Text of joint declaration of inter-Korean summit

Here is the first (and unofficial) translation of the joint declaration signed by Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in. This is quite clearly an initiative taken by the two parts of Korea without outside interference – as has been the long-standing policy in the north. Indeed, it embodies all of the principles for reunification already stated by Kim Il Sung in 1972: a peaceful process; a bicameral system that accepts the other’s development; to be undertaken by Korea without outside interference. Of course, the USA now faces the embarrassing question as to what its occupying forces are doing in the south. Would they take the opportunity to invade the north? Hardly, since China has recently made it clear that it stands close by the DPRK.

Full text:

Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula

During this momentous period of historical transformation on the Korean Peninsula, reflecting the enduring aspiration of the Korean people for peace, prosperity and unification, President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea held an Inter-Korean Summit Meeting at the ‘Peace House’ at Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.

The two leaders solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.

The two leaders, sharing the firm commitment to bring a swift end to the Cold War relic of longstanding division and confrontation, to boldly approach a new era of national reconciliation, peace and prosperity, and to improve and cultivate inter-Korean relations in a more active manner, declared at this historic site of Panmunjom as follows:

1. South and North Korea will reconnect the blood relations of the people and bring forward the future of co-prosperity and unification led by Koreans by facilitating comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations. Improving and cultivating inter-Korean relations is the prevalent desire of the whole nation and the urgent calling of the times that cannot be held back any further.

① South and North Korea affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord and agreed to bring forth the watershed moment for the improvement of inter-Korean relations by fully implementing all existing agreements and declarations adopted between the two sides thus far.

② South and North Korea agreed to hold dialogue and negotiations in various fields including at high level, and to take active measures for the implementation of the agreements reached at the Summit.

③ South and North Korea agreed to establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides in the Gaesong region in order to facilitate close consultation between the authorities as well as smooth exchanges and cooperation between the peoples.

④ South and North Korea agreed to encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels in order to rejuvenate the sense of national reconciliation and unity. Between South and North, the two sides will encourage the atmosphere of amity and cooperation by actively staging various joint events on the dates that hold special meaning for both South and North Korea, such as June 15, in which participants from all levels, including central and local governments, parliaments, political parties, and civil organisations, will be involved. On the international front, the two sides agreed to demonstrate their collective wisdom, talents, and solidarity by jointly participating in international sports events such as the 2018 Asian Games.

⑤ South and North Korea agreed to endeavour to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation, and to convene the Inter-Korean Red Cross Meeting to discuss and solve various issues including the reunion of separated families. In this vein, South and North Korea agreed to proceed with reunion programs for the separated families on the occasion of the National Liberation Day of August 15 this year.

⑥ South and North Korea agreed to actively implement the projects previously agreed in the 2007 October 4 Declaration, in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation. As a first step, the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilisation.

2. South and North Korea will make joint efforts to alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula. Alleviating the military tension and eliminating the danger of war is a highly significant challenge directly linked to the fate of the Korean people and also a vital task in guaranteeing their peaceful and stable lives.

① South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict. In this vein, the two sides agreed to transform the demilitarised zone into a peace zone in a genuine sense by ceasing as of May 1 this year all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line.

② South and North Korea agreed to devise a practical scheme to turn the areas around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea into a maritime peace zone in order to prevent accidental military clashes and guarantee safe fishing activities.

③ South and North Korea agreed to take various military measures to ensure active mutual cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts. The two sides agreed to hold frequent meetings between military authorities, including the Defence Ministers Meeting, in order to immediately discuss and solve military issues that arise between them. In this regard, the two sides agreed to first convene military talks at the rank of general in May.

3. South and North Korea will actively cooperate to establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Bringing an end to the current unnatural state of armistice and establishing a robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is a historical mission that must not be delayed any further.

① South and North Korea reaffirmed the Non-Aggression Agreement that precludes the use of force in any form against each other, and agreed to strictly adhere to this Agreement.

② South and North Korea agreed to carry out disarmament in a phased manner, as military tension is alleviated and substantial progress is made in military confidence-building.

③ During this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice, South and North Korea agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.

④ South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard. South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

The two leaders agreed, through regular meetings and direct telephone conversations, to hold frequent and candid discussions on issues vital to the nation, to strengthen mutual trust and to jointly endeavour to strengthen the positive momentum towards continuous advancement of inter-Korean relations as well as peace, prosperity and unification of the Korean Peninsula.

In this context, President Moon Jae-in agreed to visit Pyongyang this fall.

April 27, 2018

Done in Panmunjeom

Moon Jae-in Kim Jong Un

President Chairman

Republic of Korea State Affairs Commission

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

The Origins of the Belt and Road Initiative

A mountain cannot turn, but a road can (shan bu zhuan lu zhuan).

