Soviet policy toward the borderlands was largely the work of Lenin and Stalin. But it was Stalin, a product of that milieu, who completed the structure in his own image. He was raised, educated and initiated as a Marxist revolutionary in the South Caucasus, a borderland of the Russian Empire. At the time of his birth in 1878, the region had become a crossroads, intersecting the movement of people and ideas from Western Europe, Russia and Trans Caspia. In his youth Iosif or “Soso” Dzhugashvili filtered elements of all these currents into a revolutionary ideology of his own making and tested it in its unique kaleidoscopic social and ethnic setting.
In his youth, the circulation of European and Russian books in translation, students from imperial universities to the region and the migrations of seasonal workers from Iran helped to spread radical political ideas among the small Armenian, Georgian and later Azerbaizhan intelligentsia. The economic life of the region was also undergoing significant changes. Burgeoning pockets of industrialization formed around the oil industry in Baku, textiles and leather manufacturing in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and Batumi, and mining in Kutais. A small proletariat was emerging in a multicultural environment. Dzhugashvili's first experiences as a revolutionary agitator were played out in three of these cities: Baku, Tiflis and Batumi where he encountered the complexities of class and ethnic strife. Already as a seminary student in Tiflis, the young Soso, like many of his contemporaries, identified himself with several strands of this borderland 10culture. Woven together, they helped to shape his beliefs, attitudes and politics. In the process he constructed an identity that combined native Georgian, borrowed Russian and invented proletarian components.
While many of his contemporaries in the revolutionary movement forged their careers and spent their lives in the South Caucasus, Stalin, as he began to call himself in 1912, projected himself onto the all-Russian stage, bringing with him as he rose to power trusted comrades from his early days as a labor organizer and propagandist. Along the way he propagandized a vision of the state that mirrored his presentation of self as a representative of three interlocking identifications: an ethno-cultural region (Georgia) as a territorial unit, Great Russia as the center of political power, and the proletariat as the dominant class.