Stalin, Joseph (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili; 1878–1953)

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STALIN, JOSEPH (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili; 1878–1953)


Soviet leader.

Born in the Georgian town of Gori, Joseph Stalin (Iosif Dzhugashvili) rose from humble beginnings as the son of a shoemaker to become one of the most powerful men in the world at the time of his death. His dissolute father, Bessarion Dzhugashvili, and his religious mother, Yekaterina (Keke) Geladze, fought over their son's education, and the mother ultimately triumphed, sending the boy to a religious seminary. But after reaching the cosmopolitan city of Tiflis (Tbilisi), young Joseph (Soso) turned away from the church toward Marxism and a career as a professional revolutionary. Somewhat romantic as a youth—he wrote nationalist poetry in his native Georgian language—Soso Dzhugashvili identified with the hero of a Georgian novella named Koba and went by that name among his closest friends and comrades. As a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Party, he organized workers in the port town of Batumi, but his impetuous nature led to a reckless strike that ended with the police killing protestors. Arrested and sent into exile to Siberia, Dzhugashvili gravitated toward the more militant wing of the party, the Bolsheviks, and thereby broke with most of his fellow Georgian revolutionaries, who preferred the more moderate Mensheviks.

Moving on to the oil-producing center at Baku, Dzhugashvili engaged in underground party work rather than the open labor movement. Taking the name "Stalin," from the Russian word stal (steel), he met the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, whom he likened to a "mountain eagle." Lenin commissioned Stalin to write a pamphlet on the problem of non-Russian peoples in the Russian Empire, the so-called national question, and in 1913 he published his first major work, Marxism and the National Question, thus earning a reputation as an expert on that issue.

After stints in prison and several escapes, Stalin was liberated by the revolution of February 1917. He returned to the Russian capital, Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), and soon became a leading figure in the Bolshevik Party. At first his positions on key issues of the day were more moderate than Lenin's, but Stalin soon readjusted his views to conform to the party line. After the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, Stalin was named people's commissar of nationalities, responsible for the policies of the new Soviet state toward the non-Russians. While he was active on the southern front along the Volga River, Stalin's rivalry with the head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, contributed to the growing fractures in the party. Just before a stroke incapacitated him in March 1923, Lenin fought with Stalin over the formation of the new Soviet Union. Lenin preferred a genuine federation with some autonomy left for the non-Russian republics, but Stalin pressed for a more centralized state with greater power in Moscow. Lenin was furious with Stalin and wrote to his comrades:

Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.… Stalin is too rude, and this defect, though quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think of a way to remove Stalin from that post and appoint in his place another man who in all respects differs from Comrade Stalin in his superiority, that is, more loyal, more courteous and more considerate of the comrades, less capricious, etc. (Lenin, vol. 45, p. 346; author's translation)

Lenin's comrades did not heed his warning, and most of them paid with their lives a decade and a half later.


Even before Lenin died, Stalin had accumulated enormous power within the party, and though he was not generally recognized outside party circles as one of the most influential leaders, his authority grew steadily. Within the party, political manipulation, Machiavellian intrigues, and a willingness to resort to ruthlessness were certainly part of Stalin's repertoire, but he also managed to position himself in the immediately post-Lenin years as a pragmatic and cautious man of the center, a person who supported the compromises and concessions of Lenin's moderate, state capitalist New Economic Policy (NEP) and was unwilling to risk Soviet power to pursue elusive revolutions abroad. Like other high party leaders, he took on a wide range of assignments—from people's commissar of nationalities (1917–1923) and people's commissar of state control (from 1919) and worker-peasant inspection (1920–1922) to membership in the Military-Revolutionary Council of the Republic, the Politburo (the Political Bureau, the highest party council), and the Orgburo (Organizational Bureau, in charge of party workers), to political commissar of various fronts in the civil war and participant in a variety of commissions set up to solve specific problems. In what at the time seemed to many to be a trivial appointment, the Eleventh Party Congress in the spring of 1922 elected Stalin a member of the party secretariat with the title "general secretary."

By the time of Lenin's incapacitation in 1923, Stalin was fast becoming indispensable to many powerful figures. He combined with his political allies Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev to prevent the growth of Leon Trotsky's influence. On the eve of Politburo meetings, this troika would meet, at first in Zinoviev's apartment and later in Stalin's Central Committee office, to decide what positions they would take on specific issues and what roles each would play in the meeting. In 1924–1925 the group was expanded to seven, with the additions of Nikolai Bukharin, Alexsei Rykov, Mikhail Tomsky, and Valerian Kuibyshev. Power within the party steadily moved upward to the very institutions in which Stalin played key roles. He was the only person who was a member of all of the important committees. With his complete dominance over the Orgburo, Stalin was able to use this institution to make appointments throughout the party and to work out his own policies. He built up his own staff, which soon amounted to a personal chancellery. Despite his suspicious nature and his intellectual limitations (certainly exaggerated by political rivals and opponents), Stalin was able to attract a number of loyal subordinates, whose fortunes would rise with him.

