Stalin, Josef Vissarionovich

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(18791953), general secretary of the Communist Party, Soviet dictator.

Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who in revolutionary work was called Koba before adopting the nom de plume Stalin, was born in Gori, Georgia, to a working-class family; his father was a cobbler and his mother a domestic servant. Many of the details of his early life remain in dispute, but his education was gained at a local church school and the Tiflis (Tbilisi in Georgian) Orthodox seminary, from which he was expelled in 1899. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party soon after its foundation, and in 1901 was elected to the Tiflis Social Democratic Committee. Following the split in the party in 1903, Stalin became a Bolshevik. For the following decade and a half, he was involved in a variety of revolutionary activities, including the publication of illegal materials, organizational work among workers and within the party, and bank raids to garner funds to sustain party work. He met Vladimir Lenin in 1905, and briefly traveled abroad on party business to Stockholm, London, Kracow, and Vienna. In 1912 he was elected in his absence onto the party Central Committee and became an editor of the party newspaper, Pravda. In 1913 he wrote his most important early work, Marxism and the National Question. His revolutionary work was interrupted by arrest in 1902, 1909, 1912, and 1913; he escaped from the first three bouts of exile and returned to Petrograd from the last one when the tsar fell in February 1917. In 1903 he married his first wife, Yekaterina Svanidze, his son Yakov was born in 1904, and his wife died of tuberculosis in 1907.

When Stalin returned to Petrograd soon after the tsar's fall, he was one of the leading Bolsheviks in the city. He was elected to the newly established Russian bureau of the party and to the editorial board of Pravda. Along with Vyacheslav Molotov and Lev Kamenev, he championed the policy of support for the Provisional Government and a defensist position on the war, until Vladimir Lenin returned in April and overturned these in favor of a more revolutionary stance. Stalin went along with Lenin's views. During the revolutionary period, Stalin seems to have spent most of his time on organizational work. He was not a stirring speaker like Trotsky or someone with the presence of Lenin, and therefore after the return of Lenin and the emigrés, he was not seen as one of the leading lights of the party. Nevertheless, following the seizure of power in October, Stalin became people's commissar for nationalities, a position that from April 1919 he held jointly with the post of people's commissar of state control (from February 1920, the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate). The latter post was concerned with the elimination of corruption and inefficiency in the central state machine. During the civil war, Stalin was active on a series of military fronts, and it was at this time that his first major clash with Leon Trotsky occurred. More importantly, when the Politburo, Orgburo, and Secretariat of the Central Committee were established in March 1919, Stalin became a member of all three. He was the only member simultaneously of these bodies and the CC, and was therefore in a place of significant organizational power. In April 1922 he was elected general secretary of the party, and therefore the formal head of the party's organizational machine. With Lenin's illness from May 1922 and his death in January 1924, Stalin was able to make use of this power to consolidate his control at the top of the party structure.

Lenin's death was followed by intensified factional conflict among his would-be successors.

Between 1923 and 1929, Stalin and his supporters successively outmaneuvered Trotsky and his supporters, the Left Opposition, the United Opposition, and the Right Opposition, so that by the end of the decade, Stalin was primus inter pares. Stalin's success in these factional conflicts has usually been attributed to the organizational powers stemming from his ability to use the machinery of the party to promote his supporters and exclude the supporters of his opponents. This was clearly a significant factor in his ability to outflank his opponents at party meetings and use those symbolically to defeat them through a party vote. Stalin was the source of jobs, and therefore someone who was attractive to many with ambitions in Soviet politics. But Stalin was also a person who espoused the sorts of policies that would have appealed to many rank-and-file Bolsheviks: The ability of the USSR to build socialism in one country rather than having to wait for international revolution and the need to shift from the gradualist framework of NEP into a more revolutionary attempt to build socialism, were two of the most important of such policies. Thus through a combination of the weaknesses of his opponents, the strength of his organizational power, and the attractiveness of many of the positions he espoused, Stalin was able to triumph over his more fancied rivals for leadership; he was even able to overcome the negative evaluation of him in Lenin's so-called Testament.