So goes an old Chinese saying.

And another: A friend made is a road paved; an enemy created is a wall built (jiaoge pengyou duo tiao lu, shuge diren duo du qiang)

I have begun with these sayings, since they indicate how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) arises from Chinese tradition and culture. But this is not all, for it also emerges from Chinese socialism. Both are relevant in a creative interaction.

Before explaining, it is worth noting how others perceive the BRI. As the worldwide project became evident and as it was officially launched in 2016, some began deploying old categories, derived from Europe. ‘Creditor colonialism’ is one, first coined in India, where British colonialism has left a deep and lasting impression. That is, a piece of infrastructure is built in a country, with a long-term debt incurred. More generally, some have suggested that the Belt and Road Initiative is just another form of colonialism per se, in which China is seeking to influence and dominate more and more places throughout the world. On this matter, it is worth recalling an old (Danish) saying: a thief always thinks everyone else is a thief. In other words, if one comes from a background of international colonialism, then one views the activities of others in the same light.

All of this is quite unhelpful, so let us try another angle or two. The first concerns Chinese tradition and culture, which can be somewhat two-edged. The key example concerns the expeditions of the mariner, Zheng He, in the fifteenth century. His fleets set out with ships equipped to use the monsoonal winds to their advantage, voyaging to all corners of the China seas, if not further afield. Importantly, his ships were not festooned with guns – as European ships were not so long afterwards – but with treasure. The idea was to give this treasure as gifts to all that he would meet. On a more negative side, this approach entails an assumption that one’s own culture is superior. Thus, gifts for those less advanced was the best approach. On the positive side, it meant that he came offering gifts, not pointing guns. Zheng He’s voyages ended too soon, subject to the vagaries of the court in Beijing, and not long afterwards Dutch ships would appear in China’s part of world, full of cannon and the search for financial gain in areas they could colonise.

What has all this got to with roads and belts? Let us go further, recalling the sayings I quoted earlier. A road turns, it can find a way through. It enables one to meet and make friends, so much so that a new friend is like a paved road. In China, where I spend a good deal of my time, the poverty alleviation campaign – focused on lifting the last 40 million people (850 million so far since 1978) – has as one of its main concentrations the building of road and rail to remote areas. A significant reason for poverty is that some people live in inaccessible areas. These areas may be mountainous, they may be distant from regional centres. Build a good road, a major bridge, a high-speed rail link, and one finds access to the wider world and the opportunities in provides.

Let me give one example. Recently, I travelled from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the far south of China, to Beijing. The whole distance is 2600 kilometres. Although I have a love for older and slower trains, I took the high-speed rail line (gaotie). It travels at 310 km per hour in full flight. Through Yunnan and the neighbouring Guizhou province, it stopped at a number of regional stations, in the mountains and remoter areas. But once it joined the trunk line, it stopped at only provincial capitals. The whole journey took twelve hours, from the far south to Beijing, in the north. The train was full all the way. This experience can be replicated again and again throughout China, whether it is a winding mountain road to remote areas, or yet another rail link across the breadth of the country.

So much for roads (and rail), but what about belts? The crucial character for ‘belt’ is dai (带). This character has a rich semantic field indeed. Its basic sense is a belt or girdle, but it also connotes a range of meanings: a zone or area, and, as a verb, to take or bring, to bear or have something attached, to lead or teach, to look after and nurture, if not also to spur on. When this character is used, it invokes this rich range of meanings. Perhaps I can put it this way: when a lover – short-term or life-long – wishes to give an appropriate gift, he or she gives a belt. Why? A belt means intimacy, closeness and commitment.

One Belt, One Road, or, the Belt and Road Initiative, has a significant pedigree in Chinese tradition.

What about the Marxist tradition, especially as this has become interwoven with, and indeed transformed, Chinese culture? To understand this situation, we need to go back to none other than Stalin. There is a crucial phase in his thought (and consequent practice) that emerges especially in the turbulent and creative 1930s. This was the time when the ‘positive policy’ – or as some have called it, the ‘affirmative action’ program – in relation to minorities was first developed. They called them ‘nationalities’, a term I prefer (these days some like to call them ‘ethnic minorities’, but this designation has a host of problems). Given that the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, it had many nationalities. Stalin sought to implement an old Bolshevik program: fostering the languages, cultures, education, political leadership and economic incentives of the many nationalities in the Soviet Union. It became the first and most advanced ‘affirmative action’ program in the world.

At a crucial moment, Stalin made a breakthrough: the model of ‘affirmative action’ within the Soviet Union also applied to colonised peoples throughout the world. In some respects, he argues, the Russian Revolution itself was an anti-colonial act, a freeing of a whole range of peoples from subservience to the colonial powers of Western Europe. But it also meant that the Soviet Union – as a ‘beacon’ and a ‘torch’ – would light the way to liberation from colonialism throughout the world. With this breakthrough, the Soviet Union began to foster anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. We find this taking place in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In this phase, the project entailed arms (think of the Kalashnikov), education, logistics, education, funds and more.

