Koba: An Excerpt from Ronald Grigor Suny’s “Stalin: Passage to Revolution”

By Ronald Grigor SunySeptember 28, 2020

Koba: An Excerpt from Ronald Grigor Suny’s “Stalin: Passage to Revolution”
LARB PRESENTS AN EXCERPT from Ronald Grigor Suny’s Stalin: Passage to Revolution, which will be published by Princeton University Press next week.


Soso’s ideal and dream-figure was Koba. […] Koba had become Soso’s god, the sense of his life. He wanted to become another Koba, as famous a fighter and hero as he. The figure of Koba would live again in him. From now on he called himself Koba and would not have us call him by any other name. His face would shine with pride when we called him “Koba.”

— Iosseb Iremaschwili, Stalin und die Tragödie Georgiens [Stalin and the Tragedy of the Georgians] (1932)

In the fearless and laconic Koba Soso Djugashvili found the first of his hero-identifications, a fit name and symbol for the heroic Soso that he envisaged himself as being. […] [B]esides furnishing Soso with an idealized image of the hero as avenger, [Koba’s story] conveyed to him the message that vindictive triumph is a cause to which a person can worthily devote his life.

— Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929 (1973)


When Soso Jughashvili arrived in Tbilisi, much of the world knew Georgia’s most vibrant city by its Russian name, Tiflis. Set in the valley of the Kura (mtkvari in Georgian), with low mountains rising to the north and south, Tiflis was the cosmopolitan center of Russian imperial power in Caucasia. Visitors were impressed by a city where East met West. The ruins of the medieval fortress, called nariqala, stretched across the ridge of one of the hills on the right bank. An ancient Georgian church, metekhi, stood across the river on a promontory over the river, its stark beauty marred by the walls of a dreaded prison built by the Russians. In the old town, imprinted with Georgia’s Persian past, narrow, curved streets wound between balconied houses set on the slopes of hills. Bazaars, caravanserais, and Turkish-style hot baths mingled with Armenian, Georgian, and Russian churches and mosques. Jews from Akhaltsikhe were about to start building their Grand Synagogue, not far from Soso’s school. Just to the west of the expansive Erivan Square lay the broad imperial avenue, Golovinskii Prospect, where the palace of the viceroys, the finer hotels, theaters, and shops were located. Here was the European-style city built by the Russian state and the Armenian bourgeoisie that dominated much of the city’s economy and politics. Up the slopes behind the square hung the wooden and stone houses of the townspeople (mokalakeebi) who dwelled in the desirable Sololaki district. Rising above the new city was the “holy mountain,” mtatsminda, where half a century later, near a small church, Stalin’s mother would be buried in a Georgian pantheon. Across the river was the “colony,” settled by Protestant Germans, religious refugees who were renowned for their industriousness. Far from these central districts, to the north and west, near the railroad yards, were the workers’ districts — Didube and Nadzaladevi — slums with muddy streets. Russians knew this latter district as Nakhalovka, since people spontaneously, without permission (nakhal’no), put up their own shacks. Two thousand men worked for the railroad shops, others in the soap mills, tanneries, tobacco plants, breweries, lumber and brickyards. Here was the nascent industrial Georgia, the home of an embryonic working class soon to become the hoped-for instrument of the youngest generation of Georgian intellectuals.

Tiflis was a very different place from Gori. In the small town, people knew each other more intimately. The better-off felt a responsibility for the less fortunate. Neighbors took in orphans, and no one was left hungry or homeless. Funerals were attended by strangers as well as relatives and friends, and at the ensuing banquet a collection was taken up for the widow. In Tiflis, newcomers had to fend for themselves, which meant finding one’s place and creating a network of friends, linking up with other migrants from one’s village. In the Caucasus, friends, relations (even distant ones), and personal connections were essential to getting what one needed or wanted. Laws were incidental, rights nonexistent, and money merely a lubricant. More than in the closer quarters of Gori, in the big town money conveyed status, opened doors, and brushed aside customary practices and older ideas of honor and proper behavior.

Tiflis society was stratified along ethnic and class lines. At the top were the Russian officials, headed by the viceroy or governor-general. Equal in social status if not political power were the great Georgian nobles, the tavadebi, and the lesser nobles, the aznaurebi. Besides a few Russian princes and a Georgian cognac king, the prosperous brandy distiller David Sarajishvili, the wealthiest people of the city were Armenian factory owners — the Mantashevs, Tamashevs, and Adelkhanovs — who built the great houses and hospitals and patronized the schools. Armenian merchants in shops and stalls competed with the roving kintos, the peddler tricksters who sang songs about their wares. At the bottom of city society were the artisans and factory workers, the peasants migrating in from the villages to seek a livelihood in the shops and factories that were appearing in the burgeoning urban economy. In the noisy squares and streets of Tiflis, Georgian competed with Russian, Armenian, and Azeri, and even young children used words of several languages.

