Joseph Stalin (December 18, 1878 – March 5, 1953) was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953. During that time he established the regime now known as Stalinism. As one of several Central Committee Secretariats, Stalin's formal position was originally limited in scope, but he gradually consolidated power and became the de facto party leader and ruler of the Soviet Union.
Stalin launched a command economy in the Soviet Union, forced rapid industrialization of the largely rural country and collectivization of its agriculture. While the Soviet Union transformed from an agrarian economy to a major industrial powerhouse in a short span of time, it is often estimated that millions of people died from hardships and famine that occurred as a result of the severe economic upheaval and party policies. At the end of 1930s, Stalin launched the Great Purges, a major campaign of repression against millions of people who were suspected of being a threat to the party were executed or exiled to Gulag labor camps in remote areas of Siberia or Central Asia. A number of ethnic groups in Russia were moved out of Russia by force.
During Stalin's reign, the Soviet Union played a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War (1939–1945) (more commonly known in Russia and post-Soviet republics as the Great Patriotic War). Under Stalin's leadership, the Soviet Union went on to achieve recognition as one of just two superpowers in the post-war era, a status that lasted for nearly four decades after his death until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Childhood and education, 1878–1899
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia. He adopted the name Stalin, which is derived from the Russian for "steel", in 1913. His mother was born a serf. Stalin's father Vissarion was a cobbler. He was their third child; their two previous sons died in infancy. Initially, their lives were prosperous and happy, but Stalin's father became an alcoholic, which gradually led to his business failing and him becoming violently abusive to his wife and child. One of Stalin's friends from childhood, Ioseb Iremashvili, felt that the beatings by Stalin's father gave him the hatred of authority. In his contention, Beso taught him to hate people. In 1888, after a drunken brawl with a policeman, Stalin's father was banished from Gori and moved to Tiflis, leaving his wife and son behind. At about seven years of age Stalin fell ill with smallpox and his face was badly scarred by the disease. He later had photographs retouched to make his pockmarks less apparent. At the age of eight, "Soso" began his education at the Gori Church School, much to the opposition of his father. Joseph and most of his classmates at Gori were Georgians and spoke mostly Georgian. However, at school they were forced to use Russian. Their Russian teachers mocked the accents of their Georgian students, but Stalin nonetheless earned their respect and admiration by being the best student in the class. His peers were mostly the sons of affluent priests, officials, and merchants.
In 1890, at the age of 12, Stalin was run over by a horse-drawn carriage. He was taken to hospital in Tiflis where he spent months in care. After he recovered, his father seized the opportunity to kidnap the boy and enroll him as an apprentice cobbler at the shoe factory where he worked. When his mother, through the aid of contacts in the clergy and school staff, recovered him, his father cut off all financial support to his wife and son, leaving them to fend for themselves. Stalin returned to his school in Gori where he continued to excel.
He graduated first in his class and in 1892, at the age of 14, he was awarded a scholarship to the Georgian Orthodox Seminary of Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia). His mother wanted him to be a priest (even after he had become leader of the Soviet Union). In addition to the scholarship, Stalin was paid a small stipend for singing in the choir. A wonderful singer, Stalin supplemented this income by being regularly employed to sing at weddings.
Stalin's teachers at Tiflis Seminary, like his teachers at Gori, insisted on speaking Russian and looked down on the Georgian tongue. Like many of his comrades, young Stalin reacted by being drawn to Georgian patriotism. He began writing poetry in Georgian, and he became famous among Georgians as a poet long before he was known as a revolutionary. In 1901, the Georgian clergyman M. Kelendzheridze wrote an educational book on language arts, including one of Stalin’s poems, signed by 'Soselo'. In 1907 the same editor published “A Georgian Chrestomathy, or collection of the best examples of Georgian literature” including a poem of Stalin’s dedicated to Raphael Eristavi. His poetry can still be seen in the Stalin Museum in Gori.