Two implications follow. First, this support was the transformation of the global communist revolution into a new phase, focusing on the peripheries of the ‘global world order’ rather than its centre, as had first been imagined. Second, this focus led to one of the greatest transformations of the twentieth century, apart from the Russian Revolution itself: the success of one anti-colonial struggle after another, the vast majority of them supported by the Soviet Union (although it also generated tensions between socialist states, with some – like Cuba – at times criticising Soviet involvement in Latin America). By the 1970s, the world did not look the same anymore.

The question remains: what has all this got to do with China?

In many respects, the Belt and Road Initiative is fostering a new phase of the anti-colonial struggle. This may seem like a surprising claim, so let me explain: in the wake of the twentieth-century’s success in throwing off the old colonial yoke, a new yoke was found. This involved ‘foreign aid’, rendering many of the former colonies financially dependent of the powers from whom they received this ‘aid’. The process was streamlined and globalised through organisations such as the World Bank, which would give loans with heavy conditions attached – all the way from neo-liberal economic and social ‘reforms’ to implicitly forcing ‘regime change’. Essentially, these loans comprised another form of bribery: cash handed over to a local ruling class to as to keep them compliant in the global hierarchy. In other words, it was not the exception but the rule that substantial wads of cash ended up in the pockets of the local ruling class. What better way to keep them on side?

As a result, nothing much was built, no infrastructure – crucial for any country’s economy and society – established. As someone from Romania put it to me: in rich countries, corruption happens, but schools, roads, rail and so on still get built; in poor countries, corruption happens and nothing is built.

This is where the Belt and Road Initiative offers a very different model, developed out of Chinese experience. Any country with an infrastructural need is potentially eligible. In Africa, Latin America, the Pacific, Asia, project after project is being built by Chinese companies. So also in countries regarded as financial pariahs within Europe, such as Greece or Serbia or Hungary. Even in Greenland, a Chinese company is in the final round of negotiations to build a new airport. Does China have an agenda? Of course, not least of which is enabling a shift from the ‘global world order’ that has dominated since the end of the Second World War. They prefer to call it a ‘global village’, without demanding changes to the internal structures of governance, economy and society. Why? The Chinese are keen indeed on sovereignty. In the same way that they make sure no other country interferes with their internal affairs, so also do they relate with other countries.

With all this focus on infrastructure, which neo-liberal economics typically finds a waste of money (as Marx already pointed in the third volume of Capital, why build something when you can speculate, making money form money?), China’s know-how has and continues to leap ahead. The signature example is high-speed trains. Initially, the Chinese drew on German and French expertise in order to build the ‘Harmony’ series of trains. But as they laid out thousands upon thousands of kilometres of track through deserts and soaring mountain ranges, and as they built hundreds and hundreds of trains, they developed the technology beyond what is found elsewhere. The new Fuxian train is the result, with longer life in its crucial parts, higher speed, smoother running and greater comfort. It travels the 2100 kilometres from Beijing to Guangzhou in eight hours. Crucially, the train was completely designed and constructed in China. This example could be replicated again and again. So when a Chinese company bids for an international infrastructure project, it is offering not cheap labour but the highest quality product.

To wrap up: I began with two Chinese sayings, so let me finish with another: Do not be afraid of a long road, but be afraid only of a shortage of aspiration (bupa luchang zhipa zhiduan).

A Dialectical Leap?

Is China undergoing a historical dialectical leap?

This question has been at the forefront my thoughts of late, for reasons I am still formulating. It comes from the experience, each time I arrive in China, of stepping into a future society. I have written of that feeling elsewhere, so here I want to analyse the question of the leap itself.

A common perception among many Chinese is that China needs to ‘catch up’ to other countries deemed more ‘advanced’. It matters little what the catching up might mean, whether technology, medicine, social security, scholarship, social morality and so on. The model may be the United States (for reasons that puzzle me), Germany, Scandinavia or even – believe it or not – Australia. True, the perception is less common today, but it used to be pervasive not so many years ago.

But as more and more Chinese go overseas, for travel, work or study, they are beginning to experience a dislocation. If it is one of countries I have mentioned, the bewilderment is due to the sense that the country they perceived as ‘advanced’ has in many respects slipped ‘behind’. Many of the daily realities to which they have become accustomed in China simply do not exist in such places, or if they do, they are piecemeal and disorganised.

As for my own experience, it is quite astonishing to find that so much has changed, so much has become the new normal, so much creativity has burst forth. The way I am beginning to describe it is in terms of a dialectical leap.

