The first quarter of the 20th century was a golden age in the history of bank heists, perhaps not in quality but in quantity—if we consider the amount stolen in the first case and the frequency in the second. The transition from famous 19th-century outlaws like Ned Kelly, Butch Cassidy, Harry Longabaugh, the Dalton brothers, and the James brothers, to a new century with names as famous as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, or Karl Lamm. During this time, political revolutionaries joined in, needing funds to finance their clandestine activities, and in that sense, one of the most significant heists was the Tiflis robbery in 1907.

This action was carried out by the Russian Bolsheviks, who referred to it as the expropriation of the Erivanskaya, a euphemistic term alluding to the recovery of money for the people and the fact that the robbery was carried out in the homonymous square in the capital of Georgia, named in honor of Ivan Paskevich, Count of Yerevan (a veteran Russian Empire military officer who lived in the first half of the 19th century).

The location became Lenin Square during the Soviet period and was adorned with a statue of the revolutionary leader; in 1991, it was torn down and replaced by a Freedom Monument, which is the current name of the square.

Yerevan Square is now called Freedom Square
Yerevan Square is now called Freedom Square. Credit: George Kvizhinadze / Wikimedia Commons

The communists took their first steps in Russia in 1898 with the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labor Party). Their goal, as Marx had outlined, was a proletarian revolution, but first, it was necessary to carry out class consciousness activities (rallies, propaganda, etc.), for which they needed economic means that they lacked. So, following the example of other revolutionary groups, especially anarchists, they started robbing banks. This wasn’t unique to Russia: in France, for example, the band of Jules Bonnot became famous, and in Spain, there was “Los Solidarios”, of which Buenaventura Durruti was a member, who not only robbed banks or post offices but also fought against the gunmen of the Free Trade Union and committed attacks.

However, Russian communism was divided over whether to pursue such initiatives. The Bolsheviks defended them as a legitimate response to state power, while the Mensheviks were against them and preferred a more progressive and peaceful revolutionary process. This latter position prevailed at the Fifth Congress of the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labor Party), held in London in 1907 to unify positions.

However, the Bolsheviks didn’t conform and organized an autonomous and secret body, the BC (Bolshevik Center), led by a Financial Group comprising Lenin, Leonid Krasin, and Alexander Bogdanov, who supported obtaining funds through the outlawed expropriations despite the Congress’s decision.

Lenin, Bogdanov, and Krasin in the early 20th century
Lenin, Bogdanov, and Krasin in the early 20th century. Credit: Public domain

In fact, they immediately resumed a plan sketched a couple of months before the Congress began, aiming to obtain money to buy weapons. Those chosen by the Financial Group to carry it out were Koba and Kamo, respective pseudonyms for Stalin and Simon Arshaki Ter-Petrosian, because both lived in Tiflis, where the heist would take place.

The first had experience and efficiency in planning extortions and robberies since 1905 (“Caucasian bandit”, he often described himself); the second, his childhood friend and occasional prison mate, was an Armenian with a rough and ruthless character, an expert in disguises and explosives, and a veteran in expropriations, which he carried out leading a group called “The Band”.

Thus, Stalin focused on the operation, which involved robbing the bank stagecoach transporting money from the post office to the Russian Empire State Bank branch as it passed through the aforementioned Yerevan Square. This was quite complex because it required many men, coordination, speed, and almost certainly violence, as it involved confronting the escort and soldiers around the area. But direct action was precisely Koba’s specialty, as he had demonstrated during the 1905 Revolution by organizing combat squads to confront troops and raid arsenals.

Iosif Stalin, Koba, and Simon Arshaki Ter-Petrosian, Kamo
Iosif Stalin, Koba, and Simon Arshaki Ter-Petrosian, Kamo. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons and Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Of course, information was also necessary, and Stalin found who could provide it; two people, to be precise. One was Gigo Kasradze, a bank employee; the other was a certain Voznesensky, who worked at the post office and was his childhood friend. Thanks to them, the robbers knew the coach’s schedule and the exact date when it would carry the money: June 26, 1907. The preparations continued with Kamo manufacturing several bombs, one of which accidentally detonated while trying to light a fuse and left him blind in one eye. Due to that accident, he was bedridden for a month, and a scar marked his right eye for life, but even though he wasn’t fully recovered, he insisted on participating on the day of the heist.

Three weeks had passed since the Fifth Congress had concluded, but that didn’t stop those involved. There were twenty of them, all dressed like peasants except for Kamo, who arrived at the square dressed as a cavalry captain and in a phaeton (a four-wheeled open carriage). The others were strategically distributed throughout the location, some watching for the vehicle’s arrival, others waiting in a nearby tavern, and some controlling the many mobilized police officers.

The reason for so many officers was that they had received a tip-off about a revolutionary attack, albeit without details. When the coach appeared, carrying the postilion, a cashier, an accountant, two guards, and followed by a carriage with armed soldiers and a Cossack cavalry escort on each side, the signal was given, and pandemonium broke out.