Stalin's involvement with the Marxist movement began at the seminary. During these school years, Stalin joined a Georgian Social-Democratic organization. While their teachers thought they were studying the Bible, Stalin and his comrades were really reading the works of Karl Marx and Georgi Plekhanov. During this period, Stalin read the novel The Patricide (1883) by Alexander Kazbegi, where a Robin Hood–like figure named Koba defends the poor Georgian people against their greedy Russian rulers. Increasingly seeing himself as a defender of the poor, Stalin chose "Koba" as his first revolutionary pseudonym.
Stalin quit the seminary in 1899 just before his final examinations. However, official biographies preferred to state that he was expelled. According to the official biographies, this was done by Georgy Dolganev, the seminary rector. Twenty of his fellow-classmates were expelled for revolutionary activities in 1899, and forty more would be expelled in 1901.
Early years as a Marxist revolutionary, 1899–1917
Stalin (or "Koba", as he was then known), along with his sidekick "Kamo", organized the expelled seminarians into a Marxist street gang which soon ran a protection racket in the workers' districts of Tiflis. A number of historians believe that Stalin was a double agent for the security “Okhrana” during this period of his life. Edward Ellis Smith argues this by citing Stalin's suspicious ability to escape from Okhrana dragnets, travel unimpeded, and rabble-rouse full time with no apparent source of income. One such example was the raid that occurred on the night of March 21-22 1901, when the majority of everyone who represented importance in the socialist-democratic movement in Tbilisi was arrested, except for Stalin, who was apparently "enjoying the balmy spring air, and in one of his to-hell-with-the-revolution moods, which is too impossible for serious consideration."
Following a suppressed workers' demonstration in 1901, Stalin fled to Batumi and got work at an oil refinery owned by the Rothschild family. Organizing the workers there, Stalin was almost certainly involved in a 1901 fire at the refinery designed to intimidate the Rothschilds into giving the workers a pay raise. In 1902, after he organized a demonstration in which 7000 workers clashed with imperial troops, Stalin was sent to the city jail — while there, he organized the criminals and was soon the boss of the jail. Following his trial, Stalin was transported to the katorga in Siberia. He soon escaped, however, and was back in Tiflis by the time of the Russian Revolution (1905). During this period, Stalin and Kamo engaged in a series of illegal fundraising activities, including kidnappings and bank robberies. Stalin was sent into penal exile a second time in 1908, and again quickly escaped.
In 1905, Stalin was still a supporter of the separate Georgian Social Democratic Party. By 1907, however, he had come to support the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, abandoning his Georgian nationalism for the more explicitly Marxist position of proletarian internationalism. Stalin sided with Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and came to adhere to Lenin's doctrine of democratic centralism. Stalin and Lenin both attended the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London in 1907. This congress consolidated the supremacy of Lenin's Bolshevik faction and debated strategy for communist revolution in Russia. Stalin never referred to his stay in London.
In January 1912, at the Prague Party Conference, Lenin led his Bolshevik faction out of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, founding the separate Bolshevik Party. Stalin was co-opted as a member of the new Bolshevik Central Committee.
In 1913, Stalin published Marxism and the National Question, the first time he used the pseudonym "Stalin" (meaning "man of steel"). This treatise was written while he was briefly in exile in Vienna and presents an orthodox, if somewhat unoriginal, Marxist position (c.f. Lenin's On the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914)).
Later in 1913, Stalin was sent into penal exile for a third time. This time he did not escape so quickly, and lived for the next four years in a small hamlet on the Yenisei River. While there he began a 2-year affair with Lidia Pereprygina, then aged 13, with whom he fathered two children.