Let me make a few philosophical points. The initial idea of the ‘leap’ comes Lenin’s notebooks on Hegel (1914-1915). In response to the crisis of the Second International at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Berne, Switzerland, to rediscover Marx’s dialectic. And where did he go? To Hegel! Lenin dug deep into Hegel’s The Science of Logic. He was wary at first, anticipating an idealist at work, where one would find theology at every turn. Instead, he found a materialist at the core, one that advocated a dialectic of ruptures, breaks and leaps. At one point, Lenin exclaims in his marginal notes: ‘Leaps! Breaks in gradualness. Leaps! Leaps’.

Mao Zedong would take up Hegel’s notes later, especially in developing his unique and creative intersection of Marxism and Chinese dialectics on his lectures in Yan’an in 1937, but especially in the essay drawn from the lectures, ‘On Contradiction’. In his own way, Mao saw what Lenin saw: the crucial role of the dialectical leap (bianzhengfa feiyue).

Now. both Lenin and Mao had in their sights a communist revolution, which is indeed such a leap. But can this central philosophical idea be applied to China today, especially since the ‘reform and opening up’ is being described as China’s second revolution? (I leave aside the point that after a communist revolution, reform is necessary, but always in light of revolution.)

Perhaps history can help us. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the German states were in many respects the most backward in Europe – economically, politically and culturally. It was precisely in this context that Marx and Engels grew up and developed what became Marxism. But what happened in the German states? Did they ‘catch up’ to the more ‘advanced’ states such as France, England and the Netherlands? Not at all, it was precisely the unique backwardness of the German states that enabled a dialectical leap. Germany became and remains the economic, political and, in many respects, intellectual powerhouse of Europe.

My sense is that an analogous process is happening in China today. Of course, the specificities of each situation are different, but my aim to discern a deeper pattern based on Marxist analysis. It seems to me that the dialectical leap is underway as I write. And this is not some leap into a capitalist system, with associated patterns of politics and culture. Not at all, for becoming a ‘strong modern socialist country’ by 2050 requires a dialectical leap of the sort happening now.

The big lie of ‘intellectual property theft’

One of the big lies bandied about these days is that China has been engaged in systemic and substantial ‘intellectual property theft’. Say it often enough and people will believe it – as Goebbels pointed out many years ago.

I leave aside the obvious points: that this is the usual practice of all big business and commercial research; that the United States is the past master at such practices, let alone Europe – most of their breakthroughs in the past were by foreigners, who willingly or willingly gave up these breakthroughs (think of Einstein, for example); that the idea of knowledge that benefits human beings is ‘private property’ is the most perverse idea of all.

Instead, I am interested in the rather obvious Orientalism of this accusation. To wit, China and its people – so the accusation would have us believe – do not have the wherewithal to make their own discoveries. For some, they are clearly ‘stupid people’ who have to steal other people’s ideas.

Nice one.

I cannot help wondering whether this accusation applies to the historical discoveries of paper, printing press, compass and gunpowder, which Europe ‘appropriated’ late in the piece.

Or whether it applies to the more than 1.3 million patents lodged by Chinese inventors in 2017, more than the Unites States, Europe, Japan and South Korea combined.

Or indeed to recent breakthroughs, such as the world’s first successful sending of a quantum message into space and the first successful 5G phone call.

Or to the fact that coming to China now feels like stepping into the future, where so much is the reality of an everyday life that is yet to be found elsewhere.

Obviously, socialists with Chinese characteristics must have ‘stolen’ such ideas from the future, or perhaps from aliens.

China’s ban on taking other people’s garbage

Recently, Australia’s ‘recycling’ industry was thrown into crisis. Why? It turns out that it was simply shipping recyclables and garbage to places like China. The stuff that people carefully separated in garbage and recycling bins was not being processed in Australia, but placed in containers and shipped away. Turns out Australia is by no means the only culprit in this practice. While China has developed impressive recycling technology, it has also decided that it will no longer be the world’s rubbish dump. The following article from Zhang Ming, head of mission to the EU, explains why. It originally comes from the the Euractiv website.

Dumping garbage overseas is not the right way to go

During the recent meeting of the World Trade Organisation Council for Trade in Goods, some representatives raised concerns about China’s ban on “foreign garbage” import. Some even asked China to halt its implementation. Zhang Ming explains China’s position.

Zhang Ming is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Head of Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union.

As Chinese Ambassador to the EU, while quite surprised by such “concerns”, I would like to share my views on why China made such a decision and why China will not overturn the ban.

China is a Party to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal adopted in 1989. The Convention provides for and fully recognizes the right of its Parties to prohibit the import of hazardous wastes or other wastes.

