Joseph Stalin Led a Life of Crime Before Becoming Russia’s Leader

Joseph Stalin Led a Life of Crime Before Becoming Russia’s Leader

Dariusz Stusowski - April 7, 2017

When one mentions Joseph Stalin, it is impossible not to think of the monstrous crimes against humanity he committed during his role as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union. After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Stalin consolidated his power in the most brutal ways imaginable. Before WWII even began, many millions died from political purges and intentional starvation.

But he was no mere mass murderer, indiscriminately butchering those getting in the way of his grandiose plans for a workers paradise – he was much more. He was an aspiring priest, before he became a radical atheist. He was a romantic poet, before he became a criminal. And as a criminal, he excelled at extortion, kidnapping, assassination, arson, bank robbery, and straightforward thuggery for the sake of Marxist revolution, all before becoming Europe’s greatest mass-murder, dwarfing even the otherwise incomparable Adolf Hitler.

The crimes Stalin committed before becoming known to the world as the leader of the Soviet Union are not nearly as well known as the ones committed after he ascended to his grand position, but they are just as fascinating, in an indecent sort of way. During his earlier years, Stalin subsisted as an unemployed hoodlum often living off the kindness of friends and strangers when not imprisoned for his unceasing criminal activities.

Though much of his early years are still shrouded in mystery, we do know a great deal about the audacious and elaborate crime he committed before the Bolshevik Revolution made him infamous.

Joseph Stalin Led a Life of Crime Before Becoming Russia’s Leader
A mug shot of Stalin after an arrest in Baku, Azerbaijan 1910.

In 1907, ten years before the revolution, Stalin, then still known by his real name, Joseph Jughashvili, and an assortment of other communist revolutionaries organized a daring bank robbery in the Russian city of Tiflis. While others in the group were busy making grenades and smuggling them into the city, Stalin convinced a civil servant, enamored by his earlier poetry, to provide secret schedules stating the exact time in which a stagecoach filled with millions of dollars in today’s money, was to travel from a post office to a government bank.

This was the convoy’s most vulnerable moment, and the opportunity Stalin and his thugs used to steal the cash they needed for their revolutionary agitations. It was not going to be easy, however, as the stagecoach was seriously protected by two armed guards riding inside, a carriage full of armed soldiers riding behind, and a fierce collection of mounted Cossack warriors surrounding the convoy on all sides. This robbery was not to be bloodless.

Joseph Stalin Led a Life of Crime Before Becoming Russia’s Leader
Stalin after an arrest in 1908. Mashable

At around 10:30 in the morning the convoy approached the busy main square of the city when the one of the revolutionaries gave the signal to begin the raid. Grenades ripped through solders, horses and civilians causing widespread panic. The blasts were so powerful they collapsed nearby chimneys and shattered windows for considerable distances.

Chaos ensued as wounded and panicked horses pulled the stagecoach away from the blasts. Undeterred, one of the revolutionaries threw another bomb, ripping a horse to pieces thereby stopping the coach in its tracks. Grabbing most of the money, the conspirators rode away in their own carriage. Stopped by police as they were fleeing, one of the robbers convinced the police he was a cavalry captain, successfully outwitting them and fleeing the scene with roughly 341,000 rubles, worth over 3 million dollars in today’s money.

They left behind a massive amount of carnage. Though official Russian newspapers, interested in keeping the population calm, claimed only three people died, documents discovered later show that the number was much higher, at roughly forty dead, along with large amounts of property damage and animal suffering.

Joseph Stalin Led a Life of Crime Before Becoming Russia’s Leader
Joseph Stalin as he is more commonly represented.

But what was Stalin’s exact role? Like much of Stalin’s behavior, it is shrouded by layers of lies, rumors, and purged information. Some accounts say he participated in the actual robbery, while most others state that he watched his master plan unfold from a safe distance, allowing others to assume the deadly risks he concocted. What is now certain is that the he was the man in charge of planning and organizing this blood-soaked crime.

And what happened to the cash? Did the blood money help fund the early activities of a movement that would later enslave entire countries and murder countless millions? A small portion of the loot, was made of small bills and used immediately while the bulk of the money was unable to be spent in Russia because the serial numbers of the larger bills were known to banks.

Anyone attempting to exchange the bills for smaller ones would be immediately arrested. Lenin and his conspirators tried to exchange the money in other countries. Some were even attempted to be exchanged as far away as America, but most attempts ended in disaster and the remaining notes were said to be burned.

Even within revolutionary circles this murderous robbery was usually received poorly. The event led to isolate people like Lenin and Stalin from other revolutionaries. However, their isolation did not last as the actions of these Bolsheviks eventually led to the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the ascendancy of Communism. Under men like Stalin, communism led to the suffering and death of tens of millions, making the butcheries of his youth seem as insignificant as his self-indulgent poetry.