What’s Funny About Tbilisi Ordinands? Hitchens, Stalin, and Buckley

The (we hope eventually) prodigal son of William F. Buckley said in his New Yorker obituary on Christopher Hitchens:

As for the wit…one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” [ellipsis original]

I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.

A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”

I don’t get it. Tbilisi is obvious and ordinands clear, but married in service to the object of the priesthood does not a bon mot make—to me that is, in my admitted state of ignorance. It is not wow, but why? I am hoping that one of you can help me.

I don’t know enough about local Georgian dialects to discover a pun in Tbilisi, and Stalin’s ties with that city produces no chuckles. Perhaps the humor lies in the stretching of ordinands: ordinand –> ordinance –> bombs –> means of murder? But then Stalin mostly starved his victims (equality for all!), so this route leads to a dead end, no?

Perhaps the sentence predicate is the real bone rattler? Could it be—it really cannot, can it?—that Hitchens was equating most promising with Stalin’s head count, one matched only by that other superb socialist stalwart Mao? But if so, then Hitchens was implying that it is a goal of the priesthood to murder pitilessly. To induce a laugh thus requires prior sympathy with this asinine, mendacious, preposterous point of view. This interpretation also paints the scene of Buckley and Hitchen’s lunch as two teens elbowing each other, snorting over a stupidity.

Ah, that argument is a stretch (it took me several minutes of pondering to come to it); further, ignorance that monumental cannot be presumed. Yet Buckley was clearly presupposing his dinner companion held in common some list of premises that led unambiguously down the path comical. I can discover no other premises.

But it is a fallacy to suppose that because I cannot think of them, they do not exist. Hence my plea for enlightenment. Ideas?


  1. dearieme

    Maybe it’s just that so many Americans know neither geography nor history that they were astonished that the bloke knew of Tbilisi and its role in Stalin’s life.

    Or, perhaps it’s because there’s the old assumption that when you describe a student (which is what an ordinand is) as “promising” it’s a euphemism for “hasn’t achieved anything”.

    Or again, perhaps because “more promising” is an amusing description of any politician, even Stalin.

  2. DAV

    Don’t know but interestingly saw a nearly verbatim version of the question at hipoinion.com Friday.

  3. David

    Four observations:

    1.Some humor doesn’t travel very well. It works for some people and not others.

    2. I suspect the comment might be more humorous in the context of the larger conversation within which it was made or within the larger friendship.

    3. I laughed when I read that part of the article, not because I was a participant in the conversation but because I’ve been doing some research on the development of the Inquisition (circa 1250) and have often wondered how they trained priests to become inquisitors. Stalin, of course, would fit right in with the inquisition (torture and show trials, prison or execution). So the idea that an ordinand in Tbilisi, of all places, was carrying on the tradition, made me smile.

    4. Whether or not Hitchens meant to place Stalin within a larger historical picture of religious atrocities I don’t know.

  4. Katie

    It is mildly amusing (at this point in time, far, far removed in time and place from the original crimes and transgressions, and while holding a glass of champagne) to think of the murderous dictator as striving to succeed to a holy order. Also, it is mildly amusing to think of Stalin’s imagined success had he continued his original career path.

    That’s it, mild amusement for a cocktail party. Knee-slappingly funny? No.

  5. JH

    Ask Mr. Buckley?!

    What a wonderful remembrance of a great friend!

  6. Michael Ozanne

    It isn’t a joke as such more an invitation for the other person to bask in the tellers erudition and knowledge. You knew he studied as a priest, I know that and know he got a scholarship besides..

  7. Person of Choler

    To follow up Mr. Ozanne, it is said that people don’t applaud the start of a piece of classical music because they like it, they applaud themselves for having recognized it.

  8. Context is of course what makes the hearer laugh at something like this, and analysis is indeed the killer of laughter, but:

    Inside Joke: Most of the proles don’t know Stalin was a Georgian, so the “Tbilisi” reference brings the speaker and hearer together in their esoteric knowledge.

    Promising: Ironic–“among the most promising” to become a man of God becomes worst mass murderer.

    Ordinand: Showing off the vocabulary. Could have been “candidate” or perhaps “seminarian” but that wouldn’t be Hitchensonian enough to put in the <iNew Yorker.

    Here’s a rough equivalent: “Ol’ Martin Luther cried to St. Anna that he would become a monk with an unbreakable vow, and we saw how that turned out!”


