Born December 21, 1879
Died March 5, 1953
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Soviet revolutionary and political leader
Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet Union after the death of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), the force behind the October revolutions of 1917 that established the Soviet regime. During Stalin's thirty-year dictatorial rule, the Soviet Union greatly enlarged its territory and transformed itself from a relatively backward country into the second most important industrial nation in the world. These achievements came at a heavy price, which included the loss of millions of lives, political repression, an untold waste of resources, and the establishment of an inflexible and dictatorial system of rule.
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in Gori, Georgia, a part of czarist Russia's empire in western Asia. (A czar is a ruler who exercises unlimited power over the people.) His father, a former serf (member of a servant class who works the soil), was a shoemaker, and his mother was a domestic servant.
Iosif, or Joseph, better known as Soso, grew up speaking Georgian and only learned Russian at the age of eight or nine. In 1888 he began attending the church school at Gori. He did well in his classes, especially in religious studies, geography, and Georgian. He also studied Greek and Russian. When he left the school in 1894, he was near the top of his class.
Stalin won a scholarship to study at the Tbilisi Theological Seminary, Georgia's leading educational institution. During his first year there, he received high marks; the next year, however, he began to rebel against the institution's stern religious rules. He smuggled banned books into school, and joined secret study groups opposed to the Russian czarist government. At one point he was sent to a punishment cell for five hours for not bowing to a school official. In 1899, the seminary directors expelled him for spreading subversive views (extremist ideas, often against the government). Stalin's mother wanted him to become a priest and was disappointed when he pursued another course in life. Years later, even after he had become leader of the Soviet Union, she considered him a failure for not having completed his religious studies.
Discovery of Marx
Stalin had begun reading Marxist works while still at the seminary, focusing especially on the writings of Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin. Marxism—the belief that a revolution by the working class would eventually lead to a classless society—would furnish the basis of Stalin's worldview for the rest of his life.
In 1899, Stalin was hired as an accountant at the Tbilisi observatory. Russia's Social Democrats, members of a communist party opposed by the czar, had been using the observatory as a hideout, and Stalin ultimately joined them. (Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) A police raid exposed this association, and Stalin was fired from his accounting job. From this point on, Stalin was a professional revolutionary.
Early days as a revolutionary
At the turn of the twentieth century, Stalin became active in the militant wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party. He was arrested in 1902 and deported to Siberia, a frozen wasteland in eastern Russia, but he escaped and was back in Georgia two years later. He first met Lenin, the leader of the radical Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party, in 1905, and became a devoted follower. Bolsheviki in Russian means "majority," though the Bolsheviks didn't have greater numbers in the party. The Bolsheviks thought the party would be more effective if it were small, limited to professional revolutionaries whose actions were coordinated. Their opponents in the party, the Mensheviks (minority), believed in a massparty that was loosely organized. Lenin secretly approved of bank robberies, which he called "expropriations," to finance the Bolsheviks. In 1907, Stalin was involved in several bank heists in Georgia. To avoid connection with any illegal activities, the local party expelled him, and he disappeared. He spent the next few years organizing Bolshevik factions and spending time in exile.
In 1912, Lenin broke from the Social Democratic Party and formed a new party. That year Stalin spent some time with Lenin and his wife in Krakow, in present-day Poland, and then went to Vienna, Austria, to study Marxist literature. Lenin saw in Stalin a dependable—and ruthless—enforcer of the Bolsheviks' will and nominated him to the party's Central Committee. However, Stalin was arrested shortly thereafter and exiled once again to Siberia, where he remained until the czar was overthrown in 1917. He adopted the name Stalin ("man of steel") about 1913.
