Ketevan "Kato" Svanidze (Georgian: ეკატერინა სვიმონის ასული სვანიძე, Ketevan Svimonis asuli Svanidze; Russian: Екатери́на Семёновна Свани́дзе, Yekaterina Semyonovna Svanidze; 2 April 1885 – 5 December 1907) was the first wife of Joseph Stalin and the mother of his eldest son, Yakov.
Svanidze and Stalin were married for just 18 months before she died of an illness, probably typhus in 1907. Her death sent Stalin into a deep grief. Years later, several of her family members were executed during Stalin's purges.
Svanidze was born Ketevan Semyonovna Svanidze. Some sources refer to Svanidze as Ekaterina; this discrepancy can likely be attributed to that in Russia, Ekaterina (English: Katherine) has historically been used as a form of the Georgian name Ketevan.
Kato was born in the small mountain village of Baji, Kutais Governorate, Russian Empire (present day Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, Georgia). She was the daughter of Sipora (née Dvali) and Svimon Svanidze. The family were aznauri (minor nobility), but were impoverished. Svimon was a teacher in Kutaisi.
Kato had at least two sisters, Alexandra ("Sashiko", born c. 1878–1936) and Maria ("Mariko", 1888–1942), and one brother, Alexander Svanidze ("Alyosha", 1886–1941).
Records also indicate two more children born to Svimon and Sipora: a girl, Bashiko, and a boy, Miho, but no further information is available about their lifespans and it is not known whether they lived past early childhood.
Alexander was a member of the Bolshevik Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in Georgia and a friend of Stalin. They attended the Tiflis Spiritual Seminary together until Stalin's expulsion in 1899 for missing his final examinations.
As the Svanidze family hailed from Racha, an area known for its "placid and loving beauties," the sisters were thus described using the flattering demonym "Rachelian." Kato in particular was considered "ravishingly pretty."
Kato was considered "educated and emancipated" by the standards of her day. She and her sisters worked as seamstresses at their own couture shop in Tiflis, the successful "Madame Hervieu" atelier, making uniforms and dresses for the army and nobility.
Early life in Tiflis
In the first years of the 20th century, Stalin (born Ioseb Jughashvili, nicknamed "Soso") ran with a revolutionary gang in Georgia, responsible for various criminal activities including robberies, kidnappings and running an underground newspaper.
In 1905, Alexander Svanidze invited Stalin to live with him, his three sisters and his brother-in-law, Mikheil "Misha" Monaselidze, another of their seminary classmates who had recently married Sashiko Svanidze.
The house, at 3 Freylinskaya St., was close to Erivan Square in Tiflis and right behind the South Caucasus military district headquarters.
The atelier was frequented by the sisters' upper-class clientele, which combined with its central location, made it ideal for a hideout. "Our place above the suspicion of the police. While my fellows did illegal stuff in one room, my wife was fitting the dresses of generals' wives next door," Monaselidze wrote.
Though Svanidze was Stalin's social superior, they soon fell in love. She "was fascinated by Stalin, and enchanted by his ideas. He was charming and she really adored him," Monaselidze wrote. Kato was supportive of the Bolshevik movement, organising fundraisers for the Social Democrats, and was well aware of his criminal activities.
Marriage to Stalin
In 1906, Stalin announced to compatriot Mikhail Tskhakaya that he was marrying Svanidze later that evening and that there would be a small party.
Kato shared the same name as Stalin's mother, Ekaterine ("Keke") Geladze. Like Keke, Kato was also religious and prayed for Stalin's safety. Although Stalin was an atheist, he agreed to her request for a church wedding. At first they had trouble finding a priest who would agree to marry them, as Stalin was using falsified papers under the name "Galiashvili," one of a dozen or so aliases he used prior to the revolution.
Eventually priest Kita Tkhinvaleli, whom they had known at the Tbilisi seminary, agreed to marry them. They were married in secret at 2 a.m. on 29 July [O.S. 16 July] 1906 in Saint David's Cathedral in Tiflis, at the base of the future Mtatsminda Pantheon. Tskhakaya served as the official witness and tamada. Simon "Kamo" Ter-Petrosian was among the 10-member party celebrating the wedding, and joked, "Where are the idiotic police? All their wanted men are here and they could come and trap us like goats!"
Svanidze was approximately one month pregnant at the time, though it is not confirmed if she knew of this; Stephen Kotkin, in his biography Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, however, writes that Svanidze informed Stalin she was pregnant and this was the reason for the hurried wedding.
Stalin (known as "Soso" to his Georgian friends) and Kato were very much in love.
"I was amazed how Soso, who was so severe in his work and to his comrades, could be so tender, affectionate and attentive to his wife," noted Monaselidze, who along with his wife wrote detailed memoirs in the 1930s.
