached the clairvoyance of Durnovó. “Tsarism was victorious,” Lenin would write of the years prior to 1917. “All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Dejection, demoralization, schisms, discord, desertion, and pornography took the place of politics.”23 That was essentially correct as far as the revolutionaries went. But although the police had contained the revolutionary parties, the socialist militancy of the workers (revived during the Lena massacre of 1912) and especially the waves of peasant land-hunger unrest (which affected the army) constituted an ongoing, far greater threat. This was something the archconservative Durnovó saw better than the would-be professional revolutionaries. From 1900 through 1917, except for two years (1905–7), Lenin lived entirely outside Russia, mostly in Switzerland. Trotsky was in foreign exile from 1902 to 1903 and 1907 to 1917. Kamenev and Grigory Radomylsky (Zinoviev) each spent long stretches of the pre-1917 period in prison, Siberia, or Europe. The same was true of the diehard opponents of Lenin among the Social Democrats, such as Martov and Pavel Axelrod. Victor Chernov—the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Russia’s most populous party on the left—was in emigration without interruption from 1899 until 1917. Durnovó knew the tsarist system not from Geneva, Paris, or Berlin, but from the inside, and in particular from inside the interior ministry. He understood better than outsiders or even most insiders that the autocracy was hollowing out.24 Equally important, while members of Russia’s establishment dreaded a new “Pugachev-style” riot from below, Durnovó condemned Russia’s upper classes, especially the Constitutional Democrats, who pushed for political rights against the autocracy without realizing, as he saw it, that the militant masses would be incited to go much further and deluge them all.25

But what did the prescient Durnovó propose? Instead of autocratic Russia’s “unnatural alliance” with parliament-ruled Britain, he was urging a birds-of-a-feather alliance with Germany, a conservative monarchy, as part of an eventual continental bloc that would also include France (somehow reconciled to Germany) and Japan.26 But how was that to happen? The German kaiser was set on imposing German control over the Turkish Straits, through which passed up to 75 percent of Russian grain exports, the key to the empire’s prosperity.27 Moreover, domestically, Durnovó inclined toward a new state of emergency, which he had enforced in 1905, but at the time of his memorandum, some two fifths of the Russian empire’s 130 million subjects already lived under martial law or special regime (“reinforced protection”). True to his principles, Durnovó had refused the temptation of a rightist populism to win over the peasants with property redistributions, not because, like most members of the State Council or Duma, he owned generous land allotments (he did not), but because he feared the disorder.28 Nor would he condemn democracy outright, allowing that it might be appropriate for some countries. Still, he argued that democracy would bring disintegration to Russia, which needed “firm authority.”29 But his strategy of keeping a lid on—retaining as much centralized power as possible, refusing cooperation with the Duma, waiting for a real autocrat to take charge—was a policy of stasis.30 He himself grasped the core dilemma: The government needed repression to endure, yet repression alienated ever more people, further narrowing the social base of the regime, thereby requiring still more repression. “We are in a blind alley,” Durnovó had lamented in 1912. “I fear that we all, along with the tsar, will not succeed in getting out.”31

If it came to war against Germany, not even the tsarist regime’s greatest living policeman could rescue the autocracy a second time.32 Stolypin, too, not just Durnovó, had been warning that another major war would “prove fatal for Russia and for the dynasty.”33 Durnovó understood, still more fundamentally, that a downfall during a world war would shape everything that followed.34 Just as he prophesied, the new war, against Germany, did become a revolutionary war, which did redound to the socialists, and did produce anarchy. “However paradoxical it sounds,” recalled the Menshevik Social Democrat Fyodor Gurvich (aka Fyodor Dan), “the extreme reactionaries in the Tsarist bureaucracy grasped the movement of forces and the social content of this coming revolution far sooner and better than all the Russian ‘professional revolutionaries.’”35

 • • •

NOSTALGIA FOR TSARIST RUSSIA, however understandable, is misplaced: “constitutional autocracy” was never viable and not evolving into something better, and the development of civic associations could never substitute for Russia’s missing liberal political institutions or overcome the illiberal ones.36 When a rush of political parties had suddenly sprung into being, illegally, the leftist ones had come first: the Revolutionary Armenian Federation (Dashnaks) (1890), the Polish Socialist Party (1892), the Jewish Bund (1897), the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (1898), which split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (1903), the Jewish Social Democratic Workers’ Party or Poale-Zion (1900), the Socialist Revolutionary Party (1901). In 1905 were born the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets (classic liberals) and the Union of the Russian People (proto-fascists), among others.37 All of these organized parties, even the anti-socialists, were anathema to the autocracy, and the autocracy’s intransigence stamped them all, including the constitutionalists. The wartime radicalization would further tilt Russia’s peculiar political spectrum further left, while furnishing a cornucopia of violent practices. “The Bolshevik Revolution,” one scholar shrewdly observed, “fixed the near-ubiquitous, but transitory practices of the trans-European 1914–21 catastrophe as a permanent feature of the Soviet state.” Of course, as that scholar adds, those violent practices, that state building, would be driven by ideas.38 And not just any ideas, but visions of remaking everything, from top to bottom, ushering in the socialist kingdom of heaven on earth. The transcendentally powerful ideas, in turn, were carried forward by new people thrust onto the political landscape by revolution, such as Stalin.

For a Georgian from small-town Gori—via Tiflis, Chiatura, Baku, and Siberian exile—to rise anywhere near the summit of power, and seek to implement Marxist ideas, the whole world had to be brought crashing down. And it was. Stalin had little role in those momentous events. Unlike the wild years of 1905–8, or the period after March 1917, his life story from 1909 through early 1917 contains few moments of note. Most accounts either embroider these years, rendering them more dramatic than they were, or skip them. But this long stretch of time, in which Stalin did little or nothing, was colossally significant for Russia, and indeed the world. To make sense of Stalin’s role in the sudden, stunning episode of 1917, and above all to understand his entire later regime, the momentous history in which he had little noteworthy part must be described and analyzed in depth. But once Stalin did get near power, he battled indefatigably, like a man with a sense of destiny, and demonstrated revolutionary talents that proved especially apt in the Eurasian setting.

Modern revolutions are spectacular events, awesome in the millions who rise up and stake a claim to control their destiny, exhilarating in their new solidarities and sense of unlimited possibility. But revolutions are also signs of decay and breakdown, the cracking of one ruling system and the untidy formation of another. Whatever does or does not happen in the streets, the barracks, the factories, the fields, it is in the corridors of power, centrally and provincially, where the revolution finds an outcome. One must therefore study the high politics and the nitty-gritty of institutional formation, the practices and procedures of governance, the ways of thinking and being that inform the exercise of power. High politics is, of course, shaped by social forces, by the actions and aspirations of the broad masses, but politics is not reducible to the social. Indeed, although born of the most popular revolution in history, the new regime in the former Russian empire became unaccountable to the people, and even to itself. A mass participatory revolutionary process not only can, but frequently does, culminate in a narrow regime, and not because the revolution has “degenerated,” or because good intentions and a good beginning are ruined by malefactors or unlucky circumstances, but because the international situation impinges at every turn, institutions are formed out of the shards of the old as well as the maw of the new, and ideas matter. Dictatorship can be seen by revolutionaries as criminal or as an invaluable tool; human beings can be seen as citizens or chattel, convertible foes or congenital enemies; private property can be seen as the cornerstone of freedom or of enslavement. A profound, genuine upsurge for social justice can—depending on the overarching ideas and accompanying practices—institutionalize the gravest injustices. A successful revolution can be a tragedy. But tragedies can still be grand geopolitical projects. Russia’s revolution became inseparable from long-standing dilemmas and new visions of the country as a great power in the world. That, too, would bring out Stalin’s qualities.



What is it, stupidity or treason? (A voice from the left: “Treason!” [Someone else]: “Stupidity!” Laughter.)

Paul Miliukov, leader of the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), speech in the Duma, November 19161

As a rule, a regime perishes not because of the strength of its enemies but because of the uselessness of its defenders.

Lev Tikhomirov, Russian conservative theorist, 19112

IN 1910, AFTER THEODORE ROOSEVELT met Kaiser Wilhelm II, the former American president (1901–9) confided in his wife, “I’m absolutely certain now, we’re all in for it.”3 After the death of the kaiser’s predecessor and grandfather (at age ninety-one), the inexperienced Wilhelm II had dismissed the seventy-five-year-old chancellor Otto von Bismarck.4 The young kaiser, who proved to be both arrogant and insecure, proceeded to plot coups against Germany’s constitution and parliament, and to engage in a blustering foreign policy, exacerbating the paradox of Bismarck’s unification: namely, that Germany seemed to threaten its neighbors while itself being vulnerable to those neighbors on two fronts. Wilhelm II—known as All Highest Warlord—had declined to renew Bismarck’s so-called German-Russian Reinsurance Treaty, thereby unwittingly spurring Russian reconciliation with France, and raising the prospect for Germany of a two-front war.5 Wilhelm II’s belated attempt to correct this mistake, by manipulating Nicholas II into the Treaty of Bjorko, had failed. Then there was the kaiser’s naval program. As of 1913, Britain accounted for 15 percent of international trade, but Germany came in second at 13 percent, and in this increasingly interdependent world of global trade, especially of vital food imports, Germany had every right to build a navy.6 But Wilhelm II and his entourage had unleashed a sixty-battleship fantasy for the North Sea.7 This had spurred Britain’s reconciliation with France—despite a near Franco-British war in 1898 over colonies—and even with autocratic Russia. “The kaiser is like a balloon,” Bismarck had once remarked. “If you do not hold fast to the string, you never know where he will be off to.”8

It took two to tango, however, and the “sun-never-sets” global position that Great Britain sought to defend was itself aggressive. Britain had reluctantly ceded naval hegemony in the Western hemisphere to the rising United States and in the Far East to upstart Japan, at least temporarily. (Even then, spending on the Royal Navy consumed one quarter of state revenue.) At the same time, British foreign policy had been most immediately fixated on containing perceived Russian threats to its empire in Persia, Central Asia, and China. Many viewed Russia, because of its European, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern geography, as the only potential global rival to Britain’s global empire.9 Still, even before the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907, the ascent of German power was the more immediate and explosive circumstance as far as the British were concerned. Anglo-German economic and cultural ties were strong.10 But the clash of interests was strong as well, and unlike in the cases of the United States and Japan, Britain was not inclined to accommodate German power. “In my opinion,” Lord Curzon had written in a private letter on September 25, 1901, “the most marked feature in the international development of the next quarter of a century will be, not the advance of Russia—that is in any case inevitable—or the animosity of France—that is hereditary—but the aggrandizement of the German Empire at the expense of Great Britain; and I think that any English Foreign Minister who desires to serve his country well, should never lose sight of that consideration.”11 To manage the fundamental antagonism between the dominant status quo power and a Germany seeking to secure a place in the world order rising on Britain’s continental doorstep, exceptional statesmanship, on both sides, was required.12 Instead, the antagonism was allowed to spur an arms race and two hostile systems of alliance (or understanding): the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, versus the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Alliances by themselves never cause war; calculation and miscalculation do.13 For Germany, the road to victory against Britain was judged to go through Russia. Just as British imperialists had been obsessed with Russia’s expansiveness in Asia, Germany’s top military had become fixated on a supposed Russian “threat” in Europe. Between the 1860s and 1914, Russia’s GDP had fallen further behind Germany’s: Russian steel production in 1914, for example, was no more than 25 percent of Germany’s. But in that same interval, Russia’s economy expanded fourfold.14 And German military planners—whose job it was to prepare for possible war—harped as well on Russia’s gigantic population (around 178 million versus Germany’s 65 million) and Russia’s recently announced Great Military Program for rearmament, intended to be completed by 1917.15 The German army brass argued that an industrializing Russia, along with Europe’s other land power—and Russia’s ally—France, should not be left to choose a propitious time to attack on two fronts, and that Russia was a near-future threat that had to be attacked preemptively. “To wait any longer,” German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (b. 1848) complained to the Austrian chief of staff in May 1914, would entail “a diminishing of our chances; it was impossible to compete with Russia as regards quantity.”16 Germany was eager for the conflict in supposed self-defense against a weak Russia that was deemed on the brink of becoming invincible.17

British miscalculations were of longer standing. Britain offered the promise of global order, a Pax Britannica, without the desire or wherewithal to enforce it, while Britain’s much envied imperialism inspired rival imperialisms, which, in turn, struck fear in the British geopolitical imaginary. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable,” the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote. Back in the fifth century B.C., a clash among peripheral states, Corinth and Corcyra, sparked a showdown between the powers Athens and Sparta, a showdown that each had sought and that each would come to regret. Bismarck called such decisions rolling “the iron dice.” In the case of 1914, the British did not reckon fully with the consequences of the rivalry they had helped set up. But while the Anglo-German antagonism was the underlying cause of the Great War and Russia the critical complicating factor, the detonator was supplied not by rivalries over African colonies, where the leftists and others expected it, but in Eastern Europe, where Bismarck had warned in 1888 that war might happen over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”18 Here, as the Ottoman empire contracted, the other big land empires—Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany—ground up against one another like tectonic plates, which is how the fault line of tiny Serbia precipitated a world war and, on the eastern front, a revolution in the Russian empire.


Serbia had emerged out of the Ottoman realm in the early nineteenth century, and a century later enlarged itself in two Balkan wars (1912–13), but neither Balkan war had resulted in a wider war. True, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina (from the Ottoman empire) and thereby vastly increased its South Slav (Yugoslav) population of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. This 1908 annexation, which Russia failed to prevent, spurred numerous plots to advance the cause of South Slav independence by Young Bosnia, a terrorist group dedicated to the Yugoslav cause. In 1914 the latter resolved to murder the Austrian governor in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital. But then its members evidently read in the newspaper that the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would be visiting—exact day and location specified—and they decided to murder him instead. Happenstance had made the archduke, Kaiser Franz Josef’s nephew, Austria-Hungary’s next in line: the kaiser’s son had killed himself. Many observers hoped that the eighty-four-year-old Franz Josef—in power sixty-six years—would at some point give up the ghost and that the fifty-year-old Franz Ferdinand would have a go at reorganizing and stabilizing the realm’s internal politics. After all, in 1913, the archduke, who had a Slavic (Czech) wife, had criticized Austria’s top military commander for “a great Hurrah-Policy, to conquer the Serbs and God knows what.”

On Sunday, June 28, 1914—the couple’s wedding anniversary but also Serbia’s sacred St. Vitus’s Day—the royal pair, as announced, entered Sarajevo. The local Habsburg governor had deliberately selected the Serbian holy day for the visit. It commemorated 1389, when, in losing the Battle of Kosovo, ending the Serbian empire, a Serb had nonetheless managed to assassinate the Ottoman sultan in his tent (the guards then decapitated the assassin).19 As Franz Ferdinand made his publicly preannounced processional in an open motorcar, the first of the six Young Bosnia terrorists spaced out along the route failed to act. A second did hurl his small bomb at the archduke’s car, but it bounced off, and despite an explosion under the car that was behind, which wounded two officers, the heir was able to proceed on his way; the remaining conspirators were still in position but none acted. The Habsburg heir delivered his speech at Sarajevo’s Moorish town hall. The daring assassination plot had been botched.

At the town hall, after the speeches and ceremonies were complete, the archduke decided to alter his itinerary in order to visit the bomb victims in the hospital. Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia and one of those who had not acted that day, had tried to recover by taking up a position on Sarajevo’s Franz Josef Street near Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen, hoping to catch Franz Ferdinand on the rest of his tour. The archduke’s driver, unfamiliar with the new plan to go to the hospital, made a wrong turn toward Franz Josef Street, heard shouts of reprimand, and began to back up, but stalled the car—some five feet from Princip. Six of Princip’s eight siblings had died in infancy, and he himself was consumptive, a wisp of a human being. He had dreamed of becoming a poet. Suddenly point-blank with history, he took out his pistol and shot the Austrian heir, conspicuous in a helmet topped with green feathers, as well as his wife (intending to strike the governor). Both died nearly instantly.

Serbia had just fought two Balkans wars, losing at least 40,000 dead, and the last thing the country needed was another war. But after the Young Bosnia terrorists, all Austro-Hungarian subjects, were captured, some testified that they had been secretly armed and trained by Serbia’s military intelligence, a rogue actor in that rogue state.20 Serbia’s prime minister had not been an initiator of the assassination plot, but he did not repudiate it, and he proved unable to tamp down Serbia’s domestic euphoria, which intensified the fury in Vienna. “The large area in front of the War Ministry was packed,” wrote Lev Trotsky, who was living in Viennese exile and working as a correspondent for a newspaper in Kiev. “And this was not ‘the public,’ but the real people, in their worn-out boots, with fingers gnarled. . . . They waved yellow and black flags in the air, sang patriotic songs, someone shouted ‘All Serbs must die!’”21 If in response to the “Sarajevo outrage” Kaiser Franz Josef did nothing, that could encourage future acts of political terror. But what level of response? The Habsburgs had almost lost their state in 1740 and again in 1848–49; in 1914 they faced a dilemma unlike anything even the multinational Russian empire faced: of Austria-Hungary’s eleven major nations, only five were more or less exclusively within the realm; in the case of the other six, a majority lived outside the empire’s boundaries.22 Austrian ruling circles decided to smash Serbia, even at the great risk of provoking a pan-European war, in effect risking suicide from fear of death.

A Viennese envoy visited Berlin on July 5 to solicit Germany’s backing for a reckoning with Serbia, and returned with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “full support.” There was still the matter of consent from the leaders in Budapest, the Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary. On July 23, after internal discussion with Hungarian leaders (who came on board by July 9), as well as intense military preparations, Vienna cabled an ultimatum to Belgrade listing ten demands, including assent to a joint investigatory commission to be supervised on Serbian soil by Austrian officials. Except for the latter stipulation—an infringement on its sovereignty—and one other, Serbia’s government accepted the demands, with conditions. Even now, Kaiser Franz Josef could have pursued a face-saving climbdown. “Almost no genius,” wrote the great historian Jacob Burckhardt of Europe’s greatest family, the Habsburgs, “but goodwill, seriousness, deliberateness; endurance and equanimity in misfortune.”23 No longer: with a sense that the monarchy was in perhaps fatal decline and running out of time, Vienna, on July 28, declared war—for the first time in history—by telegraph.24

A wider conflict did not ensue automatically. Escalation—or not—lay principally in the hands of two men, cousins by blood and marriage, “Willy” and “Nicky.” Wilhelm II had a low opinion of Nicholas II, telling Britain’s foreign secretary at Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 that the tsar was “only fit to live in a country home and grow turnips.”25 The kaiser had no insight into Russian grand strategy. Nicholas II, for his part, temporized, observing that “war would be disastrous for the world, and once it had broken out would be difficult to stop.”26 During the first half of 1914, more strikes had rocked St. Petersburg and other parts of the empire, like the Baku oil fields, than at any time since 1905, and in July 1914 workers became particularly menacing, partly out of desperation in the face of repression. The Duma, before its early June summer recess, was rejecting significant parts of the government budget, including funds for the interior ministry tasked with the domestic repressions. As for Russian military might, Russia’s allies France and Britain overestimated it, while Germany and Austria-Hungary underestimated it—but not as much as the Russians themselves did.27 What is more, Russia and Serbia did not even have a formal alliance, and Cousin Nicky would never go to war out of some supposed Pan-Slavic romantic nonsense.28 Russian officials instructed the Serbs to respond reasonably to Austria. Nonetheless, the bottom line was that Russia would not allow German power to humiliate Serbia because of the repercussions for Russia’s reputation, especially following Russia’s inability to prevent Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina back in 1908.29 Nicholas II was determined to deter Austria-Hungary, which had begun mobilization, for the sake of Russia, not Serbia.

The German leadership in late July momentarily reconsidered, in an eleventh-hour initiative, but Austria-Hungary rejected the peace feeler idea—and Germany acceded. Had Wilhelm II backed off and curbed his dependent Austro-Hungarian ally, Nicholas II would have backed down as well. Instead, facing the belligerence of his cousin, domestic pressure from elites to stand tall, and unrest at home, the tsar ordered, then rescinded, and finally ordered again, on July 31, a full mobilization.30

Russia was no innocent victim, however. The perpetual machinations to have the tsar abolish the Duma, or downgrade it to a mere consultative body, had heated up. In effect, the decision for war was Nicholas II’s sideways coup against the Duma he despised. War would allow his reclamation of an unmediated mystical union between tsar and people (a prolongation of the Romanov tercentenary of the year before). The tsar did suffer genuine pangs of conscience over the innocent subjects who would be sent to their deaths, but he also felt tremendous emotional release from the distasteful political compromising and encroachments on the autocratic ideal. Nicholas II also fantasized about a domestic patriotic upsurge, “like what occurred during the great war of 1812.”31 Conveying such delusions, a provincial newspaper wrote about the war that “there are no longer political parties, disputes, no Government, no opposition, there is just a united Russian people, readying to fight for months or years to the very last drop of blood.”32 There it was, the grand illusion: the hesitant, dubious war to uphold Russia’s international prestige was imagined as a domestic political triumph—throngs kneeling before their tsar on Palace Square. Visions took flight of further imperial aggrandizement as well: a once-in-a-century opportunity to seize the Turkish Straits and the Armenian regions of Ottoman Anatolia; annex the Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking territories of Austria; and expand into Persia, Chinese Turkestan, and Outer Mongolia.33

Nicholas II was not alone in suddenly inverting the traditional link in Russia between war and revolution—no longer causative but somehow preventative.34 In Berlin, too, insecurities fed fantasies of foreign expansion and domestic political consolidation. Germany’s two-front vulnerability had produced a defense scheme to conquer the continent. Known to history as the Schlieffen Plan, for the general Count Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), and originally conceived partly as a bold way to lobby for more war resources, the scheme, reworked by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, had come to entail wheeling huge armies through Belgium into France in a giant arc, while also readying to smash Russia. Germany could, it was hoped, overcome numerical disadvantage by tactical surprise, mobility, and superior training.35 The German general staff, in bouts of pessimism, expressed fewer illusions about a short war than sometimes recognized, but could not admit that war had ceased to be an effective policy instrument—to them, war still promised a decisive resolution of multiple state problems, and the civilians did not disagree. Thus, Germany would violate Belgian neutrality in order to support Austria against Russia, with the larger aim of avoiding losing the arms race to Russia, which also meant war with Britain.36

Less well known is the fact that the British Admiralty, the equivalent of the German general staff, had been planning to fight a war by precipitating the rapid collapse of Germany’s financial system, thereby paralyzing its economy and its military’s ability to wage war—the formula of a quick victory, at supposedly very low cost, and the British equivalent of the Schlieffen scheme. The Admiralty’s plan for Germany’s demise was worked out in a committee on trading with the enemy headed by Hamilton “Ham” Cuffe (1848–1934), known as Lord Desart. It not only extended war far beyond military considerations but presupposed massive state intervention in the laissez-faire market economy. The Admiralty sought control over the wartime movements of British-flagged merchant ships and the private cargoes they carried, censorship over all cable networks, and supervision over the financial activities of the City of London. Because Britain had the greatest navy and wielded a near monopoly over the global trading system’s infrastructure, the Admiralty fantasized that it could somehow manage the effects of the chaos on Britain’s own economy. All of this contravened international law. The British cabinet had endorsed the Admiralty’s plan in 1912, and even predelegated the authority to enact it when hostilities broke out. The internal war debate in Britain took place over whether Britain could avoid also becoming entangled in strictly military actions (sending troops to the continent) while denying Germany access to shipping, communications, and credit.37

Britain and Germany almost pulled back from the brink. Wilhelm II did not give the full go-ahead for war until told that Russia had mobilized.38 The kaiser signed the mobilization order on August 1, 1914, at 5:00 p.m., but a mere twenty-three minutes later, a telegram arrived from the German ambassador in London. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, “has just called me upon the telephone,” wrote the German ambassador, “and asked me whether I thought I could give an assurance that in the event of France remaining neutral in a war between Russia and Germany we should not attack the French.”39 Was this a parallel to Pyotr Durnovó’s (unheeded) advice to Nicholas II to keep out of the Anglo-German quarrel: namely, an expression of London’s dream of escaping war by directing German might eastward, against Russia? Details out of London were sketchy. The conversation between Grey and the German ambassador had lasted a mere six minutes. But the telegram seemed to have broached the core question that would drive world politics throughout the first half of the twentieth century and would become the main dilemma of Stalin’s regime—whither German power?

To an elated German kaiser, the August 1 telegram from London seemed a godsend: the splintering of the Triple Entente, and one less front. Grey seemed to be proposing that Britain and even France could remain neutral in Germany’s support for Austria against Serbia and thus in Germany’s quarrel with Russia. A nearly apoplectic von Moltke protested the great security risk and chaos involved in halting Germany’s precision war plan and (somehow) shifting entire armies from west to east—“Your majesty, it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised”40—but when a follow-up telegram arrived seeming to confirm British neutrality if Germany attacked only Russia, Wilhelm II ordered champagne. The kaiser also cabled King George V, another cousin, to give his word that German troops, although continuing to mobilize in the west (for protection), would not cross the French frontier. It looked like a deal. But that very same night, the British king sent a stupendous reply. Drafted by Grey, it called the conversations between Grey and the German ambassador a “misunderstanding.”41 Was it British treachery? No, just stupidity. Paris would never acquiesce in a German annihilation of Russia because that would drastically alter the balance of power on the continent to France’s detriment, and in any case France had formal treaty obligations to Russia. Grey—who deemed Germany a battleship without a rudder but was himself acting inexplicably—belatedly specified that for Berlin a deal to avert war required that Germany had to hold back from attacking Russia, too. A livid Wilhelm II ordered a relieved von Moltke to resume the occupation of Belgium. His revised “Schlieffen Plan” was on.42

Germany declared war against Russia and France; Britain declared war against Germany.43 German officials managed through clever propaganda to make the German war order appear a necessary response to the “aggression” of Russia, which had mobilized first.44 (Stalin would later come to share the general conclusion, fatefully, that any mobilization, even in deterrence or self-defense, led inexorably to war.)45

Lord Desart’s plan was on as well, at least initially, even though financial groups, the department of trade, and other interests had vehemently opposed this grand strategy. But July 1914 had brought a stunning financial panic from a loss of confidence: London banks began calling short-term loans and disgorging their immense holdings of bills of exchange, freezing the London market; interest rates jumped. In New York, European investors dumped American securities and demanded payment in gold. Fear of war pushed insurance rates so high, however, that gold stopped being shipped even though the global financial system was based upon the metal. “Before a single shot had been fired, and before any destruction of wealth, the whole world-fabric of credit had dissolved,” a managing director of the firm Lazard Brothers would observe in fall 1914. “The Stock Exchange was closed; the discount market dead; . . . commerce at a standstill throughout the world; currency scarce; the bank of England’s resources highly strained.” The United States, which was neutral, would not tolerate closing down the global economic system by Britain in its quarrel with Germany. The British government would soon back off attempting to collapse the German economy in toto and would instead improvise a piecemeal effort at economic blockade. It would fail. The transoceanic flow to Germany of goods and raw materials financed by British banks and carried on British ships would increase.46 Meanwhile, Britain had sent a land army to the continent.

World war looks inexorable. Over decades, imperial German ruling circles had lacked elementary circumspection about their newfound might; imperialist Britain lacked the visionary, skillful leadership needed to accept and thereby temper Germany’s power. Elements in Serbia plotted murder with disregard for the consequences. Austria-Hungary, bereft of its heir, opted for an existential showdown. German ruling circles looked to shore up their one ally, a beleaguered Austria, while being fundamentally insecure about an inability to win the arm’s race against the great powers on either side of Germany, especially with the growing military prowess of a weak Russia, and therefore developed a defensive plan that entailed the conquest of Europe.47 Russia risked everything, not over a dubious pan-Slavic interest in Serbia, but over what a failure to defend Serbia would do to Russia’s prestige.48 And, finally, Britain and Germany tried but failed to collude in a last-minute bilateral deal at Russia’s expense. (The thought would persist.) As if all that was not sufficient cause, it was summertime: Chief of Staff von Moltke was on a four-week holiday at Karlsbad until July 25, his second extended spa visit that summer for liver disease; German grand admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was at a spa in Switzerland; the chief of the Austro-Hungarian staff, Field Marshal Baron Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, was in the Alps with his mistress; both the German and Austrian war ministers were on holiday as well.49 Additional structural factors—an overestimation of the military offensive—also weighed heavily in the march toward Armageddon.50 But if St. Petersburg had possessed irrefutable proof of Serbian intelligence’s complicity in the archduke’s assassination, the tsar’s honor might have been offended to the point that he refused standing up militarily for Belgrade.51 If Princip had quit and gone home after he and his accomplices botched the assassination, or the archduke’s driver had known the revised plan to visit the hospital, world war might have been averted. Be that as it may, launching a war always comes down to decision makers, even when those decision makers are themselves the products, as much as the arbiters, of armed state structures. Across Europe in 1914, with few exceptions—a shrewd Pyotr Durnovó, a bumbling Edward Grey—politicians, military men, and particularly rulers hankered after territory and standing and believed (or hoped) that war would solve all manner of their international and domestic problems, reinvigorating their rule, at what each believed was, for them, a favorable moment.52 In other words, when contingencies such as the wrong turn of a driver on a Sarajevo street confronted a tiny handful of men with the question of world war or peace, they hesitated yet chose war, for the sake, in varying combinations, of state prestige, state aggrandizement, and regime revitalization.53


The conflict of August 1914 escalated into a world war partly because of the expectation that states were vulnerable to conquest, but it was protracted because of the circumstance that they were not.54 Already by late fall 1914 the Great War had become a stalemate: Britain, and to a lesser extent Russia, had foiled Germany’s attempted preemptive conquest of France. From that point—and every day thereafter—the further choice, for all belligerents, could not have been starker: Negotiate an end to the stalemate, admitting that millions of soldiers had been hurled to futile deaths; or continue searching for an elusive decisive blow while dispatching millions more. Each belligerent chose the latter course. To put the matter another way, if the decision for war was, in the first instance, Austria-Hungary’s, then Germany’s, then Russia’s, then Britain’s, the decision to prolong the agony was everyone’s. Belligerent states ran out of money yet they persisted in the fight. During fifty-two months of war, the rulers of the world’s most educated and technologically advanced countries would mobilize 65 million men. Up to 9 million were killed, more than 20 million wounded, and nearly 8 million taken prisoner or missing—in all, 37 million casualties.55

For two years, the British had mostly allowed the French and Russians to absorb the brunt of Germany’s blows.56 But in July 1916, during the bloodbath at Verdun—launched by the Germans in a new strategy of attrition to overcome the stalemate by bleeding the French to death—the British countered with an offensive on the Somme farther west in France. At least 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 wounded during the first twenty-four hours. This was the greatest loss of life—working class and aristocrat—in British military history. Before the Battle of the Somme, just like Verdun, ended in stalemate, it would claim 430,000 British killed and mutilated (3,600 per day), along with 200,000 French and perhaps 600,000 Germans.57 On the western front overall, 8 million of 10 million battlefield deaths were caused not by “industrial killing” but by long established technologies: small arms and artillery.58 Still, artillery barrages now shredded men on impact from more than twenty-five miles away (territorial gains were measured in yards). Machine guns had not only become easily portable but could now fire 600 rounds per minute, and for hours on end without pausing, a hail of metallic death.59 Poison gas seared the lungs of the troops in trenches, until shifting winds often brought the lethal clouds right back against the side that had launched the chemical weapons. (Of all the belligerents, the Russian army suffered the worst from the chlorine and mustard gas because of insufficient masks.)60 In the Ottoman empire, which had joined the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Armenian subjects were accused en masse of treason—collaborating with Russia to break away eastern Anatolia—and were massacred or force-marched away from border areas, resulting in 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenian civilian deaths. In Serbia, losses were fully 15 percent of the population, a monstrous price even for a heedless assassination; Serbian incursions into Habsburg territories, meanwhile, failed to ignite a South Slav uprising, demonstrating that the fears in Vienna that had prompted the showdown were exaggerated.61 And what of that vaunted German navy, whose construction had done so much to incite the British and drive Europe toward the precipice? During the entire Great War, the German fleet fought a single engagement against Britain, in summer 1916, off the Danish coast, where the British lost more ships, but the Germans withdrew and chose not to risk their precious navy again.

The war itself, not the subsequent bungled Peace of Versailles, caused the terrible repercussions for decades. “This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” explained Bertrand Russell, a logician at Cambridge University and the grandson of a British prime minister. “No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side. . . . The English and the French say they are fighting in defence of democracy, but they do not wish their words to be heard in Petrograd or Calcutta.”62 Beyond the murderous hypocrisy, it was the fact that men could dispose of the destiny of entire nations that Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, now assimilated. But whereas European rulers and generals knowingly sent millions to their deaths for God knows what, Lenin could assert that he was willing to sacrifice millions for what now, thanks to the imperialist war, looked more than ever like a just cause: peace and social justice. Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had celebrated the intense dynamism of capitalism, but Lenin emphasized its limitless destructiveness: the war, in his view, showed that capitalism had irrevocably exhausted whatever progressive potential it once had. And Europe’s Social Democrats who had failed to oppose the war, despite being Marxists, became similarly irredeemable in his eyes.63 Among socialists internationally, Lenin now stood out, radically. “I am still ‘in love’ with Marx and Engels, and I cannot calmly bear to hear them disparaged,” Lenin wrote from Zurich to his mistress Inessa Armand in January 1917. “No really—they are the genuine article. One needs to study them.” He concluded the letter by disparaging “Kautskyites,” that is, followers of Karl Kautsky, the German Social Democrat and towering figure of the socialist Second International (1889–1916), which the war destroyed.64

Lenin added a politics of imitative war techniques to his Marxist ideology, which the wartime slaughterhouse helped to validate in ways that the prewar never did.65 His propaganda work would be almost too easy. With the war raging, he wrote his foundational Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), adapting the ideas of the Brit John Hobson and the Austrian Rudolf Hilferding, arguing that capitalism was doomed but for its recourse to exploitation abroad. But it was hardly necessary to read Lenin to appreciate the link between the Great War and colonial rapaciousness. Between 1876 and 1915, gigantic swaths of the world’s territory had changed hands, usually violently.66 France had amassed a global empire 20 times its size, and Britain 140 times, colonizing hundreds of millions of people. Outside Europe, only Japan had managed to stave off the European onslaught and, with its own overseas colonies, emulate Europe’s rapaciousness. In German-controlled South-West Africa, when the colonized Herrero rebelled (1904–7), suppression escalated into extermination—and almost succeeded: Germany wiped out up to 75 percent of the natives.67 The most notorious of all was tiny Belgium’s empire—80 times its size—which, in the pursuit of rubber and glory, enslaved, mutilated, and slaughtered perhaps half of Congo’s population, as many as 10 million people, in the decades before 1914.68 But this was the thing about the Great War: even in countries that practiced rule of law, politicians and generals used their own citizens no better, and often worse, than they had their colonial subjects. The British commander at the Somme, General Sir Douglas Haig, demonstrated no concern for human life, neither the enemy’s nor that of his own men. “Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause,” Haig wrote in his diary. When British casualties were too low, the general saw a sign of loss of will.69 Of the 3.6 million men under arms in 1914 in democratic France—the only republic among the great powers—fewer than 1 million remained by 1917. Some 2.7 million had been killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or gone missing. Civilians died en masse, too. No large European city was laid waste—mostly, the Great War was fought in villages and fields—but state “security” now meant the destruction of the enemy culturally, as the Germans had demonstrated from the outset in Belgium: libraries, cathedrals, and the civilians who embodied the enemy nation were made targets of bombing and deliberate starvation.70 “This is not war,” a wounded Indian soldier wrote home from the carnage of France in 1915, “it is the ending of the world.”71


Stalin missed the war. That summer of 1914, at age thirty-six, he was serving the second year of a four-year term of internal exile in the northeastern Siberian wastes of Turukhansk. This was the longest consecutive term of banishment he would serve, wallowing near the Arctic Circle right into 1917. This time, the authorities had moved him too far beyond the railhead for escape. While two generations of men, the flower of Europe, were fed into the maw, he battled little more than mosquitoes and boredom.

None of the top Bolsheviks saw action at the front. Lenin and Trotsky were in comfortable foreign exile. In July 1915, Lenin wrote to Zinoviev, “Do you remember Koba’s name?” Lenin obviously meant Koba’s real name or surname. Zinoviev did not recall. In November 1915 Lenin wrote to another comrade, “Do me a big favor: find out from Stepko [Kiknadze] or Mikha [Tskhakaya] the last name of ‘Koba’ (Iosif J—??). We have forgotten. Very important!” What Lenin was after remains unknown.72 He was soon busy wrongly attributing the conquest of 85 percent of the globe to inexorable economic motivations. Trotsky, who dashed from country to country during the conflict, was writing journalistic essays about trench warfare and the war’s sociopsychological impact, political life in many European countries and in the United States, and the politics of socialist movements in relation to the war, calling for a “United States of Europe” as a way to halt the conflict.73 But Stalin, Trotsky would later observe, published absolutely nothing of consequence during the greatest conflict of world history, a war that roiled the international socialist movement. The future arbiter of all thought left no wartime thoughts whatsoever, not even a diary.74

Extreme isolation appears to have been a factor. Stalin wrote numerous letters from godforsaken Siberia to Bolsheviks in European exile begging for books that he had already requested, particularly on the national question. He contemplated assembling a collected volume of his essays on that topic, building on his 1913 article “Marxism and the National Question.” Before the war commenced, in early 1914, Stalin completed and sent one long article, “On Cultural Autonomy,” but it was lost (and never found).75 He wrote to Kamenev (in February 1916) that he was at work on two more, “The National Movement in Its Historical Development” and “War and the National Movement,” and provided an outline of the content. He was aiming to solve the relationship between imperialist war and nationalism and state forms, developing a rationale for large-scale multinational states.

“Imperialism as the political expression [. . .] The insufficiency of the old frameworks of the ‘national state’. The breaking up of these frameworks and the tendency to form states of [multiple] nationalities. Consequently the tendency to annexation and war. [. . .] Consequently the belief in nat[ional] liberation. The popularity of the principle of nat. self-determination as a counterweight to the principle of annexation. The clear weakness (economic and otherwise) of small states . . . The insufficiency of a completely independent existence of small and medium-sized states and the fiasco of the idea of nat. separation [. . . ] A broadened and deepened union of states on the one hand and, on the other, autonomy of nat. regions within states. [. . .] it should express itself in the proclamation of the autonomy of a nat. territory within multinational states in the struggle for the united states of Europe.”76

These thoughts predated publication of Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and dovetailed somewhat with Trotsky’s writings on a United States of Europe (which Lenin had attacked). But Stalin’s promised wartime articles, which he told Kamenev were “almost ready,” never materialized.

Severe isolation cannot be the whole explanation. In Siberian exile Stalin made the acquaintance of a future rival, Yankel “Yakov” Sverdlov (b. 1885), the son of a Jewish engraver from Nizhny Novgorod, who had completed four years of gymnasium. Like Stalin, Sverdlov had been co-opted in absentia into the Bolshevik Central Committee after the 1912 party gathering in Prague. The two had been betrayed by the same okhranka agent within Bolshevik ranks, Malinowski, and overlapped for several years in Turukhansk, including in remote Kureika, a settlement of perhaps thirty to forty inhabitants. During the war in remote Siberia, Sverdlov managed to complete a pamphlet history titled Mass Exile, 1906–1916 and a number of articles: “Essays on the History of the International Worker Movement,” “Essays on Turukhansk Region,” “The Downfall of Capitalism,” “The Schism in German Social Democracy,” “The War in Siberia.”77 He also wrote letters that revealed a rivalry with Stalin. “My friend [Stalin] and I differ in many ways,” Sverdlov wrote in a letter postmarked for Paris on March 12, 1914. “He is a very lively person and despite his forty years has preserved the ability to react vivaciously to the most varied phenomena. In many cases, he poses new questions where for me there are none any more. In that sense he is fresher than me. Do not think that I put him above myself. No, I’m superior [krupnee], and he himself realizes this. . . . We wagered and played a game of chess, I checkmated him, then we parted late at night. In the morning, we met again, and so it is every day, we are our only two in Kureika.” For a brief time, they roomed together. “There are two of us” in a single room, Sverdlov wrote to his second wife, Klavdiya Novogorodtseva. “With me is the Georgian Jughashvili, an old acquaintance . . . He’s a decent fellow, but too much of an egoist in everyday life.” Soon enough, Sverdlov could not take it anymore and moved out. “We know each other too well,” he wrote on May 27, 1914, to Lidiya Besser, the wife of an engineer revolutionary. “The saddest thing is that in conditions of exile or prison a man is stripped bare before you and revealed in all petty respects. . . . Now the comrade and I are living in different quarters and rarely see each other.”78

Stalin took to indulging in the desolate circumstances of his profound isolation. When a fellow Siberian exile drowned, Stalin seized the man’s library for himself alone, violating the exiles’ code, and cementing his reputation for self-centeredness. Stalin also continued to engage in the exiled revolutionary’s pastime of seducing and abandoning peasant girls. He impregnated one of his landlord’s daughters, the thirteen-year-old Lidiya Pereprygina, and when the police intervened he had to vow to marry her, but then betrayed his promise; she gave birth to a son, who soon died. (Stalin would later recall his dog in Siberia, Tishka, but not his female companions and bastards.) During Turukhansk’s eight months of winter, the future dictator cut holes through the river ice to fish for sustenance, like the indigenous fur-clad tribesmen around him, and went on long, solitary hunts in the dark, snowed-in forests. (“If you live among wolves,” Stalin would later say, “you must behave like a wolf.”)79 Sudden, blinding snowstorms nearly took his life. Ever the agitator and teacher, he also harangued the local indigenous people, Yakut and Evenki, in his cold, cramped rented room, whose windows had no glass, vainly trying to recruit them to the revolutionary struggle. He had an audience but few genuine interlocutors, let alone followers. (Stalin’s supposed Caucasus gang, never more than a tiny band of irregular followers, had long ago dispersed, never to be assembled again.) He did manage to turn the pitiful gendarme assigned to guard him into a subordinate who fetched his mail and accompanied him on unsanctioned trips to meet fellow exiles in the scattered settlements.80 And his Armenian fellow exile, Suren Spandaryan, accompanied by his girlfriend, Vera Schweitzer, did make a long trek northward on the frozen Yenisei River to visit. But, dirt poor, Stalin mainly wrote to everyone he knew begging for money as well as for books. “My greetings to you, dear Vladimir Ilich, warm-warm greetings,” he wrote to Lenin. “Greetings to Zinoviev, greetings to Nadezhda! How are things, how is your health? I live as before, I gnaw my bread, and am getting through half my sentence. Boring—but what can be done?” In his supplication to the Alliluyev sisters (in Petrograd), Stalin complained of “the incredible dreariness of nature in this damned region.”81 He fathered a second son by Lidiya, Alexander, who survived—his second surviving bastard—but, like his first, Konstantin, in Solvychegodsk, he left the boy behind.

In late 1916, Stalin received a draft notice. But in January 1917, after a six-week trip by reindeer-pulled sleds from Turukhansk through the tundra down to the induction center at Krasnoyarsk in southern Siberia, the future dictator was disqualified from army service because of his physical deformities.82

What was the tsarist state doing trying to induct riffraff like Stalin and his fellow internal exiles? Russia, like most of the Great Powers, had mandated universal conscription in the 1870s. For some time thereafter, states did not wield the governing capacity or financial wherewithal to realize such complete mobilizations. In France, half the second-year call-ups would be given noncombatant jobs, while in Germany about half the possible conscripts were often missing from the ranks. In Russia, two thirds of the eligible pool had been exempted from conscription. As the Great War approached, the imperatives heightened to fulfill the universal call to the colors, but states still fell short.83 Still, at the war’s outbreak Russia fielded the world’s largest force, 1.4 million in uniform. Britain and France referred to their ally’s mass army as “the steamroller.” Despite draft riots, moreover, another 5 million Russian subjects were conscripted in the second half of 1914 alone.84 But just as the war killed or wounded nearly the entire 1914 officer corps, it chewed through conscripts. At least 2 million Russian troops met death over the course of hostilities.85 The tsarist authorities were forced to dig ever deeper.86 Of imperial Russia’s 1914 estimated population of 178 million, nearly 18 million were eligible for service, and 15 million of them would be conscripted. This was a huge number, but proportionately smaller than in France (8 million of 40 million) or Germany (13 million of 65 million). To be sure, during the war, hired labor on Russian farms fell by almost two thirds, and Russian factories were frequently emptied of skilled labor, too. The call-ups also took away half of Russia’s primary schoolteachers (who were not in abundance to start with). And yet, the relative limits in Russian numbers indicated limits to the tsarist regime’s reach over the vast empire. Russia could not manage to take full advantage of what had so terrified the German high command: namely, the gigantic population.87

That said, once on the battlefield, Russian troops and field officers acquitted themselves well, despite initial shortages—more severe than suffered by the other belligerents—of shells, rifles, bullets, uniforms, and boots.88 Between August and December 1914, Russian armies drove into Germany’s eastern flank and over time managed to crush Austria-Hungary. Against Ottoman armies, Russia did far better than the British, emerging victorious after the Ottomans had invaded Russia in winter 1914–15 expecting, erroneously, to ignite Russia’s Muslims. The problem, however, was that the Germans recovered to repel Russia’s early advances and encircle Russian troops at Tannenberg (southeast of Danzig), then forced a 300-mile Russian retreat.89 By late 1915, German-led forces had not only reversed the Russian conquests of the previous year in Habsburg Galicia, but had overrun Russian Poland, with its vital industry and coal mines; much of Belorussia; and Courland (on the Baltic), thereby threatening Petrograd. Nonetheless, from 1914 to 1916, the Russian army tied down more than 100 Central Powers’ divisions on the eastern front; until 1917, Russia captured more German prisoners than Britain and France combined.90


Russia had gone to war with a non-binding constitution tacked on to the autocracy, and neither side in the Duma-autocracy antagonism understood or had any sympathy for the other.91 Nicholas II clung to autocracy even though it afforded him no personal pleasure and he proved incapable of living up to the role.92 That said, the tsar often outmaneuvered the constitutionalists: the Duma was scarcely being summoned into session. It met for a day on July 26, 1914, to approve war credits (a formality), and for three days on January 26–29, 1915.93 Following the 1915 retreat, which was cast as a terrible rout, even though its orderliness impressed (and stymied) the Germans, Nicholas II did recall the Duma to session, and in August 1915, Paul Miliukov, head of the Constitutional Democrat party, emerged as the leader of the six-party Progressive Bloc. The latter comprised almost two thirds of Duma deputies and aimed to improve the war effort with what the deputies called a government of confidence.94 At one level, this connoted a cabinet appointed by the tsar that had the Duma’s positive appraisal. But the interior minister, suspecting that the constitutionalists really sought a genuinely parliamentary order—a government reflective of electoral majority—denounced Duma president Mikhail Rodzyanko as “stupid and bombastic,” adding, “You just want to get together and put forth various demands: ministers answerable to the Duma and, perhaps, even a revolution.”95 Russia’s conservatives, meanwhile, sought to counter the Progressive Bloc with a Conservative Bloc, but in August 1915 the rightists lost one of their foremost leaders, Pyotr Durnovó, who suffered a fit of apoplexy, fell into a coma, and died.96

Even more important than that loss, Nicholas II continued to discourage rightist political parties organizing on his behalf as attempts to “interfere” in his autocratic prerogatives.97 He refused even a private secretary to organize his vast responsibilities and ensure implementation of his decisions, because he feared falling under any secretary’s sway; so the “autocrat” opened all his own correspondence. Later, Trotsky would observe that a debilitated autocracy got the enfeebled autocrat it deserved. That was true, to a point. The much-missed Alexander III had managed to project will and authority; had he not died prematurely of illness, he would have been sixty-eight years old in 1914. Still, everything about his reign indicates that he, too, would have held fast to the autocracy and its incoherence. The autocrat alone retained the prerogative of ministerial appointments, without parliamentary recommendation or confirmation, and if a tsar allowed perceived loyalty and lineage to trump competence, there was nothing to be done. Between July 1914 and February 1917, Russia saw a parade of four different prime ministers and six interior ministers, all of whom became laughingstocks.98 (Able officials, in many cases, increasingly chose to keep their distance.) The ministers’ initial response to the 1915 war crisis was depression. The generals Nicholas II appointed, meanwhile, often blamed scapegoats for the problems they themselves caused.99 Nicholas II, predictably, reacted to the 1915 crisis by suspending the Duma he reviled. At the same time, the tsar imagined he could inspire the troops, and the people more broadly, by naming himself frontline supreme commander.100 In September 1915, Nicholas II relocated to staff headquarters at the town of Mogilyov, displacing his strapping first cousin Grand Duke Nicholas, who was known in family circles as Nikolasha—and, among the masses, as Nicholas III.

Nearly everyone in Russia’s establishment who was high enough to do so advised against the move. That included eight of the tsar’s own twelve ministers in writing—two more concurred orally—who feared that the monarch and monarchy could now be directly tarnished by a sagging war effort. Their pleading was in vain: even an overwhelming majority of the top state officials was powerless to correct the will of an autocrat. Other than an autocrat’s own (rare) about-face, the tsarist system provided no corrective mechanisms.

The tsar’s notorious personal shortcomings were on full, and fatal, display. At Mogilyov, some 490 miles from the maddening Russian capital, Nicholas II finally seemed to find that elusive world he craved of “no political parties, no disputes, no Government, no opposition . . . just a united Russian people, readying to fight for months or years to the very last drop of blood.” Recalling his extended escapes from St. Petersburg in Crimea, Nicholas II took long strolls with his English setters, rode into the countryside in his Rolls-Royce, listened to music, played dominoes and solitaire, and watched motion pictures. The tsar occasionally had Alexei brought to Mogilyov for visits, and the heir “marched about with his rifle and sang loudly,” interrupting the war councils. True, although Nicholas II loved the romance of military pageantry, he knew next to nothing of strategy and tactics, but then again, neither had Nikolasha, a graduate of the General Staff Academy, nor German Emperor Wilhelm II. But as chief of staff, Nicholas II had appointed the gifted General Mikhail Alexeyev, a relatively small man but “a gigantic military force.”101 At the same time, the domestic mobilization for the war and domestic politics had to be taken care of, but Nicholas II’s escape to Mogilyov had, in effect, left his wife, rather than a strong political figure like Witte or Stolypin, in charge of the wartime empire’s capital.102 Described by the French ambassador as “constant sadness, vague longing, alternation between excitement and exhaustion, . . . credulousness, superstition,” Alexandra did not shrink from making personnel and policy recommendations, and from presenting her husband “the autocrat” with faits accomplis.103 “Do not fear what remains behind,” she wrote to him. “Don’t laugh at silly old wify, but she has ‘trousers’ on unseen.”104 For Russia’s state officialdom and the officer corps, fighting a monumental war for the very survival of the motherland, what they observed or heard about the wartime regime felt like daggers to the heart.

Whatever Nicholas II’s personal shortcomings, Alexandra was several magnitudes below even him as would-be autocrat. To boot, she was German. The German-sounding St. Petersburg had been renamed Petrograd, but spy mania had already broken out in Russia. “There is not one layer of society that can be guaranteed free of spies and traitors,” thundered the military prosecutor, who arrested hundreds, including long-serving war minister General Vladimir Sukhomlinov. He was innocent of treason, but his public trial broadcast damaging revelations about deepset corruption and incompetence, which was cast as sedition (a dangerous obfuscation that prefigured aspects of Bolshevism in power).105 Alexandra, too, incessantly wrote to Nicholas of “traitor-ministers” and “traitor-generals.” But soon, the rumors of “dark forces” boomeranged onto her and her entourage, which included Grigory Rasputin (Novykh). Born in Western Siberia in 1869, the son of a poor peasant, not educated and unable to write proper Russian, Rasputin, known to the tsaritsa and tsar as “our Friend,” was a religious wanderer and pretend monk who had made his way into the heart of power. He was rumored to smell like a goat (from failing to bathe), and to screw like one, too. He identified with the outlawed sect of Khylsty, who taught rejoicing (radenie), or “sinning in order to drive out sin”; Rasputin advised followers to yield to temptations, especially of the flesh, asking, “How can we repent if we have not first sinned?”106 Tales of a court harem spread, conveyed in cartoons of Rasputin’s manipulative hands emanating from a naked Alexandra’s nipples. That was myth. Still, in public, as the okhranka noted, he approached female singers in a restaurant and exposed his penis while striking up a conversation. The faux “Holy Man” accepted sexual favors from noblewomen seeking his influence at court and sent half-literate policy memoranda to top ministers. Officials became afraid to incur his displeasure—he never forgot a slight—and paid him regular cash gifts, but a few fought back. A would-be female assassin, connected to a rival monk, behind whom stood high figures at court, had taken a knife to the mystic’s stomach on June 29, 1914—the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo—but Rasputin, his entrails hanging out, survived.107

Throughout the war, the highest Russian government ministers tried but could not manage to evict the “Siberian tramp” from the capital. Alexandra was immovable.108 Why? Why did she permit a debauched phony and rumoredGerman agent the run of Russia’s corridors of power? The answer was twofold. First, despite all the talk that Rasputin was running state affairs through Alexandra, it was the tsaritsa who used the pretend monk, having him voice her personnel and policy preferences as “God’s will,” thereby rendering what she wanted more palatable to the pious Nicholas II. Rasputin’s sway began when Alexandra lacked an opinion, but he held no definite, enduring political views of his own.109 Second, the heir’s hemophilia posed a daily threat to his life from possible internal bleeding into joints, muscles, and soft tissue, and no cure existed, but Rasputin could somehow alleviate the “Little One’s” symptoms.

Nicholas II’s family certainly seemed bedeviled. His first brother (and next in line), Alexander, had died of meningitis in infancy (1870). His next brother, Grand Duke Georgy, Nicholas II’s childhood playmate, died in 1899 aged twenty-eight (the tsar kept a box of jokes uttered by Georgy that he had written down and could be heard laughing in the palace by himself). That is how Nicholas II’s younger brother Mikhail became heir, until the birth of Alexei in 1904 displaced him to second in line and regent for the minor, should Nicholas II die before Alexei’s maturity (in 1920). Then, the incurable hemophilia was diagnosed. Back in the autumn of 1912, at an imperial hunting preserve just below tsarist Warsaw, the-then eight-year-old Alexei had bumped his thigh exiting a boat. This mundane occurrence caused vast internal hemorrhaging and a bloody tumor near his groin, which became infected and produced spiking fevers (105°F). Death appeared imminent, yet an operation was out of the question: the blood flow from surgery would be unstoppable. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed to their most revered icons. They also appealed to Rasputin. “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers,” he telegrammed while traveling back in Siberia. “The Little One will not die.” Miraculously, following the telegram, the bleeding stopped, the fever subsided, and the tumor was reabsorbed.110 The doctors were stunned; the royal couple became attached still more unshakably to the magical Holy Man. Grand Duke Mikhail also did his part to bond Nicholas and Alexandra to Rasputin. At the time of the whispers in the fall of 1912 that Tsarevich Alexei had been given last rites, Mikhail, the next in line, evaded the okhranka and eloped in Vienna with his lover, Natalya Wulfert, a commoner and a divorcee, thereby appearing deliberately to forfeit his right to the throne. This left no one except the precarious boy.111 Alexei’s life-threatening incidents continued—falling off a chair, sneezing hard—yet each time Rasputin’s ramblings calmed the boy (and the boy’s mother) and halted the bleeding.

Mysticism and the occult were rampant among Russia’s privileged orders—as everywhere in Europe’s aristocratic circles—but Nicholas and Alexandra’s anxiety for the dynasty’s future was entirely legitimate. And yet, among Europe’s monarchies secrecy in court affairs was the norm, and Russia’s royals refused to reveal the state secret that explained everything—and that might have elicited mass sympathy. Not even top generals or government ministers knew the truth about Alexei. In the resulting information vacuum, a public bacchanalia flourished about the pretend monk’s debauch with Alexandra and his malignant court camarilla. These tales were widely published, and sabotaged the monarchy in ways that all the alleged spies (like Sukhomlinov) never did. Street hawkers helped burn the Romanovs in figurative effigy with such pamphlets as The Secrets of the Romanovs and The Life and Adventures of Grigory Rasputin, in print runs of 20,000 to 50,000. And for the illiterate, picture postcards, skits, easily remembered verses, and jokes spread the stories of the monarchy’s moral decay and treason.112 “What’s the use of fighting,” soldiers at the front began to say, “if the Germans have already taken over?”113

The supreme paradox was that despite everything, by 1916 the Russian state, assisted by self-organizing public associations tightly intertwined with the state’s agencies, had immensely improved the wartime economy.114 Until that year, Russia had to purchase most of its weapons abroad, and Russian soldiers were often hard pressed to match ammunition with their weapons—Japanese Arisakas, American Winchesters, British Lee-Enfields, on top of ancient Russian Berdans.115 The frontline troops were short of shells, short of rifles, short of uniforms, and short of boots (the army demanded a quarter-million pairs of boots per week).116 But after two years of war, Russia began producing ample quantities of rifles, ammunition, wireless sets, aircraft.117 Russia’s economy in 1916 was humming: employment, factory profits, and the stock market were way up. Taking advantage of the manufacturing surge, as well as new aerial reconnaissance of enemy positions, General Alexei Brusilov launched a bold offensive in June 1916. Technically, he was only conducting flanking support against Austria-Hungary as part of a Russian offensive against Germany to relieve the pressure against France and Britain (which were bogged down in the Verdun and Somme slaughterhouses). But in just weeks, Brusilov, adapting a crude form of an advanced technique—artillery combined with mobile infantry—while attacking on a wide front, broke through Austro-Hungarian defenses and devastated its rear. His forces annihilated nearly two thirds of Austria-Hungary’s eastern-front army: 600,000 enemy dead and wounded, 400,000 captured.118 A shattered Austrian chief of staff warned that “peace must be made in not too long a space, or we shall be fatally weakened, if not destroyed.”119 Instead, the German field marshal Paul von Hindenburg was sent to assume direct command over Habsburg forces—he called it the “worst crisis the eastern front had known.”120

“We have won the war,” boasted the Russian foreign minister, who added that “the fighting will continue for several more years.”121 In the event, Russia’s own generals undermined Brusilov. One insubordinate general even marched the elite Imperial Guards—“physically the finest human animals in Europe”—into bogs, rendering them sitting ducks for German planes.122 Betrayed, in addition, by the railroad, Brusilov ran out of supplies. Brusilov himself had sacrificed a staggering 1.4 million Russians killed, wounded, and missing, and left himself no reserves. The final indignity came courtesy of Romania, which joined the Entente precisely because of Brusilov’s successes, but then had to be rescued when its catastrophic army went into battle. Nonetheless, Brusilov had mounted the Entente’s single best performance of the entire war, and optimists in Russia looked forward to 1917 as the year when military victory would be at hand. Politically, however, things looked increasingly shaky. “In our monarchy,” one former justice minister observed in 1916, “there is only a handful of monarchists.”123

Soon enough, not victory but political implosion came to seem more likely. In fall 1916, a clutch of mutinies broke out, some involving whole regiments, in Petrograd’s outskirts, where rear units had swelled with untrained call-ups who fraternized with workers.124 Nicholas II heaped fuel onto the bonfire that was the dynasty’s image by transferring the accused traitor Sukhomlinov—known to be championed by Alexandra—from prison to house arrest. On November 1, 1916, the respected Paul Miliukov, speaking from the rostrum of the Duma, lit into the government, punctuating his indictment of war mismanagement with the ringing phrase “Is this treason, or is it stupidity?” Many deputies chanted “stupidity,” others “treason,” and quite a number shouted “Both! Both!” Miliukov elicited an ovation.125 The incendiary speech was banned from publication, but a disillusioned monarchist in the Duma, Vladimir Purishkevich, a prominent member of the Union of the Russian People, had it illegally distributed in thousands of copies at the front. Purishkevich himself, in the Duma, denounced government ministers as “Rasputin’s marionettes.” Hours before the Duma’s holiday recess, Purishkevich helped murder Rasputin, in a plot led by Prince Felix Yusupov with the tsar’s cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, as well as British intelligence officials. The mutilated and bullet-riddled corpse was found floating in the capital’s icy river a few days later, on December 19, 1916.126 Nicholas II was both quietly relieved and revolted.127 But many members of the establishment, cheering the sensational demise of the “internal German,” nonetheless continued to sound the alarm. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich wrote to his cousin the tsar after Rasputin’s murder, “Strange as it may sound, Nicky, we are witnessing a revolution promoted by the government.”128

An autocrat strangely absent from the wartime capital, a pseudomonk in the autocrat’s absence inexplicably running wild at court, a government of nobody ministers who came and went anonymously, tales of treason on every newspaper’s front page, every street corner parliament, and in the Duma—the autocracy’s image became wrecked beyond repair. “I am obliged to report,” Maurice Paleologue, ambassador of France, Russia’s closest ally, telegraphed Paris in January 1917, “that at the present moment the Russian empire is run by lunatics.”129 Open gossip about pending palace coups speculated whether Nicholas II and Alexandra would both be murdered or just the latter.130 At staff headquarters, General Alexeyev and the brass discussed how they had managed the Brusilov offensive on their own, and began to think the once unthinkable. But what if a putsch against Nicholas II from the left came first?


Revolutions are like earthquakes: they are always being predicted, and sometimes they come. Throughout 1916 and into early 1917, almost every branch of the okhranka was warning of pending revolution (as well as anti-Jewish pogroms).131 No top revolutionary leaders were in Russia—Lenin, Martov, Chernov, Trotsky were all abroad—and the okhranka had neutralized many of the lesser socialist leaders who were resident in Petrograd, if the latter had not already neutralized themselves by political mistakes.132 On January 9, 1917, the twelfth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, 170,000 strikers massed in the capital, shouting “Down with the government of traitors!” and “Down with the war!” but the day passed without revolution, thanks to numerous arrests. On February 14, 1917, up to 90,000 workers in the capital went on strike, and again the police made mass arrests.133 Strikes persisted; a February 22 lockout over wages at the Putilov Works sent thousands of men into the streets.134 A number of factories ceased operating for want of fuel, idling more workers. As fortune would have it, after a frigid January, the weather in Petrograd had turned unseasonably mild. On February 23, International Women’s Day—March 8 by the Western calendar—some 7,000 low-paid women left Petrograd’s textile mills to march, shouting not only “Down with the tsar!” and “Down with the war!” but also “Bread!” Why were marchers on International Women’s Day demanding bread? Contrary to myth, the tsarist state had managed to cope with most exigencies of the war, as Brusilov’s well-supplied offensive demonstrated (by the end of 1917, the shell reserve would reach a total of 18 million.)135 But the tsarist state fumbled the organization of the food supply.136 The state’s food supply emergency emerged as a kind of last last straw.

Prewar Russia had fed both Germany and England, accounting for 42 percent of global wheat exports. The empire functioned as a giant grain-exporting machine, from silos to railways, moving harvests over very long distances in large amounts to far-off markets, until the war shut down foreign trade—which, in theory, meant more food for Russia’s domestic consumption (whose norms were low).137 True, sown acreage declined slightly as peasants moved to the front or cities, and western territories fell under foreign occupation. Moreover, the army, made up of men who had previously grown grain, were now consuming it—half of the country’s marketable grain in 1916.138 But that was not the key problem. Nor was the problem primarily the transportation system, which nearly everyone scapegoated. True, the rail network was not organized to circulate grain to markets within the empire. More fundamentally, however, many peasants refused to sell their grain to the state because the prices were low, while prices for industrial goods peasants needed (like scythes) had skyrocketed.139 Perhaps even more fundamentally, wartime state controls, driven by a deep anticommercial animus, had squeezed out the maligned but essential middlemen (petty grain traders), and failed to serve as an adequate substitute, thereby disorganizing domestic grain markets.140 Thus, although Russia had food stocks, by late January 1917, grain shipments to the capital in the north, from grain-producing regions in the south, did not even reach one sixth of the absolute lowest daily-consumption levels.141 The government had long resisted rationing, fearing that an announcement of rationing would bring expectations for supplies that could not be met. Finally, on February 19, however, the government belatedly announced that rationing would commence on March 1. This attempt to calm the situation induced panicked shelf stripping. Bakery windows were smashed. Bakery personnel were observed hauling off supplies, presumably for speculative resale. Petrograd’s inhabitants also learned through word of mouth that although many bakeries, lacking flour, remained open just a few hours a day, freshly baked white bread was uninterruptedly available in high-priced dining establishments.142 An okhranka agent surmised that “the underground, revolutionary parties are preparing a revolution, but a revolution, if it takes place, will be spontaneous, quite likely a hunger riot.”143

A mere four days after the tsarist government’s announcement of impending rationing was when the women had marched through Petrograd demanding bread; within seven days of their march, the centuries-old Russian autocracy was dissolved.

In the winter of 1917, Russia did not suffer famine, as the empire had in 1891 or 1902, two episodes that were within living memory and had not caused the political regime’s overthrow. (The 1891–92 famine had claimed at least 400,000 lives.)144 During the Great War, food shortages in Germany—partly caused by a British blockade designed to starve civilians and break Germany’s will—had already provoked major urban riots in late fall 1915, and such riots continued each year, but the German state would hold up until the German regime would lose the war in 1918. Neither food marches nor even general strikes constitute a revolution. It is true that socialist agitators had been swarming the factories and barracks, finding receptive audiences.145 Revolutionary songs—like the ones Stalin had sung each May Day in Tiflis—new forms of address (“citizen” and “citizenness”), and above all, a compelling story of senseless wartime butchery and high political corruption had conquered the capital, filling the symbolic void that had opened up in tsarism and empowering the people with solidarity.146 Some Petrograd demonstrators took to looting and drinking, but many others placed towels, rags, and old blankets inside their jackets to face the anticipated whip blows of Cossack cavalrymen. The raucous crowds that seized hold of Petrograd’s streets in late February 1917 were brave and determined. Still, protesting crowds are often resolute and courageous, and yet revolution is very infrequent. Revolution results not from determined crowds in the streets but from elite abandonment of the existing political order. The food demonstrations as well as strikes revealed that the autocratic regime had already hollowed out. Almost no one would defend it.

