Stalin’s Ruthless Rhyme Schemes
Joseph Stalin was a blessing before he was a curse. His parents had tried twice before to have children, but both passed away shortly after they were born. Stalin was the third attempt, and though he was weak (always getting sick or injured in his younger years), he survived. Yet, the world he grew up in was a dark one that he only made darker.
He was born and raised in the Georgian town of Gori, a place with a notorious street culture. (Many people in this town continue to remember Stalin with affection.) According to Young Stalin, a biography of his early years, the boy lived as a ragamuffin, often engaging in street brawls, fist fights and gang warfare.
On top of this, Stalin had to battle a difficult father who, largely because of the deaths of his first two children, had turned into a bitter alcoholic. So when he was barely old enough to read, Stalin committed his first violent act, throwing a knife at his father in an attempt to defend his mother from one of his drunken tirades.
Yet, for all his brutal shenanigans, Stalin first gained notoriety not because of his scheming but because of his poetry.
While studying to be a priest (yes, that’s right, a priest), Stalin started to write romantic poems, which were published in several periodicals and won him much acclaim in Georgia. His first known poem, written when he was 17, was called “Morning,” and is filled with descriptions of lilting flowers, chirping birds and national pride. “Be full of blossom, oh lovely land / Rejoice Iverians’ country / And you oh Georgian, by studying / Bring joy to your motherland.” It may not be Mandelstam, but the prideful aspect apparently resonated well with Georgians.
He eventually stopped writing poetry because it required “a hell of a lot of patience,” according to one conversation recorded in Young Stalin. Instead, he turned his focus to revolutionary Marxism.
Still, many of his early ventures into the sinister are intertwined with his passion for literature. The books and periodicals he read spurred his revolutionary ideas and schemes. According to one account in Young Stalin, he actually learned many of his tyrannical tactics from a fight over reading material with a priest in his seminary. While in school, Stalin was known to read and distribute black-listed books by authors like Balzac, Marx and Darwin. So one priest, who was nicknamed the Black Spot, spared no amount of energy spying on Stalin and rummaging through his personal belongings. Stalin was eventually expelled over this, and later in life, he confessed that this priest had taught him all the repressive tactics he’d need to know, including “surveillance, spying, invasion of inner life, [and] violation of feelings.”
Unlike today, where a history of writing romantic poems might diminish one’s macho credentials, poetry actually fueled Stalin’s reputation. In 1907, young Stalin organized a bloody bank heist that helped finance the Bolshevik revolution. Afterward, one of his henchmen admitted that he had joined Stalin in this risky venture “only because he was such an admirer of Stalin’s romantic poetry.”