Stalin: from choir boy to communist butcher
This article is based on a recent biography of the young Joseph Stalin.1
Trainee priest, revolutionary bank robber, and murderous dictator Joseph Stalin began life as Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Russian script: Ио́сиф Виссарио́нович Джугашви́ли). He was born in Gori, Georgia, in the Russian Empire of 1878.1,2 His mother’s pet name for him was ‘Soso’, the diminutive of ‘Joseph’. He himself used many names during his later secret life, but in 1913, he adopted the name Stalin (Ста́лин), meaning ‘man of steel’ (Russian stal’ сталь = steel).
Introduction to violence
His father, Vissiaron, or ‘Beso’, was a violent alcoholic who beat his son for the least or no provocation. Once he threw Soso to the floor so hard that there was blood in the boy’s urine for days. Soso was terrified of the drunken Beso. A friend wrote, ‘Undeserved beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as the father himself’, and it was thus through his father that ‘he learned to hate people’.3
In 1888, at age 10, Soso was one of 150 boys enrolled at Gori’s excellent Church School. His mother wanted him to become a bishop, but the school was accepting only the children of priests. A priest solved this problem by stating that Soso’s father was a deacon. Soso excelled in Gori’s three main diversions—town brawls, wrestling tournaments for all ages, and schoolboy gang-warfare.
The choir boy who read the Psalms, Darwin, and Marx
Young Soso had a beautiful singing voice, coupled with a grand style of performance. He sang in the church choir and was often hired to sing at weddings, which he did from the pulpit, wearing his surplice. In his younger years he was so devout that he barely missed a mass. A schoolfellow, A. Chelidze, remembers, ‘He not only performed the rites but always reminded us of their significance.’ He was the best reader of Psalms in the church. The Church School presented him with David’s Book of Psalms inscribed ‘To Josef Djugashvili … for excellent progress, behaviour and excellent recitation and singing of the Psalter.’4
An avid reader, Soso acquired a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, when he was about 13.5 One day, he and some friends were talking about the injustice of there being rich and poor. Soso amazed them all by saying, ‘God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived. If God existed, he’d have made the world more just. I’ll lend you a book and you’ll see.’ He produced a copy of Darwin’s book.6
At age 15, Soso, now an outstanding student, won a scholarship to be a trainee priest at the Georgian Orthodox Seminary at Tiflis (Tbilisi), regarded as the best religious educational establishment in the southern Russian Empire. However, according to fellow revolutionist (and later enemy) Trotsky, the Empire’s seminaries were ‘notorious for the savagery of their customs, medieval pedagoguery, and law of the fist’. The one at Tiflis was nicknamed the Stone Sack. ‘All the vices banned by the Holy Scriptures flourished in this hotbed of piety.’7,8
Biographer Montefiore comments, ‘The Seminary was to pull off the singular achievement of supplying the Russian Revolution with some of its most ruthless radicals.’7 One of Stalin’s fellow students wrote, ‘No secular school produced as many atheists as the Tiflis Seminary.’7
Soso developed a thirst for the writings of revolutionaries, such as Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marx and Engels, all authors whose books were banned by the Seminary. He appears to have spent much of his time reading banned books and being detained in the punishment cell for having done so. This was mainly due to the vendetta of one teacher whom Soso nicknamed ‘the Black Spot’, who spied on Soso and regularly searched his possessions. Black Spot taught the young Stalin ‘exactly the repressive tactics—“surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, violation of feelings”, in Stalin’s own words—that he would recreate in his Soviet police state’.9
In his fifth year, at the end of term, Soso failed to return. The Seminary Journal reported that he had declared himself an atheist, and in May 1899 simply noted that he had been ‘expelled … for non-appearance at examinations’.
