His father was a skilled shoemaker who set up home in the town of Gori, in central Georgia, with his wife Keke. Gori was a poor town where pastimes included ritualized gang warfare. It was also a time of national controversy as proud Georgians became increasingly angry at the attempts by Russian authorities to impose the Russian language, culture and values on the populace.
Having lost two children already Keke regarded herself as blessed when Josef was born – and survived several potentially fatal illnesses and accidents. She was determined that her son Josef would be well educated and devote himself to God. As the first step she somehow managed to enroll him in a special local school reserved for the children of priests. Young Josef did well at school and at age 15 left Gori to attend the prestigious church seminary in Tblisi. But he had already begun to resent the priests who pursued a strict policy of Russification.
In Tblisi he soon found himself in conflict with one particular priest, Abashidze – known to the students as Black Spot. The Russian Orthodox Church only allowed the students to read books that supported the Russian Imperial government. Stalin became the ringleader of a group who read the works of English and French authors, radical literature and novels. Black Spot would prowl the seminary corridors at night trying to catch the students reading such ‘subversive’ literature.
Stalin became increasingly resistant to the seminary’s rigid teachings and oppressive practices, refusing to cut his hair, laughing in prayers, walking out of mass. Finally, just before final exams Abashidze found Stalin reading another forbidden book and throws him into a punishment cell. Stalin had had enough. He walked out of the seminary, never to return. And broke his mother’s heart.
The seminary that Keke had hoped would make her son a revered and exalted priest had educated him – but it also hardened and brutalized him. It was the turning point where the young man who seemed destined to become a priest was set in a new direction that would eventually lead Josef to become the supreme leader of the Soviet Union.
The production of Turning Point: Stalin included shooting on location in Georgia, evocative dramatizations and extensive archive material as well as interviews with leading experts Dr Stephen Jones (Mount Holyoke College, USA), Prof Robert Service (Oxford University, UK) and Prof Ronald Suny (University of Michigan, USA).
JONES: “[Stalin] had a wonderful voice and everybody wanted him in the choir.”
SUNY: “[The Tiblisi] seminary probably produced more revolutionaries than it produced priests.”