This article is based on a recent biography of the young Joseph Stalin.1

by Russell Grigg

Trainee priest, revolutionary bank robber, and murderous dictator Joseph Stalin began life as Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Russian script: Иосиф Виссарионович Джугашвили). 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 (Сталин), 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….

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