Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Famous Soso was the champion of armed resistance, founding, arming and commanding the Red Battle Squads, half-partisans, half-terrorists, across Georgia. 'We must devote serious attention to setting up the Battle Squads,' wrote Stalin, a superb military and terrorist organizer—but the experience gave him not just the taste for military command, but the delusion that he had a gift for it.
Even the Mensheviks were arming, appointing Stalin's rival Ramishvili to organize their Military Technical Commission and their bomb factories. By mid-1905, these militias were ruling the streets and villages of Georgia—in between raids by Cossacks. Sometimes Stalin and the Bolsheviks co-operated with the Mensheviks, sometimes not.
In Chiatura, Stalin armed miners and local gangsters, appointing Vano Kiasashvili as commander. 'Comrade Soso used to arrive to give his orders and we launched the Red Squad,' says Kiasashvili, who trained his partisans, stole guns and smuggled in ammunition over the hills. At Chiatura Station, Chavichvili watched Stalin giving orders to his other Battle Squad chieftain, Tsintsadze, the dashing, red-haired daredevil who recruited as gangsters a handful of female students, most of them in love with him. Tsintsadze's and Stalin's gunmen disarmed Russian troops, ambushed hated Cossacks, raided banks and murdered spooks and policemen 'until nearly the whole province was in our hands.' Chiatura, boasted Tsintsadze, 'became a kind of preparatory military camp.'
Soso was constantly in and out of Chiatura to oversee this guerrilla war. Oddly, when he was there, the aristocratic manganese-mining tycoons hid and protected him. First he stayed at the mansion of Bartholome Kekelidze, then with the grander Prince Ivan Abashidze, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Manganese Industrialists, related to Princes Shervashidze, Amilakhvari and Prince David alias Black Spot, the Seminary teacher. (Prince Abashidze was also the great-grandfather of the present President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.) What was going on?
Alt the revolutionaries were funded at least partly by big business and the middle class, many of whom were alienated by the Tsarist regime and in any case excluded from any influence. In Russia itself, the plutocrats, such as the textile tycoon Sawa Morozov, were the biggest Bolshevik contributors, while among lawyers, managers and accountants 'it was a status symbol to give to the revolutionary parties.' This was especially true in Georgia.
Yet there is more to this than just hospitality and philanthropy. Stalin had probably learned the lucrative art of protection-racketeering and extortion from his criminal acquaintances and from his dealings in Baku and Batumi. Now he offered security in return for money. If the tycoons did not pay, their mines might be blown up, their managers murdered; if they did pay, Stalin protected them.
Two of his fighters recall, in unpublished memoirs, how Stalin kept his side of the bargain, showing that he could really deal with the devil. When the tycoons were robbed, reports G. Vashadze, 'it was not local citizens who organized the search for the "criminals" but J. V Stalin.' Some 'thieves robbed the manager of a German manganese company and stole 11,000 roubles,' says N. Rukhadze. 'Comrade Stalin commanded us to find the money and get it back. We did so.'
It is not surprising that the tycoons preferred to have Stalin on their side: Chiatura crackled with assassinations. 'The capitalists,' wrote Tsintsadze, 'were so afraid it didn't take them long to cough up.' As for any policemen or spooks, 'the Chiatura organization decided to get rid of them.' They were hit one by one. Stalin, with his brigands riding shotgun through the hills, his newspapers pumping out his own articles, and his surprisingly impressive performances at mass meetings, became the king of the mountain. 'Comrade Koba and [Prince] Sasha Tsulukidze,' wrote a rich young Bolshevik lawyer, Baron Bibeneishvili, 'were our big guns.' But the Mensheviks were winning in the rest of the Caucasus.