China started importing solid wastes in the 1980s, whose annual volume surged from 4.5 million tons to 45 million tons in the past 20 years. A great amount of prohibited wastes, or “foreign garbage” as is often called, were mixed up in the imports, causing great harm to China’s environment and threatening public health. The widely-watched documentary “Plastic China” released in 2015 well captures the problem.

To address the challenge, China decided to ban foreign garbage and to reform the management system of solid wastes import. According to international law, China has the legitimate right to do so.

This is also what we must do to improve our environment and protect our people’s health, as a crucial part of our new development philosophy. The decision is widely welcomed and applauded by the Chinese people.

Before announcing the ban, China had full communication with other parties. It was half a year before the ban was actually put in place that we notified the WTO of the change. Issues arising in the course of implementation have been well addressed through timely coordination.

The Basel Convention stipulates that Parties have an obligation to minimize the quantities that are transported and to treat and dispose of wastes as close as possible to their place of generation. In other words, it is the due responsibility of Parties to do their best to reduce and take care of their own wastes.

Only when this principle is well appreciated can we join forces more effectively to promote green, low-carbon and circular development globally, and to make our planet a cleaner and better place.

Interestingly, those who have expressed “concerns” are all from developed countries. For a long time, well-off and well-equipped developed countries have been dumping their garbage to developing countries. This phenomenon should not be overlooked. It is more of a moral issue that relates to the future of mankind than of a trade issue.

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Do not do onto others what you do not want others to do onto you.” A famous quote from the Bible goes like this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Islam belief has it that “none of you have faith until he loves for the people what he loves for himself”. No matter in which civilisation, it is morally unacceptable to dump trash in others’ backyard. Moreover, as we already live in a global village, troubles shifted to your neighbour will get back to you sooner or later.

For those garbage exporters, it is inadvisable to cry out loud and ask for too much from others, like spoiled children giving little heed to others’ interests. Rather, they should first examine what is going wrong on their part and fulfil their responsibilities.

Developed countries need to rely on their own efforts to address excess waste and endeavour to develop a circular economy. Then they could see what they can do to help developing countries tackle their waste challenge. This is the right way to go.

Many still remember the public health disaster in West Africa in 2006 caused by toxic waste shipped from other countries. The tragedy should have prompted garbage exporters to stop doing the wrong thing. Unfortunately, little has changed ever since.

Mr Erik Solheim, the head of the UN Environment Programme, said “We should see the Chinese decision as a great service to the Chinese people and a wake-up call to the rest of the world”. Now, it is high time that developed nations re-thought their use of plastics and not simply sought alternative foreign dumping grounds.

We could already see encouraging changes in China and elsewhere in the world. The Chinese people are more aware of the necessity of waste separation and sorting and are following more stringent rules on waste management and recycling.

Some American companies are setting higher and more sophisticated standards for waste sorting, and have introduced artificial intelligence to handle wastes. The EU has adopted the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics as part of the transition to a more circular economy and to enhance the Union’s overall capacity for waste disposal.

If China’s ban could trigger other countries to develop more advanced technologies out of a greater sense of urgency and to better serve their own people with a stronger sense of responsibility, China must, indeed, be doing a good deed.

Stalin’s Theological Education

I had a brief paragraph in my Stalin book on his theological education, but did not have the opportunity to develop that material further. Here is a much fuller analysis of that crucial time:

What did Stalin have in common with communists such as Friedrich Engels and Kim Il Sung, let alone Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre or indeed Terry Eagleton? He made the transition from a youthful religious faith to Marxism. Crucially, none of them gave up their interest in matters theological. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.

However, Stalin did have an experience unique to a world communist leader: he studied theology for five years (1894-1899) at the Tiflis (Tbilisi in Georgian) Spiritual Seminary, a training college for priests in the Russian Orthodox Church. The college was located in the historical capital of Georgia,[1] which was also – since the early nineteenth century – the centre of Russian power in the Caucasus and its main gateway into the Near East and Anatolia. As one of the highest educational institutions in Georgia – alongside the more “secular” gymnasia – the college took in students mostly of Georgian background from across class backgrounds, from sons of church leaders to poor students needing scholarships. The aim was to take the best and brightest young men and train them for the priesthood, university study and even the civil service – the roles were closely connected.

The college had its negative and positive aspects, at least from the perspective of the students. On the negative side, this meant speaking and writing only in Russian, even in private, and not in the native Georgian of so many of the students – although by 1895 some concession was made, with courses in Georgian literature and history. The church hierarchy in the seminary was somewhat reactionary, seeking to instil reverence for the tsar and God, in equal measure. Discipline was tight, with the whole day carefully organised: bells rung for waking, prayers, meals, classes and lights out.[2] Outside excursions were limited, random checks were made to ensure the teenage boys were not engaged in any nefarious activities,[3] and reading was heavily censored. Textbooks and the Bible were standard fare, the students wore cassocks and the weekends were given over to prayer and liturgy in the college chapel. On the positive side, the young man with the biblical name of Joseph (given to him at his baptism by his godfather, Father Mikhail Tsikhitatrishvili (Kun 2003, 8)) experienced – for the era – 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.