Stalin was a master politician, able to win over supporters while disarming his enemies. Not only did he control the machinery of the Communist Party, appointing loyalists to various positions around the country, but he also positioned himself as a loyal follower of the revered Lenin, despite his principled disagreements with the leader. On 21 January 1924 Lenin died, and immediately a cult developed around his memory. The city of Petrograd was renamed Leningrad and, against the wishes of his widow, the party ordered Lenin's body mummified and placed in a marble mausoleum in Red Square, like a religious relic to be viewed by the faithful. In April and May Stalin gave a series of lectures at Sverdlov University that were soon published as Foundations of Leninism, wrapping himself in the mantle of Lenin. More than any past service, association with the dead Lenin gave a political leader legitimacy and authority in the post-Lenin years. In the new political environment in which loyalty to Lenin was the touchstone of political orthodoxy, Stalin, who had seldom differed openly with Lenin, flourished, while Trotsky, whose prerevolutionary writings had often polemicized against Lenin, withered.

The sphere of political decision making had steadily narrowed since 1917—from the open brawls among political parties and between state and society to the internal factional fights within the Communist Party and finally to the bureaucratic intrigues of a few powerful men at the very top of the party. The growth of bureaucracy within the party and state aided a man like Stalin who controlled appointments and patronage. Almost unnoticed, Stalin accumulated enormous power through the 1920s. Trotsky protested the bureaucratization of the party, but as a latecomer to the party he remained isolated among the Bolsheviks.

In 1924 Stalin and his close comrade Nikolai Bukharin adopted a moderate course, favoring the concessions to the peasantry that Lenin had inaugurated in 1921 with the New Economic Policy. But Bukharin's pro-peasant policies went further than other Leninist stalwarts, like Zinoviev and Kamenev, thought appropriate for a proletarian dictatorship. Stalin proclaimed that the Communists would build "socialism in one country," even though Lenin had always maintained that socialism could not be achieved in backward peasant Russia alone but required support from an international revolution in more developed, industrial countries. When Zinoviev and Kamenev balked at his cautious policies and the growing bureaucratization of the party, Stalin broke with them and formed a new bloc with Bukharin.

The NEP combined state control of heavy industry with a modified market system for agricultural products and consumer goods. The program restored the Soviet economy, which had been devastated by seven years of world war, revolution, and civil war. But when peasants found that the state prices for their grain were low, or industrial goods were scarce and high priced, they withheld their grain in anticipation of higher prices in the future. While some leaders saw this peasant hoarding as rational market activity, others like Stalin conceived of their actions as sabotage, a "grain strike." Bukharin advocated continuing the NEP, but as the moderate pro-peasant policy faltered at the end of the 1920s, Stalin broke with Bukharin and launched his own radical restructuring of the Soviet economy and society.


The years 1928–1932 have been dubbed the "Stalin revolution" or the "revolution from above," a five-year period of massive violence against the countryside and state-driven industrialization. The party/state forced the millions of peasants into collective farms, seized their grain without adequate compensation, and exiled or killed the most productive peasants, the so-called kulaks. Peasants did not go quietly into collectives but resisted, and armed clashes broke out with the Communist organizers. Overzealous grain collectors left many farmers without food or grain, and in Ukraine some five million people perished in a famine that was directly caused by misguided state policies. When the regime itself seemed threatened by peasant rebellion, Stalin called a halt to the headlong rush into collectivization. In an article published in March 1930, "Dizzy from Success," he announced that "the basic turn of the village to socialism may be considered already secured." For a while collectivization was delayed, but the peasants' joy was short-lived, and a less frenetic campaign resumed. Hundreds of thousands of peasants fled to industrial sites; mammoth plants, dams, and towns were built; the number of workers swelled; and ordinary men and women, hastily educated, rose into the managerial and administrative ranks.