    I have no doubt Hitchens was a brilliant guy. Probably more brilliant when he and the listener were on drink #>2.

  9. Rich

    Doesn’t “more” imply two? Is there some other person ordained at Tibilisi who would make an ironic contrast with Stalin?

    I don’t care really. I didn’t like Christopher Hitchens anyway.

  10. Greg Locke

    I think it has to do with Hitchens’s loathing of the Catholic Church, and his frequent references to the Church as a totalitarian institution itself responsible for the deaths of millions over the years. Thus, in Hitchens’s view, Stalin’s “promise” as an “ordinand” was fulfilled when he became a mass murderer, of which Hitchens would have thought the Church would have been proud.

  11. GoneWithTheWind

    Hitchens had a natural gift and the opportunity to attend some of the best schools in the world. Arguably he was brilliant. But he didn’t save the world or save a nation or even save a single person. He didn’t invent anything, did not discover anything and didn’t dedicate his life or skills to good works. My surgeon did more “good” in three hours then Hitchens did in his entire life. I don’t dislike Hitchens but my gut feeling is he wouldn’t lift a finger to save a fellow human especially if it risked spilling his drink. The real heros are the doctors, nurses, EMT’s and other health care workers right there in your own town. The firemen and policemen (most of them anyway) who save lives and protect property. The world is full of good people doing good and necessary work. Hitchens was just another talking head with a flair for pissing people off.

  12. Noblesse Oblige

    Can anyone name another “Tbilisi ordinand?”

  13. Briggs


    Some good suggestions here. But do any rise to the exospheric levels that Buckley would think of it “one thousand times” over his life? That his dinner companion would cease shoveling it in to say it was “brilliant”? No. We are missing it. Rich might be on to the scent by figuring there was a contemporary? Or is it as suggested, that Hitchens’s sense of humor is twisted by his hatred of Christianity?

    JH — I’d ask if I could. You have his number?

  14. Luis Dias

    GoneWithTheWind, chill out. That kind of inane attack to someone you clearly are incapable of even googling about tells us more about your own personal frustrations than it does inform the audience about Hitchens.

    About the question, was it not Buckley that had the tendency to reach for simplistic pop laughs, being tsc’d tsc’d by Hitchens himself? It may well come to be a self-reference joke, although I also think that Buckley himself wasn’t really conscious about that detail.

    Above all that, RIP Hitchens. He will be missed. He had a really good way with words and I advise the audience to lose themselves on youtube archives with his speeches. Perhaps the religious will find the experience abominable, but then again that’s just one more good reason to do so.

  15. Luis Dias

    …. And since we were discussing the abominable concept of “free will” the other day, what Hitchens had to say about this was also witty and concise. Do you believe in free will, mr Christopher? “Well, the believer will say, why yes, god gave it to me. And I believe it coz the boss says so.” That’s brilliant. “While I say, of course I have free will, I have no other choice. But you see, at least I am aware of the irony of saying that”.

    I’m paraphrasing, but that’s Hitchens in his best.

  16. David Archibald

    Humor comes from incongruous juxtaposition. Thus the early promise against the horror of Stalin’s death toll. He got that to work by using words that connected to Georgia (Tibilisi) and priestly training (ordinands). It was an insider joke because his dinner companions would know that very few people would know the meaning of the words Tilbilisi and ordinands. Yes, to think that quickly means that he was a great wit.

    But Hitchins got religion wrong. Religion is an extension of evolution by non-physical means, in the first instance to get the adult males to work together and not fight over the females. Some religions do this better than others, and thus some societies are more successful than others.

  17. SM

    I’m with Katie on this. Haha… Priest and mass murderer at the same time…. priest and **insert other types of bad people here***… its just funny in a sad way… because it shouldn’t be funny =/

  18. Jim Fedako

    I believe it is a wink to the Jesuits …

    “The jesuitical regime that reigned in the seminary aroused in Stalin a burning sense of protest and strengthened his revolutionary sentiments. At the age of fifteen Stalin became a revolutionary.” (From Stalin from Marxists.org)

  19. GoneWithTheWind

    Luis, you need to set your sights higher. Name the best thing Hitchens ever did. Why is he your hero? Hopefully it is something more then the fact he has passed away.

  20. nvw

    Perhaps Stalin was dyslexic and thought of religion and the Jesuits “if you can’t join them, beat them”

  21. I doubt there’s anything profound or veiled in Hitchens’ remark. Robert, Katie, and David Archibald are probably right on the money in their analyses.