Critically, it was not just the women in the streets: General Brusilov was warning that the army had no more than ten days’ supply of foodstuffs—and there could be no doubt that he, and the rest of the brass, blamed the autocracy. “Every revolution begins at the top,” wrote one tsarist official, “and our government had succeeded in transforming the most loyal elements of the country into critics.”147 Desperate high-level plots to unseat the tsar proliferated, even among the Romanov grand dukes. Already in late 1916, Alexander Guchkov, a former president of the Duma, in cahoots with the deputy Duma president, initiated discussions with the high command to (somehow) force out Nicholas II in favor of Alexei under the regency of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, and appoint a government answerable to the Duma. (One of Guchkov’s ideas involved “capturing” the tsar’s train.) In a parallel plot, General Alexeyev, chief of staff, discussed with Prince Georgy Lvov arresting Alexandra and, when Nicholas II objected, forcing him to abdicate in favor of Grand Duke Nikolasha (by then in Tiflis). Still more seriously, in January 1917, before the food demonstrations and strikes, Lieutenant General Alexander Krymov—highly decorated for valor—requested a private meeting with Duma president Mikhail Rodzyanko as well as select deputies and told them, “The feeling in the army is such that all will greet with joy the news of a coup d’etat. It has to come . . . we will support you.”148 It can never be known, of course, whether one of the palace coup schemes against Nicholas II would have come to fruition even if the workers had not gone on strike. But with the masses having seized the capital’s streets, elites seized the opportunity to abandon the autocrat.


On the eve of the women’s bread march, Nicholas II had made a short visit home to the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, just outside the capital, but on February 22 he returned to his Mogilyov sanctuary. There he buried himself in a French history of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. (Never mind that France was Russia’s ally.) “My brain feels rested here—no ministers & no fidgety questions to think over,” the tsar wrote to Alexandra on February 24–25.149 During those days of no fidgety questions, half of Petrograd’s workforce, up to 300,000 angry people, went on strike and occupied the Russian capital’s main public spaces. Alexandra—among the key sources informing the tsar about the disturbances—dismissed the strikers as “a hooligan movement, young boys & girls running about & screaming that they have no bread,” assuring her husband the disturbances would pass, along with the unseasonably warm weather.150 But the tsar had other sources of information. And although he has been nearly universally derided as indecisive, Nicholas II, from the front, issued an unequivocal order for a crackdown.

The previous mass uprising in the capital, in connection with the Russo-Japanese War, had been terrifying, but it had failed.151 Nicholas II’s apparent lack of grave concern may have been related to the successful use of force back in 1905–6.152 Of course, that had been under Pyotr Durnovó, and before the agonies of Stolypin’s five strenuous years had ended in failure, and before the debacle of Rasputin had stripped the autocracy of its remaining shreds of legitimacy. This time, Major General Sergei Khabalov, head of the Petrograd military district, oversaw security in the capital. Admittedly, he was a desk general who had never commanded troops in the field. Khabalov was assisted by people like Major General Alexander Balk, who had been displaced from Warsaw by the German occupation and whom Nicholas II named Petrograd city commandant only after all other candidates had fallen through. A favorite of Alexandra and Rasputin, Balk, in turn, reported to Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov, Russia’s fifth interior minister in thirteen months. Erratic, voluble, smitten with serial manias, he had previously driven his textile business to near bankruptcy, and now followed advice at seances with the spirit of the deceased Rasputin.153 Nicholas II had had immediate second thoughts and had wanted to dismiss Protopopov, but could not overcome the resistance of Alexandra, to whom he had written: “I feel sorry for Protopopov; he is a good and honest man, but a bit hesitant. It’s risky to leave the ministry of the interior in such hands nowadays. I beg you not to drag Our Friend in this. This is only my responsibility and I wish to be free in my choice.”154

Instead, the dubious interior minister Protopopov was handed near dictatorial powers—“Do what is necessary, save the situation,” the tsar told him. But Protopopov was no Durnovó. Later, the cronyism in Protopopov’s appointment—a favorite not just of Alexandra and Rasputin, but also of Rodzyanko and other government officials—would be scapegoated for the February Revolution.155 But Khabalov and Balk had been preparing for a crackdown. True, Russia, universally viewed as a police state, had a mere 6,000 police in the capital in 1917, far too few to forestall the mass gatherings. But Russia maintained gigantic army garrisons in the rear for political as well as military purposes: Petrograd alone garrisoned at least 160,000 soldiers, with another 170,000 within thirty miles. That was double the peacetime number.156 In 1905, when the regime survived, the entire St. Petersburg garrison had numbered a mere 2,000157; 1917’s bloated soldiery in the rear included mere school cadets and untrained conscripts, but the majority of the capital garrison comprised cavalry (Cossacks) and elite guard units. It was a formidable force. Indeed, a Petrograd military district had been separated from the northern front in early February 1917 precisely in order to free up troops for quelling anticipated civil disorders.158 Now those demonstrations were at hand: on the morning of February 24, people again marched for bread.

Around 9:00 p.m. on February 25, Nicholas II telegrammed Khabalov, “I order you to suppress the disorders in the capital at once, tomorrow. These cannot be permitted in this difficult time of war with Germany and Austria.”159 Khabalov and Balk had already observed some Cossacks hesitating to confront the crowds in Petrograd. “The day of February 25 was lost by us in every sense,” Balk would later recall, noting that “the crowd felt the weakness of authority and got impudent.”160 Now, with the tsar’s order to hand, Khabalov and Balk informed a meeting of government ministers toward midnight on February 25–26 about the next day’s coming crackdown. Doubts ricocheted around the private apartment where the government meeting took place. Hearing of the impending crackdown, the foreign minister advised that they all “immediately go to the Sovereign Emperor and implore His Majesty to replace us with other people.” A ministerial majority inclined toward trying to find “a compromise” with the Duma.161 But in the wee small hours, the okhranka went ahead and swept up more than 100 known revolutionaries, and later that day (February 26), at the sound of bugles, imperial troops fired on civilian demonstrators, in some cases using machine guns. Around 50 people were killed and 100 or more wounded (in a city of 3 million).162 The show of force appeared to puncture the festive crowds. It also stiffened the government ministers’ spines.163 On the evening of February 26, 1917, the chief of the okhranka phoned Petrograd city commandant Balk to report that he expected “a decline in the intensity of disorders tomorrow.” As in 1906, the crackdown seemed to have worked.164

Such confidence was misplaced, however. Correctly, okhranka analysts had concluded that back in 1905–6 only the loyalty of the troops had saved the tsarist regime. And now, surmised one okhranka agent, “everything depends upon the military units. If they do not go over to the proletariat the movement will die down quickly.”165 Ominously, however, one elite guards regiment—the Pavlovsky Guards reserve battalion—had tried to stop the killing of civilians. Another guards unit, the Volhynian, had carried out its orders.166 But those Volhynian Guards stayed up overnight discussing their killing of unarmed civilians, and on February 27, when street crowds defiantly massed again, the Volhynians—24,000 soldiers—went over to the protesters.167 The suddenly rebellious Volhynians visited the nearby billets of other units, too, recruiting the rest of the capital garrison to mutiny. Giddy insurgents ransacked and set aflame the okhranka headquarters.168 They also emptied the prisons of criminals and comrades—many arrested only days before in okhranka sweeps—and broke into arsenals and weapons factories. Armed men started careering about Petrograd in commandeered trucks and armored carriers, wildly shooting in whatever direction.169 “I’m doing all I can to put down the revolt,” Khabalov telegrammed staff headquarters. Yet he also begged them “to send reliable troops from the front at once.” Later that evening he informed staff headquarters that “the insurrectionists now hold most of the capital.”170 Khabalov contemplated bombing Russia’s own capital with airplanes.171 He turned out to be far out of his depth, but even a well-executed crackdown is only as good as the political authority behind it—and tsarist political authority was long gone.172

Events moved rapidly. Duma president Rodzyanko, ambitious for himself and fearful of the crowds, was frantically telegraphing staff headquarters in Mogilyov about “the state of anarchy” in the capital, urging that the tsar reverse his prorogue order so the Duma could legally meet and form a Duma-led government. “Again, this fat Rodzyanko has written to me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply,” Nicholas II remarked.173 While waiting in vain for the tsar, the Duma leaders refused to break the law and assemble on their own. But two socialist Duma deputies goaded some 50 to 70 of the 420 Duma deputies to gather for a “private” meeting in the Duma’s regular building, the Tauride Palace, but outside their usual venue of the ornate White Hall. These deputies declared themselves not a government, but a “Provisional Committee of the State Duma for the Restoration of Order.”174 In the very same Tauride Palace at the same time, hundreds of leftists—including many freed from prison that morning—met to reconstitute the 1905 Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.175 The Provisional Committee had competition. The ministers of the government, for their part, telegrammed Mogilyov headquarters with their resignations, which the tsar refused to accept, but the ministers began to make themselves scarce anyway. “The trouble was that in all that enormous city [Petrograd], it was not possible to find a few hundred people sympathetic toward the government,” recalled one rightist deputy in the Duma. “In fact, there was not a single minister who believed in himself and in what he was doing.”176 The autocracy was deserted not just in the capital’s streets and in the capital garrison, but also throughout the corridors of power.


From police reports, Nicholas II knew that the British in Petrograd—the embassy of his ally, for whom he had gone to war—were assisting the Duma opposition against him.177 At staff headquarters that February 27, he received urgent messages, including from his brother Grand Duke Mikhail, the regent for the underage Alexei, pleading that he announce a new “Government of confidence” comprising Duma deputies.178 Instead, blaming Khabalov for botching the crackdown, the tsar made two decisions: first, early the next morning, he would return to the capital (a fourteen-to-sixteen-hour train ride)—actually to the capital’s outskirts, Tsarskoe Selo—where he and Alexandra lived with the children; second, an expeditionary force from the front (800 men) commanded by General Nikolai Ivanov would ride to the capital “to institute order.”179 General Alexeyev, the chief of staff, ordered many additional units—at least eight combat regiments—to link up with Ivanov’s expedition. Nicholas II granted the sixty-six-year-old General Ivanov dictatorial power over all ministries.180 But the tsar himself never made it back to the capital. Deliberate disinformation spread by a wily representative of the Duma’s Provisional Committee exaggerated the extent of worker disorders on the railroad, which made the tsar’s train shunt to and fro for nearly two days. He finally alighted on the evening of March 1 at the staff headquarters of the northern front in Pskov. General Ivanov easily reached Tsarskoe Selo, but in the meantime, his superior, General Alexeyev, had changed his mind and telegrammed Ivanov not to take action in the capital. Instead, amid reports of the formation of the Duma’s Provisional Committee and of diminished anarchy in Petrograd, Alexeyev now began to urge Nicholas II to concede a Duma-led government.

The commander of the northern front in Pskov, General Ruzsky, had already come out in favor of a Duma-led government well before Alexeyev; now, with Alexeyev’s urging, Ruzsky pressed this idea on his unexpected guest—the sovereign.181 Nicholas II agreed to allow Duma president Rodzyanko to form a government, but insisted that it would report to him, not to the Duma. Later, after more telegrams from Alexeyev, however, the tsar finally granted a government responsible to the Duma. Nicholas II also personally instructed Ivanov, at Alexeyev’s request, to “please undertake no action” (for the time being)—and then Nicholas II retired to the sleeping car.182 Having conceded a real constitutional monarchy and parliamentary regime after so many years of tenacious resistance, the tsar stayed awake in torment.183 Unbeknownst to a sleepless Nicholas II, beginning around 3:30 a.m., and for the next four hours, Ruzsky communicated with Rodzyanko in the capital over the torturously slow direct wire, or Hughes apparatus (which was capable of transmitting about 1,400 words per hour). Rodzyanko shocked the general with the news that it was already too late for a constitutional monarchy, at least for Nicholas II, given the radicalism in the capital.184

Alexeyev, informed by Ruzsky, now took it upon himself to contact all the front commanders and urge them to support Nicholas II’s abdication “to save the army.” Each commander—sharing a general staff esprit de corps—was to telegraph his request for Nicholas to step down directly to Pskov, with copies to Alexeyev. Later that morning of March 2, 1917, General Ruzsky, as per Alexeyev’s instructions, reported to the tsar’s imperial train carrying the tapes of the conversation with Rodzyanko urging abdication in favor of Tsarevich Alexei and Grand Duke Mikhail as regent.185 Nicholas II read, walked to the carriage window, went silent, then stated he “was prepared, if necessary for Russia’s welfare, to step aside.” Nothing was decided. Around 2:00 p.m., however, the telegrams arrived from the front commanders—Brusilov and all the rest, plus Alexeyev—unanimously urging abdication; Ruzsky took them to the tsar, who made the sign of the cross and soon emerged to request that HQ prepare an abdication manifesto. Whether Nicholas II would have renounced his sacred calling had he made it to Tsarskoe Selo and the arms of Alexandra can never be known. (“And you, who are alone, no army behind you, caught like a mouse in a trap, what can you do?” Old Wify cabled him on March 2.)186 Stoic, as ever, the now-former tsar was quietly anguished. “All around me,” Nicholas II confided to his diary, “there is nothing but treason, cowardice, and deceit!”187 The tsar’s diaries indicate that only the urging of his generals persuaded him to abdicate.188

And so, in the guise of patriotism, it had come to treason after all.

In violating their oaths—sworn to the tsar, after all—the high commanders could imagine they were saving the army. Desertions were running at 100,000 to 200,000 per month, swelling the ranks of protesting crowds and criminal bands, and clogging the critical railroad stations.189 In addition, the February rebellion had spread from Petrograd to Moscow and the Baltic fleet, threatening the front.190 As far back as the disturbances during the Russo-Japanese War, Alexeyev had concluded that “a revolution from above is always less painful than one from below.”191 But though “military dictatorship” crossed the lips of many civilian elites, and contemporary examples existed—General Ludendorff, de facto, in Germany; the young Turk officers in the Ottoman Empire—Alexeyev and Russia’s military men refrained from claiming power themselves.192 It cannot be that Russian generals lacked confidence in their ability to take over civilian affairs (they had already usurped much civilian operational authority to manage the war). Moreover, Alexeyev had very good information from the general staff and the naval staff in the capital about the incompetence and prevarication of Russia’s civilian leaders. But the officers detested the dirty work of serving as an auxiliary police force and crushing domestic rebellion, a task that undermined the army’s military function and tarnished it in society. Steeped in their military general staff ethos, moreover, they had not developed broad political horizons.193 And so, needing to quell the disorders engulfing the wartime capital and save the army and war effort, Alexeyev saw—or imagined—a solution in the Duma’s Provisional Committee, aided by the figurehead of a new tsar, Aleksei, a darling-looking boy.194 Their calculations were destined to be upended.

 • • •

RUSSIA WAS a genuine great power, but with a tragic flaw. Its vicious, archaic autocracy had to be emasculated for any type of better system to emerge. Unmodern in principle, let alone in practice, the autocracy died a deserving death in the maelstrom of the Anglo-German antagonism, the bedlam of Serbian nationalism, the hemophilia bequeathed by Queen Victoria, the pathology of the Romanov court, the mismanagement by the Russian government of its wartime food supply, the determination of women and men marching for bread and justice, the mutiny of the capital garrison, and the defection of the Russian high command. But the Great War did not break a functioning autocratic system; the war smashed an already broken system wide open.

Not knowing that the military brass had already successfully pressured Nicholas II into abdicating, the self-appointed Provisional Committee of the Duma had sent two deputies to Pskov to do so. The emissaries were both lifelong monarchists, and inveterate palace coup plotters: Alexander Guchkov and Vasily Shulgin. They were unshaven; Shulgin in particular was said to resemble a convict.195 “Having given my consent to abdication, I must be sure that you have considered what impression this will make on all of the rest of Russia,” Nicholas II said to the pair. “Will this not carry dangerous consequences?”196 Consequences there would be.

By February 1917, Pyotr Durnovó was a year and a half in his grave, but his February 1914 prophecies were already on their way to fulfillment: the constitutionalists’ revolt against the autocracy was accelerating a mass social revolution. Lenin—for the time being—lived outside Russia, behind German lines, in neutral Switzerland. Stalin was holed up in the Siberian backwater of Achinsk, one of myriad internal political exiles. There, as almost everywhere in the Russian empire (including in his native Georgia), the February Revolution arrived by telegraph (“All is in the hands of the people”). On March 3, a local soviet assumed power in Krasnoyarsk city, the regional center, and began arresting local tsarist officials. Stalin—suddenly a free man, for the first time in nearly seventeen years—boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway bound for Petrograd. It was some 3,000 miles away. He traveled in the company of fellow Bolshevik exile Lev Kamenev as well as his own latest girlfriend, Vera Schweitzer, the widow of the Bolshevik Central Committee member Suren Spandaryan, who had perished in the wastes of Stalin’s place of exile, Turukhansk, Siberia, at age thirty-four of lung problems. The future dictator arrived in the imperial capital on March 12, 1917, wearing Siberian valenki (felt boots) and carrying little more than a typewriter.197



Some comrades said it is utopian to advance the question of the socialist revolution, because capitalism is weakly developed with us. They would be correct if there were no war, if there were no disintegration, if the foundations of the economy were not shattered.

Iosif Stalin, Bolshevik Party Congress, late July 19171

Save Russia and a grateful people will reward you.

A shout-out to General Lavr Kornilov, supreme commander, by a Constitutional Democrat, August 19172

“IT’S STAGGERING!” exclaimed one exiled revolutionary at the newspaper reports of the February downfall of the monarchy in Russia. “It’s so incredibly unexpected!”3 That exile was forty-seven years old and named Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. For nearly seventeen years straight he had been living outside Russia. After tsarism’s coercive and corrupt rule, its narrow privilege and pervasive poverty, and above all its relentless denial of human dignity, hope for new horizons understandably soared. The entire empire, while at war, became embroiled in one gigantic, continuous political meeting, with a sense anything might be possible.4 The removal of tsar and dynasty during the monumental war, it turned out, would exacerbate nearly every governing problem it had been meant to solve. The downfall of any authoritarian regime does not ipso facto produce democracy, of course. A constitutional order must be created and sustained by attracting and holding mass allegiance, and by establishing effective instruments of governance. The Provisional Government, which replaced the tsar, would achieve none of that.

As both anarchy and hope erupted in the war-torn land, new and transformed mass organizations proliferated.5 These included not just revolutionary movements, such as the Bolsheviks and others, and not just grassroots soviets and soldiers’ committees but, even more basically, the army and navy. In 1914, imperial Russia’s population of 178 million had been dispersed across 8.5 million square miles of territory, but the war recruited some 15 million imperial subjects into a mass organization—the Russian “steamroller.” This unprecedented concentration would permit, once the tsar had vanished, an otherwise unattainable degree of political activity, right up to full-fledged congresses of elected deputies at the front itself. In mid-1917, some 6 million troops were at the front. Additionally, 2.3 million thoroughly politicized soldiers were deployed in sprawling rear garrisons, in almost every urban center of the empire.6 To these millions, the February Revolution meant “peace”—an end to the seemingly endless Great War—and the dawn of a new era.

Well before 1917, ordinary people readily accepted the idea of an irreconcilable conflict between labor and capital, but rather than speak of classes per se, they tended to speak of light versus darkness, honor versus insult. A trajectory of suffering, redemption, and salvation was how they made sense of the struggle with their masters, not capital accumulation, surplus value, and other Marxist categories.7 This would change as languages of class came to suffuse all printed and spoken public discourse in revolutionary Russia, from farms and factories to the army, fleet, and corridors of power. Even the classically liberal Constitutional Democrats, who strove to be above class (or nonclass), fatally accepted the definition of February as a “bourgeois” revolution.8 This step conceded, implicitly, that February was not in itself an end, but a way station to an eventual new revolution, beyond liberal constitutionalism. As 1917 saw the mass entrance into politics of soldiers and sailors, brought together into a giant organization, Russia’s army would steamroll not Germany but the country’s own political system.

Given the role that the army had played in 1905–6 in saving the regime, and given the role it could be expected to have to play again, the tsar’s decision to roll the iron dice had been an all-in gamble on the masses’ patriotism. The fatal flaw of the tsarist regime had proven to be its inability to incorporate the masses into the polity, but the widespread politicization of the masses by the war meant that the constitutional experiment of 1917—if it was to have any chance whatsoever of surviving—needed to incorporate not just any masses, but mobilized soldiers and sailors. But if the Great War in effect restructured the political landscape, vastly deepening social justice currents that had already made visions of socialism popular before 1917, the Provisional Government proved no match for that challenge. On top of its feeble governing structures, its entire symbolic universe failed miserably, from the use of a tsarist eagle, uncrowned, as state symbol to its new national anthem, “God Save the People,” sung to the Glinka melody of “God Save the Tsar.” Caricatures of the Provisional Government were accompanied by popular pamphlets, songs, and gestures that discredited all things bourgeois, attacking the educated, the decently dressed, the literate, as fat cats, swindlers—even Russia’s Stock Market Gazette poked fun at the bourgeoisie.9 At the same time, in 1917, far more even than in 1905–6, Russia’s constitutional revolution was deluged by a multifaceted leftist revolutionary culture enacted in evocative gestures and imagery: the “Internationale,” red flags and red slogans, and a vague yet compelling program of people’s power: “All Power to the Soviets.” The potent hammer-and-sickle symbol appeared in spring 1917 (well before the Bolshevik coup), and it would soon capture the linkage—or the hoped-for linkage—between the aspirations of urbanites and the aspirations of country folk, joined in possibilities for social justice (socialism). The political mood in 1917, as one contemporary observer rightly noted, was characterized by “a general aspiration of a huge mass of Russians to declare themselves, no matter what, to be absolute socialists.”10

How “socialism” came to be Bolshevism, and how the Bolsheviks came to be Leninist, are separate questions. Lenin and the Bolsheviks neither invented nor made broadly popular in Russia European socialism’s long-developing symbolic repertoire, to which the war and then the February Revolution added profound extra impetus. But if the Russian empire experienced a mind-and-spirit mass socialist revolution—in the city streets and villages, at the front and in the garrisons, in the borderlands and even in adjacent regions beyond the state border—well before the Bolshevik coup in October 1917, the Bolsheviks in 1917 (and beyond) would manage to claim the socialist revolutionary repertoire, indeed, relatively quickly, almost to monopolize it. “The revolution” came to Lenin, and he proved ready to seize it, even against much of the Bolshevik inner circle.

Stalin’s role in 1917 has been a subject of dispute. Nikolai Sukhanov (Himmer), the ubiquitous chronicler of revolutionary events who was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and had a Bolshevik wife, forever stamped interpretations, calling Stalin in 1917 “a grey blur, emitting a dim light every now and then and not leaving any trace. There is really nothing more to be said about him.”11 Sukhanov’s characterization, published in the early 1920s, was flat wrong. Stalin was deeply engaged in all deliberations and actions in the innermost circle of the Bolshevik leadership, and, as the coup neared and then took place, he was observed in the thick of events. “I had never seen him in such a state before!” recalled David Sagirashvili (b. 1887), a fellow Social Democrat from Georgia. “Such haste and feverish work was very unusual for him, for normally he was very phlegmatic no matter what he happened to be doing.”12 Above all, Stalin emerged as a powerful voice in Bolshevik propaganda. (For all the talk, most of it negative, about his involvement in expropriations during the wild days of 1905–8, in the underground, from the very beginning, he had really been an agitator and propagandist.) On May Day 1917, he noted that “the third year approaches since the rapacious bourgeoisie of belligerent countries dragged the world into the bloody slaughterhouse”—one of his typically incendiary editorials.13 To party circles as well as public audiences, he delivered speech upon speech, many of which were published in the press. Stalin wrote often in the main Bolshevik newspaper, while editing and shepherding into print far more.14 Between August and October—the critical months—he authored some forty lead articles in Pravda and its temporary replacements Proletariat or Workers’ Path.15 This outpouring—a sharp contrast to his silence during the first nearly three years of the war—stressed the need to seize power in the name of the soviets, which to Lenin meant in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The reestablishment of functional institutions and a new authority to fill an immense void was a staggering task, which the ongoing war made still vaster, narrowing the possible political options. All this might appear to have rendered the onset of a new dictatorship a foregone conclusion. But countries do not descend into dictatorship any more than they burst into democracy. A dictatorship, too, must be created, and sustained. And modern dictatorship—the rule of the few in the name of the many—requires not only the incorporation of the masses into a polity but a powerful symbolic repertoire and belief system, in addition to effective instruments of governance and well-motivated repression.16 Amid the kind of state breakdown Russia underwent in 1917, the idea—or fear—that a strong modern dictatorship would be created out of the rampant chaos could only seem farfetched. One key to Bolshevik power, however, lay in the Russian establishment’s tireless search for a savior. Diverse efforts to stave off the triumph of Bolshevism, particularly those centered on Supreme Commander General Lavr Kornilov, would end up having the perverse effect of decisively strengthening Bolshevism. The outcome of the mass participatory process after February 1917 remained dependent on the war and the fundamental structure of soldiers’ moods, but also the specter of counterrevolution, analogized from the French Revolution after 1789. For the Bolsheviks, the idea of counterrevolution was a gift.


Russia’s constitutional revolution got a second chance, this time, unlike 1905–6, without the autocrat. Mishap and illegitimacy, however, shadowed the Provisional Government from its birth. Nicholas II had agreed to abdicate in favor of thirteen-year-old Alexei and to name Grand Duke Mikhail, his brother, as regent. The high command and Duma president Rodzyanko—monarchists all—counted on the cherubic Alexei to rally the country, while affording them a free hand. But the tsar, conferring once more with his court physician, heard again that hemophilia was incurable and that once the fragile boy took the crown, Nicholas would have to part with him and go into exile, and so, the fatherly tsar impetuously renounced Alexei’s right to the throne, too, naming Mikhail outright.17 By the 1797 succession law, however, a tsar could be succeeded only by his rightful heir, in this case Nicholas II’s firstborn son, and a minor such as Alexei had no right to renounce the throne.18 Beyond the illegality of naming Grand Duke Mikhail, no one had bothered to consult him; on March 3, a hasty summit took place with him in Petrograd. Paul Miliukov, leader of the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), argued for retention of the monarchy, stressing tradition and the need to preserve the state; Alexander Kerensky, then a Duma deputy of the left, urged Mikhail to renounce, stressing popular moods.19 Mikhail listened, mulled, and decided not to accept unless a forthcoming Constituent Assembly (or constitutional convention) summoned him to the throne.20 Thus, what the generals had started—Nicholas II’s abdication—the politicians finished: namely, Russia’s de facto conversion into a republic. Two jurists hastily drafted an “abdication” manifesto in which Mikhail transferred “plenary powers” to the Provisional Government, even though the grand duke had no such authority to convey. In the chaos of regime change, the “abdication” manifesto of non-Tsar Mikhail Romanov provided the only “constitution” that would ever undergird the unelected Provisional Government.21

Revolution, by definition, entails violation of legal niceties. But in this case, eleven men—essentially handpicked by the fifty-eight-year-old Miliukov, who took the foreign ministry—replaced not just the hollowed-out autocracy but also the Duma, whence they emerged.22 This was not because the Duma had become illegitimate. Among most frontline troops as of March 1917, acceptance of, if not confidence in, the Duma remained.23 The Duma, for all its flaws, had earned some stripes by clashing with the autocracy over the years. After being prorogued, some members had convened in defiance of the tsar. But a draft protocol of the Provisional Government’s first session (March 2) indicates that the group of assembled men contemplated resorting to the infamous Article 87 of the tsarist Fundamental Laws to rule without a parliament, a move for which the constitutionalists had viciously denounced Stolypin. The first meeting protocol also specified that “the full plenitude of power belonging to the monarch should be considered as transferred not to the State Duma but to the Provisional Government.”24 In fact, the Provisional Government laid claim to the prerogatives of both legislature and executive: the former Duma (the lower house) as well as the State Council (the upper house, abolished by government decree); the former Council of Ministers (the executive, dismissed by Nicholas II’s order of abdication) and, soon, the abdicated tsar. Initially, the Provisional Government met in the Duma’s Tauride Palace but quickly relocated to the interior ministry and then settled in the gilded imperial Mariinsky Palace, where the Council of Ministers and the State Council had held formal sessions. Poorly attended “private” meetings of the Duma (with Mikhail Rodzyanko still president) would continue through August 20, 1917, and from time to time, ministers of the Provisional Government would trek over to the Tauride to chat privately with members of the aimless Duma. But there was no legislature. Duma members pleaded to have the legislature legally reinstated, but Miliukov and the rest of the Provisional Government refused.25

What was this? The Provisional Government was not a well-intentioned but hapless bunch that would be undone by unprecedented economic collapse and Bolshevik sedition. The rebellious old-regime insiders had long claimed to want a constitutional monarchy with a “responsible” government, by which they meant a government rooted in parliamentary majorities, but in their great historical moment, they immediately created another central government suspended in the air. When Miliukov had first publicly announced the membership of a Provisional Government in the Tauride Palace’s columned Catherine Hall on March 2, one person had interjected, “Who elected you?” “The Russian Revolution elected us,” Miliukov answered, and vowed to step aside “the moment representatives, freely elected by the people, tell us they wish to give our places to others more deserving of their confidence.”26 No one had elected them, and, crucially, no one would be given the opportunity to un-elect them. To be sure, the self-assigned government did promise the “immediate preparation for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret ballot, which will determine the form of government and the constitution of the country.” The government added that it had not “the slightest intention of taking advantage of the military situation to delay in any way the realization of the reforms and measures.” Such a universal-suffrage Constituent Assembly—which is what rendered their government “provisional”—might seem to have made the Duma superfluous.27 But over the eight months of the Provisional Government’s existence, through four iterations (March, May, July, September), it would fail to bring a constitutional convention into being. Difficult circumstances cannot account for this failure. (In 1848, when France’s July Monarchy fell, a Constituent Assembly was convened within four months.) Rather, Miliukov and the Cadets deliberately stalled on elections for the Constitutional Assembly, privately fearful of the votes by “war-weary” soldiers and sailors, to say nothing of the peasant mass.28 The constitutionalists, who had no constitution, avoided the ballot box. The February Revolution was a liberal coup.

All through the war, some classical liberals in Petrograd as well as Moscow had been clamoring to take power for themselves—and now they had it, or so it seemed.29 The one socialist in the initial Provisional Government, the thirty-six-year-old Kerensky—who served as justice minister, then war minister, and finally prime minister, having held no significant executive office before 1917—would later write that “with abdication of the emperor all the machinery of apparatus of Government was destroyed.”30 True, but Kerensky had been the keenest inside proponent for an end to the monarchy. In addition, the Provisional Government deliberately abetted the Russian state’s disintegration. On March 4, 1917, rather than try to salvage a police force out of the dissolving tsarist police, whose offices in the capital had been ransacked, the Provisional Government formally abolished the Department of Police and okhranka, while reassigning Special-Corps-of-Gendarmes officers to the army. But the newly formed “citizen militias” that were supposed to replace the police failed miserably: looting and social breakdown spread, thereby hurting the poor as much as the rich, and staining the cause of democracy.31 (Some militias, predictably, were headed by former convicts who escaped or were released from prison in the chaos.) On March 5, 1917, the Provisional Government dismissed all governors and deputy governors, almost all of them hereditary nobles, in an attack on “privilege” and preemption of “counterrevolution.” Some of these provincial executives had resigned of their own accord and some had been arrested locally. Still, most governors had participated in ceremonies to inaugurate the new Provisional Government, only to be treated as, ipso facto, disloyal.32 The Provisional Government never acquired local branches, and the “commissars” it dispatched to local governing bodies could be ignored. Those local bodies, meanwhile, took time to get up and running, then often succumbed to economic and governance chaos. The sole major institutions of the “old regime” to survive were the ministerial bureaucracy and the army. But the influence of central state functionaries cratered and, under Kerensky, the Provisional Government would fatally wreck the all-important army, too.33

The new Russia had one organizing principle that could not be ignored and was up for grabs: the lodestar of “the revolution.” Miliukov’s decision not to root the government in the Duma invited the elected Petrograd Soviet to fulfill that crucial parliamentary role. The Soviet, whose reemergence had prompted the Provisional Government into existence, came to occupy more and more of the rooms in the Tauride, symbol of opposition to tsarism and of elected representation.34 And yet, as a hybrid of both representative and direct democracy (like a Jacobin club), the Soviet—eventually with more than 3,000 members—struggled mightily, and, as we shall see, ultimately unsuccessfully, to live up to its popular mandate amid ever more radicalized expectations.35 Indeed, even before the announcement of the Provisional Government’s formation, garrison soldiers, when ordered by the Duma’s Military Commission to return to their nearby barracks and submit to discipline, had stormed into a session of the Soviet on March 1, 1917, and laid out demands. The angry garrison soldiers had first tried to present their case to the Duma, but were rebuffed.36 “I don’t know whom to deal with, whom to listen to,” one soldier deputy to the Petrograd Soviet complained of military authority that day. “Everything is unclear. Let’s have some clarity.”37 What became known as Order No. 1 authorized “committees of representatives elected from the lower ranks” to adjudicate relations between soldiers and their officers, effectively terminating formal discipline in the army. De facto, such a state of affairs already obtained in the rebellious garrison, but now soldiers and sailors at the front, de jure, would have to obey their officers and the Provisional Government only “to the extent that” orders were deemed not to contradict decrees of the Soviet.38 On March 9, the new war minister, Alexander Guchkov, one of the two monarchist Duma representatives sent to obtain Nicholas II’s abdication, had been asked by the tsar whether such abdication would have consequences. Now, Guchkov learned of Order No. 1 for the army only upon its publication. He telegraphed General Alexeyev at front headquarters, reporting that “the Provisional Government has no real power of any kind and its orders are carried out only to the extent that this is permitted by the Soviet,” which controls “the troops, railroads, postal and telegraph services.” Guchkov suggested that the government resign en masse to acknowledge its lack of authority.39

The Provisional Government would last all of 237 days, 65 of which were spent trying to form a cabinet (that was more time than any of its four different cabinets would last). Here was the further rub: the effective authority of the Soviet, too, was widely overestimated. Soldiers’ committees did not see themselves as subordinate to the Soviet. On March 5, the Provisional Government and Soviet had jointly issued Order No. 2, expressly denying the rumored right to elect officers and reaffirming the necessity of military discipline—to no avail.40 Trotsky would famously dub this situation “dual power,” but it more resembled “dual claimants to power”: a Provisional Government without a legislature or effective executive institutions, and a Petrograd Soviet amounting to an unwieldy quasi-legislature that was not legally recognized as such.

A third grouping existed as well: the political right, which initially accepted the head-turning Provisional Government’s replacement of the failed autocracy but which lived in fear as well as hope.41 Around 4,000 officials of the “old regime” suffered arrest during the February Revolution, many turning themselves in to escape being torn to pieces by the crowds. In fact, bloodshed had been relatively minor: perhaps 1,300 wounded and 169 deaths, mostly at the naval bases of Kronstadt and Helsinki, where the rank-and-file lynched officers (amid rumors of their treasonous activities). Still, the post-February press stepped up the vilification of rightist organizations, and revolutionaries assaulted the offices of the most notorious far right group, the Black Hundreds. (The Petrograd Soviet seized some rightist printing presses for its own use.) Within weeks of Nicholas II’s abdication, Vladimir Purishkevich—cofounder of the 1905 right-wing Union of the Russian People, and coassassin of Rasputin—had allowed in a pamphlet, which circulated widely in typescript, that “the old regime cannot be resurrected.”42 By July 1917, however, the extreme right would regain its footing, and Purishkevich would be pointedly listing Russia’s revolutionary Jews by their real names and demanding dissolution of the Petrograd Soviet as well as a “reorganization” of the “cowardly” Provisional Government.43 Over on the less radical right, many believed, with cause, that they had played a significant role in the downfall of Nicholas II and ought to have a place in the new order, but the varied associations of nobles and landowners, business elites, church officials, tsarist state functionaries, rightist military officers and self-styled patriots of all stripes had grave difficulty being accepted into the new order after February 1917. On the contrary, merely for exercising their legal right to organize, traditional conservatives were subjected to charges of “counterrevolution.”44 These accusations against an establishment mostly desirous of continuing to support the February Revolution but essentially not allowed to do so would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then there was the empire. Upon the removal of the multinational institution of the tsar, many of the imperial borderlands declared themselves national units (not provinces) with “autonomy in a free Russia,” but their streams of urgent telegrams to the Provisional Government in the capital often went unanswered, and the borderlands began edging toward de facto independence—Finland, Poland, Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Baltics. “Everybody agrees,” wrote Maxim Gorky in June 1917, “that the Russian state is splitting all along its seams and falling apart, like an old barge in a flood.”45

Of course, to many people this weakening was liberating. Between May 1 and 11, 1917, the Muslim caucus of the defunct Duma convened the first All-Russia Congress of Muslims, an act of religious and communal solidarity, with some 900 attendees (double the number expected) from across the country and political spectrum—only the tiny handful of Bolshevik Muslim activists refused to attend. It opened with recitation of a verse from the Qu’ran, then Professor S. A. Kotlarevsky, head of the foreign religions bureau in the Provisional Government’s interior ministry, made a speech promising freedom of conscience and national educational development, while calling for a single, unified country, rather than federalism based upon ethnoterritorial units. Many Muslim delegates expressed disappointment. Some, especially Tatars, advocated for a single state for all Turkic peoples (under Tatar domination); a few pan-Turkic delegates refused to speak Russian, although no single Turkic language was intelligible to all the delegates. The final resolution on state organization entailed a compromise: “The type of governmental structure that will serve the best interests of the Muslim peoples of Russia shall be a united (federal) republic based on territorial autonomy; for Muslim peoples with no territorial claims, a people’s republic based on national cultural autonomy shall be secured.” Although more than 200 delegates signed a petition of protest over the vote for women’s equal right to inheritance and against polygamy, it passed—making Russia the first country with a large Muslim population to do so.46

Certainly the freedom was intoxicating.47 All the subjects of imperial Russia had broken through to an unprecedented degree of civic liberties that were independent of social station: freedom of association and the press, equality before the law, universal suffrage elections to local bodies, rights that the Provisional Government, dominated by lawyers and intellectuals, fixed in obsessive legal detail.48 Kerensky would jubilantly proclaim Russia the “freest country in the world”—transformed from Europe’s last autocracy to its “most democratic government”—and he was right.49 But freedom without effective governing institutions is, ultimately, not enduring. It is an invitation to all manner of adventurists and would-be saviors.50 February’s delirium of freedom, in just a few months, metamorphosed into a desperate longing for “firm authority.”51 By summer 1917, many prominent classical liberal Constitutional Democrats would join figures on both the traditional right and the radical right in seeing a redeemer in General Lavr Kornilov, the Russian army’s supreme commander.

Kornilov, forty-seven years old in 1917, though very short, thin, and wiry, with Mongol facial features, had much in common with the medium-height, thick-set thirty-nine-year-old Jughashvili-Stalin. Kornilov, too, was a plebeian—in contrast to the minor nobles Lenin and Kerensky—and Kornilov, too, had been born on the imperial periphery, in his case in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen) on the banks of the Irtysh (a tributary of the Ob). His father was a Cossack, his mother a baptized Altai Kalmyk (a mix of Turkic, Mongol, and other tribes conquered by Mongol overlords); he was raised an Orthodox Christian among the nomad-herders of the empire’s Qazaq steppes. But whereas Stalin sought to downplay his full Georgianness and blend into his Russian environment, Kornilov, who was half Russian, played up his exoticism, surrounding himself with red-robed Turkmen guards who wore tall fur hats, carried curved swords, and called their leader Great Boyar in Turkic (a language Kornilov spoke fluently). In further contrast to Stalin, Kornilov had attended the Russian empire’s military schools. He, too, was an excellent student, and, after postings on the border with Afghanistan—whence he led expeditions to Afghanistan, Chinese Turkestan, and Persia—Kornilov graduated from the General Staff Academy in St. Petersburg. In 1903–4, when Stalin was in and out of Caucasus prisons and Siberian exile, Kornilov was posted to British India, where, under the pretext of language study, he prepared a sharp-eyed intelligence report on British colonial troops. During the Russo-Japanese War, when Stalin was raising hell in Georgian manganese mines, Kornilov was decorated for bravery in land battles in Manchuria, after which he served as Russia’s military attache in China (1907–11). There he again traveled widely on horseback in exploration and met the young Chinese officer Jiang Jieshi, better known as Chiang Kai-shek, who later would unify China after a failed constitutional revolution and rule for some two decades. Intelligent and brave, Kornilov appeared cut from the same cloth as Chiang Kai-shek. During the Great War, Kornilov commanded an infantry division and was promoted to major general. While covering for Brusilov’s retreat in 1915, Kornilov fell captive to the Austro-Hungarian forces, but in July 1916, he managed to escape and return to Russia, to wide acclaim and an audience with the tsar. “He was always out front,” Brusilov noted of his subordinate on the battlefield, “and in this he won over his men, who loved him.”52

Kornilov’s star rose in inverse relation to Kerensky’s. The latter’s family hailed from Simbirsk, in central Russia, the same town as the Ulyanov family. “I was born under the same sky” as Lenin, Kerensky wrote. “I saw the same limitless horizons from the same high bank of the Volga.” Kerensky’s father was a schoolteacher and briefly headmaster at the high school where Lenin and Lenin’s brother Alexander studied; Lenin’s father, in turn, was a school inspector for the province and knew Kerensky pere, before the latter moved his family to Tashkent.53 But whereas Lenin looked set to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying for a law degree (Kazan University) to become a state functionary, only to drop out, Kerensky, eleven years Lenin’s junior, finished his law degree (St. Petersburg) and obtained a real job, serving as legal counsel to victims of tsarist repression in 1905, when he joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In the Provisional Government, Kerensky, almost alone, did not fear the masses. He bred a monarchist-like cult of himself as the “leader of the people” (vozhd’ naroda), a kind of citizen king. “In his best moments he could communicate to the crowd tremendous shocks of moral electricity,” wrote Victor Chernov. “He could make it laugh and cry, kneel and soar, for he himself surrendered to the emotions of the moment.”54 The kneeling soldiers and others kissed Kerensky’s clothing, cried, and prayed.55 He took to wearing semimilitary attire—the style Trotsky and Stalin would adopt—yet Kerensky likened himself not to Napoleon but to Comte de Mirabeau, the popular orator who had sought a middle way during the French Revolution. (When Mirabeau died of illness in 1791, his burial inaugurated the Pantheon; by 1794, however, he was disinterred and his tomb given over to Jean-Paul Marat.) But as Russia descended into anarchy, Kerensky, too, began to speak of the need for “firm authority.” Under him, the Provisional Government would begin to backtrack on civil liberties and release and reengage many of the arrested tsarist interior ministry officials, but “firm authority” remained elusive.56 Hence the spiking fascination with Kornilov. The talk of a “man on horseback,” the Napoleon of the Russian Revolution, alighted upon the Kalmyk savior.57 In the event, the idea of a military “counterrevolution”—an expression of hope on one side, dread on the other—would prove more potent than its actual possibilities.


Lenin’s faction of Bolsheviks showed themselves in 1917 to be a disorganized yet tough street-fighting group.58 The Bolsheviks now claimed some 25,000 members, a number impossible to verify (membership was often not formalized), but hard-core activists numbered closer to 1,000, and the top insiders could fit around a conference table (if they were not in exile or jail). Still, after February, Bolshevism had become a mass phenomenon in the capital: in the armaments and machine factories along Petrograd’s Lesser Neva River, in the huge Franco-Russian shipyard, in the sprawling Putilov Works, in the Petrograd neighborhood known as the Vyborg side, there were large concentrations of industrial workers and they fell under a barrage of Bolshevik agitation. Workers’ radical moods, in other words, were tied to radical stances of the Bolshevik Party. The Vyborg district especially became, in effect, an autonomous Bolshevik commune.59

Bolshevik party headquarters, where Stalin was also holed up, was initially established at a “requisitioned” art nouveau mansion whose chandeliered interiors and excellent garages were perfectly situated—not only close to the Vyborg district, but right across from the Winter Palace. The compound had been seized from the Polish-born prima ballerina of Russia’s Imperial Mariinsky Theater, Matylda Krzesinska, who had acquired the property thanks to her lovers, Nicholas II (before his marriage), and then, simultaneously, two Romanov grand dukes.60 (She later claimed to have spotted the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai in the mansion’s garden wearing her left-behind ermine coat.)61 Such house seizures were illegal but difficult for the policeless Provisional Government to reverse. The Federation of Anarchist-Communists, sprung from prison, seized the former villa of the deceased Pyotr Durnovó in a beautiful park abutting the factories of the Vyborg side.62 Beyond Vyborg, Bolshevism developed key strongholds in the Baltic fleet, stationed in Helsinki and Kronstadt near Petrograd and accessible to Bolshevik (as well as anarchist-syndicalist) agitators. Where Bolshevik agitators did not reach—factories in Ukraine, the Black Sea fleet—the socialist-leaning masses did not identify with the party. In the vast countryside, Bolshevism achieved little presence through most of 1917 (of the 1,000 delegates to the First All-Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, perhaps 20 identified as Bolsheviks).63 And in 1917 there were between one and two dozen Muslim Bolsheviks in all of Russia.64 Still, Bolshevik strongholds were strategic—the capital, the capital garrison, and the front near the capital.

The Bolsheviks had to earn their standing, and in pockets they did so. For those within earshot of the message that Stalin and others were tirelessly propagating, Bolshevism possessed nonpareil recruiting tools: the absolutely hated war and the all-purpose explanation of class exploitation of haves and have-nots, which resonated beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. That said, the war did not inevitably provide for Bolshevik triumph. The Provisional Government, as we shall see, chose not just to remain in the war but to launch a catastrophic offensive in June 1917.65 This decision became an opportunity for those most radical, and Lenin had set up the Bolshevik party to benefit from it.

In exile, living in Zurich, in a single room, near a sausage factory, Lenin had been calling for the defeat of his own country in war, but suffered no legal consequences. On the contrary, he fell under the Provisional Government’s March 1917 general amnesty for victims of tsarism. But he had no official permission to return and, in any case, was trapped behind German lines.66 To get back to Russia he quietly solicited Germany’s help through intermediaries, thereby risking charges of being a German agent—the devastating accusation that had fatally punctured the tsarist autocracy.67 Berlin was showering money on Russia’s radicals, especially the Socialist Revolutionaries, in order to overturn the Provisional Government and force Russia out of the war on German terms, and was sold on assisting the fanatical Bolshevik leader, too—referred to as “a Tatar by the name of Lenin.”68 Both sides, however, aimed to blunt accusations of serving the enemy Germans and so Lenin traveled through German lines to Russia on what has been called a sealed train—that is, his carriage was locked and neutral Swiss intermediaries handled all contact with German authorities en route. The train departed Zurich on March 27, 1917 (by the Russian calendar), for Berlin and then the Baltic coast with thirty-two Russian emigres, nineteen of them Bolsheviks (including Lenin, his wife, Nadzehda Krupskaya; his onetime French mistress, Inessa Armand; and Zinoviev with wife and child) as well as other radicals.69 The Menshevik Social Democrats Martov and Axelrod chose not to risk treason charges by accepting a German deal without having obtained the permission of the Provisional Government (the Mensheviks ended up traveling on a later train).70 Lenin’s only obligation in the bargain was to agitate for release of Austrian and German civilians held in Russia. He had no compunction about availing himself of imperial Germany’s logistical assistance and finances in order to subvert Russia; he anticipated revolution in Germany, too, as a result of the war. Lenin never admitted the truth about receiving German money, but he was not a German agent; he had his own agenda.71 Lenin had the Bolsheviks discuss how they would conduct themselves in the event they were taken into custody at the Russian border on orders of the Provisional Government and subjected to interrogation, fears that did not materialize.72 (Karl Radek, who held an Austro-Hungarian passport, was denied entry into Russia as a subject of an enemy country.) The worried ambassador of France, Russia’s ally, listening to Foreign Minister Miliukov—who could have blocked Lenin’s return—saw the Bolshevik leader’s arrival as a radical new danger.73 But Lenin was not arrested at Petrograd’s Finland Station (in the Vyborg district “Bolshevik Commune”), where he arrived at 11:10 p.m. on April 3, 1917, the day after Easter Sunday. Lenin climbed atop an armored vehicle, illuminated by specially wheeled-in spotlights, to speak at the station to a sizable crowd of workers, soldiers, and sailors, who were seeing him for the first time.

In the vast expanses of the Russian empire very few had any knowledge of Lenin.74 Many of the hundreds of thousands of villages had not learned of the February Revolution until April and the spring thaw. Lenin’s April 3 return coincided with the onset of mass land seizures in Russia, a phenomenon unknown in the French Revolution of 1789. On the eve of the Great War, Russia’s peasants had owned roughly 47 percent of the empire’s land, including forests and meadows, having purchased land from nobles in the four decades following emancipation, often as a collective (commune), sometimes individually, especially beginning with Stolypin’s 1906 reforms.75 But if gentry holdings had been reduced to roughly equal that of peasant holdings, the peasantry still composed 80 percent of the population, the gentry a mere 2 percent.76 Peasant expectations of a total land redistribution were intense, and the wartime tsarist government had helped spur them, confiscating land from ethnic Germans living in imperial Russia, which was supposed to be redistributed to valiant Russian soldiers or landless peasants. The army, on its own, promised free land to winners of medals, spurring rumors that all soldiers would receive land at war’s end.77 Total tsarist government confiscations of agricultural land during the war—which was seized with minimal or zero compensation from some of the empire’s most productive farmers, and contributed to the severe shortage of grain in 1916 and the bread riots in 1917—amounted to at least 15 million acres.78 Now, the peasants began to follow suit, seizing crop lands, draft animals, implements, in what they called the Black Repartition. The Provincial Government tried to resist, arguing that decisions on land reform had to await the forthcoming Constituent Assembly. Indeed, even after the seizures became a mass phenomenon, and even though it could never muster the force to prevent or reverse such seizures, the Provisional Government refused to accede to uncompensated peasant expropriation of land.

Years of colossal peasant effort to realize Stolypin’s dream of a stratum of independent, well-off yeoman on large enclosed farms vanished nearly overnight in 1917–18, without resistance; on the contrary, many peasants deliberately reduced the size of their farms.79 Even smaller enclosed farms underwent redistributions. The commune reasserted itself.80 Even as peasants engaged in illegalities, they employed a vocabulary of rights and citizenship.81 Gentry-owned estates were the main targets. They had in many cases survived during the Great War only because of an ability to call upon the labor of 430,000 prisoners of war and, in peasant logic, after February 1917, if an estate had been deprived of peasant labor and was idle, its takeover was legitimate.82 Indeed, many of the land seizures did not occur in one fell swoop; rather, peasants spoke of “excess” gentry lands and of putting “idle” land to the plow—and took more and more. But because most peasant land seizures were carried out collectively, as a village, in which all shared responsibility and all divided up the plunder into their carts, the assembled peasants usually became as radical as the most radical members present. Invariably, the radicals urged their country folk to carry off still more and even to burn down the valuable manor houses. Harvesters and winnowing machines were too big to cart off and were left behind, sometimes vandalized. As for animals, often peasants heated the oven, butchered the sheep, geese, ducks, and hens, and laid on a feast.83 But in the end, far from all peasants ended up with their own dreams fulfilled: around half of peasant communes gained no land at all from the revolution, while much of the land peasants did “obtain” they had already been leasing. One scholar has estimated that around 11 percent of gentry landowners would remain into the 1920s, tending remnants of their lands.84 Still, that means the vast majority were expropriated. Peasants stopped making payments to the big landowners, and collectively expropriated around 50 million acres of gentry land.85

Compared with this immense upheaval—the peasants’ own revolution—Lenin was a single person. And yet, his role in 1917 was pivotal. Marxist theory held that history moved in stages—feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism—such that before advancing to socialism, it was necessary to develop the bourgeois-capitalism stage. Almost all Bolsheviks expected that the revolution would move toward socialism eventually, but the issue was when: they argued vehemently about whether the “bourgeois” or “democratic” revolution phase was complete or had to go further in order to prepare the way for the socialist revolution. Lenin was not proposing an immediate leap into socialism, which would have been blasphemy, but an acceleration of the move toward socialism—what he would call “one foot in socialism”—by not waiting for the full development of the bourgeois revolution and instead seizing political power now.86

In Petrograd, the Bolshevik Russia Bureau—“Russia” as opposed to foreign exile (Lenin)—was led by the thirty-two-year-old Alexander Shlyapnikov and the twenty-seven-year-old Vyacheslav Molotov, and they (especially Molotov) had been dismissive of the Provisional Government as counterrevolutionary. By contrast, Stalin and Kamenev called for conditionally supporting the “democratic” revolution, meaning the Provisional Government, in order that the democratic revolution would go through to the end. When the pair had returned from Siberia to Petrograd on March 12, 1917, neither was invited to join the Russia Bureau, although Stalin was offered “advisory status.” (He was rebuked for “certain personal features that are basic to him,” evidently negative personal behavior toward fellow Siberian exiles.)87 The next day Molotov, an early and lifelong hard-liner, like Lenin, was elbowed out, and Stalin became a proper member of the Russia Bureau, while Kamenev became editor of Pravda.88 Kamenev and Stalin immediately turned Pravda away from absolute repudiation of the Provisional Government toward opportunistically working with it, arguing that it was doomed but in the meantime had significant historical work to carry out. This provoked Lenin’s ire from afar. His first angry missive was printed in Pravda with distorted editing, his second was suppressed entirely.89 But then he showed up.

Lenin had greeted Kamenev at the border in smiling rebuke: “What’s this you’re writing in Pravda?”90 Even now, the Bolshevik organ refused to publish its own leader’s theses. An April 6, 1917, Bolshevik Central Committee meeting outright rejected Lenin’s theses. After all, the bourgeois-democratic revolution had only just begun, the country needed land reform, an exit from the war, economic reform, and how would the proletariat, by overturning the Provisional Government, advance all that? (As one Bolshevik commented, “How can the democratic revolution be over? The peasants do not have the land!”)91 Kamenev especially pointed out that the bourgeois classes in the towns and the better-off peasants had a great deal of historical work still to bear on behalf of the socialist revolution, by carrying the bourgeois-democratic revolution through to the end.92 Stalin deemed Lenin’s theses “a schema, there are no facts in them, and therefore they do not satisfy.”93 Pravda finally published the ten “April Theses” (some 500 words) on April 7, under Lenin’s name, but accompanied by an editorial note by Kamenev distancing the party from its leader.94

If the top Bolsheviks had not been inclined to force a seizure of power, the same was even truer of the Petrograd Soviet. Before Lenin’s arrival back in Russia, in late March, representatives of the Soviet had gathered to establish a new seventy-two-person All-Russia central executive committee, as well as various departments for food supply, the economy, foreign affairs, thereby asserting the Petrograd Soviet’s writ over the whole of Russia. The Soviet also pledged conditional support for the “bourgeois” Provisional Government (about half the Bolshevik delegates voted in favor).95 At the Finland Station on April 3, Nikoloz “Karlo” Chkheidze, the Georgian Menshevik Social Democrat who had become chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, had greeted Lenin on behalf of that body in the former tsar’s reception room. Outside, after Lenin denounced the Petrograd Soviet’s cooperation with the Provisional Government, concluding “Long live the world socialist revolution!,” he had ridden the armored vehicle to Bolshevik HQ at the Krzesinska mansion. There, well after midnight, he gave a “thunder-like speech” to about seventy members of his faction, arranged on chairs in a circle.96 The next day, at a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet in the Tauride Palace, he reiterated his radical “April Theses,” arguing that the pathetic Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying through its historical tasks, which compelled Russia to accelerate from the bourgeois-democratic toward the proletarian-socialist revolution.97 One Bolshevik took the floor to liken Lenin to the anarchist Bakunin (who had fought bitterly with Marx). Another speaker called Lenin’s theses “the ravings of a madman.”98 Even Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who had known him since 1894, observed according to a friend that “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy,” one reason perhaps that he ceased to use her as his principal secretary.99 Yet another Bolshevik advised that “after Lenin becomes acquainted with the state of affairs in Russia, he himself will reject all these constructions of his.”100 When Irakli Tsereteli, the chairman of the Soviet’s central executive committee (and a Georgian Menshevik), offered a reasoned refutation of Lenin’s views while extending an olive branch—“however irreconcilable Vladimir Ilich may be, I am convinced we’ll be reconciled”—Lenin leaned over the balustrade and shouted, “Never!”101

Lenin browbeat his inner circle relentlessly, while also occasionally addressing outdoor crowds from the Krzesinska mansion balcony. By the end of April 1917, at a Bolshevik party conference, a majority voted for Lenin’s resolutions, thanks partly to the voices of the sometimes more radical provincials who were brought to the fore, as well as to other loyalists who supported their leader.102 Despite Lenin’s formal policy victory in late April, however, the Bolshevik inner circle remained divided over when, and even whether, to push for soviet power as opposed to completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution. As Lenin continued to press his views for embracing the moment, he insisted that the Bolshevik Central Committee lagged far behind the masses. (That would prove true: the mobilization of the masses did mobilize would-be elites, including the Bolshevik leadership.)103 Meanwhile, Stalin, initially an ally of Kamenev, emerged as a crucial ally of Lenin.

Stalin has wrongly been dismissed as the man who “missed” the October Revolution. True, he does appear to have missed Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station (perhaps because he was at a meeting trying to convert left-wing Mensheviks to the Bolshevik side.)104 Also, Stalin initially resisted Lenin’s heretical April 3 radicalism (for which he would publicly apologize in 1924).105 But at the late April conference, Stalin gave his first-ever political report to an official Bolshevik gathering and broke with Kamenev and sided with Lenin. “Only a united party can lead the people to victory,” Stalin wrote of the April conference in Soldiers’ Pravda.106 Stalin did not buckle under abjectly, however: whereas Lenin sought land nationalization, Stalin insisted the peasantry get the land—a position that eventually won out.107 Stalin also rejected Lenin’s slogan of turning the “imperialist war” into a “European civil war,” reasoning that besides land, the masses desired peace—and Lenin, too, now called for an immediate peace.108 Thus Stalin managed to become loyal to Lenin while defending positions that he, among others, held to. When Stalin’s candidacy for a new nine-member party Central Committee came under criticism from Caucasus comrades who claimed to know him well, Lenin vouched for him. “We’ve known Com. Koba for very many years,” Lenin told the voting delegates. “We used to see him in Krakow where we had our Bureau. His activity in the Caucasus was very important. He’s a good official in all sorts of responsible work.”109 In the Central Committee elections, Stalin claimed the third most votes, 97, behind only Lenin and Zinoviev (both of whom would soon become fugitives). Stalin also replaced Kamenev as editor of Pravda.

As editor and pundit, Stalin revealed a talent for summarizing complicated issues in a way that could be readily understood. He evidently apologized to Molotov for stabbing him in the back in March—“You were nearest of all to Lenin in the initial stage”—and then took advantage of their communal-style living arrangements to steal Molotov’s girlfriend.110 Soon, though, Stalin would move into the apartment of the Alliluyev family, bringing all his worldly possessions: his typewriter as well as books and some clothes in the same wicker suitcase with which he had returned from Siberia. The Alliluyev daughter Nadya had turned sixteen, and she returned to the apartment in late summer 1917 for the pending school year. Stalin had known the Alliuluyevs since 1900 (Tiflis days), the year before Nadya was born. He treated her like a daughter, reading stories by Chekhov (“Chameleon,” “Dushechka”) to her, her sister Anna, and their friends.111 Charming the girls right through their nightshirts, Stalin turned the boredom, loneliness, and despair of his Siberian exile into dramatic tales of revolutionary exploits. They called him Soso, and he reciprocated with nicknames for them. Their mother, Olga Alliluyeva, was fond of Stalin—they may have had a liaison—but not fond of her teenage daughter falling for the thirty-eight-year-old widower.112 Nadya could be defiant, including to Stalin, but she was also, he noticed, attentive to housework. Within ten months, their courtship would become public.113 All that was in the future, however. For now, Stalin had become a proto-apparatchik and defender of the Leninist line. Even Trotsky would allow, later, that “Stalin was very valuable behind the scenes in preparing the [Bolshevik] fraction for balloting,” adding, condescendingly, that “he did have the knack of convincing the average run of leaders, especially the provincials.”114

Alongside Stalin, though, another Central Committee figure emerged that April: the thirty-two-year-old Yakov Sverdlov, whom Lenin had finally met in person on April 7, 1917, and began to assign various tasks, which Sverdlov managed handily. Born in 1885, wispy, with a scraggly goatee and glasses, he had joined the Russian Social Democrats in 1902 in Nizhny Novgorod and taken part in the 1905 events while in the Urals. In 1917, Sverdlov, even more than Stalin, remained almost entirely behind the scenes. Not an orator, he nonetheless possessed an authoritative basso voice, and a steely demeanor. Lenin placed him in charge of a small “secretariat” formally created at the April 1917 party conference.115 During Sverdlov’s years in tsarist jails or Siberian exile (1906–17), he had proved able to memorize the real names, noms de guerre, locations, and characteristics of scattered fellow exiles, putting nothing incriminating to paper. He had also twice shared quarters with Stalin (in Narym and Kureika), which resulted in sharp personal conflicts and a certain rivalry.116 Now, however, the two worked side by side. In fact, the younger Sverdlov provided a kind of school in party building for Stalin as they left the speechifying to the orators, such as Zinoviev. With a mere half dozen female clerks at the Krzesinska mansion, Sverdlov, assisted by Stalin, worked to coordinate far-flung party organizations. He received a parade of visitors and, in turn, sent emissaries to Bolshevik committees in the provinces, to jump-start local periodicals and membership, demonstrating a deft touch with provincials. Sverdlov obsessed over details, forcing everything to come to his attention, while placing a premium on concrete actions. Of course, like all political movements in 1917, Bolshevism incarnated bedlam. The organizing was not—and could not have been—directed at producing a centralized, let alone “totalitarian,” party in the conditions of 1917, but at effecting majorities at the gatherings of party representatives in the capital on behalf of Lenin’s positions. In other words, through manipulation of rules, suasion, and favors, Sverdlov showed his helpmate Stalin how to organize a loyal Leninist faction.117


Lenin’s zealotry became an instant (and everlasting) legend, but nearly everyone on Russia’s political scene lived under the tyranny of idées fixes. Miliukov, having fought tooth and nail in the Duma against the autocracy’s poor conduct of the war, mulishly clung to the notion that the February Revolution signified a universal desire to conduct the war more successfully. He therefore opposed land reforms and convocation of a constituent assembly before military victory, and even refused to allow revision of tsarism’s imperialist war aims, which secretly entailed annexation of Constantinople and the Turkish Straits, German and Austrian Poland, and other foreign territories. The damage from this zealotry proved as severe as the damage from his March 1917 ditching of the Duma. Leaders of the Menshevik wing of the Social Democrats, for their part, stubbornly stuck to the notion that the Revolution was “bourgeois” in character and therefore they refused to push for socialism, despite insistent prodding from the broad masses they supposedly represented. The Mensheviks soon joined the Provisional Government, in coalition with the Cadets, as did the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), the party that added the most members in 1917. Theory alone did not motivate them. Partly the crushing defeat in 1905–6 hung over the moderate socialists, a cautionary tale against provoking “counterrevolution” with radicalism.118 But the Menshevik leadership adhered to the core Marxist idea whereby socialism had to await the full development of Russian capitalism, for which a “bourgeois revolution” was necessary.119 They zealously clung to the “bourgeois revolution” and supported the “bourgeois” Provisional Government even as their propaganda often hammered “the bourgeoisie.”120

Russia’s political figure who most embodied the moderate socialist line from the start was Kerensky, who aimed to bridge Russia’s “bourgeois” and “proletarian” revolutions, to stand above parties, to balance left and right by tilting one way, then the next. Straining to be indispensable to each side, he came, predictably, to be seen as anathema to both.121 Bolshevik propaganda spread rumors that Kerensky was addicted to cocaine and morphine, dressed in women’s clothing, embezzled from state coffers—a smear campaign that would come to seem plausible (and that took in the British War Office).122 It bears recalling, however, that initially Kerensky had attracted widespread praise from diverse quarters, including Romanov grand dukes and leaders of the Soviet.123 Kerensky’s political failing in 1917 was partly personal but partly structural: he had thrown in his lot not with the Petrograd Soviet but with the Provisional Government and, as the Provisional Government’s impotence became ever more brutally exposed, his own authority disintegrated.124 Thus did Kerensky acquire a reputation as spineless, a professional “windbag,” in the mocking phrase of his nemesis, Lenin, who had little contact with the high-profile leader. Lenin and Kerensky met for the first and only time at the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets (June 3–24, 1917) at a military school in Petrograd. Kerensky showed himself to be under the spell, if not the tyranny, of the French Revolution.125 “How did 1792 end in France? It ended in the fall of the republic and the rise of a dictator,” Kerensky said in response to Lenin at the Congress of Soviets, referring to the episode of Robespierre’s self-defeating terror and the rise of Napoleon. “The problem of the Russian socialist parties and of Russian democracy is to prevent such an outcome as there was in France, to hold on to the revolutionary conquests already made; to see to it that our comrades who have been released from prison do not return there; that a Lenin, who has been abroad, may have the opportunity to speak here again, and not be obliged to flee back to Switzerland. We must see to it that historic mistakes do not recur.”126


Kerensky could certainly feel confident. In the elections to the June 1917 First Congress of Soviets, the Bolshevik party won a mere 105 of the 777 delegates with a right to vote, versus 285 by Socialist Revolutionaries and 248 by Mensheviks.127 Only something extremely dramatic could have possibly reversed Bolshevik fortunes. But just such a head-spinning turnabout transpired right in the middle of that First Congress of Soviets: namely, a Russian military offensive.