Stalin's defeat of his more prominent rivals did not mean that he was secure in the leadership of the party in the early 1930s. At the end of 1927, at Stalin's behest the party adopted the first of a series of decisions that led to the abandonment of the moderation of the New Economic Policy and its replacement by an increasingly rapid pace of industrialization and agricultural collectivization. This produced continuing strains within the party, even when the most prominent opponents of this new coursethe Right Opposition led by Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky had been defeated in 1929. In late 1930 the Syrtsov-Lominadze group and in 1932 the Ryutin Platform were two important instances of high-ranking party members criticizing the course of economic policy, with the latter even calling for Stalin's removal. For many within the party's leading ranks, the gamble on forced pace industrialization and agricultural collectivization, while justifiable in terms of the achievement of the ultimate goal of a socialist society, was in practice proving to be more costly and disruptive than they had been led to believe. The reports of widespread popular opposition to collectivization raised the specter of the increased isolation of the party within the society; the trials of so-called saboteurs in 1930 and 1931 only increased this sense. They were not reassured by the increasing glorification of Stalin personally that began on his fiftieth birthday in December 1929. The cult of Stalin that thus emerged was clearly an attempt to shift the basis of political legitimacy away from the party and onto the person of Stalin.

At this time of political uncertainty, in November 1932 Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva who he had married in 1919, died. At the time it was announced that she had died of a heart attack, but it was widely believed that she had shot herself. There have also been rumors that Stalin himself killed her, but the truth is still not known.

In 1933 a party purge, or chistka, was announced. This was to be a bloodless affair involving a check on the performance of all party members and the expulsion of those whose performance was found to be deficient. This was followed by similar campaigns in 1935 and 1936. Against this background of suspicion of the true beliefs and commitment of some party members, the seventeenth congress of the party was held in JanuaryFebruary 1934. This congress, the so-called Congress of Victors, announced the successful completion of collectivization, and although there was a significant level of public glorification of Stalin, there was also evidence of some high-level dissatisfaction with him. In December of that year, Leningrad party boss and close associate of Stalin, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated. Kirov's death was used as an excuse to crack down on various elements including so-called Trotskyites and Zinovievites. In January 1935, Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and seventeen other members of a reputed "center" were tried and convicted of moral and political responsibility for the death of Kirov, and were sentenced to imprisonment. This wave of purging tapered off by the middle of 1935. However, it surged once again in 1936, paradoxically at the time of the discussion of the new Stalin state Constitution adopted in December 1936, lasting unabated until the end of 1938. The so-called Great Terror, symbolized by the show trials of Old Bolsheviks in August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938, destroyed all semblance of opposition to Stalin and left him supreme at the apex of the party. He was now the unchallenged leader of the country, the vozhd, untrammelled by considerations of collective leadership, the absolute arbiter of the futures of all of those who worked with him in the leadership and in the country as a whole.

The personal primacy of Stalin, symbolically celebrated in a new peak of adulation at the time of his sixtieth birthday, occurred at a time of increasing international tension. In August 1939 the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed, an agreement that Stalin had actively sought. The results of that pact were played out in the following two years, with Soviet territorial gains on its western border. In May 1941 Stalin became chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, or prime minister, to add to his position as General secretary. The following month, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, ushering in a new phase in Stalin's leadership, that of the war leader.