Stalinist industrialization had its own unique characteristics, its own language, slogans, strategies, and costs. It was carried out as a massive military campaign, along "fronts," scaling heights, conquering the steppe, and vanquishing backwardness, all while being encircled by capitalism. All obstacles, natural and technical, were to be overcome. Stalin spoke of human will as the essential force to achieve the economic plan, proclaiming that "there are no fortresses Bolsheviks cannot capture!" For him the need to industrialize rapidly was connected with the dangers that the USSR faced from the great capitalist and imperialist powers. "One feature of the history of old Russia," he said,

was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her—because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, agricultural backwardness.… Such is the law of the exploiters—to beat the backward and the weak. It is the law of capitalism.… That is why we must no longer lag behind. (Pravda, February 5, 1931; author's translation)

By linking forced-pace economic development to national security, Stalin construed any hesitation or foot-dragging as "wrecking" or treason, crimes with heavy penalties. When the headlong rush to industrialization generated waste or breakdowns, rather than blaming the policy or the leaders, the police "uncovered" conspiracies or saboteurs. Contrived show trials imposed harsh sentences on innocent people.

In a few short years the Soviet government had initiated a massive transformation of society and the economy, founding the first modern nonmarket, state-run economy. Yet the Stalin revolution destroyed the regime's fragile relationship with the great majority of the population and created a new repressive apparatus that Stalin could use to consolidate his personal rule over the party and state. Stalin's rise was unexpected by most of his fellow Communists. He had little charisma, possessed no oratorical skills like Zinoviev, was neither a Marxist theorist like Trotsky nor a likeable comrade like Bukharin. Short in stature and reticent in meetings, Stalin did not project an image of a leader—until it was created for him (and by him) through the "personality cult." For his closest associates, however, Stalin was indispensable, the solid center of the bureaucratic state and party apparatus, a generous patron, and a stern master. He turned the revolution inward, emphasizing the building of a strong state and an industrial economy and playing down international revolution. His ideology was a radically revised Marxism that grafted onto it a pro-Russian nationalism and a great-power statism. As long as the country was surrounded by hostile capitalist states, it was claimed, state power had to be built up. When Stalin declared the Soviet Union to be socialist in 1936, the positive achievement of reaching a stage of history higher than the rest of the world was tempered by the constant reminders that the enemies of socialism existed both within and outside the country, that they were deceptive and concealed, and had to be "unmasked." Repeated references to dangers and insecurity and to the need for "vigilance" justified the enormous reliance on the secret police.

Stalin turned a political oligarchy into a personal dictatorship by the late 1930s. But as he rose to the pinnacle of power in the USSR, he became increasingly isolated. He narrowed his circle of friends and close comrades to those most loyal to him: his sometime prime minister and foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the industrializer Sergo Orjonikidze, the economically savvy Anastas Mikoyan, the policeman and executioner Lavrenty Beria, and those loyal party workers ready to do his bidding—Lazar Kaganovich, Georgy Malenkov, Andrei Zhdanov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Suspicious even of these men, Stalin's personal life withered, especially after his young wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, killed herself in November 1932. Outside of his work, late-night dinners with his cronies, and the little time he spent with his daughter, Svetlana, Stalin had no personal life. His suspicions of others matched their fear of him.

Stalin can be considered a "conservative revolutionary." Earlier, more radical tendencies in Bolshevism were shelved: instead of equalization of wages, Stalin promoted greater differentials between skilled and unskilled workers; instead of attacking "Great Russian chauvinism," Stalin encouraged a new form of Soviet patriotism based on reverence for Russia's imperial past. Peter the Great, even Ivan the Terrible, became models of rulership. Stalin provided for a new Soviet middle class with its own "bourgeois values." Exemplary workers were rewarded with scarce consumer goods, like bicycles and wristwatches, while the wives of managers promoted a new form of cultural behavior and etiquette. Instead of greater political participation by working people, the characteristics of Stalinism were increased state power; the use of police terror to discipline the population; a state monopoly over mass media, culture, and education; the promotion of simple workers into positions of power and influence; and emotional campaigns, initiated from above, stirring up popular enthusiasm for the "building of socialism."

The height of Stalinist terror was reached in the Great Purges of 1937–1938, when approximately seven hundred thousand people were executed and millions more were exiled, imprisoned, or died in labor camps. Among the victims were thousands of Communists, including Lenin's closest associates—Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin. Angry and upset at the turn that Soviet policy under Stalin had taken, Orjonikidze shot himself. By the end of the 1930s 3,593,000 people were under the jurisdiction of the secret police, 1,360,000 of whom were in labor camps. Stalin personally initiated, guided, and prodded the arrests, as well as the show trials of 1936–1938, and he required his lieutenants to sign off on executions. The bloodletting defies rational explanation. Here personality and politics merged, and this excessive repression appears to be dictated by the peculiar demands of Stalin himself, who could not tolerate limits on his will set by the very ruling elite that he had brought to power. The purges eliminated all rivals and potential rivals to Stalin's autocracy and produced a new, younger, Soviet-educated political elite loyal to and dependent on the master. By 1938 the killings had so destabilized government and society that the regime gradually brought them to a halt, but the long arm of Stalin's police reached to Mexico, where in 1940 a secret agent murdered his rival Trotsky. Particularly devastating for the country on the eve of war was the decimation of the highest ranks of the military.