Perhaps the central riddle of 1917 is why the Provisional Government decided in June to attack the Central Powers. Russia’s towns overflowed with the maimed; the countryside had begun to suffer starvation in places from the disorganization of agriculture, the incomprehensible sacrifice of so many males, and grain requisitions. One might think that for Provisional Government officials, especially classical liberals like the Cadets who sincerely believed in liberty, the use of state power for soldier conscription and coercive grain extraction to feed the army would have been abhorrent.128 But one would be wrong. Nor did the Provisional Government’s relentless invocation of democracy entail following soldiers’ antiwar sentiment, which had been universally on display since the downfall of the tsar and “Order No. 1.” Still, one would expect that the politicians would at least heed careerist self-interest. Paul Miliukov had been forced on May 2 to quit the Provisional Government that he himself had named (leaving Kerensky preeminent in the cabinet) just for stating that Russia “has no desire to enslave or degrade anyone” in the war but would nonetheless “fully stand by its obligations to our allies.”129 Even the most successful allied offensive of the entire war, Brusilov’s in 1916, had ultimately failed. And the German high command planned no new military actions on the eastern front in 1917. How did anyone in their right mind imagine that the Russian army should—or could—undertake an offensive in 1917?

No small part of the offensive’s rationale had been inherited. Back in November 1916, at a meeting in France, the Western Allies had, once again, pressured the government of the tsar to commit to an offensive, in this case for spring 1917, to relieve pressure on the western front.130 Nicholas II had agreed, and the Provisional Government, which shared the values of and indeed looked up to the rule-of-law Allies, resolved to honor this commitment. By now, however, the French themselves were no longer capable of an offensive: in late May 1917, following a failed attack on the German lines, the French army suffered a full-scale mutiny, affecting 49 infantry divisions out of 113. General Philippe Petain, the newly appointed commander, restored discipline, but he recognized that the French rank and file and field officers would continue to defend the homeland, but no more.131

Even without the incongruous Allied pressure, however, Kerensky would likely have gone forward. Just before France’s mutinies, Russia’s supreme commander Mikhail Alexeyev—who had pushed to make Kerensky war minister—toured his own front, finding a collapse of discipline, with desertions running at more than 1 million (out of 6–7 million).132 But Alexeyev, underscoring Russian obligations to its allies, also wrote in a confidential memorandum summarizing the views of the top commanders, which he shared, that “disorder in the Army will have no less a detrimental effect on defense than on offense. Even if we are not fully confident of success, we should go on the offensive.”133 Kerensky nonetheless dismissed Alexeyev as a “defeatist” and replaced him with General Brusilov, the hero of 1916, but then Brusilov toured the front and found the selfsame demoralization.134 To be sure, hope springs eternal. Russian intelligence surmised that the Austro-Hungarian army was highly vulnerable, and that even the German army could not survive another winter, so a knockout blow might be possible. And if that was true, Russia did not want to be left out of the presumed Central Powers defeat, in order to have a say in the peace: a good Russian show on the battlefield would force the Allies to take Russia’s diplomatic notes more seriously.135 Still, Kerensky’s chief motivation appears to have been domestic politics: he as well as some Russian generals thought—or hoped—that an offensive would restore the collapsing army and squelch the domestic rebellion. In other words, the very collapse of Russia’s army served as the key rationale for the offensive.136 “War at the front,” went the saying, “will buy peace in the rear and at the front.”137

Thus did the Provisional Government willingly make the tsar’s fatally unpopular war its own. Kerensky, then merely the war minister, departed for the front, to rally the army like Nicholas II had done, making himself hoarse with harangues of the troops about the offensive for “freedom.” More than one soldier interjected, “What’s the point of this slogan about land and freedom if I have to die?” Lenin’s Bolshevik agitators swarmed the regiments at the front, along with some thirty urban garrisons, to undermine the army but also to trump their main targets: Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary agitators. Bolsheviks flooded highly receptive soldiers and sailors with easily digested radical materials characterizing the war as a sacrifice of Russian blood for English and French moneybags.138 “A single agitator,” lamented one Russian frontline general, “can set back on its heels an entire regiment with the propaganda of Bolshevik ideals.”139 And where Bolsheviks did not reach, German propaganda did. “The English,” one Russian soldier read aloud from a Russian-language German newspaper, the Russian Messenger, “want the Russians to shed the last drop of their blood for the greater glory of England, who seeks her profit in everything.”140 Not just the horrendous war, which had precipitated the downfall of the autocracy, but the military offensive enabled the Bolsheviks to associate their party with the moods in the country’s single biggest mass organization, the 6–7 million soldiers at the front, achieving a spectacular breakthrough to “trench Bolshevism.”141

It would be easy to pin all the domestic blame on Kerensky. His insistence on a military offensive against the external foe in order to defeat the internal foe rendered him, the “revolutionary democrat,” no better than the tsar and the “reactionaries” who had begun the slaughter in 1914. No less stunning, however, the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by a Menshevik-Socialist Revolutionary bloc, as well as even the elected soldiers’ committees, supported the June military offensive, and did so against the wishes of the soldiers and sailors they claimed to represent. Irakli Tsereteli, the Georgian Menshevik, had risen to the top of the Soviet by putting forward a position he had called “revolutionary defensism”: if Russia’s army would (somehow) continue to fight, the Soviet would (somehow) organize a negotiated peace “without annexations” by pressuring the public in the Allied countries.142 Victor Chernov, head of the Socialist Revolutionaries, signed on, and so did prominent Mensheviks in the Soviet (though not the skeptical Yuly Martov). But a proposed international conference in Stockholm of socialists for peace in June 1917 failed to take place: Britain and France had no interest in a “democratic” peace, they wanted Germany defeated.143 Without the “peace” part, Tsereteli’s position, despite his repudiation of annexations, amounted to a continuation of the war, the same policy as the Provisional Government’s. Pravda relished publishing figures for the wartime profits of privately owned factories and placing the Soviet alongside the Provisional Government as “executive organ” of “Messieurs capitalists and bankers.”144 To the masses, the position of the Petrograd Soviet and the soldiers’ committees became incomprehensible: the war was imperialist yet should continue?145 But worse, a majority in the Soviet agreed that Russia ought to attack? The moderate socialists clung to the principle of cooperating with “the bourgeois revolution,” that is, with the Provisional Government and Constitutional Democrat Party. Partly, too, in their minds the offensive would help increase Russia’s bargaining power vis-à-vis recalcitrant Britain and France.146 The non-Bolshevik socialists were lethally wrong.

Because the Allies refused to negotiate an end to the meat-grinder war short of an elusive decisive victory, a posture of strategic defense was the only survivable policy for both the Provisional Government and the Soviet. Simultaneously, the Russian government could have stolen the thunder of the extreme left by attempting to negotiate an acceptable separate peace with Germany. If such an effort failed, the Germans would have been blamed, buying the government some legitimacy for nominally staying in the war. But even if a consensus in the Russian establishment could not be reached to break with the Allies and approach Germany separately, a threat of doing so could have been wielded as a bargaining chip to force the Allies to accept the Provisional Government’s belated desire, as publicly professed at least, for a formal inter-Allied conference to discuss and perhaps redefine war aims.147

Back in September-October 1916, after the momentum of the Brusilov offensive had been broken, tsarist Russia and Germany had held secret talks for a separate peace in Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and Kovno (a territory of imperial Russia under German occupation). Britain and France, after catching wind of the Russo-German talks, had moved to sign new financial agreements with Russia, finally conceding some long-standing Russian requests.148 Russia depended on its Allied partners for finance and materiel, but Russian leverage was perhaps even greater in 1917. Be that as it may, a strictly defensive posture would have allowed a wait-and-see respite while the U.S. entry on the western front got into high gear.

Instead, the lunatic gamble of the Kerensky-Soviet offensive commenced on June 18 (July 1 in the West) with the greatest artillery barrage in Russian history to that point: two nonstop days, drawing on a colossal supply of heavy guns and shells produced by Russia’s working classes (80 percent of whom worked in war production). Despite some initial success, especially by troops under General Kornilov’s command, many Russian units refused to advance; some sought to kill their commanders, while others held meetings to discuss how to escape the inferno.149 The main Russian thrust aimed at the “soft target” of Austria-Hungary—a lesson from the 1916 Brusilov offensive—but the awakened beast of the German army counterattacked mercilessly.150 Russia’s gratuitous offensive drew the Germans much farther onto Russia’s territory—Germany seized Ukraine—while tearing Russia’s army to pieces.151 The offensive also shattered the authority of the moderate socialist representatives in the Soviet and the soldiers’ committees.152 In trying to cajole soldiers to obey orders and return to battle, members of the Soviet Executive Committee were beaten and taken into custody, including Nikolai Sokolov, one of the drafters of Order No. 1. “The whole of 1917,” one historian has aptly written, “could be seen as a political battle between those who saw the revolution as a means of bringing the war to an end and those who saw the war as a means of bringing revolution to an end.”153


In the spring of 1917, after he had arrived back in Russia, Lenin occupied the fringe in Russia’s politics—the fringe of the left—sniping at Kerensky, badmouthing the other Marxists in the Soviet, but the June 1917 offensive—launched by Kerensky, supported by the Soviet—vindicated Lenin’s extremism, which was no longer extreme. Tellingly, even the talented Lev Trotsky signed on.

Trotsky was a shooting star. Nearly Stalin’s exact contemporary, he hailed from a different corner of the empire—southern Ukraine, in the Pale of Settlement, 200 miles up from the Black Sea port of Odessa. His father, David Bronstein, was illiterate but by dint of hard work had become such a successful farmer that by the time his son was born, the family owned 250 acres outright and leased another 500.154 Trotsky’s mother, Aneta, also a loyal subject of the tsar, was a cultured woman who chose the life of a farmer’s wife and imparted a love of learning to her four children (survivors of eight births). The young Leib—Lev in Russian—had been sent to a heder, a Jewish primary school, even though he did not know Yiddish, but he was switched to a German school attached to a Lutheran Church in Odessa, where he studied at the top of his class, despite being suspended for a year as a result of a student imbroglio with a French teacher from Switzerland. At his next school, in the city of Nikolayev, he devoted himself to literature and mathematics; eyewitnesses recalled him having no close friends. “The fundamental essence of Bronstein’s personality,” explained G. A. Ziv, who knew him then, “was to demonstrate his will, to tower above everyone, everywhere and always to be first.”155 Around age seventeen, Bronstein became a revolutionary. Like Stalin, he was arrested when still a teenager (in 1898) and exiled to Siberia. In 1902 he adopted the family name of one of his jailers, becoming Trotsky, and escaped, meeting Lenin and Martov, then allies, in London as a twenty-three-year-old. The next year, at the fateful 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, Trotsky sided with Martov in the controversy over party organization and soon blasted Lenin in print. Still, Trotsky never drew especially close to the Mensheviks: he had kept his distance from all groups. For long stretches he lived in Europe, where he contributed to German Social Democrat periodicals and enjoyed the company of the Marxist pope, Karl Kautsky, whom he called “a white-haired and very jolly little old man,” and with whom he famously polemicized on the necessity of terror (“Terror can be a very effective weapon against a reactionary class that does not want to leave the scene”).156

By chance in New York when the tsar fell, Trotsky had set off for Russia in April 1917, was released from arrest en route in Canada—thanks to then‒foreign minister Miliukov—and arrived at Petrograd’s Finland Station on May 4, a month later than Lenin.157 Immediately, the muscular, spirited, intransigent Trotsky, with pince-nez, became a sensation, making the rounds of the biggest factories as well as the garrison barracks, ending up most nights at the capital’s Cirque Moderne, across the river from the Winter Palace, electrifying huge crowds with political oratory. The “bare, gloomy amphitheater, lit by five tiny lights hanging from a thin wire, was packed from the ring up the steep sweep of grimy benches to the very roof—soldiers, sailors, workmen, women, all listening as if their lives depended upon it,” wrote John Reed, the former Harvard cheerleader.158 Trotsky recalled that “every square inch was filled, every human body compressed to its limit. Young boys sat on their fathers’ shoulders; infants were at their mothers’ breasts. . . . I made my way to the platform through a narrow human trench, sometimes I was borne overhead.”159 One Social Democrat commented at the time, “Here’s a great revolutionary who’s arrived and one gets the feeling that Lenin, however clever he may be, is starting to fade next to the genius of Trotsky.”160 In fact, on May 10 Lenin had asked Trotsky to join the Bolsheviks.161 Having mocked Lenin mercilessly for years, and during the war grown intellectually further apart from him, in summer 1917 Trotsky agreed to join the Bolsheviks, converting to Leninism—that is, to an immediate transfer of power to the soviets.

Underlying structural shifts were still more momentous. The splintering off of large parts of the Russian imperial army accelerated, with the formation of de facto national armies—especially Ukrainian and Finnish, but also Estonian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Crimean Tatar—thereby prefiguring the empire’s dissolution.162 The Provisional Government had become even more of a shell. The Petrograd Soviet and especially soldiers’ committees had been deeply discredited. But in July 1917, even as the political scene continued to move swiftly toward Lenin, the Bolshevik party was almost annihilated. The Constitutional Democrats resigned from the coalition Provisional Government on July 2; between July 3 and 5, amid rumors that the capital garrison would be deployed to the front, a confused uprising took place in Petrograd involving a machine-gun regiment and Kronstadt sailors. The soldiers and sailors, working with radical lower-level Bolsheviks under the slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” managed to seize key junctions in the capital. Hundreds were killed or wounded. Kerensky was at the front. On July 4, a huge crowd at the Tauride Palace demanded a meeting with a leader of the Soviet; when the Socialist Revolutionary Party leader Victor Chernov emerged, a sailor shouted, “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s handed to you.” The rebels took Chernov into custody and he had to be rescued.163 But an early evening blinding downpour dispersed the crowds.164 Top Bolsheviks had hesitated to seize the moment, and Kerensky swiftly counterattacked, charging them with treason for the armed insurrection and for receiving funds from a foreign enemy. It was a brilliant move, taking advantage of a situation he did not create.

That the Bolsheviks were receiving smuggled German funds is beyond doubt. Somehow, the party managed to publish newspapers with a combined print run of more than 300,000 per day; Pravda alone circulated 85,000 copies. Compared with the bourgeois press (1.5 million per day in the capital), or the combined SR-Menshevik press (700,000), Bolshevik publications could look like small change, but the party also published scores of pamphlets and hundreds of thousands of leaflets, which required financing.165 Documents showing Lenin and other Bolsheviks in the pay of the Germans appeared on July 5 in Russian newspapers. “Now they are going to shoot us,” Lenin told Trotsky. “It is the most advantageous time for them.”166 On the morning of July 6, the Provisional Government’s Counter-Espionage Bureau smashed Pravda’s editorial offices and printing presses. Russian troops raided the Bolshevik “fortress” (Krzesinska’s mansion) where some 400 Bolsheviks, despite being heavily armed inside, surrendered. Andrei Vyshinsky, the chief of the citizens’ militia in central Moscow—and Stalin’s future hangman judge in the terror—signed arrest warrants for 28 of the highest-level Bolsheviks, including Lenin.167 Tipped off, Lenin fled, slipping away to the Alliluyev family flat with Stalin’s assistance, then on to Russian Finland with Zinoviev. The folklore has it that Stalin personally shaved Lenin’s beard so he would look like a Finnish peasant.168 Lenin requested that his notebooks be brought to him, and in this sanctuary he wrote State and Revolution; he would complete the text in August-September 1917. It argued that all states were instruments for the domination of some classes over others, so that any new class power (like the working class) needed to create its own state form—“the dictatorship of the proletariat”—to suppress the remnants of the old ruling classes and distribute resources during the transition.169 Meanwhile, two agencies of the Provisional Government gathered volume upon volume of case materials in preparation for a public trial of Lenin and his comrades for treason.170

Thus, notwithstanding the disaster of War Minister Kerensky’s military offensive, July 1917 looked like a turning point, thanks to Kerensky’s offensive against the Bolsheviks. He was going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Altogether, nearly 800 Bolsheviks and radicals would be imprisoned, including Kamenev, who was nearly lynched, but not Stalin (for reasons that remain unclear).171 On July 6, the war minister returned from the front to the capital, amid the publicized arrests, and the next day took over the entire government when the nominal prime minister, Prince Georgy Lvov, resigned. Lvov observed that “in order to save the country, it is now necessary to shut down the Soviet and shoot at the people. I cannot do that. Kerensky can.”172

Lvov, who disappeared into a Moscow sanitorium, was wrong, however: Not Kerensky’s but Lavr Kornilov’s moment had arrived. On July 7, Kerensky promoted Kornilov to command the southwestern front. On July 12, Kerensky announced the restoration of the death penalty at the front for indiscipline, and two days later the tightening of military censorship. Who might enforce these measures remained unclear, but on July 18, Kerensky sacked General Brusilov and proposed Kornilov as army supreme commander. Before accepting Kerensksy’s offer, Kornilov consulted the other generals. Back in March 1917, when Kornilov had replaced the arrested Sergei Khabalov as Petrograd military district commander, it had fallen to him to implement the order to arrest the tsaritsa Alexandra, but in April 1917, when Kornilov tried to use troops to quell disturbances in the capital, the Soviet forced him to reverse his order, claiming sole right to command the garrison; disgusted, Kornilov had requested a transfer to a command at the front. There, enlisted men issued demands to their officers, and his June 1917 success in punching a hole through the Austrian lines vanished when Russian troops refused to advance. Resorting to terror at the front against Russia’s soldiers had spiraled into looting, atrocities against civilians, and even greater indiscipline.173 Nonetheless, Kornilov now put forward demands to emasculate the soldiers’ committees and reinstitute the death penalty in the rear garrisons. Kerensky had already heard similar demands even from moderates on the general staff at a conference at headquarters on July 16.174 Kornilov further demanded complete autonomy in military operations and in personnel decisions, as well as a war mobilization plan for industry, just as General Ludendorff had in Germany.175 On July 21, Kornilov’s ultimatum-like terms were leaked to the press—and his popularity on the political right soared.176 Verbally, Kerensky assented to Kornilov’s conditions, so the latter took over supreme command, but when the war ministry drew up the documents to meet Kornilov’s conditions, Kerensky delayed signing them, dragging the process into August, raising Kornilov’s ire and suspicions, even as Kerensky’s own fears of the man he had promoted escalated.177

The Bolsheviks convoked a Party Congress between July 26 and August 3, 1917, their first since 1907. (It was the sixth overall, counting the founding Russian Social Democrat Party Congress in Minsk in 1898, which had been the last to take place on Russian territory.) Some 267 attendees, including 157 voting delegates, many from the provinces, assembled under threat of arrest in the sanctuary of Petrograd’s factory-laden Vyborg district. With Lenin and Zinoviev in hiding and Kamenev and Trotsky in prison, Sverdlov, assisted by Stalin, organized the gathering. They did yeoman work, turning out representatives from nearly thirty front-line army regiments and ninety Petrograd factories and garrison units, whose moods were radical. Stalin gave the opening greeting and the main political report, the highest profile assignment. “He had on a gray modest jacket and boots, and was speaking in a low, unhurried, completely calm voice,” noted one eyewitness, who added, of Stalin’s Georgianness that another comrade in the same row “could not suppress a slight smile when the speaker uttered a certain word in a somehow especially soft tone with his special accent.”178 Stalin admitted the severe damage done by the “premature” July uprising. Defiantly, however, he asked “What is the Provisional Government?” and answered, “It is a puppet, a miserable screen behind which stand the Constitutional Democrats, the military clique, and Allied capital—three pillars of counterrevolution.” There would be explosions, he predicted.

On the final day of the congress, in the discussion of the draft resolution following from his report, Stalin objected to a proposal by Yevgeny Preobrazhensky that they include a reference to revolution in the West. “The possibility cannot be excluded that Russia will be the country that blazes the trail to socialism,” he interjected. “No country has hitherto enjoyed such freedom as exists in Russia; none has tried to realize workers’ control over production. Besides, the base of our revolution is broader than in Western Europe, where the proletariat stands utterly alone face to face with the bourgeoisie. Here the workers have the support of the poorest strata of the peasantry. Finally, in Germany the machinery of state power is functioning incomparably better than the imperfect machinery of our bourgeoisie. . . . It is necessary to give up the antiquated idea that only Europe can show us the way. There is dogmatic Marxism and creative Marxism. I stand by the latter.”179

This remarkable exchange evidenced a level of astuteness almost always denied to Stalin. His argument carried, and an amendment on the victory of socialist revolution in Russia “on condition of a proletarian revolution in the West” was voted down.

Thanks to Stalin’s shrewd analysis as well as his generally high regard for Russia, which Lenin did not share, Lenin’s militancy was ascendant even in his absence.180 Lenin still faced the threat of a trial, however, and when Stalin had told the congress delegates that under certain conditions Lenin along with Zinoviev might submit to the courts, he was roundly rebuked. But the promised trial of the Bolsheviks would never materialize. Kerensky allowed his duel with Kornilov to eclipse his battle with Lenin.181


In mid-July, Kerensky had put out the call for a state conference for mid-August in Moscow, the ancient capital, with invitations to industrialists, landowners, all former Duma representatives, local governing bodies, higher education institutions, representatives of soviets and peasant bodies, and the military brass—some 2,500 participants, who met inside the Bolshoi Theater.182 And grand theater it was. Kerensky’s opening-day speech onAugust 12 made a powerful impression, seeming to confirm his authority. He appears to have intended the conference to “consolidate” Russia’s political forces, although newspapers half-joked that he arrived in Moscow, site of tsarist coronations, “to crown himself.” The newspaper of the Soviet, employing class markers, complained that “morning coats, frock coats, and starched shirts predominate over side-fastening Russian [folk] shirts.”183 But the Soviet, for its part, had excluded the Bolsheviks from its allotted delegation for the latter’s refusal to promise to abide by the Soviet’s collective decisions (including whether or not to walk out). Moscow workers defied the Soviet, undertaking a one-day wildcat strike on opening day, for which the Bolsheviks claimed credit.184 “The trams are not running,” Izvestiya reported, “coffee shops and restaurants are closed”—including the buffet inside the Bolshoi. Gas workers struck, too, and the city went dark.185

Kornilov arrived in the light of day from the front on August 13, a Sunday. At the Alexandrovsky (later Belorussian) Station, his red-robed Turcomans leapt out onto the platform with sabers drawn, forming eye-catching rows. Amid a sea of smart-looking military cadets and Russian tricolor flags, the diminutive Kornilov emerged in full-dress uniform and was showered with flowers. Like a tsar, he received waiting ministers, soldiers, dignitaries, after which his twenty-sedan motorcade—the general in an open car—paraded through the city, sparking ovations, including when he stopped to pray to the Mary, Mother of God, icon at the Iverskaya shrine (as all tsars had done). In the evening, a further cavalcade of well-wishers—former chief of staff and supreme commander General Alexeyev, Cadet leader Miliukov, far right-wing leader Purishkevich—were received by Russia’s ethnic Kalmyk supreme commander.186

The moment was riveting: a state assembly of Russia’s entire battered establishment, representatives of the left who themselves had ostracized the Bolsheviks, a motherland in genuine danger of foreign conquest, and rival would-be saviors.

At the August 14 session, Kerensky, in the chair, invited the supreme commander to the rostrum. An intentionally inflammatory speech by a Kornilov Cossack ally had been staged to make Kornilov appear eminently reasonable.187 “We have lost all Galicia, we have lost all Bukovina,” the Kalmyk savior told the hall, warning that the Germans were knocking at the gates of Riga, on a path to the Russian capital. Kornilov demanded strong measures.188 The right-side aisles in the Bolshoi exploded in ovation, while the left kept silent or made catcalls. This could have been the opportunity to reverse Russia’s slide and consolidate the establishment: Some industrialists wanted the State Conference to become a permanent body. Members of the Soviet supportive of order and authority could have been targeted for co-optation and a split of the left. Back on August 9, Stalin, writing in the periodical Worker and Soldier, had warned that “the counter-revolution needs its own parliament,” a bourgeois-landowner organ, formed without the peasant vote and intended to displace the still-unsummoned Constituent Assembly, “the single representative of the entire laboring people.”189 Four days later, on the opening day of the Moscow State Conference, Stalin had written that “the saviors’ make it seem that they are calling a ‘simple gathering,’ which will decide nothing, . . . but the ‘simple gathering’ little by little will be transformed into a ‘state gathering,’ then into a ‘great assembly,’ then into . . . a ‘long parliament.’”190 Kerensky, however, had no strategy for the Moscow State Conference other than three days of speechifying.191 Nothing institutional endured.

Even symbolically it failed. Instead of a show of patriotic unity, the State Conference (as Miliukov would observe) confirmed “that the country was divided into two camps between which there could be no reconciliation.”192 Worse, not just Stalin but the entire leftist press—observing the display of assembled nobles, industrialists, and military men—sounded even more hysterical alarms over a supposedly heightened threat of imminent “counterrevolution.” Kerensky, the person behind the gathering, drew the same conclusion. “After the Moscow Conference,” he would recall, “it was clear to me that the next attempt at a coup would come from the right, and not the left.”193

Kerensky had himself to blame for raising expectations for bold solutions that were instantly dashed. A full collapse at the front continued to threaten the very survival of the Russian state, and many constitutionalists—Miliukov, Lvov, Rodzyanko—leaned toward a military coup by Kornilov, even if they worried he lacked mass popular support and ignored the practical aspects of power. The idea, or fantasy, was to have Kornilov “restore order” by force, possibly with a military dictatorship and, later, to summon a constituent assembly under favorable conditions.194 Similar thoughts of imposing order had occurred to General Alexeyev, Vice Admiral Alexander Kolchak (commander of the Black Sea fleet until June), and others who were in conversations with Kornilov. The latter certainly contemplated a coup against both the Provisional Government and the Soviet in order to suppress an anticipated Bolshevik coup, hang Lenin and his associates, disband the Soviet, and maybe install himself in power, at least temporarily.195 But this appeared to be a worse option. A would-be military conspirator had no secure communications: chauffeurs, orderlies, telegraph operators would report suspicious activities to the soldiers’ committees and the Soviet.196 So Kornilov worked with the Provisional Government. The latter, he rightly concluded, was incapable of mastering the situation. Still, Kerensky did tell Kornilov he wanted a “strong authority,” and working with the government allowed the legal movement of troops. Back on August 6–7, with Kerensky’s approval, Kornilov had ordered Lieutenant General Alexander Krymov, commander of the Third Cavalry Corps, to relocate his troops from the southwest (Romanian front) up to Velikie Luki (Pskov province). Krymov’s troops, some of whom were known as the Savage Division, included Muslim mountaineers from the North Caucasus (Chechens, Ingush, Dagestani) who were viewed as the most reliable in the whole army, and had been used for political enforcement at the front.197 On August 21, Riga fell—just as Kornilov had warned at the Moscow State Conference—and Kerensky authorized Kornilov to move the frontline troops near Petrograd to defend the capital and suppress an anticipated coup by the Bolsheviks, presumed agents of the Germans. This action remained secret.

The moderate socialists were still arguing for neither/nor: neither truck with the extreme right counterrevolution, nor truck with the extreme left seizure of power.198 But the Bolsheviks embraced the polarization as welcome and inevitable. “Either, or!” Stalin wrote on August 25, 1917. “Either with the landlords and capitalists, and then the complete triumph of the counterrevolution. Or with the proletariat and the poor peasantry, and then the complete triumph of the revolution. The policy of conciliation and coalition is doomed to failure.”199

The movement of Krymov’s troops, at Kornilov’s command, with Kerensky’s apparent approval, in order to preempt a presumed Bolshevik coup and strengthen political authority in the name of the hopelessly limp Provisional Government, erupted in a showdown between Kerensky and Kornilov. From the moment it was under way, between August 26 and 31, 1917, and ever since, analysts have divided over two ostensibly opposed interpretations.200 First, that it was a putsch by Kornilov to make himself dictator, under the guise of protecting the Provisional Government. Second, that it was a monstrous provocation by Kerensky to oust Kornilov and make himself dictator. Both interpretations are correct.201

Around midnight on Saturday, August 26—after a series of very convoluted messages, messengers, and pseudo-messengers between Kerensky and Kornilov—the prime minister called an emergency cabinet meeting and requested “full authority [vlast’]” to fight off a counterrevolutionary plot. The Provisional Government ministers all resigned.202 Right about then, on Sunday, August 27, at 2:40 a.m., Kornilov telegraphed the government to the effect that to put down the anticipated Bolshevik rising in the capital, as agreed, Lieutenant General Krymov’s army “is assembling in the environs of Petrograd toward evening August 28. Request that Petrograd be placed under martial law August 29.”203 At 4:00 a.m., Kerensky telegraphed Kornilov, dismissing him. At headquarters, the general staff viewed the order either as a forgery or a sign that Kerensky had been taken hostage by extreme leftists. Kornilov had Krymov speed up. In the capital, various naïve personages sought to mediate the “misunderstanding,” but Kerensky rejected them. On August 27–28, the newspapers published special editions with an accusation of treason on the part of the supreme commander signed by Kerensky.204 Enraged, Kornilov telegrammed all frontline commanders, branding Kerensky a liar who was acting under Bolshevik pressure “in harmony with the plans of the German general staff.” The public counterappeal by Kornilov pointedly called himself “the son of a peasant Cossack” and asserted a desire “only to save Great Russia. I swear to lead the people through victory over the enemy to the Constituent Assembly, where it will decide its own destiny and choose its new political system.”205 Kerensky turned to the Soviet to muster forces to subvert the “counterrevolution.” On the rail lines, workers and specially dispatched Muslim agitators harassed Krymov’s Savage Division forces. Trotsky would write that “the army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October Revolution.”206 In fact, no fighting took place.207 Krymov entered Petrograd by automobile on the night of August 30–31 under a guarantee of personal safety from Kerensky, and answered a summons by the prime minister, who told him to report to a military court. Krymov then went to a private apartment and shot himself.208

Stalin rejoiced at the “breaking of the counter-revolution,” but warned that its defeat remained incomplete. “Against the landowners and capitalists, against the generals and bankers, for the interests of the peoples of Russia, for peace, for freedom, for land—that is our slogan,” he wrote on August 31. “The creation of a government of workers and peasants—that is our task.”209 In captivity, the ex-tsar Nicholas II privately expressed disappointment in the failure of Kornilov to establish a military dictatorship. “I then for the first time heard the tsar regret his abdication,” recalled the court tutor Pierre Gilliard.210 In any attempted coup, even many on the inside remain confused and uncertain, and support mostly materializes if and when the coup begins to appear successful.211 The entente, on August 28, indicated it would support efforts in Russia to “unify” the country as part of the joint war effort; Russian business interests would have backed Kornilov. But Kornilov never even left front headquarters at Mogilyov.212 It was an odd military coup that depended on the cooperation of Kerensky, who effectively betrayed Kornilov before Kornilov had any chance to betray him.213 But Kerensky’s August move against Kornilov constituted his own second failed coup, following his aborted July coup against Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Whether a genuinely mass movement on the right existed in summer 1917 to be galvanized and perhaps eventually consolidated can never be known. Still, some insight about the masses may lie in the story of a rightist periodical, the Little Newspaper (for the “little” or ordinary person), founded in 1914 and published by Aleksei A. Suvorin (Poroshin), the son of a famous conservative Russian pundit. A vulgar and grammatically challenged broadsheet that delivered brilliant real-life chronicles in real-life prose, the Little Newspaper won a mass following among Petrograd’s lower orders: workers, soldiers, war invalids, the jobless, those lacking rent money, those shortchanged by traders—in short, much of the wartime capital. Bringing readers to tears of laughter over sketches of quotidian life, but also skewering political cowardice among elites, the Little Newspaper opposed Russia’s socialist parties and demanded Lenin’s arrest before the Provisional Government had issued a warrant. It hammered the Provisional Government and Kerensky for ineptitude and gutlessness, blustered about even bolder war annexations and demanded that government leadership pass to strongmen (especially Vice Admiral Kolchak). It also published the percentages of Jews in soviets, using familiar code like “Rabinovich.” The Petrograd Soviet deemed the Little Newspaper a “pogrom-publication” and urged print workers not to print it. But by June 1917, the Little Newspaper’s circulation rose to 109,000, more than Pravda’s, and reached readers in the capital’s garrison, nearby naval bases, and factories. That said, it remains impossible to know whether its popularity derived primarily from its scurrilous entertainment or its calls for a “strong hand.”214

After the Kornilov flameout, the broadsheet lost its popularity. Even before then, however, the Little Newspaper had started to label itself “socialist,” almost like proto-national socialists, albeit without much conviction in terms of the socialism. This telling, if halfhearted embrace demonstrated that any aspiring movement on the right now had to be “socialist.” Socialism in some form was an unavoidable structure in the political landscape. Socialism was also one of the prime evils that motivated Kornilov and others on the political right, however. The war that helped make the aspiration for socialism nearly universal vastly narrowed the Russian right’s options. And the very instrument that Kornilov wanted to use to restore order—the army—was now more than ever the key instrument of socialist revolution.215


Unhappy Kerensky. Despite comprehending the dire necessity of strengthening central authority, he had played a double game that forced him into a devil’s choice: embrace either the general staff (indispensable to prevent a leftist coup) or the democratically elected Soviet (meaning, in his mind, the masses, whose favor he so craved).216 With his embrace of the Soviet and disgracing of Kornilov, however, establishment figures abandoned the Provisional Government for good; a few even began to hope for a foreign intervention to save Russia.217 Two generals at frontline headquarters declined Kerensky’s urgent requests to replace the dismissed Kornilov. The utterly bankrupt prime minister—without even his own government, let alone a parliament—was compelled to direct the Russian army to obey Kornilov’s orders. “A Supreme Commander, accused of treason,” Kornilov observed of himself, “has been ordered to continue commanding his armies because there is no one else to appoint.”218

Some insiders urged Kerensky to resign in favor of General Alexeyev. Instead, the thirty-six-year-old lawyer appointed himself military supreme commander and named General Alexeyev—whom Kerensky had recently dismissed as “defeatist”—to the position of chief of staff. This was the same arrangement that had obtained under Nicholas II. Alexeyev took three days to assent to Kerensky’s request; nine days after appointing Alexeyev, Kerensky sacked him.219 The original eleven-man suspended-in-the-air Provisional Government had narrowed to just one man. Kerensky appointed himself head of a new Council of Five, evoking the five-person Directory of the French Revolution (1795–99) that had aimed to occupy the political middle against far right and far left; Russia’s pretend “Directory” would nominally last a few weeks.220 Kerensky’s actions beginning in June 1917, particularly his military offensive, and now in August 1917 had shifted the entire political landscape, pulverizing the right, energizing the left, and helping to shove the entire left much further leftward.

Back in July, Bolshevism had sunk to a low ebb.221 The newly minted Bolshevik Trotsky, like Kamenev, was in prison, while Lenin, like Zinoviev, was in a Finnish barn. That left Sverdlov and Stalin. Whether this duo—without the hiding Lenin and the imprisoned Trotsky—could have led the Bolshevik party to power seems doubtful. Stalin wrote for and edited Workers’ Path, the Bolshevik mouthpiece that had replaced the shuttered Pravda, while Sverdlov worked to keep an organization together, cajoling provincials to submit concrete examples of their party work (copies of leaflets, membership details), then sending them instructions.222 But leading the entire revolution, which was a street and trench phenomenon?

There could be no doubt about the policital direction of events. Despite the successful staging of the 6th Party Congress in late July and early August, the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” had been shelved, but then—poof: the long-anticipated “counterrevolution” had suddenly materialized in late August.223 The slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” was reinstated in a summons to change the class power. The ruling classes were said to be failing to drive the bourgeois-democratic revolution (necessary for socialism); on the contrary, they were now openly counterrevolutionary. Generals would not bring peace. Bankers would not bring economic reforms. Landowners would not bring land redistribution. The bourgeoisie was turning out to be too weak. Class power would have to be seized, or all the gains, the entire revolutionary process, would be lost. Workers and peasants would have to lead the revolution.224 The leftmost wings of the Socialist Revolutionaries and even of the Mensheviks, for the first time, now accepted this program, too. “In the days of Kornilov,” Workers’ Path, edited by Stalin, would explain, “power had already gone over to the soviets.”225

The Kerensky-Kornilov debacle completely reversed the Bolshevik slide.226 Even as Kornilov and many other high-ranking officers submitted to arrest at Mogilyov headquarters, virtually all imprisoned Bolsheviks who did not break out on their own were freed, including, most crucially, Trotsky (released on 3,000 rubles’ bail on September 3). On September 25—the same day that Kerensky’s ridiculous “Directory” idea was retired—Trotsky became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. This ascension, from prison to the top of the popular organ, reflected the stunning newfound Bolshevik majority in that body. (The Bolsheviks also achieved a majority of delegates in the Moscow soviet.) No less striking, a great many of the 40,000 guns Kerensky had ordered distributed to resist Kornilov went to factory workers—before this, workers by and large had not been armed—and many of these “Red Guards” would now end up on the Bolshevik side. Stalin, writing on September 6, 1917, publicly acknowledged the gift of the Kerensky-Kornilov affair: “Marx explained the weakness of the 1848 revolution in Germany with the absence of a powerful counter-revolution that might have whipped up the revolution and strengthened it in the fire of battle.”227 In Russia, Stalin underscored, the appearance of counterrevolution in the person of Kornilov had confirmed the need for “a final break with the Cadets,” meaning the Provisional Government. On September 16, in yet another lead editorial, Stalin issued a full-throated demand for the immediate transfer of all power to the soviets. “The fundamental question of revolution is the question of power,” he explained. “The character of a revolution, its path and outcome, is completely determined by which class is in power,” so in the name of the proletariat class, the socialists ought to seize the direction of Russia’s revolution.228

After the bitter failure of the “July Days,” after which Bolsheviks had been subjected to mass arrests, many lacked confidence in any sort of insurrection, fearing possible complete destruction. From hiding in Finland, however, Lenin sent manic directives demanding an immediate coup, arguing that “a wave of real anarchy may become stronger than we are.”229 Russia’s stock market had crashed. Deserters and criminals pillaged. “In Rostov the town hall is dynamited,” explained one Moscow newspaper that fall. “In Tambov province there are agrarian pogroms. . . . In the Caucasus there are massacres in a number of places. Along the Volga, near Kamyshinsk, soldiers loot trains. . . .”230 Long queues reappeared for bread, as in February 1917.231 Food supply officials discussed demobilization of the army, because they could not feed it.232 Kerensky, along with a nominally revived Provisional Government cabinet of ministers, relocated to the more secure setting of the Winter Palace, availing himself of the former apartments of Alexander III, sleeping in the tsar’s bed and working at his desk; his personal affectations became subject to still greater ridicule, and not just by the livid right, which spread false stories of his Jewish origins and clandestine work for the Germans.233 Soon there were also rumors, Rasputin style, of an affair between Kerensky and one of Nicholas II’s daughters. (Kerensky had separated from his wife.) All this incited Lenin. “We have thousands of armed workers and soldiers in Petrograd who can seize at once the Winter Palace, the General Staff building, the telephone exchange and all the largest printing establishments,” he insisted again on October 7. “Kerensky will be compelled to surrender.”234 Stalin reproduced Lenin’s message for public audiences, hammering on the point that the workers, peasants, and soldiers had to expect a new Kerensky-Kornilov strike. “The counter-revolution,” Stalin urged in an article published on the morning of October 10, “is mobilizing—prepare to repulse it!”235

The Central Committee was stalling, however, and Lenin risked the trip from Finland to Petrograd sometime between October 3 and 10; on the latter day, in a safe-house private apartment, wearing a wig and glasses, and without his beard, he attended his first meeting with the Central Committee since July. Of its twenty-one members, only twelve were present. Sverdlov gave the report, citing supposedly widespread popular support for an insurrection. After nearly all-night browbeating, Lenin won the votes of ten of the twelve for an immediate coup; Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed. Stalin joined Lenin in voting for the resolution, written with pencil on a sheet of paper torn from a children’s notebook, to the effect that “an armed uprising is inevitable and the time for it is fully ripe.” No date was set, however. (“When this uprising will be possible—perhaps in a year—is uncertain,” Mikhail Kalinin would note on October 15.)236 On October 18, Zinoviev and Kamenev, in a small-circulation newspaper, published word of their opposition to a coup—essentially revealing one was being planned.237 Lenin wrote a furious letter, calling them “strike breakers” and demanding their expulsion.238 Stalin, in the main Bolshevik newspaper he edited, allowed Zinoviev to publish a conciliatory response, and appended an editorial note. “We, for our part, express the hope that with the declaration by Zinoviev . . . the matter may be considered closed,” the anonymous note stated. “The sharp tone of Lenin’s article does not alter the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind.”239 Zinoviev and Kamenev were perhaps potential allies to counteract Trotsky’s newfound power.

Lenin had no telephone at his hideaway, the apartment of Madame Fofanova, although Krupskaya went back and forth with Lenin’s paper and oral messages pressuring the Central Committee.240 Between October 10 and 25, Lenin would see Trotsky only once, on October 18, in the private apartment where he was hiding, but that once was enough; Trotsky, at the Central Committee on October 20, harshly condemned Stalin’s attempt at internal party peacemaker, and the members voted to accept Kamenev’s resignation. Trotsky, even more than the Central Committee, became the key instrument of Lenin’s will. Kerensky, for his part, had expelled the Bolsheviks from the Krzesinska mansion (“the satin nest of a court ballerina,” in Trotsky’s piquant phrase). They had taken up residence in a finishing school for girls of the nobility, Smolny Institute, even farther out on the eastern edge of the capital than the Tauride Palace. The Soviet, expelled from the Tauride, had relocated to Smolny as well. There, the Soviet’s central executive committee had approved—by a single vote (13 to 12)—the formation of a defensive Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), which the full Soviet approved on October 12.241 The rationale for the armed body—originally proposed by the Mensheviks—was to calm the roiling garrison and defend the capital against a German attack. But Trotsky, urged on by Lenin, would use the MRC on behalf of the Bolsheviks to shunt aside the carcass of the Provisional Government. Now, everything broke Lenin’s way.

The Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets had been scheduled for October 20—a colossal stroke of lucky timing, and Trotsky hatched the brilliant idea of having a seizure of power simultaneously with the congress, appropriating a source of critical legitimacy while imposing a fait accompli on all other socialists.242 Many delegates seemed unlikely to make it to Petrograd on time, and on October 17–18, moderate socialists forced the Soviet’s central executive committee to postpone the congress until October 25—crucial for the Bolsheviks, who gained time to undertake coup preparations.243 (The Military Revolutionary Committee only held its first meeting on October 20.)244 “The Soviet government will annihilate the misery of the trenches,” Trotsky told an audience of soldiers and sailors on October 21, according to the eyewitness Sukhanov. “It will give the land and it will heal the internal disorder. The Soviet government will give away everything in the country to the poor and to the troops in the trenches. If you, bourgeois, have two fur coats, give one to a soldier. . . . Have you got a warm pair of boots? Stay at home. A worker needs them.” Sukhanov added: “A resolution was proposed that those present stand for the workers’ and peasants’ cause to their last drop of blood. . . . Who’s in favor? As one, the thousand-man audience shot their hands up.” A similar scene took place the next day, at the Cirque Moderne, where Trotsky enjoined the crowd to swear an oath of allegiance: “If you support our policy to bring the revolution to victory, if you give the cause all your strength, if you support the Petrograd Soviet in this great cause without hesitation, then let us all swear our allegiance to the revolution. If you support this sacred oath which we are making, raise your hands.”245 On the eve of the Second Congress of Soviets, on October 23, the Trotsky-led MRC asserted its exclusive claim to command the capital garrison and, through its commissars posted to garrison regiments, ordered them “to combat readiness.”246 Still, the MRC remained uncertain as to its next moves.

Stalin, on the afternoon of October 24, informed a gathering of Bolshevik delegates who had arrived for the congress that two possible courses of action divided the MRC: one held that “we organize an uprising at once”; the other advised “that we consolidate our forces.” A party Central Committee majority, he indicated, tilted toward the latter, meaning wait and see.247 Kerensky came to the rescue, again, ordering the arrests of top Bolsheviks—people he had released following the Kornilov debacle—and shuttering two Bolshevik newspapers: Workers’ Path and Soldier (two rightist papers were also to be closed, in a balancing act). On October 24, in Stalin’s presence, a handful of military cadets and citizens’ militia destroyed the freshly printed newspaper copies and damaged the presses, but Stalin’s staff ran to Smolny with news of the attack and the MRC dispatched forces and got the presses rolling again.248 Preparations for defense of the revolution became offense. Rumors of “suspicious” troop movements in the city—“Kornilovites!”—goaded the Red Guards to occupy the rail stations, control the bridges, and seize the telegraph. When the government disconnected the phone lines to Smolny, the MRC seized the telephone exchange, had the lines reconnected, and disconnected the Winter Palace. When the lights in Smolny seemed to be experiencing trouble, Red Guards seized the electricity generating station. Trotsky would later quip that “it was being left to the government of Kerensky, as you might say, to insurrect.”249

In fact, the Bolsheviks would have laid claim to power anyway—nothing stood in their way. They managed to be thoroughly confused and still seize power because the Provisional Government simply vanished, just as the vaunted autocracy had vanished.250 Red Guards—described as “a huddled group of boys in workmen’s clothes, carrying guns with bayonets”—met zero resistance and by nightfall on October 24 already controlled most of the capital’s strategic points.251 During that night, Kerensky sacked the commander of the Petrograd military district, Colonel Georgy Polkovnikov, but the latter ignored his own dismissal and used military channels to wire the general staff at headquarters: “I report that the situation in Petrograd is menacing. There are no street demonstrations or disorders, but systematic seizure of institutions and railroad stations, and arrests are going on. No orders are being carried out. The military school cadets are abandoning their posts without resistance . . . there is no guarantee that attempts will not be made to capture the Provisional Government.”252 The colonel was right, but just how many garrison troops and irregulars the Bolsheviks mustered that night remains unclear, perhaps as few as 10,000.253 General Alexeyev would later claim he had 15,000 officers in Petrograd, of whom one third were immediately ready to defend the Winter Palace, but that his offer was not taken up. (In the event, the officers got drunk.)254 The Petrograd garrison did not participate en masse in the Bolsheviks’ coup, but more important, they did not defend the existing order.255 General V. A. Cheremisov, commander of the nearby northern front, hounded by a military revolutionary committee formed near his headquarters, rescinded the orders previously given to the reinforcements who were supposed to relieve the Winter Palace.256 All that the hollow Provisional Government managed to muster in its defense were women and children: that is, an all-female “Death Battalion” (140 strong) and a few hundred unenthusiastic young military cadets, who were assisted by a bicycle unit; some stray Cossacks; and forty war invalids whose commander had artificial legs.257


In October 1917 Russia counted 1,429 soviets, including 455 of peasant deputies, a formidable grassroots movement, but their fate to a great extent rested in the hands of two men. Lenin had headed for Smolny around 10:00 p.m. on October 24—in violation of a Central Committee directive to remain in hiding—donning a wig with fake bandages around his face. A military cadet patrol stopped him and his lone bodyguard, but, looking over the deliberately rumpled Bolshevik leader, decided not to detain what appeared to be a drunk. Without a pass, Lenin had to sneak his way into Smolny; once inside, he started screaming for an immediate coup.258 He was wasting his breath: the putsch was already well under way. But the next night, the Second Congress of the Soviets was delayed while Military Revolutionary Committee forces sat on their hands outside the largely unguarded Winter Palace; the congress could not wait any longer and finally opened at 10:40 p.m. Smolny’s colonnaded hall, formerly used for school plays, had filled up with between 650 and 700 delegates, who were barely visible through the haze of cigarette smoke. Somewhat more than 300 were Bolsheviks (the largest bloc), along with nearly 100 Left SRs, who leaned toward the Bolshevik side. More than 500 delegates recognized the time had come for “all power to the soviets,” but, confronted with a Bolshevik fait accompli, many were angry, especially the moderate socialists.259 A frail and awkward Yuly Martov, leader of the Mensheviks, in a trembling and scratchy voice—signs of his tuberculosis (or the onset of cancer)—offered a resolution calling for a “peaceful solution” and immediate negotiations for an inclusive “all-democratic government.” Martov’s resolution passed unanimously, amid “roaring applause.”260 But then vociferous critics of Bolshevism rose to condemn their conspiracy to arrest the Provisional Government “behind the back of the Congress” and foment “civil war,” thereby prompting most Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary delegates to demonstrate their disapproval of the Bolsheviks by walking out. “Bankrupts,” Trotsky shouted at their heels. “Go where you belong—onto the trash pile of history.”261

“Martov walked in silence and did not look back—only at the exit did he stop,” recalled his fellow Menshevik Boris Nicolaevsky. A young Bolshevik firebrand from the Vyborg district stunned the Menshevik leader by saying, “And we among ourselves had thought, Martov at least will remain with us.” Martov replied: “One day you will understand the crime in which you are complicit,” and waved his hand as he departed the hall in Smolny.262

After months of open discussion in newspapers, barracks, factories, street corners, and drawing rooms, the Bolshevik putsch was over and done before the vast majority of the population knew it had happened. On October 25, trams and buses in Petrograd operated normally, shops opened for business, theaters put on their productions (Fyodor Chaliapin sang Don Carlos). Around the empire, whether in Kiev or Vladivostok, people had little or no inkling of events in the capital. Still, the flow of power to the soviets had long been unmistakable: already in summer 1917, the Kronstadt naval base had become a de facto minirepublic ruled by a soviet. The Tashkent soviet, while refusing to accept Muslims (98 percent of the local population) as members, had seized power before the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd.263 By September 1917, at the very latest, the issue was never the survival of the ghostly Provisional Government, but what would replace it in the capital? One contender might have been the August 1917 Moscow State Conference, a potentially (unelected) Constituent Assembly of the establishment, but such an opportunity, to the extent it had existed, was squandered. This left replacement by the Petrograd Soviet. In that regard, the critical issue was who would wield the upper hand at the Soviet? There, the climb in Bolshevik fortunes had been stunning. In Petrograd, as in most other towns with huge wartime garrisons, Kerensky’s suicidal June offensive, and his August encouragement and then betrayal of Kornilov, delivered the Soviet to the Bolsheviks. That meteoric political gain was consolidated by Trotsky’s idea to use the recently formed Military Revolutionary Committee to present the Second Congress of Soviets with the fait accompli of a Bolshevik seizure of power.264 But the socialist opponents of the Bolshevik coup unwittingly did the rest in their abandonment of the congress hall.265

Later, much would be made of the “art of insurrection,” especially by Trotsky. Sometime after 2:00 a.m. that first night of the Congress of Soviets (October 25–26)—at a parallel special session of the Petrograd Soviet held during the congress—he announced that forces of the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee had finally located the Provisional Government ministers inside the Winter Palace, seated around a table waiting to be arrested. (Kamenev—the Bolshevik opponent of the Bolshevik coup—would inform the Congress of Soviets of the arrests.) Lenin had written out a proclamation on the transfer of power (signed “Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet”), which the grandiloquent Anatoly Lunacharsky read aloud to the congress, while repeatedly being interrupted by riotous cheers. After discussion the Left SRs in the hall agreed to support the decree with a minor change; a delegate of the Menshevik Internationalists, who had returned to the hall, asked for an amendment calling for a government of the broadest possible elements, but he was ignored. Around 5:00 a.m., the primarily Bolshevik and Left SR delegates remaining in the hall overwhelmingly approved the transfer of power: just 2 voted against, and 12 abstained.266 Around 6:00 a.m., some seven hours into the opening session, the delegates adjourned to get some rest. There was no functioning government. The MRC Bolsheviks had frog-marched the ex-ministers into the damp cells of the Peter and Paul Fortress, which until the Kornilov-Kerensky affair had been full of Bolsheviks.267 Red Guards, however, had never actually “stormed” the Winter Palace: they, finally, had just climbed unopposed through unlocked doors or windows, many going straight for the storied wine cellars, history’s most luxurious.268 Each new Red Guard detachment sent to prevent a ransacking instead got drunk, too. “We tried flooding the cellars with water,” the leader of the Bolshevik forces on site recalled, “but the firemen . . . got drunk instead.”269

Crucially, however, Kerensky’s vainglorious relocation of himself and the ersatz “ministers” into the Winter Palace forever linked the Provisional Government with the seat of oppressive tsarism. This symbolic link would facilitate depictions of the October Bolshevik coup—via tales of a mythical storming of the Winter Palace—as a continuation of the overthrow of the old regime, thereby eliding the February and October revolutions.

Lenin had still not even appeared at the Congress of Soviets. He finally emerged—to thunderous applause—around 9:00 p.m. on the night of October 26, after the opening of the second (and last) session, still in the ragtag disguise he had used to evade capture while crossing the capital to Smolny. (As part of his disguise, Lenin had taken to donning a worker’s cap, which he never relinquished, even as he continued to wear “bourgeois” suits.)270 “Lenin—great Lenin,” recorded John Reed. “A short, stocky figure with a big head set down on his shoulders, bald and bulging . . . dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers too long for him.”271 He was not widely recognized. Lenin was predominantly an ethnic Russian, but had German, Jewish, and Kalmyk ancestry as well. Born the same year as Kornilov, Lenin by now was solidly middle-aged. He “is short, broad-shouldered, and lean,” the St. Petersburg writer Alexander Kuprin observed. “He looks neither repellant, militant, nor deep-thinking. He has high cheekbones and slanting eyes. . . . The dome of his forehead is broad and high, though not as exaggerated as it appears in foreshortened photographs. . . . He has traces of hair on his temples, and his beard and moustache still show how much of a fiery redhead he was in his youth. His hands are large and ugly. . . . I couldn’t stop looking at his eyes . . . they are narrow; besides which he tends to screw them up, no doubt a habit of concealing short sight, and this, and the rapid glances beneath his eyebrows, gives him an occasional squint and perhaps a look of cunning.”272 Gleb Kryzanowski, a Bolshevik, recorded a similar impression of Lenin’s short stature and eyes (“unusual, piercing, full of inner strength and energy, dark, dark, brown”), but found his visage startlingly distinct, “a pleasant, swarthy face with a touch of the Asiatic.”273 Not as Asiatic in appearance as the diminutive Kornilov, nor as wiry, Lenin’s face was nonetheless partly Mongol.

Lo and behold: here was Russia’s Kalmyk savior.

The Bolshevik zealot read out a decree on immediate peace “to peoples and governments of all the warring powers,” interrupted by stormy applause and a singing of the “Internationale.”274 Lenin also read out a decree on land endorsing the peasants’ private and collective land seizures, instead of a state nationalization. To objections that the land decree contradicted the long-standing Bolshevik platform and had been lifted from the Socialist Revolutionaries—no longer present in the hall—Lenin replied, “Who cares who drafted it. As a democratic government we cannot ignore the feelings of the lower orders [narodnye nizy] although we do not agree with them.”275 The land decree was adopted without discussion.

Lev Kamenev, the chairman of the Soviet’s central executive committee, had deftly withdrawn Trotsky’s sharply worded resolution condemning the Mensheviks and SRs for walking out at the first session of the congress. Before Lenin’s appearance, in between the first (October 25–26) and second (October 26–27) sessions of the Congress of Soviets, Kamenev strenuously worked to agree a coalition government with the Left SRs, but the latter had balked at the exclusion of all the other socialists. And so, near the very end of the Congress of Soviets’ second and final session, around 2:30 a.m. (October 27), Kamenev announced the formation of a “temporary” exclusively all-Bolshevik government. Boris Avilov, a Menshevik Internationalist, stood up and predicted that an all-Bolshevik government could neither solve the food supply crisis nor end the war. He further predicted that the Entente would not recognize a Bolshevik-monopoly government and that the latter would be compelled to accept a separate and onerous peace with Germany. Avilov proposed inviting back those elected Soviet delegates who had walked out and, with them, forming an all-socialist democratic government. Avilov’s proposal failed, garnering only a quarter of the votes (150) of those present in the hall (600), despite considerable sympathy for this stance even among many Bolsheviks.276 It was Trotsky who most vehemently spoke against a deal with the “traitors.”277

Trotsky cut an inordinately dashing figure—the shock of wild dark hair and the blue eyes, the pince-nez of an intellectual, and the broad shoulders of a Hercules—but he wielded his public charismatic power on behalf of Lenin. Lenin’s power was uncanny. “I felt somewhat surprised that a person who—irrespective of one’s views of his ideology—had had such a far-reaching influence on the fate of his huge fatherland should make such a modest impression,” remarked one Finnish visitor to Smolny. “His speech was very simple and unforced, as was his manner. If one did not know him, one could never have been able to comprehend the strength that he must have possessed. . . . The room was in no way different from any of the other rooms in Smolny. . . . The walls were painted white, there was a wooden table and a few chairs.”278 Lenin’s political instruments were not imposing architecture, a bureaucracy, a telephone network. They were ideas and personality. “The whole success of Lenin . . . to assume dominion over a hundred and fifty millions,” an acute foreign observer would note, “is plainly due entirely to the spell of his personality, which communicated itself to all who came into touch with him.”279 Lenin in 1917 was rarely a physical presence. Alexander Shlyapnikov, the head of the Bolshevik party inside the country at the time of Lenin’s return in spring 1917, spent the entire period before, during, and immediately after the October coup in the hospital (he had been hit by a tram); he had no effect on events. But Lenin did have an effect, even though he did not visit crews on board battleships or troops in trenches in 1917; most sailors and soldiers nonetheless knew his name. He had sometimes delivered public speeches, such as from the Krzesinska mansion balcony, or harangues at the Petrograd Soviet, and in May, militant workers held banners that proclaimed, “Long Live Lenin!” But having arrived in Russia on April 3, 1917, after an absence of nearly seventeen years, the Bolshevik leader had soon been forced to seek refuge in tsarist Finland.

From early July 1917, when the warrant had been issued for his arrest, Lenin remained underground, hiding, for almost four consecutive months, right through October 24.280 During that crucial period, he almost never even met the Bolshevik inner circle face to face, let alone the masses. Here was the equivalent of a catacomb Christian who, in a single lifetime, would suddenly emanate from the caves to become pope. Most political figures who succeed on a dizzying trajectory almost always do so by cobbling broad coalitions, often with very unlikely bedfellows, but not Lenin. He succeeded despite refusing cooperation and creating ever more enemies. Of course, he cultivated allies among the class of professional revolutionaries, loyalists such as Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin. Lenin’s torrent of polemical theses further enhanced his power, first among revolutionaries, who in turn popularized Lenin’s intellectual as well as political standing among the mass. Lenin proved a master of the abusive, pithy phrase, and of the crude, sweeping analysis of developments and rationale for revolution.281 But whatever Lenin’s charisma and encapsulation talents, much of his power would derive from events going his way. Again and again, he stubbornly insisted on what appeared to be a crazy course of action, which then worked to his advantage. Lenin seemed to incarnate political will.

Later, Trotsky, for all his Marxist invocation of the supposed laws of history, would feel constrained to admit that without Lenin, there would have been no October Revolution.282 Lenin, for his part, never made explicit that the same held true for his indispensable handmaiden Trotsky. But others did so. “I tell you what we do with such people,” the despairing military attache of liberal Britain, General Alfred Knox, had said of Lenin and Trotsky to an American Red Cross official. “We shoot them.” This was on October 20, the eve of what turned out to be the predicted Bolshevik coup. The Red Cross official, ostensibly wiser, had replied, “But you are up against several million. General, I am not a military man. But you are not up against a military situation.”283 In fact, the Red Cross official was wrong: he confused the assumption of power by the Second Congress of Soviets, which had become unavoidable, with the assumption of power by the Bolsheviks alone. The Bolshevik putsch could have been prevented by a pair of bullets.

 • • •

“THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION,” observed Rosa Luxemburg, “is the mightiest event of the world war.”284 Whether a prewar transition to a constitutional monarchy—from constitutional autocracy—would have been enough to incorporate the masses into a stable polity can never be known. What we do know is that the long, stubborn refusal, not just of Nicholas II but of almost the entire Russian establishment, to abandon the autocracy in order to save the monarchy ensured that the dysfunctional autocracy’s downfall would precipitate a disintegration of state institutions as well. Freedom and state breakdown became synonymous and, in that context, the classical liberals got their chance. The February 1917 liberal coup, nominally against the autocracy but really against the Duma, presaged the Bolshevik October 1917 coup, nominally against the Provisional Government but really against the Soviet. Each appeared to spearhead the mass sentiment of the moment; each brought a far narrower group to power than mass sentiment preferred. That mass sentiment, moreover, did not stand still: the world war vastly accelerated the radicalization of popular mood. To be sure, the history of revolutions indicates that an inevitable failure to satisfy millenarian hopes naturally radicalizes the populace. The surprise in Russia, if there was one, lay not in the deepening popular radicalization but in the debilitating weakness of the establishment and upper military.285

Russia had always been a police state that relied predominantly on the army for its heaviest policing, but not only had Russia lost its police in March 1917, after that it lost its army as well. “The Seizure of power by ‘force’ in a modern State,” noted the historian Adrian Lyttelton, apropos of Italy, but equally applicable to Russia, “is never possible, except when the army or police carries out the coup, unless the will to resist of the Government forces has been undermined.”286 The world war, and especially the 1917 military offensive, did more than hasten popular radicalization: it also defanged the army as a force of order. Wartime radicalism in the army and fleet—from Vyborg and Helsinki to Pskov, which the Provisional Government called the “rotten triangle”—served as the indispensable scaffolding for Bolshevism. “October may have been a ‘coup’ in the capital,” one historian has written, “but at the front it was a revolution.”287 The politicized armed forces were made up predominantly of peasants, and whether they served in the army or not, they carried out their own revolution. “A country of boundless territorial expanse, with a sparse population, suffered from a shortage of land,” the Constitutional Democrat Duma representative Vasily Maklakov would remark in hindsight. “And the peasant class, elsewhere usually a bulwark of order, in Russia in 1917 evidenced a revolutionary temper.”288 But whereas the revolution of the soldiers and sailors consciously linked up with Bolshevism, the peasant revolution only happened to coincide with it. Soon enough, the peasant revolution and Bolshevism would collide.

Inside the Bolshevik party, the way that the Petrograd coup had unfolded would have lasting repercussions. The opposition to the coup by Kamenev and Zinoviev was a stain they would bear for the rest of their lives. When Stalin’s mediation efforts were slapped down by Trotsky, Stalin’s resentment at the upstart, high-profile intellectual Trotsky boiled over. Stalin, in a huff, had announced his intention to quit as editor of the party newspaper. “The Russian revolution has overthrown not a few authoritative types,” Stalin wrote with disdain on the day of his proffered resignation. “The revolution’s power is expressed in the fact that it has not bowed before ‘famous names,’ but has taken them into service or, if they refused, consigned them to oblivion.”289 The Central Committee rejected his resignation, but even after the successful coup, the bitterness would rankle.290 Later, in exile, Trotsky would call Sverdlov “the general secretary of the October insurrection”—a poke in the eye of (by then) General Secretary Stalin. Trotsky would also defend Kamenev, the opponent of the putsch, for having played a “most active part in the coup,” pointedly adding that Stalin had played no noticeable role.291 This was patently false. To be sure, Trotsky, Kamenev, Lenin, and Lunacharchy all spoke at the historic Second Congress of Soviets, while Stalin did not. But Stalin gave a speech to the Bolshevik delegates to the Soviet before the congress met, on October 24, demonstrating clear familiarity with the military and political preparations for the coup. Throughout 1917, moreover, his punditry and editorial work were prodigious, especially in the summer and fall.292

Stalin’s publications explained the revolution in simple, accessible terms, including during the Congress of Soviets. “In the first days of the revolution the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ was a novelty,” he wrote in Pravda (October 26, 1917), referring to the period beginning in April 1917. “At the end of August the scene changed very radically” with “the Kornilov Rebellion. . . . The soviets in the rear and the soldiers committees at the front, which were in a moribund state in July-August, ‘suddenly’ revived and took power in their hands in Siberia and the Caucasus, in Finland and the Urals, in Odessa and Kharkov. . . . Thus, ‘Soviet power’ proclaimed in April by a ‘small group of Bolsheviks in Petrograd’ obtains almost universal recognition of the revolutionary classes at the end of August.” He differentiated the move to Soviet power from the endless changes in the Provisional Government that had brought socialists into the cabinet. “Power to the Soviet means the thorough purging of every government office in the rear and at the front, from top to bottom. . . . Power to the Soviet means the dictatorship of the proletariat and the revolutionary peasantry . . . open, mass dictatorship, exercised in the eyes of all, without ploys and behind-the-scenes work; for such a dictatorship has no reason to hide the fact that no mercy will be shown to the lock-out capitalists who have intensified unemployment . . . or to the profiteering bankers who have increased the price of food and caused starvation.” Certain classes brought on the misery; other classes would bring salvation. “This is the class nature of the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets.’ Events at home and abroad, the protracted war and the longing for peace, defeat at the front and defense of the capital, the rottenness of the Provisional Government . . . , chaos and famine, unemployment and exhaustion—all this is irresistibly drawing the revolutionary classes of Russia to power.” How “classes” exercised power remained to be seen.

Stalin’s Georgian Social Democrat compatriot David Sagirashvili had known him since 1901, when Sagirashvili was fourteen and the future Stalin twenty-three. His upbringing had been similar to Stalin’s—absent father, immersion in tales of Georgian martyrs and national poets, loathing for imperial Russian administrators and soldier-occupiers, admiration for Georgian outlaws who fought for justice, and membership in a circle of revolutionaries—but he had become a Menshevik. Still, when Sagirashvili, after the coup, refused to join his Menshevik colleagues in boycotting the Bolshevik-dominated Soviet, Stalin, in a Smolny corridor, “put his hand over my shoulder in a most friendly manner and [began] to talk to me in Georgian.”293 The Georgian Jughashvili-Stalin from the Russian empire’s periphery, the son of a shoemaker, had become part of a new would-be power structure in the capital of the largest state in the world, thanks to geopolitics and world war, to many fateful decisions and multiple contingencies, but also to his own efforts. On the list of Bolsheviks voted to a new Soviet central executive committee, Stalin’s name appeared fifth, right before Sverdlov, and after Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev.294 Still more pointedly, Stalin was one of only two people whom Lenin gave permission to enter his private apartment in Bolshevik headquarters at Smolny, a proximity and confidence that would prove pivotal.