From the time of the attack, Stalin was closely involved in organizing the defense of the Soviet Union. The long public delay in any announcement from him following the opening of hostilities led many to claim that Stalin, who had seemingly ignored

all warnings about the likelihood of German attack, had been mentally paralyzed by the attack and took no part in the initial Soviet response. However, it has now become clear that Stalin was busy in meetings during this time, participating as he did right through the war in the resolution of issues not just of civil government but of military strategy and tactics. Throughout the conflict, Stalin was closely involved in a practical capacity in directing the Soviet war effort. He was also important symbolically. By mobilizing Russian nationalism and presenting himself as its personification, Stalin became the ultimate symbol of both the Soviet populace and its armed forces. His refusal to leave Moscow, even when German troops were at its gates, reinforced this image. It is probable that the war ushered in the highest point of Stalin's real, as opposed to cult-presented, popularity. Stalin became known as the Generalissimo.

With the end of the war, the Soviet Union was clearly one of the leading powers remaining and Stalin was an international figure, as symbolized by his presence at the conferences with the British and U.S. leaders in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. He ruled over not only the Soviet Union, but also the newly established socialist states in Eastern Europe. At home, there was a return to orthodoxy as controls were tightened once again following the relaxation of the wartime period. Stalin's personal control remained undiminished. The leadership functioned as Stalin demanded; formal party organs were largely replaced by loose groupings of individual leaders summoned at Stalin's whim and carrying out whatever tasks he accorded to them.

Always a suspicious man, Stalin's sense of paranoia seems to have grown in the post-war period, something fueled by the Cold War. Although there were no purges on the scale of the 1930s, the more limited use of coercion and terror occurred in the Leningrad affair of 19491950, the Mingrelian case of 19511952, and the Doctors' Plot of 19521953. As in the 1930s, such purging occurred against a backdrop of the apogee of the Stalin cult at the time of his seventieth birthday in 1949. In this period, Stalin was probably more detached from the daily process of political life than he had ever been. But this does not mean that he was any less powerful; he still set the tenor of political life, and he was in a position to be able to decide any issue he wished to decide, which is the true measure of a dictator. His colleagues, really subordinates, may have maneuvered among themselves for increased power and for particular policy positions, but none challenged his primacy. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, probably of natural causes; some have argued that some of his leadership colleagues may have poisoned him, but there has been no evidence to sustain this accusation.

Both of Stalin's wives died at an early age, and he seems to have had difficult relations with his children. From his second marriage he had a son, Vasily (b. 1921) and a daughter Svetlana (b. 1926), both of whom outlived him. Stalin seems to have had little personal contact with either of these children or with Yakov, his son by his first marriage. Vasily joined the air force during the war and through his father's patronage quickly rose to a leadership position. He subsequently became an alcoholic. Yakov was in the army and was captured by the Germans; reports suggest that Stalin refused a prisoner swap that would have returned Yakov to him. After Stalin's death, Svetlana married a citizen of India, and when he died in 1966 she took his body to India and decided to remain abroad, returning briefly in 1984.

Stalin was the longest-serving leader of the Soviet Union and clearly left a major imprint on its development. He has been described as cruel, secretive, manipulative, opportunistic, doctrinaire, paranoid, devoid of human feelings and sentiment, single-minded, and power-hungry. All of these descriptions can find sustenance in different aspects of Stalin's biography. Where the balance lies remains a matter of debate. What is clear is that when he believed it was required, he could be ruthless in the actions he took against both enemies and supposed friends. In this sense, he was a man of action. He was not an intellectual, despite the claims of the cult. His literary output was moderate in size and generally both turgid in prose and mechanical in its arguments, but it did gain the status of orthodoxy within the USSR, a function of his political dominance rather than the intrinsic merit of his work.

Stalin's life remains the subject of debate. Many aspects are still highly controversial, with scholars disagreeing widely on them. The following are among the most important of these.

