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).