Let us try for once not to be right.

Samuel Rosenstock, aka Tristan Tzara (“sad in my country”), a Jewish Romanian poet, “Dada Manifesto” 19181

Lunacharsky was clutching his head, his forehead against the window-pane, standing in an attitude of hopeless despair.

Kremlin commandant Pavel Malkov, August 30, 19182

FEW STREET CELEBRATIONS had accompanied or immediately followed the October Bolshevik coup, in contrast to the giddy days during and after February-March 1917, but within a week Lenin was posing for sculptors. And yet, few thought this crazy putsch would last even before it had happened. Throughout the summer of 1917, Russia’s press, nearly across the political spectrum, had spread the idea (as Paul Miliukov recalled in 1918) that “the Bolsheviks either would decide not to seize power as they lacked hope of retaining it, or, if they did seize it, they would endure only the shortest time. In very moderate circles, the latter experiment was even viewed as highly desirable for it would ‘cure Russia of bolshevism forever.’”3 Many on the right had openly welcomed a Bolshevik coup, imagining that the leftists would quickly break their own necks, but not before first clearing away the despised Provisional Government.4 When the coup happened, it still surprised. Then Lenin opted for a cabinet government rather than abolishing the state and the Second Congress of Soviets—at least those who remained in the hall—approved the formation of the all-Bolshevik government. Admittedly, the Council of People’s Commissars was made up not of “bourgeois” ministers but “commissars,” a name derived from the French commissaire and originally the Latin commisarius, signifying plenipotentiaries of a higher authority (in this case, from “the people”).5 But would it last? The “provisional” men of February who had dared to replace the tsar (Miliukov, Kerensky) had been pushed aside.6 Top army commanders had fallen to incarceration or despair, such as Lavr Kornilov and Mikhail Alexeyev, the longest-serving and most successful chief of staff in the war (who was compelled to arrest Kornilov). Would-be political replacements among non-Bolshevik socialists, such as Victor Chernov and his socialist revolutionaries and Yuly Martov and his Mensheviks, appeared to have been trampled underfoot. But in 1918—which as a result of a calendar change in February from the Julian (eastern orthodox) to the Gregorian (western) was the shortest year in Russia’s thousand-year history7—the Bolsheviks, too, looked destined for oblivion.

The would-be “regime” consisted, at the top, of just four people: Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin, each of whom had a criminal record for political offenses and none of whom had any administrative experience. (The fifteen members of the Council of People’s Commissars had spent a collective two centuries in tsarist prison and exile.) Ensconced in the stale air of Smolny, the eighteenth-century finishing school for girls of noble lineage, they commanded a few tables and ratty couches. Opposite Lenin’s small, dirty room was a larger space where members of the Council of People’s Commissars came and went; initially they held no formal meetings. The room had an unpainted wooden partition to conceal a typist (the chancellery) and a cubbyhole for a telephone operator (the communications network). The former headmistress still occupied the room next door. A sailor, designated by Sverdlov as the new Smolny commandant, hastily organized a perimeter around the campus and began to purge the building room by room.8 But Lenin’s first official car, a magnificent Turcat-Mery of 1915 make (formerly belonging to the tsar), was stolen from Smolny by members of a fire brigade looking to profit by selling it in Finland. (Stepan Gil, a first-class auto professional and conversationalist, who had driven the tsar and became Lenin’s principal driver, led a hunt that managed to retrieve the vehicle).9 “Nobody knew Lenin’s face at that time,” Krupskaya would recall. “In the evening we would often stroll around Smolny, and nobody would ever recognize him, because there were no portraits then.”10 The thirteen commissars set up “offices” inside Smolny and attempted to visit and assert authority over the ministries they sought to supersede.11 Stalin, announced as the commissar for nationalities, had no tsarist or Provisional Government ministry to try to take over.12 His deputy, Stanisław Pestkowski—part of the Polish Bolshevik contingent that had seized the central telegraph during the October coup—stumbled across an empty table in Smolny, over which he tacked up a handwritten sign: “People’s Commissariat of Nationalities.”13 According to Pestkowski, the room was close to Lenin’s, and “in the course of the day,” Lenin “would call Stalin an endless number of times and would appear in our office and lead him away.”14 Lenin, perhaps preferring to remain behind the scenes, is said to have offered the chairmanship to Trotsky, who refused.15 Instead, Trotsky became “foreign affairs commissar” and got a room upstairs, the quarters of a former “floor mistress” for the girls. Sverdlov continued to oversee Bolshevik party matters.16

That such lowly beginnings would soon become one of the world’s strongest dictatorships is beyond fantastic. Lenin was essentially a pamphleteer. In 1918 he was identified as “Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and journalist,” and earned more money from publication honoraria (15,000 rubles) than from his salary (10,000 rubles).17 Trotsky was a writer as well, and a grandiloquent orator, but similarly without experience or training in statecraft. Sverdlov was something of an amateur forger, thanks to his father’s engraving craft, and a crack political organizer but hardly an experienced policy maker. Stalin was also an organizer, a rabble-rouser, and, briefly, a bandit, but primarily a periodicals editor—commissar of nationalities was effectively his first regular employment since his brief stint as a teenage Tiflis weatherman.

Now, these four products of autocratic Russia issued a torrent of paper decrees: “abolishing” social hierarchy in law, civil ranks, and courts; declaring “social insurance for all wage workers without exception, as well as for the city and village poor”; announcing the formation of a Supreme Council of the Economy and a determination to enforce a state monopoly in grain and agricultural implements. The decrees were suffused with terminology like “modes of production,” “class enemies,” “world imperialism,” “proletarian revolution.” Published under the name Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin—and signed for him by Stalin, among others—the decrees were proclaimed to have the “force of law.”18 In the meantime, the regime had no finances or functionaries. Trotsky failed in multiple efforts to take over the ministry of foreign affairs’ building and personnel.19 His first arrival there, at Palace Square, 6, on November 9 was greeted with derision, followed by mass desertion. True, his minions eventually found some petty cash in the ministry’s safe, and Stalin, to fund his own “commissariat,” had Pestkowski sponge 3,000 rubles from Trotsky.20 Pestkowski soon let on that he had studied some economics in London and was decreed “head of the State Bank.”21 The employees laughed him away, which is how he instead ended up working for Stalin.

The decree naming the unemployed Pestkowski as central bank governor, and many similar pronouncements, had an absurdist quality reminiscent of the provocations of the new performance art known as Dadaism. A perfectly apt nonsense term, Dada had arisen in neutral Switzerland during the Great War, largely among Jewish Romanian exiles, in what they called the Cabaret Voltaire, which, coincidentally, lay on the same street in Zurich (Spiegelgasse, 1) as Lenin’s wartime exile apartment (Spiegelgasse, 14). Tristan Tzara, a Dada poet and provocateur, and Lenin may have played chess against each other.22 Dada and Bolshevism arose out of the same historical conjuncture. Dada’s originators cleverly ridiculed the infernal Great War and the malevolent interests that drove it, as well as crass commercialism, using collage, montage, found objects, puppetry, sound poetry, noise music, bizarre films, and one-off pranks staged for the new media they mocked. Dada happenings were also transnational, and would flourish in Berlin, Cologne, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Tiflis. The Dada artists—or “anti-artists” as many of them preferred to be known—did not conflate, say, a urinal repurposed as a “fountain” with a new and better politics.23 Tzara composed poems by cutting newspaper articles into pieces, shaking the fragments in a bag, and emptying them across a table. Another Dadaist read a lecture whose every word was purposefully drowned out by the shattering noise of a train whistle. Such tactics were a world away from the pedantic, hyperpolitical Lenin: He and his decrees about a new world order were issued without irony. But Bolshevik decrees were also issued into Dada-esque anarchy.

If the collapse of the tsarist order was a revolution, the revolution was a collapse. The immense vacuum of power opened up by the tsar’s wartime abdication had stunned the Provisional Government like a blow to its professorial head. “General Alexeyev characterized the situation well,” a Provisional Government finance official wrote in his diary on the eve of the Bolshevik coup. “The essence of the evil lay not in the disorder but in the absence of political authority [bezvlastii].”24 After October, organizations claiming broad authority proliferated, just as before, but the “absence of authority” worsened. Bolshevism, too, roiled with deep internal fractures, riotousness, and turnover, and Lenin’s superior political instincts—when compared with other leaders of Russia’s revolution—could not overcome the functional equivalent of the Dadaist’s deafening train whistle: namely, the man-made destruction and chaos that brought the Bolsheviks to nominal authority. Some powerful groups, notably the railway workers union, would insist on a government without Lenin and Trotsky; Germany, militarily victorious on the eastern front, looked to be on the verge of completely conquering Russia; the chief of the new Bolshevik political police would be taken hostage in a near leftist coup against Bolshevism; and an assassin would pump two bullets into Lenin. By summer 1918, armed insurrection against the regime would open on four fronts. And yet Lenin and his inner circle of Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin had already managed to assert a Bolshevik political monopoly.

The Bolshevik dictatorship was not an utter accident, of course. Russia’s political landscape had become decisively socialist, as we have seen. The right-wing ranks of the army and officer corps were weaker in Russia than in every other predominantly peasant country, and unlike everywhere else, Russia lacked a non-socialist peasants’ party, a circumstance partly derived from the intransigence and sheer daftness of the old rightist establishment on the land question. Russia’s other socialist parties, moreover, contributed mightily to the Bolsheviks’ opportunities to monopolize the socialist cause. Lenin was not a lone wolf among political sheep. He sat atop a large, centrally located Bolshevik political base in the biggest cities and the Russian heartland. That said, the Bolsheviks’ dictatorship did not arise automatically, even in the parts of imperial Russia that nominally fell under their jurisdiction. The dictatorship was an act of creation. That creation, in turn, was not a reaction to unforeseen crisis, but a deliberate strategy, and one that Lenin pursued against the objections of many top Bolsheviks. The drive for dictatorship began well before the full-scale civil war—indeed, the dictatorial drive served as a cause of the armed conflict (a fact universally noted by contemporaries). But in no way should any of this be taken to mean the Bolsheviks established effective structures of governance. Far from it: the Bolshevik monopoly went hand in hand with administrative as well as societal chaos, which Lenin’s extremism exacerbated, causing an ever-deepening crisis, which he cited as justification for his extremism. The catastrophic collapse of the old world, however debilitating for millions of real people, was taken as progress by the Bolsheviks: the deeper the ruin, the better.

One would think the bedlam would have been more than enough to topple the playacting government. Food supply problems alone had helped precipitate the autocracy’s downfall and revealed the Provisional Government’s hollowness. But monopoly and anarchy proved compatible because the Bolshevik monopoly entailed not control but denying others a role in presiding over chaos.25 Bolshevism was a movement, a capacious, freewheeling, armed anarchy of sailors and street squads, factory hands, ink-stained scribes and agitators, would-be functionaries wielding wax seals. Bolshevism was also a vision, a brave new world of abundance and happiness, a deep longing for the kingdom of heaven on earth, accompanied by absurdist efforts at enactment. In 1918, the world experienced the pointed irreverence of Dada as well as an unintentionally Dada-esque Bolshevik stab at rule, performance art that involved a substantial participatory audience. At the center, Lenin persisted in his uncanny determination, and Stalin hewed closely to him. Stalin assumed the position of one of Lenin’s all-purpose deputies, prepared to take up any assignment.


Marxism’s theory of the state was primitive, affording little guidance beyond the Paris Commune (1870–71), which Marx had both praised and denigrated. The Commune, which lasted all of seventy-two days, had inspired the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat (in the 1891 preface to a reissue of the Civil War in France, Engels had written, “Do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”).26 The Commune also afforded inspiration because of its mass participatory character. Still, Marx had noted that the Communards had “lost precious time” organizing democratic elections when they should have been busy gathering forces to finish off the “bourgeois regime” in Versailles, and had failed to seize the French National Bank to expropriate its vaults; the money was moved to pay for the army in Versailles that crushed the Commune.27 Lenin, at a gathering in Geneva in 1908 on the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Commune, and the twenty-fifth of Marx’s death, had reiterated Marx’s point that the Commune had stopped halfway, failing to extirpate the bourgeoisie.28 Nonetheless, its romantic allure persisted. In 1917 and into early 1918, Lenin imagined a “state of which the Paris Commune was the prototype,” with “democracy from below, democracy without an officialdom, without a police, without a standing army; voluntary social duty guaranteed by a militia formed from a universally armed people.”29 This, too, constituted a part of the unintentional resemblance to Dadaism. As late as April 1918, Lenin would be urging that “all citizens must take part in the work of the courts and in the government of the country. It is important for us to draw literally all working people into the government of the state. It is a task of tremendous difficulty. But socialism cannot be implemented by a minority, by a party.”30 Once the sense of siege set in that the Bolshevik coup had itself precipitated, however, Lenin ceased to uphold the Commune as inspirational model, and that episode became solely a cautionary tale about decisively eliminating enemies.31 And there was no end to enemies.

Behind their winning slogans about peace, land, bread, and all power to the Soviets, and their machine guns, Lenin and the adherents of Bolshevism felt perpetually under threat. On the morning of the coup during the Second Congress of Soviets on October 25, 1917, Alexander Kerensky, nominally aiming to return with reliable units from the front, had fled Petrograd in a pair of automobiles, one “borrowed” from in front of the nearby U.S. embassy.32 “Resist Kerensky, who is a Kornilovite!” Bolshevik appeals proclaimed; in fact, at the front Kerensky found only a few hundred Cossack troops of the Third Cavalry Corps of Lieutenant General Krymov—the very Kornilov subordinate whom Kerensky had accused of treason and who, after a conversation with Kerensky, had committed suicide.33 On October 29, in combat outside Petrograd, at least 200 were killed and wounded—more than in either the February or October revolutions—but the demoralized remnant cavalry proved no match for the several thousand motley Red Guards and garrison soldiers mustered by the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee.34 Kerensky narrowly evaded capture and fled again, into foreign exile.35 Other anti-Bolsheviks had rallied military school cadets in the capital who seized the Hotel Astoria (where some top Bolsheviks resided), the State Bank, and the telephone exchange, but the schoolboys, too, were easily beaten back.36 Still, the Bolsheviks never stopped fearing “counterrevolution,” on the example of the French Revolution, especially the episode in August 1792 when external aggression appeared to facilitate internal subversion.37 “I can still remember,” recalled David Sagirashvili, “the anxious faces of the Bolshevik leaders . . . whom I saw in the corridors at the Smolny Institute.”38 That anxiety only deepened.

Despite the formation of an all-Bolshevik Council of People’s Commissars, a majority of Russia’s socialists continued to favor the formation of an all-socialist government, a sentiment also evident among many Bolsheviks. Lev Kamenev, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, had become the new chairman of the Soviet central executive committee, the standing body of the Congress of Soviets, in whose name power had been seized. During the coup, Kamenev had sought to bring the most left-leaning Socialist Revolutionaries and possibly other socialists into a revolutionary government, and he continued to do so afterward, fearing that a Bolshevik-only regime was doomed. The latter prospect heightened on October 29, when the leadership of the Union of Railroad Employees laid down an ultimatum, backed by the threat of a crippling strike, demanding an all-socialist government to prevent civil war.39 This occurred during the uncertainty of a possible Kerensky return. A rail strike had paralyzed the tsarist authorities for a time in 1905 and it would stymie Bolshevik efforts to defend themselves. At a meeting of garrison troop representatives, also on October 29, Lenin and Trotsky rallied support against “counterrevolution” from the twenty-three units that were represented that day (out of fifty-one).40 But Kamenev, joined by Zinoviev and other top Bolsheviks, formally agreed to allow Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks into the Council of People’s Commissars.41 While the Menshevik Central Committee agreed to negotiations for an all-socialist government with Bolsheviks in it by a single vote, the railway union insisted on a government entirely without Trotsky and Lenin. Kamenev and his allies proposed to the Bolshevik Central Committee that Lenin would remain in the government but yield the chairmanship to someone like the leader of the Socialist Revolutionary party, Victor Chernov. The Bolsheviks would keep only minor portfolios.42

Lenin appeared to be losing his grip on the party. On November 1, 1917, the lead editorial in a Bolshevik-controlled newspaper announced “agreement among all factions” across the socialist left, adding that “the Bolsheviks” always understood “revolutionary democracy” to mean “a coalition of all socialist parties . . . not the domination of a single party.”43 Kamenev stood ready to yield what, in Lenin’s mind, were the fruits of the October coup. But Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin enabled Lenin to beat back the challenge. Also on November 1, at the autonomous Petersburg Committee of Bolsheviks—which, unusually, was attended by Central Committee members—Lenin condemned Kamenev’s efforts to ally with the SRs and Mensheviks as treasonous, saying, “I can’t even talk about this seriously. Trotsky long ago said such a union was impossible. Trotsky understood this and since then there hasn’t been a better Bolshevik.” Lenin had once divided the Social Democrats, and now threatened to divide the Bolsheviks. “If there is to be a split, let it be so,” he said. “If you have a majority, take power . . . and we shall go to the sailors.”44 Trotsky proposed negotiating only with the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries, who were in the process of splitting off to form a separate party, and could be junior partners to the Bolsheviks. “Any authority [vlast’] is force,” Trotsky thundered. “Our authority is the force of the majority of the people over the minority. This is unavoidable, this is Marxism.”45 That same day, at a follow-up meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee—with Moscow still not in Bolshevik hands but with the threat (more apparent than real) of a Kerensky-led Cossack march on Petrograd having subsided—Lenin exploded at Kamenev for carrying out coalition negotiations in earnest, rather than as cover to send military reinforcements to seize power in Moscow. Lenin demanded that the negotiations cease altogether, and that the Bolsheviks appeal directly to the masses. Kamenev retorted that the railway union had “huge power.” Sverdlov argued against breaking off the negotiations, from a tactical point of view, but also recommended arresting members of the railway union leadership.46 (Stalin did not attend the November 1 meeting; he did appear later that night at a delayed meeting of the Soviet’s central executive committee, where the battle continued.)47

Lenin’s uncompromising stance was strengthened on November 2, 1917, when pro-Bolshevik forces definitively seized the Moscow Kremlin in the name of “soviet power.” The back-and-forth week-long armed clashes in the central district of Moscow involved a tiny fraction of the overall population, perhaps 15,000 on each side; the Bolshevik side lost 228 killed, more than in any other locale, while government defenders lost an unknown number. “Artillery fire directed on the Kremlin and the rest of Moscow is not causing any damage to our troops but is destroying monuments and sacred places and is bringing death to peaceful citizens,” observed their cease-fire proclamation, which amounted to surrender.48 The next day, back in Petrograd, Kamenev and Zinoviev got the Soviet’s central executive committee to endorse continued negotiations on an all-socialist government, but with Kerensky turned back and Moscow in hand, Lenin met individually with Trotsky, Sverdlov, Stalin, Dzierzynski, and five others, getting them to sign a resolution denouncing as “treason” the efforts of a Bolshevik Central Committee “minority” to relinquish monopoly power.49 Accusing close comrades who had spent years in the underground, prison, and exile of treason over policy differences was typical Lenin.

History might have been different had Kamenev called Lenin’s bluff and told him to go to the sailors. But instead of denouncing Lenin as a deranged fanatic, seizing control over the Central Committee, and himself trying to rally the factories, streets, local Bolshevik party organizations, and other socialist parties in behalf of the overwhelmingly popular idea of an all-socialist government, Kamenev yielded his place on the Bolshevik Central Committee. Zinoviev and three others resigned as well.50 Several Bolsheviks resigned from the Council of People’s Commissars, including Alexei Rykov (interior affairs commissar). “We stand for the necessity of forming a socialist government of all soviet parties,” they declared. “We submit that other than that, there is only one path: the preservation of a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror.”51 And so, Lenin’s Bolshevik opponents ceded two key institutions—the Central Committee and the government—to him.

There was still the Petrograd Soviet central executive committee, which Kamenev chaired and which many saw as the new supreme body: Lenin himself had drafted a resolution, approved by the Second Congress of Soviets in October 1917, subordinating the Council of People’s Commissars to the Soviet.52 But on November 4, Lenin went to the Soviet central executive committee to tell its members they did not legally have jurisdiction over the Council of People’s Commissars. The vote to decide the matter was set to go against Lenin, but suddenly he insisted that he, Trotsky, Stalin, and one other people’s commissar in attendance would also vote. The four people’s commissars voted yes, on what was essentially a vote of confidence in their own government, while three moderate Bolsheviks abstained, allowing Lenin’s motion to pass 29 to 23.53 Thus did the all-Bolshevik government free itself from legislature oversight. Lenin was not finished: on November 8, at the Bolshevik Central Committee, he forced Kamenev to resign as chairman of the Soviet’s central executive committee.54 (That same day, Zinoviev recanted and rejoined the Bolshevik Central Committee. Before the month was out, Kamenev and Rykov would also recant, but Lenin would not accept them back right away.) Lenin quickly maneuvered to have Sverdlov nominated as the new Soviet chairman; Sverdlov won the critical post by a mere five votes.

Sverdlov emerged more than ever as the indispensable organizational man. He now served simultaneously as secretary of the Bolshevik party and chairman of the Soviet central executive committee, and deftly transformed the latter into a de facto Bolshevik organ, “orienting” its meetings to obtain the desired results.55 At the same time, Sverdlov managed what Kamenev had been unable to do: he coaxed the Left Socialist Revolutionaries into a Bolshevik-controlled Council of People’s Commissars, in a minority role, with the aim of dividing the anti-Bolshevik socialists.56 The meteoric rise of the Left SRs between the end of 1917 and early 1918 was perhaps second only to that of the Bolsheviks in summer and fall 1917. The reason was obvious: the imperialist war continued, and so did the lurch toward ever more radical leftism. There were even rumors in December-January that some leftist Bolsheviks wanted to join the Left SRs in a new coup, arrest Lenin and form a new government, perhaps under the Left Communist Grigory “Yuri” Pyatakov. The Left SR entrance into the Council of People’s Commissars robbed the railway workers union of a united front opposed to Bolshevik monopoly, and its efforts to force a genuine all-socialist coalition fizzled. The Left SR entrance into the central government also buttressed the Bolshevik position in the provinces.57 The Bolsheviks essentially had had no agrarian program when they lifted that of the SRs in October 1917; Sverdlov flat out admitted that prior to the revolution the Bolsheviks had “conducted absolutely no work among the peasantry.”58 In this context the Left SRs offered not just immediate tactical advantage but far-reaching political promise.59

Most Left SRs recognized themselves as junior partners, not as members of a genuine coalition, and they largely occupied positions in the Cheka (All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage) or as military commissars in the army. Lenin’s monopolistic political offensive, meanwhile, continued unabated, targeting the public sphere. Before the October coup, he had denounced censorship as “feudal” and “Asiatic,” but now he deemed the “bourgeois” press “a weapon no less dangerous than bombs or machine guns.”60 Lenin bullied shut some sixty newspapers in late October and November 1917. True, in a cat-and-mouse game—as Isaiah Berlin quipped—Day, the liberal newspaper, was shuttered, briefly reappeared as Evening, then as Night, then Midnight, and finally Darkest Night, after which it was shuttered for good.61 Recognizably leftist newspapers were also targeted. “History repeats itself,” complained the Right Socialist Revolutionary newspaper the People’s Cause, which had been closed down under tsarism.62 Some Left SRs also joined the cries of outrage at Bolshevik press censorship. According to the Bolshevik decree, the repressions were “of a temporary nature and will be removed by a special degree just as soon as normal conditions are reestablished,” but, of course, “normal” conditions never returned.63


Trotsky would unabashedly recall that “from the moment the Provisional Government was declared deposed, Lenin acted in matters large and small as the Government.”64 True enough, but even as Lenin maniacally imposed political monopoly in the Petrograd neighborhood containing Smolny and the Tauride Palace, authority in the wider realm fragmented still further. The coup accelerated the empire’s disintegration. Between November 1917 and January 1918, chunk after chunk of imperial Russia broke off like an iceberg collapsing into the sea—Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. The conversion of these former borderland provinces into self-declared “national republics” left a truncated “Soviet Russia” in uncertain relation to most of the realm’s most developed territories. Stalin, as nationalities commissar, was drawn into trying to manage this dissolution, signing, for example, a treaty fixing a border with newly independent Finland (the frontier ran precariously close to Petrograd). Inside the Russian heartland, too, provinces declared themselves to be “republics”—Kazan, Kaluga, Ryazan, Ufa, Orenburg. Sometimes, this was pushed from above, as in the case of the Don Soviet Republic, which, it was hoped, would forestall German assertions of military intervention on the basis of “self-determination.”65 Whatever their origins, province republics hardly ruled their nominal territories: counties and villages declared themselves supreme. Amid the near total devolution, copycat “councils of people’s commissars” proliferated. A Moscow “council of people’s commissars” showed no intention of subordinating itself to Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars and claimed jurisdiction over more than a dozen surrounding provinces. “Due to parallel commissariats, people and [local] offices do not know where to turn and have to do business with the two levels simultaneously,” one observer complained, adding that petitioners “regularly appeal to both province and central commissariats, accepting as legal whichever decision is more beneficial.”66

While basic governing functions were taken up by very local bodies—or not at all—the nominal central authorities hunted for money. Already on the afternoon of October 25, and multiple times thereafter, Wiaczeysław Mezynski, another Polish Bolshevik (normally Russified as Menzhinsky), had taken an armed detachment over to the Russian State Bank.67 Mezynski, who had for a time worked as a bank teller for Credit Lyonnais in Paris, was the new “people’s commissar for finance ministry affairs”—as if there would be no enduring financial commissariat in the new order, just confiscations. His actions prompted finance ministry and Russian State Bank personnel to strike.68 Private banks shut their doors, too, and, when forced by armed threats to reopen, refused to honor checks and drafts from the Bolshevik government.69 Mezynski finally just robbed the State Bank and laid 5 million rubles on Lenin’s table in Smolny.70 His heist inspired Bolshevik officials—and impostors—to seize more bank holdings. Holders of deposit boxes, meanwhile, under threat that their valuables would be confiscated, were compelled to appear for “inventories,” but when they showed up with their keys, their valuables were confiscated anyway: foreign currency, gold and silver, jewelry, unset precious stones.71 As of December 1917, bond interest payments (coupons) and stock dividends essentially ended.72 By January 1918, the Bolsheviks would repudiate all tsarist internal and external state debt, estimated at some 63 billion rubles—a colossal sum, including about 44 billion rubles in domestic obligations, and 19 billion foreign.73 Whatever the ideological fulminations, they were wholly incapable of servicing the debt.74 Shock waves hit the international financial system, the ruble was removed from European markets, and Russia was cut off from international financing. The country’s financial system ceased to exist. Credit to industry was shut off.75 A paper money “famine” soon plagued the country.76

All the while, Russia’s hundred-million-plus peasants were engaged in a redistribution of lands owned by gentry, the imperial household, the Orthodox Church, and peasants themselves (beneficiaries of Stolypin’s reforms, many of whom were now expropriated).77 Boris Brutzkus, a contemporary Latvian-born economist in Russia, deemed the 1917–18 peasant revolution “a mass movement of an elemental fury, the likes of which the world has never seen.”78 On average, however, peasants seem to have acquired a mere one extra acre of land. Some showed canny skepticism regarding the new strips, keeping them separate from their previous holdings, in the event someone came to take them away. (Sometimes they had to travel such distance to work the new allotments that they gave them up on their own.)79 Still, peasants ceased paying rent and had their debts to the peasant land bank canceled.80 Overall, the upheavals strengthened the redistributive commune and the ranks of middling peasants who neither hired others nor sold their own labor.81 How much credit the Bolsheviks received for the land redistribution remains uncertain, even though Lenin had expediently lifted the popular Socialist Revolutionary Land Decree. (The SRs, serving in coalition with the Cadets in the Provisional Government, had essentially abandoned their plank for immediate land redistribution.) The Bolshevik agriculture commissar, pronouncing the Land Decree in “the nature of a battle cry intended to appeal to the masses,” revealingly added that “the seizure is an accomplished fact. To take back the land from the peasants is impossible under any condition.”82 The decree was trumpeted in all the newspapers and published as a booklet (soldiers returning to native villages were given calendars with their copies, so that they would have something other than the Land Decree for rolling cigarettes).83 But the greatest concentrations of private land in the Russian empire were in the Baltic areas, the western provinces, Ukraine, and North Caucasus, all of which fell outside Bolshevik control. It would take a lot more than paper decrees to push the peasants toward Bolshevism.

Rural tumult and violence worsened the already severely war-disrupted urban food supply. Petrograd, which lay distant from the main farming regions, and even Moscow were forced onto starvation rations, some 220 grams of bread per day.84 Fuel and raw materials started to vanish altogether, prompting workers to go from helping run their factories to taking them over (“workers’ control”), if only just to try to keep them operating, acts that more often than not failed. The entire proletariat—dwindling from its peak of perhaps 3 million—was dwarfed by at least 6 million internal refugees, a number that ballooned to perhaps 17 million when counting soldier deserters and POWs.85 This immense transient population frequently morphed into armed bands that pillaged small towns as well as the countryside.86 In the cities, Red Guard irregulars and garrison troops continued to incite public disorder—and Bolshevism had no police force, other than the Red Guards. Frontline soldiers were supposed to receive around 5 rubles per month, while Red Guards were paid 10 rubles per day, about the daily wage of factory workers, but many factories had closed and ceased paying wages. And so the ranks of Red Guards—factory workers who were handed rifles or just looted arsenals—swelled.87 With or without red armbands, looters targeted the wine cellars of the capital’s countless palaces; some “suffocated and drowned in the wine,” an eyewitness recorded, while others went on shooting sprees.88 On December 4, 1917, the regime announced the formation of the Commission Against Wine Pogroms under a tsarist officer turned Bolshevik, Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich. “Attempts to break into wine-cellars, warehouses, factories, stalls, shops, private apartments,” the Soviet’s newspaper threatened, “will be broken up by machine-gun fire without any warning”—a stark indication of the uninhibited violence.89

But the regime discovered a greater threat: the functionaries of the old regime were rumored to be plotting “a general strike.” Many holdover officials were already on strike, as were telephone workers, even pharmacists and schoolteachers; mostly just cleaning people and doormen were showing up for work at ministries.90 On December 7, the Council of People’s Commissars created a second emergency force, the “temporary” All-Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, known by its Russian acronym as the Cheka, and headquartered at Gorokhovaya, 2. “It is war now—face to face, a fight to the finish, life or death!” the Cheka head, Felix Dzierzynski, a Polish Bolshevik of noble lineage, told the Council of People’s Commissars. “I propose, I demand an organ for the revolutionary settlement of accounts with counterrevolutionaries.”91 Dzierzynski (b. 1877) had endured eleven years in tsarist prisons and Siberian exile, emerging with few teeth, a partially paralyzed face with a lopsided smile, and a burning passion for justice.92 Within its first two weeks, the Cheka arrested some thirty alleged plotters said to belong to a “Union of Unions of State Functionaries” and used their confiscated address books to make additional arrests. Other functionaries—whose wages, apartments, food rations, and freedom were on the line—reconsidered their opposition to the new government.93 The Bolsheviks then spent much of January debating whether to allow these “tools of capitalism” and “saboteurs” to resume their state positions.

Most of Russia’s revolutionaries, even many hard-core Bolsheviks, found the new political police anathema.94 Many unscrupulous types, including criminal elements, joined the Cheka and they often became preoccupied not solely or exclusively with political repression. The Cheka had added combating “speculation” to its mandate, but the agency itself emerged as a grand speculator.95 “They looked for counterrevolutionaries,” wrote an early eyewitness to Cheka raids, “and took the valuables.”96 Warehouses filled up with goods seized as “state property,” coercively acquired without recompense, which were then distributed as favors to officials and friends or sold. In mid-May 1918, a Cheka was established in Bogorodsk, a center of the tanning industry on the Volga with a population of 30,000, but on May 29 an attack destroyed the Cheka building. A detachment from Nizhny Novgorod, the provincial capital, arrived and conducted executions. “We confiscated two hundred thousand rubles’ worth of gold and silver articles and one million rubles’ worth of sheep wool,” the Cheka reported. “The factory owners and the bourgeoisie are in flight. The Commission decided to confiscate the property of those who fled and sell it to workers and peasants.”97 (“Workers and peasants” could include party bosses and police officials.) When the Cheka and the Bolshevik authorities were accused of looting, they often issued blanket denials, although Lenin hit upon the convenient slogan, “We loot the looters.”98

The Cheka was far from alone in wheeling and dealing. “Everyone who wished to ‘nationalize’ did so,” recalled one official in the new Supreme Council of the Economy.99 The chaos of seizures and speculation in some ways proved more destabilizing than any genuine plots of counterrevolution. The Cheka’s role in providing security, meanwhile, remained doubtful. Back in January 1918, Lenin’s car was strafed from behind (two bullets passed through the windshield) and Smolny was subjected to bomb scares.100 By February, the Cheka proclaimed the power of summary execution against “the hydra of counter-revolution”—a declaration that looked like panic, as much as contempt for “bourgeois” liberties.101 A secret mid-1918 Cheka self-assessment would observe that “we did not have the strength, ability, or knowledge, and the [Extraordinary] Commission’s size was insignificant.”102


Such was the Bolshevik monopoly in the stateless anarchy: idle factories, gun-toting drunks and marauding Red Guards, a deliberately shattered financial system, depleted food stocks, an ambiguous junior partnership for the Left SRs, and an ineffectual secret police busy with property theft and the very speculation it was supposed to combat—and on top of it all, the Provisional Government, just before its death, had finally set elections for a Constituent Assembly to begin on November 12, 1917.103 The ironies would be rich: Russia’s Constitutional Democrats had hesitated to allow democratic elections to go forward, fearing the consequences of a vote by peasants, soldiers, sailors, and workers, but now the dictatorial Lenin decided to let the democratic elections proceed.104 The prospect of a pending constitutional convention would blunt some of the fiercest socialist opposition to the all-Bolshevik Council of People’s Commissars and, anyway, not a few top Bolsheviks imagined they might win. The party certainly tried, suppressing the propaganda of other contenders and, in their own press, ripping into the alternatives, denouncing the Socialist Revolutionaries (“wolves in sheep’s clothing”), the Menshevik Social Democrats (“slaves of the bourgeoisie clearing the path for the counterrevolution”), and the Constitutional Democrats (“capitalist pillagers”). The stage seemed set for mass intimidation and fraud. Incredibly, however, Russia experienced its first ever genuine universal-suffrage elections.

Work to organize the vote proved to be immense, perhaps the largest civic undertaking in the realm since the peasant emancipation half a century before. A genuinely independent sixteen-member All-Russia Election Board oversaw the process, with local supervision performed by regional, county, and communal boards staffed by representatives of the judiciary, local government bodies like tsarist-era zemtsvos but also the soviets, as well as by members of the voting public. The town, township, and county election boards drew up lists of voters: everyone, male and female, above twenty years of age.105 Around 44.4 million people voted by secret paper ballot, across vast distances, during wartime, in seventy-five territories, as well as at the front and naval fleets (nearly 5 million soldiers and sailors voted). No voting took place in territories under German occupation (tsarist Poland, Finland, the Baltic littoral), or in woefully undergoverned Russian Turkestan, and returns from some regions ended up lost. As of November 28, 1917, the original date for convocation, the balloting remained incomplete, so the announced opening was postponed, which provoked defenders of the Constituent Assembly to march that day on the Tauride Palace. Lenin responded by proposing a decree to arrest the main Constitutional Democratic politicians as “enemies of the people” (a term that Bolshevik opponents had first applied to Lenin’s gang) even before they had taken up their seats.106 Lenin’s resolution against the Cadets on November 28 was supported by every member of the Bolshevik Central Committee except one—Stalin.107 Stalin’s reasons remain obscure. Be that as it may, the next day the Bolshevik Central Committee—characteristically using a secret decree—formalized the new political order by awarding Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin the right to decide “all emergency questions.”108 And what was not an emergency?

Despite the repression and assertion of dictatorial powers, however, the election produced an expression of popular will.109 To be sure, taking in the full measure of Eurasia, beyond the two capitals, one scholar has argued that through mid-1918 most people remained far more committed to particular institutions (soviets, soldiers’ committees, factory committees) than to specific parties.110 This was changing, however, for in the voting the populace was presented choices of parties. The four fifths of the population who lived in the countryside, and who had no non-socialist farmers’ party to vote, cast their ballots for the peasant-oriented Socialist Revolutionaries in a strong plurality, just under 40 percent of the total ballots recorded, nearly 18 million, while another 3.5 million voted for the Socialist Revolutionaries of Ukraine. Another 450,000 voted for Russia’s Left Socialist Revolutionaries (they had split off only after the electoral lists had been formed). The overall SR vote proved strongest in the most fertile agricultural territories and in villages overall, where turnout proved extraordinarily high: 60 to 80 percent, versus around 50 percent in cities. The SRs won their highest percentage in Siberia, a land of farming and little industry.

The SRs had won the election. But the split in the SR Party showed the strong trend moving still more toward the radical socialist variant (the SRs in Ukraine were already further left than their counterparts in Russia). The Social Democratic vote was substantial, too, though not for the Menshevik wing; only the Georgian Mensheviks did well, amassing 660,000 votes (30 percent of the ballots in the Caucasus); Russia’s Mensheviks won just 1.3 million votes, under 3 percent of the total vote. By contrast, around 10.6 million people voted for the Social Democrat‒Bolsheviks—24 percent of the votes counted. Eight provinces voted more than 50 percent Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks and SRs split the military vote, each taking about 40 percent, but tellingly, the Black Sea fleet, distant from Bolshevik agitation, voted 2 to 1 SRs over Bolsheviks, while the Baltic fleet, reached easily by Bolshevik agitators, went 3 to 1 Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks overwhelmingly won the Western Army Group and the Northern Army Group, as well as the big urban garrisons, reaching 80 percent among the soldiery stationed in Moscow and in Petrograd. Thus, the votes of soldiers and sailors (peasants in uniform) in and near the capital saved Bolshevism from an even more overwhelming defeat by the SRs, as Lenin himself later admitted.111

The non-socialist vote came in at only 3.5 million, some 2 million of which went to the Constitutional Democrats. That put the Cadets under 5 percent. Significantly, though, almost one third of the Cadet vote was recorded in Petrograd and Moscow—around half a million ballots. The Bolsheviks garnered nearly 800,000 votes in the two capitals, but the Cadets came in second there (while besting the Bolsheviks in eleven of thirty-eight provincial capitals). Thus, the supreme strongholds of Bolshevism were also strongholds of the “class enemy,” a source of unrelenting Bolshevik anxiety about imminent “counterrevolution.”112 And perhaps the most important fact of all: organized right-wing politics were nowhere to be seen. Amid the atmosphere of “revolutionary democracy,” land redistribution, and peace, Russia’s electorate overwhelmingly voted socialist—socialist parties of all types collectively garnered more than 80 percent of the vote.113

Bolshevism did better than non-Bolsheviks expected. In one sense, around half the former Russian empire voted for socialism but against Bolshevism: the electorate seemed to want people’s power, land, and peace without Bolshevik manipulation. In another sense, however, the Bolsheviks had secured an electoral victory in the strategic center of the country (Petrograd and Moscow), as well as among crucial armed constituencies (capital garrisons and Baltic sailors). For Lenin, that was sufficient. Other parties and movements remained slow to take his full measure, and even more important, this mass political power of Bolshevism (already visible at the front in summer 1917). “Who cannot see that what we have is nothing like a ‘Soviet’ regime, but is instead a dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky, and that their dictatorship relies on the bayonets of the soldiers and armed workers whom they have deceived,” the Socialist Revolutionary Nikolai Sukhanov lamented in November 1917 in the newspaper he edited, New Life, which Lenin soon shut down.114 But it was not primarily deception, even though Bolshevik prevarication and legerdemain were bountiful. In fact, Lenin’s dictatorship shared with much of the mass a popular maximalism, an end to the war come what may, a willingness to see force used to “defend the revolution,” and an unapologetic class warfare of the have-nots against the haves—positions that were divisive, but also attractive. Lenin drew strength from the popular radicalism.115

On January 5, 1918, at 4:00 p.m., the long-awaited Constituent Assembly opened in the old White Hall of the Duma’s Tauride Palace, but in a menacing atmosphere. The Bolsheviks had flooded the streets with armed loyalists and artillery. Rumors spread that the electricity would be turned off—Socialist Revolutionary delegates had come with candles—and of paddy wagons en route. Inside, the spectators’ gallery overflowed with raucous sailors and provocateurs. Ear-splitting heckling, clanking rifle bolts, and snapping bayonets punctuated the speechifying.116 Close to 800 delegates had won seats, including 370–380 for Socialist Revolutionaries, 168–175 for Bolsheviks, another 39–40 for Left SRs, as well as 17 each for Mensheviks and Constitutional Democrats, but the latter were outlawed and not seated, and many of the Mensheviks did not attend.117 Crucially, the Ukrainian SRs stayed away. Because of these no-shows and arrests, actual attendees numbered between 400 and 500.118 Lenin observed from the curtained seclusion of the former government box.119 On the floor, the Bolshevik caucus was led by the thirty-year-old Nikolai Bukharin, well described by John Reed as “a short red-bearded man with the eyes of a fanatic—‘more left than Lenin,’ they said of him.”120 The delegates elected SR party chairman Victor Chernov as Assembly chairman; the Bolsheviks backed the Left SR Maria Spiridonova, a renowned terrorist, who won an impressive 153 votes, 91 fewer than Chernov. A Bolshevik motion to limit the scope of the Constituent Assembly failed (237 to 146). Lenin had one loyalist, the leader of the Baltic sailors, announce that Bolshevik delegates were walking out; the Left SR delegates, including Spiridonova, walked out later.121 Some twelve hours in, around 4:00 a.m., a sailor of the Baltic fleet mounted the stage, tapped Chernov’s shoulder (or pulled his sleeve) and bellowed that the Bolshevik navy commissar “wants those present to leave the hall.” When Chernov answered, “That is for the Constituent Assembly to decide, if you don’t mind,” the sailor responded, “I suggest you leave the hall, as it’s late and the guards are tired.”122 Chernov rushed through snap votes on laws and adjourned at 4:40 a.m. Later that afternoon (January 6), when delegates arrived to resume, sentries refused them entry.123 Russia’s Constituent Assembly ended after a single day, never to meet again. (Even the original of the meeting protocols would be stolen from Chernov’s emigre residence in Prague.)124

Bolshevik threats had been no secret.125 “We are not about to share power with anyone,” Trotsky wrote of the Constituent Assembly before it opened. “If we are to stop halfway, then it wouldn’t be a revolution, it would be an abortion . . . a false historical delivery.”126 The Socialist Revolutionary Party had carried the Southwestern, Romanian, and Caucasus fronts decisively, yet the SR leadership failed to bring troops to the capital or even to accept an offer of armed aid from the Petrograd garrison.127 Some SR leaders abjured the use of force on principle; most fretted that attempts to mobilize willing soldiers to defend the elected legislature would serve as a pretext for the Bolsheviks to close it down, which the Bolsheviks did anyway.128 No imperative to defend the Constituent Assembly was felt in the countryside, where the peasant revolution had helped sweep away the full panoply of tsarist officialdom, from provincial governors to local police and the land captains, who were replaced by peasant self-governance.129 In the capital, tens of thousands of protesters, including factory workers, marched to the Tauride Palace to try to save the Constituent Assembly, but Bolshevik loyalists fired on them.130 This was the first time civilians in Russian cities had been gunned down for political reasons since February and July 1917, but the Bolsheviks got away with it.

The Petrograd Soviet’s existence helped diminish popular attachment to a Constituent Assembly.131 Lenin characterized the Bolshevized Soviet as a “higher form” of democracy, not the procedural or bourgeois kind celebrated in Britain and France, but the democracy of social justice and (lower class) people’s power. This view resonated widely in Russia, even if far from everyone accepted Lenin’s tendentious equation of the overwhelmingly socialist Constituent Assembly with “bourgeois” democracy.132 Reinforcing the point, the Sverdlov-dominated central executive committee of the Soviet had prescheduled a Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets for January 10, which happened to be immediately after the Constituent Assembly would be dispersed.133 Many of the delegates boycotted the gathering in protest, but those present retroactively legalized the forced closure of the Constituent Assembly.134


Peace! Immediate, universal peace, for all countries, for all peoples: Bolshevism’s popularity had been propelled, above all else, by a promised extrication from the hated war. At the Second Congress of Soviets, however, Lenin had suddenly equivocated. “The new power would do everything,” he promised, “but we do not say that we can end the war simply by sticking our bayonets in the ground . . . we do not say that we shall make peace today or tomorrow.”135 (Newspaper accounts of his remarks omitted these words.) The “Decree on Peace”—which mentioned England, France, and Germany, but not the United States, “as the mightiest powers taking part in the present war”—by the congress had invited all belligerents to observe a three-month armistice and negotiate a “just democratic . . . immediate peace, without annexations and without indemnities.” (Other Bolshevik proclamations invited citizens of those belligerents to overthrow their governments.)136 Lenin and Stalin radioed instructions to Russia’s troops—hardly necessary—to desist from fighting. Lenin sent German military headquarters an uncoded offer of unconditional cease-fire, knowing that the Entente, too, would receive the message (when they did, they felt confirmed in their belief he was a German agent). Britain and France refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime and did not respond either to the Peace Decree or to formal notes from Trotsky. The Entente did send communiques to Russia’s military field headquarters.137 A sailor working for Trotsky, meanwhile, was rifling Russian foreign ministry vaults and located the secret annexationist tsarist war treaties with Britain and France; Trotsky published the documents damning the Entente, referred to as “the imperialists.”138 (Newspapers in the Allied countries almost universally failed to reproduce the exposed texts.)139 What, if anything, could be done about the ever more proximate German army remained unclear.

Russia’s high command at Mogilyov, 400 miles southwest of Petrograd, had taken no part in the October coup, but they had been devastated by the revolution they had accelerated with their request in February 1917 for the tsar’s abdication. On November 8, 1917, Lenin and Trotsky had radioed Russia’s acting supreme commander, forty-one-year-old General Nikolai Dukhonin—Kornilov’s former chief of staff—to enter into separate peace negotiations with the Germans. Dukhonin refused the order to betray Russia’s allies. Lenin had the correspondence distributed to all units to show that the “counterrevolution” wanted to continue the war. He also dismissed Dukhonin in favor of thirty-two-year-old Nikolai Krylenko, who heretofore had held the lowest rank in Russia’s officer corps (ensign). 140 On November 20, 1917, he arrived at Mogilyov with a trainload of pro-Bolshevik soldiers and sailors. Dukhonin duly surrendered to him.141 Having chosen not to flee, Dukhonin had nonetheless not prevented the escape of General Kornilov and other top tsarist officers who had been held in the nearby monastery prison since they had surrendered to Kerensky’s people (in September 1917). Upon discovering the escape, furious soldiers and sailors shot and bayoneted Dukhonin while he lay face down on the ground, and then for several days used his naked corpse for target practice.142 Krylenko was either unable or unwilling to stop them. Unlike generals Alexeyev and Brusilov before him, the ensign did not tour the full battlefields. But he got the picture nonetheless: the Russian army was not demoralized; it effectively no longer existed.

Germany also had reasons to seek accommodation, however. Self-negotiated cease-fires between German and Russian soldiers began to spread up and down the eastern front. Some experts were predicting food shortages and civil unrest on the German homefront that winter of 1917–18, troubles that loomed even more gravely for Austria-Hungary. The ferocious battles against France and Britain on the western front continued, now with the United States having joined the Entente. Ludendorff had decided to gather all his forces for a great spring offensive in the west—and troops that were, presumably, released from the east would come in handy. All of these considerations, and a desire to consolidate its immense gains on the eastern front, induced the Central Powers on November 15, 1917 (November 28 in the West) to accept the Bolshevik offer of armistice as a prelude to negotiations.143 Although the Bolsheviks had advocated for a general, not a separate, peace, the Entente repeatedly refused to participate in talks, and that same day Trotsky and Lenin announced that “if the bourgeoisie of the Allied countries force us to conclude a separate peace [with the Central Powers], the responsibility will be theirs.”144 For the site of negotiations, the Bolsheviks had proposed Pskov, which remained under Russian control (and where Nicholas II had abdicated), but Germany chose the Brest-Litovsk fortress, in a tsarist territory now serving as a German command site.145 The armistice was quickly signed there on December 2 (December 15 in the West). (In immediate violation of the terms, Germany moved six divisions back to the western front.)146 One week later the peace talks opened.

Upon arrival, the Bolshevik Karl Radek—born Karl Sobelsohn in Habsburg Lemberg (Lwów)—had hurled antiwar propaganda out the train window at rank-and-file German soldiers, urging them to rebel against their commanders.147 Seated across the table from the German state secretary for foreign affairs, Baron Richard von Kuhlmann, and the chief of staff of German armies in the East, Major General Max Hoffman, Radek leaned forward and blew smoke. At the opening dinner in the officers’ mess, one member of the Russian delegation, a Left SR, kindly reenacted her assassination of a tsarist governor for the meeting’s host, Field Marshal Prince Leopold of Bavaria. The head of the Bolshevik delegation, Adolf Joffe—whom the Austrian foreign minister, Count Ottokar Czernin, pointedly noted was a Jew—observed that “I very much hope that we will be able to raise the revolution also in your country.”148 Thus did the leftist plebes of the Russian Pale of Settlement and Caucasus square off against titled German aristocrats and warlords of the world’s most formidable military caste.149 After some initial misunderstandings, it soon became evident that the Bolshevik demand for “peace without indemnities and annexations” would never be met; the German and Austrian delegations, invoking “self-determination,” demanded Russian recognition of the independence of Poland, Lithuania, and western Latvia, all of which the Central Powers had occupied in 1914–16.150 The Bolsheviks’ only salvation appeared to be waiting for war strains to precipitate revolution in Germany and Austria-Hungary (if the war did not cause the Entente homefronts to collapse first).151 For a second round of “negotiations,” Lenin sent Trotsky to grandstand and stall.152 The Bolsheviks had gotten the Germans to permit publicity about the talks, which encouraged much public posturing, and Trotsky’s performance at Brest-Litovsk catapulted him to international renown. Smiling through a long German diatribe about Bolshevik repression of political opponents, Trotsky, at his turn, unloaded: “We do not arrest strikers but capitalists who subject workers to lock-outs. We do not shoot peasants who demand land, but arrest the landowners and officers who try to shoot peasants.”153

Trotsky soon telegrammed Lenin to advise that the talks be cut off without a treaty. “I’ll consult with Stalin and give you my answer,” Lenin cabled. The answer turned out to be a recess in early January 1918, during which Trotsky returned to Petrograd for consultations.

The Bolshevik Central Committee met on January 8 to discuss Germany, two days after the forcible dispersal of the Constituent Assembly and right after an official report, delivered by Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, the brother of Lenin’s fixer Vladimir, warning that “the onset of total famine in the army is a matter of the next few days.”154 Back when Lenin had pushed for a coup he had insisted that Germany stood close to revolution, but now he changed his tune: the world revolution remained a dream, he observed, while Russia’s socialist revolution was a fact; to save the latter, he urged accepting whatever terms the Germans offered.155 Trotsky countered that Germany would not resume fighting, obviating any need to capitulate. But a self-styled leftist Bolshevik group led by Nikolai Bukharin and including Dzierzynski, Mezynski, and Radek, argued for a Russian resumption of hostilities. They deemed Lenin’s position defeatist. Thus the Central Committee split three ways: capitulation (Lenin); stall and bluff (Trotsky); revolutionary partisan warfare to accelerate revolution in Europe (Bukharin). Of the sixteen voting Central Committee members present on January 9, only three—most prominently Stalin—sided with Lenin.

Stalin objected that “Trotsky’s position is no position,” adding “there is no revolutionary movement in the West, nothing exists, only potential, and we cannot count on potential. If the Germans begin an offensive, it will strengthen the counter-revolution here.” He further noted that “in October we spoke of a holy war, because we were told that merely the word ‘peace’ would provoke a revolution in the West. But this was wrong.”156 Bukharin, by contrast, came around to conceding that “Trotsky’s position”—waiting for the workers in Berlin and Vienna to strike—“is the most correct.” Trotsky’s proposal (“end the war, do not sign a peace, demobilize the army”) carried the day, 9–7.157 After the meeting, Lenin wrote that the majority “do not take into consideration the change in conditions that demand a speedy and abrupt change in tactics.”158 That was Lenin for you: rabidly against any concessions whatsoever to moderate Russian socialists, but demanding the Communists make abject concessions to German militarists.

A Third Congress of Soviets assembled on January 10, 1918 (lasting until the eighteenth), with Bolshevik delegates in a slight majority (860 of 1,647 by the end, as more delegates kept arriving). Meeting at the Tauride Palace, it passed a resolution to erase all references in any future compendia of Soviet decrees to the recently dispersed Constituent Assembly. Stalin gave a report as commissar of nationalities, and the congress formally established the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Commenting on the Constituent Assembly, Stalin concluded, “In America they have general elections, and the ones who end up in power are attendants of the billionaire Rockefeller. Is that not a fact? We buried bourgeois parliamentarism, and the Martovites want to drag us back to the period of the February Revolution. (Laughter, applause.) But as representatives of the workers, we need the people to be not merely voters but also rulers. The ones who exercise authority are not those who elect and vote but those who rule.”159 Trotsky reported on Brest-Litovsk. “When Trotsky ended his great speech,” one British enthusiast reported, “the immense assembly of Russian workmen, soldiers and peasants rose and . . . sang the Internationale.”160 Despite a mood for revolutionary war, however, the congress avoided a binding resolution one way or the other. Trotsky returned to Brest-Litovsk on January 17 (January 30 in the West) to stall further.

In Petrograd the next day, the Bolshevik Central Committee argued over whether to summon a party conference to discuss a possible separate peace. “What party conference?” Lenin snapped. Sverdlov deemed it impossible to organize a full party conference quickly enough and proposed consulting with representatives of the provinces. Stalin lamented the lack of clarity in the party’s position, and, reversing himself somewhat, suggested that “the middle view—the position of Trotsky—had given us a way out of this difficult situation.” Stalin proposed to “give the spokesmen for different points of view more chance to be heard and call a meeting to reach a clear position.”161 Trotsky had a point: Russia’s war effort was not the only one disintegrating. The Central Powers, too, were under colossal strain: in Germany a strike wave was suppressed, but mass deprivation from a British blockade persisted; Austria was begging Germany, and even Bulgaria, for emergency food.162 In the meantime, however, the Germans turned up a trump card: a delegation from the Ukrainian government, known as the Central Rada—socialist but non-Bolshevik—had showed up at Brest-Litovsk. The lead German civilian politican called the group of people in their twenties “young ladies” (Burschchen), but on January 27 (February 9 in the West), Germany duly signed a treaty with them.163 Never mind that, by this point, Red Guards from Russia had deposed the Central Rada in Kiev.164 The Central Rada representatives promised Germany and Austria Ukrainian grain, manganese, and eggs in exchange for military assistance against Bolshevik forces and the establishment of a Ruthenian (Ukrainian) autonomous region in Austrian Galicia and the Bukovina. (Austria’s Czernin called it the Bread Peace.)165 Whatever the aspirations of Ukrainian intellectuals and political figures, independent Ukraine, for Germany, was a tool to subdue Russia and support the Reich’s war effort in the West.166

With Ukraine seemingly in their pocket, the German delegation felt triumphant. The next day (January 28, February 10 in the West), Trotsky arrived to deliver a long indictment of “imperialism,” which the German delegation took as a windy prelude to Bolshevik capitulation. It had been some fifty days since the Brest-Litovsk talks commenced; the Russian army had essentially evaporated. But instead of bowing before these realities, Trotsky ended his speech by proclaiming a policy of “neither war, nor peace.” That is, Russia was exiting the war while refusing to sign a treaty. After a silence, German Major-General Hoffmann, architect of the great victory at Tannenberg, muttered, “Unheard of.”167 The Bolshevik delegation exited to board a train. “On the return trip to Petrograd,” Trotsky recalled, “we were all under the impression that the Germans would not start an offensive.”168 An ambiguous telegram from Brest about “peace” to the Soviet capital had sparked telegrams from Petrograd to the front, where soldiers broke out in song and ceremonial firing of guns, to celebrate “the peace.”169 Trotsky arrived back at Smolny amid jubilation on January 31, 1918. (The next day in Russia would be February 14, thanks to the introduction of the Western Gregorian calendar.) A skeptical Lenin wondered if Trotsky might have pulled off a magician’s trick. A diplomatic cable from Brest-Litovsk to Vienna prompted preparations for a victory celebration in the exhausted Habsburg capital: huge crowds filled the streets and bunting started to go up.170

But the Germany brass insisted that they would never get the promised Ukrainian grain without a military occupation. At a German war council on February 13—the same day that Trotsky had arrived back at Smolny—Field Marshal Hindenburg pointed out that the armistice had failed to result in a peace treaty and therefore no longer held; he urged a policy to “smash the Russians [and] topple their government.” The kaiser agreed.171 Some 450,000 Central Power troops entered Ukraine, with the deposed Central Rada’s permission. (Angry riots erupted among Polish speakers over the promises to Ukraine in Galicia; Polish troops entering Ukraine under Habsburg command broke off into their own armed force.)172 A parallel German force (fifty-two divisions), beginning on February 18—eight days after Trotsky’s coup de theâtre—would waltz 125 miles through northern Russian territory in two weeks, capturing Minsk, Mogilyov, and Narva, putting the Germans on an unobstructed path to Petrograd. “This is the most comic war I have experienced,” Hoffmann noted of his operation (named Thunderbolt). “One puts on the train a few infantry with machine guns and one artillery piece, and proceeds to the next railroad station, seizes it, arrests the Bolsheviks, entrains another detachment, and moves on.”173


Events elsewhere on the former Russian imperial space followed a dynamic dictated neither by the geopolitics of Germany versus the Entente nor by the acrimonious duets of Trotsky and Lenin. The Soviet in Tashkent, comprising primarily Slavic colonists and garrison troops, had succeeded in seizing power on its second try on October 23, 1917, even before the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd. In mid-November, a local Congress of Soviets gathered essentially without any indigeneous members.174 “The soldiers sent thither from the interior provinces of Russia, the peasants settled therein by the old regime on the lands confiscated from our people, and the workers accustomed to regard us haughtily from above—these were the people who were at this moment to decide the fate of Turkestan,” recalled Mustafa Choqai-Beg, a Muslim leader.175 The Tashkent Congress of Soviets voted 97 to 17 to deny Muslims governmental posts.176 Muslim scholars who composed the ulama and who took it for granted that they spoke for the mass, were gathering simultaneously in their own congress, in another part of Tashkent, and, being accustomed to petitioning the colonial authorities, voted overwhelmingly to petition the Tashkent Soviet to form a more representative local political body, given that “the Muslims of Turkestan . . . comprise 98 percent of the population.”177 At the same time, a different group of Muslims, self-styled modernists known as the Jadid, saw an opportunity to outflank the traditional ulama and, in early December 1917, assembled in Qoqand, a walled city that had been captured by the Russians only thirty-four years earlier. With nearly 200 representatives, including 150 from the nearby populous Ferghana valley, this congress resolved on December 11 to declare “Turkestan territorially autonomous in union with the Federal Democratic Russian Republic,” while vowing to protect local national minorities (Slavs) “in every possible way.”178 They constituted a Provisional Government and elected a delegation to the Constituent Assembly, reserving one third of the seats for non-Muslims. The congress also debated whether to seek an alliance with the anti-Bolshevik steppe Cossacks, a proposition that divided the delegates but seemed inescapable as the only path to continuing to import grain: local farmers had almost all been switched by the tsarist regime to growing cotton.

Qoqand Autonomy representatives went to Tashkent on December 13 to announce their existence on the Soviet’s territory. It was a Friday (the Muslim holy day) and, as it happened, Muhammad’s birthday. Tens of thousands of men, many wearing white turbans and carrying green or light blue flags, marched toward the Russian quarter of the city. Even many ulama joined, as did some moderate Russians. The marchers demanded an end to household searches and requisitions, and stormed the prison, freeing the inmates incarcerated by the Tashkent Soviet.179 Russian troops fired at the crowd, killing several; more died in a resulting stampede.180 The prisoners were recaptured and executed.

Dominated by Muslim intellectuals educated in imperial Russia, the Qoqand Autonomy’s leaders petitioned the Bolshevik authorities in the Russian capital “to recognize the Provisional Government of autonomous Turkestan as the only government of Turkestan” and to authorize the immediate dissolution of the Tashkent Soviet, “which relies on foreign elements hostile to the native population of the country, contrary to the principle of self-determination of peoples.”181 Stalin, as nationalities commissar, issued the reply. “The soviets are autonomous in their internal affairs and discharge their duties by relying on their actual forces,” he wrote. “Therefore, it will not behoove the native proletarians of Turkestan to appeal to the central Soviet authority with petitions to dissolve the Turkestan Council of People’s Commissars.” He added that if the Qoqand Autonomy felt that the Tashkent Soviet had to go, “they should themselves dissolve it by force, if such force is available to the native proletarians and peasants.”182 Here was naked admission both of the central Bolsheviks’ powerlessness and of the role of force in determining revolutionary outcomes. But, of course, the Tashkent Soviet commanded the arms inherited from the tsarist-era colonial garrisons. The Qoqand Autonomy tried but failed to form a people’s militia (it managed three score volunteers). It lacked the wherewithal to levy taxes and its diplomatic missions to the steppe Qazaqs and the emirate of Bukhara yielded nothing. After the Bolsheviks’ dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, Qoqand tried to coax the Tashkent Soviet into convening a Turkestan Constituent Assembly—which, of course, would have returned an overwhelming Muslim majority. On February 14, the Tashkent Soviet mobilized local garrison troops, other soldiers from the Orenburg steppes, Armenian Dashnaks, and armed Slavic workers to crush the “counterfeit autonomy,” setting siege to Qoqand’s old city. Within four days they breached the walls and set about massacring the population. An estimated 14,000 Muslims were slaughtered, many of them machine-gunned; the city was looted, then burned.183 The Tashkent Soviet used the moment to step up requisitions of food stocks, unleashing a famine, in which perhaps 900,000 people would perish, as well as mass flight toward Chinese Turkestan.184 Stalin and the Bolsheviks would have their work cut out in marrying the revolution and the anti-colonial question in practice.


No reliable Bolshevik forces stood in the path of Major General Max Hoffmann’s eastward-marching German army. “For us, as well as from the international socialist point of view, the preservation of the [Soviet] republic stands above all else,” Lenin argued at a Central Committee meeting on February 18, the very day Hoffmann had renewed the German advance.185 For Lenin, ceding territories that the Bolsheviks did not rule anyway—and, in his mind, ceding them only temporarily, until the world revolution—constituted a price worth paying. Initially, however, Lenin again failed to muster a Central Committee majority. Stalin stood by Lenin once more. “We want to talk straight, go straight to the heart of the matter,” Stalin said at the Central Committee on February 18. “The Germans are attacking, we have no forces, the time has come to say that negotiations must be resumed.”186 This statement constituted an unambiguous repudiation of Trotsky’s position. Trotsky, throughout, had been the swing figure, and he remained so now. Sometime before he had returned to Brest-Litovsk in mid-January, Lenin had held a confidential tête-à-tête with him; each man evidently held to his arguments, but Lenin pointedly asked Trotsky what he would do if in fact the Germans did resume their offensive, and no revolutionary uprisings in Germany’s rear broke out. Would the capitulatory peace have to be signed? Trotsky had evidently agreed that if those circumstances were to come to pass, he would not oppose Lenin’s call for accepting a punitive peace on German terms.187 And now, Trotsky kept his word, rescinding his no vote. This gave Lenin a 7 to 5 majority (with one abstention) for immediate capitulation, against the advocates for “revolutionary war.”188

A radiogram under the signatures of Lenin and Trotsky agreeing to the original terms was dispatched to the Germans.189 But the Germans did not respond; and Major General Hoffmann continued his march. On February 21, German forces began intervening in the Finnish civil war, where the October coup had split officers of the imperial Russian army. (German troops would help nationalist Finns led by General Carl Gustav Mannerheim rout Red Guards and overthrow a Bolshevik-backed Finnish Socialist Workers Republic.)190 The failure to have accepted German terms immediately now looked like a far larger gamble. Aside from Ukraine and the southern Cossack lands (4.5 million people), “Soviet power” had everywhere seemed triumphant, but the silence out of Berlin made the February 18, 1918, resumption of a German military attack on the eastern front seem a potential turning point in the socialist revolution.191 This proved to be among the bloodiest single episodes of the war in per capita terms. More desperate than ever, Lenin had Trotsky put out feelers to the Entente, trying to appeal to French imperialists to save the socialist revolution from German imperialists.192 “We are turning the party into a dung hill,” Bukharin, in tears, exclaimed to Trotsky.193 “All of us, including Lenin,” Trotsky recalled, “were of the impression that the Germans had come to an agreement with the Allies about crushing the Soviets.”194 For that, both Trotsky and Bukharin would have borne the responsibility.