Revolutionary, Bolshevist, and bank-robber
Soso now became a streetfighter, gang-leader, and professional revolutionary against the Russian monarchy. In 1903, he joined the Bolshevik Party10 and became a specialist in bank robbery and extortion to fund Bolshevik activities. In 1907, in the town square at Tiflis, he masterminded the armed hold-up of a Treasury coach carrying roubles to the local Imperial Bank, which netted the today-equivalent of about US$3.4 million for the Bolsheviks.11 Ten bombs were used. Forty people were killed. Lenin is reported to have said that this ‘is exactly the sort of person I need’.
In 1913, Soso changed his name to Stalin. Although repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, he often escaped, but then was exiled to Siberia until 1917. After the Revolution of that year against Tsar Nicholas II, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Communist Party. Following the death of Lenin in 1924, he progressively ousted his rivals, and became Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union.
Devotees called him the ‘hope of the future for the workers and peasants of the world’. However, the confiscations of grain and other food by Soviet authorities under Stalin’s orders contributed to a famine that by 1937 resulted in the death of several million Soviet peasants.
In the late 1930s, Stalin consolidated absolute power for himself by several campaigns known as the Great Purge or the Great Terror, to dispose of all political opponents and anyone he suspected might threaten his position. He had grasped well ‘the convenience of death as the simplest and most effective political tool’.12
Those purged were members of the Communist Party (both opponents and former comrades), the Red Army, and indeed every segment of society, including over 100,000 priests, monks and nuns of the Russian orthodox church.13 Montefiore says, ‘During 1937–38 around one and a half million people were shot. Stalin personally signed death-lists for almost 39,000 people, many of them old acquaintances.’14
Following Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as leader of the Soviet Union. In 1956, he famously denounced Stalin’s crimes in a speech to the 20th Party Congress. He said that the purges had ‘resulted in enormous harm to the country’, and that ‘many of the victims were innocent and were convicted on the basis of false confessions extracted by torture’.15
In 1991, Soviet archives became available. These record that about 800,000 prisoners were executed (for either political or criminal offences) under Stalin, while about 1.7 million died in the Gulag (penal labour camps16) and some 389,000 perished during ‘ethnic cleansing’ of various groups to ‘internal exile’ in central Asia and Siberia before, during and after World War II. Most history researchers regard these figures as far too low. Montefiore says, ‘Perhaps 20 million had been killed; 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the Gulags.’17
How and why did the choir-boy-turned-trainee-priest become one of the greatest mass murderers in history,18 one for whom killing a million people seemed to be no different from mowing grass?
Undoubtedly a huge part of the answer goes back to his reading Darwin at the tender age of 13. This gave him the ‘justification’ his mind needed to reject the concept of God and hence the authority of the Bible in his life.
It also paved the way for him to accept the atheistic revolutionism of Marx, and to remove any restraint he might have had to killing off his opponents, i.e. the ruthless elimination of the ‘unfit’; perhaps, in the process, wreaking unconscious vengeance for some of his childhood pain.
The seminary he attended obviously had no adequate answer for his claims of atheism. And whatever truth it taught was not helped by the un-Christlike behaviour of its teachers. Then, having rejected God and His Word, the teenage Stalin filled the spiritual vacuum in his mind with the thoughts and beliefs of revolutionaries. The rest is history.
Well, not quite all. There is still one chapter to come. The Bible says: ‘[I]t is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment’ (Hebrews 9:27); ‘all that are in the graves … shall come forth; … they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation’ (John 5:28–29).
Marx and Darwin
Karl Marx (right) read Darwin’s Origin of Species soon after its publication in 1859 in England. This provided what Marx believed was a scientific rationale to deny creation and, by extension, to deny God. He immediately believed that it supported his worldview that the major ‘struggle for existence’ among humans occurred between the social classes (classes being likened to species). In 1861, he wrote to his friend Ferdinand Lassalle, ‘Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle.’1
In 1873, Karl Marx sent Darwin a copy of his own book Das Kapital with a personal inscription. Harvard evolutionist and Marxist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, corroborates this by reporting that he saw this volume (in Darwin’s library at Down House), in which Marx calls himself ‘a sincere admirer’ of Darwin. Darwin responded with a polite ‘thank you’ letter, but apparently never read the book, as most of the pages are uncut.2
However, it is an urban myth that Marx wanted to dedicate his book to Darwin. Rather, the request for dedication came from Marx’s daughter’s lover, Edward Aveling.3
References and notes
- Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_theory_and_the_political_left, 13 November 2007.
