Stalin, his father and the Rabbit

The bizarre story of Stalin, his possible biological father, his food taster - and the connection of

We will never know who was Stalin's real father. The paternity of great men is often steeped in mystery. In Stalin's case, it was even suggested that Emperor Alexander III was his real father. Another candidate was a gay aristocratic Russian explorer. Neither of these two is a convincing can didate, but Stalin himself, a self-made man in every sense, liked to imply sometimes that his natural father was not his official one. But in his home town of Gori, in Georgia, there were in fact four very plausible candidates, including his official father - but of these four, only one, Koba Egnatashvili, remained in his life as a sort of foster parent.

Until now, his story has never been fully told. There were no photographs of him and most biographies simply repeated the inventions of other sensationalist historians. Yet the truth is more bizarre still, for this other family became the most trusted part of Stalin's court right up until the 1940s. Indeed, his possible half-brother became his NKVD food taster nicknamed "the Rabbit". It is a connection even more extraordinary because under the Rabbit served a young chef who would become the grandfather of another secret police officer: Vladimir Putin.

Stalin was born Josef "Soso" Dzhugashvili on 6 December 1878 (not 21 December 1879, his official birthday) to Beso Dzhugashvili, a cobbler, and his pretty and strong-willed wife, Keke. Beso was soon to become a wife-beating and child-beating alcoholic, tormented by rumours in the town that he was not Stalin's real father. Keke was determined that Stalin should receive a priestly education so that he could become a bishop. Beso, who had been helped throughout his career by a local hero named Koba Egnatashvili, a legendary wrestling champion, wealthy local merchant, wine dealer and owner of a successful tavern, wanted him to become a cobbler. And now we have a photo of this virile Georgian who was to play such an important part in Stalin's life.

When Beso became such a drunken embarrassment that he was known in the town as "Crazy Beso", Koba Egnatashvili helped Keke by finding her work, feeding Stalin and helping pay for his education at the church school and later at the seminary of Tiflis.

But he was not the only local man of power who aided young Stalin: Keke was also helped by the local priest, Father Charkviani, and the local police chief, Damian Davrichewy, both of whom were also said to be Keke's lovers. Indeed, Stalin himself, who encouraged mystery about his own origins to embellish his mythology as a great man, told several people that he was the son of this priest. The police chief's son later claimed that his father was Stalin's real father. But Stalin also implied to several people that Koba Egnatashvili was. He certainly worshipped the rich wrest ling cha m p ion: he was still talking about him 70 years later. When he became a revolutionary, he paid Koba the great compliment of adopting the name "Koba" as his own nom de guerre.

We will never, of course, know who was Stalin's biological father. In my book Young Stalin, I lean towards Crazy Beso simply because there is no conclusive evidence otherwise. But Koba Egnatashvili was actually the closest thing Stalin had to a father figure. It is also quite pos sible that Koba was indeed the biological father, for Keke, perhaps innocently, perhaps leaving a portentous message for posterity, admits in her memoirs that "Koba Egnatashvili helped us in the creation of our family".

As Stalin grew up, Koba certainly took the place of his real father. It seems that he loved little Stalin, and the affection was repaid. Stalin never lost his respect for him, and remained a somewhat mysterious part of the Egnatashvili family. While Crazy Beso beat the child and terrorised Stalin and several times kidnapped him from school to force him to train as a cobbler, Koba protected him, funded him and helped him in many ways. He may not have been Stalin's real father, but he acted like a father to him.

When Stalin left Gori to become a revolutionary in an adventurous career as terrorist mastermind, gangster godfather, poet, pirate, bank robber, Marxist fanatic and Bolshevik org aniser, he kept in contact with the Egnatashvilis. This was somewhat ironic, as the Egnatash vilis were prosperous capitalist entrepreneurs. Koba's two sons, Sasha and Vaso, were given expensive educations at a Moscow gym nasium (high school). Even after the Bolshevik (October) revolution in 1917, the family prospered as "Nepmen" (private businessmen) during Lenin's economic compromise with capitalism. They ran a chain of taverns and restaurants in Baku and Tiflis, in today's Azerbaijan and Georgia. Old Koba died in 1930 in his eighties, but in 1928 Stalin had executed his "Great Turn" leftwards, ending Lenin's New Economic Policy and embarking on a ruthless drive to fund industrialisation by collectivising the peasantry.

Ten million innocent people were shot or died of hunger. The Egnat ashvili brothers lost their taverns and were arrested. But Vaso managed to convince local officials that he had to speak to Stalin in Moscow, and so, while his brother remained in jail, he headed to the capital. Through the good offices of Abel Yenukidze, an affable Georgian womaniser and top Bolshevik official, Vaso was received by Stalin who immediately ordered that the two brothers be freed and summoned them to Moscow.