The new Soviet government
After the fall of czarism, Stalin made his way at once to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The October Revolution of 1917 placed the Bolsheviks in power and Lenin became the new ruler of Russia. Lenin had come to admire Stalin for his loyalty and his organizational talents, particularly the way he could get things done, and he named Stalin to his cabinet as Commissar of Nationalities. In his book, Stalin: Breaker of Nations, Robert Conquest quotes an insight into Stalin's particular set of strengths made by American communist John Reed, who observed that Stalin was "not an intellectual…. He's not even well informed, but he knows what he wants. He's got the willpower, and he's going to be at the top of the pile some day."
Beginning in 1919, Lenin set up a number of agencies to manage government affairs. Stalin volunteered to be a member of various party committees and newly formed agencies. The most important of these new agencies was the Secretariat, which grew from thirty members in 1919 to more than six hundred in 1922. That year, Lenin made Stalin general secretary of the party Central Committee. Under Stalin, the Secretariat became the Communist Party's real center of power. As general secretary, he had the power to appoint local secretaries who would, in turn, select delegates to party congresses. In this manner, Stalin gradually packed the party's legislative bodies and staff with his own supporters.
In May 1922, Lenin suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes. Later that year, he expressed second thoughts about having given Stalin so much power. In a document that severely criticized Stalin ("Testament, 1922"), Lenin said: "After taking over the position of General Secretary, Comrade Stalin has accumulated in his hands immeasurable power and I am not certain whether he will always be able to use this power with the required care…. Stalin is excessively rude." AsLenin's illness worsened, though, he lost virtually all of his influence. Lenin was faulted by the Bolsheviks for allegedly compromising on some of the Communist Party's ideals, and political turmoil began to brew in the Soviet Union even before his death in January 1924.
After Lenin died, the party, now called the All-Union Communist Party, was headed by a collective leadership that included Stalin; Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), who had organized the Red Army (the official name of the Soviet Army) and still headed it; Lev Kamenev (1883–1936) and Grigory Zinovyev (1883–1936), the party bosses in Moscow and Leningrad (the newly named St. Petersburg), respectively; and Nikolay Bukharin (1888–1938), the party's leading theorist. Each of these men was ambitious and hoped to serve as the party's next leader.
A shrewd and ruthless politician, Stalin was able to maneuver his opponents out of power by skillfully manipulating their jealousies and personal rivalries. First, he aligned himself with Kamenev and Zinovyev against Trotsky, who was soon ousted as head of the army. (He was later driven into exile and killed by one of Stalin's agents in Mexico City, Mexico.) Next, Stalin teamed up with Bukharin in order to move against Kamenev and Zinovyev. Meanwhile, Stalin's agents within the party undermined popular support for Kamenev and Zinoviev. Delegates at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925 voted to expel them both. Stalin then turned against Bukharin, who met secretly with Kamenev and Zinovyev, warning that Stalin would eventually strangle them if not stopped. However, it was much too late: Stalin had gained absolute control of the party. He later had Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin shot.
The new leader of the Soviet Union
Stalin was of short stature and had black hair, black eyes, a short skull, and a large nose. He was often crude and cruel, cunning and distrustful. He was also vengeful to the point of paranoia, experiencing obsessive suspicions and delusions that others were bent on doing him harm. In political life he tended to be cautious and slow-moving, dealing with powerful people behind closed doors rather than with the public. He was not a popular or charismatic speaker. But Stalin possessed boundless energy and a phenomenal capacity for absorbing detailed knowledge.
Stalin seems always to have been a lonely man. His first wife, a Georgian girl named Ekaterina Svanidze, died of tuberculosis. His second wife, Nadezhda Alleluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, presumably in despair over Stalin's dictatorial rule of the party. The only child from his first marriage, Jacob, fell into German hands during World War II (1939–45) and was killed. The two children from his second marriage outlived their father, but they were not always on good terms with him. The son, Vasili, an officer in the Soviet air force, drank himself to death in 1962. The daughter, Svetlana, fled to the United States in the 1960s.
Big plans for the Soviet industry
Once in control of the Soviet Union, Stalin began to push a plan for rapid, forced industrialization: the development of industries through systemized manufacturing or refinement of products by many people in one place, usually a factory or plant. Stalin's Five-Year Plan for industrialization officially began in 1928. Factories, dams, and other enterprises were constructed all across the Soviet Union. By late 1932, Soviet factories were producing basic industrial products such as steel, machine tools, and tractors. However, these achievements had a high cost and caused much suffering for the Russian people. Workers were paid low wages, sometimes only enough to buy the basic necessities of life. Consumer goods and food were often scarce. Changing jobs without permission became illegal, and interior passports were issued to restrict free movement among citizens. Much of the construction work on canals, mines, and other enterprises was performed by political prisoners who were sent by the millions into the Gulag, a network of labor camps for people accused of committing crimes against the state. Anyone accused of sabotage (deliberate destructive acts by a discontented employee against an employer) or wrecking could be shot.
Collectivization of agriculture
Meanwhile, in late 1929, Stalin instigated the collectivization of agriculture, in which farmers would be forced to abandon their individual farms and move onto state-owned collective farms. His extreme policy included executing or deporting the more prosperous peasants, who were called kulaks (tightwads). The rest of the peasants were to be placed on state-controlled communal farms. This program met with massive resistance from the farmers, who resented being driven from their land, but the government was ruthless. Millions of kulaks were shot or sent to labor camps. In Ukraine, southern Russia, and Khazakstan, millions more died in artificial famines created when Soviet officials confiscated the farmers' grain. By 1939, most of Soviet agriculture had been collectivized. In all, twenty-six million farmers were placed on 250,000 collective farms, but it had cost more than ten million lives.
Power gone astray: The purges
Stalin developed a so-called cult of personality around himself, meaning that his rule was to be perceived as that of an almost godlike father, beloved and obeyed without question by his people. Dozens of cities, towns, and villages were named after him, as was the tallest mountain in the Soviet Union. In books and movies, he was compared to the sun, moon, and stars. In one famous poem of the 1930s, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle, he was called the "Genius of all mankind" who "didst give birth to man … who didst make fertile the earth."
Behind Stalin's power lay a monstrous policy of terror. It reached its height between 1934 and 1939, when Stalin and his secret police carried out mass arrests, executions, and deportations. Stalin claimed that throughout the country traitors were masking as loyal citizens. Countless millions of innocent people perished or spent long years in forced labor camps. Victims included top party and government elites, army officers, artists, writers, scientists, and even children. From the party's Central Committee elected in 1934, 98 out of 139 members were shot.
Stalin had an irrational fear of his enemies. In December 1934, Sergey Kirov (1886–1934), one of his old supporters, was murdered. Kirov's popularity among some Communist Party leaders may have angered Stalin and prompted him to arrange his death, although it has never been proven. Stalin blamed the death on his old enemies Kamenev and Zinovyev. Using the murder as his reason to go after traitors, he then launched a series of purges to eliminate unwanted individuals in which millions of people were eventually shot or sent to the Gulag. Stalin personally signed orders for the execution of thousands of Soviet citizens.
In a move that seriously impaired the Soviet Union's ability to defend itself, Stalin ordered a purge of the armed forces in 1937 that took the lives of most of the country's marshals, generals, and admirals. When World War II broke out a few years later, the Soviet Union would suffer severely for its lack of trained military leaders.
Germany violates its agreement
In 1939, Stalin worked out a nonaggression treaty with German leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). Despite the treaty, Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, forcing it into World War II on the side of the Allies (which included Great Britain and the United States). The initial Soviet losses were devastating, for Stalin had ignored warnings that an attack was coming. For nearly two weeks after the attack, Stalin secluded himself, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. He reemerged to take personal command of the war effort, and in October 1941, with German troops at the gates of Moscow, he refused to leave the city.