- Gould, S.J., Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, p. 26, 1977. Books in those days were sent with many pages joined from printing on larger sheets; it was left to the reader to cut them. Gould added: ‘Darwin was no devotee of the German language.’
- Email from Richard Weikart of the Department of History, California State University, Stanislaus, to Jerry Bergman, 14 June 2004.
References and notes
- This article is based on a new biography of Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2007. Return to text.
- As a young man, Stalin generally used 6 December 1878 as his birthday. In 1913, a Gori police officer friend helped him avoid military service by changing this to 21 December 1879. In 1925, Stalin ordered his secretary, Tovstukha, to formalize this latter date. Source: ref. 1, pp. 18 and 70 notes. Return to text.
- Josef Iremashvili, ref. 1, p. 23. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 35. Return to text.
- Darwin’s Origin of Species was translated into Russian in 1865. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 40. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 46. Return to text.
- See also B. Woolley, The Darwin-Trotsky connection, Creation 23(2):54–55, 2001. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 62. Return to text.
- A majority faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democrat Labour Party, which split in 1903 and ultimately became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks were professional revolutionaries who, led by Lenin, seized power in Russia during the October Revolution of 1917 and founded the Soviet Union. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 10. Return to text.
- Montefiore, S.S, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Wiedenfield & Nicolson, London, p. 28, 2003. Return to text.
- Wikipedia, Joseph Stalin en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Stalin 20 November 2007. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 319. Return to text.
- Wikipedia, Great Purge, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Purge, 20 November 2007. Return to text.
- GULag is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerei (Chief Camp Administration) that came to be applied to the camps themselves. The horrors were revealed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–56. Return to text.
- Ref. 12, p. 571. Return to text.
- A title variously attributed to Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong. Return to text.
(Available in Russian)
Certainly Stalin's father et al deserve some blame but we must remember that Stalin also likely read the same (never have seen those Orthodox Bibles) Bible as you and I and never lay hold of the ultimate "Truth"; so many other people during that time did have true Faith. Stalin is to blame for who he was. Acts 17:26-28 "in the hopes that they might grope for Him".
The combination of Darwin, Marx and Stalin can only be seen as a troika of Satanic conspiracy. These three forces join not by some accident of history but because Satan first exploited their weakness of character and then anointed them to delude the human race and the church. Their effectiveness I believe stems from the naive liberal belief in the West that mankind is essentially good. Aren't we all good people?
If ever proof was needed about the ill-effects of religion, this is it. Hitler also went to a Catholic seminary and his record was as bad if not worse. As Bertrand Russell said ' Religion is a disesae born of fear and is s source of untold misery to the human race'.
One doesn't know where to start; Hitler was raised a Catholic, but never went to any seminary. For a thoroughly documented refutation of the myth about Nazis being Christian (they actually planned to exterminate the church) type the words 'Hitler' and 'Christian' into our search engine and read several of the articles that appear, particularly The Christian Nazi Myth Refuted. See also comments responding to Jeff on this thread.
lots of people in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century read Darwin's "Origin" but did not becom mass murderers....about all we can say is that Darwin provided an intellectual justification for what Stalin did but not necessarily a moral justification...
in earlier centuries, "the fear of the Lord" stopped men from committing "sins of presumption" such as mass murder(s) even though they may well have been brutalised and abused as badly as if not worse than Stalin was.....Darwin "cancelled out" that fear!
but....again....as "CS" notes.....who are the REAL CULPRITs here?....those who provide the intellectual justification for such atrocities or the actual perpertrators them-selves?
who is REALLY guilty here?.....the man who actually fires the gun or the man who supplies the gun, the ammunition and the justification for using it?
only Almighty God in His wisdom, mercy and grace can decipher this conundrum....but....we can be sure of one thing..."shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?"
