Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Shortly before 11am on 13 June, 1907, two heavily armed carriages pulled into the central square of Tiflis, the state capital of Georgia.
Get rich quick: the young Josef Stalin
The State Bank’s cashier and accountant sat in one of the carriages. The second was packed with police and soldiers. There were also numerous outriders on horseback, their pistols cocked and ready.
There was good reason for the security. The carriages were transporting an enormous sum of money - as much as one million roubles (£7 million) - to the new State Bank.
Unbeknown to anyone in the procession, the transportation of the money through the streets of Tiflis had been brought to the attention of Georgia’s criminal underworld.
Now, one of its most swashbuckling leaders, Josef Djugashvili - better known as Stalin - was about to pull off a dazzling heist. Stalin needed the money to help finance the Bolshevik’s political movement: he had even discussed the robbery with Lenin, who had given his approval.
Central square, Tiflis: scene of the violence
Stalin knew it would require great daring to pull of such a coup. He also knew he’d need a dependable gang of fellow criminals to help. These were easy to find in Tiflis: Stalin had already been involved in previous robberies and had a trusty band of individuals who could be relied upon.
The robbery was meticulously planned. Twenty brigands loitered in the city’s central square, awaiting the arrival of the carriages. Look-outs were posted on all the street corners and rooftops.
A further band of brigands were inside one of the taverns close to the square while two girls - trusted accomplices of Stalin - took up their positions nearby. All were watching and waiting.
Carriages used by gangsters were just like this
Stalin himself remained aloof. In the aftermath of the heist, no one could say whether or not he was actively involved in the violence. One said he threw the first bomb from a nearby rooftop, the signal for the attack to begin. Another said he had been merely the architect of the robbery. A third claimed he was at the railway station, preparing to make a quick getaway if things went wrong.  
The carriages swung into the square exactly as expected. One of the gangsters slowly lowered his rolled newspaper, the signal for the attack to begin. Seconds later, there was a blinding flash and deafening roar as Stalin’s band hurled their hand grenades towards the horses.
The unfortunate animals were torn to pieces. So, too, were the policeman and soldiers. In a matter of seconds, the peaceful square was turned into a scene of carnage. The cobbles were splattered with blood, entrails and human limbs.
Bolshevik bombs found by police
As the gangsters ran towards the carriages, one of the horses  - maimed but not killed - reared up and began dragging the money-bearing cavalcade across the square. He picked up speed and there was a real danger he would get away.
One of Stalin's men chased after the horse and frantically hurled another grenade under its belly. It exploded beneath the animal, with devastating effect. The horse was blown apart and the carriages were brought to a definitive halt.
Before anyone in the square could make sense of what was happening, Stalin’s most faithful accomplice - a bandit named Captain Kamo - rode into the square. The gangsters hurled the banknotes into his carriage and then Kamo rode off at high speed.
The carnage caused by the attack was spectacular. Six people were killed by the grenades and gunfire and a further 40 wounded. Amazingly, none of the gangsters was killed.
The stolen money was taken to a safe house were it was quickly sewn into a mattress and later smuggled out of Georgia.
Stalin's police file
Neither Stalin nor any of the others involved in the heist were ever caught, even though scores of detectives were sent to investigate. It was the perfect robbery.
But if the crime itself had proved a spectacular success for Stalin, the aftermath was not so triumphant. The stolen 250,000 roubles (£1.7million) included a large number of 500-rouble notes whose serial numbers were known to the authorities. It proved impossible to cash them.
Nevertheless, the robbery was the making of Stalin. He had proved himself a brilliant organiser and utterly ruthless in action. 
That ruthlessness would come to the fore when he took the reigns of power in the Soviet Union. 

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Hello, I red your article and found the mistake: you mentioned that some 40 people were killed, in reality only 6 person killed, among them boy and approximately 40 wounded. I worked on this topic in archives, wrote the book Russian-Georgian Terror and it's well documented.
    best, Irakli Makharadze

  2. Many thanks: and apologies for not replying earlier. I only just now saw your comment.
    I've checked this out too, and you're correct. I've amended the figures. Giles

  3. Bank robberies happen to those banks only whose security is weak or sensitive information is leaked to the robbers. Banks should have tight security and computers should be made which cannot be hacked.

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