Even though neither brother had been a socialist, let alone a Bolshevik, Stalin needed trustworthy henchmen around him. Besides, he had grown up with the Egna tashvili boys and loved their old father. Amazingly, he made Sasha a secret police officer in what became, in 1934, the dreaded NKVD, while Vaso became his eyes and ears in his homeland, Georgia, first as a newspaper editor and later as secretary to the Georgian central executive committee. The Caucasus was then ruled by the fast-rising young Stalinist henchman Lavrenty Beria, but Stalin liked to keep up his own sources of information in the south: Vaso always had direct access to Stalin, which infuriated Beria. And everyone in the NKVD soon knew (and whispered) that the Egnatashvili brothers were not just Georgian favourites: they were Stalin's half-brothers.

As for Sasha - a genial, handsome athlete and a wrestling champion like his father, Koba (as his photograph on page 35 shows) - he became a powerful courtier at the court of the Red Tsar. He enjoyed a special position because, although he was an NKVD officer, he served with the independent Kremlin security guards, which Stalin, cautious and paranoid about his security, kept under separate command even though it was nominally under the secret police, the People's Commissars for Internal Affairs.

When Stalin unleashed the Great Terror in 1936, he became ever more sensitive about his own security: he promoted Sasha to command the secret world of his food supplies and the country houses where he actually lived. So Sasha the successful restaurateur became master of dictatorial feasting and luxury.

I had read in various sensationalist books on the secret police that Sasha Egnatashvili was nicknamed the Rabbit because he actually became Stalin's food taster. This was one of those rumours that I discounted as being too outré: however, it turned out to be true. Indeed, Sasha soon became a very important courtier, always present in the background wherever Stalin went. Whether Stalin was holding huge banquets at the Kremlin for foreign visitors such as Ribbentrop in 1939 or Churchill in 1942, or just private dinners at his own villas for Politburo magnates, the Rabbit was in charge and, at smaller dinners, he often joined the company.

Among the Rabbit's staff at Stalin's villas was an experienced and trusted cook who rather extraordinarily had served Rasputin and Lenin, and now cooked for Stalin, too. This was President Vladimir Putin's grandfather. Given that he cooked for Rasputin, Lenin and Stalin, he is surely the most world-historical chef of modern times. When he was running for president in 2000, Putin proudly revealed the connection but said that his grandfather, a loyal Chekist to the last, had never yielded any secrets of his remarkable career.

Yet Beria, by now Stalin's tireless and hugely competent NKVD boss, super-manager and Politburo grandee, hated the Egnatashvilis because they had closer relations with Stalin than he himself had and because they were Georgians independent of him.

He was determined to destroy them.

Stalin's deadly game

Meanwhile, even though a food taster and catering maestro, Sasha Egnatashvili, whether or not he was Stalin's half-brother, was not immune to the deadly game of Stalin's Byzantine court.

Just before the Second World War, Stalin, whose wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva had committed suicide in 1932, became suspicious about the wives of his henchmen. The pretty young wives of his intimate chef de cabinet, Alexander Poskrebyshev, and of his top military hench-man Marshal Kulik were both shot, but their husbands continued loyally to serve Stalin without complaint. In addition, President Mikhail Kalinin's wife was in prison. And Sasha Egnatashvili's German wife was arrested and shot even as the Rabbit continued to taste the dictator's food.

During the war, Sasha was promoted to general and showered with medals: the rising young Politburo magnate Nikita Khrushchev grumbled in his memoirs that Stalin had made his kebab cook into a bemedalled general. Khrush chev did not know that the so-called cook was in fact Stalin's probable half-brother and trusted NKVD officer. Sasha accom panied Stalin to most of the summit meetings of the war and it was General Egnatashvili who or ganised the Yalta conference for Stalin where he met Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Chur chill in early 1945.

Vaso Egnatashvili kept his key post in Georgia, but Beria had found a way to break Sasha's position: Stalin hated corruption all his life. While living in many villas and existing in a world of privilege, he was personally uninterested in money and highly austere in his personal arrangements. Yet General Egnatashvili presided over a huge machine of villas and farms and catering systems that produced enormous quantities of food and wine. Most of it went to waste and it seems almost certain that Stalin's chief of security General Vlasik and his senior colleague Egnatashvili were, if not selling this food, enjoying the luxuries at their disposal in wild parties, orgiastic womanising and general decadence.

At least twice, Stalin was presented with evidence of this and forgave Vlasik and Egna tashvili, but eventually Vlasik was dismissed and arrested. Sasha was never arrested. Beria wanted to destroy both brothers, but Stalin protected them. Sasha was left in charge of the Politburo sanatoria in the Crimea, where he died of natural causes in 1948.

On Stalin's death, Beria temporarily became strongman of the Soviet Union and immediately sacked and dismissed Vaso Egnatashvili, who languished in jail until Beria himself was arrested and shot three months later. He died in the Fifties. There are Egnatashvili descendants of Sasha and Vaso in Tbilisi, Moscow and the United States, all displaying the genial charm of their ancestors. Now, finally, the story of Stalin, his possible father Koba Egnatashvili, his putative half-brother the Rabbit, and their connection to President Putin can be revealed.

"Young Stalin" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood