Alexander Svanidze, an old school friend of Stalin’s and a fellow revolutionary, introduced the 28-year-old future dictator to his sister, Ekaterina Svanidze. Nicknamed Kato, Ekaterina was born in Georgia on 2 April 1885. The two fell for each other and decided to get married. Respecting her devoutness, Stalin put aside his atheism and the couple were married in an Orthodox church in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), capital of Georgia, in 1906.
Together they had a son, Yakov, born 18 March 1907, but with Stalin away so much, inciting unrest, his wife and son saw little of their wandering revolutionary. Certainly Stalin never did have that much time for his eldest son. (When Yakov was taken prisoner-of-war in 1941, Stalin refused a deal with the Germans that would have freed his son).
Meanwhile, Ekaterina Svanidze was struck by typhus and died, possibly in Stalin’s arms, on 5 December 1907. She was twenty-two.
‘My last warm feelings for humanity’
Her death greatly affected Stalin and he later claimed that, beside his mother, also called Ekaterina, Kato was the only women he had loved. At her funeral, which, again, Stalin allowed to take place in an Orthodox church, he reputedly said, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She’s died and with her have died my last warm feelings for humanity.’
He continued to ignore his son, who was brought up by the Svanidzes. Alexander Svanidze was, according to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter from his second marriage, a ‘splendid character’. But it didn’t save him.
Stalin ordered the arrest and execution of much of Kato’s family, including, in 1937, her brother. Alexander Svanidze bravely refused to confess to the trumped-up charges levelled against him. But as Svetlana described it, ‘he paid for his courage and dignity and restraint’ and was shot in February 1941. ‘Such aristocratic pride,’ scoffed Stalin. Svanidze’s wife and sister also fell victim.
Svanidze’s son, the oddly named Johnreed, after John Reed, the American author of Ten Days That Shook the World describing the October Revolution, disowned his father as an ‘enemy of the people’ but was himself later arrested and sent to the gulag. He was, in Svetlana’s words, ‘hurled from the summit of luxury to the very bottom… imprisoned with common criminals.’ He was eventually released but only after Stalin’s death in March 1953.