But before we consider in a little more detail what he studied and how he fared, let us backtrack for a moment, for this was not Stalin’s first encounter with a church institution. Before he arrived at the theological college, Stalin had already spent six years, from 1888 to 1894, at the parish school of his home town, Gori. This was a Russian language school, normally taking seven years,[4] with four basic and three preliminary grades. The three grades were themselves divided into lower, medium and upper, where Russian was the focus. Kun (2003, 13) observes that the school had “surprisingly well trained pedagogues” – surprising, perhaps, given that Gori was not a large centre. They were nearly all tertiary trained, whether in university or theological college, and languages included – apart from Russian – Church Slavonic and Greek.

Stalin may have started his studies at the Gori Church School slightly later than other children who had been given the opportunity – due to illness and the family’s inability to pay the fees (he required initially a scholarship and later a family friend paid his fees)[5] – but the experience not only provided him with his social network, but also set him on the path to the priesthood. This calling was the fervent wish of his (literate) mother, who had prayed and cared for her only son (two earlier sons had died) through a range of childhood mishaps and diseases, including scarlet fever and smallpox. Her now estranged husband was not so keen on the idea and on one occasion managed to get the young Stalin away from school for a while (1890) to work as an apprentice at the same shoe factory in Tiflis where he was employed. Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Stalin did well indeed at the Gori Church School. The curriculum was notably theological, with sacred history, Orthodox catechism, liturgical exegesis and ecclesiastical Typtikon, Greek, Russian and Church Slavonic, Georgian, geography, arithmetic, handwriting and liturgical chant (Khlevniuk 2015, 14). The school reports at the end of his time in Gori give him an “excellent” for conduct and the top marks of “excellent” (5) for all subjects, except Greek and arithmetic, for which he received “very good” (4). He was clearly an “outstanding pupil” (Kun 2003, 14), at the top of his final year. He also impressed with his devoutness, attending all church services, reading the liturgy and leading the choir singing. A fellow student recalled many years later: “I remember that he not only performed the religious rites but also always reminded us of their significance” (Service 2004, 28). The school awarded him a copy of the biblical Book of Psalms, with the inscription: “To Iosif Jughashvili … for excellent progress, behavior and excellent recitation of the Psalter” (Kotkin 2014, 20). As a result, the teaching staff at the school recommended – unanimously – that he take up further studies at the theological college in Tiflis, subject to success in the entrance examination.

At the age of 15, in September 1894, Stalin arrived in the Georgian capital to begin the next stage of his study. Let us return to that institution and see what he and his fellow students studied. The earlier years included both “secular” and theological subjects: Russian philology and literature; secular history; mathematics; Latin; Greek; Church Slavonic singing; Georgian Imeretian singing; biblical studies. By the final years, the subjects became more theological: ecclesiastical history; liturgics; homiletics; comparative theology; moral theology; practical pastoral work; didactics; church history; church singing; various aspects of biblical studies. Some subjects may have changed, but throughout the Bible and church singing were constants. The young Stalin was noted by his teachers for his phenomenal memory, subtle intellect and voracious reading (albeit not always of the proscribed variety). His marks varied over the years, ranging from high to low, especially from the middle years onwards when he became more involved with revolutionary groups. Thus, he may have risen to fifth in a class of twenty-nine in his second year, after coming eighth in his first year (with top marks in all subjects barring Greek), but by the fifth year he had slipped to twentieth out of twenty-three. We must remember that Stalin was no longer in the local school in Gori, where he was the top student, but now among others who had also been accustomed to being the brightest. They all struggled to adjust to the tough requirements and the reality of being amongst others with comparable intellectual ability. The fact that he was increasingly engaged in extra-curricular activities did not help his marks, but this also was not unusual for students.

The “copy of the final certificate” – which Stalin requested four months after he left the college – indicates that Stalin had overall performed quite well:

Iosif Dzhugashvili, student at the Tiflis Theological Seminary, the son of Vissarion, a peasant living in the town of Gori in the province of Tiflis, who was born on the sixth day of December in the year 1878, having completed the course of studies at the Gori Church School was admitted to the Tiflis Theological Seminary in the month of September 1894. He studied at the aforesaid institution until the twenty-ninth day of May 1899, and in addition to excellent conduct (5) he achieved the following results:

Exegesis of the Holy Script – very good (4)

History of the Bible – very good (4)

Ecclesiastical history – good (3)

Homiletics – good (3)


Russian literature – very good (4)

History of Russian literature – very good (4)

