When Stalin Robbed A Bank

The story of Stalin's other career
A police photograph of Joseph Stalin in 1902
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The two heavily armed carriages rattled slowly into the central square of Tiflis (now known as Tbilisi), the state capital of Georgia. Seated resplendent in one of the carriages was the State Bank’s cashier. The other carriage was packed with police and soldiers. There were also numerous outriders on horseback, their pistols cocked and ready.

It was shortly before 11 a.m. on 13 June 1907, and there was good reason for the security. The carriages were transporting an enormous sum of money, more than 1 million roubles (£7 million), to the new State Bank.

Unknown to anyone on board the carriages, the transportation of the money had been brought to the attention of Georgia’s criminal underworld. Now, one of its most audacious leaders, Josef Djugashvili – better known as Stalin – was about to pull off a dazzling heist. The money was urgently needed to finance the Bolsheviks’ political move-ment and Stalin had discussed the planned robbery with Lenin, who had given his approval.

Stalin knew it would require great daring to pull off such a coup. He also knew he would need the help of a dependable gang of fellow criminals. These were easy enough to find in Tiflis: Stalin had already been involved in previous robberies and had a trusty band of individ-uals whose services could be called upon.

Erivansky Square, Tblisi, the scene of the robbery.

The robbery was meticulously planned. Twenty heavily armed brigands loitered in the city’s central square, awaiting the arrival of the carriages. Lookouts were posted on all the street corners and roof-tops.

A further band was hiding inside one of the taverns close to the square. Stalin had also enlisted the services of two girls, trusted accom-plices, who took up position nearby. All were watching and waiting.

Stalin himself remained curiously aloof. In the aftermath of the heist, no one could say whether or not he was actively involved. One witness said that he threw the first bomb from a nearby rooftop, the signal for the attack to begin. Another said he had been merely the architect of the robbery. A third claimed he was at the railway station, preparing to make a quick getaway if things went wrong.

The carriages swung into the square exactly as expected. One of the gangsters slowly lowered his rolled newspaper as a sign to his fellow brigands. Seconds later, there was a blinding flash and deafening roar as Stalin’s band hurled their hand grenades at the horses.

The unfortunate animals were torn to pieces. So, too, were the policeman and soldiers. In a matter of seconds, the peaceful square was turned into a scene of carnage. The cobbles were splattered with blood, entrails and human limbs.

As the gangsters ran towards the carriages, one of the horses – maimed but not killed – reared up and began dragging the money-bearing cavalcade across the square. It picked up speed and there was a real danger it would get away.

One of Stalin’s men chased after the horse and frantically hurled another grenade under its belly. It exploded beneath the animal, with devastating effect. The horse was shredded and the damaged carriages were brought to a halt.

Before anyone could make sense of what was happening, the heist began in earnest. Stalin’s most faithful accomplice, a bandit named Captain Kamo, rode boldly into the square. The gangsters hurled the banknotes into his carriage and then Kamo took off at high speed. He disappeared before anyone was able to give chase.

The carnage caused by the attack was spectacular. Six people were killed by the grenades and gunfire and a further forty were wounded. Amazingly, none of the gangsters was killed.

The stolen money was taken to a safe house were it was quickly sewn into a mattress and later smuggled out of Georgia.

Neither Stalin nor any of the others involved in the heist were ever caught, even though scores of detectives were sent to investigate. It was the perfect robbery.

But if the crime itself had proved a spectacular success for Stalin, the aftermath was not so triumphant. The stolen roubles included a large number of 500-rouble notes whose serial numbers were known to the authorities. It proved impossible to cash them.

Nevertheless, the robbery was extraordinarily audacious and was to be the making of Stalin. He had proved himself a skilful organizer of men and utterly ruthless in action.

That ruthlessness would come to the fore when he took the reins of power in the Soviet Union. The six innocent civilians killed in Tiflis’s main square were not his last victims.

This excerpt is from Fascinating Footnotes by Giles Milton, published by John Murray.