    GWTW, perhaps we should all become first responders and/or medical professionals, which would leave a lot of farm tractors unmanned, but hey, we’d all be heroes, right?

    There have been many like Hitchens, whose fame derived from a satirical wit and intellectual discernment. How unwise of them, not to have become nurses! Or something important!

    No, Hitchens’ supposed uselessness is not his annoying (to you) attribute. it is his godlessness that constitutes the burr under your saddle, making your ride less smooth. It wouldn’t matter what good he might’ve accomplished, his non-theism would render his worth invisible to your narrow field of vision.

    In fact, he accomplished much, and helped me immeasurably.

  22. dearieme

    I’m a bit puzzled here. Why is anyone discussing the Roman Catholic Church in the context of an anecdote touching on Stalin’s childhood?

    “very few people would know the meaning of the words Tilbilisi and ordinands”: in the US perhaps. It would be less rarified knowledge when and where Hitchens grew up.

    “Could have been “candidate” or perhaps “seminarian” “: could be, but pretty unlikely from a Brit – “ordinand” seems the natural word to me.

    Anyway, back to the topic. Perhaps Hitch was alluding to Stalin’s adopting, in truth or in lip-service, a new god: The Proletariat.

  23. Gary

    You want irony? The name Christopher means he who holds Christ in his heart. Maybe his parents were hoping for his ordination someday, too. Perhaps a psychological profiler can find a never-resolved childhood rebelliousness that made Hitchens so eager to be disagreeable.

  24. dearieme

    “a never-resolved childhood rebelliousness that made Hitchens so eager to be disagreeable” oh go on – he was probably just born that way.

  25. Luis Dias

    It’s worse than that, dearieme. People just like to make stuff up, specially about those whose opinions threaten to shatter their worldviews.

    Take GoneWithTheWind’s example. His request for Hitchens having have made an heroic “feat” for one to admire him is as inane as unbelievable. I will suffer no such small mindedness no more for it really annoys me.

  26. Ken

    RE: “Indeed, was he (the future J. Stalin) not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”

    WHAT Christopher Hitchens (C.H.) [Certainly] Meant:

    That one could appear so devout as to get a religious scholarship to a seminary as the future J. Stalin did (i.e. to gain such a prize he was a “more promising” student prospect than most of the class)…then become a major persecutor of the church, and more, in ways completely antiethical to the church’s values. Many note (its a recurring theme/observation among “many”) that those that espouse the most civility…the most ideologically uptopian visions as achievable realities…are also the very same people that, if/when in power, become the most tyrranical despots. How can people that look so good/wholesome so consistently often turn out so evil when given the chance? That’s an issue people of numerous disciplines have observed & pondered for generations.

    C.H.’s remark is one of thousands of such remarks he made that were very succinct summaries of oft-observed [& often little appreciated] patterns of behavior–remarks further sophisticated by their use of allegory & embedded knowledge of history beyond that usually taught in school, etc. In the above, the involvement of a religious link is secondary, or coincidental, to the larger observation: ‘Beware of those idealists preaching utopia–they are the ones most likely to turn despotic, as history shows time & again.’

    This is like that e-mail that gets passed around about two historical leaders unnamed until one gets to the end of the narrative list, one never had an affair & never/hardly drank…the other a notorious drunk womanizer, etc. etc. Of course, the wholesome [-appearing] person was A. Hitler, the [seeming] creep was/is FDR/Churchill/Good Guy [well, in some ways, the “Good Guy” really was a creep–but in ways that mattered relative to his position & constituency, that didn’t matter. Hitchen captured the very same observation more broadly with an elegant remark.

    When evaluating character & its relation to position-performance, we as a general rule place the wrong weights on all the wrong indicators. It’s a lesson we keep failing to learn.

    Why is this so hard for so many to see?????

    As a general pattern, C.H. was not uniformly easy on politicians that shared his general political views/values and often chastised them when he thought appropriate (e.g. he was quite harsh on the Nobel group for awarding Obama the Peace Prize, and, on Obama for accepting it). The above interpretation is consistent with his pattern in this regard. C.H. may have leaned liberal, but he routinely balanced that value system with pragmatic realities in lieu of idealism.

