The Tiflis Theological Seminary, although a religious institution, did not limit its instruction to Church teachings: it was also Georgia's principle center of higher learning, drawing upper-class students from all across the region. This set the scene for much conflict between the strict Russian Orthodox priests who administered the school, and the secular, often radical Georgian student body. In the years before Stalin arrived, a number of violent incidents had erupted, including a series of student strikes and the murder of a rector. The five years that Stalin spent at the Seminary fell within a period of relative quietude, but the student body remained independent-minded: radical ideas bubbled beneath the lid of priestly authority.
Of course, radical ideas were nothing new in the Russian Empire of the 1890s. The Tsars of the House of Romanov governed a vast country, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and encompassing a sixth of the world's landmass within its borders. It was a land of contradictions, modern in some ways and ancient in others: on the one hand, it was a rapidly industrializing nation, boasting an imposing army and a vibrant cultural life that included writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and composers like Tchaikovsky. On the other hand, Russia was also a country where a huge, pious, poverty-stricken peasantry, freed from serfdom only in the 1860s, was governed by a divinely-chosen autocrat, without even a semblance of democratic or parliamentary rule. (One Russian proverb said, "It is very high up to God! It is very far to the Tsar!") In Stalin's youth, the Tsar was Alexander III, an arresting, bearded man who saw his reformist father killed by an assassin's bomb, and thereafter governed Russia with an iron hand.
In this climate, where the intellectual ferment of Europe's 19th century mixed with strict control imposed from above, a significant portion of the intellectual class, or "intelligentsia," embraced violent ideologies in an effort to achieve political change. The most appealing of these was Marxism, named for Karl Marx, a 19th- century German thinker who claimed to have unlocked the mechanisms of history.
Marxism, also known as "scientific socialism" and, most famously, "Communism," declared that human history was determined by class warfare. In an industrial society, Marx claimed, the triumph of the middle class, or bourgeoisie, inevitably led to the rise of a proletariat, or laboring class. As wealth came to be concentrated in bourgeois hands, the working class would grow ever more impoverished, leading to a revolution and the establishment of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." In this utopian setting, all class distinctions would be abolished, as would national governments and religion, both of which Marx regarded as tools of bourgeois oppression. Marx's celebrated 1848 tract, The Communist Manifesto, closed with a great call for revolt: "let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!"
In our era, after a century ravaged by crimes committed in the name of "revolution," and with Marxist states lying in ruins from Poland to Pyongyang, it is difficult to understand how this ideology managed to achieve such a huge following among the educated classes. Even by Stalin's time, the intellectual framework of Marxism had been essentially discredited: its vision of the past as a record of class struggle had received scorn from historians for its oversimplicity; and the economic predictions made by Marx and his ally, Friedrich Engels--namely, that the industrial working class would grow ever poorer while the bourgeois grew richer--had been proven false by history itself. But the Communist idea retained its allure, largely through its claim to have discovered the "laws" of history at a time when it appeared that the brilliant light of science would soon illumine not only the natural world, but the human world as well. If Darwin could discover the laws of biology and evolution, and Freud could establish a system for the interpretation of dreams, then it seemed only logical that "scientific socialism" could provide a blueprint for the future of economic and political development.
Thus Marx's scientific language provided a rational patina for what was, at bottom, an irrational movement. Marxism, despite its intellectual pretensions, constituted a kind of a prophetic religion, an atheistic faith that predicted the future and, more importantly, promised ultimate triumph over the forces of evil. Like Christians awaiting the Second Coming, young Communists anticipated the "revolution"; but while Christ promised a kingdom in heaven, Marxism prophesied a paradise on earth--once the offending bourgeoisie had been eradicated.
It is not certain at what point Stalin abandoned the one faith for the other, but we may easily imagine the preceding ideological progression. Despite the efforts of the Seminary's administrators, he and his classmates read a steady diet of anti-establishment literature, ranging from the romantic novels of Victor Hugo to the works of Charles Jean Marie Letourneau, a long-winded Frenchman who attempted to analyze all of world history through the lens of his own radical politics. Stalin would not read the Communist classics until later in life, but he did read Kvali, the weekly organ of Georgia's Marxist movement, and revolutionary politics had enough appeal for him that by 1896 or '97 he began to refer to himself as a Marxist. His circle of friends shared his convictions, and by 1898 he was sufficiently committed to the "Idea" that he offered his services to Noe Zhordania, leader of Georgia's Marxists, as a professional revolutionary. Zhordania suggested that he complete his education first, but Stalin had lost interest in the Seminary. He was expelled in May of 1899, for failing to take his examinations, and prepared to enter the political world. His timing was excellent: the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had just been founded, creating, for the first time, a political party to which all Russian Marxists could belong.