By the outbreak of World War II the central government, the military, the republics and local governments, and the economic infrastructure had all been brutally disciplined. Obedience and conformity had eliminated most initiative and originality. After destroying the high command of the armed forces, Stalin's control over his military was greater than Hitler over his, at least at the beginning of the war. His control over politics was so complete that he was able to reverse completely the USSR's "collective security" foreign policy that favored allying with Western capitalist democracies against the fascist states and sign a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939.

Yet for all the human and material costs of Stalin's industrialization and state building, the Soviet Union was not prepared for the onslaught of the German invasion of June 1941. Stalin did not expect Hitler to attack before subduing Britain, and he was stunned when informed that German troops had crossed the border. Rallying himself and his countrymen to the colossal effort against the Nazis and their allies, Stalin stood at the center of all strategic, logistical, and political decisions. He was chairman of the State Defense Committee, which included the highest party officials (Molotov, Beria, Malenkov, Kliment Voroshilov, Lazar Kaganovich, and later Nikolai Voznesensky and Mikoyan); chairman of Stavka, the supreme military headquarters; general secretary of the party and chairman of the Politburo; chairman of the Council of Ministers and people's commissar of defense. Real business often took place in late-night meetings at Stalin's apartment or dacha (country house), where he attended to the most minute details of the war effort. Stalin was extraordinarily brutal in dealing with his commanders.

Like Hitler, Stalin made major miscalculations early in the war. In anticipation of the German invasion, the Soviet General Staff in September 1940 had argued that the Nazi attack would be concentrated in the center toward Moscow and in the north toward Leningrad, but Stalin overruled his commanders and ordered deployment in the south, believing that the Germans would make a major effort to capture Ukraine. When the German army surrounded five Soviet armies on the southwestern front, Stalin's generals urged withdrawal, but Stalin refused to give up the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. On 19 September 1941 Kiev fell, and the Germans captured over half a million prisoners and annihilated the Soviet southwestern front. But when in October 1941 the Germans approached Moscow and many Muscovites panicked and fled the city, Stalin demonstrably stayed in Moscow and encouraged the resistance with a speech blending the heroic military traditions of the Russian Empire with the cause of Lenin and the Soviet Union. Ultimately the war was won by the tenacity and enormous sacrifice of the Soviet people, but Stalin provided both inspiration for many and fear that one step backward would end in death. In time Stalin proved to be more willing to rely on his generals, as long as they did not question his ultimate authority.

During the war years Western governments feted Stalin, and journalists lionized him in the press. An American film, Mission to Moscow (1943), presented audiences with an avuncular, wise Stalin, complete with mischievous smile and an ever present pipe. For his part Stalin moderated the image of the USSR to attract the West. In 1943 he dissolved the Communist International (Comintern), the union of Communist parties founded by Lenin. He made overtures to religious leaders and eased Soviet policy toward the churches. Commissariats became ministries, and the Soviet anthem, the revolutionary Internationale, was replaced by a nationalist hymn to the Soviet Union that celebrated the role of historic Russia. Yet the infamous murder of captured Polish officers in the Katyn forest, along with the general secretiveness of the Kremlin, only fed Western suspicions of Stalin.

The Soviets bore the heaviest burdens of the war against fascism and lost some twenty-seven million people, but in the end they could take pride that they were the major force that thwarted Hitler's imperial ambitions. The triumph over fascism provided the Communists with a new source of legitimation and Stalin with a new, uncontested authority. Now Russia and the Soviet Union were melded into a single image. Patriotism and accommodation with established religious and national traditions, along with the toning down of revolutionary radicalism, contributed to a powerful ideological amalgam that outlasted Stalin himself. In the postwar decades the war became the central moment of Soviet history, eclipsing the revolution and the Stalin revolution of the early 1930s.


