Stalin, the Priest and the Donkeys

In the market of Tseva, a small village near Zestafoni in Georgia, the local priest was minding his own business. He was greeted by young man who was obviously not a local.

‘I am Koba from Gori’, said the young man. ‘May I request some private business?’

‘What do you mean?’ Said Father Kasiane Gachechiladze.

‘I need to get to Chiatura, over the mountains, and I have heard that you have some donkeys’, said the young man.

A little nervously, the priest looked up and noticed that another man was standing guard in the bazaar. He recognised him as a member of the local Red Battle Squad. With no police in the area, the Red Squads were in control. Seeing the priest’s anxiety, Koba asked after his family, mentioning the names of his wife, parents, and children.

‘I would like to offer you fifty roubles for your troubles’, said Koba.

The priest thought for a moment and said, ‘Deal’.

‘Let’s go for a drink, to celebrate’, said Koba.

As they were toasting each other’s health, the future of Georgia, and their respective families, Koba said: ‘They will let you know when I am coming’. He waved his hand towards a number of other Red Guards. ‘Father, don’t be late. I must make the journey to Chiatura and back in a day. After all, we are both still young’.

Stalin as a young man 03

So it was that a priest met ‘The Priest’ – the nickname for one who would later be known as Joseph Stalin. The nickname was no accident, for Koba – his personal name – had studied for the priesthood too, leaving the Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis on the eve of sitting his final examinations. As he left the seminary, he passed from one faith to another. Or rather, he realised the continuity between the two faiths.

Within a couple days, Father Gachechiladze received the word, and ‘The Priest’ met him with two comrades. They loaded the donkeys with pieces of a printing press, money, and ammunition. ‘The Priest’ wanted a safe passage for his cargo, far from the prying eyes of the police, who often searched the trains looking for socialists.

Stalin in Georgia 03

On the trek over the mountains, the priest and Stalin talked. Stalin recited poetry, from the Georgian classics and from his own compositions.

‘Some of my poems have even been published’, confessed Stalin after one of recitals in the clear mountain air.

They drew closer, both of them singing songs as they clambered up to the mountain pass. Stalin rested his head on the priest’s lap when they rested. The young priest found him restrained, serious and decent. Stalin even recited the traditional blessing over their meals.

‘You see, I still remember it’, exulted ‘The Priest’.

‘You’d have made a great priest’, said the Father Gachechiladze.

‘I the cobbler’s son did very well against the offspring of nobles’, said Koba. Stalin had indeed topped his class at the Tiflis Seminary.

Too soon did they arrive in Chiatura. Stalin took the saddle- bags and returned with them empty.

‘At least I can use them as pillows on the train home’, said ‘The Priest’.

They parted, never to meet again.

Stalin as priest 01