Universal secular history – very good (4)

Russian secular history – very good (4)

Algebra – very good (4)

Geometry – very good (4)

Easter liturgy – very good (4)

Physics – very good (4)

Logic – outstanding (5)

Psychology – very good (4)

Ecclesiastical Georgian subjects – very good (4)

Greek language – very good (4)

Latin language – not studied

Ecclesiastical singing: Slavic – outstanding (5)

in Georgian language – very good (4).[6]

While not at the peak of academic achievements, these results are hardly cause for shame. More significantly for my purposes, Stalin had become thoroughly versed in theological matters. He knew the history of the church back to front; he could sing very well indeed (his tenor was a core of the chapel choir); he read Greek; and he knew intimately how the church itself worked. Above all, he knew the intricacies of theology and the Bible. More than a decade of training in such subjects, let alone periods of diligent study and achievement, were bound to leave their impression on a young man.

At the same time, the college was also one of Georgia’s prime sources for producing revolutionaries of various stripes, albeit unwittingly. The enforced Russification could be expected to lead to Georgian nationalist protests, but the young sons of Georgia were inescapably drawn to radical currents that would challenge not only Russian dominance but traditional Georgian culture and politics. Students were regularly expelled for “subversive” activities, such as radical study circles, engagement outside with revolutionary groups, and direct challenges to the college’s structures. For example, between 1874 and 1878, 83 students were expelled. After a peak of unrest in 1885, the college was closed for a while, so as to “stabilize” the situation. Biographers note that Stalin himself received increasing punishments for “misconduct” as his years in the college progressed. In the first year, he was punished for only three minor misdemeanours, but by the last year he was cited for eleven breaches of a somewhat serious nature, including failure to attend prayers, ignoring and being rude to teachers, possession of proscribed literature and reading revolutionary material to other students late at night – with the obligatory punishments of solitary confinement and even a month (in early 1899) when he was forbidden to leave the college. Although college authorities seem to have missed his engagements with Marxist cells outside the college walls, especially in a small apartment rented through contributions by the wealthier students, one fact is often passed over by biographers: none of these activities were enough to expel Stalin from the college, unlike many others.[7] Was he less of a radical than those who were expelled? Did he manage to conceal his activities more successfully? I suggest the type of behaviour Stalin exhibited was not far from what one might expect from a teenage boy at a strict theological college in the late nineteenth century. Strictness was the norm, with liberal doses of corporal punishment and confinement.[8] But so was student rebelliousness. The teaching staff, for all their failings, were quite familiar with the antics of young men like Stalin, especially from a cultural background in which males especially were encouraged to express their independence in overt ways.

Stalin was not expelled: he left the seminary shortly before sitting for the final examinations in May of 1899, which would have qualified him to become a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, if not to proceed to university. While the “final certificate” I quoted earlier includes a short decree to the effect that he left for “reasons unknown,” biographers remain puzzled as to why he did so. The suggestions are many: some follow Stalin’s own suggestion that he was “kicked out” because of revolutionary activity (Khlevniuk 2015, 20); his mother said on one occasion that she had kept him home for medical reasons, worn out as he was from his studies (Kun 2003, 35); others suggest it was because he was unable to afford the fees, or that the excuse of fees was used by the college to get rid of a troublesome student (Kotkin 2014, 36); or – more outlandishly – that he had become the father of a child (Kotkin 2014, 36).

By contrast, a hint may be found in the patience of the college rectorate, especially in light of Stalin’s generally good results. They suggested that he take some time away, perhaps in a temporary church post or in a lower level teaching position. Notably, they did not pursue him for the outstanding fees, an astronomical amount of more than 600 roubles, for not continuing to work in the church or at least become a teacher. The leaders may well have been in a similar position at some time themselves, for it would not be the first occasion that a rebellious young man had made his way to the priesthood and church leadership – in fact, it was often seen as a prerequisite for the priesthood. Time would shape him, they felt. Stalin was not to be swayed. He did not return to the college after the 1899 Easter break at home in Gori, unable for personal reasons to take the final step and sit the examinations. In the end, the reason seems to have been existential: the life of a priest was not for him, so he chose to leave. A big decision, obviously, but it would not be the first time someone training for the church has decided to leave for another life. For anyone who has experienced such a profound shift, the decision is life-changing, but also liberating.

To the end of her life in 1937, Stalin’s devout mother – Ekatarine (Ketevan) Geladze – lamented the fact that Stalin had not become a priest, if not rising higher in the church hierarchy. No matter whether he was the preeminent leader of the USSR, the largest country in the world; no matter that he had driven through the program of the socialist offensive (the twin project of industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation) that made the Soviet Union a global superpower; no matter that he lived in the Kremlin, of all places – he had not seen through the theological studies for which she had worked so hard. As Svetlana Allilueva, Stalin’s daughter recalled:

She was very devout and dreamt that her son would become a priest. She remained religious until her last days and when father visited her not long before her death she told him: “It’s a shame that you didn’t become a priest” … He repeated these words of hers with delight; he liked her scorn for all he had achieved, for the earthly glory, for all the fuss (Suny 1991, 51).