English traveler James Bryce experienced the heat and bustle of the city some 18 years before Soso arrived and was entranced by its exotic diversity. “[I]n Tiflis it is not the particular things to be seen in the city that impress themselves on one’s memory: it is the city itself, the strange mixture of so many races, tongues, religions, customs.” For Bryce, the city’s character lay

in the fact that it has no one character, but ever so many different ones. Here all these peoples live side by side, buying and selling, and working for hire, yet never coming into any closer union, remaining indifferent to one another, with neither love, or hate, nor ambition, peaceably obeying a government of strangers who annexed them without resistance and retain them without effort, and held together by no bond but its existence.

In the “uneven cultural terrain” of a multicultural and multilingual city, Georgians, outnumbered by other ethnicities, “were, in a sense, visitors.”

When Soso and his mother journeyed to Tiflis in the summer of 1894, he was already familiar with the big city, having lived there briefly some years earlier. Fifteen years old, he was well-equipped for his new life, but, as his mother reports, he was anxious about coming to the town where his father lived. As the train approached the city, Soso began to cry, fearing that his father would kidnap him and force him to become a shoemaker. He told his mother that he would rather kill himself than follow his father’s trade. Although Keke was also worried that Beso might show up, she calmed her son and assured him that as long as she was alive no one would be able to prevent him from receiving an education. They arrived in the morning around 11:00. Beso was nowhere in sight, and Soso was enchanted by the city. Keke had little money and could not afford an apartment, but she found a room in the old district of Anchiskhati with an Armenian woman who sent her family away temporarily to live in their home village. Keke befriended the woman, who thought that the visitor from Gori brought her good luck. When the landlady found a man to marry, she was so grateful that she refused to take rent money from Keke and instead gave her a lechaki (a traditional Caucasian head covering).

Keke’s next task was to find someone who could help her have Soso admitted into the Tiflis Seminary. With difficulty she found a distant relative, Kato Ananiashvili, whose neighbor, the priest Chagunava, worked as a steward in the seminary and was well-connected. The two women approached the priest’s wife, Maka, and convinced her of Soso’s talents. She then interceded with her husband, who also liked the boy and took him to the historian and ethnographer Tedo Zhordania. Together they helped him take the examinations. Keke reciprocated by quilting a blanket for Maka. Thus, in typical Caucasian style Keke used relatives, friends, chance acquaintances, and gifts to improve her son’s fortune.

Soso excelled in the entrance exams and won a state subsidy. The next problem was finding money to buy clothes for the new seminarian. Keke made a quick trip to Gori to earn some money, but she soon was told that Soso had done so well that this too had been taken care of. Though the stipend saved the Jughashvilis 100 rubles — to them a fortune — Keke still had to come up with money for board. Again an acquaintance came to the rescue: Tedo Zhordania convinced the school to accept him into the dormitory with board paid by state stipend. That left only the tuition money to be paid by Keke.

Separated from his mother for the first time in his life, Soso wrote to her twice a week, and the proud but lonely mother read his letters hundreds of times before going to sleep. She hung up an old-fashioned wall clock to break the silence, with no regard that it did not keep time. She missed her boy’s physical presence, savoring as long as she could the sugar cubes that he sent as a gift at Christmas. The bond between the determined mother and her ambitious son was unusually strong, though Tiflis and the seminary would soon have a malignant effect on his studies and her dreams.

At first, according to a fellow student, Soso held himself aloof. “Quiet, cautious, shy, bashful — that’s how I remember Soso in his first days in the seminary, before I knew him.” Everyone looked at him with curiosity as he walked on the balcony or in the yard. They heard he wrote poetry, but hesitated to speak to him because of his shyness. Whatever psychological damage may have been done by a weak and alcoholic father, or by a strong, protective mother, was manifested in his new life by withdrawal. Soon he regained confidence as he made friends and repeated his success in schoolwork. Nine boys had come from Soso’s school in Gori, among them Ioseb Iremashvili, and since the seminary had just reopened after being closed since the student protests the year before, Soso’s class was joined by those who should have started earlier. Among these older boys was his friend Mikha Davitashvili, who was lame and something of a rebel. Soso would spend the summer vacation with Mikha in his village, Tsromi. Banding together, the Gorians also associated with the boys from Telavi, fellow provincials.

For someone like Soso without a close, extended family and whose parents could supply little material or social support, friends were especially important. In both Georgian high culture and folk wisdom, friendship, particularly male bonding, was treasured. Rustaveli’s epic, the verses of which Soso (like his father before him) knew from memory, depicted men sacrificing and performing heroic deeds for their close friends. Similarly, Georgian proverbs and sayings insist on the importance of loyal friends. “Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are.” The foundation of friendship is trust, an essential resource that Caucasians regarded as highly as honor. “A man who is not trusted has no honor; a man without honor cannot be trusted.” Those who knew Soso as a young man frequently report that he drew a small circle of people around him and was able to extract loyalty from them. From the earliest records of Soso’s youth, he could be seen forming such associations with himself at the center. The closeness of ties with friends, however, meant at the same time separation of the inner group from others. Such groups of friends were needed in the highly competitive world of Georgian men where one’s status depended on associations — family, friends, patrons, and clients. “Since Georgians are so competitive,” one student of modern Georgia found,

the peer group becomes the natural arena for contest, as it is also the primary social reference group. This means that at the same time, young men are pushed to find their friends from among their potential rivals. This is why on the one hand we find the almost obsessive preoccupation with trust, the sanctity with which friendship is treated; and on the other hand the ever present suspicion, uncertainty and insecurity.