By the end of the war in 1945, Stalin stood at the height of his power and fully shared in the glory of the victory. During the war, he had insisted on conducting diplomacy himself. At the wartime conferences, he won the respect of the Allied leaders U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965). The Soviets, having secured the status of a major world power, demanded and received control over much of Eastern Europe.
Postwar relations with Allied leaders
In February 1945, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met at Yalta in Ukraine, in the Crimea, where they sealed the fate of Poland. Churchill and Roosevelt accepted the provisional Polish government supported by Moscow in return for the promise of free elections for the Polish people. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the three leaders divided Germany into occupation zones. Stalin wanted to cart off as much of Germany's industry as he could, both to help rebuild the Soviet economy and to prevent Germany's recovery. The other Allied powers sought to rehabilitate Germany economically, knowing that not to do so would mean costly Western aid in the future. Stalin was not interested in rehabilitating Germany.
The Soviet bloc
Stalin's postwar foreign policy was a continuation of his wartime goals. In Eastern Europe, he wanted to gain political control over the areas the Soviet army was occupying to form a Soviet bloc of nations. He supported the rise of communist regimes in Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In the end, the Soviets maneuvered themselves into control in these nations and began transforming the various economies and societies into copies of the Soviet model.
Stalin had trouble with the Chinese Communists. After World War II, Stalin, underestimating the Communists' power, urged Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), the Chinese Communist leader, to join the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entries). The Russians were drawn to the larger and better organized Nationalist group, which had been founded by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). Although a Nationalist, Sun Yat-sen had welcomed help from the Soviets. With their assistance, he had built the Kuomintang party along Soviet lines. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai, and the Soviets immediately requested that the new Chinese Communist Party cooperate with the Kuomintang. For several years they did. In 1927, however, Chiang, who succeeded Sun as leader of the Nationalists, turned his army on the Communists, slaughtering thousands, and beginning the long and bloody war between the two groups. Mao continued to fight the Nationalists, and the Communists eventually came to power on October 1, 1949. Stalin continued to provide economic assistance to the Chinese in the hope of ensuring Chinese dependency, but the relationship continued to be marked by mistrust.
The Berlin Blockade
By 1948, the British and Americans had merged their occupation zones in Germany in anticipation of German statehood, a merger to which Stalin strenuously objected. On June 18 of that year, the Soviets stopped all surface traffic between the West and the capital city of Berlin, also divided, citing technical problems with the routes. This was followed by a cutoff of electricity, coal, and food to the city: the Berlin Blockade was in place. The Anglo-American powers immediately began an airlift of essential supplies to Berlin, which held out until Stalin called off the blockade in May 1949. The failure of Stalin's eleven-month blockade was an acute embarrassment to the Soviet government.
Soviet atomic weaponry
On August 29, 1949, the Soviets detonated their first atomic device, finally achieving one of Stalin's primary postwar goals: acquisition of the weapon that would allow the Soviets to attain military equality with the United States. (The United States had detonated two atomic bombs over Japan in August 1945 to speed the end of the war.) When he was first informed of the bomb's existence in 1945, Stalin had appeared quite unimpressed by it, but he had immediately ordered his scientists and those captured from Germany to increase their efforts to develop nuclear weapons for the Soviet Union.
The Korean War
At the end of World War II, the general order for Japan's surrender included a provision for Korea, which Japan had occupied for decades, that had the U.S. troops accepting the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea) and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, receiving the surrender north of it. The Soviets were soon helping the northern Koreans develop a communist government and economic system. In negotiating with the United States, which was bolstering anticommunist forces in the south, the Soviets continually asked that the foreign powers withdraw and leave the Koreans to govern themselves. This was primarily because it appeared that, left on their own, the Koreans would choose some kind of communist government. The United Nations (UN), at the request of the United States, was called in to set up elections across Korea, after which the country would be independent. Claiming the UN lacked the authority to determine the future of Korea, the Soviets and northern Koreans refused to take part in the elections. They were held nonetheless, only in the south, and a new country, the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea), was established. The northern Koreans then held elections of their own, and established the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). Both Koreas sought to reunite the country, but only under its own government.
