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J. P. Jones

Among the Dead

To choose one's victim, to prepare one's plans minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed—there is nothing sweeter in the world.
—Joseph Stalin

Last summer I had the idea to investigate and write a retrospective on the young Stalin1 using the recently opened secret archives as my primary source. Though the archives are officially open, in true Russian red-tape fashion (please excuse the pun), access to them is extremely limited. I had, however, the good fortune of knowing rather closely through past work an historian and colleague at the Institute of Historical-Archival Studies. Through him and my own criminological work, which is somewhat well-known in Russia (my most successful work, The Killer Inside, reached almost best-seller status in its Russian translation), I recently acquired a three-week foreign researcher's pass to the President's Archive. This collection contains seventy years of the most sensitive Communist Party documents as well as Stalin's personal archive and is the same one that was established under Gorbachev and later led to Yeltsin's discovery of the secret agreements between Stalin and Hitler in 1939.

To reach this most holy of holies, beginning three weeks ago, I traveled through the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin, past the largest cannon in the world, the Tsar's Cannon, which proved incapable of firing, past the largest bell in the world, the Tsar's Bell, which cracked immediately after it was cast and never rang, and into that area of the Kremlin that was Stalin's personal quarters. Every weekday now for three weeks I have made this trip, a trip Stalin himself made hundreds of times only half of a century ago.

The President's Archive is kept in Stalin's apartment, a low-ceilinged but spacious complex of rooms. The bulk of the archive is in the claustral study with its pale green carpet and dark mirrors. Dominating the study is Stalin's mottled rosewood desk. It bears on its worn lacquer the faint imprint of his signature—that single flourish which sent millions to their deaths—etched time and again on rustling leaves of carbon paper, thin and vulnerable as skin.

The former leader keeps a stubborn vigil in the rooms of his apartment. Alone in the research chambers I could smell his tobacco-heavy breath seeping out from the walls, could feel his watchful eye on the documents which I handled, and could almost glimpse his olive-skinned image brooding in the several smoky mirrors. Even the grease from his hands seemed to linger on the desks at which I worked.

Other privileged researchers moved around me: young, pale ones with the ubiquitous thick-framed Russian eyeglasses; older ones speaking in suppressed tones of German, French and Russian; and, also, the Party ancients. These were more like specters than men. Where no one had been a moment before suddenly one would appear, passing his skeleton eyes over a document or letter and nodding in what I could only believe was feigned remembrance. But feigned for whom? It seemed that these ancients merely haunted the research chambers in their leisure hours before death and would soon take whatever new revelations they gained with them to their graves.

I have made rather unsatisfactory progress in my three weeks of research here. My specialty is criminal psychology and a year ago I came across this sentence: "Isolation is the stony soil in which monstrosity takes root." The statement haunted me with its truth and clarity. It took hold of my mind and several insomnious nights of personal revolution gave me the idea somehow or other that it would be enlightening to compare the psychology of a mass murderer like Stalin with that of a serial killer. After all, if a common clinical profile could be established for these particularly disturbing phenomena that have plagued our century, future research might help diminish their looming threats posed to humanity2.

I soon found that nothing truthful concerning Stalin's youth is to be found in the archives. Fifteen days of fruitless research presented me with the prospect of writing either a very shaky profile of the young Stalin or a bitter diatribe aimed at the Communist Party's proclivity for erasing its past. Frustrated, I did what all good researchers do. I took a cigarette break.

While enjoying my Marlboro in an empty doorway (as if in response to the West, Russia has also adopted a no-smoking policy in their public buildings), a gangly, official-looking ancient approached me from within. His face was long and sleek, his eyes bulbous, and he had on a ridiculously checkered suit.

"It seems you have an interest in Tovstukha," he said, bringing his hands together before him in a light clap. I nearly jumped at the size of them. I am always shocked by the hands of Russians, so muscular and squat, usually, with knobs and scars like those of a mechanic's.

Tovstukha, the man he mentioned, had been Stalin's personal secretary from the early Soviet days until 1935. I had turned my focus to him only the day before. Neither man had left a personal diary, memoirs, nor hardly any personal records3.