Finally, on the morning of February 23, the German response to the Bolshevik capitulation arrived by courier: It took the form of an ultimatum whose terms were far more onerous than before Trotsky’s posturing of neither war, nor peace. That same afternoon the Central Committee grimly assembled. Sverdlov detailed the German conditions: Soviet Russia would also have to recognize the independence—under German occupation—of the breadbasket of Ukraine, as well as the oil of the Caspian Sea and the strategic Baltic ports of Finland and Estonia, all to be dominated by Germany. Further, the Bolsheviks would have to disarm all Red Guards, decommission their navy, and pay a colossal indemnity. In other words, the Germans were continuing to place a large bet on Bolshevism, while at the same time containing it and extracting advantage. To accept, the Bolsheviks were given forty-eight hours, much of which had already passed while the German document was in transit. Lenin stated that “the terms must be accepted,” otherwise, he would resign, a threat he put in writing (in Pravda).195 Sverdlov backed Lenin. But Trotsky and Dzierzynski urged rejection. So did Bukharin. Another hard-line leftist called Lenin’s bluff, stating, “There is no reason to be frightened by Lenin’s threat to resign. We must take power without V.I. [Lenin].” Even Stalin—among Lenin’s staunchest allies throughout Brest-Litovsk—blinked. He suggested that “it’s possible not to sign, but to begin peace negotiations,” adding that “the Germans are provoking us into a refusal.” This could have been a breakthrough moment, when Stalin tipped the balance, breaking Lenin’s hold on power. But Lenin countered that “Stalin is mistaken,” and repeated his insistence on accepting the German diktat to save the Soviet regime. Stalin’s brief vacillation ended. Partly that was because Trotsky swung Lenin’s way. Trotsky pointed out that the terms “were best of all when Kamenev made the first trip [to Brest-Litovsk] and it would have been better if Kamenev and Joffe had signed the peace” back then. Anyway, “now things were quite clear.” Thanks to four abstentions—including, crucially, Trotsky—Lenin, supported by Sverdlov and Stalin, won the Central Committee vote: 7 to 4.196

Over at the Tauride Palace, where the central executive committee of the Soviet was in session and included non-Bolsheviks such as a large Left SR faction and some Mensheviks, the arguments resumed late at night and continued into the morning of February 24, when the German ultimatum would expire at 7:00 a.m. Jeers of “Traitor!” greeted Lenin when he mounted the dais. “Give me an army of 100,000 men, an army which will not tremble before the enemy, and I will not sign the peace,” he replied. “Can you raise an army?” At 4:30 a.m., capitulation to the German diktat passed 116 to 85, with 26 abstentions: the Left SRs provided much of the opposition.197 Lenin hurried to have a note dispatched to the Germans from the special radio transmitter at Tsarskoe Selo.198 Neither Trotsky nor anybody else in the inner circle wanted to return to Brest-Litovsk to sign the humiliating treaty. The task fell to Grigory Sokolnikov, who had evidently suggested Zinoviev and then was himself “volunteered.”199 The Bolshevik delegation arrived back in Brest-Litovsk, but had to cool their heels while the German army seized Kiev on March 1–2, 1918, reinstalling the Central Rada government, and presented new Turkish demands for still more Russian territorial concessions in the Caucasus. The signing took place on March 3. “It is your day now,” Radek snapped bitterly at Major General Hoffmann, “but in the end the Allies will put a Brest-Litovsk treaty upon you.”200 Radek was right: the Allies did become convinced, largely as a result of Brest-Litovsk, that imperial Germany was incapable of moderation and a negotiated peace, and needed to be defeated.

Trotsky—too clever by half—had miscalculated, and he now resigned as foreign affairs commissar (Lenin would appoint him commissar of war instead). But Lenin had been the one who had maniacally pushed for the October coup, and he was the one now vilified for the captiulatory peace.201 Russia was compelled to renounce 1.3 million square miles of territory—lands more than twice the size of Germany, and lands imperial Russia had spilled blood and treasure to conquer over centuries from Sweden, Poland, the Ottoman empire, and others. The amputation removed a quarter of Russia’s population (some 50 million people), a third of its industry, and more than a third of its grain fields.202 Germany now sat in titular command of a vast eastward wedge, stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Equally spectacular, subjects of imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary received exemptions from Bolshevik nationalization decrees, meaning they could own private property and engage in commercial activities on Soviet Russian soil, and German nationals who had lost property from tsarist confiscations were now owed compensation. The Bolsheviks became duty bound to demobilize their army and navy and cease international propaganda (the Germans considered Bolshevik propaganda far more dangerous than any Russian troops).203 No Russian government had ever surrendered so much territory or sovereignty.

Doom enveloped Petrograd. A year had passed since the heady days of Nicholas II’s abdication, on March 2, 1917, when the tsar had pointedly asked two Duma representatives, “Would there not be consequences?” A mere five months had lapsed since Boris Avilov, a Menshevik Internationalist, had stood up on October 27, 1917, at the Second Congress of Soviets during the Bolshevik coup and predicted that an all-Bolshevik government could neither solve the food supply crisis nor end the war, that the Entente would not recognize a Bolshevik-monopoly government, and that the Bolsheviks would be compelled to accept a separate and onerous peace with Germany. That day had come. On top of everything, Russia’s wartime allies now instituted a de facto economic blockade, and soon would seize Russia’s assets abroad.204

Lenin’s party was divided and demoralized.205 At the 7th (Extraordinary) Party Congress in the Tauride Palace on March 5–8, 1918, a mere 46 delegates turned up (compared with the nearly 200 at the last Party Congress in the summer of 1917). The self-styled Left Communists, who had been among the strongest supporters of Lenin’s putsch in 1917, rejected Brest-Litovsk. Bukharin and other leftist Bolsheviks even established a new periodical, Communist, expressly to denounce the “obscene” treaty, and at the congress took the floor to urge “revolutionary war” against imperial Germany. Lenin put through a name change from Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Bolsheviks) to Russian Communist party (Bolsheviks) and pleaded for party acceptance of Brest-Litovsk. The recriminations raged over three days. Lenin pointed out that his opponents had caused the catastrophe by refusing to accept the initial, better German offer. He won the vote 30 to 12, with 4 abstentions (including, again, Trotsky).206 And yet, this vote was in many ways merely an exercise in affirming the leader’s authority: Lenin insisted on signing the treaty, but he had already ceased to believe that even the Brest-Litovsk concessions would be enough to halt the German advance on Petrograd. On February 24, the day Lenin telegrammed acceptance of German terms, Major General Hoffmann seized Pskov, 150 miles southwest from, and on the direct rail line to, the Russian capital. On February 26, Lenin had approved a secret order to abandon the capital of Russia’s revolution. It was a rich irony. After Kerensky’s Provisional Government had decided to relocate from Petrograd to Moscow for safety in early October 1917, the Bolshevik newspaper Workers’ Path—edited by Stalin—had accused Kerensky of treason for surrendering the capital to the Germans.207 Kerensky had backed down.208 But now—again, just as Lenin’s accusers had long predicted—he had not only handed the Germans everything but was preparing to desert the Russian capital.


Bolshevik evacuation preparations, rumored on newspaper front pages for months, could not be concealed. Already in late February 1918, the American and Japanese diplomatic missions had relocated for safety to Vologda, while the French and British sought to exit Russia entirely via Finland to Sweden: only the British got through; the French ended up stranded at Vologda, too (where Stalin had been in exile). Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, chairman of the government’s “intelligence operations”—a room in Smolny—used ruses to ensure Lenin’s security: freight stamped “Council of People’s Commissars” was loaded in plain sight at a central passenger station, while under cover of darkness, at a derelict depot south of Petrograd, a train of former imperial carriages was secretly assembled. Bonch-Bruevich sent two teams of agents unknown to each other (okhranka style) to maintain surveillance on the disused spur, eavesdrop on nearby “tea” houses, and spread rumors of a train being prepared for doctors heading to the front. Some cars were loaded with wood fuel, typewriters, and telephones; flatbeds were added for automobiles. Bonch-Bruevich had also filled two cars just with Bolshevik party literature (not including his own personal library).209 On the evening of Sunday, March 10, the secret train—carrying Lenin, his sister and wife, the poet Yefim Pridvorov (aka Demyan Bedny), Sverdlov, Stalin, Cheka head Dzierzynski with a single briefcase, and a detachment of guards—departed with the lights off. Two trains carrying the Soviet’s central executive committee (many of whom were not Bolsheviks) followed at a distance, not knowing what was in front of them. Anxiety was high: seventy-five miles southeast of Petrograd, Lenin’s train was delayed when it unexpectedly crossed paths with a train carrying demobilized armed troops. Only when Lenin’s train pulled within three station stops of Moscow did Bonch-Bruevich alert the Moscow soviet of the train’s existence. Arriving at 8:00 p.m. on March 11, Lenin was greeted by a small party of “workers,” addressed the Moscow soviet, and took up residence in the gilt National Hotel, where an accompanying team of telegraphists was also billeted.210

What arrived on the main train was the “state” as of March 1918: Lenin’s person, a handful of loyal lieutenants, Bolshevik ideas and some means to spread them, an armed guard.

The armed guard was especially unusual. A desperate call to form a defense force “from the class-conscious and best elements of the working classes” had been issued in mid-January 1918, during the Brest-Litovsk talks, when the Germans were marching eastward without obstacle, but nothing came of the summons.211 On the train escorting the revolution to the new capital of Moscow were the Latvian Riflemen of the tsarist army. Before the Great War, the Russian imperial army had refused to countenance expressly national units; only in 1914–15 had the authorities permitted Czechoslovak, Serbo-Croatian, and Polish volunteer “legions,” made up of POWs who wanted to return to fighting to help liberate their compatriots under Habsburg rule. Finns were denied such permission, but in August 1915, Russia allowed all-volunteer Latvian brigades, aiming to exploit their antagonism to Germany. By 1916–17, the two Latvian brigades had ballooned to some 18,000 troops in eight regiments (eventually ten), each named for a Latvian town, but also including ethnic Hungarians, Finns, and others. After heavy casualties in winter 1916–17 fighting, they had turned against the tsarist system. Most were landless peasants or small tenant farmers, and they leaned heavily Social Democratic. By 1917, their homeland had broken off from Russia, under German occupation. Still, it was the decision of their authoritative commander, Colonel Jukums Vacietis (b. 1873), the sixth son among eight children of a landless peasant family from tsarist Courland, whose Russian teacher had been a radical student Populist, to bring the soldiers over to the Bolshevik side.212 The Latvians guarding Lenin’s train were the only disciplined, all-purpose force standing between Bolshevism and oblivion.

Other trains to Moscow hauled storehouses of valuables: the naval staff took files, maps, office equipment, furniture, curtains, rugs, mirrors, ashtrays, stoves, kitchen appliances, dishes, samovars, towels, blankets, and holy icons—1,806 enumerated items in all.213 A foreign affairs commissariat train carted off “gold goblets, gilt spoons, knives and the like” from the imperial vaults.214 But what Moscow held in store remained to be seen. “Bourgeois circles are gleeful about the fact that by a strange twist of fate we are realizing the Slavophiles’ timeless dream of returning the capital to Moscow,” Zinoviev remarked. “We are profoundly convinced that the change of capital will not last long and that the difficult conditions dictating its necessity will pass.”215 The Moscow Council of People’s Commissars was taking no chances, having promptly declared its “independence” the day the Petrograd government arrived. Lenin appointed a commission of himself, Stalin, and Sverdlov to take down what they called the parallel “Muscovite Tsardom.”216

In the meantime, an armed quest for usable property drew in all. Moscow resembled an overgrown village, with narrow, dirty streets of rough cobblestone—nothing like the straight, wide avenues of baroque Petrograd—and lacked an accumulation of administrative edifices.217 The Moscow soviet central executive committee had already claimed the Governor’s Mansion; the Moscow soviet itself was left to fight for the once grand, now dilapidated Hotel Dresden (across the street from the Governor’s Mansion). Some members of the soviet’s central executive committee moved into the National Hotel (rechristened the House of Soviets No. 1), but more ended up at the Hotel Lux, on Moscow’s main artery Tverskaya Street.218 Most state agencies found themselves widely dispersed: the new Supreme Council of the Economy, set up to counteract anarchosyndicalist tendencies in industry, would claim eighty structures, virtually none of them originally built as offices.219 The war commissariat took over the unluxurious Hotel Red Fleet, also on Tverskaya Street, but additionally claimed the Alexander Military School, the Trading Rows on Red Square, and prime spaces in Moscow’s Kitaigorod, the walled inner merchant ward near the Kremlin. The Trade Union Council got an eighteenth-century neoclassical foundling home out along the Moscow River as well as some plush reception space in Moscow’s former Nobility Club. The Cheka appropriated the property of two private insurance companies, Yakor (Anchor) and Lloyd’s Russian branch, on Bolshaya Lubyanka.220 Predictably, the scramble was shameless: When members of the Moscow party committee went to occupy a facility they had obtained in a barter deal, they discovered that the kitchen equipment and phone cables had been ripped from the walls, and the lightbulbs were gone.

Moscow’s grandest hotel, the Metropole, was an art nouveau jewel that had originally been intended as an opera house. The structure was commissioned by the railway industrialist and arts patron Savva Mamontov (1841–1918), but he was jailed on fraud charges, after which the project changed, resulting in the hotel that opened in 1905. The war altered it nearly beyond recognition and with the revolution, the property was nationalized, rechristened the Second House of the Soviets, its 250 rooms overrun by new regime parvenus. The entrance was barricaded by guards and a pass system was initiated; the interior crawled with bed bugs and higher ups, along with their relatives, cronies, and mistresses. Yefraim Sklyansky, Trotsky’s top deputy at the war commissariat, had commandeered several apartments on different floors for his “clan.” Bukharin lived here, as did his future lover Anna Larina, then a child (they met when she was four and he, twenty-nine). Foreign Affairs Commissar Georgy Chicherin and many foreign affairs personnel were particularly well ensconced; many had offices here, too. The commissariat of trade got a two-room junior suite with bathtub. Yakov Sverdlov had his public reception for the Soviet central executive committee upstairs, while formal sessions of that body took place in the disused banquet hall‒restaurant. Amid the darkness and severe cold of a capital without fuel, the former opulent hotel degenerated into a filthy wreck. Child residents relieved themselves on the luxury runners in the hallways, on which adults threw lit cigarette butts. The toilets and grand baths were particularly execrable. Fierce scrums broke out over the irregularly distributed state food packets (payok) for the elite residents. Packets could include clothes, even coveted overcoats. The “administration” of the Second House of the Soviets, meanwhile, stole everything removable.221 An opera house it had belatedly become.

But the center of power formed elsewhere. To accommodate the Council of People’s Commissars, among the options considered were a hostel for patrician women near the city’s medieval Red Gate, or the medieval Kremlin, which, however, had been neglected, physically and politically—the clock on the Savior Gate Tower overlooking Red Square was still chiming “God Save the Tsar” every hour.222 Whatever the Kremlin’s associations with ancient Muscovy or its disrepair, it had high walls and lockable gates, and a unique central location. After a week in the National Hotel, Lenin moved his operations into one of the Kremlin’s masterpieces. Catherine the Great had commissioned a residence for the times she was in Moscow; the resultant neoclassicial structure, instead, was built for the Imperial Senate (the Russian empire’s highest judicial body), whose spacious, luxurious offices were later given over to the Courts of Justice. Lenin, a lawyer manque, set up shop on the upper (third) floor in the former suite of the state procurator.223 The riding stable (manege) just outside the Kremlin gates became the government garage, though most officials made their way in sledges and droshkies commandeered from the populace.224 The Smolny commandant, Pavel Malkov, a Sverdlov protégé, became the new Kremlin commandant and set about clearing out the nuns and monks from the monastery and nunnery just inside the Savior Gate. Malkov also furnished Lenin’s office, found a tailor to clothe the regime, and began stockpiling foodstuffs.225 For living quarters, Lenin got a two-room apartment in the Kremlin’s Cavalry Building in the former residence (now divided up) of the cavalry commander. Trotsky and Sverdlov, too, moved into the Cavalry Building. “Lenin and I took quarters across the corridor, sharing the same dining room,” Trotsky later wrote, bragging that “Lenin and I met dozens of times a day in the corridor, and called on each other to talk things over.” (They dined on suddenly plentiful red caviar, whose export had ceased.)226 By the end of 1918, some 1,800 new people (including family members) would obtain Kremlin apartments.

Stalin also took part in this struggle over space. For his nationalities commissariat, he schemed to seize the Grand Siberian Hotel, but the Supreme Council of the Economy had squatted in the building. (“This was one of the few cases,” Pestkowski gently noted, “when Stalin suffered defeat.”)227 Instead, Stalin secured a few small, private detached houses, after the Cheka had left them for the insurance buildings. Right before the relocation to the capital, meanwhile, in late February or early March, he appears to have married sixteen-year-old Nadezhda “Nadya” Alliluyeva, the daughter of the skilled worker Sergei Alliluyev, who in the prerevolutionary years had long sheltered Stalin in Tiflis and St. Petersburg.228 She was still a girl, and remarkably earnest. (“There’s real hunger in Petrograd,” she wrote to the wife of another Bolshevik on the eve of her wedding to Stalin. “They hand out only an eighth of a pound of bread every day, and one day they gave us none at all. I’ve even cursed the Bolsheviks.”)229 Her relatives observed the couple quarreling already during the initial “honeymoon” phase of the marriage.230 Stalin addressed her in the familiar (“ty”); she used the formal (“vy”). He hired her as his secretary in the commissariat (the next year she would shift over to Lenin’s secretariat and join the party).231 The couple obtained a Kremlin apartment, for some reason not in the Cavalry Building with Lenin, Trotsky, and Sverdlov, but in an even more modest three-story outbuilding that serviced Moscow’s Grand Kremlin Palace. Their rooms on the second floor of the servants’ quarters, in the so-called Frauleins’ Corridor, with three opaque windows, carried the new address Communist Street, 2.232 Stalin complained to Lenin about the noise from the communal kitchen and the vehicles outside, and demanded that Kremlin vehicles be banned from driving beyond the arch where the residential quarters began after 11:00 p.m. (a sign, perhaps, that Stalin was not yet the insomniac he would become).233 Stalin also acquired a government office inside the Imperial Senate building, like Lenin and Sverdlov, but the Georgian was rarely there.


Ten days after Brest-Litovsk nominally ended hostilities on the eastern front, the German army captured Odessa, way down on the Black Sea coast. Beginning the next day, March 14, the Fourth All-Russia Congress of Soviets convened in Moscow to ratify the treaty. The Soviet’s central executive committee had voted to recommend approval—amid shouts of “Judases . . . German spies!”—only thanks to Sverdlov’s manipulations, and even then, just barely (abstentions and noes constituted a majority).234 At the congress, ratification was also fraught. “Suppose that two friends are out walking at night and they are attacked by ten men,” Lenin tried reasoning with the delegates. “If the scoundrels isolate one of them, what is the other to do? He cannot render assistance, and if he runs away is he a traitor?”235 Running from a fight hardly seemed persuasive. Still, of the 1,232 voting delegates—including 795 Bolsheviks and 283 Left Socialist Revolutionaries—784 voted in favor of ratification, 261 against, with the remainder, some 175, abstaining or not voting.236 The Left Communists were the ones who abstained. But the Bolshevik junior partner Left SRs voted no en masse, declaring their party “not bound by the terms of the Treaty” and quitting the Council of People’s Commissars (which they had joined only two months earlier). And Lenin had not even dared to divulge the full treaty provisions before the vote. “We are asked to ratify a treaty the text of which some of us have not seen, at least neither I nor my comrades have seen it,” complained the Menshevik leader Yuly Martov. “Do you know what you are signing? I do not. . . . Talk about secret diplomacy!”237 Martov did not know the half of it: Unbeknownst to the Congress of Soviets delegates, Lenin had authorized Trotsky to conspire with American, British, and French representatives in Russia to obtain pledges of Entente support against the Germans, for which Lenin had promised to sabotage ratification of Brest-Litovsk.

Still viewing Lenin and Trotsky as German agents, Entente governments failed to respond to the offer.238 But a British Navy squadron, a token force, had landed at the port of Murmansk, on Russia’s northwest (Arctic Ocean) coast, on March 9, with the express aim of countering German and Finnish forces threatening Russia’s Murmansk Railway as well as military storehouses. More broadly, the British and French wanted to prevent Germany from transferring eastern front divisions to the western front by reviving an eastern front. This desire was vastly heightened as the Central Powers began to occupy and extract the riches of Ukraine. The British, in other words, were intervening initially not to overthrow Bolshevism but to mitigate the Central Powers’ newfound war advantages.239 But what had started out largely as a preemptive move to deny Germany Russian military stores would become, over time, an underfunded campaign against the supposed threat that Communism posed to the British empire in India.240

Lenin and Trotsky, for their part, had welcomed the Entente’s military landing on Russian soil as a counter to Germany. Stalin, at a Council of People’s Commissars meeting on April 2, 1918, with the Germans about to capture Kharkov, proposed shifting policy to seek an anti-German military coalition with the Ukrainian Central Rada, which the Bolsheviks had overthrown just two months before, and which Germany had restored one month before.241 Stalin’s proposal was complementary to Trotsky’s about-face negotiations with agents of the Entente to help organize and train a new Red Army, along with railroad operators and equipment. Three days later, Japanese troops, on the pretext of “protecting” Japanese nationals, landed at Vladivostok. Lenin and Trotsky vehemently objected—this was a military intervention they did not invite.

Germany, which was eager to break Japan’s alliance with Britain, had encouraged the Japanese intervention against Russia, a landing that raised the prospect of a west-east flanking occupation, based on a common interest, to reduce Russia to a colonial dependency. Lenin, notwithstanding all the fog of his class categories, well understood the possibility of a German-Japanese alliance, just as he had grasped the antagonism of state interests between Germany and Britain on the one hand and, on the other, Japan and the United States.242 But Lenin struggled to induce Britain and France, let alone the far-off United States, to align with Communist Russia against Germany and Japan. Despite the 1917 rupture, Soviet Russia’s strategic position bore resemblance to imperial Russia’s. A big difference between past and present, however, was that parts of imperial Russia had broken off, and they could be used by hostile foreign powers against Russia.

Stalin was busy with these lost territories. On March 19, 1918, he wrote to Caucasus Bolsheviks urging them to strengthen the defenses of Baku, and a week later an article of his appeared in Pravda denouncing non-Bolshevik leftists (“South Caucasus Counter-Revolutionaries under a Socialist Mask”).243 On March 30, Stalin spoke on the Hughes apparatus to the head of the Tashkent Soviet about developments in Turkestan. On April 3–4, Pravda carried an interview with him on a draft constitution on which he was working, based upon a proposed federal structure and new name for Soviet Russia—the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR).244 On April 9, Stalin dispatched a message, published in Pravda, to the soviets of Kazan, Ufa, Orenburg, and Tashkent, indicating that the principle of self-determination had “lost its revolutionary meaning” and could be overridden. On April 29, the Council of People’s Commissars appointed Stalin RSFSR plenipotentiary to negotiate a peace treaty with the Ukrainian Central Rada. That same day the Germans, further improvising in the East, betrayed their Ukrainian Central Rada treaty partners, installing a puppet Ukrainian “Hetmanate,” a deliberately archaic name, under General Pavlo Skoropadskyj. But his misrule, alongside the Austro-German occupation, provoked peasant insurrections and a many-sided armed conflict.245 “When the German forces entered Ukraine they found absolute chaos,” a German official reported. “Not infrequently, one came across neighboring villages surrounded by trenches and fighting each other for the land of the former landlords.”246 The promised grain stocks that had lured a nearly half-million-man German occupation army failed to materialize.

Stalin had no better success organizing pro-Bolshevik actions on the territory of Ukraine, but in a sign of his increasing visibility and importance—and of Yuly Martov’s frustration at Lenin—Martov revived accusations of Stalin’s complicity in the spectacular 1907 Tiflis mail coach robbery and the 1908 robbery of a steamship, writing in a Menshevik periodical that Stalin “had been expelled by the party organization for his involvement in expropriations.”247 Stalin sued Martov for slander in a Revolutionary Tribunal and, on April 1, denied the charges in Pravda, stating “that, I, Stalin, was never called before the disciplinary committee of any party organization. In particular, I was never expelled.” He added—in exquisite irony—that “one has no right to issue accusations like Martov’s except with documents in one’s hand. It is dishonest to sling mud on the basis of mere rumors.”248 The tribunal convened on April 5 before a full house. Martov was denied a shift to a civil court with jury trial, but he went on the offensive, requesting time to produce documents, explaining that for conspiratorial purposes, no written party records had been kept, but witnesses could back up his claims, and so he would gather affidavits from Georgian Bolsheviks such as Isidor Ramishvili, who had headed the disciplinary body for Stalin’s case in 1908, regarding Stalin’s participation in a 1908 steamship armed robbery and the near-fatal beating of a worker familiar with Stalin’s murky past. Stalin objected that there would be insufficient time to wait for the witnesses. Still, the court postponed its proceedings against Martov for a week and, by some accounts, the Menshevik Boris Nicolaevsky went to collect testimony in the Caucasus, returning with affidavits from Ramishvili as well as Silva Jibladze and others. Once back in Moscow, however, Nicolaevsky is said to have discovered that all other records of the case had vanished. Sverdlov as well as Lenin—who admired Martov, for all their differences—had helped to close out the inquiry.249 On April 18, 1918, the tribunal found Martov guilty of slander, but only assessed him a reprimand; before the month was out the verdict had been annulled.250 On May 11, Sverdlov, who oversaw the Martov case from behind the scenes, did have the Soviet’s central executive committee approve closure of the Menshevik newspaper for generally printing false information.251 But Stalin’s bandit past would never go away.252


General Alexeyev, Nicholas II’s former chief of staff and then supreme commander, had formed a clandestine network of officers after February 1917; following the Bolshevik coup, he summoned them to constitute a Volunteer Army among the Don Cossacks at Novocherkassk.253 The Volunteer Army began with a mere 400 to 500 officers. Among them was Kornilov, himself of Cossack pedigree, who, upon release from the prison near Mogilyov, traveled south disguised in peasant rags with a forged Romanian passport.254 Because the sixty-one-year-old Alexeyev had cancer, he assigned the military command to the forty-eight-year-old Kornilov, even though the two never really got along. Kornilov’s forces—former tsarist officers, Cossacks, military school cadets (teenagers)—came under heavy assault from mid-February 1918. He sought sanctuary, marching a few thousand Volunteers southeastward toward the Kuban through heavy snow and barren steppes with little shelter or food other than what they plundered. Volunteers taken prisoner had their eyes gouged out—and they responded in kind. (“The more terror, the more victories!” Kornilov exhorted.)255 After the frightful “ice march,” 700 miles in eight days, wearied survivors arrived near Yekaterinodar, the Kuban capital, only to discover it was held not by the Cossacks but by Reds in superior numbers. One general (Kaledin) had already shot himself. Kornilov was killed when a shell struck his headquarters in a farmhouse on April 12, 1918, and buried him under the collapsed ceiling. “A cloud of white plaster streamed forth,” one staff officer recalled of Kornilov’s room; when they turned the general over, they saw shrapnel lodged in his temple.256 The Whites quickly decamped, and pro-Bolshevik units exhumed his shattered body, dragged it to Yekaterinodar’s main square, and burned it on a rubbish pile.257 “It can be said with certainty,” an elated Lenin boasted, “that, in the main, the civil war has ended.”258 Russia’s civil war was about to begin.

Kornilov’s was not the only notable death that month: Gavrilo Princip passed away at the Habsburg’s Terezin Fortress prison (the future Nazi Theresienstadt), where he was serving 20 years for the murder of the Austrian heir. The tubercular Princip, weakened by malnutrition, disease, and blood loss from an amputated arm, weighed eighty-eight pounds and was 23 years old. The 700-year-old Habsburg empire would outlive him by just a few months.259

As for Russia’s civil war, it was precipitated from utterly unexpected quarters. In the Great War, Russia had captured around 2 million Central Power prisoners, mostly Austro-Hungarian subjects.260 Later in the Great War, in anticipation of gaining a new Czechoslovak homeland in an Entente victory, the Czechoslovak Legion, which came to comprise some 40,000 POWs as well as deserters, served the tsar and took part in Kerensky’s June 1917 offensive. In December 1917 they had been placed under French command.261 Trotsky schemed to use the Legionnaires (who leaned Social Democratic) as the nucleus for a new Red Army, but Paris insisted that the Legionnaires be transferred to France, on the western front.262 Russia’s closest port in the west, at Arkhangelsk (750 miles north of Petrograd), was ice bound in March, so the armed troops were sent via Siberia to Vladivostok, whence they were supposed to sail to France.263 But Germany had demanded that the Bolsheviks halt and disarm the Czechoslovak Legion, an obligation inserted into Brest-Litovsk. The Entente, for its part, requested that the troops who had not yet reached Omsk, in Western Siberia, be turned around and sent northwest to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk after all, to fight off the Germans nearby. The Japanese suddenly refused to transport Legionnaires from Vladivostok on boats for the west, assisting the Germans and keeping Siberia for themselves. The Legionnaires, for their part, wanted only to fight the Austrians and Germans, and were understandably wary about the meaning of all the back and forth. Amid suspicions, trouble broke out in Chelyabinsk (eastern Urals) on May 14, 1918, when a Russian train with ethnic Hungarian POWs of Austria-Hungary pulled up alongside a train of the Czechoslovak Legion troops. Insults flew. A Hungarian threw a metal object, wounding a Czech; the Czechs assaulted the other train and strung up the Hungarian object thrower. The Chelyabinsk soviet detained several Czechs and Slovaks in an investigation. On May 25, Trotsky cabled: “Every armed Czechoslovak found on the railway is to be shot on the spot.”264 That stupid order could never have been carried out. Still, suspecting the Bolsheviks intended to turn them over to Germans, the Czechoslovak Legion seized Chelyabinsk and then one town after another: Penza (May 29), Omsk (June 7), Samara (June 8), Ufa (July 5), Simbirsk (July 22), and so on, until they held the entire Trans-Siberian Railway as well as much of the Volga valley, more than two thirds of the former Russian empire.265 They conquered more territory than anyone else in the Great War.266

The Czechoslovak Legion had harbored no special desire to fight or overthrow the Bolsheviks, but in the vacuum opened up by their self-defense conquests, more than a dozen anti-Bolshevik movements, from late May through June 1918, proclaimed their existence throughout the Volga region and Siberia.267 Governments also sprouted in the tsarist lands under German occupation and those not under German occupation, including the Caucasus, where the British landed an expeditionary force near the oil fields. With the Germans in possession of Ukraine; the Czechoslovaks, Western Siberia; the Cossacks, the Don; and the Volunteer Army, the Kuban, the heartland of Russia, where the Bolsheviks were ensconced, had run out of food—and the fall harvest remained a long way off. On May 29, the Council of People’s Commissars appointed Stalin a special plenipotentiary for South Russia to obtain food for the starving capitals Moscow and Petrograd. “He equipped an entire train,” recalled Pestkowski. “He took with him a Hughes apparatus, airplanes, cash in small notes, a small military detachment, some specialists. I accompanied him to the station. He was in a very jolly mood, fully confident of victory.”268 On June 6, Stalin arrived in Tsaritsyn, on the Volga. If anti-Bolshevik forces captured Tsaritsyn, they could cut off all food and establish a united front from Ukraine through the Urals and Siberia.269 The assignment would entail a vast expansion from his managing contacts with the various non-Russian nationalities, and a transformation of his role in the Bolshevik regime. But in the meantime, with the Czechoslovak Legion revolt, and the absence of any genuine Bolshevik army, the regime’s survival seemed ever more in doubt.


Alone among the powers, Germany recognized the Bolshevik regime and maintained a real embassy in Moscow in a luxury private residence once owned by a German sugar magnate, on a quiet lane near the Arbat. On April 23, 1918, the forty-seven-year-old Count Wilhelm Mirbach (b. 1871), who had been in Petrograd to negotiate prisoner exchanges with the Bolsheviks and had worked at the embassy in the tsarist period, arrived back in Moscow as ambassador with a mission to ensure that no Russian rapprochement with the Entente took place. Mirbach had been reporting that the Bolshevik regime was “not for long,” and that all it would take to sweep it away would be “light military pressure” by German forces sent via Estonia. The count openly courted monarchist groups as Bolshevik replacements, and behaved as if Moscow were already under German occupation.270 Most Bolsheviks responded in kind. “The German ambassador has arrived,” Pravda wrote, “not as a representative of the toiling classes of a friendly people but as plenipotentiary of a military gang that, with boundless insolence, kills, rapes, and pillages every country.”271 On May 1, International Workers’ Day, German troops reached the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea, headquarters of the Black Sea fleet. On May 8, the Germans seized Rostov, in the Don River basin, where they abetted the gathering anti-Bolshevik forces. Pro-Bolshevik forces had to evacuate; they managed to transfer to Moscow confiscated gold coins, jewels, and other valuables that filled three wooden crates, one metal container, and six leather pouches.272 Two days later, at a Central Committee meeting attended by a mere half a dozen members, Grigory Sokolnikov, signatory of Brest-Litovsk, argued that Germany’s post-Brest offensive had violated the treaty and urged a renewed Anglo-French formal alliance.273

Germany occupied seventeen former tsarist provinces as well as tsarist Poland. Amid rumors of secret clauses in Brest-Litovsk and of Germans dictating Soviet government policies, newspapers warned of an imminent German conquest of Moscow and Petrograd. In fact, the German high command did consider a narrow thrust for the two capitals feasible. At this point, however, mid-May 1918, when they stood fewer than 100 miles from Petrograd (at Narva), and 300 miles from Moscow (at Mogilyov), the Germans stopped advancing.274 Why? Lenin’s continued appeasement of Berlin played a part. Equally important, German ruling circles deemed an invasion superfluous: Bolshevism seemed doomed. Mirbach, received by Lenin in the Kremlin on May 16, reported that same day to Berlin that the Bolshevik leader “continues to maintain his inexhaustible optimism,” but, Mirbach added, Lenin “also concedes that even though his regime still remains intact, the number of its enemies has grown. . . . He bases his self-confidence above all on the fact that the ruling party alone disposes of organized power, whereas the other [parties] agree only in rejecting the existing regime.” On Mirbach’s May 16 report of Lenin’s difficulties, Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote: “He is finished.”275

In this context Yakov Sverdlov sought to drive a revival of the Communist party, which appeared to be atrophying. On May 18, 1918, he circulated a resolution that urged “the center of gravity of our work be shifted somewhat towards building up the party,” and stipulated that “all party members, irrespective of their employment or their positions, are obliged to participate directly in party organizations and must not deviate from party instructions issued by the relevant party center.”276 Subordination to the center, however, remained elusive. In the meantime, Lenin’s strategy was to impress a cost-benefit analysis on Berlin. “If the Germans-merchants take economic advantages, comprehending that via war they will get nothing from us, that we will burn everything, then your policy will be successful,” he instructed the new Soviet envoy to Berlin, Adolf Joffe, on June 2, 1918. “We can supply raw materials.”277 But for the German government, which had already claimed Ukraine’s breadbasket, the grand prize remained Paris. The German embassy in Moscow warned Berlin on June 4 that the Bolsheviks might tear up the Brest-Litovsk agreement (“These people’s actions are absolutely unpredictable, particularly in a state of desperation”), yet the embassay’s chief message was that Bolshevism was at the end of its rope (“famine is encroaching upon us. . . . Fuel reserves are waning. . . . The Bolsheviks are terribly nervous, probably feeling their end approaching, and therefore the rats are beginning to flee from the sinking ship. . . . It may be they will attempt to flee to Nizhny Novgorod or Yekaterinburg. . . .”).278 German diplomats were contacting political has-beens of both the tsarist regime and the Provisional Government about a restoration.279 On June 25, in another note to Berlin, Mirbach again predicted Bolshevism’s imminent demise.280

Mirbach’s high-handed antics in Moscow, meanwhile, were more than matched by the Bolsheviks in Berlin. Thanks to Brest-Litovsk, the hammer and sickle flew on Unter den Linden, 7, the old tsarist embassy. Joffe, the son of a rich merchant and himself a firebrand Left Communist, had refused to present his credentials to the kaiser, held dinners on embassy territory for the Spartacus League and other German leftists, and funneled money to German Social Democrats, openly aiming to bring down the imperial German regime. The Soviet embassy amassed a staff of several hundred, including agitators listed as attachés who fanned out to meetings of German socialist organizations. Joffe spread weapons, too, often imported via diplomatic pouch.281 General Ludendorff, for his part, on June 28 again urged that the Bolsheviks be cleared out of Russia so that Germany could set up a puppet regime. Never mind that the Germans lacked reserves even for the western front. A more sober-minded German foreign ministry argued against such cockamamie recommendations: the Bolsheviks already supported Brest-Litovsk, what more did Berlin need? And, the foreign ministry personnel added, the various anti-Bolshevik forces inside Russia did not conceal their sympathy for the Entente. What was Ludendorff’s alternative for a pro-German group with which to replace the Bolsheviks? The kaiser declined Ludendorff’s pleadings and even permitted the Bolsheviks to redeploy many of their Latvian Riflemen against internal enemies to the east, in the Volga valley.282 Lenin’s German loyalties paid off.283 But in Moscow people knew nothing of the kaiser’s decision to rebuff Ludendorff against an invasion to finish off Bolshevism. What people in Moscow saw was the imperious Mirbach, physical symbol of detested partnership with German militarism—a circumstance that provoked the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to action.

The Left SRs had resigned over Brest-Litovsk from the Council of People’s Commissars, but not from their perches in the Cheka or from the Soviet’s central executive committee. On June 14, 1918, the Bolsheviks had expelled the handful of elected Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries from the central executive committee, and shuttered their newspapers. “Martov, swearing at the ‘dictators’, ‘Bonapartists’, ‘usurpers’, and ‘grabbers’ in his sick, tubercular voice, grabbed his coat and tried to put it on, but his shaking hands could not get into the sleeves,” recalled one Bolshevik eyewitness. “Lenin, white as chalk, stood and looked at Martov.” But a Left SR just burst into laughter.284 The splinter party claimed a relatively robust membership in excess of 100,000.285 This was considerably less than the Bolshevik membership of more than 300,000; both were microscopic in a country of some 140 million. Despite the Bolshevik numerical advantage, however, many contemporaries hoped, or feared, that the Left SRs—on the basis of their increasingly resonant anti-Brest-Litovsk stance—might command a majority of the elected delegates to the upcoming Fifth Congress of Soviets, scheduled to open June 28. Was there an option on the radical socialist left besides the Bolsheviks?

The Left SR Central Committee resolved to introduce a resolution at the congress denouncing Brest-Litovsk and calling for (quixotic) partisan war, such as was under way in Ukraine against the German occupation.286 On June 24, Sverdlov delayed the congress’s opening until early July while he manufactured more Bolshevik delegates. (On a pretext, Sverdlov had also expelled all Mensheviks and Right SRs from the Soviet’s central executive committee.) The Left SRs held their 3rd Party Congress June 28 to July 1, and resolved to fight against German imperialism and for Soviet power by eliminating Councils of People’s Commissars, so that Soviet executive committees could rule.287 Meanwhile, Sverdlov, chairman of the central executive committee, did produce hundreds of suspicious soviet delegates, beyond the already extra weight afforded to worker voters over peasants (the Left SRs constituency). When the congress opened at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater on the evening of July 4, there were 1,035 voting attendees, including 678 Communists, 269 Left SRs, and 88 mostly unaffiliated others.288 (Non-voting delegates, some 200 each for Left SRs and Communists, brought the attendees to 1,425, of whom two thirds were between twenty and thirty years of age; collectively, the attendees had spent 1,195 years in prison for political reasons.)289 The evident fraud was hardly the only source of anti-Bolshevik anger: delegates from Ukraine, Latvia, and South Caucasus described the terrors of German imperialism’s occupation and exploitation of their resources. “Down with Mirbach!” “Down with Brest!” Left SRs shouted with Germany’s ambassador seated as an honored guest in a front box. Provocatively, Trotsky countered that all “agents of foreign imperialism” who were trying to provoke renewed war with Germany “be shot on the spot.”290

Maria Spiridonova, the Left SR party’s highest profile leader, had been a strong proponent of coalition with the Bolsheviks, but for her the last straw had already come in June 1918, when the Bolsheviks sent armed detachments to villages to “requisition” grain. She rose to denounce Bolshevik policies.291 Lenin flat out stated that “we probably made a mistake in accepting your socialization of the land in our law [decree] of October 26 [1917].”292 When the fraud-enhanced Bolshevik majority voted down the Left SR resolution to renounce the treaty with imperial Germany, Lenin baited the Left SRs: “If these people prefer walking out of the Congress, good riddance.”293 But he was in for a surprise: The Left SR leadership, knowing that their anti-Brest resolution might fail, had resolved to arouse the masses and provoke a breach in German-Soviet relations by terrorist acts “against high-profile representatives of German imperialism.”294 Thus did the occasion of the Fifth Congress of Soviets serve as the motivation for Left SR action, just as the Second Congress had for a Bolshevik coup.

Spiridonova, on the evening of July 4, had tasked twenty-year-old Yakov Blyumkin with assassinating German ambassador Count Mirbach.295 The son of a Jewish shop assistant in Odessa, Blyumkin had arrived in Moscow in April 1918 and, like many Left SRs, had worked in the Cheka, one of about 120 employees at that time (including chauffeurs and field couriers).296 He served in counterintelligence and among his responsibilities was the German embassy. On July 5, Spiridonova took the stage at the Bolshoi, accused the Bolsheviks of murdering the revolution and, with Lenin audibly laughing behind her, vowed she would “take up again the revolver and the hand grenade,” as she had in tsarist times.297 Pandemonium! A grenade exploded in one of the Bolshoi’s upper tiers, but Sverdlov, presiding, kept the hall from stampeding for the exits.298

The next day, with the Congress of Soviets scheduled to resume later that afternoon, Blyumkin arrived at the German embassy accompanied by Nikolai Andreyev, a photographer, with credentials signed by Felix Dzierzynski authorizing them to request an urgent meeting with the ambassador. At the embassy, First Secretary Kurt Riezler, a noted philosopher as well as a diplomat, indicated he would meet with them on the ambassador’s behalf. (Riezler had been among the key German foreign ministry personnel who had handled the secret negotiations to send Lenin in the sealed train back to Russia in 1917.)299 Mirbach, however, came down to meet the pair; Blyumkin removed a Browning from his briefcase and opened fire three times—missing. As Mirbach ran, the photographer shot at the ambassador from behind, evidently striking the back of his head. Blyumkin hurled a bomb and the two assassins leaped out a window to a getaway car. Mirbach died around 3:15 p.m.300

Spiridonova and the Left SRs expected the political murder would provoke a German military response, forcing the Bolsheviks back into the war. With the congress set to resume at 4:00 p.m., and Lenin strategizing with Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Stalin, the telephone rang at the Kremlin. Bonch-Bruevich transmitted the news about an attack at the German embassy; Lenin ordered him to the scene.301 Radek, the new foreign affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin, and Dzierzynski also went. The Germans demanded Lenin. The Bolshevik leader arrived with Sverdlov around 5:00 p.m., learned details of the murder, and offered condolences. The German military attache thought Lenin looked frightened.302 Perhaps Germany would respond with a military assault?

Lenin now learned that the very organization established to protect the Bolshevik revolution, the Cheka, was involved in a conspiracy against them. Blyumkin had left behind his credentials, and Dzierzynski, without a guard detail, drove to the Cheka military barracks on Grand Three-Holies Lane where Blyumkin had previously been seen. There the Cheka leader discovered the entire Left SR leadership, who made clear that Blyumkin had acted on their orders. “You stand before a fait accompli,” they told Dzierzynski. “The Brest Treaty is annulled; war with Germany is unavoidable. . . . Let it be here as in Ukraine, we will go underground. You can keep power, but you must cease being lackeys of Mirbach.”303 Dzierzynski, although he had opposed Brest-Litovsk at the Bolshevik Central Committee, ordered them all arrested; instead, they took him hostage.304

At news of the capture of the Cheka head, Lenin “turned white as he typically did when he was enraged or shocked by a dangerous, unexpected turn of events,” according to Bonch-Bruevich.305 Lenin summoned the Chekist Martinš Lacis, a thirty-year-old Latvian born Janis Sudrabs, to take Dzierzynski’s place.306 When Lacis showed up at the main Cheka headquarters on Bolshaya Lubyanka—guarded, as always, by the Left SR–controlled Cheka Combat Detachment—the sailors wanted to shoot him. Only the intercession of the Left SR Pyotr Alexandrovich Dmitrievsky, known as Alexandrovich, a deputy to Dzierzynski, saved Lacis’ life.307 Had Lacis, and perhaps Dzierzynski as well, been shot “on the spot”—in the words of Trotsky’s outburst from two days before—the Bolshevik regime might have been broken. As it was, Lenin and Sverdlov contemplated abandoning the Kremlin.308

Spiridonova went to the Bolshoi, for the evening resumption of the Fifth Congress of Soviets, to announce that Russia had been “liberated from Mirbach.” Dressed in black, she wore a scarlet carnation upon her breast and carried a small steel Browning pistol in her hand.309 The opening was delayed, however, and confusion reigned. Around 8:00 p.m. that night (July 6), the entire Left SR faction, more than 400 people, including guests, moved upstairs to discuss the situation, amid rumors that armed Latvians had surrounded the Bolshoi. The Bolshevik faction retreated to other quarters (some may have been let out of the theater).310 “We were sitting in our room waiting for you to come and arrest us,” Bukharin told one Left SR. “Since you did not, we decided to arrest you instead.”311 The Left SRs in the Cheka, for their part, had sent sailors out into the streets to take Bolshevik hostages, grabbing more than two dozen from passing automobiles, and still held Dzierzynski and Lacis. Lenin discovered that the Moscow garrison was not going to defend the Bolsheviks: most soldiers either remained neutral or sided with the anti-German Left SRs. “Today around 3 p.m. a Left SR killed Mirbach with a bomb,” Lenin telegrammed Stalin at Tsaritsyn. “The assassination is clearly in the interests of the monarchists or of the Anglo-French capitalists. The Left SRs . . . arrested Dzierzynski and Lacis and started an insurrection against us. We are about to liquidate them tonight and we shall tell the people the whole truth: we are a hair’s breadth from war” with Germany.312 Stalin would write back the next day that the Left SRs were “hysterics.”313 He was right.

But the counterattack was not assured. Many of the few reliable Red units had been sent eastward to counter the Czechoslovak rebellion. Around midnight on July 6–7, Lenin summoned the top Latvian commander, the squat, stout Colonel Jukums Vacietis. “The Kremlin was dark and empty,” Vacietis recalled of the Council of People’s Commissars’ meeting room, where Lenin finally emerged, and asked, “‘Comrade, will we hold out until morning?’ Having asked the question, Lenin kept staring at me.”314 Vacietis was taken aback. He sympathized with the Left SRs and could have decided, at a minimum, to be neutral, thereby perhaps dooming the Bolsheviks. But his own experience fighting the Germans during Christmas 1916 had produced colossal casualties, and resuming the war held no appeal. (There was, in any case, no Russian army to do so.) Furthermore, he expected the imperial German regime to collapse from the war, just as Russia’s had, so why sacrifice men for nothing? What Vacietis did not know was that Lenin did not even trust him: a half hour before receiving him that night, Lenin had called in the two political commissars attached to the Latvians to get reassurances about Vacietis’s loyalties.

Nor was it clear that the Latvian rank and file would fight for the Bolsheviks. The Left SRs had been waiting, on July 6 for the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Mikhail Muravyov (b. 1880), an ethnic Russian militant Left SR and another commander of the Latvian Rifles, but he failed to show in the capital.315 Still, although Vacietis’s counterassault on the Left SRs was planned to begin a few hours after he saw Lenin, in the wee hours of July 7, to take advantage of the darkness, this happened to be St. John the Baptist’s Day, a Latvian national holiday, and the riflemen had decided to celebrate with an outing to Khodynka Field on Moscow’s outskirts.316 No Latvians, Red Guards, or, for that matter, anyone mustered at their jumping-off points.317 The attack would have to wait, instead, for daylight. The Cheka military units were under command of a Left SR former Baltic sailor Dmitri Popov; lodged in Moscow’s inner walled Kitaigorod, they numbered 600 to 800 men total, mostly sailors. Against them, Vacietis later claimed to have assembled perhaps 3,300 men (fewer than 500 of them Russians).318 The Latvians would recall that Popov’s unit was better armed than they were, with heavy guns, scores of machine guns, and four armored cars. “The Popovites had seized a row of houses,” Vacietis explained, “and fortified them.” In fact, Popov, whose unit included many Finns as well as sailors, had been busy trying to recruit more fighters to his side, and expected the Bolsheviks to negotiate. Instead, Vacietis ordered a 152 mm howitzer brought in to reduce the Popov-Cheka stronghold to rubble—even with Dzierzynski inside.319 When the shelling started to wreck the building, as well as its neighboring structures, Popov and his men began to flee (they left Dzierzynski behind). Sources conflict on the duration of the skirmish (perhaps many hours, perhaps forty minutes). The two sides sustained around ten fatalities and about fifty wounded. Hundreds of Left SRs were taken into custody.320 Thirteen or so, including Spiridonova, were transferred to prison cells in the Kremlin. At 4:00 p.m., the Council of People’s Commissars confidently pronounced “the uprising . . . liquidated.”321

The Cheka initiated an immediate countercoup against the Left SRs, solidifying the Bolshevik monopoly.322 The Cheka raided the editorial offices and smashed the printing facilities of non-Bolshevik periodicals.323 Blyumkin escaped to Ukraine. But many Left SRs in Bolshevik custody, including Alexandrovich—the savior of Lacis—were executed immediately without trial; the Bolsheviks publicly announced that some 200 had been shot.324 The vast majority of Left SRs across the country simply switched to the Bolshevik party. In the meantime, without the Left SR delegates, the Congress of Soviets resumed on July 9, and Trotsky regaled the delegates with details of “the Uprising.”325 In fact, one Left SR, Prosh Proshyan, had gone to the Central Telegraph Office around midnight on July 6 and proclaimed, “We killed Mirbach, the Council of People’s Commissars is under arrest.” Proshyan—who briefly had been commissar of posts and telegraph—dispatched a series of confused telegrams around the country, one referring to the Left SRs as “the presently governing party.”326 But this individual initiative aside, there had been no Left SR coup. The Left SR leadership had made plain many times, before and during the events, that they were prepared to defend themselves with force but not to seize power: theirs was an uprising on behalf of Soviet power “against the imperialists” (Germany), not against the Bolsheviks.327

The Left SR episode put in sharp relief Lenin’s coup seven months earlier in October 1917. Just as in 1917, so in summer 1918, power was there for the seizing: The Left SRs enjoyed no worse prospects against Lenin and the Bolsheviks than Lenin had had against Kerensky. The Left SRs served in and had seized full control over the Cheka, won over much of the garrison by agitation, and possessed Kremlin passes, including to the Imperial Senate, where Lenin had his office.328 But the Left SRs lacked something critical: will. Lenin was fanatically committed to seizing and holding power, and his will had proved decisive in the Bolshevik coup, just as its absence now proved decisive in the Left SR non-coup.

Lenin had relentlessly pursued personal power, though not for power’s sake: he, too, was moved by visions of social justice via revolution, as well as an allegedly scientific (Marxist) conviction in his rightness, even as he continued to strike many contemporaries as mad.329 But all along, Lenin had gotten lucky with his socialist opponents: Victor Chernov of the populous Right SRs, who had shrunk from offers of force by the capital garrison to protect the Constituent Assembly; Yuly Martov of the Mensheviks, who had clung to the “bourgeois phase” of history even without a bourgeoisie; Lev Kamenev, who had opposed the Bolshevik coup and tried to displace the Bolshevik monopoly with an all-socialist coalition government, then begged to be readmitted to the Bolshevik Central Committee. And now, Maria Spiridonova, who also proved no match for Lenin.330 Spiridonova, just thirty-four years old in 1918 but the only widely known Left SR leader, happened to be the only female head of any political force in 1917–18, and as such, was long subject to condescension (“a tireless hysteric with a pince-nez, the caricature of Athena,” one German journalist remarked).331 But she certainly did not lack gumption. At age twenty-two, in 1906, she had shot a tsarist police general for suppressing a peasant rebellion in 1905, for which she received a sentence of lifetime penal labor in Eastern Siberia. In prison and in transit, she suffered beatings and sexual assault, the least of which involved cigarettes extinguished on her bare breasts. She possessed courage. She could also be politically clear-eyed: unlike the vast majority of Left SRs, and the self-styled Left Bolsheviks, Spiridonova had supported Brest-Litovsk. “The peace was signed not by . . . the Bolsheviks,” she had shrewdly noted, but “by want, famine, the lack of desire of the whole people—suffered out, tired—to fight.”332 But time and again, Lenin and Sverdlov had manipulated her earnestness. Now, in July 1918, she unexpectedly had them in her grasp, but did not evolve her initial strategy and seize the opportunity.

The Bolshevik counterassault on the Left SRs, meanwhile, would culminate in a secret “trial” against the party. Spiridonova would be sentenced to just one year, and then amnestied.333 But a once powerful political force was now neutered.334 Without the Left SRs, the Congress of Soviets, on its final day (July 10), approved a constitution declaring that “all central and local power belongs to soviets” and calling for “abolition of all exploitation of man by man, the complete elimination of the division of society into classes, the ruthless suppression of the exploiters, the establishment of a socialist organization of society, and the victory of socialism in all countries.”


The Romanovs were still alive—and offered a potential rallying point, whether for the Bolsheviks in a public trial or for the anti-Bolsheviks to spring free. Nicholas’s brother Grand Duke Mikhail had been arrested by Kerensky and later deported by the Bolsheviks to a prison in the Urals (Perm). There, in the wee hours on June 13, 1918, five armed men of the Cheka, led by an old terrorist who had served time in tsarist prisons, staged an escape of the grand duke in order to execute him. Mikhail’s bullet-ridden body was burned in a smelter. The Bolsheviks shrank from admitting the execution, and circulated rumors Mikhail had been freed by monarchists and vanished.335 As for Nicholas, the Provisional Government had decided to exile him and his family abroad, but the Soviet had objected, and in any case, British king George V—who was a cousin to both Nicholas and Alexandra—rescinded an offer to shelter them.336 So Kerensky had sent the Russian royals to house arrest in the Tobolsk governor’s mansion (Nicholas’s train was disguised as a “Red Cross mission” and flew a Japanese flag).337 The symbolism of Siberian exile resonated. But as rumors spread of the ex-tsar’s comfortable existence and of monarchist plots to free him, the Urals soviet resolved to bring Nicholas to Yekaterinburg. But in April 1918, Sverdlov sent a trusted agent to fetch him from Tobolsk to Moscow. As the train for the former tsar traveled through Yekaterinburg, Urals Bolsheviks kidnapped him and placed him in the requisitioned mansion of a retired army engineer, Nikolai Ipatyev, around which they erected a palisade, and kept a large guard detail. In Moscow, Lenin had minions gather materials to put Nicholas on trial, a development mooted in the press, but the trial kept being “postponed.”338 “At the time,” Trotsky wrote of the closely held trial discussions, “Lenin was rather gloomy.”339

By July 1918, the Czechoslovak Legion was advancing on Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik military commissar of the Urals went to Moscow to discuss the Urals defense and presumably, Nicholas and his family. On July 2, the Council of People’s Commissars appointed a commission to draft a decree nationalizing Romanov family property. Two days later, the newly formed Yekaterinburg Cheka displaced the local soviet as the royal family’s guards. Nicholas lived in evident bewilderment; he discovered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous anti-Semitic tract forged in imperial Russia about a global Jewish conspiracy, which he now read aloud to his German wife and daughters; perhaps Communism was a Jewish conspiracy?340 Soon the Cheka forged a crude monarchist letter in French purporting to be a conspiracy to free and restore the tsar. On this pretext, in the dead of night July 16–17, 1918, without formal charges, let alone a trial, a “sentence” of death by firing squad was carried out against Nicholas, Alexandra, their son, Alexei (aged thirteen), their four daughters (aged seventeen to twenty-two), the family physician, and three servants. Yakov Yurovsky, the eighth of ten children of a Jewish seamstress and a glazier (and suspected thief), led the eleven-person execution squad. Their hail of pistol bullets ricocheted off the brick walls around the half basement, and burned the executioners (some would become deaf). Alexei survived the barrage—he let out a moan—but Yurovsky went up and shot him point blank. Some of the daughters, whose bodies held concealed jewels that repelled the bullets, were bayoneted to pieces. Yurovsky’s squad buried the bodies off a dirt road at a village (Koptyaki) twelve miles north of Yekaterinburg. They poured sulfuric acid over the corpses to disfigure them beyond recognition, and burned and separately buried the corpses of Alexei and a daughter mistaken for Alexandra. That same day, July 19, Yurosovky left for Moscow to report.341 The central Bolshevik government never admitted its responsibility, and the act was attributed to the Urals Bolsheviks.342 The day the Bolshevik government published an announcement of the tsar’s death—falsely reporting the survival of Alexei and Alexandra—it also published the decree nationalizing Romanov family property (approved six days earlier).343 “There was no sign of grief or sympathy among the people,” noted ex-tsarist prime minister Vladimir Kokovtsov, who on the day of the announcement rode in a Petrograd tram. “The report of the Tsar’s death was read aloud, with smirks, mockeries, and base comments.” Some passengers said, “High time!”344

The Romanovs’ summary execution, and the failure to mount a public political trial, indicated desperation. The Bolsheviks had no military force capable of genuine combat, and the attempts to form some sort of army floundered, as soldiers scattered in search of food, turning into robber bands. Even the reliable Latvians were looking for other options. “At the time it was believed that central Russia would turn into a theater of internecine warfare and that the Bolsheviks would hardly hold on to power,” recalled Vacietis, the Latvian commander, of the summer of 1918. He feared for the “complete annihilation of the Latvian Rifles” and entered into secret talks with the irrepressible Riezler, the deceased Mirbach’s temporary replacement as charge d’affaires. Riezler, fearing the Bolsheviks would fall and be replaced by a pro-Entente regime, secretly urged a coup to install a government in Moscow similarly friendly to Berlin by bringing in a battalion of German grenadiers to “guard” the embassy.345 Lenin refused to allow them (he did consent to the arrival of some Germans in small groups without uniforms).346 In any case, Riezler’s superiors at the German foreign ministry in Berlin saw no need to abandon Lenin, who had paralyzed Russia and remained loyal to Germany.347 Still, Riezler hoped to undo the Bolsheviks by obtaining the defection of the Latvian Riflemen, whose units guarded the Kremlin, and he found a receptive group eager to return to their homeland, which was under German occupation. If the Latvians were repatriated, Vacietis promised they would remain neutral in any German-Bolshevik showdown.348 General Ludendorff, however, undercut Riezler’s negotiations, arguing that Latvia would be contaminated by Bolshevik propaganda if the Rifles were repatriated. The Reichswehr helped save Bolshevism, yet again.

The Czechoslovak Legion and anti-Bolshevik forces seized Yekaterinburg on July 25, 1918, less than a week after Nicholas had been buried there.349 “The Entente has bought the Czechoslovaks, counter-revolutionary uprisings rage everywhere, the whole bourgeoisie is using all its strength to sweep us out,” Lenin wrote the next day to Klara Zetkin, the German revolutionary.350 In August 1918, the British, against Bolsevik wishes, shifted from Murmansk (where the Bolsheviks had invited them to land) to the larger port of Arkhangelsk, as a better base of operations, hoping to restore an eastern front against Germany by linking up with the Czechoslovak Legion. Rumors spread that Entente forces would march on Moscow, 750 miles to the south.351 Panic erupted on the jerry-built northern railroad. “Among us no one doubted that the Bolshevks were doomed,” wrote an agent (sent to Moscow by former tsarist General Mikhail Alexeyev) who had managed to get himself appointed deputy trade commissar. “A ring had been established around Soviet power, and we were sure that the Bolsheviks would not escape it.”352 To the north were the British and soon the Americans (with different agendas); to the east, the Czechoslovak Legion and other anti-Bolshevik forces, who captured Kazan (August 7); to the south, anti-Bolshevik forces aided by Germany and advancing on Tsaritsyn, poised to link up with the anti-Bolshevik forces in the east. And to the west stood the Germans, who occupied Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic littoral, and kept a force in Finland at its government’s request. Lenin and the inner circle contemplated abandoning Moscow for Nizhny Novgorod, in the deeper interior.353 Bolshevik officials also began requesting diplomatic passports and travel documents for Germany for their families; money was transferred to Swiss banks.354

Might Lenin go back whence he came? “The Bolsheviks were saying openly that their days were numbered,” reported a new German ambassador, Karl Helfferich (appointed above Riezler), who was urging Berlin to break off relations with the doomed Bolsheviks, and who for safety reasons did not venture out of his Moscow residence.355

Lenin, however, came up with his boldest, most desperate maneuver yet. The same day that the British landed the expeditionary force at Arkhangelsk, where a local coup put a non-Bolshevik figure in power, he dispatched his foreign affairs commissar to the German embassy to request what the Bolshevik leader had long feared—a German invasion toward the Russian imperial capital of Petrograd. “In view of the state of public opinion, an open military alliance with Germany is not possible; what is possible is parallel action,” Georgy Chicherin told Helfferich. The people’s commissar asked the Germans not to occupy Petrograd but to defend it, by marching on Murmansk and Arkhangelsk against the Entente forces. Furthermore, in the south, Chicherin requested that the Germans stop supporting the anti-Bolshevik forces and instead move troops in to attack them. “Chicherin,” Helfferich reported to Berlin, “made clear that the request for German troops in the north and in the south came directly from Lenin.356 Despite inconclusive wrangling over whether the Germans could, or could not, occupy Petrograd itself, the upshot would be a new, even more oppressive treaty, “supplementary” to Brest-Litovsk, signed in Berlin on August 27, 1918. Lenin agreed to renounce Estonia and Livonia (Lithuania); sell Germany 25 percent of the output of the Baku oil fields; afford Germany use of the Black Sea fleet; and make reparations of 6 billion marks, half in gold reserves. Germany promised to send coal, rifles, bullets, machine guns, and evacuate Belorussia, promises from a depleted Germany not worth the paper on which they were printed.357 Three secret clauses—never mind the Bolshevik condemnation of capitalists’ “secret diplomacy”—provided for German action against Allied forces on Russian soil in the north and in the south, and expulsion of the British from Baku, a task for which Germany obtained the right to land there.358

Lenin clung to imperial Germany like sea rust on the underside of a listing ship. If during the wild rumors of 1914–17, the imagined treason of the tsarist court to the Germans had never been real, in 1918, the abject sellout to the Germans by the Bolsheviks was all too real. The August 27 treaty was a worse capitulation than Brest-Litovsk, and one that Lenin voluntarily sought. He was bribing his way to what he hoped was safety from German overthrow as well as the right to call upon German help against attempted Entente overthrow. “There was a coincidence of interests,” Lenin wrote by hand—avoiding secretaries—to the Bolshevik envoy to Sweden. “We would have been idiots not to have exploited it.”359 The Germans, for their part, were no less cynical, determined, as the foreign secretary expressed it, “to work with the Bolsheviks or to use them, as long as they are in the saddle, to our own best advantage.”360 The Bolsheviks’ first installment of promised payment, 120 million gold rubles, was remitted in August (more payments would be made in September).

