There are tales that you want to be true.
The Crown Tavern on Clerkenwell Green, Farringdon, is reputedly where Stalin and Lenin first met in 1905. Lenin worked in Clerkenwell as editor of the revolutionary paper Iskra (The Spark) from 1902 until 1903. The office was at 37a Clerkenwell Green now the Marx Memorial Library. Stalin, having met Lenin at a 1905 conference in Finland, visited him that year in London, and local legend has it that they used to talk together in the Crown and Anchor pub (now the Crown Tavern) on Clerkenwell Green.
“Alas, this is a myth” according to Dr Sarah Young .” Stalin most definitely wasnot at the 1905 congress. Even the sycophantic Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute biography of Stalin, which tries its best to affiliate Stalin to Lenin’s victories and decisions from the earliest possible stage, doesn’t manage to place him at the scene, and states that the two men first met at the Bolshevik congress in Finland in December 1905-January 1906”.[i]
However, Stalin was in London in the April/May of 1907 attending the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, along with the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Stalin’s account of the Congress can be found in his Notes of a Delgate that are full of the factional polemics and debates , that according to Stalin’s report “ended in the victory of “Bolshevism,” in the victory of revolutionary Social-Democracy over the opportunist wing of our Party, over “Menshevism.” [ii] Of London, there is an absence of detail or impressions made upon the young revolutionary.
According to most accounts, Stalin lodged at Tower House, Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel one of six hostels built to provide cheap and clean accommodation for people who flocked to London looking for work.
Stalin paid sixpence a night for his stay at Tower House — described by the author Jack London as a “monster doss house” in People of the Abyss. Tower House is still standing in Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel, now a smart refurbished block advertising loft-style apartments.
Robert Service got it wrong when he describes “a certain Ivanovich took up lodgings at 77 Jubilee Road. “[iii]. There is no such place in the East End; he means Jubilee Street that runs between Whitechapel Road and the Commercial Road, Tower Hamlets. Service says the landlords spoke Russian.
On arrival in London, Stalin and the others registered at the Polish Socialist Club on Fulbourne Street off the Whitechapel Road across from the London Hospital. Observed by Special Branch detectives and excited journalists, they received their sparse allowance of two shillings a day, guidance on how to find the main Congress, and secret passwords to avoid Okhrana infiltration. The venue for the 1907 RSDLP congress was the Brotherhood Church at the corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, Hackney. There was also supposedly a Bolshevik caucus held at the socialist club in Fulbourne Street, off Whitechapel Road on 10 May.
Three hundred and thirty six delegates took part between April 30 and May 19 1907. Stalin did not speak during the entire Congress. He knew that the Mensheviks, who hated him for his truculence and banditry, were gunning for him as part of their campaign to ban bank robberies and score points off Lenin. When Lenin proposed the vote on credentials, Martov, the Russian Menshevik leader, prompted by Jordania, challenged Stalin, Tskhakaya and Shaumian.
There is a rich in detail and colourful account of his stay in London in chapter two of The Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore which traces Stalin’s journey, disembarking at Harwich, and “Legend says he spent the first nights with Litvinov, whom he now met for the first time, in the Tower House hostel on Fieldgate Street, Stepney, … Its conditions were so dire that Stalin supposedly led a mutiny and got everyone rehoused. He was settled into a cramped first – floor backroom at 77 Jubilee Street in Stepney, which he rented from a Jewish – Russian cobbler” shared with Mikhail Tskhakaya and Stepan Shaumian. The house on Jubilee Street no longer exists.
Service draws upon recollections of Arthur Bacon, to The Daily Express in January 1950, as a Stepney working-class boy had met “Mr Ivanovich” in 1907. Young Bacon earned pocket money by running errands for the congress delegates. The revolutionaries needed messages to be discreetly carried from house to house before going up to Hackney. For each job he received a halfpenny. But Mr Ivanovich gave him half a crown. Young Arthur responded by taking him toffees. He remembered to the end of his days the bushy moustache, the knee-length boots and the friendly attitude.
Bill Fishman, perhaps the best expert on these events in London, would tell the story of how Stalin chatted up a young Irish woman on an evening walk by the Thames. The young woman’s male companions took exception to the foreigner’s advances and set upon Stalin with fists and sticks. [iv]
Simon Sebag Montefiore recalls, “Litvinov supposedly rescued him. According to his daughter, Litvinov joked that this was the only reason Stalin later spared him, saying, “I haven’t forgotten that time in London.”
Stalin probably saw little of London outside of the East end. When the Congress ended, Stalin and Shaumian remained in London to nurse Mikhail Tskhakaya, who had fallen sick. “I had a temperature of 39 or even more,” recounts Tskhakaya, so Stalin and Shaumian stayed on “to care for me because we all lived in one room.”
There are tales that you want to be true.
There is a legend among Welsh Communists that, after the Congress, Stalin forsook his nursing duties to visit the miners of the Valleys: after all, his 1905 stronghold, Chiatura, was a mining town. But despite a miraculous blossoming of sightings of “Stalin in Wales” among the Communists of the Rhondda during the Second World War, there is not the slightest evidence that he visited Wales. Besides, he had not yet invented the name “Stalin.” But he was also supposedly spotted on the docks of Liverpool, a Scouse version of his encounter with the London dockers. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes: Sadly, “Stalin in Liverpool” belongs with “Stalin in Wales” in that fabulous realm of urban mythology, regional aspirational fantasia and leftist personality cult.”
After about three weeks in London, Stalin spent a week in Paris before returning to Imperial Russia. Today Stalin’s face returns courtesy of the CPGB (ML) in the May Day Parade in London streets.