"I worked with him at one time," the ancient intoned, upholding the unspoken agreement of anonymity between us. "He was a gaunt, malnourished fellow. In fact, we became very close for a short time before his death. He was Stalin's closest confidant, and all the most secret documents passed through his hands. He was a meek and studious servant in a way, but I knew him on a more personal level. He died of tuberculosis, you know."

"No, I didn't," I replied.

He had been prepared to continue, but my reply stopped him cold. He fixed his gibbous eyes on mine as if to say, How could you be interested in Tovstukha and not know how he died?

"My interest is Stalin himself, his early life," I offered.

The ancient's watery eyes narrowed and closed. He brought his hands to his face and drew them along it as if he were pressing the memories floating before him back into his skull. He reached behind me and, pressing lightly against my spine, muttered, "Let's go," and motioned with his other hand back towards the research chambers. As the pressure of his hand against my back increased, I barely had time to crush out my cigarette underfoot. Compelled forwards in such a manner I had to remind myself that this was no longer the Soviet Union and that I had not just compromised myself with an officer of the KGB.

As we made our way down that gray, high-ceilinged and empty corridor, it seemed as if the shadows of forgotten men, men who not so long ago had similarly walked this corridor with an invisible hand at their backs, appeared at my side, their choking fear catching in my own throat, their unsure hands reaching to open the high doors that revealed the inner chamber and that man sitting with his displeased, pock-marked face they knew so well but which, this time, had an unfamiliar darkness in it and tiger-like yellow eyes that saw not another human but a corpse. "I hear unpleasant things, tovarish." The tovarish (comrade) instead of the man's name echoed in the condemned's ears like a gunshot.

I opened the doors to reveal not Stalin but two solitary researchers. We passed into the apartment and the ancient motioned to a side room. In it there was a small wicker table, two chairs, a samovar, and a tiny window looking out onto another building. The ancient closed the door, poured two glasses of tea, and we sat down.

"So, you're interested in the Father . . ." and he began his story:

The muddy waters of the river Kura rage past the village of Gori in central Georgia. To the north you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus. Gori means "hill" in Georgian, and the surrounding cliffs are heaped upon each other. Overlooking Gori is a hill on top of which stands a ruined fortress and next to the ruins is a large, perfectly spherical boulder. It is called Amiran's play ball after the giant demon of destruction who inhabits the hanging mountain cliffs, worn through as they are with holes and caves.

I was a young boy and it was a special night in our village of Gori. My father had that day been fitted for a suit. He was a trader. Soot still lay in the creases of his shirt and breeches and in the sweat lines around his neck from where he had been fitted. In Gori, you see, tailors sprinkle soot in the street outside their shop and have their client lie in it while they sit on him. They take his measurements from his impression.

My father was happy that night but for me it held an awful foreboding. It was the first time I remember being scared. Outside ever since dusk the hammers had been ringing. Every blacksmith in town beat his hammer against his anvil. The ringing went on into the night, more fervently as the darkness deepened.

"Why do they hammer so, Papa?" I asked.

"To keep Amiran from descending from the cliffs," he told me.

I was frightened. Once a year they carried out this ritual. A silly one if you ask me now, but as a boy I didn't know that such rituals are nonsense. My mother rushed into the house.

"Keke's almost there," she told my father while she dipped towels into our water basin in the corner. "This is her third," she continued. "We can only pray this one lives."

From seemingly within my own mind, forcing its way through the thick notes of the hammers that hung in the even thicker night air, burst a cry that sent me sprawling against the stone wall of our house. My mother's face emptied.

She looked at my father and said, "It's here."

It was the night Stalin was born in the hovel next to ours and, as his first cries mixed with the ringing notes of the hammers, his father Beso, drunk as usual, celebrated by screaming into the unseeable cliffs above our town, challenging the demon Amiran to descend. He always looked for a fight when he was drunk.

Later, when Soso—that's what we called Stalin as a boy—was older, Beso beat him and Keke. Beso worked off and on at the Adelkhanov factory in Tiflis. He would return from the factory and hear the rumors that Soso was not his son but the bastard child of one of the rich landowners for whom Keke did sewing, and Beso would beat them both. Once, Soso knocked over their copper kerosene lamp. Beso became so angry that he picked up little Soso and threw him to the floor like a rag. He pissed blood for days4.