1913 map of Tiflis with the area of the robbery marked.
1913 map of Tiflis with the area of the robbery marked. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It was 10:30 in the morning, and suddenly several hand grenades fell on the entourage, killing some of the guards and the horses, which was more important because the vehicle was immobilized. The robbers charged toward it, shooting at everything that moved, sowing panic among the many passersby at that time.

You can imagine the chaos, with people’s carriages fleeing in all directions amid a battle royale, not knowing what was happening. Stalin’s wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, witnessed the scene from her house balcony and had to take cover inside because the explosions shattered the window panes and made the ground tremble.

Amidst the hail of gunfire, one of the coach’s horses, still alive but driven mad by its injuries, bolted, dragging the coach, and had to be stopped with a grenade that blew its legs off. Datiko Chibriashvili Kupriashvili threw it, and the blast wave knocked him down, but he had time to regain consciousness and steal the sacks of banknotes while Kamo covered him with gunfire. The two of them loaded the loot into the phaeton and escaped, with Kamo himself spurring on the horses. During the escape, they crossed paths with the police chief’s carriage, who, seeing him in uniform and thinking he was protecting the money, let him pass.

A three-horse phaeton (Gregor von Bochmann)
A three-horse phaeton (Gregor von Bochmann). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

All the robbers were able to escape. They left behind forty dead, about fifty injured, and devastation that one of the responsible parties, Elisó Lominadze, was able to see by changing from peasant clothing to teacher’s attire and returning to see the spectacle without being recognized. The authorities reported an insignificant number of casualties while the bank calculated that about 341,000 rubles had been stolen (equivalent to over 3.6 million euros today). Interestingly, in the rush, the robbers lost 20,000 rubles, which the coach’s postilion, who survived, kept (although he was later discovered and prosecuted).

Mija and Maro Bochoridze, friends Stalin had in Tiflis, temporarily hid the money inside a mattress, which was then moved from one safe house to another. The last hiding place was the Meteorological Observatory, where Stalin had worked before, from which Kamó eventually took it to Finland, to Lenin’s dacha.

A few months later, a portion was used to buy weapons and detonators in Belgium and Bulgaria. It wasn’t easy because two-thirds of the stolen banknotes were large, 500 rubles, so their serial numbers could be traced, and changing them would be as risky as it would be slow.

Three ruble banknote of the Russian Empire
Three ruble banknote of the Russian Empire. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the subsequent investigation, it was fruitless. Everyone on the left was accused indiscriminately, and according to some disputed sources, Stalin himself was detained and interrogated by the Okhrana (the secret police), as he was placed in the square, but wasn’t considered a suspect since he was their informant. Kamó had a worse time, as visiting an eye doctor in Berlin to treat his eye wound, he was reported; Lenin had recommended the doctor because he was a Bolshevik, but he turned out to be a double agent. The Berlin police found a fake passport and the 200 detonators in Kamó’s luggage, landing him in jail.

To avoid trial, Kamó feigned madness: he refused food, only eating his excrement, pulled out his hair, and even attempted suicide—almost nothing compared to the brutal tortures inflicted on him to get him to talk, including beatings, burning with a hot iron, or sticking pins under his fingernails. But he couldn’t avoid his extradition to Russia in 1909, nor his trial, which lasted until 1911 while determining his mental state (which he himself later admitted he began to doubt).

That year, he managed to escape from the psychiatric ward in a daring fashion and reunited with Lenin in Paris, where they began planning another heist. But this time, he was quickly arrested again and returned to Tiflis, where he was sentenced to death. However, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because it was the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty; he wasn’t released until the 1917 Revolution. He died in 1922 in a traffic accident, and his remains were buried in Yerevan Square (later moved).

Newspaper clipping from The New York Times reporting the heist.
Newspaper clipping from The New York Times reporting the heist. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

None of the other participants in the heist were prosecuted, but many were expelled from the party because the Mensheviks realized that the Bolsheviks were ignoring the agreements made at the congress and acting on their own.

Stalin was deposed by the Tiflis committee, even though his participation wasn’t direct (he would later recall that episode in the third person as an old man, saying: Robberies… Our friends took 250,000 rubles in Yerevan Square!). He had more pressing family problems to deal with, as his wife died of tuberculosis that fall. Depressed, he left the city with other Georgian leaders, leaving the party weakened there.

Lenin also faced backlash, not so much for his involvement in the heist—he, like Stalin, tried to downplay it (which led to conflicts with Krasin and Bogdanov)—but because his plan to simultaneously exchange large banknotes across several locations in Europe in 1908 failed, leading to numerous arrests.

As mentioned earlier, with the Bolshevik revolutionary victory, a statue was erected in Yerevan Square, and the square was also named after Lenin… until 1991.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 9, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando Lenin y Stalin atracaron el banco de Tiflis en 1907


Anna Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill. Revolutionary terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 | Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin | Roman Brackman, The secret file of Joseph Stalin. A hidden life | Miklós Kun, Stalin. An unknown portrait | Simon Sebag Montefiore, La corte del zar rojo | Wikipedia

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