    Part of what made C.H. so renowned was his ability to chastise, often quite harshly, his targets of criticism–and till retain their respect & support withou incurring their wrath. That is a very rare skill. Will Rogers, who routinely made fun of politicians (calling them our “hired help”), was another of note, though more likeable, generally.

  27. dearieme

    Will Rogers: now you’re talking. A great favourite of my father’s, who called him “the leading American philosopher” – a joke that gets better and better as the years go by.

  28. LexisTexas

    Ken’s analysis says a lot and imparts even less. Were Hitchen’s remark simply darkly ironic, i.e., Ken’s rather pedestrian insight that one who begins with good intentions often ends up doing evil, it still would not account for the specific reference to Tblisi. To complete the irony “promising” would have to refer to other Tblisi ordinands that later became monsters, thus Stalin was only one among many from Tblisi that inverted their original orders. But there is no evidence of that.

    My take: Buckley’s eulogy repeatedly emphasizes their mutual love of Wodehouse. Buckley simply extends a joke that pervades Wodehouse in that a joke, reference or analogy, however obtuse or obscure, is made by one party, and the other, fearing exposing himself to ignorance, laughs heartily, impressed by its apparent erudite pithiness. He then repeats that same vague bon mot to other friends, receiving, in turn, the same admiration given earlier. The joke is that the hearer never understood the joke in the first place, and feigned a shared laugh (like our own earnest Leftist watching Maher) in order to earn membership in the tribe of the witty and knowing.

    “Tblisi” was not a real joke…it is s a Wodehouse prank by Buckley.

  29. Rich

    Ken: so could I paraphrase Hitchens’s remark as, “Turned out well for a priest, then”?

  30. Briggs


    Maybe so; yours is the best explanation yet. But if it’s true, then Christopher Buckley becomes the best example of regression to the mean that we can ever hope to see.

  31. Ken


    1) Why, in your assessment, does “the specific reference to Tblisi [sic]” mandate some special attention? (recall: “…it still would not account for the specific reference to Tblisi”)

    Given that J. Stalin was on a scholarship to the Orthodox Seminary located in Tbilisi, there seems absolutely no signficance to the mention of Tbilisi other than the people discussing the topic knew about their subject in proper context…which is clearly more than can be said for some here.

    2) Why does this remark make any sense: “To complete the irony “promising” would have to refer to other Tblisi ordinands that later became monsters”?

    The discussion then being held was solely about one historical figure, Stalin….so why, in your assessment, would mention that he was ‘among the promising’ [as proven by the fact he entered Tbilisi’s Seminary via a scholarship] mandate (“would have to”) refer to others?

    At best you’re extrapolating to a logical fallacy of the sort: ‘All mafioso are descended from Sicilians…therefore….if one is Sicilian then that one is a mafioso.’ A pattern does not have to be absolute & inviolate in all situations to qualify as a pattern.

    Rich, you could paraphrase it that way, but it would be wrong…the future Stalin never became a priest.

    C.Hitchen’s remark is clearly oriented to the very common theme of very good (or seemingly very good) people that also show signs of future greatness very often turning out to be very great but in very evil ways. Its a pattern observed in history and its a routine theme adapted to all types of literature, for example:
    – Satan was one of God’s top angles, but grew frustrated & became his top nemesis,
    – In the comic movie The Incredibles, the genius kid that wants to be the superhero’s ward, and gets rejected, out of frustration & anger becomes the arch-nemesis of all Superheros;
    – In Harry Potter, Voldemort was a top student wizard…and became the arch enemy;
    – Benedict Arnold, unquestionably a great general with great potential, was frustrated by another general that influenced G. Washington, & out of frustration Arnold defected to the other side (where he is still regarded as a true hero);
    – In one of the Superman movies (with Richard Pryor) Superman becomes the evil figure needed to accomplish the evil master plan…but manages to recover for the sort of happy ending that U.S. audiences demand;
    – The Christian story of Jesus fending off Satan’s temptations is a variation on this theme–where the ‘Figure of Greatest Purity’ does NOT get converted to evil [as one usually observes in similar stories] thus reinforcing his divinity (in stories involving demonic possession, which take this general concept to the extreme, the common plotline is that the person targeted for demonic possession is the person identified as most innocent — the adorable sweet child over the crotchety neighbor, etc.);
    – etc.