After Beso was killed in a drunken brawl, Keke beat little Soso just as mercilessly. You know, in Russian the verb byt'—to beat—means "to educate" as well. That became Soso's favorite word. Even after he became a famous revolutionary he used that word in political fights5.

Soso's favorite game was krivi, a team boxing game. I was one of his favorites. I was big and very strong in my youth. Our gang from the upper town would box against the rich boys from the lower town. Soso hated the rich and anything to do with money. They would always pummel us, but Soso never stopped challenging them. One time he snuck up behind one of the rich boys and cracked him on the head with a board. He nearly busted that Jew's skull open. And, you know, during the Great Patriotic War when Stalin was sixty-eight and times were hard, I received a packet of money from the Father with a simple note: "Please accept a small gift from me. Yours, Soso." All those years and he had not forgotten me, his krivi champion.

Once, we snuck into the cellar where his father kept his shoemaking tools. Beso had knives and strips of hide hanging from twine along the walls, and the smell of leather was strong in the small workspace.

Soso called me into a dark corner, "C'mere and see what happened."

He bent over a low drawer of a dusty cabinet then fiddled in his pocket and finally struck a match. In the drawer was the skeleton of a house cat.

"It was Masha's from across the street," he said seriously.

"You put it in there alive?" I asked.

"Of course," he told me with a scowl and slammed the drawer shut.

I'm sure you've heard the rumor that he had a cloven hoof for a foot. Well, it has its basis in fact. Soso bullied every one of us boys most of the time, but when anyone wanted to go for a swim, he became very shy even though he wasn't a bad swimmer. Why do you think this was? I'll tell you why. He had a deformed left foot. I saw it more than once on the bank of the Kura River. I've also seen the "Medical History of J. V. Stalin" that states "Webbed toes on left foot"6. It's in the next room, see for yourself.

What of his left arm, you ask? No, this wasn't a deformity. He couldn't bend it at the elbow, it's true, but that happened in Gori when he was very young. At Epiphany one year I saw a great procession of mourners coming up Tsarskaya Street carrying a body. They were heading towards our end of town, and I realized the limp form was Soso's.

"Oy!" the procession murmured. "Ekaterina Geladze is cursed . . . never to have a son . . . of course, trials always come in threes . . . this will be the worst for her to bear she loved him so . . . such a sweet boy . . ."

"What happened?" I asked one of the boys tagging along beside the body.

"He was crushed by a phaeton over by the bridge. Nobody saw it coming down the hill. Some stupid peasant let it get away from his horses. The shaft smacked him in the head and the wheels ran over his arm. Boy, you should've been there, you've never heard such a sound!"7.

I saw that his arm was crushed and blood had dried in his curly black hair. Little Soso was dead. Before we reached the Dzhugashvili house Keke came rushing out and grasped Soso's head in her palms. She looked into his lifeless eyes and let out a wail of grief from the depths of her soul. I don't claim to have witnessed many miracles in my life, but that day it was his own mother's love that brought that boy back to life. His wound soon turned septic because Keke had no money for a doctor and his arm never healed properly, but if it hadn't been for the power of her love and her grief at losing yet another son he never would have come back from wherever he went while that procession carried him home.

These are the main things I remember about the young Stalin, little Soso. He was an impudent and rude boy, but he always had a gang around him. I myself liked him very much. The last time I saw him in Gori was at a public hanging of two peasants. He was already attending the Church School. Keke, you know, dedicated him to become a priest and he studied at the seminary.

At this hanging there was a great crowd of a thousand people. It seemed like all of Gori turned out for the spectacle, and the Church School pupils had formed their own little group at the front of the crowd. I joined them because I knew several of the boys. The monks wanted to prove to their pupils the inevitability of God's justice but the ropes broke. So they hauled the peasants back up and hung them a second time.

I've heard that Soso became a revolutionary while in the Church School. He would have the Bible open before him on the desk while reading the Revolutionary's Catechism in his lap. And at night he read Darwin and Marx by the end of a candle. He was far from being a good pupil. From what I hear, he spent most of his time kneeling on pebbles as punishment. The monks had their hands full with him. You would never know it to hear him sing though. At vespers he had an angelic voice, high and pure. He always looked radiantly peaceful kneeling in the candlelight before the golden chancel gates singing the penitential prayers. Yes, Soso was quite a young man.