Along with loyalty and the comfortable sharing of confidences lurked an omnipresent possibility of betrayal. Friendship and family networks provide security and protection but cannot eliminate the fear of loss of trust or honor. By placing such high value on friendship, loyalty, and trust, the potential for disappointment and disillusion is heightened. Betrayal of a friend is the worst sin. The intensity of the emotions embedded in friendship is matched by the strength of the emotions when trust is broken.


Tiflis Seminary stood in the very heart of the city, just off Erivan Square. A large stone block of a building, with a classical facade, the seminary is today the Georgian national art museum. It anchored the western edge of the square, near a caravanserai, and faced, at the far side of a grand expanse, the dramatic Moorish-style City Hall. The seminary was at the end of the old city and the start of the western town. While sons and daughters of the nobility more often enrolled in the local high school (gimnaziia) on Golovinskii Prospect, poorer male students had a choice of the technical school (uchilishche) or the seminaries — the Tiflis Orthodox Seminary or, across the river, the Nersesian Academy (Jemaran) for Armenians. For most of the boys, subsidized seminary education was their only opportunity for a formal intellectual life and eventually university in Russia. For the teachers and administrators, the mission of the seminary was to prepare young boys for the priesthood. With a partial stipend from the Georgian Church Treasury (Gruzinskoe Tserkovnoe Kaznacheistvo), Soso began his studies on September 1, 1894.

At first, Soso studied well and was in many ways a model student. At the end of his first year, he was eighth in his class. The top spots were held by Russians — not surprising, since almost all the instruction was in Russian — with two Georgians in places just above Soso. His highest mark, a perfect 5, was in Slavic singing. He was determined to be a priest, as his mother wished, but he was troubled by financial problems. Just a month after entering the seminary, he appealed humbly to the rector of the school, Archimandrite Seraphim, for funding for tuition. “Having completed my studies at the Gori Church School as the best student,” he wrote, “with the permission of Your Reverence I presumed to take the entrance examination for the Tiflis Theological Seminary even though I do not have the money to continue my studies. I was fortunate to be successful in this examination and was admitted among the students of the Theological Seminary. However, since my parents are unable to provide for me in Tiflis, I am appealing with great humility to Your Reverence to admit me among those students who have half their tuition fees paid for them. I presume to mention here that throughout my studies at the Gori Church School I received assistance from the school funds.” At the end of September 1894, he pleaded to His Reverence to provide him with winter clothing to alleviate his mother from financial burdens and save him from sickness and the cold. Soso was even more abject in another petition in the summer after his first year:

Your Reverence knows all about the pitiful circumstances of my mother, who takes care of me. My father has not provided for me for three years. This is his way of punishing me for continuing my studies against his wishes. […] At present my mother’s eyes have weakened and as a consequence she is no longer able to work with her hands (the only source of income). […] It is for this reason that I am applying to Your Reverence for the second time for full support, which would be the greatest mercy.

August 28, 1895

Iosif Dzhugashvili, Supplicant

The rector rejected his request for a full stipend, but somehow with his mother working at menial jobs Soso managed to stay in school. A year later, at the time he was promoted to the third class, he had moved up to fifth place, with only one Georgian ahead of him. His progress toward priesthood seemed assured.

In his first two years in the seminary Soso tried to please the clergy and reap the benefits offered by the teachers. In a note excusing an absence, he showed contrition (or a precocious ability to dissemble) for being late in returning from a funeral. Writing to the monk Ioanaki, who served as the “Father Supervisor,” he related the following story:

I arrived in Gori on Sunday. The deceased had apparently stated in his will that he was to be buried next to his father near the village of Sveneti. The body was taken there on the Monday and the burial took place there on the Tuesday. I wanted to return on Tuesday night, but circumstances were such that even the strongest person’s hands would have been tied. The mother of the deceased, who had suffered so cruelly at the hand of fate, begged me with tears in her eyes to be a son to her, even if just for a week. I simply could not reject the appeal of a weeping mother. I hope you will forgive me but I decided to stay. After all, the Father Supervisor usually allows leave to those who intend to travel home.

Hardly a rebel, Soso was obedient in that first year in the Tiflis Seminary, submissive to authority, and diligent in his studies. One day one of the popular teachers, the nervous instructor of Russian language Albov, came into class with exceptional praise of a student’s essay. Without pointing out to whom he was referring, the teacher told his pupils, “Remember children this day. The author of this work is expected to play a great role in our public life.” The students turned to their Russian classmates, certain that the talented student was among them. But, as a witness relates, “they looked at us with curiosity. Surprised, we noticed our Soso sitting with his head down and blushing. We gathered around him after the lesson. ‘Leave me alone! Yes, it was I,’ he said, nervously stroking his hair.”

