I am in the process of reading carefully through the works of the Joseph Stalin – or the ‘man of steel’, as he became known through his revolutionary code name. When I mention the fact that I am reading Stalin’s rather extensive works, people look surprised – surprised not because I am actually reading Stalin, but because they usually do not realise he wrote anything at all. But write he did, and much of it is sophisticated and thought-provoking. In my reading, I am interested in the philosophical and indeed theological undercurrents of his work. Theology? Stalin? The themes are many and varied: religious pluralism and the ‘national question’; the dialectic of transcendence and immanence; the paradox of grace in relation to crisis; a materialist doctrine of evil; and the tension between sanctification and demonization.
Where did Stalin learn to deal with such theological ideas? Did they simply emerge from his own mind as he sought to deal with the difficult and often brutal issues that arose in the first ever effort to construct socialism? I suggest that one source was an intense period – five years – of study at the Spiritual Seminary, in Tiflis, Georgia. He was a student at the college during an extremely formative period, from the age of 15 to the verge of his twentieth birthday (1894-1899). The seminary, in the capital of Georgia, trained priests for the Russian Orthodox Church. On the negative side, this meant speaking only in Russian, even in private, and not in the native Georgian of the students. The church hierarchy in Tiflis and the seminary was decidedly reactionary, seeking to instil reverence for the tsar and God, in equal measure. Discipline was tight, with the whole day carefully organised, limited excursions outside, and proscribed reading. Textbooks and the Bible were standard fare, and the students wore cassocks. On the positive side, Stalin experienced – for the time – an exceptionally thorough theological education. And he came to appreciate the ascetic life of a theological student, with its simple diet of bread and beans and the ability to get by with little.
So let us consider in a little more detail what Stalin actually studied. He had already spent five years at the religious school of his home town, Gori. Here he was known already for his devoutness, attending all church services, even leading the singing in the choir. At the seminary, the earlier years of study included both ‘secular’ and theological subjects: Russian literature; secular history; mathematics; Latin; Greek; Church Slavonic singing; Georgian Imeretian singing; Holy Scripture. By the final years, the subjects became distinctly theological: ecclesiastical history; liturgy; homiletics; comparative theology; moral theology; practical pastoral work; didactics; church singing; Holy Scripture. Some subjects may have changed, but throughout Holy Scripture and Church singing were constants.
This is all very interesting, but the question remains as to what kind of student he was. Biographers of Stalin are keen to focus on his first engagements with revolutionary groups while a student, and hurry on too quickly from the theological study itself. Indeed, the seminary became a recruiting ground for the Georgian socialist movement, with many student joining either the Mensheviks or Bolsheviks.
But let us stay in the seminary for a few moments longer. It may come as a surprise to some, but he was one of the top students. To put this in perspective, only the best students were sent to the seminary, and Stalin was the best among them. He was noted by his teachers for his phenomenal memory and subtle intellect. His marks were always the highest, with the only exception being Greek, for which he received the second highest mark. To be sure, in the middle years he did not perform as well, for he had begun his involvement with revolutionary groups outside the seminary. But by the last couple of years, his performed brilliantly once again. This means that he was thoroughly versed in theological matters, exceptionally so. He knew the history of the church back to front; he could sing; he read Greek and Latin; and he knew intimately how the church itself worked (which assisted immensely in his famous compact with the church in 1943). Above all, he knew the Bible. Indeed, he had already studied Old and New Testament while at school, before arriving at the seminary. Ten years or more of solid study of the Bible are bound to leave its impression on a young man. It is not for nothing that Stalin later was known for reading the Bible in his personal library, memorising long stretches of text and quoting from it at will.
In the end, Stalin left the seminary before sitting for the final examinations, which would have qualified him to become a priest in the Orthodox Church. Biographers remain puzzled as to why he did so. Stalin himself hinted it was because of revolutionary activity; others suggest it was because he was unable to afford the fees. But the real reason is that he realised that the life of a priest was not for him, so he chose to leave. It was, obviously, a big decision. Yet, for many years afterwards in revolutionary circles, he was known as ‘The Priest’.