This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the drafting of a letter which revealed one of history’s greatest secrets. Or maybe not.
The letter in question is dated July 12, 1913 and is signed by Colonel Alexander Eremin, head of the Special Section of the tsarist Department of Police. Writing from the police headquarters in St. Petersburg, Eremin informs a captain in the distant Siberian town of Yeniseisk that one of the revolutionaries who has just been deported to his jurisdiction is, in fact, a former police collaborator.
The agent’s name is Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili — better known to us today as Stalin.
According to Eremin, Stalin began giving information to the police following his 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, continued working for them in Baku, and then again in St. Petersburg. By the time the letter was written, Stalin had broken from the police following his election to the Bolshevik Central Committee.
The problem with Eremin’s letter is that no one knows if it is genuine.
The letter first surfaced, apparently, in the 1930s and there is reason to believe that Trotsky saw it, or knew of its existence. But Trotsky chose to reject the view — then widely held — that Stalin had probably been a double agent.
In the mid 1940s the letter surfaced again in New York, having been passed around among White Russian emigres.
It was finally published in 1956 as a front cover story in Life Magazine, followed up by a book-length treatment by journalist Isaac Don Levine. Levine had authored the first English language biography of Stalin a quarter century earlier and considered the letter to be genuine.
Most scholars disagreed.
Within a few years, the letter was largely forgotten.
But when Mikhail Gorbachev suddenly opened up Soviet society to a measure of free discussion in the 1980s, the letter resurfaced as Russian historians resumed the discussion of Stalin’s early career and possible role as a police spy.
Having studied the history of the letter for several years, my own view is the same as that of historian and diplomat George F Kennan, who said that the letter is “one of those curious bits of historical evidence of which it can only be said that the marks of spuriousness are too strong for us to call it genuine, and the marks of genuineness are too strong for us to call it entirely spurious.”
Among the aspects of the letter that raise the possibility that it is genuine is the extraordinary story of Stalin’s 1906 arrest in Tbilisi, today the capital of Georgia.
Most accounts of Stalin’s life make no mention of such an arrest. But one place it is mentioned is in Trotsky’s unfinished biography of Stalin, which was published at about the same time as Levine and the White Russians began their quest to get the Eremin letter published.
Trotsky’s book — which rejects Stalin’s possible role as an informer — nevertheless includes a chronology and notes his 1906 arrest.
If Stalin was arrested in 1906, it was probably at the time of the police raid on the underground printing press in a Tbilisi neighbourhood called Avlabar. Like nearly everything else in Georgia at the time, this would have been a Menshevik-controlled press. Stalin was one of the very few Lenin loyalists in that region of the Russian empire.
But this was a time when Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were forced to work together, and shortly after Stalin learned of the location of the Avlabar press, the police closed it down, making many arrests. Stalin may have been the one who tipped the police off.
If Stalin was one of those arrested, and if he took up an offer to become a collaborator, he would have been swiftly released. This would have awakened suspicion, and would almost certainly have been covered up.
Over the years, several biographers of Stalin — admittedly, a minority — have accepted that the circumstantial evidence of Stalin’s collaboration with the police is overwhelming. But hardly any of them believe that the Eremin letter is genuine.
A century later, one might ask if it matters. I think it does. For many decades, many on the revolutionary left — probably most — accepted that Stalin was a genuine communist with whom one might have disagreements. Some went so far as to say that once in power, Stalin even committed violations of socialist legality. The Trotskyists of course went further and accused him of betraying the revolution.
But what if that betrayal pre-dated the revolution by a decade or more?
In the end, Stalin created a police state that made the tsarist police seem like amateurs. His half-dozen escapes from prisons and exile under tsarist rule became impossible once he was at the helm of the Russian state. He learned the lessons well from a poorly organized political police; the GPU and NKVD of his era were far more efficient and ruthless than their tsarist predecessors.
Stalin, it may turn out, was not a genuine revolutionary who was corrupted by power. He may well have been corrupted by weakness, a young, fearful man in the clutches of the police, accepting an offer that he could not refuse.