Why was Stalin victorious? This question has often been posed in a broader form: Why did the Stalinist system emerge in the Soviet Union, the first attempt to create a socialist society on a national scale? Debate on this question has been vigorous precisely because of the implications its answer was seen to have for socialist aspirations more generally. Many, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, argued that such a system was a logical, even inevitable, result of revolution and the sort of system that Lenin set in place. Others argued that, while the Leninist system may have made a highly coercive, undemocratic system more likely, this was neither the necessary nor inevitable outcome of either the revolution or Leninism. Many argued the primacy of organizational factors, especially the power Stalin was able to gain and exercise within the party apparatus. Others emphasized the importance of Stalin's personality, skills, and talents, especially in contrast to those of his opponents. Another strand of argument focused upon the regime's desire to bring about substantial socioeconomic change in an economically and politically backward society, a situation requiring a high level of centralization and coercion. Others noted the role of the party's isolation in Soviet society and the nature of the recruits flowing into its ranks. This question remains unresolved, but an answer, most now agree, involves elements of all of the arguments noted above.

Was Stalin responsible for Kirov's assassination? Those supporting the view that Stalin was responsible argue that Kirov was seen as a possible challenge to or replacement for Stalin, and accordingly Stalin had him assassinated. Other suggestions have been that Kirov's killer was indeed working for a bloc of oppositionists as Stalin and his supporters claimed, that he was working alone, or that it was the security apparatus who had planned a failed assassination attempt to boost their institutional stocks but that this went wrong. Despite research in the archives, no definitive answer has been forthcoming, and all cases remain circumstantial.

There is now no doubt about Stalin's responsibility for the terror. This was not a normal party purge that went off the rails. Given Stalin's position in the party organization and the position occupied by his supporters, this could not have gone ahead without his permission. He probably did not have an exact idea of how many people suffered during the terror, but he must have had an idea of the general dimensions, and he certainly knew of some of the individuals who perished, because he signed lists of victims submitted to him. Ultimately Stalin was responsible, even if the primary role in the direction of it lay with his henchmen.

Was Stalin planning another major purge when he died? Those who argue in favor of this point to the buildup of pressure through the Leningrad affair, the Mingrelian case, and the Doctors' Plot, and the enlargement of the party Presidium at the nineteenth congress of the party in October 1952. This was seen as preparatory to purging some of the older established leaders and bringing newer ones forward. Many of those who accept this logic also accept that Stalin was poisoned. There is no firm evidence about Stalin's intentions either way, and unless compelling evidence comes from the archives, this will remain a moot point.

Finally there is the question of the costs and benefits of Stalin and his regime. Under his rule, the Soviet Union moved from being a backward, predominantly agricultural country to one of the two superpowers on the globe. The living standards of many of its people rose significantly, as did literacy and education levels. Urbanization transformed the landscape. And the Soviet Union won the war against Hitler, something that would have been highly unlikely without high-level industrialization. But critics point to the costs: millions killed as a result of famine, terror, and collectivization; the massive wastage of resources; the establishment of an economic system that ultimately could not sustain itself; the development of a society which crushed individual initiative and free thinking. This was an ambiguous legacy, and one that therefore was difficult for the regime to handle. Under Khrushchev, destalinization was a limited policy that refused to come to grips with the reality of the Stalin regime. When discussion was again permitted, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the political circumstances of the time prevented a balanced evaluation from emerging. Russia still must broach this question, but it is likely that this will only happen in a satisfactory way when the Stalin issue is not seen to have contemporary political relevance. That may be some time off.

See also: cold war; collectivization of agriculture; cult of personality; de-stalinization; economic growth, soviet; industrialization, soviet; kirov, sergei mironovich; nazi-soviet pact of 1939; purges, the great; show trials; state security, organs of; world war ii


Gill, Graeme. (1990). The Origins of the Stalinist Political System. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hingley, Ronald. (1974). Joseph Stalin: Man and Legend. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tucker, Robert C. (1973). Stalin as Revolutionary 18791929: A Study in History and Personality. London: Chatto & Windus.

Tucker, Robert C. (1990). Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 192841. New York: Norton.

Ulam, Adam B. (1989). Stalin: The Man and His Era. Boston: Beacon.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. (1991): Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove.

Graeme Gill