Colonel Vacietis, the Latvian commander, had been dispatched to the city of Kazan to help clean up the Red mess and salvage the situation. On August 30, 1918, Lenin wrote to Trotsky that if the city of Kazan was not retaken, Vacietis was to be shot.361 Later that evening, a Friday, the Bolshevik leader went to the Mikhelson Machine Factory in the heart of Moscow’s worker-saturated factory district to give a speech. Fridays were “party day” in Moscow and officials dispersed around town to address mass meetings of workers and soldiers in the evenings. Lenin addressed some 140 such meetings in Moscow and its immediate environs between his arrival in March and July.362 He went to Mikhelson, his second public speech of the day, without a guard detail, aside from his chauffeur (who remained with the car). The idea of assassinating top Bolsheviks crossed many a mind. In 1918, members of the British Secret Service Bureau evidently asked a Russian-born British spy to invent a pretext for an interview with Stalin in order, once inside, to assassinate him (the Brit claimed he refused the request).363 On that morning of August 30, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, Moisei Uritsky, yet another former Menshevik who had thrown in his lot with the Bolsheviks, was assassinated in the old tsarist general staff headquarters on Palace Square (the square would be renamed after him). Dzierzynski departed Moscow to oversee the investigation.364 Lenin had spoken at Mikhelson four times previously. That evening, the venue—the hand grenade shop—was jammed. But Lenin was running very late and at 9:00 p.m. two hours after the scheduled start, a substitute speaker was finally sent out to the crowd. Some forty-five minutes later Lenin’s car pulled up and he took the stage immediately. “Comrades, I won’t speak long, we have a Council of People’s Commissars meeting,” he began, then delivered an hour-long harangue on the theme of “Bourgeois Dictatorship versus Proletarian Dictatorship.” The audience had many tough questions (submitted as per custom in written form), but Lenin claimed no time to answer them. “We have one conclusion,” he summed up, calling them to take up arms to defend the revolution. “Victory or Death!”365

Lenin made his exit, but just before entering his waiting vehicle, he fell to the ground, shot in the chest and the left arm (the bullet passed into his shoulder). His driver, Stepan Gil, and some members of the factory committee placed him in the backseat of his car. Lenin was white as a sheet, blood still pouring out despite tourniquets; he also suffered internal bleeding.366 They drove to the Kremlin. When the call came in to the Kremlin, Commandant Malkov gathered pillows from the tsars’ collection at the Grand Kremlin Palace and took them over to Lenin’s apartment in the Imperial Senate, where the wounded leader had been brought. No one knew how to stop the bleeding, and Lenin passed out from blood loss and pain.367 The head of the Kremlin garage rushed out to find oxygen tanks: one tank was rented from the A. Bloch and H. Freiman pharmacy on nearby Tverskaya Street for 80 rubles, another at a different pharmacy farther down for 55 rubles. (The automobile department head, in his report, wrote that “since the money was paid out of my own pocket, I would ask that it be returned to me.”)368 The first person a prostrate Lenin asked for was Inessa Armand, his former mistress, who arrived with her daughter.369 Bonch-Bruevich ordered the Kremlin guard to high alert.370 Sverdlov summoned a famous doctor; meanwhile, Bonch-Bruevich’s wife, Vera, a doctor, checked Lenin’s pulse and injected him with morphine.371

Back at Mikhelson, a fleeing Feiga Roidman (aka Fanya Kaplan) had been detained at a nearby tram stop as the presumed shooter.372 A twenty-eight-year-old Right Socialist Revolutionary, she confessed at her initial interrogation and insisted no one else had been involved, although she was nearly blind and it was dark where Lenin had been shot. (The would-be assassin may have been an accomplice, Lidiya Konopleva, an Anarchist SR and a Kaplan rival, or someone else.)373 Sverdlov, in the name of the Soviet central executive committee, denounced the Right SRs as “hirelings of the British and French.”374 Bonch-Bruevich sent telegrams to Trotsky (then at the southeastern front, in Sviyazhsk) concerning Lenin’s temperature, pulse, and breathing.375 Trotsky rushed back to Moscow immediately. On September 2, 1918, he addressed the Soviet central executive committee, calling Lenin not merely “the leader of the new epoch” but “the greatest human being of our revolutionary epoch,” and while admitting that Marxists believed in classes, not personalities, acknowledged that Lenin’s loss would be devastating. Trotsky’s speech would be published in the press and as a widely distributed pamphlet.376 The same day, the regime declared the formation of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, headed by Trotsky. The next day Sverdlov ordered Kremlin commandant Malkov to execute Kaplan, which he did, then burned the body in a metal drum in the Kremlin’s Alexander Garden.377 On September 4, Vacietis, instead of facing a firing squad, was promoted to Red commander in chief. The rank-and-file Latvian Riflemen were becoming disillusioned over Bolshevik dictatorial behavior.378 Vacietis again approached the Germans seeking repatriation of his men to Latvia, but he was again rebuffed.379

 • • •

FROM THE OUTSET, the survival of the Bolshevik escapade had been in doubt, even as the new regime set about ripping tsarist insignia off buildings and taking down old statues, such as Alexander II inside the Kremlin and Alexander III outside Christ the Redeemer Cathedral. Lenin and others, using ropes, ceremoniously pulled down the large Orthodox cross inside the Kremlin for Grand Duke Sergei (Romanov), the Moscow governor general assassinated in 1905.380 In their place would go up statues to Darwin, Danton, Alexander Radishchev, and others in the leftist pantheon. “I am exasperated to the depths of my soul,” Lenin wrote to enlightenment commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky on September 12, 1918, days after having been shot. “There is no outdoor bust of Marx. . . . I scold you for this criminal negligence.”381

The Bolsheviks had begun renaming Moscow’s streets: Resurrection Square would become Revolution Square; Old Basmannaya Street, Karl Marx Street; Prechistenka, Kropotkin Street; Grand Nikita Street, Alexander Herzen Street.382 That year of 1918, on Moscow’s grandest artery, Tverskaya, at the junction between Bolshoi and Maly Gnezdnikov Lanes, Cafe Bim-Bom buzzed with freneticism. It belonged to the founding member of the clown pair Bim and Bom, Iwan Radunski (who at this time was teamed with Mieczysław Staniewski as Bim). The celebrated duet dated to 1891 and specialized in biting satire accompanied by musical numbers. Bom’s cafe was a crazy anthill in the new Bolshevik capital, frequented by all types, from the political (Menshevik leader Yuly Martov, a young Left SR Yakov Blyumkin) to the artistic (writer Ilya Ehrenburg, performing clown Vladimir Durov). Inevitably, the cafe also attracted Moscow’s criminal element, including one figure who had pocketed the proceeds from the sale of the former Moscow governor-general’s mansion, which was located on the same street as the cafe, by pretending the property was his own residence. When the irreverent satirists began to mock the new Bolshevik regime, however, Latvian Riflemen in the audience shot up the premises and began to chase Bim and Bom. The audience laughed, assuming it was part of the act. The clowns would be arrested.383

Despite such reflexive repression and the grandiose plans, the would-be regime had hit a nadir in 1918. Rumors flew around Moscow that Lenin had died and been buried in secret. Zinoviev spoke of Lenin in a public speech on September 6, 1918, as “the greatest leader ever known by humanity, the apostle of the socialist revolution” and compared Lenin’s famous What Is to Be Done with the Gospels, sacralizing imagery, that, intentionally or not, sounded ominous.384 Bonch-Bruevich hastily arranged to film Lenin—against his wishes—outside on the Kremlin grounds, the first ever documentary of him, which proved he was alive.385 At the same time, the Bolsheviks proclaimed a Terror “to crush the hydra of counter-revolution.”386 Zinoviev, for effect, would announce that 500 “hostages” had been shot in Petrograd, executions of imprisoned former tsarist officials that were staged in public places.387 There were at least 6,185 summary executions in the Red Terror of 1918—in two months. There had been 6,321 death sentences by Russian courts between 1825 and 1917, not all of them carried out. To be sure, executions in tsarist Russia are not easy to calculate: the repression of the Polish uprising in 1830, for example, was often outside the judicial system, while the courts-martial of 1905–6 were generally not counted in the “normal” statistics. Still, the magnitude of the Red Terror was clear.388 And the public bragging of its scope was designed to be part of its effect. “The criminal adventurism of Socialist Revolutionaries, White Guards, and other pseudo-socialists, forces us to reply to the criminal designs of the enemies of the working class with mass terror,” Jekabs Peterss, deputy chief of the Cheka, thundered in Ivzestiya. The same issue carried a telegram from Stalin calling for “open, mass, systematic terror against the bourgeoisie.”389

Bolshevism’s core convictions about capitalism and class warfare were held to be so incontrovertible that any and all means up to lying and summary executions were seen as not just expedient but morally necessary. The demonstrative Red Terror, like its French precedent, would make an indelible impression, on enemies and (newfound) supporters of the Bolsheviks alike.390 Faced with extinction, the Bolsheviks wielded the specter of “counterrevolution” and the willingness of masses of people to risk their lives defending “the revolution” against counterrevolution in order to build an actual state. What in summer and fall 1918 looked for all the world like political Dadaism would soon become an enduring, ambitious dictatorship.391



The world war formally ended with the conclusion of the armistice. . . . In fact, however, everything from that point onward that we have experienced and continue to experience is a continuation and transformation of the world war.

Pyotr Struve, Rostov-on-the-Don (held by the Whites), November 19191

Every military specialist must have a commissar on his right and on his left, each with a revolver in his hand.

Lev Trotsky, Commissar of War, 19182

BEYOND THEIR MONOPOLY OF 1917–18, the Bolsheviks created a state in 1918–20. The distinction is often lost. Forcibly denying others a right to rule is not the same as ruling and controlling resources. The new state took shape by means of the predation, confiscation, and redistribution of material things (grain, buildings, valuables) as well as the intimidation or conscription of people, refracted through notions of revolutionary class warfare. The resulting regime, one scholar observed, “necessarily also meant a burgeoning bureaucracy, needed both to expropriate the old owners and to administer the newly expropriated property.”3 In many cases, the bureaucrats, even when they themselves were not holdovers, continued to use the letterhead of the tsarist regime or Provisional Government. That said, this was a very particular state: an armed political police that resembled criminal bandits; a sprawling food procurement commissariat, which bested numerous rivals in a battle for bureaucratic aggrandizement; a distribution apparatus to allocate the spoils and to feed off them itself; an immense desertion-beset Red Army; an inefficient but—thanks to the aura of emergency—increasingly hierarchical party hydra, which absorbed and deployed personnel; and a propaganda machinery, with an estimated 50,000 activists already in 1918, wielding newspapers, posters, skits, films, and agitation trains, albeit largely confined to the towns and the army.4 Despite the existence of soviets as well as revolutionary tribunals, this was almost entirely an executive-branch state, but it roiled with rival executive claimants to power, as “commissars” went up against “commissars,” nationally and locally, those who were appointed and those self-appointed. Above all, the new state owed its existence to civil war, as most states do, but it remained in peacetime a counterinsurgency.5 Civil war was not something that deformed the Bolsheviks; it formed them, indeed it saved them from the Dada and near oblivion of 1918.6 To be sure, even before the onset of full-fledged civil war, the Bolsheviks had not been shy about expropriation and terror. But the civil war provided the opportunity to develop and to validate the struggle against “exploiting classes” and “enemies” (domestic and international), thereby imparting a sense of seeming legitimacy, urgency, and moral fervor to predatory methods.7 “The ruling class,” as Lenin explained, “never turns its power over to the downtrodden class.”8 And so, power had to be claimed by force in an ongoing, not one-off, process. The “seizure of power” would be enacted anew, every day.9

Stalin, like Lenin, is rightly seen as an admirer of the grand trappings of statehood, but an idolatry of the state did not initially drive Bolshevik state building.10 Nor was the driver the shattering conditions of world war and revolution. Rather, it was a combination of ideas or habits of thought, especially profound antipathy to markets and all things bourgeois, as well as no-holds-barred revolutionary methods, which exacerbated the catastrophe in a self-reinforcing loop.11 Plenty of regimes justify martial law, summary shootings, roundups, and confiscations by citing emergency circumstances, but they do not, as a rule, completely outlaw private trade and declare industry nationalized, ration food by class (workers versus “non-laboring elements”), summon “poor peasants” and workers to dispossess “kulaks,” and try to subvert major world powers because they are capitalist (“imperialists”). Bolshevik state building was launched with desperate measures to address inherited, and then severely aggravated, urban food shortages, but every challenge was cast as a matter of counterrevolution, on the part of someone, somewhere. “In the name of saving the revolution from counter-revolution”: so began countless documents from the period, followed by directives to “requisition” flour, petrol, guns, vehicles, people.12 “Today is the first year anniversary of the Revolution,” remarked one former tsarist official (referring to the February Revolution). “A year ago nearly everyone became revolutionaries; and now, counterrevolutionaries.”13 The idea of counterrevolution was the gift that kept on giving.

Pitiless class warfare formed the core of Lenin’s thought—the Great War, to his mind, had irrevocably proven that capitalism had forfeited its right to further existence—but a Soviet state was not born fully armed from Lenin’s forehead. Among the broad masses there was an intuitive antibourgeois ethos—exploiters versus the exploited, haves versus have-nots—which could both motivate and justify an all-out mobilization to combat counterrevolution and defend the revolution. Consider a revolutionary episode in late summer 1918 in Kamyshinsk, on the Volga, a merchant town of sawmills, windmills, and watermelons. “The Cheka has registered all the big bourgeoisie, and at the moment they are being kept on a barge,” proudly proclaimed a group that had constituted itself as the local political police. “During the day the [prisoners] work in town.” No one had to explain to these local defenders of the revolution who the “bourgeoisie” were or why they were the enemy. And when members of the “bourgeoisie” on the Kamyshinsk barge suddenly fell ill, and the Cheka consented to an inspection by a physician from nearby Saratov, who prescribed better rations and release from forced labor, the suspicious Chekists decided to investigate the doctor’s background and discovered he was an impostor. “Now,” the operative gloated, “he too is on the barge.”14 Such prison barges for “class aliens” arose up and down the Volga—none more impressive than under Stalin at Tsaritsyn—as did barge equivalents all across the former Russian empire.15 The ideologically inflected practices that generated the barges enabled tens of thousands of new people in thousands of locales to entrench a new unaccountable power.16 (Apolitical gangsters and profiteers got into the act, too, to rob the “bourgeoisie.”) Violent actions against “counterrevolution” that flowed from the logic of socialist revolution also provoked outrage. “To whom does power in the provinces belong?” one angry commissariat official asked in fall 1918. “To the soviets and their executive committees, or to the Chekas?”17 The answer could not have been plainer: when villagers in Samara Province, also in the Volga valley, revealed that they wanted to hold a new election for the local Cheka’s leadership, the Chekists readied their weapons. As a frightened peasant ran away, a sixteen-year-old Chekist shot him in the back. “Pay special attention to this and write in the newspaper,” one peasant urged, “that here is a fellow who can kill whomever he wants.”18

Here was the eureka moment: from bottom to top, and places in between, the ideas and practices of revolutionary class war produced the Soviet state. Marx had written about emancipation, freedom—but he had also written about class war. For the revolution to succeed, for humanity to break free and advance, everything connected to “the bourgeoisie” and to capitalism had to be smashed. Everything that hindered annihilation of the bourgeosie and capitalism also had to be cleared away, including other socialists. True, far from everyone leapt into the mayhem. The vast majority of inhabitants just sought to survive by scavenging, finagling, uprooting. At the same time, substantial numbers of people also sought to live the revolution right here and now, organizing communes, building children’s nurseries, writing science fiction. “All aspects of existence—social, economic, political, spiritual, moral, familial—were opened to purposeful fashioning by human hands,” wrote Isaac Steinberg. “Everywhere the driving passion was to create something new, to effect a total difference with the ‘old world.’”19 But within the utopia, the class principle, fundamentally, was intolerant. Many Bolsheviks who were bursting with conviction to serve humanity began to see that their dedicated efforts to end suffering and level social hierarchies were producing the opposite. This realization proved shattering for some, but for most it constituted a way station on the ladder of revolutionary career advancement.20 True believers mixed with opportunists, revolutionary ascetics with swindlers, and together, in the name of social justice and a new world of abudance, they drove ineptitude, corruption, and bluster to heights scarcely known even in tsarist Russia.21

Peasant partisan armies fighting against Bolshevism forcibly requisitioned grain from villages under their control, while denouncing the injustices of the market, and instituted an organization similar to that of the Red Army, right down to the formation of units for deployment against the civilian population and the use of political commissars to ensure loyalty. The anti-Bolshevik Whites, too, had internal-order battalions, grain requisitioning, political commissars, and terror, as civilians lamented.22 But the Bolsheviks, unlike their enemies, boasted that they had an all-encompassing, scientific answer to everything, and they expended considerable resources to disseminate their ideology. Party thinking equated Bolshevism with the movement of history and thereby made all critics into counterrevolutionaries, even if they were fellow socialists. Meanwhile, in trying to manage industry, transport, fuel, food, housing, education, culture, all at the same time, during a time of war and ruin, the revolutionaries came face to face with their own lack of expertise, and yet the solution to their woes struck them with ideological horror: They had to engage the class enemy—“bourgeois specialists”—inherited from tsarist times, who often detested socialism but were willing to help rebuild the devastated country. “These people,” Alexander Verkhovsky, tsarist general and Provisional Government war minister, presciently wrote of the Bolsheviks immediately after the October coup, “while promising everything, will give nothing—instead of peace, civil war; instead of bread, famine; instead of freedom, robbery, anarchy and murder.”23 But Verkhovsky soon joined the Red Army. This provides a striking contrast to the extreme hesitancy of almost any German old-regime holdovers to cooperate with the Weimar Republic. But the cooperative tsarist experts were not trusted even if they were loyal, because they were “bourgeois.” Dependency on people perceived as class enemies shaped, indeed warped, Soviet politics and institutions. The technically skilled, who were distrusted politically, were paired with the politically loyal, who lacked technical competence, first in the army and then in every institution, from railroads to schools.24 The unintentional upshot—a Communist watchdog shadowing every “bourgeois expert”—would persist even after the Reds were trained and became experts, creating a permanent dualist “party-state.”

The revolutionary state became ever more powerful without ever overcoming its improvised, chaotic nature. Supervision was ad hoc, intermittent. Steinberg, a Left Socialist Revolutionary who served as justice commissar during the short-lived coalition government of 1918, tried but failed to curb the arbitrary power of the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, Sabotage, and Speculation. Bureaucratic infighting alone did not defeat him, however. When the capital had shifted to Moscow in March 1918, the central Cheka had a mere 131 employees, 35 of whom were rank-and-file soldiers, 10 chauffeurs, and many others who were secretaries or couriers, leaving no more than around 55 operatives.25 They carried the “budget” around in their pockets and holsters. Moreover, the carving out of a separate Cheka for Moscow came at the expense of the central apparatus. True, as of August 1918, even after the mass eviction from the Cheka of the Left SRs, the political police in the capital had grown to 683.26 But more important, by summer’s end 1918, Izvestiya would report the existence of local Chekas in 38 provinces and, lower down, in 75 counties (uezd).27 Also, a separate Railroad Cheka took shape to battle “counterrevolution” across the far-flung rail network, and Cheka “special departments” arose for security in the Red Army. No one coordinated or controlled these political policemen. The local Chekas and the sundry parallel Chekas formed largely on their own. One example was that Kamyshinsk barge, another, the Yekaterinburg Cheka, which “was quartered at No. 7 Pushkin Street; a two-story building of no great size, with a deep cellar into which the prisoners were stuffed,” wrote one operative who served there. “White Officers and priests [were] packed sardine-wise along with peasants who had concealed their grain against the requisitions. Every night we had a ‘liquidation’ of ‘parasites’”—that is, the prisoners were brought up from the dungeon, made to cross a courtyard, and gunned down. This operative added that, as a result of confiscations from “the bourgeoisie,” “there was a great mass of miscellaneous stuff: jewelry, banknotes, trinkets, garments, provisions. We brought it all together into one place and divided it up.”28 Overall, the political police were a mess, corrupt and at cross-purposes.29 But “the Cheka” constituted not just a formal state agency; it was also a deadly mind-set, a presupposition of the existence of class enemies and an injunction to employ any and all means in their eradication.30 Socialist critics of the political police, like Steinberg, were invariably told that the summary executions were “temporary,” until the class war had been won, or the world revolution had taken place, or some other point on the horizon had been attained. In the meantime, Chekists said, history would forgive an excess of harshness but not of weakness. Lynch law and self-dealing—otherwise known as class war—simultaneously discredited the cause and galvanized militants. Violent chaos was a form of “administration,” driven by a zealously held vision.

The fracturing of the imperial Russian geopolitical space, as well as the simultaneity of many civil war events from one end of Eurasia to another, militates against ease of narration. (Einstein once said that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”) Below we take up the dictatorship of Stalin in Tsaritsyn (1918), the founding of the Communist International (1919), the Versailles Treaty (1919), the leftist revolutions or near revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and Italy (1919), and the shifting combat between Reds and Whites (1918–20). The next chapter continues the civil war story with examination of the Soviet-Polish War (1919–20), the Congress of the Peoples of the East (1920), the reconquest of Turkestan (1920), the mass peasant uprisings in Tambov and elsewhere (1920–21), the Kronstadt sailor revolt (1921), the 10th Party Congress, the war of reconquest in Georgia (1921), and the creation of the first Soviet satellite in Mongolia. Even all that—a vast panaorama—falls short of a comprehensive account of what transpired. A single Russia ceased to exist, replaced by a proliferation of states, in which would-be governments rose and fell (Kiev changed hands nineteen times). What knit together the fractured space were the reconstitution of state authority, deep legacies of Russification, ideas, and accompanying intrigues and personal networks. Here we shall see Stalin emerging as the dominant force in the regime, second only to Lenin. “There is no doubt,” Trotsky later wrote, “that Stalin, like many others, was molded in the environment and experiences of the civil war, along with the entire group that later enabled him to establish a personal dictatorship . . . and a whole layer of workers and peasants raised to the status of commanders and administrators.”31 Russia’s civil war produced a surge of people, institutions, relationships, and radicalism. Inside the whirlwind could be discerned the possibilities of Stalin’s future personal dictatorship.


After General Lavr Kornilov’s death in April 1918, one of his ex‒jail mates, Lieutenant General Anton Denikin (b. 1872), had assumed military command of the Volunteer Army. The son of an ethnic Polish seamstress and an ethnic Russian serf whose “emancipation” had come in the form of military conscription (for the usual term of twenty-five years), Denikin had served as chief of staff in succession to generals Alexeyev, Brusilov, and finally Kornilov. Initially he sought to keep the charismatic Kornilov’s demise a secret from the Volunteers, fearing mass defections.32 But the forces under Denikin, now numbering more than 10,000, held together and secured the southern Kuban River basin as a base. After the cancerous Alexeyev also died (October 8, 1918), Denikin catapulted to political command, too. His ascent in the south was paralleled in the northwest by that of General Nikolai Yudenich (b. 1862), the son of a minor court official, who was a former commander of Russian forces against the Ottoman empire, and “a man five foot two inches in height weighing about 280 pounds, [his] body shaped like a coupe, with unnoticeable legs.”33 Yudenich took advantage of sanctuary in breakaway Estonia to set up a second, smaller anti-Bolshevik base. Finally, there was Alexander Kolchak (b. 1874), the son of a major general in the artillery and himself the youngest vice admiral in Russian history (promoted in 1916), a man of valor and patriotism whose favorite reading was said to be the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.34 In 1918, he returned from a futile mission to the United States via Vladivostok, but, as he was en route to joining the Volunteer Army in the south, on November 16 a coup in Omsk (Western Siberia) brought Socialist Revolutionaries to power. Two days later, Siberian Cossacks arrested the socialists and invited Kolchak to take charge as “Supreme Ruler” of Russia. Kolchak did so, calling his new duties “a cross,” but he promoted himself to full admiral—3,500 miles from the nearest port, and without a fleet.35

Kolchak (east), Denikin (south), and Yudenich (northwest) led three separate anti-Bolshevik groupings, vilifying the “commissars” as German agents and Jews, desecrators of all that was dear to Russian patriots and Orthodox believers. The Bolsheviks, in turn, pilloried their foes as “Whites,” evoking the color of supporters of monarchical restoration against the revolution in France after 1789. None of the “White” leaders sought to restore the monarchy.36 But they did seek to turn back the socialist revolution.

The White leaders’ task of forming an army might have seemed within reach, but they had to attract officers who were utterly unlike them. Entering the Great War in 1914, the Russian officer corps had been dominated by General Staff Academy graduates (like Alexeyev, Kornilov, Denikin), as well as by the elite Imperial Guards, and 87.5 percent of the generals and 71.5 percent of the staff officers had been descendants of noble families. (Never mind that most owned no property.)37 But Russia lost more than 60,000 officers during just the first two years of the Great War. At the same time, the officer ranks of imperial Russia, and then the Provisional Government, swelled to a quarter million. Both the replacements and the new recruits came overwhelmingly from the peasants and urban lower orders.38 (Jews excluded, just about any male of military age in Russia who had the slightest bit of formal education could become an officer.)39 Many of these tsarist officers of humble origin morphed into petty tyrants who abused the common soldier worse than had upper-class military men.40 But their social backgrounds meant they were not preternaturally inclined to an antisocialist orientation. In other words, the Great War catastrophe had not only made possible the far-fetched Bolshevik coup, it had also rendered conservative armed opposition to Bolshevism more difficult. At the same time, the Whites greatly complicated their difficult task by refusing to acknowledge peasant land seizures, thereby alienating their potential mass base. Had it not been for the Cossacks, who eventually supported Denikin in numbers but remained reluctant to fight beyond their home territories of the Don and Kuban; the Czechoslovak Legionnaires, who remained reluctant to leave the Urals and Siberia unless it was for home but sometimes fought for Kolchak; and the Entente, which supplied military aid, there would have been no White movement.

Everything about the Red Army’s birth proved difficult, too.41 The Bolsheviks had wanted no part of peasant conscripts, a class they distrusted, and initially sought to recruit only workers, a fantasy that had to be relinquished.42 In addition, the vast majority of Bolsheviks wanted no part of former tsarist officers: the revolution had been launched by soldiers and sailors in revolt against their authority. In fact, leftists in the Communist party, as well as Menshevik critics, repudiated a standing army with “a Bonaparte,” calling for a democratic militia loyal to the soviets.43 But Trotsky—who became the new war and naval commissar, and who had no special training in the military arts (he had never served in the army)—came out strongly in favor of a professisonal army led by real military men.44 Trotsky would deem the famously democratizing Order No. 1 of 1917 “the single worthy document of the February Revolution,” but he afforded no quarter to democracy in a Red Army.45 The soldiers’ committees that had brought down the tsar were formally abolished in March 1918.46 Trotsky also issued a service appeal to former tsarist officers, even generals (March 27), and stated in a newspaper interview published the next day that “the tsarist legacy and deepening economic disarray have undermined people’s sense of responsibility. . . . This has to stop. In the army as in the Soviet fleet, discipline must be discipline, soldiers must be soldiers, sailors sailors, and orders orders.”47 He also continued to insist that “we must have teachers who know something about the science of war.”48 Stalin would be among the most emphatic in rejection of these “military specialists.” But Lenin shared Trotsky’s view on the necessity of expertise, making it official policy.49 Stalin and other opponents of bourgeois experts, however, continued the fight.50

Thus, the keys to the possibility of Red victory—military experts and peasant conscripts—remained under suspicion of treason. In the event, while the peasant revolution in many ways structured the entire civil war, the fraught incorporation of former tsarist officers structured the entire Soviet state.

Most former tsarist officers who took part in the civil war gravitated toward the anti-Bolshevik forces, some 60,000 to Denikin, 30,000 to Kolchak, and 10,000 to other commanders.51 But by the end of the fighting, around 75,000 were serving in the Red Army, composing more than half the Bolsheviks’ officer corps of approximately 130,000. Even more strikingly, around 775 generals and 1,726 other officers of the tsarist general staff would serve in the Red Army at one time or another.52 Their motives varied from patriotism, preservation of the military establishment, and generous pay and rations, to concern for their family members kept as hostages. Would they be loyal? This question had prompted the Provisional Government to introduce “commissars” alongside the inherited tsarist officer corps to prevent counterrevolution, and the Bolsheviks expanded the practice.53 Every commander at every level was supposed to be paired with at least one commissar, alongside of which were instituted appointed “political departments” for clerical and propaganda work.54 Bolshevik political commissars’ powers included “preventing any counterrevolutionary move, wherever it might come from” and arresting “those who violate the revolutionary order.”55 The officers alone were supposed to make all operational decisions, but in practice these began to be considered as valid only with both the commander’s and the commissar’s signatures, opening the way to commissar involvement in purely military matters.56 Both political and military tensions became endemic.57

An odd civil war it would be, then: Whites pushing peasants away and attempting to recruit officers from the lower orders to fight the socialists; Reds giving command posts to tsarist officers, albeit only under armed guard and recruiting peasants only reluctantly. Had the Whites embraced the peasant revolution, or the Reds driven all former tsarist officers into White hands, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the rest would have been delivered back into exile or hung from the lampposts.

Within this electrified political atmosphere, Russia’s civil war was in many ways a war of town against country, a scramble for grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley).58 Neither food supply failures nor even recourse to requisitioning originated with Bolshevism, however. The tsarist agricultural ministry, back in fall 1916, had introduced a grain-quota system (prodrazverstka), under which quotas at fixed prices were assessed on provincial authorities, who in turn assessed the county authorities, down to the villages. Predictably, this failed. In March 1917, after marches for bread helped precipitate the tsar’s downfall, the Provisional Government had founded a stand-alone ministry for the food supply and declared a state “grain monopoly” over distribution, except for a fixed minimum to be left with the growers, but provincial and district supply committees could not extract the grain, while inflation debased the currency offered to peasants (in any case, consumer goods were largely unavailable for purchase).59 Petrograd ate, meagerly, only because bagmen flouted the monopoly and jammed the river ports, roads, and rail lines, often forced to ride dangerously on the roofs of the train cars, to haul foodstuffs back from villages for resale. In late August 1917, during the Kerensky-Kornilov showdown, the Provisional Government suddenly doubled the price its state agents paid to the peasants for grain, a concession internal critics called a “complete capitulation,” but supplies of paper money, not to mention sacks and railcars, were insufficient. The Provisional Government found itself dependent on peasant cooperation to feed the cities and army, but unwilling to indulge peasant desires on the land question.60 On October 16, 1917, normally a month of abundance following the harvest, a desperate-sounding (last) minister of food supply for the Provisional Government observed, “We must cease our attempts at persuasion . . . a shift to compulsion is now absolutely necessary.”61 War and attempted state administration of food supply had pushed toward still greater clumsy state action in the form of confiscations and distributions.62

The Bolsheviks, who had even less tolerance for private traders, resolved to enforce the Provisional Government’s failed state grain monopoly, while reinventing it in class terms, seeking to enlist “poor” peasants in locating grain stores. The poor peasants did not rise to the summons, but the Bolshevik ability to enforce compulsion proved far more vigorous.63 Still, the underlying policy of assigned delivery quotas at artificially set prices to be exchanged for nonexistent industrial goods was not going to feed the cities and army. The Red Army grew from nonexistent in early 1918 to a staggering 600,000 troops already by December of that year, at least in terms of the rations being requested; idled people were hungry.64 The promise of food helped drive recruitment, but delivering on the promise was another matter. In the event, many soldiers and most ordinary people ate because much of the population was turned into illegal private traders (not always willingly).65 A non-Bolshevik newspaper, wryly noting that “hundreds of thousands of members of different committees have to be fed,” offered a logical suggestion: legal restoration of free trade and free prices in grain.66 That indeed would have been the answer, but it remained heresy.

Lenin understood next to nothing of Russian agriculture, land utilization, migrant labor, or the actual operations of the peasant commune, let alone market incentives. In late January 1918, he had appointed Trotsky chairman of a short-lived Extraordinary Commission for Food and Transport; not long thereafter a food commissariat was established, and on February 25 Alexander Tsyurupa, an agricultural academy graduate, was appointed commissar. Lenin suggested that all peasants be compelled to deliver grain by name, and that those who failed to do so “be shot on the spot.” Tsyurupa and even Trotsky balked.67 Lenin continued to fulminate (May 9, 1918) against “those who have grain and fail to deliver it to properly designated rail stations and shipping points,” declaring them to be “enemies of the people.”68 That same month the regime proclaimed a “food dictatorship” and “a great crusade against grain speculators, kulaks, bloodsuckers, disorganizers, bribe-takers,” who had grown “fat and rich during the war” and “now refuse to give bread to starving people.”69 Dzierzynski and Lunacharsky warned this assault would imperil Bolshevik relations with the peasantry, but Lenin ignored their objections.70 By winter, with civil war in full swing, the Bolsheviks would climb down from an official policy of war against kulaks and speculators back to one of obligatory delivery quotas of foodstuffs at fixed prices in exchange for industrial goods.71 Still, in practice, they continued to employ blocking detachments to interdict private traders and to requisition food at gunpoint in the name of class warfare, a platform for Stalin’s blossoming.72


No region would prove more decisive in the civil war than the Volga valley, a premiere source of food and recruits as well as the strategic separator between the two large White armies of Kolchak (Urals-Siberia) and Denikin (Don-Kuban).73 No locale better encapsulated the class warfare revolutionary dynamic than Tsaritsyn, on the confluence of the Volga and the Tsaritsa rivers. It had become the largest industrial center in Russia’s southeast (population 150,000) and had traced the revolution in telescoped fashion, going from an absence of Bolsheviks (February 1917) to domination by Bolsheviks (September 1917) even before the coup in Petrograd.74 Red Tsaritsyn was a critical rail junction for grain and raw materials linking the Caucasus and Moscow, but it lay just east of the expansive Don and Kuban valleys, Cossack lands where the Volunteer Army‒White southern base formed.75 The military situation around Red Tsaritsyn had grown precarious, but workers in Moscow and Petrograd were receiving just four ounces of bread every other day, and Tsaritsyn, situated amid grain-growing regions, looked like a solution. To lead a southern food expedition, Lenin selected a tough worker Bolshevik, Alexander Shlyapnikov, the labor commissar. Tsyurupa, who had become close to Lenin, suggested sending along Stalin as well. In the event, Shlyapnikov became bogged down in Moscow, and Stalin ended up going without him, departing Moscow with 460 armed men on June 4, 1918, and arriving two days later at Tsaritsyn’s train station.76 His role, in essence, was Bolshevik bandit-in-chief in the south to feed the northern capital. Already a top member of the central government (or Council of People’s Commissars), Stalin was concomitantly named “director for food affairs in South Russia.” The food crisis, and Stalin’s chance appointment as sole head of an armed expedition to relieve it, enabled him to reprise his exploits at Batum (1902), Chiatura (1905), and Baku (1907), but this time with greater consequence.

Lenin had already appointed someone as Red Tsaritsyn’s supreme military commander: Andrei Snesarev (b. 1865), a tsarist staff officer who had risen to the rank of lieutenant general under the Provisional Government and volunteered to the Reds. He had arrived in Tsaritsyn on May 27, 1918, with a Council of People’s Commissar mandate signed by Lenin as the newly named head of the new Military Commissariat of the North Caucasus. With Red forces melting away, Snesarev set about creating a real army out of ragtag local partisan warfare units, many of which had recently been driven from Ukraine by the advancing Reichswehr and resembled roaming bandits. His first report to the center (May 29) indicated a dire need for more tsarist military specialists.77 But on June 2, a political commissar in Tsaritsyn informed Moscow that locals “have heard little about the formation of a Red Army. . . . Here we have a mass of staff headquarters and bosses, beginning with basic ones right through extraordinary ones and supreme command ones.”78 It was four days later that Stalin arrived.

Stalin set up residence not in the local Hotel France, but in a parked railway carriage and like a commander, donned a collarless tunic—the quasi-military style of attire made famous by Kerensky—and ordered a local cobbler to fashion him a pair of high black boots.79 Stalin also had his teenage wife, Nadya, in tow; she wore a military tunic and worked in his traveling “secretariat.” Already on his first workday, June 7, he boasted to Lenin that he would send eight express trains loaded with grain as he “pumped out” the fertile region, adding, “Be assured, our hand will not tremble.” At the same time, Stalin complained, “If our military ‘specialists’ (cobblers!) had not been asleep or idle, the railway line would not have been cut, and if the line is restored, it will not be because but in spite of them.”80 On June 10, Lenin issued a proclamation “to all toilers” reporting that food help was on the way: “People’s Commissar Stalin, located in Tsaritsyn and leading all food provisioning from the Don and Kuban, has telegraphed us about the immense grain reserves he soon hopes to send northwards.”81 In fact, within a few weeks, Stalin dispatched the first trainloads of grain northward, said to be about 9,000 tons, although how much total grain Stalin managed to forward northward overall remains unclear. Still, he spared nothing and no one in trying. His frequent telegrams to Lenin promised further food shipments, and dripped with venom against other regime officials operating in parallel, whom he depicted as saboteurs.82

Among the key instruments of the swaggering cobbler’s son was a Tsaritsyn Cheka, which had just announced its existence in May 1918 when it took over a two-story mansion overlooking the Volga. It made the top floor into offices and living quarters, and partitioned the lower floor into cells, which were soon stuffed with prisoners beaten unconscious to “confess.” Targets included “bourgeois,” clergy, intelligentsia, and tsarist officers, many of whom had answered a local appeal to join the Red Army. Workers and peasants were also arrested as counterrevolutionaries if they dared to criticize the arbitrary arrests and torture, or if someone said they had.83 Rumors of atrocities constituted part of the Cheka’s mystique: the Kharkov Cheka was said to scalp victims, the Yekaterinoslav Cheka to stone or crucify them, and the Kremenchug Cheka to impale them on stakes.84 In Tsaritsyn, the Cheka was said to cut through human bones with handsaws.85 Alexander I. Chervyakov (b. 1890), who had emerged as the regional Cheka boss in Tsaritsyn, conducted himself like a tyrant, and he and his leather-clad thugs settled their own scores, including with other Cheka operatives, but now they answered to Stalin.86 An eyewitness, the Bolshevik Fyodor Ilin, who had taken the name Raskolnikov from the Dostoevsky character, recalled that “Stalin in Tsaritsyn was everything”—de facto boss of the regional Cheka, and soon, of the regional Red Army.87

Snesarev had built a local Red Army of 20,000 and organized the defenses of Tsaritsyn’s perimeter as fighting raged along the Tsaritsyn-Yekaterinodar railway.88 Stalin, however, was angling to displace the former tsarist officer. On July 10, he telegrammed Lenin that “there is plenty of grain in the South, but in order to get it, we need a functioning apparatus that does not meet obstacles on the part of [military] echelons, commanders, and such.” Therefore, Stalin concluded, “For the good of the cause, I need military powers. I have already written about this, but have received no reply. Very well. In that case, I shall myself, without formalities, dismiss army commanders and commissars damaging the cause. . . . The absence of a paper from Trotsky will not stop me.”89 Here was brazen insubordination of the war commissar’s authority, which Trotsky took surprisingly well. He telegrammed Stalin on July 17 indicating that Snesarev ought to be retained as commander (voenruk), but that “if you consider it undesirable to retain Snesarev as military commissar, inform me and I will remove him. Your Trotsky.”90 Stalin leapt at the offer. On July 19, approval came for the replacement of Snesarev and his Military Commissariat of the North Caucasus by a local Revolutionary Military Council consisting of three people: Stalin; the top Tsaritsyn Bolshevik, Sergei Minin, who was the son of a priest and, like Stalin, a former seminary student; and one other local official. The order from Moscow bore the notation: “The present telegram is sent with Lenin’s approval.”91 Lenin needed food.92 Stalin wanted autonomy from Trotsky.

Stalin now expropriated Snesarev’s operations department: a July 22 inventory yielded typewriter (Remington), one; telephone (city line), one; telephone (Tsaritsyn HQ), one; desks, four; wicker chairs, seven; pens, three; pencils, five; folders, one; trash can, one.93 Stalin had forced Snesarev, whom he viewed as Trotsky’s man, to unite two armies under the command of Klim Voroshilov.94 Born in Lugansk, the same Donbass coal-mining hometown as Alexander Chervyakov of the Tsaritsyn Cheka, Voroshilov had met Stalin at the 4th Party Congress in 1906 (they shared a room). His origins were similarly humble: the son of a washerwoman and a peasant who worked the mines and railways. Voroshilov had ended his formal schooling at age eight, tended animals, and trained as a locksmith. In August 1917, he took over the Lugansk City Duma from Chervyakov, heading it through February 1918, when the Germans began to overrun Ukraine and he turned to partisan warfare, which constituted his first military experience.95 He had retreated from Ukraine to Tsaritsyn with other Red Guards. Although a fine horseman and marksman, and a genuine proletarian, which garnered him some popularity with rank-and-file troops, he was no strategist. “Personally Voroshilov does not sufficiently possess the characteristics necessary for a military chief,” Snesarev had written to Trotsky in July 1918, adding that he “does not observe elementary rules of commanding troops.”96 But Stalin, with Voroshilov, pushed a defense plan that stipulated removing troops from Tsaritsyn’s northern defenses to its southern and western side for an offensive. It was duly launched on August 1. Within three days Tsaritsyn had lost contact with Moscow; units had to be transferred back to the city’s north. Stalin wrote to Lenin (August 4) blaming his “inheritance” from Snesarev.97

Stalin had Snesarev and various tsarist-era military men arrested, part of a sweep of “military specialists” that included the entire local artillery directorate down to the scribes.98 They were imprisoned on a barge moored in the river in front of Cheka HQ. Trotsky sent an aide, the Siberian Alexei Okulov, to investigate, and he freed Snesarev (who was reassigned elsewhere), while criticizing Stalin and Voroshilov. Trotsky also sent a stern telegram ordering Tsaritsyn to allow tsarist officers to do their jobs, but Stalin wrote on it, “Take no account.”99 Many of the 400 or so arrestees crammed onto the barge would die of starvation or a bullet to the neck that summer of 1918.

Stalin was conducting a parallel incandescent intrigue against a high-level fuel expedition. Fuel, too, was scarce in Moscow and Lenin had tasked the Bolshevik K. E. Makhrovsky of the Supreme Council of the Economy with mounting an expedition to the Grozny refinery in the North Caucasus with 10 million rubles in cash to secure petroleum. Accompanied by the non-Communist technical expert N. P. Alekseev of the transport commissariat, as well as Sergei Kirov, head of the Terek province (North Caucasus) soviet, Makhrovsky’s special tanker train reached Tsaritsyn around July 23, passing through on its way to Grozny. Stalin informed them that the rail lines farther south had fallen into the hands of rebellious Chechens and Terek Cossacks. Makhrovsky, after also failing to lay claim even to the fuel supplies he spotted in Tsaritsyn, returned to Moscow to report, leaving behind his empty fuel train and the 10 million rubles in a locked suitcase with his wife and the non-party specialist Alekseev. On August 13, Kirov accosted Makhrovsky’s wife and demanded the money, in Stalin’s name. She refused, then privately discussed with Alekseev how to hide it at a new location. Makhrovsky arrived back in Tsaritsyn on August 15. After further back and forth about the 10 million and related matters, on the night of August 17–18, Stalin had Alekseev arrested and driven to the Cheka, accompanied by Makhrovsky, to face charges of masterminding a wide conspiracy to seize power. His coconspirators were said to be, variously, ex-tsarist officers, Serbian officers, Socialist Revolutionaries, trade unionists, one of Trotsky’s “generals,” ex-Provisional Government officials.100 “All specialists,” the Cheka chief Chervyakov is said to have remarked, “are bourgeois and most are counterrevolutionary.”101

Makhrovsky, too, found himself under arrest. Tsaritsyn’s Cheka refused to recognize his government mandate signed by Lenin. “Comrade, give up talking about the center and the necessity of the localities’ subordination to it,” the interrogator Ivanov told Makhrovsky, according to the latter’s account (submitted to Lenin). “In Moscow they do things their way, and here we do it all afresh in our own fashion. . . . The center cannot dictate anything to us. We dictate our will to the center, for we are the power in the localities.”102 Later that same month, when the local soviet sought to investigate unfounded arrests and summary executions by the Tsaritsyn Cheka, the latter fended them off by claiming that their mandate came from the center. In fact, they followed Stalin’s orders. Stalin would eventually let Makhrovsky go, but he got what he sought: the fuel expedition’s money, vehicles, and all other property.103

Stalin had his prisoner barge, like his local counterparts up and down the Volga, but he had more than a barge. With fanfare, the Stalin-directed Tsaritsyn Cheka proclaimed the discovery of millions of rubles aimed at funding counterrevolution; mass arrests followed, and the execution of twenty-three leaders of an “Alekseev counter-revolutionary-White Guard plot of Right SRs and Black Hundred officers.”104 No trial took place. Alekseev was beaten to a bloody pulp, then shot, along with his two sons (one a teenager); others in custody for whatever reason, or for no reason, were rolled into the “plot.” Stalin made energetic use of the press, having changed (on August 7) the local newspaper News of the North Caucasus Military District into the mass-oriented Soldier of the Revolution; the foiling of the Alekseev “conspiracy” was duly proclaimed in an “extra” edition (August 21, 1918). “Stalin placed high hopes on agitation,” wrote Colonel Anatoly Nosovich, a former tsarist officer and a member of the command staff in the Red Army in Tsaritsyn. “He frequently remarked in arguments over the military arts that everything being said concerning the necessity of the military arts is fine, but if the most talented commander in the world lacked politically conscious soldiers properly prepared by agitation, then, believe me, he would not be able to do anything against revolutionaries who were small in number but highly motivated.”105

When news of the grand “Alekseev plot” broke, General Pyotr Krasnov, the recently elected ataman (leader) of the Don Cossacks, and his army had surrounded Tsaritsyn, but Stalin’s executions did not flow from panic.106 Many were panicking at the prospect of the Cossacks’ entrance into the Red city, but Stalin was enacting a strategy, wielding the specter of “counterrevolution” to galvanize the workers and intimidate would-be anti-Bolsheviks. In a political spectacle, the Cheka forced “the bourgeoisie” to dig defense trenches around the city, and conspicuously frog-marched inmates from “the barge” to the prison, accompanied by whispers they were being led to their deaths. Informants were said to be everywhere.107 Above all, the Stalin-directed Cheka’s extermination of “enemies” was given a strong propaganda message: it was said that while Krasnov’s White forces surrounded Tsaritsyn, the internal foes of the revolution were planning to stage an uprising to enable the Cossacks to capture the city.108 (Later, this would be called a fifth column.) Here, in tiniest embryo, was the scenario of countless fabricated trials of the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the monstrous terror of 1937–38.

So entrenched was Stalin’s class-inflected modus operandi that he sought to restore make-or-break rail lines by the arrest or summary execution of the few technical specialists who actually knew something about rail lines, because they were class aliens, saboteurs by definition. Admittedly, he was not so improvident as to be against all former tsarist officers.109 But he relied on upstarts, those who, like himself, had emerged from “the people,” so long as they remained loyal to him. The proletarian Voroshilov (b. 1881) showed no inclination to pursue his own ambitions at Stalin’s expense. Voroshilov would deem Stalin’s actions “a ruthless purge of the rear, administered by an iron hand”—hardly a vice among Bolsheviks.

Around this time (August 1918), after Kazan had fallen to the Whites, Trotsky had gone to Sviyazhsk, near Kazan, where he got to know the former tsarist colonel and Latvian commander Jukums Vacietis, whom he promoted to Red supreme commander (a position that had been vacant).110 Trotsky also got to know Fyodor Raskolnikov, commander of the Volga Flotilla, and two commissars, Ivan Smirnov (the “Siberian Lenin”) and Arkady Rozengolts, a Kazan-battle group that would form something of Trotsky’s counterpart to Stalin’s Tsaritsynites.111 To save the collapsing front, Trotsky ordered that “if any unit retreats of its own accord, the first to be shot will be the commissar, the second, the commander . . . cowards, self-seekers, and traitors will not get away from a bullet.”112 Trotsky’s objections about Stalin did not, therefore, involve the latter’s excess of inhumanity, but his military amateurism and insubordination. Stalin, for his part, bristled at the military orders from afar, which, to him, took no account of “local conditions.” He was illegally diverting supplies sent from Moscow for the Caucasus front farther south, locking up and shooting military specialists, and aiming to have armed workers hold the city, Red Guard style.

In Tsaritsyn, Stalin revealed himself in depth: rabidly partisan toward class thinking and autodidacts; headstrong and prickly; attentive to political lessons but militarily ignorant. Trotsky perceived the martial dilettantism, willfulness, and prickliness, but little else. Few besides Voroshilov caught the full Stalin. But one person who “got” Stalin was the former tsarist officer Nosovich (b. 1878), a descendant of nobility who had joined the Reds in 1918 and escaped Stalin’s guillotine for class aliens and critics by defecting to the Whites that fall, an act that reconfirmed Stalin in his view about military specialists.113 “Stalin does not hesitate in the choice of paths to realize his aims,” Nosovich (under the pseudonym A. Black Sea Man) wrote in his real-time expose of the Red camp. “Clever, smart, educated and extremely shifty, [Stalin] is the evil genius of Tsaritsyn and its inhabitants. All manner of requisitioning, apartment evictions, searches accompanied by shameless thievery, arrests, and other violence used against civilians became everyday phenomena in the life of Tsaritsyn.” Nosovich correctly explained the true nature of the Georgian’s assignment—grain at any cost—and the real threats Red Tsaritsyn faced. He captured not only Stalin’s thirst for absolute power but his absolute dedication to the cause: Stalin stole 10 million rubles and a fleet of vehicles from his own (Red) side not for personal luxuries, but for defense of the revolution; he was executing “counterrevolutionaries” without proof or trial, not from sadism or panic, but as a political strategy, to galvanize the masses. “To be fair,” Nosovich concluded, “Stalin’s energy could be envied by any of the old administrators, and his ability to get things done in whatever circumstances was something to go to school for.”114 Nonetheless, Tsaritsyn hung by a thread.


When Lenin was shot at the Mikhelson factory in Moscow on August 30, 1918, Stalin exchanged telegrams with Sverdlov about his patron’s precarious condition.115 With Stalin and Trotsky absent from Moscow, Sverdlov took charge; slight in physical stature yet with a booming baritone, he was authoritative in a meeting hall but commanded nothing of the stature of a Lenin. Trotsky had the highest profile after Lenin, while Stalin’s profile was growing, but the two had developed deep mutual enmity; Sverdlov could neither resolve their differences nor rise above either of the two. All three had to pray for Lenin’s recovery: Bolshevik survival depended on it.

As Lenin convalesced, Trotsky and Stalin deepened their antagonism. On September 11, 1918, a “southern front” replaced the North Caucasus military district and Sverdlov summoned Stalin to Moscow; he arrived on September 14 and the day after that had an audience with Sverdlov and Lenin. Trotsky, at a session of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic on September 17, which Stalin attended, appointed Pavel Sytin, a former major general in the tsarist army, above Voroshilov as commander of the southern front (not merely a place, but like an army group).116 Stalin arrived back in Tsaritsyn on September 24; three days later, he complained to Lenin that Tsaritsyn wholly lacked ammunition and nothing was arriving from Moscow (“some kind of criminal negligence, outright treachery. If this persists, we will for sure lose the war in the South.”)117 That same day, Stalin demanded from the military a load of new weapons and 100,000 full sets of uniforms (more than the number of troops locally), and, in purple ink, threatened, “we declare that if these demands (which are the minimum considering the number of troops on the Southern Front) are not met with the utmost urgency, we shall be forced to cease military action and withdraw to the left bank of the Volga.”118

Major General Sytin arrived in Tsaritsyn on September 29, 1918; immediately Stalin and Minin obstructed his prerogative to name commanders or issue operational orders, and objected to his plan to ensure contact with Moscow by moving the front headquarters outside Tsaritsyn.119 On October 1, Stalin formally requested that Sytin be replaced by Voroshilov.120 Sverdlov telegrammed sternly that same day: “All decisions of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic”—Trotsky—“are binding on the Revolutionary Military Councils of the front.”121 Trotsky complained to Sverdlov (October 2), and sent a direct order (October 3) to Stalin and Voroshilov not to interfere in military matters.122 That same day, Stalin wrote to Lenin excoriating his nemesis at length. “The point is that Trotsky generally speaking cannot get by without noisy gestures,” Stalin wrote. “At Brest-Litovsk he delivered a blow to the cause by his far-fetched ‘leftist’ gesturing. On the question of the Czechoslovaks he similarly harmed the cause by his gesturing with noisy diplomacy. . . . Now he delivers a further blow by his gesturing about discipline, and yet all that this Trotskyite discipline amounts to in reality is the most prominent leaders on the war front peering up the backside of military specialists from the camp of ‘nonparty’ counter-revolutionaries.”123 In fact, although Trotsky argued that revolution would radically change everything, even speech, he insisted that revolution had not changed war: the same operational tactics, logistics, basic military organization still held.124 On military matters, Stalin was the leftist, waging relentless class warfare against former tsarist officers, regardless of their behavior. Disingenuously, Stalin concluded his October 3 telegram to Lenin, “I am no lover of noise and scandal,” and “right now, before it’s too late, it’s necessary to bridle Trotsky, bringing him to heel.” Sverdlov counseled diplomacy, but on October 4, Trotsky, from elsewhere in the south, telegrammed Sverdlov, with a copy to Lenin, “I categorically insist on Stalin’s recall.”125

And so the clash had come to its logical conclusion: Trotsky and Stalin each appealing to Lenin for the other’s removal.

In his incredulous fury, Trotsky pointed out that the Red Army outnumbered the Whites three to one on the southern front, yet Tsaritsyn remained in grave danger.126 “Voroshilov could command a regiment, but not an army of 50,000 soldiers,” Trotsky wrote in his October 4 telegram demanding Stalin’s recall. “Nonetheless, I will leave him [Voroshilov] as commander of the Tenth Tsaritsyn Army on the condition that he is subordinated to the [overall] Southern Front Commander Sytin.” Trotsky threatened that “if this order is not implemented by tomorrow, I will remand Voroshilov and Minin to court martial and publish this fact in an order to the army. . . . No more time for diplomacy. Tsaritsyn should either follow orders or get out.”127 On October 5, Sverdlov again directed Stalin, Minin, and Voroshilov to fulfill Trotsky’s orders.128

Lenin acceded to Trotsky’s demand to recall Stalin—Tsaritsyn could not be lost—but refused Trotsky’s demand to punish Stalin. “I received word of Stalin’s departure from Tsaritsyn for Moscow,” Sverdlov telegrammed Trotsky (October 5). “I consider maximum caution necessary right now regarding the Tsaritsynites. There are many old comrades there. Everything must be done to avoid conflict without retreating from conducting a hard line. Needless to say I am communicating only my opinion.”129 Sverdlov had tactfully revealed his judgment of Stalin, while imposing limits on Trotsky. On October 6, Stalin departed for Moscow, meeting Lenin on the eighth.130 In Tsaritsyn, on October 7, an assembly of more than fifty local party, soviet, and trade union activists chaired by Minin approved a resolution recommending “a national congress to reexamine and assess the policy of the center” on hiring former tsarist military brass. This act—provincials calling upon the Central Committee to reverse policy—demonstrated both the decentralization of power in 1918 and the locals’ confidence in having a “roof” (or protector) in Stalin.131 In Moscow, however, Stalin failed to get his way: he was relieved of his post on the southern front, although he was appointed a member of the central Military Council of the Republic, an obvious attempt to mollify him.132 Stalin would now have to communicate with Trotsky by addressing telegrams to the “Chairman of the Military Council” from “Member of the Military Council Stalin.”133

Stalin returned to Tsaritsyn around October 11, evidently in the company of Sverdlov, who aimed to impose a local diplomatic resolution on the daggers-drawn Red camp.134 The Whites reached Tsaritsyn’s outskirts on October 15, 1918, a day on which the situation was described as “catastrophic” in a telegram sent by Red supreme military commander Vacietis to Voroshilov, with copies to Sytin and Trotsky; Vacietis blamed Voroshilov’s refusal to cooperate with his superior, Sytin.135 Stalin departed Tsaritsyn for good on October 19–20, in the heat of the decisive battle. Trotsky arrived to replace him and salvage the city’s defense.136

Tsaritsyn would be saved—just barely—not by Trotsky but by Dmitry Zhloba, whose “Steel Division” of 15,000 men had left the Caucasus front, covered 500 miles in sixteen days, and surprised the Whites’ unguarded rear.137 On October 25, the Steel Division pushed the Cossacks back across the Don.138 Four days later, Stalin reported to a plenum of the Moscow soviet how dicey the situation had been.139 Indeed, had Tsaritsyn fallen that autumn of 1918, he might have faced a government inquiry and disciplinary action, as well as permanent reputational damage.140


Lenin was hardly the only high stakes gambler. Germany’s high command had attempted one immense gamble after another: the Schlieffen Plan (1914) to win a war of mobility; Verdun (1916) to bleed the enemy white in a new strategy of attrition; unrestricted U-boat warfare (1917) to break the stranglehold of the British naval blockade; sending Lenin home to foment chaos and knock Russia out of the war; and, following a German victory on the eastern front, an all-out offensive on the western front launched March 21, 1918.141 By June, the German army in the west had come within thirty-seven miles of Paris, close enough to strike it with Big Bertha heavy artillery. But the Reichswehr failed to take the French capital, after suffering one million casualties.142 United States troops, provoked into the war by the U-boats, had begun arriving in France at the rate of 120,000 per month (the United States had entered the war in early 1917 with 150,000 men under arms total). Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, meanwhile, put even more men into military action on behalf of Britain than would the United States, and in August 1918, the reinforced Allies counterattacked. True, thanks to Brest-Litovsk—or rather, to Berlin’s willingness to violate its own treaty prohibitions—Germany shifted half a million troops to the western front, increasing its strength there to 192 divisions from 150.143 But by September 28, 1918, Deputy Chief of Staff General Erich Ludendorff, the man responsible for the western offensive, informed his superior, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, that the Reich had no prospect of winning: Germany lacked reserves to send into battle. What Ludendorff did not say was that during the western offensive, nearly a million Reichswehr soldiers were bogged down in a disorganized occupation of the east that instead of extracting resources consumed them.144 (Germany had to export 80,000 tons of coal just to get railways in Ukraine restarted.) Ludendorff would scapegoat Bolshevism and its “infection” of German troops, lamenting, “I often dreamed of this [Russian] revolution, which would so lighten the burden of our war, but today the dream is suddenly realized in an unanticipated way.”145 But as one scholar explained, “The man who defeated Ludendorff the soldier, was not so much [Allied Supreme Commander] Marshal Foch, as Ludendorff the politician.”146

Meanwhile, to salvage the retreating Reichswehr—which was everywhere on foreign soil, from France to Ukraine—a broken Ludendorff proposed importuning the Allies for an immediate cease-fire, but the civilians in a new German cabinet refused while contemplating an all-out mobilization of the civilian population for a last stand—exactly the opposite of the future stab-in-the-back legend.147 Ludendorff soon changed his mind about begging for an armistice and resigned; the cabinet never managed the civilian mobilization.

On November 9, inside the neoclassical Bolshoi Theater, Lenin crowed to the delegates to the Sixth All-Russia Congress of Soviets, “we have never been so near to international proletarian revolution as we are now.”148 That same day, as it turned out, the staunch monarchist Hindenburg and others in the German high command, fearing a domestic version of the kind of revolution they had sent Lenin to incite in Russia, pressed the kaiser to abdicate. Wilhelm II had his imperial train shunted across the border into the Netherlands and, once in personal safety, signed a formal abdication.149 (Unlike his executed cousin Nicky, Willy would live a long life and die peacefully in exile.) An armistice followed on November 11, 1918, signed in Marshal Foch’s railway carriage in a French forest near the front lines. The armistice called for the immediate withdrawal of German troops everywhere, except in the former Russian empire, where the Germans were to remain until further instructed by the Entente.150 Two days later, Moscow unilaterally repudiated the Brest-Litovsk Treaty as well as the August 1918 Supplementary Treaty (wih its 6 billion ruble indemnity, already partially paid).151 (The victorious Allies would soon compel Germany to renounce Brest-Litovsk.) After fifty-two gruesome months, the Great War was over. Lenin was in such a good mood he released non-Bolshevik socialists from prison and, on November 30, 1918, relegalized the Menshevik party.152

The repercussions of the war were immense, and enduring. Wartime GDP had increased in the United States and in the United Kingdom, but in Austria, France, the Ottoman empire, and Russia it cratered by between 30 and 40 percent.153 The Great War required unprecedented levels of taxation and state economic control across belligerent countries, most of which would not be rolled back.154 Beyond the 8.5 million war dead and the nearly 8 million taken prisoner or missing, an influenza epidemic would infect 500 million people globally and kill at least 50 million, fully 3 percent of the global population (some estimates range up to 100 million).155 Some 20 million people returned home maimed in some fashion. One and a half million Brits were crippled (the disabled received compensation: 16 shillings a week for a lost right arm, 11 shillings sixpence for a lost right hand and forearm, 10 for a lost left arm, nothing for a disfigured face). In Germany, around 2.7 million people returned with war-related disabilities, alongside half a million war widows and 1.2 million orphans. In the interest of maintaining public order, let alone to repay a debt, soldiers and widows were granted war-related pensions. Other war-influenced emergency social policies included emergency housing decrees, which willy-nilly introduced permanent government regulation. Unemployment insurance, cash sickness benefits, birth and burial grants were expanded into a proto-welfare state, spurred by warfare. The Russian empire lost 2 million dead and 2.5 millon wounded.156 An estimated 2.4 million Russian subjects contracted disease, while 3.9 million were taken prisoner, a massive surrendering equal to all the POWs of other belligerents combined.157 It was in such a context that Trotsky scorned “papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life,” and Lenin approvingly quoted Machiavelli to the effect that “violence can only be met with violence.”158

Lenin’s big gambles—accepting imperial German aid to return to Russia; the coup in Petrograd; the capitulatory separate peace with Germany—had paid off. Russia and Germany, on opposing sides in the war but now both vanquished, provided an illuminating contrast. He would admit that “the war taught us much, not only that people suffered, but that those who have the best technology, discipline, and machinery come out on top.”159 Contemporaries widely remarked on the similarities in the methods of Ludendorff (b. 1865) and Lenin (b. 1870), as well as wartime German and Bolshevik policies generally.160 The German military occupiers of Eastern Europe had resorted to population registration, property confiscation, conscription, and promiscuous issuance of decrees, claiming an unlimited mandate while foundering in self-made administrative chaos. But unlike Bolshevism, German wartime rule in Eastern Europe did not organize the populace politically and culturally. No native-language newspapers or native-language schools had been established to involve and shape the local societies. Instead, the Germans obsessed over how to keep their German staff awash in Kultur, lest they go native. If not for the local Jews who spoke Yiddish and adapted quickly to German as translators, the German overlords would have been unable to communicate.161 The Germans put forth no narratives of overarching purpose that elicited mass involvement, and they did not build mass organizations. Germany’s experience in Eastern Europe demonstrated not only how much Bolshevism owed to the Great War, but how much Bolshevism transcended a military-style occupation.162 In addition, contrasting Ludendorff’s private kingdom in Lithuania, western Belorussia, and Latvia with Stalin’s in Tsaritsyn, we can see that Stalin exhibited the exact opposite talents of Ludendorff: military amateurism but political cunning.

Voroshilov, Stalin’s protégé, was hanging on as commander of the Tenth Army in Tsaritsyn.163 At first, Supreme Commander Vacietis wanted him sacked, but Trotsky, while insisting on the immediate removal of Sergei Minin (“conducts extremely harmful policies”), allowed Voroshilov to remain, provided someone competent could be assigned alongside him.164 Soon, however, Trotsky telegrammed Sverdlov demanding Voroshilov’s removal, too (“shows no initiative, trivialities, talentless”).165 Vacietis, meanwhile, had softened, indicating he was not strongly against Voroshilov being appointed to a Red Army command in Ukraine (he may have had no other candidate for the post).166 Trotsky exploded. “A compromise is necessary but not a rotten one,” he pleaded to Lenin (January 11, 1919). “Essentially, all the Tsaritsyn-ites have assembled in Kharkov. . . . I consider Stalin’s protection of the Tsaritsyn tendency a dangerous ulcer, worse than the betrayal and treason of military specialists. . . . Voroshilov, along with Ukrainian partisan warfare-ism, a lack of culturedness, demagoguery—that is something we cannot have under any circumstances.”167

The enmity between Voroshilov and Trotsky rendered the former that much more valuable to Stalin. Voroshilov, Minin, and their subordinates engaged in a revenge whispering campaign against Trotsky, spreading word that the war commissar was in bed with tsarist generals and sending Communists to the firing squad—a whiff of treason.168 (Stalin could pour his anti-Trotsky poison directly into Lenin’s ear.) Left Communists, such as Nikolai Bukharin, who edited Pravda, used the Tsaritsynites to further their own anti-Trotsky campaign to “democratize” military organization.169 Impelled to respond, Trotsky in early 1919 derided “the new Soviet bureaucrat, who, trembling over his job,” envious of the competent, unwilling to learn, sought a scapegoat for his own shortcomings. “This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution . . . the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution.”170 Here was the gist of Trotsky’s future critique of Stalinism.

Lenin continued to show confidence in his Georgian protégé despite having abruptly removed him from Tsaritsyn, and in January 1919, he sent Stalin to a new hotspot, Vyatka, in the Urals, to investigate why Perm and the surrounding region had fallen to Admiral Kolchak.171 Stalin traveled together with the Cheka’s Dzierzynski and was again accompanied by his wife, Nadya, as well as her sister Anna Alliluyeva (b. 1896); Dzierzynski’s personal secretary, Stanisław Redens (b. 1892), another Pole, fell in love with and would soon marry Stalin’s sister-in-law. As for the Red debacle in Perm, Stalin and Dzierzynski issued three separate reports, noting the Reds’ abject disorganization and the local population’s hostility to the regime (over food requisitioning), but shifting the blame each time, first impugning Trotsky, then Vacietis. Their reports pointedly listed the former tsarist officers on the Red side who had defected to the Whites. They also allowed that the Bolshevik regime should avoid posting as overseers of tsarist-era commanders comrades who were “too young” or party “demogogues,” a slight backtracking on Stalin’s earlier hard line, evidence perhaps of Lenin’s intervention.172 Lenin, meanwhile, on January 19, a Sunday, heading out to meet Krupskaya convalescing in the fresh air and woods outside of Moscow, had his Rolls-Royce hijacked by three armed men. The revolution’s leader, his sister, driver (Stepan Gil), and one bodyguard trudged the rest of the way on foot.173


Few peace treaties have gone down in history less favorably than that of Versailles. The talks opened in Paris on January 18, 1919, the anniversary of Germany’s unification, and concluded in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors—where the German Reich had been proclaimed—on June 28, 1919, five years to the day after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Thirty-seven countries sent delegations (some more than one); myriad expert commissions worked on ethnic and territorial claims; and 500 journalists reported on the proceedings, but just three people determined the outcome: David Lloyd George (Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), and Woodrow Wilson (United States), a former Princeton professor who became the first sitting American president to travel to Europe. The seventy-eight-year-old Clemenceau aimed to counteract Germany’s superior economic might and population; Lloyd George to attain Britain’s colonial and naval aims at German expense; and Wilson to imagine a secure permament peace, though he abetted the French imposition of punishment on Germany. The final text contained 440 clauses, the first 26 of which concerned a new League of Nations, while the remaining 414 took up Germany’s alleged sole war guilt. Germany was forbidden to maintain more than 100,000 troops or any military aircraft, and lost 13 percent of its territory, including Alsace and Lorraine to France, its foreign colonies, and its merchant fleet. France had wanted to detach the Rhineland, too, but Lloyd George objected; the Rhineland was instead demilitarized. A newly reconstituted Poland was awarded most of German West Prussia, while Danzig, predominantly ethnic German, was made a “free city” and a so-called Polish Corridor was created between German territories, isolating German East Prussia. To fund the reconstruction of French and Belgian territory, and the British war-loan debt to the United States, Germany was ordered to pay 132 billion gold marks, then equivalent to $31.4 billion or £6.6 billion. (Approximately $440 billion in 2013.)174

Germany’s imposition of Brest-Litovsk on Russia served as one rationale for the expressly punitive Versailles Peace—exactly as the impudent Bolshevik Karl Radek had predicted to Germany’s Brest negotiators. Versaillies’ terms, meanwhile, were publicly assailed even in the West. France’s Marshall Foch commented, “This is not a peace; it is an armistice for twenty years.”175 Still, unlike imperial Russia under Brest-Litovsk, Germany was not dismembered. (Lloyd George remarked of Germany, “we cannot both cripple her and expect her to pay.”) Moreover, the treaties that followed with the other defeated belligerents—St. Germain with Austria (September 10, 1919), Neuilly with Bulgaria (November 27, 1919), Trianon with Hungary (June 4, 1920), Sevres with Turkey (August 10, 1920)—were in some ways harsher. (The Turks alone, taking up arms, managed to revise their treaty terms.) The victors’ Peace of Versailles certainly had flaws, irrespective of its attribution of sole war guilt to Germany. It enshrined self-determination and the nation while promoting territorial revisionism: Versailles and its sister treaties approved the award to 60 million people of states of their own, while making another 25 million into national minorities. (There was also a jump in the number of stateless persons.) Edvard Beneš and Tomáš Masaryk managed to extract extra territory, at the expense of Hungary, for the new Czechoslovakia, even though both had fought on the losing Austrian side. Romania obtained significant ethnically mixed lands at Hungarian expense. But if Hungary was the legitimate homeland of the Hungarians, according to national self-determination, why were so many Hungarians stuck elsewhere? Jews had no separate homeland, becoming a minority in every state. Self-determination did not apply to any of the colonial peoples under the British and French empires, both of which expanded: in 1919 the British empire alone grew to one quarter of the earth. Many war spoils were colonial: new mineral-rich possessions in Africa, new oil fields in the Middle East. Masaryk, who served as the first president of the new Czechoslovakia, dubbed the Versailles Peace Conference a “laboratory built over a vast cemetery.”