Stalin's postwar policies were repressive at home and expansive abroad. There were sporadic uses of repression and terror against individuals or groups (the "Leningrad Affair" of 1948, the "Doctors' Plot" of 1953), as well as a series of ethnic deportations of peoples from newly annexed territories (the Baltic republics, western Ukraine, and Byelorussia) and repatriations of Armenians, Kurds, Meskhetian Turks, and others, but no massive terror on the scale of 1937 was employed after the war. Intellectuals suffered from the cultural crackdown known as the Zhdanovshchina, and a campaign against "cosmopolitanism" was directed against Soviet Jews. In dealing with his former allies during the Cold War, Stalin attempted to maintain the grand alliance with the Western great powers while at the same time holding onto a sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe where he could impose "friendly" governments. Western leaders like President Harry S. Truman and the British prime minister Winston Churchill refused to acquiesce in the expansion of Soviet influence over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and the cooperation of the war years dis-integrated into two camps, each armed with atomic weapons.

In his last years, enfeebled by strokes, Stalin was arguably the most powerful man in the world. He controlled not only the USSR and much of Eastern Europe but also was deferred to by the Communist leaders of China, North Korea, and Vietnam. In 1950 he agreed that the Korean leader Kim Il Sung could invade South Korea, thus opening the way to the Korean War. As he deteriorated physically and mentally, the entire country—its foreign policy, internal politics, cultural life, and economic slowdown—reflected the moods of its leader and was affected by his growing isolation, arbitrariness, and inactivity. No one could feel secure. The ruling elite was concerned with plots, intrigues, the rivalries among Stalin's closest associates, and the rise and fall of clients and patrons. "All of us around Stalin," wrote Khrushchev, "were temporary people. As long as he trusted us to a certain degree, we were allowed to go on living and working. But the moment he stopped trusting you, Stalin would start to scrutinize you until the cup of his distrust overflowed." In his last years Stalin turned against Molotov and Mikoyan, grew suspicious of Beria, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, and Malenkov. Khrushchev overheard him say, "I'm finished. I trust no one, not even myself." He died of a massive stroke on 5 March 1953.

Stalin's legacy was a powerful state with a crudely industrialized economy, a country in which millions had died to build his idea of socialism and other millions to defend their country against the enemies of communism. Almost immediately after his death, his successors began to dismantle many of the pillars of Stalinism. They ended the mass terror, closed down the slave-labor camps, introduced a degree of "socialist legality," and opened the country to the West. In 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, and eventually Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in Lenin's mausoleum.

See alsoBolshevism; Bukharin, Nikolai; Collectivization; Destalinization; Gulag; Hitler, Adolf; Khrushchev, Nikita; Lenin, Vladimir; Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact; Mussolini, Benito; New Economic Policy (NEP); Purges; Soviet Union; Stakhanovites; Terror; Trotsky, Leon; Zhdanov, Andrei.


Primary Sources

Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov, eds. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of theBolsheviks, 1932–1939. Translated by Benjamin Sher. New Haven, Conn., 1999. A collection of documents on the Stalin Terror and the Great Purges.

Siegelbaum, Lewis, and Andrei Sokolov. Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents. Translated by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. New Haven, Conn., 2000. A collection of Soviet archival documents with insightful commentary on social life in Stalin's USSR.

Stalin, Joseph. Works. 13 vols. Moscow, 1952. The basic collection of Stalin's writings.

Secondary Sources

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Surival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. Oxford, U.K., 1994. An extraordinary social-historical study of peasants and their strategies in the wake of collectivization.

——. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Oxford, U.K., 1999. A sensitive reconstruction of life in Soviet towns and cities during Stalinism's first decade.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed. Stalinism: New Directions. London and New York, 2000. A collection of essays using the archival materials available after the disintegration of the USSR.

Gorlizki, Yoram, and Oleg Khlevniuk. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953. Oxford, U.K., 2004. An archivally based account of the inner workings of Stalin's postwar government.

Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1994. A brilliant reconstruction of Stalin's foreign policy in the early atomic age.

Kershaw, Ian, and Moshe Lewin, eds. Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Exercises in comparative history.

Lenin, Vladimir. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 5th ed. Moscow, 1958–1965.

Lewin, Moshe. The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia. New York, 1985. A classic social history of Stalin's transformation of Soviet society and economy.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. London, 2003.

Service, Robert. Stalin, A Biography. Cambridge, Mass., 2005.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. "Beyond Psychohistory: The Young Stalin in Georgia." Slavic Review 50 (spring 1991): 48–58. An exploration of Stalin's early life that contests the psychoanalytic approach to biography.

Suny, Ronald Grigor, and Terry Martin, eds. A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. New York, 2001. A collection of essays on the construction of nations in interwar USSR.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929: A Study in History and Personality. New York, 1973. A psychoanalytical biography of the young Stalin.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941. New York, 1990. The story of Stalin's revolution retold.

Ronald Grigor Suny