After all, the highest calling in life for a young man was to be a priest in the church.


Khlevniuk, Oleg. 2015. Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator. Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kotkin, Stephen. 2014. Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928. New York: Penguin.

Kun, Miklós. 2003. Stalin: An Unknown Portrait. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. 1988. The Mind of Stalin: A Psychoanalytic Study. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

Service, Robert. 2004. Stalin: A Biography. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Shakhireva, Stephanie. 2007. ‘Swaddled Nation: Modern Mother Russia and a Psychohistorical Reassessment of Stalin’. Journal of Psychohistory 35 (1):34-60.

Stalin, I. V. 1931 [1954]. ‘Talk with the German Author Emil Ludwig, December 13, 1931’. In Works, Vol. 13, 106-25. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. 1991. ‘Beyond Psychohistory: The Young Stalin in Georgia’. Slavic Review 50 (1):48-58.

Tucker, Robert. 1973. Stalin as Revolutionary 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality. New York: Norton.


[1] Given its position between “west” and “east,” it was culturally extremely diverse, with Georgians, Russian, Armenians, Tatars, Persians, Turks and Germans all represented in significant numbers.

[2] As one of Stalin’s classmates recalled: “We were brought to a four-story building and put in huge dormitory rooms with 20–30 people each … Life in the theological seminary was repetitious and monotonous. We arose at seven in the morning. First, we were forced to pray, then we had tea, and after the bell we went to class … Classes continued, with breaks, until two o’clock. At three we had supper. At five there was roll call, after which we were not allowed to leave the building. We felt as if we were in prison. We were again taken to vespers, and at eight we had tea, and then each class went to its own room to do assignments, and at ten it was lights out, sleep” (quoted in Khlevniuk 2015, 16).

[3] In an intriguing interview with Emil Ludwig in 1931, Stalin recalled: “At nine o’clock the bell rings for morning tea, we go to the dining-room, and when we return to our rooms we find that meantime a search has been made and all our chests have been ransacked” (Stalin 1931 [1954], 116).

[4] Stalin had skipped the preliminary year due to his prior study of Russian.

[5] The family was poor enough to require assistance for fees, but not in abject poverty. Until the breakdown in the marriage of his parents, the family was in many respects quite average for that time and place: “Stalin’s childhood and adolescence seem to have been utterly typical of the environment from which he came – the world of poor, but not destitute, craftsmen and shopkeepers in a small town at the outskirts of the empire” (Khlevniuk 2015, 13). His advantage was being a single child reaching adulthood and a devoted and determined mother.

[6] The statement continues: “In keeping with the decree passed on May 29, 1899 by the pedagogical assembly of the Seminary’s governors, acknowledged by His Eminence Archbishop Flavialos, the Exarch of Georgia, the named Iosif Dzhugashvili has been expelled from the Tiflis Theological Seminary. It has been taken into account that he had accomplished the fourth grade and had begun the fifth. Due to his expulsion he is not entitled to the privileges enjoyed by those students who have completed their studies at the Seminary. […] If, on the other hand, he were to be conscripted as a soldier he would be entitled to the privileges enjoyed by the students of educational institutions of the first category. To certify this we have issued this document for the aforesaid Dzhugashvili, complete with the proper signatures and with the seal of the council, in the name of the council of the Tiflis Theological Seminary. The city of Tiflis, June 1899. October 2. Archemandrite Germogen, Rector. Dmitry, ordained monk, supervisor at the Seminary. The members of the council. The secretary of the council” (quoted in Kun 2003, 31-32).

[7] Khlevniuk (2015, 20) twists and turns to claim that Stalin was expelled, in some form of mutual consent: the college was keen to get rid of a rebel, but Stalin jumped before he was pushed. In doing so, Khlevniuk must skip by the details of the “final certificate” (see above).

[8] Obviously, I resist efforts at “psychohistory,” seeking to espy the making of a tyrant in the experiences of the young Stalin – whether a strict regime at the theological college or indeed corporal punishment at the hands of his parents (which was actually the norm in so many places at the time). Tucker (1973) is perhaps the most notable example of such psychohistory, but others follow a similar line (Rancour-Laferriere 1988, Kun 2003, Shakhireva 2007). The warnings of Suny (1991) against this approach are still relevant. And Stalin’s later observation to Emil Ludwig should be given its due: “My parents were uneducated, but they did not treat me badly by any means” (Stalin 1931 [1954], 115).