Rise to Power, 1917–1927
In the wake of the February Revolution in February 1917 (the first phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917), Stalin was released from prison in March 1917. He moved to Saint Petersburg (which the revolutionaries renamed "Petrograd") and, together with Lev Kamenev and Matvei Muranov, ousted Vyacheslav Molotov and Alexander Shlyapnikov as editors of Pravda, the official Bolshevik newspaper, while Lenin and much of the Bolshevik leadership were still in exile. Stalin and the new editorial board took a position in favor of supporting Alexander Kerensky's provisional government (Molotov and Shlyapnikov had wanted to overthrow it) and went to the extent of declining to publish Lenin's articles arguing for the provisional government to be overthrown. However, after Lenin prevailed at the April Party conference, Stalin and the rest of the Pravda staff came on board with Lenin's view and called for overthrowing the provisional government. At this April 1917 Party conference, Stalin was elected to the Central Committee with the third highest vote total in the party and was subsequently elected to the Politburo of the Central Committee (May 1917); he held this position for the remainder of his life.
Later, in 1924, Stalin himself created a myth around a so-called "Party Centre" which "directed" all practical work pertaining to the uprising, consisting of himself, Sverdlov, Dzerzhinsky, Uritsky, and Bubnov. No evidence was ever shown for the activity of this "centre", which would, in any case, have been subordinate to the Military Revolutionary Council, headed by Trotsky.
Stalin, Arrested by the Tsars
During the Russian Civil War and Polish-Soviet War Stalin was a political commissar in the Red Army at various fronts. Stalin's first government position was as People's Commissar of Nationalities Affairs (1917–1923). In that position he traveled to Finland in late 1917, and promised the socialists there that the Soviet Union would aid their revolution. However, this aid was never given and the revolution in Finland was defeated.
He was also People's Commissar of the Workers and Peasants Inspection (1919–1922), a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the republic (1920–1923) and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets (from 1917).
Stalin played a decisive role in engineering the 1921 Red Army invasion of Georgia following which he adopted particularly hardline, centralist policies towards Soviet Georgia, which included severe repression of all opposition within the local Communist party (e.g., Georgian Affair of 1922), not to mention any manifestations of anti-Sovietism (August Uprising of 1924). It was in the Georgian affairs that Stalin first began to play his own hand.
An important feature of Stalin’s rise to power is the way that he manipulated his opponents and played them off against each other. Stalin formed a "troika" of himself, Zinoviev, and Kamenev against Trotsky. When Trotsky had been eliminated, Stalin then joined Bukharin and Rykov against Zinoviev and Kamenev, emphasising their vote against the insurrection in 1917. Zinoviev and Kamenev then turned to Lenin's widow, Krupskaya; they formed the "United Opposition" in July 1926.
In 1927 during the 15th Party Congress Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party and Kamenev lost his seat on the Central Committee. Stalin soon turned against the "Right Opposition", represented by his erstwhile allies, Bukharin and Rykov.
Stalin gained popular appeal from his presentation as a 'man of the people' from the poorer classes. The Russian people were tired from the world war and the civil war, and Stalin's policy of concentrating in building "Socialism in One Country" was seen as an optimistic antidote to war.
Stalin took great advantage of the ban on factionalism which meant that no group could openly go against the policies of the leader of the party because that meant creation of an opposition. By 1928 (the first year of the Five-Year Plans) Stalin was supreme among the leadership, and the following year Trotsky was exiled because of his opposition. Having also outmaneuvered Bukharin's Right Opposition and now advocating collectivization and industrialization, Stalin can be said to have exercised control over the party and the country.
However, as the popularity of other leaders such as Sergei Kirov and the so-called Ryutin Affair were to demonstrate, Stalin did not achieve absolute power until the Great Purge of 1936–1938.
Stalin, as head of the Politburo, consolidated near-absolute power in the 1930s with a Great Purge of the party, justified as an attempt to expel 'opportunists' and 'counter-revolutionary infiltrators'. Those targeted by the purge were often expelled from the party, however more severe measures ranged from banishment to the Gulag labor camps, to execution after trials held by NKVD troikas.
The Purges commenced after the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the popular leader of the party in Leningrad. Kirov was very close to Stalin and his assassination sent chills through the Bolshevik party. Publicly Stalin merely reacted to this assassination by tightening security and by seeking out alleged spies and counter-revolutionaries, but in effect he was removing those who might have threatened Stalin's leadership. This process then transformed itself into extensive purges.