An individual who is influenced by another is not thereby less responsible, nor has CMI ever claimed that. But it would be naive not to be aware of the influencing factors. My recent book (see www.onehumanfamily.us) shows how even my own mother was influenced by the milieu of her times (Nazi Germany's social Darwinism). See also responses to Jeff on this comments thread.
I hope you don't mind me challenging you a little bit, but your logic seems a bit flawed here. Stalin caused the deaths of millions because he had read Origin of Species? Well I've read it too and I've not murdered millions of people. Moreover millions have read Origin and they haven't murdered millions either. In fact if reading Darwin leads to mass murder there would not be many of us left today to discuss it!
The Holy Roman Emperors who waged the 30 years war had not, I suspect, read Darwin, nor had the Popes who led the Crusades yet they managed to cause the deaths of millions as well.
Maybe the real cause of these deaths is the inability of some leaders to see anything in perspective and just act on their own narrow viewpoints - if they can get away with it?
Jeff, I’m not sure how one can glean from Russell’s article that Stalin read the Origin and presto, became a murderer, and furthermore, that everyone else who does the same will. However, it is a recorded historical fact that upon reading the Origin, he felt justified in rejecting the notion that the God of the Bible existed. (A fairly rational conclusion, I might add.) Now the following should be obvious, but let’s walk through it anyway.
Imagine if we were comparing two very large groups of people, who were in all other respects comparable (in terms of the distribution of gender, age, occupation etc. etc.) except that one group believed that they were accountable to a holy and just God after death, i.e. actions have eternal consequences, and the other which didn’t. Now, while no one is claiming that such a restraining belief will operate perfectly, least of all the Christian who believes in a fallen and sinstained world, it seems a ‘no-brainer’ that the group with no such restraining belief will produce more of those who commit actual acts of murder, for example. I.e. this is an ‘on average’ argument. It does not ignore other factors like psychopathy, upbringing, aggravation, opportunity, you name it. It merely makes the relatively trivial and self-evident claim that a person with a murderous thought or predilection will be on average less likely to restrain themselves from the impulse to carry it out (if they believe they are likely to get away with it on Earth, as a despot in power would be able to, e.g.). Note that your last line actually reinforces this point about retribution, to an extent.
Then there is the additional point that when professing Christians do such things, they are being inconsistent with the teachings of their faith’s founder. But when a materialist does them, he/she is not being inconsistent with anything of the sort, in fact is being quite consistent with the notion that there is no ultimate reason for one collection of randomly evolved atoms that once were pond scum now rearranged not to do what it wants with another such collection. Note that this does not say that an atheist cannot be a moral person, just that there is no objective basis for such morality.
Note, too, the historical evidence supporting this self-evident chain of reasoning (as if it were necessary, in a sense). Despite the horrors of the 30 years war, the number of people who have been killed in Christian atrocities, and all religious wars pales into insignificance next to the number of people killed in the 20th Century alone by those who had an evolution-based view of the world, were fiercely anti-Christian, and feared no judgment after death. For example, during the Inquisition, loathsome as it was, some “3,230 people were sentenced to death, hardly the bloodbath of millions that it is sometimes made out to be.” See A review of The Irrational Atheist.
See for more documentation and discussion ‘Christian’ vs evolutionary atrocities, and note too that the nearly 100m killed in the murderous rampages of the ideologically driven dictators of last century mostly killed, often systematically, their own people.
I recently watched a 3 part series about Stalin on SBS. This series was an eye opener in the fact that it showed just how lost Stalin was.
I would blame the father for his treatment of his son, and the seminary. If you think about it, the authority figures in Stalin's life sowed the wind that reaped the whirlwind.
Those people have a lot to answer for.