Whatever Versailles’ deep flaws on principle, it failed utterly in terms of power politics: the United States would go home, the British would back away, and the French—who shared a land border with Germany—could not bear the burden of enforcing the treaty provisions.176 A punitive peace is punitive only if there is the unity of will to enforce it, which was lacking. All that was fatal enough, but even before the powers bailed on the Versailles structure, it was being erected on the basis of a temporary anomaly: the simultaneous disintegration of both German power and Russian power. Both of those conditions could not last; in the event, neither would.

Russia’s contribution to the Allied effort in the Great War (through 1917) remained unacknowledged. The British had imagined that to defeat Germany, the Russian “steamroller,” together with France, would do the bulk of the fighting (and dying), leaving supply and finance to Britain, but the treatment of Russians as British mercenaries and cannon fodder had to be abandoned, even as it generated lasting resentment.177 At the same time, Britain had found itself in what was an unaccustomed dependence on its allies’ strategic imperatives and, in the postwar, London would seek an arm’s-length grand strategy, derived from long-standing preferences (to have others fight) and priorities (the empire), as well as the Great War experience.178 As for Bolsevik Russia in the here and now, the Allies were at a loss. While Foch argued for a preemptive war, Clemenceau advocated containment (a cordon sanitaire); while Lloyd George imagined moderating Bolshevism through trade, other British political figures wanted to roll back the leftist menace.179 Some British imperialists, for their part, smiled upon the forced retreat of Russian sovereignty from the Caucasus and hoped to consolidate Ludendorff’s policy of imperial partition in the East, but other Brits, with a wary eye on Germany, preferred a reunified Russia as a counterweight. In the end, for all the talk of the possible spread of the “Bolshevik bacillus,” Versailles showed itself far less concerned with Russia than with Germany. Still, the two turned out to be inseparable.180 Much of Germany’s political class would refuse to accept the verdict of Versailles; Soviet Russia’s exclusion from the peace conference—delegations were received from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine—gave Moscow additional grounds for treating the result as illegitimate. Directed against Germany and in disregard of Russia, Versailles would push the two pariahs into each other’s arms, as each would strive to resurrect its world power, forming a foundation of Stalin’s world.181


The Bolsheviks attempted to counter Versailles immediately. On January 24, 1919, a letter of invitation was issued by wires to the world and on March 2 a semi-international group of some fifty Communists and other leftists attended a gathering in Moscow that became the Third (Communist) International or Comintern. The floors in the long, narrow Mitrofanov Hall of the Kremlin’s Imperial Senate were covered in extravagant carpets and the windows in brilliant drapes, but the stove heaters in the frigid space sat idle for lack of fuel. Some fifty guests from the Moscow party organization sat in a kind of gallery. “The delegates took their seats on flimsy chairs at rickety tables obviously borrowed from some cafe,” recalled a French Communist. “On the walls were photographs: the founders of the First International Marx and Engels; the still honored leaders of the Second, mostly those no longer with us.”182 Travel to Soviet Russia had proved difficult because of the Allied blockade and the civil war’s disruptions; a mere nine delegates made it from abroad. Several leftist parties extended “mandates” to individuals already resident in Moscow. Even so, just thirty-four attendees held credentials to represent Communist parties, or almost Communist parties, from about twenty countries (many of which had once been part of the tsarist empire). Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Chicherin, Bukharin, and Zinoviev were made voting delegates (six people sharing five votes; Stalin signed their mandates).183 “Anyone who had attended the old Congresses of the Second International,” a Russian Communist observed in Pravda, “would have been quite disappointed.”184 As more attendees showed up, however, the assembly boldly voted itself the founding congress of the Comintern. Trotsky’s pen let out a burst of rapture. “The tsars and the priests, ancient rulers of the Moscow Kremlin, never, we must assume, had a premonition that within its gray walls would one day gather the representatives of the most revolutionary section of modern humanity,” he wrote on the Comintern Congress’s closing day (March 6), adding that “we are witnesses to and participants of one of the greatest events in world history.”185 Lenin had planned to hold the assembly openly in Berlin, but the German Social Democrats were hostile.186 In Moscow, Lenin made Zinoviev (who spoke some German) chairman of an executive committee, which also included Radek, who had been educated at German and Swiss universities and influenced by Rosa Luxemburg, before turning against her, then turning back to her to help establish the German Communist party.187 The “delegates” approved Lenin’s theses denouncing “bourgeois democracy” and upholding “proletarian dictatorship”—precisely the point of dispute with the German Social Democrats. That rift on the left, now institutionalized globally, would never be healed.188

The 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, meanwhile, had been planned to commence right after the Comintern gathering, on the evening of March 16, with a half session, so that the delegates could attend a commemoration of the 1871 Paris Commune, but Yakov Sverdlov returned to Moscow from a trip to Oryol on March 8 with a raging fever; he never properly recovered. Conflicting rumors had him either giving a speech to workers outside in the cold, or killed by a blow to the head with a heavy object administered by a worker at a factory—revenge against Bolshevik deprivation and repression. In fact, Sverdlov died of typhus or influenza.189 From his Kremlin apartment, Lenin, according to Trotsky, phoned the war commissariat on March 16: “‘He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.’ For a while each of us held the receiver in our hands and each could feel the silence at the other end. Then we hung up. There was nothing more to say.”190

Sverdlov was buried on Red Square, near the Kremlin Wall, in the Bolsheviks’ first major state funeral. His death prompted the cancellation of the Paris Commune tribute and a two-day delay in the Party Congress. It opened in the evening after the funeral, on March 18, in the Imperial Senate’s rotund Catherine Hall (which would be renamed for Sverdlov). Trotsky, too, was absent: he had obtained Central Committee permission to return to the front, given the “extremely serious” situation. Although he had also wanted all Red Army delegates returned to the front, the soldiers protested and were allowed to decide for themselves; many stayed at the Congress.191 Lenin’s opening night speech hailed Sverdlov as “the most important organizer for the party as a whole.” Everyone stood.192 Thanks partly to Sverdlov’s skills, but also to the formation of a Red Army, the party had doubled in size since the previous congress a year before. In attendance were invited guests, 301 voting delegates, and 102 non-voting delegates, representing 313,766 party members in Soviet Russia (220,495), Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belorussia, and Poland, which were not under Soviet rule.193 A survey of the 500-plus attendees established that 17 percent were Jewish and nearly 63 percent Russian—information that did little to alter perceptions.194 The Whites and other Bolshevik opponents slurred the regime as “Kike Bolshevik” with a “Kike” Red Army (Trotsky).195

Among the principal agenda items at the congress was the widespread employ of former tsarist officers, a controversial policy identified with Trotsky, whom Lenin had to defend over his absence. Debate was prolonged and heated (March 20–21).196 Lenin had explained the matter on the opening day. “Military organization was completely new, it had not been posed before even theoretically,” he stated on March 18, adding that the Bolsheviks were experimenting, but that “without an armed defense the socialist republic could not exist.”197 Soviet Russia, therefore, needed a regular, disciplined army, and it needed knowledgeable military specialists. Lenin knew he would have to sway the hall full of Communists, whose class ideology he shared but whose flexibility he greatly exceeded. And so, the Bolshevik leader had instructed one person whom he tasked with reporting to the congress to employ the word “threatening [grozno]” for the situation at the front, illustrate it with a large color-coded map visible to the whole auditorium, and blame informal partisan-warfare tactics.198 Even so, the talk was of the treason committed by former tsarist officers admitted into Red ranks (a handful of cases, among tens of thousands of serving officers).199

Moreover, Trotsky had published several defenses of using former tsarist officers, but their brutal logic came across as politically tone deaf, and further incensed opponents. (“So, can you give me ten divisional commanders, fifty regimental commanders, two army commanders and one front commander—today? And all of them Communists?”)200 Trotsky had also published “theses” on the eve of the congress defending military policy and now tapped Grigory Sokolnikov to defend them; Vladimir Smirnov, a Left Communist, offered the rebuttal.201 Sokolnikov tried to argue that the danger lay not in former tsarist officers but in the peasantry. The critics, dubbed the “military opposition,” could offer up few proletarians—other than Voroshilov—to substitute for former tsarist officers in command posts, and instead proposed strengthening the role of commissars and the Communist party in the Red Army, a point that Trotsky, through Sokolnikov, conceded. The policy issue, therefore, subtly shifted to whether stronger commissars meant merely greater political control, or in the words of Smirnov, “a larger part in the direction of the armies.”202 Despite this narrowing of the disagreement, inflamed speeches of principle (for and against use of “military specialists”) continued to dominate the sessions.203

Stalin allowed Voroshilov to bear the brunt of criticism for Tsaritsyn, then took the floor to aver that Europe had real armies and “one can resist only with a strictly disciplined army” as well as “a conscious army, with highly developed political departments.” Not long ago, none other than Kornilov, at the Moscow State Conference in August 1917, had insisted to wide applause that “only an army welded together by iron discipline” could save Russia from ruin.204 Second, Stalin revealed a hostile attitude toward the peasantry, stating “I must say that the nonworker elements, which constitute a majority of our army, peasants, will not fight for socialism, will not! Voluntarily they will not fight.”205 In accentuating discipline and dismissing the peasantry, he had assumed a position close to Trotsky’s. But Stalin did not mention him by name.206

Lenin took the floor again on March 21, 1919. “Sometimes he took a step or two forward toward the audience, then stepped back, sometimes he looked down at his notes on the table,” one witness recalled. “When he wanted to punctuate the most important point or express the unacceptability of the military opposition’s position, he raised a hand.”207 Lenin conceded that “when Stalin had people shot at Tsaritsyn I thought it was a mistake.” This was a telling observation—a mistake, not a crime.208 But now, upon further information, Lenin conceded that Stalin’s Tsaritsyn executions were not a mistake. Still, Lenin rejected Stalin’s insinuation that the war commissariat had persecuted Voroshilov, and rebuked Stalin’s protégé by name: “Comrade Voroshilov is guilty for refusing to relinquish the old partisan warfare [partizanshchina].”209 Lenin’s offensive threw the “military opposition” on the defensive, and probably turned the tide in the vote. On March 21, 174 voted for the Central Committee theses (drafted by Trotsky and backed by Lenin) and 95 for the military opposition theses, with 3 abstentions.210 After the vote, victory in hand, Lenin formed a five-person reconciliation commission—3 from the winning side, 2 from the losing side—who together confirmed some tweaks to Trotsky’s theses on March 23.211

Stalin had voted with Lenin.212 Stalin also signed the telegram (March 22–23) informing Trotsky at the front that his theses had been approved, a sign no doubt of Lenin’s efforts at reconciling the two.213 The policy compromise had been foretold by a party official from Nizhny Novgorod named Lazar Kaganovich, in an article in his local press that was summarized in Pravda, which rebuked critics of military specialists but also cautioned against “an excessive faith” in them, proposing they be watched closely by the party.214 Kaganovich, an early admirer of Trotsky, would soon become one of Stalin’s most important lieutenants.

Military controversy almost eclipsed another major issue at the Congress: the lack of fuel or food. Opponents were deriding Bolshevism as banditry, as well as “the socialism of poverty and hunger.” Suren Martirosyan (known as Varlaam Avanesov), newly named to the collegium of the Cheka, told the delegates that “now the broad masses . . . demand not that we agitate about bread but that we provide it.”215 Food extracted from a radically contracting economy was going mostly to two “armies”: one in the field and one behind desks.216 Ration cards stipulated a right to specific amounts of food, on a class basis, but often the provisions were unavailable: the Bolshevik food commissariat did not attain the level of food procured by the tsarist state in 1916–17.217 However much grain might be procured by state agents, ruined railways could not transport it all to the cities, labor was insufficient to unload the grain that did get transported, and functioning mills were too few. At the same time, perhaps 80 percent of the grain requisitioned in the name of the state was being diverted for private sale to black markets.218 In a mass exodus for survival, Moscow’s population, which had swelled during the Great War to 2 million, declined to under 1 million.219 Even so, urban food shortages remained chronic.220 Remaining urbanites had little choice but to try to obviate the blocking detachments and venture into the countryside to purchase and haul back food, which was known as “bagging.” (When the historian Yuri Gothier, an official at Moscow’s Rumyantsev Museum—later the Lenin Library—returned from a series of lectures in Tver in 1919, he recorded “the balance for the trip” in his diary as “30 pounds of butter.”)221

Illegal petty private trade kept the country alive, but bureaucratic self-dealing threatened to smother it. Viktor Nogin, a member of the Central Committee, tried to call the Congress delegates’ attention to “horrifying facts about drunkenness, debauchery, corruption, robbery, and irresponsible behavior of many party workers, so that one’s hair stands on end.”222 The Congress authorized a new commissariat for state control (it would be renamed the workers’ and peasants’ inspectorate); a few weeks after the Congress, Stalin would be appointed its commissar, concurrent with his post as nationalities commissar, with broad investigatory powers to oversee state administration centrally and locally.

The Congress, as the highest organ of the party by statute, also elected a new Central Committee, the party’s executive between Congresses. The new Central Committee consisted of nineteen members—Lenin was listed first, the rest in alphabetical order—as well as eight candidate members. The Congress adopted a new party statute (which would endure to 1961). Fully fifty delegates voted against Trotsky’s inclusion in the Central Committee, a number far exceeding the negative votes of any other nominee.223 One of his closest loyalists, Adolf Joffe, was not reelected (and would never again serve on the Central Committee). Trotsky had emerged as a lightning rod, and the antagonism to his imperious “administrative-ness” would extend beyond the delegates in the hall, cropping up in discussions at primary party organizations.224

The Congress also formalized the existence of a small “political bureau” (politburo) and party secretariat, alongside a recently created larger “organization bureau” (orgburo). As Lenin explained, “the orgburo allocates forces [personnel], while the politburo decides policy.”225 The politburo had five voting members—Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Krestinsky—and three candidate (non-voting) members: Zinoviev, Kalinin, Bukharin.226 Krestinsky replaced Sverdlov as secretary of the party. Sverdlov’s fireproof safe, meanwhile, was delivered to the Kremlin commandant warehouse, still locked. It contained tsarist gold coins in the amount of 108,525 rubles, gold articles, and precious jewels (705 items in total), tsarist banknotes in the amount of 750,000 rubles, and nine foreign passports, one in Sverdlov’s name, as if the Bolsheviks feared they might have to flee the Whites.227


All during the cacophony of Versailles, the world was shifting, and it would shift still more, in ways that escaped the major protagonists of France, Britain, and the United States. As 1919 dawned, war-induced inflation obliterated middle-class savings, prompting many to barter the family furniture, down to the piano, for sacks of flour or potatoes, even as war veterans loitered outside restaurants, begging for scraps. “Councils” (soviets) formed in Berlin and dozens of cities in Central Europe, mostly with the aim of reestablishing public order and distributing food and water, but revolution was in the air, too.228 People dreamed not just of getting something in their empty stomachs but of an end to militarism and war, police batons and political repression, extremes of obscene wealth and poverty. A German Communist party was founded in December 1918, from the Spartacist movement, led by Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-Jewish revolutionary born in tsarist Russia.229 From Germany’s Breslau Prison, just before being released and helping found the German Communists, she attacked Lenin and Bolshevism, writing that “freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for one who thinks differently.”230 But Luxemburg went after the reformism of the German Social Democrats with even greater verve.231 She never had the opportunity to show how her rhetorical commitment to freedom would work in practice as a result of socialist revolution. In January 1919, worker actions, joined by the German Communists, led to a general strike—half a million workers marched in Berlin—and then a controversial armed uprising, which provoked a crackdown; Karl Liebknecht, who had pushed for the armed uprising, and Luxemburg, who had opposed it, were assassinated. This reminds us that Lenin and Trotsky were not assassinated in 1917. The executioners of the two leading German Communists were so-called Freikorps, a right-wing nationalist militia of returning frontline soldiers called in by the shaky postkaiser government against the leftists. Altogether, around 100 people were killed; 17 Freikorps members died as well.

By contrast, in Munich, Kurt Eisner, a German journalist of Jewish extraction, attempted to reconcile the new grassroots councils-soviets with parliamentarism, Kerensky style, but he, too, failed. Instead, on April 7, 1919, a new party that broke away from the Socialist Democrats, joined by groups of anarchists, declared a Bavarian Soviet Republic. Six days later, German Communists took it over, emptied the prisons, began to form a Red Army (recruiting from the unemployed), and sent telegrams of victory to Moscow. On April 27, Lenin replied with greetings and advice: “Have the workers been armed? Have the bourgeoisie been disarmed? . . . Have the capitalist factories and wealth in Munich and the capitalist farms in its environs been confiscated? Have mortgage and rent payments by small peasants been cancelled? Have all paper stocks and all printing-presses been confiscated? . . . Have you taken over all the banks? Have you taken hostages from the ranks of the bourgeoisie?”232 In very short order, however, beginning on May Day 1919, some 30,000 Freikorps, together with 9,000 regular German army troops crushed the Bavarian Soviet Republic.233 More than 1,000 leftists were killed in bitter fighting. (Eisner was assassinated by a right-wing extremist). Instead of a Bolshevik-style far-left revolution, Germany convened a Constituent Assembly in Weimar (February to August 1919) that produced a center-left parliamentary republic. Antiliberal rightist forces continued their mobilization.234

A related scenario unfolded in Italy, which, though nominally a Great War victor, had suffered casualties totaling 700,000 of 5 million men drafted to the colors and a budget deficit of 12 billion lira, saw mass strikes, factory occupations, and, in some cases, political takeovers in northern cities. This spurred an embryonic movement on the right called fascism—a closely knit combat league to defend the nation against the socialist threat. In rump Hungary, which was undergoing severe territorial truncation, a Soviet Socialist Republic was declared on March 21, 1919, under the leadership of the Communist Bela Kun [Kohn], who had been in Russia as a POW and met Lenin. Kun and the nucleus of a Hungarian party had been brought together a few months before in a Moscow hotel, but upon return to Hungary he and other leaders had been thrown into prison. Hungary’s Social Democrats, appointed to form a government, decided to merge with the Communists in hopes of obtaining military aid from Russia in order to restore Hungary’s pre-1918 imperial borders. Kun “walked straight from the cells into a ministerial post,” one observer wrote. “He had been badly beaten while incarcerated and his face showed the wounds that he received and fully intended to avenge.”235 Lenin hailed the Hungarian revolution, and, on May Day 1919, the Bolsheviks promised that “before the year is out the whole of Europe will be Soviet.”236 The Budapest government issued a welter of decrees nationalizing or socializing industry, commercial enterprises, housing, transport, banking, and landholdings greater than forty hectares. Churches and priests, manor houses and gentry, came under assault. The Communists also established a Red Guard under Mátyás Rákosi, which the police and gendarmerie joined, and Kun attempted a coup in Vienna (his mercenaries managed to set fire to the Austrian parliament). But when Kun sought formal alliance with Moscow and Red Army troops, Trotsky replied that he could not spare any.237 No matter: Kun had the Red Guard invade Czechoslovakia to reclaim Slovakia, and Romania to reclaim Transylvania. A foreign correspondent noted, “again and again, he [Kun] rallied the masses by a hypodermic injection of mob oratory.”238 But the “revolutionary offensive” failed, and the Communists resigned on August 1, 1919. Kun fled to Vienna. The 133-day Communist republic was over. (“This proletariat needs the most inhumane and cruel dictatorship of the bourgeoisie to become revolutionary,” Kun complained, just before fleeing into exile.) Romanian forces entered Budapest on August 3–4. Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy, in landlocked Hungary (like “Admiral” Kolchak in Siberia), formed an embryonic National Army, whose units instituted a White Terror against leftists and Jews, killing at least 6,000 in cold blood. As the departing Romanians cleaned out everything, from sugar and flour to locomotives and typewriters, Horthy soon styled himself “His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary” and formed a right-wing dictatorship.239


Russia’s would-be forces of order, the three different armies of the Whites in the east, south, and northwest, fought with one hand, sometimes both, behind their backs. Just like the Bolsheviks (and the okhranka before them), the Whites formed “information departments” to compile reports on the prevailing political mood from secret informants—refugees, actors, railway employees, obstetricians—but they made no effective use of the intelligence.240 They “neither understood nor showed any interest in societal problems,” one White political activist complained. “All of their interests were on military power, and all of their hopes were focused on military victory.”241 Under the slogan “Russia, One and Indivisible,” the Whites refused to acknowledge the aspirations of national minorities in whose territories they operated, precluding an alliance with Ukrainian or other anti-Bolshevik forces.242 Anti-Semitic outrages perpetrated by Denikin’s army, and especially by Ukrainian anti-Bolshevik troops, stamped the White movement.243 Between 1918 and 1920 in Ukraine alone, more than 1,500 pogroms resulted in the deaths of up to 125,000 Jews, who “were killed on the roads, in the fields, on trains; sometimes whole families perished, and there was no one left to report on their fate.”244 The Whites acted self-righteously toward their British and French patrons, and never moderated their hostility to Germany.245 Additionally, the Whites were arrayed outside the heartland in a 5,000-mile interrupted loop—from the Urals and Siberia, westward across the southern steppes, up to Petrograd’s outskirts—which presented immense logistical and communications challenges. The two main fronts, Denikin’s south and Kolchak’s east, never linked up.246 Denikin and Kolchak never met.

And yet, despite their lack of unity, alliances, or popular support, the Whites mounted an offensive in 1919 that threatened the Bolshevik grip on the Muscovite heartland.247 The offensive occurred in three separate advances: Kolchak’s from the east toward Moscow in spring 1919; Denikin’s from the south, also toward Moscow, in spring-summer 1919; and Yudenich’s from the north, toward Petrograd, in fall 1919. Each effort commenced only after the preceding one had fallen short.

Kolchak commanded around 100,000 men and even though the admiral lacked familiarity with land operations, his forces managed to advance westward, surprising the Reds by seizing Ufa in March 1919, splitting the Bolsheviks’ eastern lines, and threatening Kazan and Samara in the Middle Volga. (This is why Trotsky had received permission to skip the 8th Party Congress and return to the front.) Kolchak’s advance was halted by May 1919, however, thanks to Mikhail Frunze, a thirty-four-year-old millworker turned commander, who reestablished discipline and led a counterattack.248 But right then, Denikin, whose Volunteer Army—now renamed the Armed Forces of South Russia—had increased to 150,000 with the Cossacks as well as conscripted peasants in Ukraine, and whose supplies came from the Entente, made his move.249 A staff officer, Denikin had never commanded a large army in the field, but he proved a formidable soldier. On June 12, 1919, his forces captured Kharkov, in Ukraine. On June 30, they captured Tsaritsyn. (“The hordes surrounded it,” howled Pravda [July 1, 1919]. “The English and French tanks captured the worker fortress. . . . Tsaritsyn fell. Long live Tsaritsyn.”)250 All told, in 1919, Denikin would annihilate Red armies numbering close to 200,000 poorly led and equipped and in many cases starving troops. After Denikin triumphantly entered Tsaritsyn and attended services in its Orthodox cathedral, on July 3, he “ordered our armed forces to advance on Moscow.”251 Trotsky, as always, blamed Red partisan-warfare tactics for the establishment of an anti-Bolshevik front from the Volga to the Ukrainian steppes. And he had a point. Although he had issued a decree forbidding Voroshilov from commanding an army again, in June 1919 Voroshilov had received command of the Fourteenth Army in Ukraine—and promptly surrendered Kharkov to Denikin’s forces. This prompted Voroshilov’s remand to revolutionary tribunal, which would conclude that he was unfit for a high command. (“We all know Klim,” Moisei Rukhimovich, the military commissar in Ukraine and a Voroshilov friend, noted, “he’s a brave guy, but come on with commanding an army. A company, at most.”)252 As for captured Tsaritsyn, it had been Voroshilov’s recent previous command. But the twin setbacks against the Whites only emboldened Voroshilov’s clique—that is, Trotsky’s Bolshevik enemies.

Trotsky was rarely seen at the war commissariat, which was managed by Yefraim Sklyansky, a graduate of the Kiev medical faculty and a chain-smoker, still in his twenties, who proved an able administrator, and remained in constant contact with the front via the Hughes apparatus.253 (“One could call at 2 or 3 in the morning, and find him at his desk,” Trotsky would write.)254 Trotsky lived on his armor-plated train, which had been thrown together in August 1918 when he raced to Sviyazhsk.255 It required two engines and was stocked with weapons, uniforms, felt boots, and rewards for valiant soldiers: watches, binoculars, telescopes, Finnish knives, pens, waterproof cloaks, cigarette cases. The train acquired a printing press (whose equipment occupied two carriages), telegraph station, radio station, electric power station, library, team of agitators, garage with trucks, cars, and petrol tank, track repair unit, bathhouse, and secretariat. It also had a twelve-person bodyguard detail, which chased down food (game, butter, asparagus). Trotsky’s living quarters, a long and comfortable carriage, had previously belonged to the imperial railroad minister. Conferences were held in the dining car.256 The men were clad in black leather, head to toe. Trotsky, then with jet black hair to go with his blue eyes, wore a collarless military-style tunic (now known as a vozhdevka). While on board, he would issue more than 12,000 orders and write countless articles, many for the train’s newspaper (En Route).257 Stalin, too, spent virtually the entire civil war in motion, and he too had a train, but without cooks, stenographers, or a printing press. Trotsky’s train would log 65,000 miles, mobilizing, imposing discipline, boosting morale.258 It also evolved into an independent military unit (taking part in combat thirteen times), and took on mythic status. “News of the arrival of the train,” Trotsky would recall, “would reach the enemy lines as well.”259 Trotsky’s arrival, however, also meant a cascade of orders often issued without even informing, let alone consulting, the local Red commanders.260 Voroshilov was far from the only person with whom Trotsky clashed.261

Matters came to a head at a rancorous Central Committee plenum on July 3, 1919, the same day Denikin issued his order to advance on Moscow.262 Stalin had been clamoring for the dismissal of Jukums Vacietis, the Red supreme commander who had become close to Trotsky. On the Petrograd front in late May-early June 1919, Stalin unmasked a “conspiracy” of military specialists, a claim that helped set the July plenum in motion.263 Vacietis, for his part, was angered by the incessant accusations that former tsarist officers like himself were saboteurs, but he also clashed with another former tsarist colonel, Sergei Kamenev (no relation to Lev), who had his own ambitions. Kamenev, as the Red commander of the eastern front, had wanted to pursue a retreating Kolchak into Siberia, while his superior Vacietis, supported by Trotsky, feared being lured into a trap. Trotsky had Kamenev removed as eastern front commander, but after his replacement, a former tsarist general, changed the direction of the main attack five times over ten days, Trotsky agreed to reinstate Kamenev.264 (On the larger strategy issue, Trotsky would later admit that Kamenev had been correct.) Now, it was Vacietis who was sacked. Trotsky evidently suggested as his replacement Mikhail Bonch-Bruevich, but he lost the vote. Sergei Kamenev became the new commander in chief.265 Unlike the Latvian Vacietis, Kamenev was an ethnic Russian and eight years younger. Lenin also unilaterally overhauled the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, sharply reducing its membership, from around fifteen to six, relocating its headquarters to Moscow from Serpukhov (sixty miles south of the capital), so that he could assert greater control; and expelling its ardent Trotsky supporters. Stalin, too, was taken off. Trotsky was to remain as chairman, and Sklyansky as deputy chairman; the additions were Sergei Kamenev; Yakov Drabkin, known as Sergei Gusev, a Kamenev man and, initially, a Stalin nemesis; Ivar Smilga (another Latvian); and Alexei Rykov, Lenin’s deputy.266 Having lost the fight over the commander in chief, and having had the body under his chairmanship purged without his consultation, Trotsky submitted his resignation from all military and party posts. On July 5, the Central Committee refused to accept it.267

Sergei Kamenev’s promotion took effect on July 8, 1919.268 The next day, Trotsky, by then back at the front (in Voronezh), was notified that Vacietis had been arrested—nearly one year to the day after the Latvian saved the Bolshevik regime from the Left SRs. Whereas Stalin’s surrogate, Voroshilov, had been disciplined for cause (surrendering Kharkov), Vacietis, Trotsky’s surrogate, had been arrested for murky accusations of White Guard associations. Vacietis was soon released—someone at the top thwarted Stalin’s machination—but the shot across Trotsky’s bow had been delivered.269 It was an extraordinary added humiliation.270

Trotsky liked to portray himself as above it all, as if politics in the Bolshevik regime did not involve constant backbiting and smearing. A top Cheka official, Wiaczesław Mezynski, had confidentially informed Trotsky on a visit to his armored train that Stalin was “insinuating to Lenin and to some others that you are grouping men about you who are especially hostile to Lenin.” Instead of recruiting the powerful, sympathetic Chekist on the spot—as Stalin would have done—Trotsky claims he rebuked Mezynski.271 Be that as it may, Stalin was hardly the sole intriguer badmouthing Trotsky by pointing out that former tsarist officers were deserting the Red Army and taking their troops along. Denunciations of the war commissar flowed to Moscow, incited by his personal haughtiness and strident defense of old-regime officers’ supremacy in military decision making, which seemed to betray the absence of a class outlook.272 Trotsky even managed to anger the very tsarist officers he was accused of championing in his disdain for their proceduralism and narrow intellectual horizons, compared with his.273 Summer 1919’s battlefield crisis had enabled Trotsky’s opponents to claw back from their defeat only four months before at the 8th Party Congress, thanks to Lenin; belatedly, he got the Central Committee, if not to subordinate the military to the party, at least to affirm the party-military dual command as a special achievement of the revolution.274 But if Lenin sensed that his war commissar had gotten too big for his britches, the Bolshevik leader continued to give every indication that Trotsky remained indispensable. Trying to win over a skeptical Maxim Gorky in 1919, for example, Lenin said, “Show me another man able to organize almost a model army within a single year and win the respect of the military specialists. We have such a man.”275 Had Lenin allowed Stalin and his band a complete victory over Trotsky in July 1919, the outcome of the other battle—the civil war against the Whites—might have turned out differently.276

Trotsky rushed to the faltering southern front against Denikin as Sergei Kamenev, a graduate of the imperial General Staff Academy, devised a plan of counterattack down the Don toward Tsaritsyn, to outflank and cut Denikin off from his main base. Vacietis, supported by Trotsky, had argued for a drive down through the Donetsk coal basin, more hospitable territory (full of workers as well as railroads), rather than through the Cossack lands, where a Red offensive would rally the population against Bolshevism. The politburo, including Stalin, had supported Sergei Kamenev’s plan. The upshot was that Denikin seized Kiev and captured nearly all of Ukraine, even as he was advancing against the Red Army’s weakened center on Moscow. On October 13, Denikin’s forces seized Oryol, just 240 miles from the capital (about as far as from the German border to Paris, giving a sense of the distances involved in Russia). On October 15, the politburo reversed itself, belatedly endorsing the original battle plan of Vacietis and Trotsky; Stalin, too, now agreed that Trotsky had been right.277 With the engagement north of Oryol in full force, Trotsky rallied the Red side, which was twice as numerous, and began to take advantage of White overextension and other vulnerabilities. Right then, Yudenich’s forces, 17,000 troops along with six British-supplied tanks, advanced from Estonia on Petrograd, capturing Gatchina (October 16–17) and then Tsarskoe Selo, on the outskirts of Petrograd. The city, frozen and famished, had seen its population dive from 2.3 million to 1.5 million as workers fled idle factories for villages.278 The famed working-class Vyborg district, the “Bolshevik Commune” of 1917, had withered from 69,000 to 5,000 people.279 “Squads of half-ragged soldiers, their rifles hanging from their shoulders by a rope, tramped under the red pennants of their units,” one eyewitness said of Petrograd in 1919. “It was the metropolis of Cold, of Hunger, of Hatred, and of Endurance.”280 Lenin proposed the former capital be abandoned so that Red forces could be swung to Moscow’s defense; he was supported by Petrograd’s party boss, Zinoviev. Trotsky, along with Stalin, insisted that “the cradle of the revolution” be defended to the last drop of blood, with hand-to-hand combat in the streets, if necessary.281

Crucially, Admiral Kolchak, the White “supreme ruler,” refused to recognize Finnish independence, and so the Finnish leader Karl Mannerheim refused to provide troops or a Finnish base of operations for Yudenich’s assault on Petrograd, while the Entente withheld support as well.282 Trotsky rushed to the northwest, followed by reinforcements—Yudenich’s forces had failed to secure the rail line—and halted the Whites’ offensive. “Trotsky’s presence on the spot at once showed itself: proper discipline was restored and the military and administrative agencies rose to the task,” explained Mikhail Lashevich (b. 1884), a leading political commissar. “Trotsky’s orders, clear and precise, sparing nobody, and exacting from everybody the utmost exertion and accurate, rapid execution of combat orders, at once showed that there was a firm directing hand. . . . Trotsky penetrated into every detail, applying to every item of business his seething, restless energy and his amazing perseverance.”283 Yudenich went down to defeat, his troops driven back into Estonia, disarmed, and interned. He himself emigrated to the French Riviera.284 Denikin, despite having 99,000 combat troops, could muster just 20,000 to spearhead the assault on Moscow, and with his entire front distended—700 miles, from their base in the Kuban—great gaps had opened when his men advanced.285 Near Oryol, Denikin’s overextended, all-out gamble for Moscow went down to defeat as well.286 By November 7, 1919, the revolution’s second anniversary, Trotsky, having just turned forty, was suddenly, resplendently triumphant. His colleagues fêted both his armored train and his personage with the Order of the Red Banner, Soviet Russia’s highest state award. Lev Kamenev, according to Trotsky, proposed that Stalin receive the same distinction. “For what?” Mikhail Kalinin objected, according to Trotsky. Following the meeting, Bukharin took Kalinin aside and said, “Can’t you understand? This is Lenin’s idea. Stalin can’t live unless he has what someone else has.” Stalin did not attend the ceremony at the Bolshoi, and at the announcement of his Red Banner award almost no one clapped. Trotsky received an ovation.287


Petrograd and Moscow were held. Kolchak was taken prisoner in Irkutsk (Eastern Siberia) and, without trial, executed by firing squad at 4:00 a.m. on February 7, 1920, his body kicked down a hole cut in the frozen Ushakovka River, a tributary of the Angara—a watery river grave for the admiral.288 The “supreme ruler” would be the only top White leader captured. With Kolchak disappeared imperial Russia’s gold. Tsarist Russia had possessed some 800 tons of gold on the eve of the Great War, one of the largest reserves in the world, which had been evacuated from the State Bank vaults beginning in 1915 to Kazan and other locations for safekeeping, but the bulk of it was seized by the Czechoslovak Legion in 1918. (Trotsky summarily shot the Red commander and commissar who had surrendered Kazan and the imperial gold.) Eventually, the cache had made its way into Kolchak’s custody—480 tons of ingots as well as coins from fourteen states, more than 650 million rubles’ worth, shipped in thirty-six freight cars to Omsk, Siberia. Rumors had it sunk in Lake Baikal or seized by the Japanese government.289 In fact, Kolchak had chaotically doled out nearly 200 million rubles’ worth on his campaigns; most of the rest was spirited out via Vladivostok to the Shanghai Bank, and would be consumed in the emigration.290 Denikin had made no move to try to rescue Kolchak. His own armies, following their trouncing north of Oryol, undertook an uninterrupted retreat southward, and by March 1920, they had straggled onto the Crimean peninsula, salvaging a rump of perhaps 30,000 troops. Denikin, compelled to relinquish command to Lieutenant General Baron Pyotr Wrangel, fled to Paris. The baron, from a family with German roots, until relatively recently had commanded only a cavalry division. Tall and lanky, he theatrically wore a cherkeska, the North Caucasus long black caftan with bullet cartridges across the outside. Despite the change in leadership and the (temporary) Crimean refuge, the Whites were spent.

On this last foothold of the White movement, Stalin reported to Trotsky that a directive would be issued for a “total extermination of the Wrangelite officer corps.” The order was issued and carried out. An Order of the Red Banner was awarded to a Red commander for “having cleansed the Crimean peninsula of White officers and counterintelligence agents who had been left behind, removing up to 30 governors, 50 generals, more than 300 colonels and as many counterintelligence agents, for a total of up to 12,000 of the White element.”291 Overall, no reliable casualty counts exist for the Red-White skirmishes. Red deaths from combat have been estimated to have been as high as 701,000; White deaths, anywhere from 130,000 to many times that.292 The absence of reliable figures is itself indicative of the nature of the antagonists, not just the low value they placed on human life but also the severe limits of each side’s governing capacities.

The Red military victory cannot be attributed to impressive strategy; mistakes were plentiful.293 Nor did intelligence win the war.294 Nor did victory derive from homefront production. To revive military industry and supply, the Bolsheviks formed innumerable “central” commissions, which underwent perpetual reorganization, often deepening the ruin.295 They had mocked tsarist supply problems, but the tsarist state had equipped a force ten times larger than the Red Army in the field—and the tsarist state supplied the Red Army, too. Anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the old regime’s accumulated 11 million rifles, 76,000 machine guns, and 17,000 field guns survived the Great War, an invaluable inheritance, almost all of which came into Red hands.296 In 1919, Soviet Russia manufactured just 460,000 rifles (compared with 1.3 million by tsarist Russia in 1916), 152 field guns (versus 8,200 in 1916), and 185,000 shells (versus 33 million in 1916).297 As of 1919, the Red Army possessed perhaps 600,000 functioning rifles, 8,000 machine guns, and 1,700 field guns. The Tula plant (founded by Peter the Great) was producing around 20 million rounds of ammunition monthly, while Red forces were firing 70 to 90 million.298 A keen Polish oberserver of Soviet affairs, Józef Piłsudski (whom we shall meet in the next chapter) correctly told the British ambassador, before the major Red-White clashes of 1919, that the armies of both sides were of similarly low quality, but that the Reds would nonetheless push the Whites back toward the Black Sea.299

Crucially, the Bolsheviks needed only to hold on; the Whites needed to dislodge them.300 Railroad junctions, depots, barracks, and the central administrative core of the old tsarist army were located in the Red-held capitals and heartland.301 In addition, the Whites fielded fewer than 300,000 soldiers (160,000 in the south, not quite 20,000 in the north, and perhaps 100,000 in the east), while Red combatants at peak reached 800,000. True, perhaps up to half of Soviet Russia’s registered population for mobilization—5.5 million, including 400,000 in so-called labor armies—failed to report or deserted between 1918 and 1920, but conscripts defected not to the other side but from the war (particularly at harvest time).302 Moreover, the Red Army could replenish because, occupying the heartland, it drew upon some 60 million people, a majority of them ethnic Russian, a greater population at the time than any state in Europe. The Whites, mostly in the imperial borderlands, had perhaps 10 million people underfoot, including many non-Russians.303 As for the British, French, and U.S. interventions, they did not send enough soldiers to overturn Bolshevism, but the fact that they did send troops proved a propaganda boon for Bolshevism.304

The Red rear also held. Many people anticipated strong efforts to subvert the regime, especially the regime itself. In summer 1919, through informants and perlustration, the Cheka had belatedly hit upon an underground network known as the National Center, comprising former politicians as well as tsarist officers in Moscow and St. Petersburg who were plotting on behalf of Denikin.305 Lenin, when informed of the National Center’s discovery, instructed Dzierzynski “to capture [suspects] rapidly and energetically and widely.”306 On September 23, 1919, the Cheka announced the executions of 67 spies and saboteurs.307 Two days later, two bombs crashed through the ballroom window of the Moscow party HQ, a two-story mansion on Leontyev Lane, the former Countess Uvarova mansion, which the Bolsheviks had seized in 1918 from the Left SRs after the latter’s failed pseudo-coup; some 120 Communist party activists and agitators from around the city’s wards were gathered for a lecture about the unmasking of the National Center. By some accounts Lenin was due to show (he did not). Twelve people (including the Moscow party secretary Vladimir Zagorsky) were killed and 55 wounded (including Bukharin). The Cheka immediately suspected White Guard revenge, and on September 27 announced executions in connection with a “White Guard conspiracy.” The Cheka soon discovered the bomb culprit was an anarchist (assisted by a Left SR familiar with the building). A vast sweep took place to root out anarchist hiding places throughout the capital, accompanied by exhortations to the working class to maintain vigilance.308 The mass internal subversion never materialized.

Red leadership, too, made a contribution, albeit in a complicated way. Lenin never once visited the front. He followed the civil war with maps, the telegraph, and the telephone from the Imperial Senate.309 He refrained from assuming the title of supreme commander and generally kept out of operational planning, yet he managed to commit or support several of the biggest mistakes. No one attributed the victory to him. But Lenin’s crucial leadership in the struggle against the Whites was felt at three significant moments: his support for Trotsky’s recruitment of former tsarist officers, including those of high rank, beginning in early 1918; his refusal to allow Trotsky to destroy Stalin definitively in October 1918; and, above all, his refusal to allow Stalin to rout Trotsky definitively in July 1919.310 As for Trotsky, his contribution, too, was equivocal. He committed mistakes when he intervened in operational questions, and his meddling angered many commissars and commanders alike, but he also organized, disciplined, and inspired the fighting masses.311 Trotsky excelled at agitation, and in the agitation he loomed large, which, however, became a source of resentment among insiders, but provided tremendous strength to the regime.312 Stalin’s role remains a tangle. Despite the Tsaritsyn shambles, Lenin still sent him on critical troubleshooting assignments (the Urals, Petrograd, Minsk, Smolensk, the south). Genuine shortcomings and bottlenecks were rampant, but in Stalin’s reports it became impossible to sort fact from exaggeration or invention. Each time he unmasked anti-Soviet “conspiracies”; each time he disobeyed direct orders from Moscow; each time he criticized everyone save himself, while nursing grievances as if he were the victim of miscomprehension and slander. That said, Trotsky would recall asking another Central Committee member in the Revolutionary Military Council of the Southern Front if they could manage without Stalin. “No,” came the reply, “I cannot exert pressure like Stalin.”313 “The ability ‘to exert pressure,’” Trotsky would conclude, “was what Lenin prized so highly in Stalin”—a backhanded, yet accurate compliment.314

When all is said and done, however, White political failings were epic.315 The Whites never rose above the level of anarchic warlordism, worse even than General Ludendorff’s occupation.316 “Politicians,” in the White mental universe, signified the likes of Kerensky: bumblers, betrayers.317 Kolchak formed a “military dictatorship” that reaffirmed tsarist state debts and tsarist laws, condemned “separatism,” and ordered factories returned to their owners and farm lands to the gentry.318 But there was no government, military or otherwise, as cliques of officers and politicians engaged in political murders and self-dealing.319 “In the army, disorganization,” wrote one observer of Kolchak’s abysmal 1919 offensive, “at the Supreme Headquarters illiteracy and hare-brained schemes; in the Government moral decay, discord, and the dominance of the ambitious and egotistical; . . . in society panic, selfishness, graft and all kinds of loathesomeness.”320 Yudenich only belatedly formed any government at all in the northwest under intense British pressure, and produced an ideological Frankenstein of monarchists and socialists (Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who distrusted each other, let alone the monarchists). Denikin’s political vision consisted of “temporary” military rule aiming to stand above politics; 1917 had convinced him that in Russia democracy equaled anarchy (the Constituent Assembly, he said, had arisen “in the days of popular insanity”).321 The British mission—Denikin’s patron—told him in February 1920 that it would have been a “complete shipwreck if you had reached Moscow, because you would have left behind you an occupied area which would not have been consolidated.”322 Only Wrangel, when it had become too late, appointed genuine civilian ministers, supported local self-government, formally recognized the separatist governments on former imperial Russian territory, and acknowledged peasant ownership of the land—but his land decree (May 25, 1920) required that tillers pay his government for land they already controlled.323

A debilitating absence of government machinery was compounded by White failure in the realm of ideas. Red propaganda effectively stamped the Whites as military adventurists, lackeys of foreign powers, restorationists. The Whites mounted their own propaganda, military parades, and troop reviews blessed by Orthodox priests. Their red, white, and blue flags, the national colors of pre-1917 Russia, often had images of Orthodox saints; others had skulls and crossbones. The Whites copied the Bolshevik practice of the agitation trains. But their slogans—“Let us be one Russian people”—did not persuade.324 Elsewhere, when leftist revolutions or minirevolutions had erupted—Roman Catholic Bavaria, Hungary, and Italy—these places shifted rightward, galvanized partly by the specter of Bolshevism. Indeed, across Europe, the forces of order, including Social Democrats opposed to Communism, were ascendant. Clearly, the keys to political outcomes were not wartime ruin, the downfall of a monarchy, military mutinies, strikes, the formation of local soviets, or direct-action efforts by the left to seize power, but the strength, or weakness, of organized rightist movements and reliable peasant armies. The outnumbered Whites, despite thoroughly alienating the peasants, had counted on popular uprisings to join them.325 But unlike in Italy, Germany, and Hungary, the Whites failed even to try to reinvent an antileftist movement on the basis of right-wing populism, and not even a Horthy, emerged among them. “Psychologically, the Whites conducted themselves as if nothing had happened, whereas the whole world around them had collapsed,” observed Pyotr Struve. “Nothing so harmed the ‘White’ movement as this very condition of psychologically staying put in previous circumstances, circumstances that had ceased to exist . . . in a revolution, only revolutionaries can find their way.”326


Lenin, in notes for a speech he would not be able to deliver, embraced the civil war: “The Civil War has taught and tempered us (Denikin and others were good teachers; they taught seriously; all our best functionaries [rabotniki] were in the army).”327 Lenin was right. Authoritarianism, moreover, was not a by-product. The sad fate of the factory committees, grassroots soviets, peasant committees, trade unions and other structures of mass revolution can hardly be considered mysterious. Bolshevik types worked strenuously to take over or crush grassroots organizations, in an energetic Gleichschaltung (as one historian of early Bolshevik state building aptly dubbed the process, analogizing to the later Nazi regime).328 Even many delegates elected to the soviets came to see the elected grassroots bodies as hindrances to administration.329 But the targeting of grassroots and often independent forms of political expression was rooted in core beliefs. Lenin’s regime set as its raison d’être not maximizing freedom but maximizing production. “The dictatorship of the proletariat,” as Trotsky thundered, “is expressed in the abolition of private property in the means of production”—not in workers control over industry or other participatory forms of decision making.330 The very meaning of controle, a French word adapted into Russian, shifted from spontaneous workers’ control over factory operations to bureaucratic control over factories and worker.331 The driving idea was transcendence of capitalism and construction of socialism; the nonpareil instrument was centralized state power.

The administrative machine was created from chaos, and in turn fomented chaos. The striving for hierarchy, to a great extent, stemmed from a desire for regularization, predictability. The regime was having a trying time not just governing but managing itself. At the finance commissariat more than 287 million rubles disappeared in a single robbery in October 1920, a heist accomplished with the aid of insider employees.332 A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that “each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.”333 The line between idealism and opportunism, however, was often very fine. The revolution was a social earthquake, a cracking open of the earth that allowed all manner of new people to rise up and assume positions that otherwise they would have waited decades to fill, or never been able to fill at all, and the revolutionary mission overlapped their sense of their own destiny.

The reconstitution of functioning state power turned out to be the primary task after the Bolshevik coup, and what saved the Bolsheviks from oblivion, but the upkeep of the beneficiaries consumed a substantial part of the state budget, independent of their self-dealing. Around 5,000 Bolsheviks and family members had taken up residence in the Kremlin and the best hotels in the heart of Moscow. Collectively, they acquired a sizable service staff and swallowed considerable resources during the civil war. Their apartments, not just Lenin’s, were heated by furnaces even though fuel was hard to come by. Inside the Kremlin they enjoyed access to a children’s nursery, club, ambulatory, and bathhouse as well as “closed” distribution centers for food and clothing. (Trotsky claimed that he found Caucasus wines in the Council of People’s Commissars “cooperative” in 1919 and tried to have them removed, since the sale of alcohol was technically banned, telling Lenin, in Stalin’s presence, but Stalin supposedly retorted that the Caucasus comrades could not make do without wine.)334 Compared with the tsarist royal court and high nobility, Bolshevik elite perquisites were hardly extravagant—an apartment, a dacha, a motor car, food packets—but amid the rubble and penury, such advantages were significant and conspicuous.335 Privileges for functionaries became a sore point well beyond the central regime. “We have cut ourselves off from the masses and made it difficult to attract them,” a Tula Bolshevik wrote to Lenin in July 1919. “The old comradely spirit of the party has died completely. It has been replaced by a new one-man rule in which the party boss runs everything. Bribe-taking has become universal: without it our Communist cadres would simply not survive.”336

There was abundant idealism in the apparatus, too, but the epidemic of “bureaucratism” shocked revolutionaries. Suddenly, “bureaucrats” were everywhere: boorish, spiteful, prevaricating, embezzling, obsessed with crushing rivals and self-aggrandizing.337 But one of the many revolutionary paradoxes was that although all “social forces” were understood in class terms—whether alien (bourgeoisie, kulaks, petit bourgeois) or friendly (workers and sometimes peasants)—the one class that could not be so called was the one in power.

 • • •

SYMBOLICALLY, A RED-WHITE BINARY—Bolsheviks against everyone else, including those who made the February Revolution and the non-Bolshevik socialists—defined the new regime. This was dramatically captured on the revolution’s third anniversary (November 7, 1920) in a reenactment of the “storming of the Winter Palace” staged in Petrograd, which involved far more people than the original event—around 6,000 to 8,000 participants and 100,000 spectators. In the show, on the immense square in front of the baroque edifice, one of the world’s grandest public spaces, two large stages (red and white) were set, and connected by an arching bridge. At 10:00 p.m., trumpets announced the beginning of the action and an orchestra of perhaps 500 played a symphonic composition titled “Robespierre,” which segued into “La Marseillaise.” Floodlights shone on the right platform, revealing the Provisional Government, Kerensky on a throne (!), and various ministers, White generals, and fat-cat capitalists. Gesticulating, Kerensky gives a windy speech and receives large sacks of money. Suddenly searchlights illuminate the left platform, showing the masses, exhausted from factory work, many maimed from the war, in a chaotic state, but to cries of “Lenin” and strains of the “Internationale,” they cluster around a Red flag and form into disciplined Red Guard units. On the connecting bridge, an armed struggle commences, during which the Reds gain the upper hand. Kerensky flees in a car toward the Winter Palace, bastion of the old regime, but is pursued by Red Guards—and the audience. He escapes, dressed as a woman, but the masses “storm” the Palace. Some 150 powerful projector lights illuminate the Winter Palace, through whose colossal windows can be seen pantomime battles, until the lights in every window glow red.338 Those who questioned any aspects of that glow might find themselves, like Kerensky and the moderate socialists, in the White camp, which proved to be ever expandable.

Institutionally, the Bolshevik monopoly regime not only formed a state, but with the mass assimilation of former tsarist officers, became a party-state. “The institution of commissars” in the Red Army, Trotsky had explained of the political watchdogs, was “to serve as a scaffolding. . . . Little by little we shall be able to remove this scaffolding.”339 That dismantling never happened, however, no matter how often commissars themselves called for their own removal.340 On the contrary, soon Vyacheslav Molotov, a central apparatchik, bragged in a pamphlet about how the task of governing had rendered the Soviet Communist party distinct from others. Among other innovations, he singled out the implantation of political commissars alongside technical experts—and not solely in the Red Army, but throughout the economic and administrative apparatus as well.341 Nothing like the party-state had existed in tsarist Russia. The Red expert dualism would endure even after the overwhelming majority of state officials, army officers, or schoolteachers were party members, becoming an added sourge of bureaucratic proliferation and waste.

Traditionally, Russia’s civil war, even more than the October coup, has been seen as Trotsky’s time. He was ubiquitous in the public imagination, and his train encapsulated the Red Army and its victory. But the facts do not bear out the long-held notion that Trotsky emerged significantly stronger than Stalin.342 Both Stalin and Trotsky were radicals to the core, but on the issue of former tsarist officers Stalin pushed a “proletarian” line, infuriating Trotsky (Trotsky’s rage was Stalin’s inspiration). To be sure, Stalin did not reject all military specialists, just “class aliens,” which for him included those of noble descent and those who had attained a high rank before 1917, while Trotsky, in turn, also advocated for the training of former non-commissioned officers as well as pure neophytes from the bench.343 In that connection, Trotsky claimed that in 1918 former tsarist officers composed three quarters of the Red commanding and administrative staffs, by civil war’s end they composed, according to him, only one third.344 Whatever the precise totals, however, the engagement of former tsarist officers, and of “bourgeois” specialists in other realms, helped focus the widely gathering negativity about Trotsky, who became a lightning rod, widely disliked inside the regime that he helped bring to victory, much earlier than usually recognized, right in the middle of his civil war exploits. At the same time, Stalin’s role in the civil war—knocking heads—was substantial, as even Trotsky acknowledged.345 And the Tsaritsyn episode of 1918, in what had been a desperate situation for the Reds and for Stalin personally, provided a preview of Stalin’s recourse to publicizing conspiracies by “enemies” and enacting summary executions in order to enforce discipline and rally political support.

Trotsky was Jewish but, like almost all intellectuals and revolutionaries in the Russian empire, wholly assimilated into Russian culture, and to boot, he had striking blue eyes and an unprominent nose, yet he claimed to feel his Jewishness as a political limitation. Peasants certainly knew he was a Jew.346 America’s Red Cross chief in Russia called Trotsky “the greatest Jew since Christ.” White-Guard periodicals roiled with evocations of “Kike-Bolshevik commissars” and the “Kike Red Army” led by Trotsky.347 In 1919, Trotsky received a letter from an ethnic Korean member of the Russian Communist party concerning rumors that “the motherland has been conquered by Yid commissars. All the country’s disasters are being blamed on the Jews. They’re saying the Communist regime is supported by Jewish brains, Latvian rifles, and Russian idiots.”348 The London Times asserted (March 5, 1919) that three quarters (!) of the leading positions in Soviet Russia were held by Jews. Many Soviet Communists themselves could be overheard to say Shmolny for Smolny (Jewish “sh”) or prezhidium (Jew-sidium) for presidium.349 Trotsky kept a copy of a 1921 German book of drawings of all the Jewish Bolsheviks, with a preface to the text by Alfred Rosenberg, in his files.350 Peasants, too, knew he was a Jew.351 Retrospectively, he would cite the perception of him as a Jew to explain why he had declined Lenin’s proposal in 1917 to become commissar for the interior (i.e., regime policeman).352 All the same, he had accepted other high-profile appointments, and the degree to which his Jewishness constituted a genuine handicap remains unclear. At the top, only the Georgian Jughashvili-Stalin was not partly Jewish. The Jewishness of Lenin’s maternal grandmother was then unknown, but other leaders were well known to be Jews and it did not inhibit them: Zinoviev had been born Ovsei-Gershon Radomylsky and used his mother’s surname Apfelbaum; Kamenev, born Lev Rozenfeld, had a Jewish father; both had Jewish wives.353 Trotsky-Bronstein managed to be a lightning rod not just in his Jewishness but in all ways.

Stalin, unlike Trotsky, had not made so bold as to challenge Lenin publicly in high-profile debates, such as Brest-Litovsk, as if he were Lenin’s equal, provoking Lenin’s ire. True, Stalin often engaged in disruptive political mischief.354 But Lenin could not have been put off by Stalin’s use of indiscriminate terror designed to deter enemies and rally the worker base because Lenin was the principle promoter of shoot first, ask questions later as a way to impart political lessons. (Lenin backed Trotsky’s severe measures of shooting deserters, even if they were party members.) Lenin also was not naïve: he saw through Stalin’s self-centered, intrigue-prone personality, but Lenin valued Stalin’s combination of unwavering revolutionary convictions and get-things-done style, a fitting skill set for all-out revolutionary class warfare. Stalin’s role for Lenin was visible in the regime’s internal groupings. “All Bolsheviks who occupied high posts,” recalled Arkady Borman, a deputy trade commissar, “could be divided into two categories: Lenin’s personal protégés and the rest. The former felt firm and secure in the intraagency clashes and always held the upper hand.”355 Stalin was both the highest ranking member of Lenin’s grouping and the belated builder of his own faction, which overlapped Lenin’s. A parallel Trotsky faction did not overlap Lenin’s and instead became a target of the Bolshevik leader. (The ambitious Zinoviev had his own grouping, in Petrograd.) Appealing to Lenin, Stalin managed during the civil war to escape subordination to Trotsky despite the latter’s position as chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. Going forward, as we shall see, the tables would be turned, and Trotsky would find himself appealing to Lenin to try to escape subordination to Stalin in the party. Stalin’s aggrandizement was already well advanced, yet only really beginning.



I know Russia so little. Simbirsk, Kazan, Petersburg, exile, and that’s about it!

Lenin, Island of Capri, responding to someone talk about the Russian village, c. 1908, in reminiscences of Maxim Gorky1

The isolated existence of separate Soviet republics is unstable and impermanent in view of the threats to their existence posed by the capitalist states. The general interests of defense of the Soviet republics, on the one hand, and, on the other, the necessity of restoring productive forces destroyed by the war, and, as a third consideration, the necessity of the food-producing Soviet republics to supply aid to the grainless ones, all imperatively dictate a state union of the separate Soviet republics as the sole path of salvation from imperialist yoke and national oppression. . . .

10th Party Congress resolution based upon Stalin’s report, March 15, 19212

REVOLUTION AND CIVIL WAR had broken out in the Russian empire, a startlingly heterogeneous state spanning two continents, Europe and Asia. That said, this realm had not presented an especially difficult governing challenge from the point of view of nationalism. Imperial Russia had had no “republics” of Georgia or Ukraine; officially, Ukrainians did not even exist (they were “Little Russians”). True, imperial Russia had countenanced two so-called protectorates (Bukhara, Khiva), while Finland had enjoyed a measure of self-rule, but the rest of the empire was divided into governorships (gubernii). Then the world war, German military occupation, and civil war midwifed an independent Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, none of which the Red Army managed to reconquer. World war, occupations, and civil war also helped create Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, all of which the Red Army did reconquer, but even after falling to Red forces, those national republics retained important attributes of statehood. Nation was suddenly central.

The Great War irrevocably altered the political landscape, helping dissolve all three major land empires, but unlike Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman empire, Russia was resurrected, albeit not in toto, and not in the same form. What set Russia apart, and transformed its civil war into a partly successful war to recover territories of the former Russian empire, was a combination of instruments and ideas: the Communist party, Lenin’s leadership (actual and symbolic), the Bolsheviks’ belated discovery of the device of federalism, the vision of world revolution—not just a Russian revolution, which made “self-determination” a flexible concept—and Stalin’s machinations. An extremely broad spectrum of imperial Russian political figures, from tsarist statesman Pyotr Stolypin and others on the right to Stalin and others on the left, with the Constitutional Democrats in between, had alighted upon the necessity of forms of local-national autonomy, but only under the aegis of a strong state (gosudarstvennost’).3 The story of how Stalin arrived at that point is a lesser known aspect of his civil war odyssey; it is also one of the uncanny successes of Bolshevik state building.

“From the very beginning of the October Revolution,” Lenin had remarked in November 1918, “foreign policy and international relations became the main issue before us.”4 Bolshevism was not just a state-building enterprise but an alternative world order. The Bolshevik recourse to federation recognized a formal right to succession of the dependent peoples in Soviet Eurasia, in a clarion call for colonial peoples everywhere.5 State structure, domestic minority policy, colonial policy, and foreign policy became indistinguishable.

Germany, Russia’s former nemesis, had recognized the new Soviet state but then collapsed, while Britain and France, Russia’s former allies, were now antagonists: they recognized the new independent republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, without recognizing Soviet Russia. But Greater Poland and Greater Romania, two big winners at Versailles, emerged as the most immediate Soviet antagonists to the West. On the other flank, the former Russian Far East fell under the occupation of Japanese troops, partly as a result of American president Woodrow Wilson’s request to Japan to supply troops to a planned eleven-country, 25,000-man expedition to rescue the Czechoslovak Legion and safeguard military storehouses in Siberia. Initially, the Japanese had declined to intervene militarily in Russia, but in 1918 sent even more troops than were requested, motivated by a desire to reverse historic territorial losses as well as anti-Communism. Japan’s occupation of the Soviet Far East grew to more than 70,000 troops, entangled against many different enemies, and turned out to be domestically divisive and costly, perhaps 12,000 dead and nearly 1 billion yen. Nonetheless, after the Americans left Vladivostok in 1920, the Japanese stayed.6 The upshot was that Japan, Poland, Romania, and Britain combined to constitute a kind of ring around the Soviet Socialist Republics, although, as we shall see, Soviet revolutions poked through briefly in Iran, thanks to the reconquest of the South Caucasus, and enduringly in Mongolia.

By 1921, with the outcomes of the wars of reconquest more or less clear, the population of the Soviet republics amounted to perhaps 140 million, including about 75 million Russians and, among the 65 million non-Russians, around 30 million Turkic and Persian speakers. Around 112 million of the total Soviet-area population were peasants. The national question was also ipso facto the peasant question: they comprised the vast majority of people in every nation in Russian Eurasia.

Not peasants per se but Communist party members undergirded the Red victory against the Whites.7 During a purge in 1919, nearly half the party’s paper membership was expelled; in 1920, during a renewed purge, more than a fourth was kicked out, but the party had kept growing.8 The party expanded from 340,000 (March 1918) to more than 700,000 by civil war’s end, while party members in the Red Army grew from 45,000 to 300,000. But even if peasants were not decisive, they made up, often reluctantly, three quarters of the Red Army troops at any given time. Peasant soldiers often deserted with their army rifles. They also availed themselves of hunting rifles and homemade weapons. In 1920–21, at least 200,000 peasants in the Ukraine, the Volga, Don, and Kuban valleys, Tambov and Voronezh provinces, and especially Western Siberia took up arms against Bolshevik misrule, a revolt fed by the onset in September 1920 of Red Army demobilization. The regime replied with notable brutality, but also major concessions. In 1921, the peasants forced an end to requisitioning upon Lenin and he, in turn, forced upon the 10th Party Congress a so-called New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed peasants to sell much of what they grew. Confiscations did not cease: a state that was built upon the idea and practices of class warfare took time to adjust to a NEP. But the civil war outcome across much of Eurasia—the creation of the Bolshevik monopoly party-state—went hand in hand with a federation that acknowledged national identity and with legalized markets that acknowledged the parallel peasant revolution.

Kaleidoscopic does not begin to capture the civil war in Eurasia, particularly in the years 1920–21. Eurasia needs to be understood geographically. In Russian, as well as German and English, the term “Eurasia” had arisen in the late nineteenth century to denote Europe plus Asia, but in the early twentieth century its meaning had shifted to something distinct from either, something mystical.9 A tiny group of inventive intellectuals, who had been cast abroad by the revolution, and happened to be Ukrainian-Polish-Lithuanian in heritage, suddenly declared that the geographic and ethnic composition of the dissolved Russian empire had fused eastern Christianity and steppe influences into a transcendent new synthesis. “Russians and those who belong to the peoples of ‘the Russian world’ are neither Europeans nor Asiatics,” the exiles who had fled westward wrote in their manifesto Exodus to the East (1921). “Merging with the native element of culture and life which surrounds us, we are not ashamed to declare ourselves Eurasians.”10 Their Eurasia, ruled from Moscow, economically self-sufficient and politically demotic (of the people but not democratic), was allegedly some sort of symphonic unity.11 Nothing could have been further from the truth, as we shall see, and as Stalin fully recognized, because he was managing the diversity. Despite his admiration for the Great Russian nation and the Russian working class, and his persistent preference for centralized authority and party rule (class) over national interests, he recognized the necessity of fashioning appeals and institutions to accommodate different nations.12 Early on he made linguistic equality and nativization of administration the centerpiece of his views on the national question.13 Of course, the flip side of the Russian Communist party’s attempt to capture natives’ allegiance by embracing national states was that nationally inclined Communists in those states obtained vehicles for their aspirations. Had there really been a “Eurasian” synthesis the way the emigres fantasized, Stalin’s life would have been far simpler.

