Not sure why this comes to mind now, but is it true that Joseph Stalin was once a seminarian? –Mike Toncray, Joliet, Illinois

Yes. No question, you get some unique personalities in seminaries. Take Stalin–an all-powerful despot, venerated by his subjects (in public anyway), accustomed to absolute obedience. If he hadn’t wound up as head of the Soviet Union, he’d have made the perfect cardinal archbishop.

Stalin’s authoritarian bent can’t be attributed entirely to his seminary training, though. Fact is, he was expelled. The sickly son of an alcoholic boot-maker who died in a brawl, Stalin was initially sent to a church school in his native Georgia by his devout mother, and at age 14 he’d done well enough to earn a scholarship to Tiflis Theological Seminary in what is now Tbilisi. If he’d played his cards right, he’d have wound up a priest in the Georgian Orthodox Church, where he could have spent his career terrorizing the altar boys. Not our Joe. He joined a secret society called Messameh Dassy that advocated Georgian independence from Russia (ironically, this goal wasn’t achieved until the collapse of the totalitarian regime that Stalin helped create). Some members of the group were also socialists, and they introduced Stalin to radical ideas. It’s said he often snuck out to attend revolutionary meetings and organize local workers.

This all got to be a bit much for the seminary authorities, who gave Stalin the boot in 1899, when he was 19. Sources differ on exactly what precipitated the break. Some say the future Soviet leader was accused of disrespecting authority and reading forbidden books; others say he skipped an examination. Stalin said he was expelled for propagating Marxism. His mother preferred to believe he left because of ill health. Obviously she was one of those women you see quoted in the newspapers: “MASS MURDERER’S MOM: ‘HE WAS ALWAYS SUCH A GOOD BOY.'”

How much Stalin’s years at the seminary influenced his later career is debatable. During the civil war following the October Revolution, the eventual ruler of the Soviet Union took to interviewing subordinates on a barge moored in the Volga River. Legend has it that those who answered unsatisfactorily were shot and their bodies dumped over the side. One assumes this was not a literal re-creation of the system of discipline at the seminary, which was nowhere near the Volga. However, the idea of brooking no dissent and dealing firmly with underlings–you can see where an ecclesiastical education would inculcate an appreciation of these things. Particularly when the ecclesiastical education took place in Georgia, a land where the expression “cutthroat competition” isn’t used metaphorically. A rector at the Tiflis seminary had been murdered during a period of student unrest prior to Stalin’s arrival; clearly this was not the sort of academic environment in which the threat of after-school detention would keep the lads in line.

As I say, one doesn’t want to make too much of Stalin’s time as a priest in training. By all accounts he hated the seminary and did his best to stamp out Christianity in the Soviet Union later in life. Still, the parallels are suggestive. While one realizes that the Georgian church follows the Eastern rite, one can easily imagine Stalin admiring the brilliant cloak of a Roman Catholic cardinal and thinking: “You know, I like the color red.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.