Before we parted, I discovered that the Party ancient had a fondness for Soviet folk songs. Without my asking he began an unabashed guttural flow:

It is not spring water overflowing,
It is not a wave of the sea undulating,
It is the pagan force moving over the steppe,

His sepulchral voice evoked deep, almost unknowable, suffering and came to me as if from the heart of Russia itself:

And from the horses' breath,
The earth's moon has darkened,
The wind howls on the steppes,
The grass is bent over to the earth.

His song ended, we said good-bye.

Walking back to my hotel the Party ancient's portrait of the young Stalin replayed in my mind. As the overcast Moscow sky darkened, I crossed Red Square, that landmark of Communism. I tried to imagine a much older Stalin on a desperate night in November, 1941, when, standing atop Lenin's Mausoleum with German forces encircling the capital, he addressed the Red Army. I tried also to see the victory parade that, four years later, passed in review of the Father of the Nation who was by then also the Conqueror of Fascism. My imagination failed me. By the fading light I could see only indifferent spirits, the ghosts of Stalin's mourners, rising like steam into the night from the tiny spaces between the bricks into which they had been crushed.

The largeness of the project I had undertaken and the smallness of my own explanatory powers suddenly overtook me. For three weeks I had stared at letters and documents, books and telegrams expecting to glimpse some detail of one man's youth that would act as the key to understanding his pathology. I had sought an image or a thread around which I could build a sensible psychological portrait. With the ancient's anecdotal biography, Stalin became too human, and I felt a splitting within myself as one part of me felt something akin to empathy for the mistreated miscreant named Soso who was both loved and beaten fiercely by his mother.

The one document on Stalin's youth I had come by was sent to me by my colleague at the Institute. It was a copy of the Tiflis Main Physical Observatory's employment record. A single entry reads, "On the engagement of Joseph Dzhugashvili, December 26, 1899." This was a record of the young Stalin's employment as an observer and recorder of meteorological data. As the newest employee, the New Year's Eve shift certainly fell to him. While the rest of the world celebrated the collective entrance of humanity into the promise of a new millennium, the twentieth century, Joseph Stalin sat alone at midnight in an empty observatory peering through a telescope into the outer darkness of space.

Isolation is the stony soil in which monstrosity takes root.

As I leave Red Square and darkness falls, I try only to hold this image of the young Stalin in my mind, to deduce his thoughts and dreams, hopes and hatreds at this one moment a century ago. I want to believe that if I fix him in that instant the array of forces that hold him there and the pins of the universe that pull him forward to his destiny will be revealed as clearly as the structure of a crystal. But I cannot. Instead I see a succession of flashes in the night sky as every person on earth—the trader's son, the decrepit peasant, the sympathetic aristocrat—is pulled inexorably forward into the next century and there is a secret moment of melting in the hardened revolutionary's heart touched as it is by the momentousness of the occasion and, somewhere deep, a childlike desire for direction. The flashes are followed by the resounding booms of the Tiflis cannons, echoes falling through the prophetic notes of clanging hammers, and I see him projected perilously through the telescope, a human shadow falling among the dead and battered satellites of space, falling away from the living towards the dark matrix of a black hole, its tractive power so strong that it consumes even the act of seeing and prevents us from knowing that solitary, seductive heart that beats at the center of our universe.

1 A number of serial killers attest to strange voices, the appearance of evil doubles, uncontrollable sexual feelings, or deep sensations from within their minds that compel them into criminal acts. These urgings most often begin in childhood and are reported to take over the killers' bodies and hold them hostage during their episodic periods of aggression. It is these same voices and feelings around which the killers develop rituals which lead to the inclusion of victims and acts of murder and mutilation to cover up their crimes. The more violent the crime, the more the feelings of violence escalate until the crimes are not enough to cover up the sense of revulsion the killer feels for himself. The serial killer lives in a dark universe of solitude, unable to feel remorse or empathy for his victims. From Serial Killers: The Growing Menace, Joel Norris, NY: Doubleday, 1988, pp. 195-198.

2 In their study, Hershman and Lieb see a distinct correlation between the grandiose manic depression of Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin and the manic depression of four contemporary mass killers: David Koresh, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones, and Colin Ferguson. Decrying the dominance of psychoanalysis over psychiatry in modern culture and the stifling system of tenure in the medical field, the authors suggest that the overwhelming emphasis on Freud's theories in the twentieth century has resulted in a lack of studies that allow us to interpret, treat, and prevent aberrant behavior, especially with respect to dangerous cases of manic depression. From A Brotherhood of Tyrants: Manic Depression and Absolute Power, D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb, MD, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994.

3 In the post-mortem phase of a crime, the serial killer is often filled with self-loathing and contempt. His violence has proved nothing and he now has a body on his hands. The serial killer often disposes of the body and evidence at a pre-planned remote burial site. After the burial, he may feel a strong need to reestablish touch with reality and will reenter his camouflaged life and assume his "mask of sanity." This mask, Norris notes, "is manifested through grandiosity or a belief in his own superhuman importance, hypervigilance or an extraordinary concern about acting morally and properly, and social adeptness to the point of extreme manipulative ability." The serial killer can be driven by a strong desire for acceptance and achievement. Unlike a normally developed person who can suppress "selfish" desires, no amount of social acceptance and achievement meets the serial killer's insatiable desire. The homophobic serial murderer John Wayne Gacy was a respected citizen known as one of the hardest working community volunteers in his town. He was active in local politics, a member of the JCs, and was grand marshal of the Polish Day Parade for several years in Chicago. During the same period, he ritualistically murdered at least thirty young boys and buried them in a muddy crawl space beneath his house. (Norris, 219-221)

4 The behaviors of serial killers are behaviors developed by their brains to compensate for levels of physiological and emotional damage incurred in childhood. A child who is deprived of sensory stimulus to an extreme degree fails to develop boundaries between himself and the external world. While the brain is a very "plastic" organ and can compensate to a large degree for deficiencies and damage, in the case of serial killers, the brain is unable to exert control over the primal emotions—those reactions that arise from the primal area of the brain (composed of the temporal lobe, hypothalamus, and limbic region) and include fear, rage, flight, terror, panic, and sexual arousal. In the serial killer, damage incurred in childhood to the primal area prevents the normal development of self-control and he sees himself without limits, all-encompassing, literally able to "walk over others". (Norris, 205-7)

5 In a 1915 letter to Lenin concerning the "liquidators," Stalin writes, "There is no one to beat them, devil take it. Can it be that they will go unpunished?! Make us happy by informing us that there will soon appear an organ in which they will be lashed across their mugs, good and hard, and without letup." As revealed in Khrushchev's "secret speech," during the trials of Jewish doctors just before Stalin's death, the leader called the investigative judge and instructed him to extract confessions using this method: "Throw the doctors in chains, beat them to a pulp, and grind them into powder. Beat, beat, and, once again, beat." Both references from Robert Tucker's Stalin as Revolutionary, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973, p. 75.

Further, Tucker and other Stalin researchers have noted Stalin's tendency for "externalization." Hershman and Lieb observe that by 1929, "The dictator could no longer distinguish between his ideas and the laws of nature, between his desires and the way nations develop . . . Reality, in effect, was no more and no less than what he said it was at any given moment as he insisted that the Communist world adopt his psychotic worldview." (193) Such delusions culminated in Stalin's "Plan for the Transformation of Nature" which he implemented four years before his death and which was based on the false genetics of Trofim Lysenko.

6 Genetic research suggests that physical anomalies such as webbed skin and connected earlobes may reflect genetic disorders of the primal brain. "Because the development of the fetal brain takes place at the same time that the skin develops, any skin or cartilage abnormalities are usually indicators that the brain, too, has not completely developed." (Norris, 239)

7 A history of head trauma or head injuries is one of the most strongly unifying aspects of serial killers. "Henry Lee Lucas, Bobby Joe Long, Carlton Gary, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Leonard Lake, and John Gacy have all had either severe head injuries, repeated head traumas, or damage that occurred during birth . . . Because the primitive brain is the most vulnerable to injuries occurring on the side of the head—because of the thinness of the skull at that point and the lack of internal fluid protection—individuals who have received sustained blows to the side of the head are often at risk." The neurological evidence suggests that the ritualistic patterns of serial murderers are actually mirrors of an abnormal electro-chemical process in the brain caused by head trauma. (Norris, 232)

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