Who was Kato Svanidze?
Kato Svanidze was the first wife of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Her untimely demise is considered a significant event in world history as some historians believe that it led to Stalin’s ruthlessness and inhumane ways. Kato, a Georgian girl, met Joseph Stalin during his early days as a Bolshevik revolutionary. Their marriage lasted only a year before her sudden death due to acute weakness and typhus. Their love and devotion for each other flourished despite the tumultuous times they lived in. Stalin was an atheist, but agreed to a church marriage just to honour Kato’s wishes. They were married in 1906, and Kato gave birth to Stalin’s eldest son, Yakov, a few months after the marriage. Her untimely death in Dec 1907 had a deep impact on Stalin and he abandoned his son Yakov to be raised by the family of Kato. She remained the only love in his life despite his marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva
Childhood & Early Life
Ekaterine Kato Svanidze or Ketevan Semyonovna Svanidze (her Georgian name), was born on April 2, 1885, in the small mountain village of Baji, in the Racha region of Georgia, which was a part of the Russian Empire, at the time. Her father, Svimon, was a railway worker and landowner . Though her mother, Sepora, came from minor nobility, the Svanidzes were not financially sound. She had two older sisters, Aleksandra and Maria, and a younger brother, Alexander.
Sometime during her adolescence, her parents moved to Kutaisi, the third most populated city in Georgia. Kato, along with her two elder sisters, and younger brother, moved to a house near Freedom Square (erstwhile Erivan Square) in Tbilisi (erstwhile Tiflis).
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Her house in Tiflis was situated right behind the ‘South Caucasus military district’, which later became a crucial factor in Kato’s life. Kato’s brother Alexander studied at the ‘Tiflis Spiritual Seminary’ along with Ioseb Jughashvili (Joseph Stalin), who was later expelled in 1899, for not appearing in the final examinations. Alexander was a member of the Bolshevik Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and a close associate of Jughashvili.
Kato and her two sisters, who were skilful dressmakers, were employed at an atelier by a French seamstress Madame Hervieu. The Svanidze sisters made uniforms for officials and costume dresses for their wives at the studio.
In 1905, during the mass revolts, Alexander asked Jughashvili to join his family at the Freedom Square house, where he lived with his sisters along with his brother-in-law, Mikheil Monaselidze. This was the time when the previously sparse, imperial police presence was increased exponentially with the intention to crackdown on the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Since Alexander’s house was located behind the military district, it strategically became a safe house for the revolutionaries.
Personal & Family Life
Kato and Ioseb Jughashvili fell in love with each other during his stay at her Tiflis house. He serenaded her, not with music, but with tales of the revolution and heroic plans. Kato worshipped him like a god. She often helped Jughashvili by organising fund raisers and tending to his injured fellow revolutionaries.
In 1906, Jughashvili decided to marry Kato after discovering that she was pregnant. There is some contention about the fact whether or not Kato knew of her pregnancy at the time. But according to American historian Stephen Kotkin, her pregnancy was one of the prime reasons for their marriage.
Kato, who was just 16 at the time, insisted on a religious wedding. It was surprising to many that despite being an atheist, Jughashvili agreed to this condition. But chances of a church wedding looked bleak as no priest was ready to perform the ceremony, given Jughashvili’s false identity and involvement with the revolution. An old acquaintance and a fellow student from the seminary, Kita Tkhinvaleli, who had become a priest agreed to perform a late-night ceremony. On July 16, 1906, at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, Kato Svanidze and Ioseb Jughashvili exchanged vows at the Saint David's Cathedral.
Kato was left alone soon after her wedding, and even though she had not recorded her marriage in her passport, the local administration arrested her on charge of giving refuge to revolutionaries. She was four months pregnant at the time. Her elder sister, Aleksandra, who was acquainted with a top-official’s wife, appealed to her on behalf of her pregnant sister. Kato was released after a month-and-a-half of imprisonment under the custody of the Police Chief’s wife.
Jughashvili was not in Georgia at the time of Kato’s arrest. Upon his return he was able to visit her at the Police Chief’s house since nobody knew of his appearance. Two months later Kato was released from house arrest. On March 19, 1907, Kato gave birth to a son, Yakobi "Koba" Egnatashvili, named after Jughashvili’s godfather who had helped his mother financially during troubled times.
Kato’s life took a dramatic turn in June 1907, after her husband’s involvement in a high-profile bank robbery. She had to flee to Baku with Jughashvili and her two-month old son to live in harsh weather and among strangers, all alone. Within a month of moving to Baku, Jughashvili left for Germany to attend the Second International Socialist Congress.
Kato, alone with a new born, could not endure the constant stress of worrying about her husband’s life, and her already weak body started showing acute symptoms of illness. Upon hearing the news of her illness, Kato’s family requested her husband to bring her home, but Jughashvili didn’t pay heed till October 1907, but by then it was already too late.
Kato contracted typhus during her 13-hour journey back to Georgia. Three weeks after her arrival, Kato Svanidze died in her husband’s arms on November 22, 1907. Her funeral was held in the same church she had married Jughashvili. She was buried at the Kukia cemetery next to Saint Nino's Church in Tiflis.
Aftermath of Katoï¿½
Jughashvili was devastated at the death of his wife. He reportedly said, “This creature softened my heart of stone. She’s died and with her have died my last warm feelings for humanity.”
Jughashvili was so distraught with the loss of his wife that he abandoned his son in the care of Kato’s family. He was reunited with his son in 1921, when Iakob moved to Moscow to stay with his father, who was known as Stalin by then. For reasons best known to him, Stalin ill-treated Iakob during those days. In the coming years, especially during the Great Purge, Stalin assassinated many members of Kato’s family, accusing them of betraying him.
Stalin reportedly told his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, whom he married in 1919, that the only other woman after his mother whom he ever loved was Kato Svanidze.