Several trials known as the Moscow Trials were held, but the procedures were replicated throughout the country. There were four key trials during this period: the Trial of the Sixteen (August 1936); Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One (including Bukharin) in March 1938.
The repression of so many formerly high-ranking revolutionaries and party members led Leon Trotsky to claim that a "river of blood" separated Stalin's regime from that of Lenin. Solzhenitsyn alleges that Stalin drew inspiration from Lenin's regime with the presence of labor camps and the executions of political opponents that occurred during the Russian Civil War. Trotsky's August 1940 assassination in Mexico, where he had lived in exile since January 1937, eliminated the last of Stalin's opponents among the former Party leadership. Only three members of the "Old Bolsheviks" (Lenin's Politburo) now remained—Stalin himself, Mikhail Kalinin, and Vyacheslav Molotov.
No segment of society was left untouched during the purges. Article 58 of the legal code, listing prohibited "anti-Soviet activities", was applied in the broadest manner. Initially, the execution lists for the enemies of the people were confirmed by the Politburo.
Over time the procedure was greatly simplified and delegated down the line of command. People would inform on others arbitrarily, to attempt to redeem themselves, or to gain small retributions. The flimsiest pretexts were often enough to brand someone an "Enemy of the People," starting the cycle of public persecution and abuse, often proceeding to interrogation, torture and deportation, if not death. In parallel with the purges, efforts were made to rewrite the history in Soviet textbooks and other propaganda materials. Notable people executed by NKVD were removed from the texts and photographs as though they never existed. Gradually, the history of revolution was transformed to a story about just two key characters: Lenin and Stalin.
In light of revelations from the Soviet archives, historians now estimate that nearly 700,000 people were executed in the course of the terror, with the great mass of victims being ordinary peasants and workers.
World War II
In June 1941, Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, thus beginning the Great Patriotic War. Although expecting war with Germany, Stalin may not have expected an invasion to come so soon—and the Soviet Union was relatively unprepared for this invasion. An alternative theory suggested by Viktor Suvorov claims that Stalin had made aggressive preparations from the late 1930s on and was about to invade Germany in summer 1941. Thus, he believes Hitler only managed to forestall Stalin and the German invasion was in essence a pre-emptive strike. This theory was supported by Igor Bunich, Mikhail Meltyukhov and Edvard Radzinsky. In the diary of General Fedor von Boch, it is also mentioned that the Abwehr fully expected a Soviet attack against German forces in Poland no later than 1942. Such speculations are difficult to substantiate, however, as information on the Soviet Army from 1939 to 1941 remains classified, but it is known that the Soviets had received some warnings of the German invasion through their foreign intelligence agents, such as Richard Sorge.
Even though Stalin received intelligence warnings of a German attack, he sought to avoid any obvious defensive preparation which might further provoke the Germans, in the hope of buying time to modernize and strengthen his military forces. In the initial hours after the German attack commenced, Stalin hesitated, wanting to ensure that the German attack was sanctioned by Hitler, rather than the unauthorized action of a rogue general.
The Germans initially made huge advances, capturing and killing millions of Soviet troops. The Soviet Red Army put up fierce resistance during the war's early stages. Even so, they were plagued by an ineffective defense doctrine against the well-trained and experienced German forces, despite quite modern equipment, such as first heavy tank in the world, the KV-1.
Stalin feared that Hitler would use disgruntled Soviet citizens to fight his regime, particularly people imprisoned in the Gulags. He thus ordered the NKVD to take care of the situation. They responded by murdering around one hundred thousand political prisoners throughout the western parts of the Soviet Union, with methods that included bayoneting people to death and tossing grenades into crowded cells. Many others were simply deported east.
Hitler's experts had expected eight weeks of war, and early indications appeared to support their predictions. However, the invading German forces were eventually driven back in December 1941 near Moscow.
Stalin met in several conferences with Churchill and/or Roosevelt in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam to plan military strategy (Truman taking the place of the deceased Roosevelt).
Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta
In these conferences, his first appearances on the world stage, Stalin proved to be a formidable negotiator. His shortcomings as strategist are frequently noted regarding massive Soviet loss of life and early Soviet defeats. An example of it is the summer offensive of 1942, which led to even more losses by the Red Army and recapture of initiative by the Germans. Stalin eventually recognized his lack of know-how and relied on his professional generals to conduct the war.
Yet Stalin did rapidly move Soviet industrial production east of the Volga River, far from Luftwaffe-reach, to sustain the Red Army's war machine with astonishing success. Additionally, Stalin was well aware that other European armies had utterly disintegrated when faced with Nazi military efficacy and responded effectively by subjecting his army to galvanizing terror and anti-revolutionary, nationalist appeals to patriotism. He also appealed to the Russian Orthodox church and images of national Russian heroes. On November 6, 1941, Stalin addressed the whole nation of the Soviet Union for the second time. According to Stalin's Order No. 227 of July 27, 1942, any commander or commissar of a regiment, battalion or army, who allowed retreat without permission from above was subject to military tribunal. The Soviet soldiers who surrendered were declared traitors; however most of those who survived the brutality of German captivity were mobilized again as they were freed. Between 5% and 10% of them were sent to Gulag (As "traitors of Homeland". Soviet Criminal Code, §58, clause 1B: criminal conviction — 10 or later 25 years of labor camp plus 5 years without "citizen rights").
According to recent figures, of an estimated four million POWs taken by the Russians, including Germans, Japanese, Hungarians, Romanians and others, some 580,000 never returned, presumably victims of privation or the Gulags, compared with 3.5 million Soviet POW that died in German camps out of the 5.6 million taken.
Returning Soviet soldiers who had surrendered were viewed with suspicion and some were killed.
Domestically, Stalin was seen as a great wartime leader who had led the Soviets to victory against the Nazis. His early cooperation with Hitlerism was forgotten. That cooperation included helping the German Army violate the Versailles Treaty limitations with training in the Soviet Union, the notorious Molotov-von Ribbentrop treaty which partitioned Poland (giving Soviet Union what is now Belarus), and granted the Soviet Union a free hand in Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, and Soviet trade with Hitler to counteract the expected French and British trade blockades.
By the end of the 1940s, Russian patriotism increased due to successful propaganda efforts. For instance, some inventions and scientific discoveries were claimed by Russian propaganda. Examples include the boiler, reclaimed by father and son Cherepanovs; the electric bulb, by Yablochkov and Lodygin; the radio, by Popov; and the airplane, by Mozhaysky. Stalin's internal repressive policies continued (including in newly acquired territories), but never reached the extremes of the 1930s, in part because the smarter party functionaries had learned caution that they had to maintain until the dictator’s death in 1953.
On March 1, 1953, after an all-night dinner in his residence in Krylatskoye with interior minister Lavrentiy Beria and future premiers Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin did not emerge from his room, having probably suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body.
He was discovered lying on the floor of his room only at about 10 pm in the evening. Lavrentiy Beria was informed and arrived a few hours afterwards, and the doctors arrived only in the early morning of March, 2nd. Stalin died four days later, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 74, and was embalmed on March 9. His daughter Svetlana recalls the scene as she stood by his death bed: "He suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse upon all of us. The next moment after a final effort the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh." Officially, the cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage.
It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. The ex-Communist exile Avtorkhanov argued this point as early as 1975. The political memoirs of Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claimed that Beria had boasted to Molotov that he poisoned Stalin: "I took him out."
Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about "spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him", and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat.
In 2003, a joint group of Russian and American historians announced their view that Stalin ingested warfarin, a powerful rat poison that inhibits coagulation of the blood and so predisposes the victim to hemorrhagic stroke (cerebral hemorrhage). Since it is flavorless, warfarin is a plausible weapon of murder. The facts surrounding Stalin's death will probably never be known with certainty.
Back to Famous Russians