    The recurrence of a seemingly exceptionally wholesome person becoming a particularly evil figure is a core precept in many religions/religious stories; is observed throughout history among many figures; and is a funamental recurring theme in numerous movies & cartoons that even kids comprehend….C. Hitchen’s remark is blatantly consistent with this simple theme (and both elegantly simple with substantial historical content that most readers/authors here clearly didn’t bother to research with a few seconds of internet searching to appreciate in true historical context)…hopefully most of the readers of this blog will “get” the concept so apparent to even children.

  32. Hank Stamper

    I read and enjoyed the piece. I too stumbled over the line, and when I saw that Buckely felt the need to mention it again, I felt I had truly missed something.

    The fact that more than 30 of you can’t adequatley explain it either leads me to believe I did not miss that much.

  33. Mike B

    Suppose you have two old friends, one a psychology grad from Ohio State (call him Chris), and the other a mathematics grad from Michigan(call him Bill). Over the years, Bill and Chris have enjoyed a lively debate, from topics ranging from football to which of their respective college majors produced stranger grad students.

    At some point in time, Chris is bound to something along the following lines:

    “Indeed, was not Kaczynski one of the more promising Wolverine polymaths?”

    It’s a dig. A rather indelicate but nonetheless clever dig.

    Hitchens is a rather well known atheist, author of a book called, “God is Not Great” and has made his hatred of Religion, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, quite well known. Buckley and Hitchens had many debates over the years on the topic, and despite their disagreements, were good friends.

    Buckley’s fascination with this particular incident has less to do with any particular insight delivered, but more with the facile, erudite manner in which he was able to slip in the dig.

  34. Kan

    The cleverness of the statement is that at almost any level of knowledge about Stalin, Georgia and priestly religions, a juxtaposition will lead to an irony. Brilliance (wow) is proclaimed upon this recognition.

  35. PaddikJ

    “Greg Locke says:
    20 December 2011 at 5:21 pm”

    Bingo, and obvious to anyone who has read any of Hitchens’ bitter anti-religion (esp.anti-catholic) rants.

    But when in his bitter (and probably drunk) God is Not Great moods, Hitchens was amusing in ways that he probably didn’t intend, much like Andy Partridge in his song “Dear God”, where he spends about four minutes bitterly ragging on a being which by song’s end he admits he doesn’t believe in.

    Back to wrapping. Hey! Just noticed it’s after midnight on the east coast. Merry Christmas!

  36. @ PaddikJ —

    I saw nothing unintentionally amusing in the song, “Dear God.” The fact that you think you “know” something that does (and indeed, should, were it true) make you annoyingly smug doesn’t make A. Partridge stupidly amusing, at least not due to the fact that he sings for four whole minutes (OH! It must’ve seemed an eternity to you!) about a being (sic) in which he holds no belief.

    In fact, only a smug person would think the song odd, or unintentionally amusing. Smugness and a desire to get at the truth are usually incompatible mindsets.

  37. Wat Dabney

    Sheesh. Some people.

    Hitchens now joins the list of deceased I’d invite to a dinner party, along with Peter Cook, Bill Hicks, Sir Thomas More and Hitler. It’s going to be great. We’re having salmon.

  38. Burrs Wogdon

    Sometimes the source of something like wit is elusive. It’s difficult to slit the songbirds throat and find beauty.

    Another irony set in while I read this anecdote: Hitchens once made Forbes’ list of 25 most influential liberals (the composers of that list confessed that Hitchens would probably not be pleased about it). One would think -if I haven’t misinterpreted Lenin- that a Trotskyite would be more than a little nonplussed at recognition of his great influence among the liberal borgeoisie. It’s hard to deny that Hitchens made a fine living as a journalist penning essays for liberal periodicals. “indeed, one of the more promising of the Marxian initiates.”

  39. Jan Oser

    It was gratifying to learn that I had lots of company in being puzzled by Christopher Buckley’s reaction to Christopher Hitchens’ remark about the Tbilisi ordinands. Reading the posts was an enjoyable exercise, although not quite as enjoyable as reading Christopher Buckley’s essays in “But Enough About You,” a book I picked up recently from the Strand kiosk next to Central Park.

    My own take is that the Wow factor in Hitchens’ quip was the breadth of its reach–all priests, all organized religion. If I heard it at a dinner party, though, even if I got it, I wouldn’t stop eating.

  40. Burrs Wogdon demonstrates his understanding of the joke in the best way possible, by reproducing its structure. All the rest is Wodehousian guff.

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