Stalin later told his youngest child, daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, that his first wife was "very sweet and beautiful, she melted my heart."
The couple did not register the marriage with the state and Svanidze kept her maiden name. A few months later authorities made the connection; an Okhrana raid on a Bolshevik residence in Moscow revealed a paper with their address on Freylinskaya Street and the message, "seamstress Svanidze, ask for Soso."
Stalin was not in Georgia at the time, but the five-month pregnant Kato and her cousin Spiridon Dvali were arrested. Spiridon was sentenced to death for bomb making. Her sister Sashiko called upon some of their prominent clientele, including wives of the local police chief and gendarmerie colonel. She was able to get Kato released to the home of the police chief and Spiridon's sentence reduced.
When Stalin returned, he was able to visit Kato at the police chief's house; the police did not know what he looked like and the Svanidze sisters claimed he was their cousin. "He was deeply despondent about what had happened," Monaselidze wrote. Kato was allowed to leave the home for two hours per night and released two months later.
Their son, Iakob, was born 31 March [O.S. 18 March] 1907. He was possibly named after Stalin's godfather Yakobi "Koba" Egnatashvili, who had helped support Stalin's mother financially and who was rumoured to be his biological father. Stalin was present for the birth of his son, whom he nicknamed Patsana ("Laddie"). "After the birth of the baby, his love for wife and child became ten times more," Monoselidze wrote.
Following the high-profile Tiflis bank robbery in June 1907, Stalin moved Kato and their son to Baku, where he had previously worked for Baron Alphonse de Rothschild's oil company. Kato resumed her work as a seamstress, while Stalin continued his role as a Bolshevik leader.
Illness and death
In August 1907, Stalin left for Germany to attend the Second International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart. Kato became sick, suffering in the summer heat. "Soso would go early in the morning and return late at night while Kato sat at home with a tiny baby terrified that he would be arrested," Monaselidze wrote. "Bad diet, little sleep, the heat and stress weakened her and she fell ill. Surrounded by strangers, she had no friends around her. Soso was so busy he forgot his family!"
Kato's family heard of her illness and wrote her and Stalin, begging him to bring her back to recuperate in the familiar climate in Georgia. Stalin delayed until October, when it became obvious she was getting worse. On the 13-hour trip back to Tiflis, she apparently drank infected water and contracted typhus. Though some historians have attributed her illness to tuberculosis, her family recalled the symptoms of typhus rash and dysentery. She died in Stalin's arms 5 December [O.S. 22 November] 1907.
Her cousin Mariam Svanidze, still alive at 109 in 2005, told historian Simon Sebag Montefiore she remembered Kato's illness clearly: "I was then nine years old. Kato and my father got typhus at the same time. Books say Kato died of TB, but I can assure you it was typhus. Both got the red rash. We knew if the rash went black, they'd die. My father's rash stayed red. He lived, but I remember that Kato's turned black. Then all the family knew she'd die. And die she did."
At her church funeral, as Montefiore claims, Stalin said, "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity." She was buried at the Kukia cemetery next to Saint Nino's Church in Tiflis. Stalin, distraught, threw himself into her open grave and had to be dragged out. He spotted Okhrana agents approaching and fled.
"I was so overcome with grief that my comrades took my gun away from me," he later recalled. Wrote Monaselidze, "Soso sank into deep grief. He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him. All the time he blamed himself for not accepting our advice and for taking her to Baku in the heat."
After Kato's death, Stalin went to his hometown of Gori to stay with his mother, then returned to Baku. He left his infant son to be raised by Kato's mother, Sashiko and Misha Monaselidze, and rarely visited. He was in and out of prison for the next few years, but did not see him from 1911 to 1921, when his uncle Alexander insisted he move to Moscow.
Alexander married an opera singer, Maria Anisimovna Korona, and rose in the ranks of the Communist Party. Mariko also moved to Moscow and worked as the secretary for Avel Enukidze.
In 1937, during the Great Purge, Mariko was arrested as part of the accusations against Enukidze, who was executed shortly after. In 1938, Stalin ordered Alexander and his wife, Maria, to be arrested. He demanded that Alexander admit he was a German spy; but Alexander refused. Mariko, Alexander and Maria were all executed in 1941.
Alexander and Maria's son, Ivan Svanidze, was briefly married to Stalin's only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. He filed for divorce in 1959; Soviet law required the divorce decree be printed in the newspaper along with their home addresses.
Kato's cousin Nikolai Samsonovich Svanidze (1895–1937) was also executed during the purge. Nikolai's grandson and namesake is Russian journalist and presenter Nikolai Svanidze (born 1955). In 2006, Nikolai portrayed his relative Alexander Svanidze in a Russian television miniseries, The Wife of Stalin, about his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva.