The Blurb On The Back:
In 1906, the revolutionary Joseph Djugashvili – who would later take the name Joseph Stalin – met with an old friend, a clerk at the Tiflis branch of the State Bank of the Russian Empire, for a glass of milk. Over talk of national pride, the spirit of the new century and Djugashvili’s poetry, they agreed the beginnings of a plan.
With the aid of the Outfit, Djugashvili’s hardened crew of “expropriators”, they would pull off the biggest, bloodiest and most daring robbery in Georgia’s history, and ruthlessly change the direction of the Bolshevik revolution forever …
THE OUTFIT by David Tallerman was released in the United Kingdom on 3rd March 2022. Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s 1906 in Tiflis, Georgia, which is currently part of the Russian Empire.
Joseph Djugashvili (known to his comrades as Koba but who history remembers under his later name Joseph Stalin) has been tasked by Lenin to raise much-needed funds for the Bolsheviks. He has formed a group of like-minded revolutions, which he’s called The Tiflis Expropriator’s Club and left his friend Kote Tsintszadz to run it. Unfortunately Kote is cautious and so-far the Club has done little of note leaving Koba is frustrated, not least because a group of Latvian socialists have gained notoriety for a robbery that netted the revolutionary cause 170,000 rubles. Koba wants to do something that secures an even bigger haul and knows that he needs to if he’s to advance in the Bolshevik hierarchy and impress Lenin himself.
At the same time, the Okhrana (the Russian secret police) are monitoring Koba’s every move, constantly pulling him in for questioning to see what he’s up to, and even going so far as to intimidate his wife, Kato. Koba knows that he can’t be seen to have his fingers too deep in carrying out the kind of job that will cement his place in the Bolshevik cause but that doesn’t mean he can’t help plan it behind the scenes. And one day, he bumps into a man called Voznesensky who went to the same seminary as him, back when Koba was training to be a priest. Like Koba, Voznesensky has left the priesthood and now works in the banking mail office and as the two men reminisce in a Tiflis milk bar, Koba convinces him to assist in the revolutionary cause by giving him information on when the next shipment of cash is due at the office.
Having found a target, all Koba needs is someone to head up the heist. Fortunately, there’s Simon Ter-Petrosian (known to his comrades as Kamo). Kamo is a straight-up madman, totally committed to the revolutionary cause but also driven by a love of danger that borders on psychopathic and who is particularly fond of messing around with explosives. It’s Kamo who puts together a crew to carry out the heist, but the path of true crime never runs smooth and with the Okhrana aware that something is on the horizon and the state police on hyper alert, there’s no guarantee that Kamo and company will even be able to carry out the robbery, let alone get away wit it …
David Tallerman’s historical novella focuses on a notorious robbery, which cemented Joseph Stalin’s status in the Bolshevik movement. The narrative sticks to the facts with Tallerman noting at the back what he’s fictionalised but it’s a weirdly detached read with Tallerman not capturing Stalin’s psyche and being more interested in the more colourful Kamo (who benefits from an epilogue). Ultimately it’s fine but didn’t grab me as much as I hoped.
I studied the build up to the Russian revolution as part of my GCSE history course cough-cough years ago so knew that Stalin had been running criminal activities on behalf of the Bolsheviks in order to raise funds for them. However, I did not know about this specific bank robbery, which was apparently notorious in its day and helped cement the Bolsheviks as a group with reach. I was therefore interested in checking out this book so I could perhaps discover a bit more about Stalin’s role.
This therefore brings me to my main issue with the book in that while Stalin was involved in identifying the target for the robbery (and apparently his encounter with Voznesensky was real and did take place in a milk bar), he’s actually a bit of a fringe figure in terms of the main events. I didn’t feel that Tallerman has got under the man’s skin or his relationship with those others in the Outfit. Tallerman does convey a sense of Stalin’s caution around Kamo and alludes to the possibility of Stalin cooperating with the Okhrana to give up those members of the Bolsheviks who he viewed as obstacles or surplus to requirements, but I never really understood who he was (or, at least, who Tallerman thought he was). Stalin isn’t even present for the robbery – being very careful to give himself a verifiable alibi some distance away – and it’s not clear at all what part (if any) he played in planning the actual heist itself.
Tallerman actually seems more interested in Kamo who is certainly more vivid and has more for a writer to get his teeth into, what with his gun running, love of explosives, dedication to the Bolshevik cause and sense of drama. The book comes alive when Kamo’s on the page and it’s fascinating to learn that almost everything attributed to him here actually did happen. Indeed, Tallerman cannot resist giving the book an epilogue that recounts Kamo’s fate but it does feel a bit tacked on and out of step with the other events given that this is marketed on the back of Stalin’s name.
There are a lot of names in the book and many of those names begin with a “K” so there were times when I was a bit confused as to who was who and needed to go back to work it out. A list of people would have been helpful in this regard. I would have also liked to know what happened to some of the other side characters other than Kamo, e.g. the Bochoridzes and the gunslinging women Patsia and Alexandra – even if it was a brief paragraph in the afterword. That said, I did appreciate how Tallerman uses the afterword to let the reader know which bits are fictionalised.
Ultimately, the book sticks pretty close to the facts and is okay to read. However I think there is a missed opportunity here because for all the violence of the actual heist, it’s a fairly bland read that for me didn’t flesh out the real people here.