Russia’s civil war amounted to a kind of “voyages of discovery,” even if, unlike Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, the voyagers did not cross literal oceans. A bewildering cast of characters dance across this stage: the Polish marshal Józef Piłsudski and the Polish Bolshevik Józef Unszlicht; the mustachioed leader of the Red Cossacks Semyon Budyonny and the Armenian horseman Haik Bzhishkyan, known as Gai Dmitrievich Gai, who rode Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s flank; the two Tatar Muslim Communists Sahib Garei Said-Galiev and Mirsayet Soltanğaliev, who wanted to kill each other, and a Bashkir non-Communist, Akhmetzaki Validi, who blocked Soltanğaliev’s Tatar imperialism; Danzan and Sukhbaataar, two Mongol nationalists who cooperated until drawing daggers against each other; Mirza Kuchek Khan, the mild-mannered would-be liberator of Persia from foreign influence, and Reza Khan, the ruthless leader of a rightist putsch in Tehran; the Belorussian Jew Georgy Voldin, known as Safarov, a commissar in Turkestan, and the Latvian Jekabs Peterss, an old-school Chekist in Turkestan who nearly destroyed the career of the great proletarian commander Mikhail Frunze; the peasant rebels’ leader Alexander Antonov and his Bolshevik nemesis Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, who had stormed the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government but could not subdue Tambov peasant fury; the workerist Bolsheviks Alexander Shlyapnikov and Alexandra Kollontai, who led a Communist party internal opposition; the nationally inclined Ukrainian Communist Mykola Skrypnyk and nationally inclined Georgian Communists Pilipe Makharadze and Budu Mdivani; the forgettable former tsarist major general Alexander Kozlovsky on the Kronstadt island fortress and the unforgettable former tsarist Cossack officer Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a Baltic German riding in the footsteps of Chinggis Khan. And yet the principal character, even more than Lenin, turned out to be the Georgian reincarnation of Stolypin in the national sphere. Stalin pursued a statist agenda that sought to combine retention of a grand unitary state with provision for national difference, and an iron fist for separatism, even though Stalin, both in appearance and fact, was a quintessential man of the borderlands.14

The unexpected significance of the national question in the civil war proved to be yet another issue that empowered Stalin, and brought him into a close working relationship with Lenin. The two, often in the face of hostility from both hard-line Bolsheviks opposed to nationalism at all and national-minded Bolsheviks opposed to centralization, groped toward a workable federalism consonant with Marxist tenets, faits accomplis on the ground, and geopolitics.15


Four watchwords had accompanied the coup in 1917: peace, land, and bread, but also national self-determination, yet the latter notion had long vexed the left. “The nationality of the worker is neither French nor English nor German, it is labor,” Marx wrote in his early years. “His government is neither French nor English nor German it is capital. His native air is neither French nor German nor English it is factory air.”16 But as a result of the Irish Question, Marx later in life changed his position; a right to self-determination had been included in the program of the First International.17 Karl Kautsky’s essay “Modern Nationality” (1887) constituted the first major Marxist effort to elaborate the orthodox position that capitalist commodity relations had produced nations, which would presumably disappear with capitalism (the essay was translated into Russian in 1903). A hard-line Marxist position on nations had been outlined in 1908–9 by Rosa Luxemburg, who also argued that capitalism had generated nationalism, dividing the international proletariat by tying it to its ruling classes, but who denied self-determination except for the exploited working class, a position that attracted class-fixated leftists in polyglot Eastern Europe.18 Then a countervailing Marxist view emerged in Austria-Hungary, where Otto Bauer and others argued for an elaborate program of “national cultural autonomy” independent of territory to reconcile nation with class.19 Stalin’s essay “The National Question and Social Democracy” (1913) rejected what he saw as the Austro-Marxist attempt to substitute “bourgeois” nationality (culture) for class struggle (Luxemburgism), questioning, for example, who had appointed the Muslim beys and mullahs to speak for Muslim toilers, and noting that many “cultural” practices (religion, bride kidnapping, veiling) would have to be eradicated. Stalin especially targeted the Caucasus echoes of Austro-Marxist “national cultural autonomy” (Jordania and the Georgian Mensheviks), insisting that autonomy should only be territorial (i.e., not extended to nationals outside their homelands). Still, he concluded that nationalism could serve the worldwide proletariat’s emancipation by helping win over workers susceptible to nationalist appeals.20 Lenin—who has wrongly been credited with commissioning Stalin’s refutation of the Austro-Marxists—targeted Luxemburg’s dismissiveness of nationalism in an essay in a Russian emigre journal in Geneva in 1914.21 He distinguished between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and the nationalism of the oppressed (such as the Irish cause that had influenced Marx), and partially accepted a right to self-determination not merely for tactical reasons, à la Stalin, but also for moral political reasons: emancipation of the toilers of oppressed nations.22 In Lenin’s mind, one could not be both for socialism and for imperialism (national oppression by a big state).

Such, then, was the Marxisant corpus, polemics written for one another—orthodox Kautsky (a majoritarian citizen of Germany), hard-line Luxemburg (a Pole assimilated into Germany), and soft-line Bauer (an Austro-Hungarian multinationalist) versus Stalin (a Georgian assimilated into imperial Russia) versus Lenin (a majoritarian subject of Russia). These ideas became an even greater battleground in the real context of Russia’s civil war.

Bolshevik ranks embodied the wildly multinational character of imperial Russia (as the names, given in this book in the original, demonstrate) but the Bolsheviks were thoroughly Russified, too (as shown by the more typical spellings of their names). Still, they were conscious of the difference between ethnic Russia and imperial Russia. Trotsky, a Russified Jew, painted Russia in profoundly negative cultural terms, demanding a “final break of the people with Asianism, with the seventeenth century, with holy Russia, with icons and cockroaches.”23 Lenin, vehemently excoriating Great Russian chauvinism as a special evil that “demoralizes, degrades, dishonors and prostitutes [the toiling masses] by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases,” still allowed that a popular nationalism could emerge among ethnic Russians.24 Stalin had once been a passionate critic of Russification. “Groaning under the yoke are the oppressed nations and religious communities, including the Poles, who are being driven from their native land . . . and the Finns, whose rights and liberties, granted by history, the autocracy is arrogantly trampling,” he had written in Georgian, in the periodical Brdzola (November–December 1901). “Groaning under the yoke are the eternally persecuted and humiliated Jews who lack even the miserably few rights enjoyed by other subjects of Russia—the right to live in any part of the country they choose, the right to attend school, the right to be employed in government service, and so forth. Groaning are the Georgians, Armenians, and other nations who are deprived of the right to have their own schools and be employed in government offices, and are compelled to submit to the shameful and oppressive policy of Russification.”25 But Stalin had quickly shed this Georgian nationalism, denying in Proletariatis Brdzola in September 1904 that national characteristics or a national spirit existed.26 By 1906, still writing in Georgian language, he was arguing that national autonomy would sever “our country [Georgia] from Russia and link it to Asian barbarism.”27 Thus, whereas Lenin railed against Russian chauvinism, Stalin worried about non-Russian backwardness and came to see Russian tutelage as a lever to lift other nations up—an echo perhaps of his personal experience in Russian Orthodox schools.28 This difference would prove consequential.

As the recognized expert in the party’s innermost circle on the national question, by virtue of his Georgian heritage and 1913 essay, Stalin emerged as the most significant figure in determining the structure of the Soviet state. It was no accident that the first Bolshevik government included a commissariat of nationalities, headed by him.29 The Russian empire’s dissolution in war and revolution had created an extraordinary situation in which the revolution’s survival was suddenly inextricably linked to the circumstance that vast stretches of Russian Eurasia had little or no proletariat. In order to find allies against “world imperialism” and “counterrevolution,” the party found itself pursuing tactical alliances with “bourgeois” nationalists in some territories, especially those without industry, but even those where a proletariat did exist. The first efforts in this regard had involved Polish-speaking lands: already in November 1917 the nationalities commissariat set up a Polish suborgan to recruit Polish Communists and retain Poland as a part of the Soviet Russian space. Never mind that the regime controlled no Polish territory at this time, and that serial rhetorical promises made by the competing Great War belligerents had continually upped the ante for an independent Poland. Stalin’s ethnic Polish deputy commissar Stanisław Pestkowski oversaw the plans to Sovietize Poland, and his unreconstructed Luxemburgism did little more than intensify splits in the Polish left and generate friction between local soviets and local-branch ethnic Polish committees.30 Poland, events would show, was not just a nation but a geopolitical factor in its own right. Similar suborgans in the nationalities commissariat emerged for Lithuania, Armenia, Jews, Belorussia, and so on, but the commissariat, and Stalin’s attention, became especially absorbed by the Muslim territories of Russian Eurasia and the search for tractable Muslim collaborators. A Muslim suborgan was established, but its leaders pursued their own agenda: an “autonomous” Tataria encompassing nearly all Muslims in former tsarist Russia. Stalin had initially supported this Greater Tataria in May 1918 as a way to assert some political control, but very soon he undermined it as a dangerous vehicle at odds with Bolshevik monopoly and a threat to winning the allegiance of non-Tatar Muslims.31 Stalin, despite his greater familiarity with Eurasia, had a learning curve, too.

Federalism, Stalin’s key instrument, had started out with little support among Bolsheviks. Whereas in the American Revolution the federalists were those who argued for a strong central government, in the French Revolution, against an absolutist state, federalists wanted to weaken central power. It was the French understanding that influenced Marx, who rejected federalism. (The anarchists were the ones who supported looseness, decentralization, federalism.)32 Lenin had written (1913) that “Marxists are of course hostile to federation and decentralization,” further explaining in a private letter the same year that he stood “against federation in principle” because “it weakens the economic link and is an unsuitable form for a single state.”33 Stalin in March 1917 had published “Against Federalism,” arguing that “federalism in Russia does not and cannot solve the national question, [but] merely confuses and complicates it with quixotic ambitions to turn back the wheel of history.”34 But the wheel had turned, and quickly. In 1918, in power, Stalin conceded federalism—not “forced unification” as under the tsars, but a “voluntary and fraternal union of the working masses of all nations and peoples of Russia”—as a necessary but temporary expedient, a “transitional” phase toward socialism.35 A constitutional commission for Soviet Russia was hastily thrown together on April 1, 1918, with Stalin as the only member also in the Council of People’s Commissars; he wrote the theses that served as the basis for the draft document published on July 3, when it was submitted for approval to the Central Committee. Formally, the constitution was adopted at the Congress of Soviets, which took place July 4–10—the one that occurred during the Left SR quasi-coup in Moscow.36 Soviet Russia, officially, became the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, or RSFSR.37 The term “federation” occurred in the constitution’s title and initial principles, but not in the body of the text specifying the governing machinery, that is, the federation in practice.38 Nonetheless, even as most of the “self-governing” entities that comprised the RSFSR quickly fell to White occupation armies and other anti-Bolshevik forces, Soviet Russia remained a federation.

Stalin was the one who developed the Bolshevik rationale for federalism, which, in his description, entailed a way to bind the many peoples into a single integrated state. “Soviet power has not yet succeeded in becoming a people’s power to the same extent in the border regions inhabited by culturally backward elements,” he wrote in Pravda (April 9, 1918). He saw the Bolshevik task as splitting the masses from “bourgeois” nationalists by promoting “schools, courts, administrations, organs of power and social, political, and cultural institutions in which the laboring masses . . . use their own language.”39 In other words, Stalin’s understanding went beyond mentorship: even if Great Russia as a higher culture extended a helping hand to the various peoples, the latter still needed education and propaganda in their native tongues and participation in managing their own affairs. Here was the Communist version of a discovery that had been made by Russian Orthodox missionaries in remote areas of the empire: namely, that the Bible had to be taught in the empire’s vernacular languages, in order to get non-Christians to read it and convert. So it would be with Communism. This was not a question of a direct Orthodox missionary influence on Bolshevism, but of structurally similar circumstances leading to similar approaches.40 Stalin showed himself to be a missionary de facto.

The first major party discussion of the national question occurred at the 8th Party Congress in March 1919. This was also the congress that reaffirmed the use of tsarist officers, whose presence necessitated political commissars, which solidified the basic structure of a dualist party-state. On the national question, Bukharin, Pyatakov, and other leftist Communists at the congress demanded a hard-line Luxemburgist position (an end to the slogan of self-determination for nations).41 After all, federalism was the stance of the Mensheviks, the Jewish Bund, the Armenian Dashnaks, and non-socialist Ukrainian nationalists. Lenin responded that nations existed “objectively” and that “not to recognize something that is out there is impossible.”42 He prevailed in the vote, which acknowledged nationalism as a “necessary evil.” The congress even wrote the principle of self-determination into the Communist party program, albeit only after rejecting Stalin’s formulation (“self-determination for the working masses”) in favor of what was called self-determination from the “historical class viewpoint.” In fact, Stalin could live with this formulation, which meant that if a nation was moving from bourgeois democracy to soviet democracy, then the proletariat was the class deserving of self-determination, but if from feudalism to bourgeois democracy, then “bourgeois” nationalists could be engaged in political coalition.43 But what was most consequential about the 8th Congress was a resolution establishing the strictly non-federal nature of the party. “All decisions of the Russian Communist Party are unconditionally binding on all branches of the party, regardless of their national composition,” the resolution stated. “The Central Committee of the Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian Communist parties enjoy the rights of regional committees of the party and are wholly subordinated to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party.”44 Thus, the 8th Congress, while retaining a federal state, confirmed a non-federal party. Federalism, in other words, had to be kept subordinate to “the proletariat.”


Poland did not exist between 1795 and 1918. Józef Piłsudski (b. 1867), a descendant of nobility, a graduate of the same Wilno gymnasium as Felix Dzierzynski, and a former political terrorist against tsarism on behalf of Polish independence, had fought in the Great War on the side of the Central Powers but refused to swear an oath to Germany, which got him imprisoned. On November 8, 1918, three days before the armistice, the Germans released him; he returned on a train to Warsaw, not unlike Lenin’s return to Petrograd the year before. As Poland returned to the map 123 years after the partitions, its borders remained undetermined. Six worthless currencies, not to mention bureaucrats of three defunct empires (Austria, Germany, Russia), remained in circulation; crime, hunger, and typhus spread.45 Piłsudski, the new head of state, negotiated the evacuation of the German garrison from Warsaw as well as other German troops from Ludendorff’s kingdom of Ober Ost (many left their weapons to the Poles). He also set up an espionage-sabotage unit called the Polish Military Organization, and with French assistance, began improvising an army. “Literally everything needs to be rebuilt, from the bottom to the top,” wrote one French trainer, Charles de Gaulle, fresh from a German POW camp.46 Beginning in early 1919, against expansionist-minded Bolsheviks as well as local nationalists, the makeshift Polish legions under Piłsudski conquered parts of tsarist Belorussia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, including the Galician oil fields.47 By fall 1919, the Poles offered to take Moscow for Britain, with an army of 500,000, at a proposed cost of anywhere from

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600,000 to
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1 million per day; no one proved willing to pay (the British were still backing Denikin).48 In December 1919, Piłsudski put out feelers to Paris for support of a major Polish offensive against Bolshevism; France saw in Poland the eastern bastion of the Versailles Order, but offered only an ambiguous reply.49 The Soviets also appealed to France, and fantasized about obtaining German military help against Poland from the circle around Ludendorff.50 In the end, Poland and Soviet Russia would fight a war largely on their own.

The Polish-Soviet War of 1919–20 mirrored neighboring armed border skirmishes—Romania with Hungary over Transylvania, Italy with Yugoslavia over Rijeka/Fiume, and Poland with Germany over Poznan/Pomerania and with Czechoslovakia over Silesia. Greater Romania especially, with its monarchy intact, emerged as a new power on the southwestern Soviet frontier. But the Warsaw-Moscow conflict was larger, a full-scale battle for supremacy in Eastern Europe that would profoundly shape the interwar period.51 It would also shape Bolshevik internal politics.

Lenin and Piłsudski had lived in Habsburg Krakow on the same street and at the same time as exiles from tsarist Russia. Piłsudski had even been arrested in the same plot to assassinate Alexander III that had led to the execution of Lenin’s brother. But overlapping maps of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth (1569–1795), once the largest state in Europe and of the Russian empire, the largest state in world history, gave inspiration to two competing imperialisms.52 In power, Lenin and Piłsudski issued mostly bad-faith peace proposals to the other and claimed they were undertaking military actions defensively, even as they harbored grandiose ambitions. Lenin viewed “bourgeois” Poland as the key battleground for the revolution against the Versailles Order: either an Entente springboard for intervention in socialist Russia—which had to be prevented—or a potential corridor for Bolshevik fomenting of revolution in Germany.53 Piłsudski, a Social Democrat and Polish nationalist who now added the title of marshal, sought a truncated Russia and a Greater Poland in the form of a Polish-dominated “federation” with Belorussia and Lithuania, allied with a small independent Ukraine.54

Historic Ukraine—at different times and in different ways part of both Poland-Lithuania and imperial Russia—had seen its own opening from the dissolution of the three major land empires in 1918, yet unlike the case of Poland, the decision makers at Versailles had refused to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Puppet governments of Germany, Bolshevik Russia, and Poland, not to mention General Denikin, rose and fell, but amid the competing claims, the countryside remained ungovernable to any would-be rulers. In April 1920, the deposed Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura, whose so-called Directory controlled very little Ukrainian territory and who was in asylum in Warsaw, signed a military alliance with Piłsudski, known as the Treaty of Warsaw. In exchange for Polish assistance in battling for an independent Ukraine against the Bolsheviks, Petliura relinquished claims to eastern Galicia (centered on Lwów/Lviv), for which the Ukrainian-speaking majority there roundly denounced him. Piłsudski faced uproar from Polish nationalists opposed to Ukraine’s existence at all, but he argued that Polish forces could not garrison all of a huge Ukraine and that given the history of Russian imperialism, “there can be no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine.” At the same time, he claimed territories for Poland with large western Ukrainian-speaking populations.55 The latter included his native Wilno/Vilna/Vilnius, which was also sought by Lithuania and Belorussia. The Poles, additionally, had captured Minsk, also claimed by Belorussia and even by some Lithuanians. (Belorussia, in its greatest form, encompassed the imperial Russian provinces of Grodno, Vilna, Minsk, Mogilyov, and Vitebsk; Brest-Litovsk was in Grodno province.)

In Moscow, amid these weighty considerations, an anti-Poland demonstration scheduled for April 22, 1920, was postponed so that Soviet Russia could instead celebrate Lenin’s fiftieth birthday. The regime’s two principal newspapers were devoted almost exclusively to the Bolshevik leader, with encomia by Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, and Stalin, who hailed Lenin’s extirpation of enemies.56 But at the regime gathering on April 23, Stalin made so bold as to recall Lenin’s political errors, including his vociferous demands, not indulged, that the October coup be carried out before the Congress of Soviets had met. “Smiling and cunningly looking at us,” Stalin noted, “he said, ‘Yes, you were probably right.”’ Lenin was not afraid to acknowledge his mistakes.57

The same day, Lenin submitted a peace offering to Poland to cede all of Belorussia and much of Ukraine.58 This proposal would make any Polish military advance farther eastward resemble an unprovoked aggression. Had the Polish marshal called the Bolshevik bluff by accepting Lenin’s peace offer, Piłsudski would either have exposed it as a fraud, when the Bolsheviks failed to live up to the proposed terms, or obtained a Polish border far to the east without having to fight. Instead, on April 25, citing a supposed need to preempt a Bolshevik offensive, Piłsudski rolled the iron dice, sending some 50,000 Polish troops into historic Ukraine.59 Assisted by Ukrainian nationalist forces, Piłsudski’s army captured Kiev on May 7, 1920, announcing the liberation of Ukraine from Russia. In fact, the Bolsheviks had abandoned the eastern Slav mother city without a fight, seeking to inflame Russian feeling against the Poles and to conserve Red forces, which were massing to the north.

Lenin saw in Piłsudski’s eastward march not a messianic Polish nationalist drive but a contrivance of world imperialism, and in Bolshevik propaganda, this was a class-based conflict. “Listen, workers, listen, peasants, listen Red Army soldiers,” Trotsky proclaimed. “The Polish szlachta [gentry] and bourgeoisie have attacked us in a war. . . . Death to the Polish bourgeoisie. On its corpse we have concluded an alliance with worker-peasant Poland.”60 But Trotsky himself privately warned not to expect a supportive Polish worker uprising.61 Stalin, ever attentive to the power of nationalism, also voiced early skepticism. While Denikin and Kolchak had possessed no rear “of their own,” he wrote in Pravda (May 25 and 26, 1920), “the rear of the Polish army appears to be homogenous and nationally knit together. . . . Surely the Polish rear is not homogenous . . . in the class sense, [but] the class conflicts have not reached such intensity as to damage the feeling of national unity.” National feeling trumping class among the Poles: heresy but true. Stalin agreed with Lenin on one point, though: he, too, saw the hand of the Entente behind Poland.62 Indeed, Piłsudski’s very recklessness seemed prima facie evidence of this supposed backing. Furthermore, the British War Office would end up shipping rifles and artillery to Piłsudski; these had been contracted for the previous year, but in the new context they looked like British support for Polish “aggression.” In fact, the British, as well as the French, were irritated at Piłsudski’s eastern offensive in spring 1920.

Whatever the clash’s national and international versus class dimensions, this began as a Great War military surplus clash. Perhaps 8 million Poles had fought for the Central Powers in the Great War; 2 million fought in the tsarist army.63 Now the Poles were still wearing their Austrian or German gear, to which they affixed a white eagle pin. Many Poles who had become POWs in the West got French uniforms. The Red troops in many cases wore tsarist uniforms, to which they affixed red ribbons, as well as pointed hats with red stars. Some Poles, too, wore their old tsarist Russian uniforms.

As for the field of battle, it resembled a triangle, with points at Warsaw in the west, Smolensk in the north, and Kharkov in the south. Inside the triangle lay the Pripet Marches, meaning that an advance westward could take place only on either side of the forested bogs: via the northern Smolensk-Wilno-Grodno-Warsaw axis (Napoleon’s route, in reverse); or via the southern Kiev-Rivne/Równe-Lublin-Warsaw axis (which the Soviets designated the Southwestern Front). These two lines eventually met up, but they lacked a single base in their rear or a single headquarters, complicating Red military operations.64 But the Polish dash to Kiev had put them far from home, overextended, and vulnerable to counterattack. In a battlefield innovation, the Russian side fielded the First Cavalry Army, formed in fall 1919 to counter the Cossacks. The leader of these Red Cossack equivalents was Semyon Budyonny, a tall, big-boned, and breathtaking horseman, holder of the St. George Medal for Bravery in the tsarist army, where he had been a sergeant major. Voroshilov served as the First Cavalry Army’s political commissar, meaning their higher patron was Stalin. They grew to 18,000 sabers—former Cossacks, partisans, bandits—and in their ranks could be found young commanders such as Georgy Zhukov (b. 1896) and Semyon Timoshenko (b. 1895). Trotsky, typically, was condescending: after visiting the cavalry force, the war commissar called it “a horde” with “an Ataman ringleader,” adding “where he leads his gang, they will go: for the Reds today, tomorrow for the Whites.”65 But Budyonny and his army, formed to counter the Whites’ devastating Cossack cavalry, had pushed Denikin’s forces into the sea at Novorossiysk in the southeast in February 1920. Their tactics combined supreme mobility with mass: they probed for enemy weak spots, then concentrated all forces upon that point to smash through and wreak havoc deep in the enemy rear, thereby forcing a panicked enemy retreat, which they savagely converted into a rout. To reach the southwestern front from Novorossiysk, the Red’s First Cavalry Army traveled westward more than 750 miles on horseback.66 In late May 1920, Polish intelligence, from an airplane, spotted the dust storm that the Red cavalry’s horses were kicking up en route.67

Before the Red cavalry swept across Ukraine, on April 29, 1920, Sergei Kamenev, Red supreme commander, had written to Lenin requesting that Mikhail Tukhachevsky be placed in overall charge of the army in the field for a Polish campaign.68 Tukhachevsky was not merely an aristocrat; he could trace his ancestry back to a twelfth-century noble clan of the Holy Roman Empire that had served the princes of Kievan Rus. His mother was a peasant. He was graduated first in his class at the Alexander Military School in 1914 and chose the Semenov Guards, one of the empire’s two oldest and most prestigious regiments, which were attached to the court. “He was a well-proportioned youth, rather presumptuous, feeling himself born for great things,” recalled a friend.69 Another classmate recalled that Tukhachevsky behaved despotically toward underclassmen and that “everyone tried to avoid him, being afraid.” (Three younger cadets he disciplined were said to have committed suicide.)70 During the Great War, Tukhachevsky fell captive to the Germans in June 1915, becoming one of 5,391 Russian officers held as POWs. Unlike General Lavr Kornilov, who quickly escaped, Tukhachevsky languished two and a half years in Ingoldstadt, a camp outside Munich (the same place de Gaulle had been interned). He made it back to Russia just days before the Bolshevik seizure of power, volunteered for the Red Army early, and even joined the party (April 1918).71 In summer 1918, White forces had captured him in Simbirsk but the young Bolshevik activist Jonava Vareikis rescued him.72 In fall 1918, Tukhachevsky smashed the Whites at Simbirsk (Lenin’s hometown), and in 1919 he triumphed in the Urals uplands, chasing Kolchak’s army into Siberia, where it would be annihilated.73 By the time he spoke at the General Staff Academy in December 1919, outlining a theory of “revolutionary war,” he was recognized as the top Red commander. In spring 1920 his star rose higher still when, as the commander of the Caucasus front, he helped smash Denikin’s army. Twenty-seven years old in 1920, the same age as his idol Napoleon during the fabled Italian campaign, he arrived at western front headquarters in Smolensk the week that Kiev had fallen to the Poles, and began to amass forces for a major strike to the northwest.

Another former tsarist officer, Alexander Yegorov (b. 1883)—a metalworker and lieutenant colonel who had taken over Tsaritsyn from Voroshilov and lost it, then lost Oryol to Denikin, but then initiated a spectacularly successful counteroffensive—was named top commander of the southwestern front. This is where Stalin had recently been appointed commissar. The southwest’s responsibilities included mopping up Wrangel’s White remnants in Crimea, but also, now, assuming a secondary part of the counterattack against Poland. On June 3, 1920, Stalin telegrammed Lenin demanding either an immediate armistice with Wrangel or an all-out offensive to smash him quickly. Lenin wrote to Trotsky aghast (“This is obviously utopian”). Trotsky was affronted that Stalin had bypassed his authority as head of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic and gone to Lenin. “Possibly this was to make mischief,” Lenin admitted. “But the question must be discussed urgently.”74 No immediate decision was made on Wrangel. On June 5, in Ukraine, Budyonny’s cavalry ruptured Polish lines. “We have taken Kiev,” Trotsky gloated on June 12, adding that “the retreating Poles destroyed the passenger and freight rail stations, the electric station, the water mains, and the Vladimir Cathedral.” He advised publicizing these stories to exert international pressure on the Poles to stop destroying more infrastructure as they retreated.75 The advancing Reds, meanwhile, would loot and desecrate everything in their path: churches, shops, homes. “The universal calling card of a visit by Red soldiers,” one writer explained, “was shit—on furniture, on paintings, on beds, on carpets, in books, in drawers, on plates.”76

Stalin publicly expressed doubts about mission creep in the Polish campaign to a newspaper at southwestern front HQ in Kharkov on June 24, 1920. “Some of them are not satisfied with the successes on the Front and shout, ‘March on Warsaw,’” he observed, in words evidently aimed at Tukhachevsky. “Others are not satisfied with the defense of our republic against enemy attack, and proudly proclaim that they can make peace only with ‘a red Soviet Warsaw.’”77 But such doubts were lost in the euphoria spurred by battlefield successes. “Soldiers of the workers revolution!” Tukhachevsky stated in a directive issued at western front HQ in Smolensk (his hometown) on July 2, cosigned by western front commissars Ivar Smilga and Józef Unszlicht. “The time for payback has arrived. Our soldiers are going on the offensive across the entire front. . . . Those taking part smashed Kolchak, Denikin, and Yudenich. . . . Let the lands ruined by the Imperialist War testify to the revolution’s blood-reckoning with the old world and its servants. . . . In the West will be decided the fate of the world revolution. Across the corpse of White Poland lies the way to world conflagration. On our bayonets we will carry happiness and peace to laboring humankind. . . . To Vilna, Minsk, and Warsaw—march!”78

Eight days later, in the south, Budyonny, having completely rolled Polish forces back, occupied what had been Piłsudski’s field headquarters at the launching-off point of his Ukrainian campaign, the town of Rivne/Równe, and its richly symbolic Hotel Versailles.79 (Lenin liked to denounce Poland as the “bastard child” of Versailles.) The Red Army now stood upon the Bug River, the rough divide between mostly Polish-speaking territories and mostly Ukrainian-speaking ones.80 Even though Tukhachevsky had already called for a march on Warsaw, strategy remained undecided in the Red camp. Trotsky, Stalin, Dzierzynski, and Radek—just back from a year in a Berlin prison, and considered well informed on Polish affairs—argued that an offensive on Warsaw would never succeed unless the Polish working class rose in rebellion, a remote prospect.81 Stalin added, in a public warning in Pravda (July 11, 1920), that “it is laughable to talk about a ‘march on Warsaw’ and more broadly about the solidity of our successes while the Wrangel danger is not liquidated.”82 That very day, however, Minsk fell to forces directed by Tukhachevsky. Poland’s government again appealed to the Allies. The French government, still angry at Piłsudski’s recklessness, nonetheless suggested an anti-Bolshevik operation; the British government, on July 11, sent the Bolsheviks a note signed by Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon proposing an armistice on western territorial terms favorable to Soviet Russia, an armistice with Wrangel and a neutral zone in Crimea (Wrangel’s sanctuary), accompanied by a stern warning not to cross into “ethnographical” Polish territory. The note seemed to establish a Polish-Soviet boundary some fifty miles east of the Bug (essentially the 1797 border between Prussia and imperial Russia); it would become known as the Curzon Line.83 The Poles were taken aback: the British appeared to be giving away eastern territories the Poles viewed as their “historic” patrimony (whoever might be living there as of 1920).84 To Lenin, it looked like the British wanted, Gibraltar style, to annex the Crimean peninsula, pointing a dagger, like White Poland, at the Reds; on July 12–13, he urged “a frantic acceleration of the offensive against Poland.”85

Battlefield momentum helped fulfill Lenin’s wishes: the First Cavalry Army had already advanced into ethnic Polish lands. Isaac Babel (b. 1894), a city boy from Odessa attached to one of Budyonny’s divisions, kept a diary that he later used to write short stories collected in Red Cavalry, making poetry out of their savagery.86 Tukhachevsky’s parallel northerly advance was also led by horsemen, the Third Cavalry Corps, under Haik Bzhishkyan. Known as Gai Dmitrievich Gai (b. 1887), he had been born in Tabriz, Persia, the son of an Armenian father and Persian mother who had emigrated from the Caucasus but in 1901 had returned to Tiflis; Gai fought for Russia in the Great War. Although just half the size of the First Cavalry Army, on which it was modeled, and without a Babel to immortalize its exploits, Gai’s Third Cavalry Corps would manage to cover twice the ground at twice the speed of Budyonny’s sabers, and against the main Polish concentrations, whose lines they pierced repeatedly. Gai personally could not match Budyonny in horsemanship, but he did so in terror tactics and, what is more, he knew how to employ cavalry as a spearhead for infantry.87 (This would be the last significant reliance on cavalry in European history.) Impatiently, Lenin instructed foreign affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin, who was negotiating a treaty with Lithuanian nationalists (signed July 12), that “all these concessions are unimportant. . . . We must occupy and Sovietize. . . . We must ensure that we first Sovietize Lithuania and then give it back to the Lithuanians.”88 In fact, Gai chased the Poles from Wilno/Vilna, entering the city on July 14, ahead of the Lithuanian nationalists.89 The next day Gai received his second Order of the Red Banner.90

Sergei Kamenev, on July 14, advised war commissar Trotsky that whatever position the regime adopted toward the Curzon Note, with the Poles on the run, “it would be more desirable to enter peace negotiations without ceasing combat operations.”91 Two days later, the Central Committee assembled to discuss the Curzon Note, among other issues; Stalin, at southwestern front headquarters in Kharkov, was the only politburo member absent. Trotsky urged negotiations, arguing that the Red Army and the country were exhausted from war.92 But the majority followed Lenin in rejecting Entente mediation and continuing the military action.93 On July 17, Lenin telegraphed the two top frontline commissars, Stalin and Smilga (western front), crowing about his policy victory and instructing them, “Please expedite the order for a furiously ramped up offensive.”94 Already on July 19, Gai’s forces seized Grodno. Red Supreme Commander Sergei Kamenev arrived in Minsk, the new western front HQ, to survey the situation; around midnight on July 22–3, he directed Tukhachevsky that Warsaw be captured no later than August 12, 1920, a mere six weeks into the Red Army campaign.95

Lenin had ridden to power by denouncing the “imperialist” war. Had he accepted the Curzon Note as a basis for a peace settlement—whether of his own volition or, because the unthinkable happened and Trotsky and Stalin teamed up to impose their well-founded skepticism upon the politburo—then the Poles reluctantly would have been forced to accept the Curzon Note as well. This would have put Ukraine, most of Belarus, and Lithuania in Soviet hands. Instead, Lenin dreamed of igniting a pan-European revolutionary blaze. He rolled the iron dice.


Moscow formed a “Polish Revolutionary Committee” on July 23 consisting of a handful of Polish Bolsheviks, including the Chekists Dzierzynski and Unszlicht. That same day, Stalin’s southwestern front redirected its forces from the Lublin-Warsaw salient farther south, toward Lwów/Lviv, Galicia’s eastern capital.96 Partly this was because the northern-salient offensive was going so well. In addition, Greater Romania, the power in southeastern Europe, whose forces had crushed the Hungarian Soviet republic, had occupied tsarist Bessarabia and clashed with Soviet troops; Stalin sought to deter Romanian forces.97 Trotsky, too, was worried Romania might go on the offensive now that the Red Army had crossed the Curzon Line. Occupying Lwów/Lviv, therefore, could secure the Soviet flank with Romania and furnish a base for the offensive military revolutionizing in Central Europe that Lenin sought. Lev Kamenev, negotiating with the British in London for recognition of the Soviet Union, had written to Lenin on the urgency of capturing Lwów/Lviv, because Curzon had acknowledged it as Russia’s and because it was a gateway to Hungary.98 On July 23, a giddy Lenin wrote to Stalin of a Sovietization thrust all the way to the Italian peninsula: “Zinoviev, Bukharin, and I, too, think that revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately. . . Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands and Romania.” Stalin, indulging Lenin, responded the next day from Kharkov that it would indeed be “sinful not to encourage revolution in Italy. . . . We need to lift anchor and get under way before imperialism manages little by little to fix its broken-down cart . . . and open its own decisive offensive.” Stalin also observed that Poland essentially was already “defeated.”99

Full speed ahead: On the northern Smolensk-Warsaw axis, on July 30, the Polish Revolutionary Committee set up HQ in a commandeered noble palace overlooking Białystok/Belostok, which happened to be a majority Yiddish-speaking city.100 Here the handful of imported Polish Bolsheviks pronounced themselves a “provisional” government for a socialist Poland.101 Local government and community organizations were dissolved. Factories, landlord property, and forests were declared “nationalized.” Shops and warehouses (mostly Jewish owned) were looted.102 “For your freedom and ours!” proclaimed the Polish Revolutionary Committee’s manifesto.103 On August 1, Tukhachevsky’s armies, slicing through Polish lines, seized Brest-Litovsk, richly symbolic and just 120 miles from Warsaw. His shock attacks, designed to exert psychological as well as military pressure, were encircling the enemy, with Gai bounding ahead on the right flank to annihilate any Polish soldiers in retreat. Gai’s cavalry soon dashed to the vicinity of Torun, northwest of Warsaw, a mere 150 miles from Berlin, but he was under orders not to cross the German border.104 At the same time, the advancing Red Army was forced to live off the land, and its ranks were diminishing. “Some were barefoot, others wore bast leggings, others some kind of rubber confections,” one observer commented of the Red rank-and-file. A parish priest in a Polish town, hardly pro-Soviet, observed of the Red Army invaders that “one’s heart ached at the sight of this famished and tattered mob.”105 Furthermore, once the stubborn Tukhachevsky fully acknowledged how badly his headlong charge had exposed his left flank, he and Sergei Kamenev belatedly sought to cover it by hastily shifting the southwestern front forces under Yegorov and Stalin northward, and transferring them to Tukhachevsky’s command.106 But the shift and transfer from the southwestern front to the western Polish front never took place.

The Bolsheviks were divided about whether to press on while the battlefield was fast-moving. The British government was threatening military intervention or sanctions against the Bolsheviks and on August 2, the politburo (in Stalin’s absence) discussed the possibility of concluding a peace with “bourgeois Poland.” But for Lenin Poland as well as Crimea were of a piece—two toeholds for world imperialism, at the pinnacle of which he saw London. And so, it was now decided that the fight would continue, but the southwestern front should be divided, with a part diverting to the southern front (against Wrangel) and the rest folding into Tukhachevsky’s western front (against Piłsudski). Stalin and Yegorov resisted, however. On August 3, Lenin wrote to Stalin, “I do not fully understand why you are not satisfied with the division of the fronts. Communicate your reasons.” Lenin concluded by insisting on “the accelerated liquidation of Wrangel.”107 The next day Lenin asked for Stalin’s assessment. “I do not know, frankly, why you need my opinion,” Stalin replied testily (August 4), adding “Poland has been weakened and needs a breathing space,” which should not be afforded by peace talks. The offensive into Poland, though not his idea, was now on.108 A Central Committee plenum met on August 5 and again endorsed the politburo decision to continue the military operations; Sergei Kamenev passed on the orders.109

But the key forces under Stalin that were ordered northward, Budyonny’s now battle-scarred First Cavalry Army, had been encircled near Lwów/Lviv, far from Warsaw. They broke out on August 6, but were said to be “collapsing from exhaustion, unable to move,” and sought several days’ respite to lick their wounds. Also, Budyonny intended to resume the siege on Lwów/Lviv and complete its capture.110 In addition, Yegorov and Stalin, who were supposed to fight Wrangel, simply did not want to give up their prize cavalry to Tukhachevsky.111 Lenin telegrammed Stalin on August 7 that “your successes against Wrangel will help remove the vacillation inside the Central Committee” about continuing military operations against Poland, but he added that “much depends on Warsaw and its fate.”112 Already on August 10, Tukhachevsky’s forces approached Warsaw’s outskirts.113 The imperative to send Budyonny to link up with Tukhachevsky seemed diminished. The next day, Lenin again telegrammed Stalin: “Our victory is great and will be greater still if we defeat Wrangel. . . . Make every effort to take all of the Crimea with an immediate blow whatever the cost. Everything depends on this.”114 On August 11 and 12, Kamenev repeated his orders to redirect southwestern front units from Lwów/Lviv toward Lublin.115 Stalin ignored both Sergei Kamenev’s orders (about Lublin) and Lenin’s instructions (about Wrangel), in apparently blatant insubordination.116

What was Stalin thinking? Trotsky would speculate that because Tukhachevsky was going to capture Warsaw, Stalin at least wanted Lwów/Lviv, and therefore “was waging his own war.”117 Whatever Stalin’s vanity, however, not taking Lwów/Lviv, at that moment, seemed idiotic. Soviet reports had the western front march on Warsaw proceeding splendidly on its own, while the transfer orders for the southwestern front were close to pointless, given that it was near impossible for Budyonny or others to fight their way up near Warsaw in time to make a difference (the Reds now envisioned the Polish capital’s capture on or about August 16).118 Moreover, Lenin, had initially approved Stalin’s capture of Lwów/Lviv in order to acquire a revolutionary springboard. Still, on August 13, Sergei Kamenev repeated the transfer order.119 Stalin and Yegorov replied that their units were deep in battle for Lwów/Lviv and that altering their battle tasks was “already impossible.”120 On August 14, Stalin was summoned to Moscow to clear up the dispute face to face. (Budyonny would finally abandon the siege of Lwów/Lviv, reluctantly, on August 20—a strategic blunder—only to be shifted one direction one day, another direction the next.)121

But here was the most intriguing piece of all: Tukhachevsky was ordered not to attack Warsaw directly, but to circle around to its northwest, partly in order to block the Entente from supplying the Poles from Danzig and the Polish Corridor, but mainly to turn those territories over to Germany. Politically, Germany vacillated between loathing Communism versus looking for international aid against Poland. One Polish official observed that the German government “found it impossible to reconcile its foreign policy, which demanded the annihilation of Poland, with its domestic policy, which was very largely directed by the fear of a Spartacist revolution.”122 In fact, the German government was committed to border revisionism, but only by peaceful means; the Red Army, of all instruments, was voluntarily going to restore Germany’s 1914 borders—in order to strike a death blow at the Versailles Order. Frontline Red commanders even told German observers they were prepared to march with Germany on France.123

What was Lenin thinking? All during the key decision making regarding operations in Poland, from July 19 through August 7, 1920, Lenin had been exultantly preoccupied with the Second Congress of the Communist International, which had drawn more than 200 attendees, far more than the pitiful founding congress back in March 1919.124 Arriving in Petrograd, site of the first socialist breakthrough, they were treated to a sumptuous meal in Smolny’s Great Hall, participated in a march with workers, then, at the former stock exchange, watched a costume drama performed by a cast of thousands titled Spectacle of the Two Worlds. Lenin in his opening speech prophesied that the Versailles Treaty would meet the same fate as Brest-Litovsk.125 When the delegates traveled to Moscow, to continue, the Bolshevik authorities assembled what they claimed were 250,000 workers in the Red capital to greet them (workers were granted paid time off to appear, followed by minibanquets in canteens).126 The proceedings resumed in the former Vladimir’s Hall, a throne room of the medieval Kremlin. (The delegates were housed at the Delovoi Dvor, a former Moscow merchant hotel emporium.) Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which criticized almost all non-Bolshevik socialists and was written in April 1920, came out in June in Russian and, in July, in German, English, and French; each delegate received a copy. More immediately, the congress sessions transpired under an oversized map of Poland on which Red Army advances were recorded as each news flash arrived. This was the context in which Lenin had enthused to Stalin, in the telegram of July 23 about going beyond Poland, gushing that “the situation in the Comintern is superb.”127

The Comintern Congress came on the heels of mass demonstrations against colonialism in Korea and China and although the largest non-Russian delegations were from Germany, Italy, and France, compared with the First Comintern Congress, whose meager Asian representation had included only a few Chinese and Korean emigres, the Second Congress had at least 30 Asian delegates. Lenin stressed that “the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense,” and that Soviet Russia was leading this struggle. What he did not say outright at the Comintern Congress was that Germany—his ally since 1917—was supposed to help smash world imperialism and Versailles.

Here was the source of Tukhachevsky’s harebrained military maneuver to regain Danzig and the Corridor for Germany. Egged on by Lenin, Tukhachevsky’s troops north of Warsaw entered a void, without reserves, and with a still utterly exposed left flank (the one closest to Warsaw). He had to assume, or hope, that the retreating Piłsudski would not manage to regroup. Piłsudski had pulled back all Polish forces to the very gates of Warsaw, facilitating Tukhachevsky’s heady advance, but also buying time. Still, the Polish marshal enjoyed nothing of his subsequent prestige, having led his pre-1914 political party to division, his legions in the Great War to internment, and his invasion of Ukraine to an invasion of Poland. The Entente had given him up for a political and military corpse—just as Lenin and Tukhachevsky did. But on the very morning of the day the Bolsheviks expected Warsaw to fall (August 16), Piłsudski launched a counteroffensive: five divisions shot through a nearly 100-mile gap on Tukhachevsky’s left wing, advancing 40 miles in twenty-four hours without encountering the Red Army. Piłsudski, beginning to suspect a trap, toured the front in his car in search of the enemy. By nightfall, the Poles, deep in Tukhachevsky’s rear, had seized the heavy Soviet guns that were being moved up to hammer Warsaw.

Shock! As late as August 17, an oblivious Pravda was still reporting that “Polish white troops flee backward under the strikes of the Worker-Peasant fist.” That same day, Stalin, in Moscow as a result of his recall from Kharkov, requested to be relieved of all his military duties. Tukhachevsky, at HQ in Minsk, belatedly became aware of the Polish breach of his left wing and ordered a retreat. “Years on he would say of that day that he had aged ten years,” one contemporary observed.128 Sergei Kamenev called Minsk just after midnight on August 18–19, demanding to know why the Polish counterattack had come as such a surprise, showing his own profound ignorance.129 On August 19, Lenin desperately begged Radek, who had just been added to the Polish Revolutionary Committee “government” preparing for installation in Warsaw, to “go directly to Dzierzynski and insist that the gentry and the kulaks are destroyed ruthlessly and rather more quickly and energetically,” and “that the peasants are helped effectively to take over estate land and forests.”130 Already the next day, however, Lenin informed Lev Kamenev in London, “It is unlikely that we will soon take Warsaw.”131 Pravda (August 21) lamented: “Just a week ago we had brilliant reports from the Polish front.” Kamenev responded that “the policy of the bayonet, as usual, has broken down ‘owing to unforeseen circumstances’”—an undisguised rebuke of Lenin.132

Piłsudski scored a spectacular victory, the “miracle on the Vistula.” In the ensuing rout retreat, Tukhachevsky lost three of his five armies, one to annihilation and two to flight; the other two were severely maimed.133 It was a staggering defeat, the likes of which often end military careers. Gai fled with his celebrated cavalry into German East Prussia, where they were disarmed and arrested.134 Finger-pointing was inevitable. Because the total strength of the Red Army in the final assault on Warsaw had been 137,000, and Red operations in Crimea and Lwów/Lvov combined had numbered 148,000, those troops were viewed as the decisive missing factor. And Yegorov and Stalin had failed to transfer them.135 Never mind that the transfer of Budyonny’s cavalry in time was no simple task. An order had been given. On September 1, 1920, the politburo accepted Stalin’s resignation from his military posts.136 The way was open to scapegoat his insubordination. And Piłsudski’s army was still on its eastward march.


In the South Caucasus (known in Russian as Transcaucasia), following the simultaneous breakup of the Ottoman and Russian empires (and, in the case of Armenia, following military clashes with the Ottomans), eastern Armenia, northern Azerbaijan, and Georgia emerged as independent states. But on April 27, 1920, without a fight, the Bolshevik Red Army captured Baku, capital of the Musavat or nationalist Azerbaijan government, whose flag combined blue for Turkic civilization, green for Islam, and red for European socialism. The Georgian Bolshevik Grigol “Sergo” Orjonikidze (the main political commissar) and none other than Tukhachevsky (the military commander) had found an opportune moment to attack when the Azerbaijanis decided to send 20,000 units of their 30,000-troop army to respond to communal clashes between Armenians and Azeris in a disputed mountain region known as Karabakh.137 Additionally, Baku—uniquely in Muslim-populated areas—had a substantial population of industrial workers, some of whom belonged to the Bolshevik party and welcomed a Red invasion. Indeed, Baku, in one of the instances when Stalin and Trotsky agreed, became a springboard. At dawn on May 18, 1920, a Soviet naval force of perhaps thirteen gunboats, which amalgamated Soviet sailors, Soviet Azerbaijan infantry and cavalry, and ethnic Iranian longshoremen from Baku, invaded Iran, in pursuit of Russian ships and ammunition formerly controlled by the White military leader Denikin and now in the hands of a British military occupation of Iran.138

The landing was led by Fyodor Raskolnikov as well as Orjonikidze, who reasoned the British might try to reequip the ships and send them back into action against the Reds. But now the British military handed everything over and retreated inland toward Tehran. “English colonial policy was confronted with the real forces of the Workers’ State at Anzali and experienced a defeat,” wrote the Soviet journalist Larissa Reisner, who was married to Raskolnikov.139 On May 24, Mirza Kuchek Khan (b. 1880), leader of a long-standing anticolonial and constitutionalist movement in northern Iran’s Gilan forest, who opposed both Russian and British involvement, was persuaded to take advantage of the Red incursion and, citing the Bolshevik claim to be anti-imperialist, declared himself head of a Persian Soviet Socialist Republic in Gilan province.140 Lev Karakhan, a foreign affairs official accompanying the invasion force, telegrammed Moscow that “the toilers and the bourgeois democrats should be made to unite in the name of Persia’s liberty and be instigated to rise up against the British and expel them from the country,” though he cautioned against full Sovietization given the underdevelopment.141 But Georgy Chicherin, foreign affairs commissar, complained bitterly to Lenin, dismissing the episode as “Stalin’s Gilan republic.”142

Kuchek’s coalition—ultraleftists and constitutionalists, anarchists and Kurdish chieftains, anti-imperialists and Russians—was unstable, and he abjured the role of Lenin-style autocrat; in fact, he departed the province’s capital (Resht) back to the forest in July 1920, allowing Soviet operatives and Iranian Communists to take over.143 Bolsheviks in Iran contemplated combining their motley 1,500-person guerilla force of Iranian forest partisans, Azerbaijanis from both sides of the border, Kurds, and Armenians with Red Army reinforcements in a march on Tehran. This never came to pass, owing to Iranian counterforces. But flush with success in northern Iran, Orjonikidze helped suggest and plan, beginning in late July 1920, what would be a weeklong Congress of the Peoples of the East to take place in Baku, now the Caspian showcase for Moscow’s appeal to Muslims.144

The Congress of the Peoples of the East, the largest ever gathering under the Comintern aegis, opened on September 1, 1920, not long after the Bolshevik debacle in the West against Poland. The Comintern aimed the gathering at the “enslaved masses’” of Turkey, Armenia, and Persia, and as if on cue, the August 20, 1920, Treaty of Sevres that the Entente imposed on the defeated Ottoman empire showcased the British and French diktat over the Near East: Entente oil and commercial concessions in Ottoman lands were confirmed, German property there was taken by the Entente, and the partitioning of Ottoman lands—one of the Entente’s secret war aims—was begun with the declaration of mandates and protectorates. In Baku, meanwhile, nearly 1,900 delegates massed, about 60 of whom were women; the largest contingents were Turkic and Persian speakers, followed by Armenians and Russians, then Georgians. Delegations also arrived from India (15 attendees) and China (8). A substantial number, perhaps a majority of the attendees, were not Communists but radical nationalists.145 The congress’s manifesto demanded “liberation of all humanity from the yoke of capitalist and imperialist slavery.”146 Russian speeches were translated into Azerbaijani Turkish and Persian instantaneously. Karl Radek, the Hungarian exile Bela Kun, and the American John Reed gave speeches, but the featured orator was Zinoviev, Comintern chairman. “Brothers,” he thundered, “we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against British imperialism!” (Tumultuous applause, prolonged shouts of “Hurrah.” Members of the Congress stand up, brandishing their weapons. The speaker is unable to continue for some time. All the delegates stand up and applaud. Shouts of “We swear it.”)147

Comintern policy in fact was divided over the colonial world. Lenin had argued that given the limited size of the colonial proletariat, Communist parties there needed to enter coalitions with bourgeois nationalists in order to emancipate colonial peoples from imperialist powers. But others, such as Manabendra Nath Roy, from Bengal, insisted that Communists in colonial settings should prepare to seize power themselves. Some delegates thought the first strategy did not preclude a shift to the latter at the opportune moment.148 But Roy refused to attend the Baku congress, dismissing it as “Zinoviev’s circus.”149

Stalin did not attend Baku—the Polish war was still on—but by virtue of being nationalities commissar, he had had more contact with the national minority Communists of Soviet Russia than any other top Bolshevik figure.150 Not that he relished the interminable squabbles among national representatives nursing bottomless grievances and boundless claims. His deputy, Stanisław Pestkowski, recalled of the commissariat that Stalin “would suddenly disappear, doing it with extraordinary skill: ‘just for a moment’ he would disappear from the room and hide in one of the recesses of Smolny, and later the Kremlin. It was impossible to find him. In the beginning we used to wait for him. But finally we would adjourn.”151 Later, during the civil war, Stalin was almost always away at the front.152 Even when he did make an appearance at the commissariat, he tended to undercut staff efforts to regularize a policy-making process (his non-consultative decision making provoked them to complain to the Central Committee).153 The commissariat had no jurisdiction over places like Azerbaijan, Belorussia, or Ukraine, all of which, even when re-Sovietized, were formally independent of Soviet Russia. Nor did the commissariat’s writ extend to the majority of Soviet Russia’s population (the Russians); rather, it was concerned with the 22 percent in the RSFSR who were national minorities. In that connection, however, Stalin had cultivated a coterie of Muslim radicals, jokingly called “Soviet sharia-ites,” in particular the ethnic Bashkir Akhmetzaki Validi (b. 1890) and the ethnic Tatar Mirsayet Soltanğaliev (b. 1892).

Tatars and Bashkirs, who lived north of the Caspian Sea—they were the world’s northernmost Muslims—were both Turkic-speaking peoples, but the Tatars were sedentary, and far more numerous, while the Bashkirs remained seminomadic. They intermingled with each other. The Tatar Soltanğaliev, born in a village near Ufa (Bashkiria), was the son of a teacher at a maktaba, where he studied by the “new method” (Jadid) of the self-styled Muslim modernizer Ismail Gasprinski. In addition to Tatar and Arabic, Soltanğaliev’s father taught him Russian, which allowed him to enter the Pedagogical School in Kazan, an incubator of the Tatar elite, including most of the Tatar Bolsheviks.154 In 1917, responding to fellow Muslims who accused him of betrayal for cooperating with Bolsheviks, Soltanğaliev explained that “they also declared war on English imperialism, which oppresses India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Persia and Arabia. They are also the ones who raised arms against French imperialism, which enslaves Morocco, Algiers, and other Arab states of Africa. How could I not go to them?”155 He helped organize the defense of Kazan against the Whites, and though he was an undisguised Tatar imperialist inside Russia and a pan-Turanian whose ambitions stretched from Kazan to Iran and Afghanistan, Turkey and Arabia, Stalin made him Russia’s highest profile Muslim Communist, appointing Soltanğaliev head of the Central Bureau of Communist Organizations of the Peoples of the East. Informally, he was known as the chairman of the Muslim Communist party, even though no such entity existed. As for the Bashkir Validi, a Turcologist, he was not a Communist but a moderate socialist and Bashkir patriot who took a different path into Stalin’s patronage: during the dark days of the civil war against Kolchak, Validi offered to desist from leading his 6,500 Bashkir troops against the Reds alongside the Whites and instead to turn their weapons against the admiral. Stalin, in connection with the negotiations with Validi in Moscow, published an ingratiating article in Pravda, “Our Tasks in the East” (March 2, 1919), noting that the 30 million Turkic- and Persian-speaking inhabitants of Soviet Russia “present a rich diversity of culturally backward peoples, either stuck in the middle ages or only recently entered into the realm of capitalist development. . . . Their cultural limitations and their backwardness, which cannot be eliminated with one stroke, allowed themselves to be felt (and will continue to let themselves be felt) in the matter of building Soviet power in the East.” This was a challenge to be addressed.156

The Stalin-Bashkir talks coincided with the First Comintern Congress and then the 8th Party Congress, and in Moscow, Validi discovered that compared with the hard-line antinationalist Luxemburgists he met, “Lenin and Stalin really did seem like very positive people.” Validi also met with Trotsky, and noticed that Stalin and Trotsky hated each other (and competed for his favor). He further came to see that Stalin was a provocateur. Validi would recall how, a bit later, in Ukraine, Stalin invited him to his civil war train, a carriage from the tsarist era. “We drank Georgian wine and ate grilled chicken,” Validi wrote. “Stalin was affectionate. Getting close to my soul, he said that he was an Easterner, that he worked exclusively for us eastern people, representatives of small, downtrodden nations. All our misfortunes derived from Trotsky, whom he called a Jewish internationalist. He [Stalin] understood us well, because he was the son of a Georgian writer and himself had grown up in a national milieu. He accused the Russians of chauvinism and cursed them. He, like Lenin, said that I should work on an all-Russia level, and not get too involved in the management of a small nation: all nations will gradually acquire rights.”157 This Asiatic pose was a side of Stalin almost no one saw.158

Validi’s reward for betraying Kolchak on the eve of the Whites’ planned spring offensive was the creation of the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), with a treaty signed on March 20, 1919—the third day of the 8th Party Congress (Lenin had been rushing to get the agreement as a showpiece for the congress). The Bashkir military commanders who had been White Guards suddenly were constituted as a Bashkir Revolutionary Committee—a turnabout neither side viewed with trust.159 (Validi would admit that he hid the negotiations with the Soviet authorities from his men.)160 The Bashkirs, under imperial Russia, had never been serfs and had been able to maintain their own army, and numbered perhaps 2 million, spread across the southwestern slopes of the Urals. Validi, who drew the map of their autonomy, maximized not territory but ethnic population, and in such a way that he would minimize inclusion of Russian colonists. The result was a Lesser Bashkiria.161 All the same, Tatar nationalists erupted in fury: their dream of a Greater Tataria enveloping Bashkiria had suffered a mortal blow.162

Stalin’s creation of a Bashkir republic in 1919—just like the earlier failed Tatar-Bashkir expediency—did not derive from a thought-through strategy of national divide and rule; rather, it was an improvisation aimed at dividing anti-Bolshevik forces.163 On the ground, however, disaster ensued. A flood of Russian and other non-ethnic-Bashkir Communists entered the area, and they directly and indirectly sabotaged the autonomy: they were fighting to create a world of Communism, not for some small nation’s “rights.” Local Red Army officers, meanwhile, understood the agreement as a surrender, and proceeded to disarm and imprison the Bashkir fighters, provoking revolt. The Red cavalry horde, moreover, engaged in mass pillage, murder, and rape. Their top commander, none other than the cavalryman Gai, tried to rein in the indiscipline to little avail (later he was blamed as an Armenian likely to have been deliberately anti-Muslim).164 Gai refused Validi’s entreaties to allow the Bashkir units to remain intact, but the result was that the Bashkir First Cavalry regiment managed to reconstitute itself—on the side of Kolchak. Validi desperately telegrammed Stalin about the misunderstandings and atrocities. (Stalin, far away in Moscow, invited him for discussions.)165 Only a White advance put a stop to the Red Army bacchanalia of violence, but after the Whites were driven out again, the Reds enacted “revenge” on the Bashkirs. The bloodshed and bitter recriminations became a matter of national debate, prompting the politburo in April 1920 to appoint a Bashkir commission headed by Stalin. Validi was summoned to Moscow and told he was needed there, evidently to separate him from his base in Bashkiria. Stalin told him that Trotsky was the one who had decided to detain him in Moscow, and that Trotsky and Dzierzynski were worried about Validi’s growing authority in the eastern provinces.166 Validi met with the Bashkir “commission” and Kamenev told him they were expanding Bashkiria to include Ufa and other regions, which happened to have Russian majorities.167 Severe restrictions on Bashkir autonomy were promulgated on May 19, 1920: the Bashkir military, supply, finance, and much more were subordinated directly to the RSFSR.168 The politburo felt constrained to declare that the Bashkir Autonomous Republic “was not a chance, temporary phenomenon . . . but an organic, autonomous part of the RSFSR”—indicative of the doubters, on all sides.169

Bashkiria’s circumscribed “autonomy” became a model. Between 1920 and 1923, the RSFSR would establish seventeen autonomous national republics and provinces on its territory.170 The immediate next one was Tataria. Even without Bashkiria (for now), Soltanğaliev tried once more to get Lenin to accept a grand Turkic state of Tataria, linked to Turkestan and the Qazaq steppe, under Tatar leadership, something resembling Piłsudski’s imagined Polish-led federation over Belorussia and Lithuania. Instead, a small Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was declared on May 27, 1920. It included only 1.5 million of the 4.2 million Tatars in Russia (not only were three quarters of the country’s Tatars left out, but Tatars had been made a majority in Bashkiria).171 Moreover, rather than Soltanğaliev, Stalin made Sahib Garei Said-Galiev (b. 1894) head of the Tatar government, a man with far less of a following among Muslims outside Tataria, less nationalist, more obedient, and a diehard enemy of Soltanğaliev. Said-Galiev soon accused Soltanğaliev of attempted assassination; the latter responded that the alleged assassination was simulated to discredit him; a Moscow investigation proved inconclusive, except to establish that Said-Galiev spent a great deal of time sitting around drinking tea and bickering.172 Soltanğaliev and his supporters remained determined to use all levers at their command to transform Kazan into a Muslim capital for the East.173 By contrast, Validi and his supporters secretly plotted to quit their official posts and oppose the Soviet regime by force. In June 1920, they disappeared underground, joining the “Basmachi” in Turkestan. (The epithet likely derived from the Turkic basmacı and connoted frontier freebooters or brigands, analogous to Cossacks; Russian speakers generally applied it to any Muslims conducting partisan war or other resistance against the Bolshevik regime.) In the Bashkir ASSR, furious Russian Communists—who had let the counterrevolutionaries escape—purged the remaining ethnic Bashkir officials and instituted another anti-Bashkir terror.174 The defections raised a scandal that could potentially damage Stalin politically: after all, Validi was seen as his protégé.

In September 1920, when the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East opened, Mirsayet Soltanğaliev—who had been one of the original proponents and invited to speak—was nowhere to be found; Stalin had blocked him from even attending. But Validi eluded a Cheka manhunt, traveled all the way from Turkestan by rail and other means to Baku and took part in the Congress of the Peoples of the East even though the political police were combing Baku for him.175 On September 12 Validi wrote a letter to Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Rykov, condemning Soviet national minority policy as tantamount to tsarist colonial practice, and complaining that Stalin had tricked him. He deemed the Georgian “an insincere, masked dictator who plays with people.” Stalin tried to lure Validi to Moscow, supposedly getting a message to him that noted how he was “much smarter and more energetic than Soltanğaliev,” how he was “an extraordinary, powerful person, with character, with willpower, a do-er,” who had proven he “could create an army from the Basmachi.” Validi would never be caught.176


In former tsarist Turkestan, multiple centers of would-be authority had arisen. Bolshevik rule among the Turcomans had been quickly overthrown in 1918, in revulsion, and been replaced by an anti-Bolshevik Transcaspian government, which was largely proletarian, but its desperate need to requisition grain also sparked revolt, and the Transcaspian “government” was reduced to a shadowy presence in the cities. It was swept aside by Red Army troops battling Kolchak’s forces in Siberia who swooped in and conquered Merv and Ashkhabad (July 1919), Kizil Arvat (October 1919), and finally the Turcoman capital of Krasnovodsk (February 1920). Farther inland, a second major center of power, Tashkent, was controlled by the Slavic-dominated local Soviet, which, as we saw, had massacred the Muslim Qoqand Autonomy in February 1918. The Tashkent soviet survived an internal putsch in January 1919 by its own commissar of war, who managed to execute fourteen top local Communists, but then “proceeded to get drunk,” according to a British eyewitness, and was undone by a detachment of lingering Hungarian POWs.177 A showy Red Terror killed an estimated 4,000 victims, on top of deaths from food shortages, even as Stalin instructed the Tashkent soviet on February 12, 1919, “to raise the cultural level of the laboring masses and rear them in a socialist manner, promote a literature in the local languages, appoint local people who are most closely connected with the proletariat to the Soviet organizations and draw them into the work of administering the territory.”178 Red Army troops from without arrived in Tashkent, under the command of Mikhail Frunze, a peasant lad who had a Russian mother and a Moldavian father, an army nurse who had served in tsarist Turkestan, where the boy was born. Frunze possessed no special military training, but in November 1919, he set about strengthening the counterinsurgency against Basmachi resistance.179 Turkestan’s final centers of authority were the two small “emirates” of Khiva and Bukhara, which had enjoyed special status in tsarist Russia and after 1917 had not come under Red control. They resembled jewels sparkling under poorly protected glass in front of well-armed thieves.

Bukhara had iconic status in the Inner Asian Muslim world as a center of traditional Islamic learning and of Sufi masters, and some Bolshevik insiders warned of the consequences of forcible seizure.180 “I think that in the military sense, it would not be difficult to crush their army,” Gersh Broido, the outgoing foreign affairs representative of the Turkestan Commission, wrote to Lenin in spring 1920, “but that would create a situation of prolonged war, in which the Red Army would turn out to be not the liberator but the occupier, and Bukharan partisan warriors will emerge as defenders. . . . Reactionaries will use this situation.” A military takeover, he warned, might even broadly unite Muslim and Turkic peoples against the Soviet regime.181 Frunze, however, would not be deterred. Khiva was seized first, after which, in June 1920, the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic was declared. Then, on July 24, 1920, Frunze wrote to Lenin explaining that in connection with Bukhara, waiting for revolution from within would take forever, and instead urged “revolution from without.”182 Preparations to storm Bukhara were simultaneous with the Red Army’s final advance on Warsaw. Beginning on August 30, 1920, after a small group of Turkic Communists staged an “uprising” and summoned “help,” Red Army forces assaulted the Bukharan emirate with about 15,000 troops. The Bukharans had at least twice that number, including irregulars, but the Reds had superior weapons, including eleven airplanes, and they bombed the old city’s ancient mosques and minarets, caravansaries, shrines, and tombs. On September 2, the Reds seized the emir’s massive Ark fortress, after which large-scale fires and mass looting ensued—silk caftans, jewels, even stones. The fate of the harem is anybody’s guess. On September 4, Frunze issued an order to halt the pillaging, threatening soldiers with execution, but he helped himself to fine swords and other trophies. The greatest haul was said to come from the emir’s vaults, which the dynasty had accumulated over the centuries and were estimated to hold up to 15 million rubles’ worth of gold; the treasure was loaded for “transfer” to Tashkent. The emir, for his part, escaped to Afghanistan, and may have carted away some portion of his treasure.183 He was the last direct descendant of the twelfth-century Mongol Chinggis Khan to rule anywhere in the world.

Frunze was transferred to Crimea, to lead the operations that would soon expel Baron Wrangel’s White army into exile, ending the Whites’ resistance for good, and garnering the Red commander surpassing military honors. But Frunze’s transfer out of Turkestan was shadowed by reports to Moscow of his troops’ shameful looting and gratuitous ruination of Bukhara.184 Word of the pillaging of the gold spread throughout the East, damaging the Soviets’ reputation.185 Jekabs Peterss, the Cheka plenipotentiary in Turkestan, wrote to Dzierzynski and Lenin, behind Frunze’s back, about military misbehavior. All across Eurasia, the Reds were battling among themselves over the spoils of war and prerogatives of unaccountable power—police operatives against army officers, party apparatchiks against the police, central plenipotentiaries against regional pot