Taking Temperatures – Weatherman & Revolutionary: The Short Formal Career of Josef Stalin

Long before Josef Stalin became one of the most powerful and deadly men in world history he was an itinerant revolutionary. Such a career choice meant danger, irregular hours and earning a living anyway possible. Survival was the biggest worry. To do this, meant procuring enough money just to keep going. It was not like revolutionaries actually got paid by the hour. Their pay might come from wealthy sympathizers or armed robbery. It could also come from holding odd jobs which had very little if anything to do with subversive activities. Whatever the job, as long as it allowed a revolutionary enough time to further their true profession, it could be considered adequate. Everything in a revolutionary’s life was subordinate to the ultimate cause. Josef Stalin was no different in this respect. The only regular job he ever held was nothing more than a means for providing him the time, money and lodging to continue working towards revolution. This helps explain why Stalin became a weatherman.

Tiflis Meterological Observatory

The Tiflis Meterological Observatory where Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) held his only formal job

On The Fringes Of Society – Living For The Revolution
Meteorology seems a strange career field for a man who would eventually change the world, but this was long before Stalin became leader of a superpower. As a young man, he had an excess of ambition, but little idea of where this would lead him. At the time of his 21st birthday, Stalin faced an uncertain and difficult future. He had a much better chance of ending up a panhandler on the streets of Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) or becoming a petty criminal. In 1899 he was Iosif Jughashvili, a young itinerant Georgian who needed a place to live and steady source of income. At this point a revolution seemed far off in the future. Jughashvili was a young, unemployed man with little to no career prospects. Like many a jobseeker he used a connection to help him find employment. 

Jughashvili’s connection was a friend from his hometown of Gori working at the Tiflis Meteorological Observatory. The friend helped Jughashvili get hired. It was not much, but the position gave Jughashvili a roof over his head and a small salary. He was given a room beneath the observatory and a nominal salary. In return he was scheduled to work three days a week. This work involved either day or night shifts, depending on the week. Shifts lasted anywhere from twelve to fifteen hours. The work required very little, other than taking readings on the temperatures and barometers on an hourly basis. The great advantage of working at the observatory was that it allowed Jughashvili plenty of spare time to organize workers in Tiflis to strike.

Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) in 1902 - this photo was taken a year after he abandoned his job at the Tiflis Observatory

Iosif Jughashvili (Josef Stalin) in 1902 – this photo was taken a year after he abandoned his job at the Tiflis Observatory

Career Choices – The Making Of A Professional Revolutionary
When he was not on duty at the observatory, Jughashvili spent his days at a nearby railroad yard trying to mobilize workers. His efforts gained notice from the police who within a few months showed up at the observatory and arrested Jughashvili. The official reason for the arrest was his father’s failure to pay taxes. In truth, it was probably to scare Jughashvili into giving up his designs on revolution. The arrest hardly impeded his progress. Once released, he worked as hard as ever, not in studying climatic conditions, but fomenting labor unrest. This would lead to his first success. In the spring of 1900 Jughashvili led a mass meeting at night in the hills outside of Tiflis. While hundreds of workers listened he spoke passionately of the need to strike. The crowd was receptive to his charisma. The upshot of this meeting was that the railroad yard, where Jughashvili had spent so many hours, days and weeks convincing the workers of the justice of his cause, went on strike. He had successfully organized his first mass demonstration. This success had a downside though, as now Jughashvili’s name was documented in police reports. He was now going to be under constant surveillance. His next moves would be carefully scrutinized.

Meanwhile, Jughashvili continued his work at the observatory. As the seasons passed and he dutifully noted the climatic changes in Tiflis, the one constant in his life remained an intense revolutionary fervor. His initial success had made him ever more devoted to the cause. While the job allowed him ample time to stir up worker unrest, at some point Jughashvili would have to choose between regular work and becoming a full-time, professional revolutionary. The decision of which one to choose, was really no decision at all. The young Jughshvili was a fanatic, a true believer, a man with a passion for intrigue, subversion and dissent. His work at the observatory was a means to justifying an end. His choice to follow the path of revolution was also made for him by an unattended assist from the police.

Tiflis (Tbilisi) Georgia around the turn of the 20th century

Tiflis (Tbilisi) Georgia around the turn of the 20th century

Career Decision – A Total Commitment
In the spring of 1901 dissent was flaring up in Tiflis once again. The radical worker’s movement, with Stalin playing a prominent role, was planning a large and violent demonstration, a May Day riot. By now the Tsarist secret police were doing their best to track Stalin’s movements around the city. He was an exceedingly hard man to pin down. One place the secret police knew they could find him was at the observatory. In late March, over a month before the planned May Day demonstration the police decided to break up the conspiracy by arresting the principals involved. Stalin was a wanted man. The secret police surrounded the observatory to wait on Stalin to return one day. As he approached the observatory on public transport he noticed the police surrounding the observatory. He never got off at the station. He kept going and never looked back. His career as a weatherman was now over, he would never return to the observatory. This turned out to be the only formal job he ever held. This marked a fault line in Jughashvili’s life. A watershed had been crossed. From this point forward his commitment to revolution was total.