As a teenager Jughashvili shared the nationalist sentiments then dominant among Georgian intellectuals and students. He sent his romantic and patriotic poetry to Ilia Chavchavadze’s nationalist newspaper, iveria, and five poems were published in 1895, several under the pen name “Soselo,” a diminutive of Soso. The first, “dila” (Morning), was considered good enough to be reprinted in the widely used textbook, deda ena (Mother Tongue). It begins lyrically with images of flowers awakening and birds singing, then shifts abruptly to a message for the nation:

Flourish, adored world
Rejoice, land of iveria
And you, learned men of Georgia,
Bring happiness to the Motherland [samshoblo]

Like the sense of obligation that Russian intellectuals felt toward the simple people, so in this youthful poem education was for a young Georgian a privilege that implied service to the homeland. Echoing a theme familiar to readers of iveria, the world was not to be left in misery but to be changed for the better by education and educated national actors.

The longest poem, “mtvares” (To the Moon) begins with a romantic call to the moon to keep moving, never bow its head, disperse the clouds (of ignorance), and smile tenderly on the world. “Sing a lullaby to mqinvari” (Mount Kazbeg), the peak that towers over Georgia. The mood of the verse then changes and challenges:

Know well, those who once
Fell to the oppressors
Will rise again with hope
Above the holy mountain.

It ends with its young author ripping open his shirt, baring his breast to the moon, and with outstretched hands worshipping that which lights up the world.

Soso continued the themes of his first two poems in a third that also begins with a full moon drifting across the sky. Another nightingale accompanies the panpipe before the rhythm shifts and a dammed mountain spring gushes forth and the forest awakens:

When the man driven out by his enemy
Again becomes worthy of his oppressed country
And when the sick man, deprived of light
Again begins to see sun and moon;
Then I, too, oppressed, find the mist of sadness
Breaks and lifts and instantly recedes;
And hopes of the good life

Unfold in my unhappy heart.
And, carried away by this hope,
I find my soul rejoicing, my heart beats peacefully;
But is this hope genuine
That has been sent to me at these times?

The themes of arousal and awakening were taken up again in his next poem, titled “peletoni” (Feuilleton), in which a prophet-like figure roams the country, “like a ghost,” playing a panduri, the Georgian lute, and dispensing “truth itself and heavenly love.”

This voice made many a man’s heart
Beat, that had been turned to stone;
It enlightened many a man’s mind
Which had been cast into uttermost darkness.
But instead of glorification,
Wherever the harp was plucked,
The mob set before the outcast
A vessel filled with poison …
And they said to him: “Drink this, o accursed,
This is your appointed lot!
We do not want your truth
Nor these heavenly tunes of yours!”

Bitterly, the author speaks of the inability of “the mob” to understand the truth or the message of love. Instead, the ungrateful masses poison the minstrel who brings them music and light.

Soselo’s most widely reproduced poem was dedicated to the Georgian Romantic poet Rapiel Eristavi (1824–1901), who in his plays and poems championed the peasants. In 1895, the patriotic poet Akaki Tsereteli organized a jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of Eristavi’s literary activity. Delegates gathered from all parts of Georgia in Tiflis for the occasion. The Social Democrat Irakli Tsereteli later declared that “this jubilee was witness to the national unity of the Georgian people. Under autocratic conditions only in this form could national feelings be shown. The jubilee of R. Eristavi turned from a purely literary celebration into the first national manifestation of the Georgian people.” All three of the major Georgian journals — iveria, kvali (Furrow), and moambe (Bulletin) — praised the event, which they interpreted as the fruit of seeds sown in the 1860s. In this jubilant atmosphere of national revival Soso Jughashvili enthusiastically shared the unifying enthusiasms of his country’s leading intellectuals, as well as their sense of service to the poor. Reflecting the national celebration, the 17-year-old Jughashvili’s poem praised the poet for his sensitivity to the peasants, his sacrifice to the people, and his songs to the motherland. He ended the poem with the plea “let my country grow sons like Eristavi.”

In 1896, Soso published a last poem, “mokhutsi ninika” (The Old Man, Ninika), in kvali, the progressive newspaper in which the first Georgian Marxists were appearing. His peasant hero, the gray-haired Ninika, no longer can display the bare-chested, iron strength that had “piled up mountains of sheaves side by side.” His knees cannot move the way they did, “scythed down by old age.” But when he hears the singing of the young lads in the fields, he smiles, catching fire for a moment. Again, the poet points to the passing of the staff to a younger generation.

After this appearance the poet Soselo fell silent. He was about to turn in a new direction. The nationalist newspaper in which he had previously published, Chavchavadze’s iveria, had been closed down for eight months for carrying on “harmful propaganda, aimed principally at students, against the Russian authority in the Caucasus, against the Russian language, and in general against Russian influence in any form and in any sphere.” In this atmosphere in which the government both repressed the Georgian language in schools and the church and then persecuted those who publicly stated that fact, the very act of a young seminarian writing poetry in his own language and sending it to nationalist or progressive newspapers was an affront to the Russifying regime and an affirmation of Soso’s affinity to the values of Georgia’s intellectual leaders. His move to kvali, a more socially and politically radical newspaper, did not signal a move from nationalism to socialism at this point, since kvali was not yet identified with the Marxists. But both his poems and their publication in the leading intellectual outlets of Georgian writing testify to Soso’s identification with the Georgian national intelligentsia and their hopes for liberal reform. The shoemaker’s son had made a bold entry into the literary world, driven by his ambition, impatience, and belief in his own talents. He was determined to stand out and to succeed in this unfamiliar realm. Writing was a tool that could raise him up from his impoverished origins. The young poet’s desire for enlightenment and a better life in Georgia, however, was tinged with a realism, even pessimism, about the possibility of change for the better. The older generation had to give way. The task of liberating Georgia falls on the young, particularly the educated. But this new generation must overcome the inertia and hostility of the philistine crowd.


In Georgia, language was one of the battlefields on which Georgians tested their loyalties to their two “homelands,” Georgia and Russia. The first generation of Georgian national intellectuals, like Ilia Chavchavadze, laid claim to leadership of the nation they were bringing into being. Their gentry nationalism asserted the value of Georgian language and culture and lauded the unity of all classes of the nation. Chavchavadze expressed hostility toward what he saw as destructive anti-national forces: the disruption of the traditional harmony and unity of Georgian society by Russian officials and the rapacious capitalist intrusions of Armenian merchants and industrialists. By the time he published an uncensored version of his Letters of a Traveler (1892), first written some 30 years earlier, his idea of a Georgia without capitalism or class strife had become an impossible utopia. The old man grew increasingly conservative and closer to tsarist autocracy, while younger Georgian intellectuals were already moving toward a different vision. Rather than simple preservation of traditional culture and social harmony, the young radicals proposed aligning their country with what they understood as the direction things were actually going, with what appeared to be the movement of history — toward capitalism and industrialization, and beyond.


The city outside the seminary was a place of liberation for Soso. Inside the seminary was a world unto itself, a powerful shaper of its denizens, though not in the way that the clerical authorities intended. One of Soso’s classmates, another Gorian, Domenti Gogokhia, remembered the seminary as a “stone sack.” The life inside was colorless and monotonous. The boys rose at seven, were led to prayer, then had tea, and at the bell went off to class. A student read the prayer “To the Lord of the Heavens,” and the lessons continued until two in the afternoon with few breaks. They lunched at three and were given two hours of free time until roll call at five. They were forbidden to leave the seminary in the evenings. After evening prayers, there was tea at eight, more lessons, and at 10 they went to bed. It was a strict routine designed to inculcate obedience and deference. Instead, for many it achieved just the opposite. Indeed, the Tiflis Seminary proved to be as much the crucible of revolutionaries as for priests. It was an unintended process of miseducation that pushed an intelligent but still quite ordinary adolescent into opposition. Thirty years later, Stalin related to biographer Emil Ludwig the baleful influence of the priests. After dismissing the interviewer’s implication that mistreatment by his parents led him to revolution, Stalin pointedly singled out his school. “The Orthodox seminary where I later studied is another matter. In protest against the humiliating regime and Jesuit methods that existed in the seminary, I was ready to become and actually became a revolutionary, an adherent of Marxism as a genuinely revolutionary teaching.” Ludwig then asked him, “But do you not recognize any positive qualities in the Jesuits?” Stalin’s answer impresses by its irony:

Yes, they have a methodical quality, a perseverance in their work to achieve their bad ends. But the basis of their method is snooping, spying, prying into one’s soul, humiliation — what can be positive in this? For example, the snooping in the dormitory. At the nine o’clock bell for tea, we go to the dining room, but when we return to our rooms, it turns out that in this time they have carried out a search and messed up drawers … what can be positive in this?

The priests about whom Stalin complained were almost all Russians, openly contemptuous of Georgian culture and its language. When the rector of the seminary, Archimandrite Seraphim (Meshcheriakov), remarked that Georgian was a language of dogs, he provoked a student protest. But his superior, the exarch of Georgia, Archbishop Vladimir (Bogoiavlenskii), defended the administrator against the students. The priests enforced the rules that prohibited the reading of newspapers or “outside” (postoronnie) books and forbade the speaking or reading of Georgian in the seminary. Contact with their native language was limited to the reading of religious texts in the archaic medieval Georgian language. Even there the obscure texts were explained with the help of Russian. Just a few years before Soso entered the seminary, Lado Ketskhoveli had convinced a teacher to allow a weekly reading of a secular work. The students debated whether to read the contemporary poets Akaki Tsereteli and Ilia Chavchavadze or the 18th-century David Guramishvili before deciding on Rustaveli’s vepkhistqaosani. But when the teacher insisted that Russian be used to explicate the poem, the students voted unanimously to cancel the experiment.

“The Georgian pupils,” a Russian teacher at the seminary remembered,

seeing the consistently unjust and cruel treatment by the Russian rectors […] not only did not acquire the Russian spirit […] but on the contrary grew to hate the Russians, turn away from all things Russian and Russians, to feel that all Russians were worthless, judging by the wretched Russian monk-rectors, and for this reason to join together ever more strongly with one another.

Not only was the Russifying regime unable to stifle the growing interest in Georgian literature and traditions, but a subculture of the seminarians, built on a comradeship among young men and marked by a hostility toward the obscurantist priests, also rejected the worst aspects of Russian official culture — its dogmatism, condescension toward non-Russians, and sense of superiority as the ruling nationality. At the same time, some students took learning much more seriously than their teachers, transgressing the limits set by the instructors and absorbing the countertradition of the Russian radical intelligentsia. Learning became the first act of rebellion, and the subversive force of self-education led many like Soso Jughashvili to shift from furtively reading forbidden books during church services to identifying openly with the political opposition.

As in lower schools, the contrast between the humanistic ideals and values found in Georgian and Russian literature and the harsh routine of life in the seminary created an unbridgeable distance and a cold hostility between the Georgian students and the priests. The seminarians resisted the authorities, repeatedly protesting or staging strikes. In 1885, a seminarian, Silibistro Jibladze, had been exiled for slapping the rector, Pavel Chudetskii, and the next year 19-year-old Ioseb Laghiashvili stabbed and killed the despised administrator. About 60 students were expelled from the seminary, and the Russian exarch of the Georgian Church, Pavel, anathematized the whole of Georgia for the murder. In March 1890, the seminarians organized a weeklong strike, refusing to attend class until 10 demands were met. The students wanted restoration of courses in Georgian language and history, polite treatment, and permission to subscribe to those legally published but critical newspapers of which the church authorities did not approve. The strike ended in partial victory for the students, but three years later a second strike for similar ends had to be organized. Among the principal participants in that strike were the former seminarian Mikhail (Mikha) Tskhakaia, who a decade later would become Soso’s patron in the revolutionary movement, and Soso’s acquaintance from Gori, Lado Ketskhoveli. By the time young Jughashvili came to Tiflis, the seminary had already produced many of the intellectual rebels, including Jibladze, Tskhakaia, Noe Zhordania, and Pilipe (Filip) Makharadze, who would make up the first generation of Georgian Marxists.

Even as the harsh clerical regime enforced by Russians and Russified Georgian priests drove many students to resist the Russifying regime, it did not lead them to an anti-Russian nationalism. The dominant narrative of nationalists usually envisions a natural, visceral, emerging consciousness leading to demands for statehood as the inevitable result of a “rebirth” of national feelings. But in Georgia and Armenia, rather than developing a nationalist, separatist vision, the leading intellectuals considered a more benign integration into a reformed empire as the preferred and pragmatic political solution. In the complex imperial setting in which urban Georgians were entwined within a cosmopolitan society, an exclusivist ethnic nationalism proved less attractive than a commitment to enlightenment and progress within a more tolerant, liberalized empire. It was this mood that prevailed when Soso and his fellow seminarians established their study circles where they could read forbidden literature.

Late in 1896, the seminarian Seit Devdariani organized a study circle for which he had worked out an ambitious six-year reading program. He and a number of other students, including Soso Jughashvili, were moved from the dormitory to a separate apartment because of their ill health. “Just after getting to know him,” writes Devdariani, “I proposed that he join our circle. He was happy to and agreed. He didn’t even ask about details about the circle, what its aims were. He was interested in its illegality. ‘When? Where,’ he asked me. […] He stopped writing poems,” and joined the circle that fall. Soso took an active part in the circle and soon “was the leader.”

The strict regime within the seminary, enforced by the despised inspector of the seminary, the Russified Georgian monk Dmitrii, forced the students to find a safe house for their circle meetings. Devdariani rented a room at the foot of mamadavita, where they gathered from three to five. As one of the poorest among his friends, Soso did not pay for the room, which cost five rubles a month, or the books from the library run by Zakaria Chichinadze, a rare book collector. Somehow they found copies of The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s The Erfurt Program, and Engels’s The Development of Scientific Socialism, which they borrowed for a few days and laboriously copied out by hand during the night. They were told that these were the only copies in all of Tiflis. The first volume of Capital cost 25 rubles, if it could be found, and poor seminarians could hardly afford to buy it. Soso’s group read Marx’s classical work from a handwritten manuscript painstakingly copied from the single available copy of the 1872 Russian translation in the Tiflis library. When the inspector came by, they hid their readings under the blankets, and then continued reading and writing until morning.

The 10 student members of the secret circle were to begin with Georgian, Russian, and European literature, and go through natural science, sociology, and last the works of Marx and Engels. Different “sections” met separately to discuss economics, aesthetics, or literature. Anyone could attend any section, and the whole group met together to talk about organizational matters. Devdariani remembered that the students were already atheists, thanks largely to the clerical regime in the seminary, and were fascinated by questions like whether heat, light, or sound was material. The two Sosos from Gori — Jughashvili and Iremashvili — were most impressed by the works of Georgian literature, in which the struggle for Georgian freedom was a constant theme, but no clear separation was made in their minds between national liberation and the social struggles of the poorer classes. Iremashvili remembered, “Soso and I often talked about the tragic fate of the Georgians. We were inspired by the poet Shota Rustaveli,” who epitomized the chivalric ideals of the Georgian past. Soso Jughashvili had found an alternative education, one steeped in humanistic literature, social and natural science. The church and religion fell rapidly away.

Soso’s academic record worsened in his third year. By the time he was promoted to the fourth class, Soso had fallen to 14th place in his class and, for the first time, into the second group (razriad) of students. The next year, 1897–1898, his grades fell precipitously. Instead of earning the top grade of five, he wavered between threes and fours, with an occasional two. Bizarrely, only in deportment did he excel and achieve all fives.


The student romantic had a personal hero with whom he identified — Koba, the protagonist of a novella by the Georgian writer Aleksandre Qazbegi (1848–1893). Iremashvili writes that Koba became a “God for Soso, gave meaning to his life.” Before he adopted the pseudonym Stalin, Jughashvili was known to friends and fellow revolutionaries as Koba, and until the end of his life close friends, particularly Georgians, referred to him by the name of his boyhood hero. His friend and collaborator in the 1920s Nikolai Bukharin addressed pleading letters to Stalin “Dear Koba” before he was executed in 1938.

The writings of the popular author Qazbegi (Kazbegi) were being rediscovered and appreciated anew just as Jughashvili entered the Tiflis Seminary. His life’s journey told a strange tale of descent from privilege to service to despair. Born in the mountain village of Stepantsminda, the first Georgian village in which a traveler from the north arrives, Qazbegi was descended from noblemen. His father and grandfather had been governors of Khevi, the highland region in which they lived, both under the last Georgian kings and under the Russians. Raised by a nurse, Qazbegi learned the folk tales and traditions of the mokheveebi, the Georgian mountaineers among whom he lived. As a nobleman he was sent to Tiflis gimnaziia for schooling and then on to the Moscow Agricultural Institute until illness forced him back to his homeland. Suddenly in the fall of 1870, Qazbegi broke with his family and his gentry roots, abandoned the family “palace,” and freed the mokheveebi from all the taxes and obligations imposed by his father and grandfather. For seven years he lived the rugged life of a mountain shepherd, overcoming both the physical hardships and the suspicions of the poor herdsmen among whom he lived. “Those to whom I tried with all my soul to draw near alienated themselves from me,” he wrote. “It was not easy for them to believe that a person who is allowed to steal from them could honestly want to work together with them, to become their brother.” Returning to Tiflis in 1879, Qazbegi began to write the series of memoirs and romantic tales that established his reputation as the chronicler of the unspoiled people of the mountains. Repeatedly harassed by the tsarist censors, his prolific output ceased abruptly in 1886, and he spent the last years of his life in a mental asylum.

Qazbegi’s choice to give up a life of ease in order to bond with his people was consistent with the values expressed by the heroes he created in his stories. Their admiration for the threatened traditions of the mountain Georgians was matched by their anguish as the ideal customary life based on old customs and simple justice was destroyed with the coming of the Russians. The imposition of an alien administration and its attendant careerism and corruption was the backdrop to rebellion. Resistance to foreign rule was justified not on racial or ethnic grounds, but as an attempt to recover a dying way of life, as an act of cultural preservation. Qazbegi’s stories and their author’s tragic odyssey inspired those looking for a path to service.

The story Patricide (mamis mkvleli) concerns the ill-fated love of Iago, a poor serf, and Nunu, the daughter of “Poor Glakha,” an outlaw who had killed a magistrate (diambegi) and his own innocent but dishonored wife. Glakha’s brother and sister-in-law give Nunu in marriage to the brother of a wealthy but dishonest official, Grigola. Falsely arrested and jailed, Iago is rescued by his friend, Koba, a man who embodies all the virtues of the mountain man. In a world of rampant official injustice, Koba uses his physical strength and daring to aid his friends and maintain the traditions of the mountains. To save the honor of Nunu and his own beloved Mariné, Koba kills a man and becomes an outlaw. The outlaws join together as adopted brothers, sealing their oath with exchanges of bullets, embraces, and kisses. They cross the Terek to the land of the Chechens and join Imam Shamil’s rebellion against Russia. Though Georgians and Chechens had had a long history of hostility, Koba and Iago believe that the mountain peoples should ally against the Russian invaders. Victory falls to the rebels, but just as it seems that Nunu and Iago will be united, the treacherous Grigola conspires to have Iago killed and Nunu accused of the murder of her father. As she is being displayed in public before being exiled to Siberia, Nunu dies. Only Koba is left to mete out the justice that the corrupt Georgian officials deserve. As they move through the mountains, Koba fires the fatal shots. “‘It is I, Koba! You are paying for the life of Iago!’ — a voice was heard from the forest, and having cried out, it disappeared without a trace.”

Vengeance is a theme central to the story Patricide, but this vengeance is not based on a personal disposition. Rather in Caucasian society vengeance is a socially sanctioned, even sacred, instrument required to restore a lost moral balance. Patricide tells a story about the near impossibility to maintain two of the most fundamental values of the mountaineers, honor and friendship, with their associated obligations. In the society of the mountaineers, insults and injustices cannot be tolerated by real men, and the ties of kinship and friendship demand that the pains suffered by those close to you be taken upon yourself (sheni jiri me). “These words are holy to a mountain man — better to die with honor than live in shame.” In the new world created since the arrival of the Russians, what passes for justice is administered by the unjust, and men and women of honor fall victim to the unscrupulous and godless among their own people. In this new universe the victims cry, “Where is God, where is justice?” In the absence of alternatives vengeance is the only possible act of retribution, restoring a just and moral order in a society in which authorities are criminal. Against all odds and overwhelming opposition, the vindictive Koba is the agent of the old justice seeking to resurrect the conservative utopia that had existed in times past.

Beginning with Chavchavadze, Georgian writers celebrated the purity and simplicity of the “Georgian” peoples of the mountains. However distinct their dialects and customs, in the nationalist imagination they were members of the greater Georgian nation. In this literary tradition, mountain society is contrasted with the world of drunken Cossacks, corrupt and ambitious officials, and vain noblemen and compared favorably with the freer life of the North Caucasian mountain people who revolted against the Russians under Shamil to preserve the old way of life. The Chechens, Koba tells us, “have customs that are like our grandfathers’, according to the tales.” They elect their own judges and leaders, just as the Georgians did in the past. In both societies, men and women are distinct and different. Men are required to be strong but to use their strength to defend honor, most importantly the honor of women and the homeland. Yet at the same time they can also be sensitive and appreciate beauty. Koba, for example, is able to play the panduri, the traditional Georgian plucked instrument, and to sing “songs of manliness.” Women are chaste and modest and at crucial times play the role of peacemaker, able to stop a fight or feud by throwing down a kerchief between the antagonists. Marriages might be arranged, but they are to be based on love. The village is able to dissolve a loveless marriage. Last, in the inhospitable mountains where a single mistake can lead to death and where humans must help each other to survive, the greatest respect is shown to the stranger who becomes a guest. Even Russian prisoners of war are treated respectfully, as guests. As a binding element in mountain life, hospitality contrasts with the exploitative treatment by Cossacks and tsarist officials of people passing through the mountains. The tsarist official, Grigola, thwarts these traditional views by insisting on enforcing a contract based on monetary exchange.

In Qazbegi’s stories, the national struggle and the social are tightly intertwined. Inverting the imaginative Caucasus of Russian letters, in which Russia represented civilization and the Caucasus an exotic but barbaric threat, Qazbegi sets up the ideal society of the mountaineers as a standard of civilization against which the Russian intrusion becomes a form of barbarism. In the hierarchy of higher and lower cultures, mountain Georgia’s purer expression of honor and honesty is closer to God’s natural order than lowland, urban, and Russian societies and represents an ideal in which people live in freedom, choosing their own authorities, and making their laws according to ancient practices. In Qazbegi’s backward-gazing utopia, characters are not psychologically complex. Their one-dimensionality makes moral choices simple — the good is identified with conformity with the old customs; evil is to give in to instincts and drives such as lust, greed, or personal ambition.

What attracted the young Jughashvili to Qazbegi and Koba? The tale, filled with passion, danger, rapid reversals, and violence, has all the dramatic elements of a well-told adventure story. But along with the romantic evocations of Georgia’s natural beauty and the barely suppressed sexuality of several episodes, Patricide presented Soso with a vision of Russian oppression and Georgian resistance that perfectly matched his own experience both in Gori and in the Tiflis Seminary. It illuminated Soso’s early life, reinforcing an experience of tension and conflict between indigenous Georgian concepts of respect, honor, and justice and the naked, arbitrary power of the Russians, which students like Soso came to perceive as illegitimate. The struggle against injustice justified, indeed required, taking up weapons. Violence was inscribed in what had to be done. Koba represented a noble ideal of a man of honor unwilling to submit to injustice. Turning away from the comforts of society and embracing the freedom of the outlaw as Koba did attracted Soso. Through his rebellion Koba (and Soso) became authentically Georgian.


Until his third year at the seminary, Soso’s boyhood had not been extraordinary. Poor, without an extended family or siblings, or even a father at home for much of his early life, the restless young Jughashvili possessed neither the material means nor the social status to rise very far within Georgia. But he was unwilling to accept the lot given him. Like many of his contemporaries, Soso experienced a double, even triple sense of inferiority and oppression. He was the son of a cobbler, officially registered as a member of the peasant estate; a provincial in a cosmopolitan city dominated by Russians and Armenians; and a Georgian faced by a newly aggressive nationalizing imperial regime prepared to deracinate the “inferior” culture of the non-Russians. Unable to reconcile who he was with what he hoped to be, or what the world was with what it ought to be, Soso faced a double “realization crisis”: a broad social crisis for Georgians in general, buffeted by Russian cultural pressures and Armenian economic challenges, which made retention of old Georgian practices ever more difficult; and a personal crisis for a young ambitious man, who empathized with Georgia but could excel as a Georgian only by becoming a rebel. Jughashvili initially sought restoration of a lost ideal, a typical goal of romantic nationalists, but the only way to achieve that was through radical opposition to the world around him. As Georgia’s traditional, patriarchal ways were shaken by new social practices and ideas, Soso sought a way out, a way to realize himself by reinventing who he was to be.


Ronald Grigor Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus of political science and history at the University of Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Ronald Grigor Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus of political science and history at the University of Chicago. His many books include “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide; The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States; and Stalin: Passage to Revolution. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


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