There is still some controversy over the role played by Stalin in the invasion of South Korea by the well-trained and Soviet-equipped North Korean army that sparked the war. Evidence indicates that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung (1912–1994; see entry) pressed Stalin for help in the invasion, but did not receive much more than a reluctant approval and the option to purchase Soviet weapons and equipment. It seems that Stalin had no desire to become engaged in a confrontation with the United States in Asia. Stalin did gain some advantages from the Korean War: the United States had to commit a large number of troops to the peninsula, troops that otherwise could have been used to hinder Soviet moves in Eastern Europe. Further, the Chinese became more dependent on Soviet military equipment and on the Soviet Union itself, thereby delaying the eventual split between the two countries.
But the Korean War fundamentally transformed American opinion towards the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. The cold war was on, with a tense political climate and deep suspicions on both sides. Stalin saw the Soviet system as continuously imperiled by the Western capitalist states—in which individuals, rather than the state, own the property and businesses—and reportedly said to one of his lieutenants, "You'll see, when I'm gone the imperialist powers will wring your necks like chickens."
The later years
During Stalin's last years, he launched several waves of repression. He sent returning prisoners of war directly into forced labor camps, calling them traitors for having surrendered. Whole nationalities, which he accused of treason, were deported. He even came to believe that his own inner circle was plotting against him. Before his death, Stalin seems to have been planning to execute them and purge a substantial portion of the party. Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), his successor as general secretary, wrote in his memoirs that Stalin told him in 1951: "I'm finished. I do not trust anyone, not even myself."
On the night of March 1, 1953, Stalin unexpectedly suffered a stroke and died three days later. The nation was stunned, and the Russian people initially mourned. But over the next few years, the memory of the dictator became shadowed. For all that Stalin had accomplished in making a world power out of the once backward Soviet Union, he had ruled through terror and was responsible for perhaps as many as forty million deaths. In a speech in 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a murderer and a criminal against the state and its people.
Where to Learn More
Abram, Lynwood. "Bright Days for Darkness." Houston Chronicle, December 14, 2000.
Caulkins, Janet. Joseph Stalin. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.
Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Joseph Stalin. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Johnson, Paul. Modern Times. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.
Kallen, Stuart A. The Stalin Era: 1925–1953. Edina, MN: Abdo & Daughters, 1992.
Khrushchev, Nikita. The Crimes of the Stalin Era. The New Leader, 1962.
Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Marrin, Albert. Stalin. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1988.
Otfinoski, Steven. Joseph Stalin: Russia's Last Czar. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: West, 1994.
Whitelaw, Nancy. Joseph Stalin: From Peasant to Premier. New York: Dillon Press, 1992.
Lenin, Vladimire Illyich. "Testament, 1922." Modern History Sourcebook. [Online] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/lenin-testament.html (accessed on August 14, 2001).
Words to Know
atomic bomb: a powerful bomb created by splitting the nuclei of a heavy chemical, such as plutonium or uranium, in a rapid chain reaction, resulting in a violent and destructive shock wave as well as radiation.
collective farm: a farm under government control, in which the government dictates what will be grown, how much of it, and what the farmworkers will be paid for their work.
Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.
czar: a Russian ruler who exercises unlimited power over the people.
Gulag: a network of labor camps in Russia for people accused of committing crimes against the state.
industrialization: causing a place to become more devoted to industry, the manufacture or refinement of products in a systemized manner and usually by many people in one place, as a factory or plant.
Marxism: the belief, originating with German political philosopher Karl Marx that a revolution by the working class would eventually lead to a classless society.
paranoia: a condition in which someone feels obsessive suspicion and has delusions that others are bent on doing him or her harm.
purges: a method of removing or eliminating unwanted elements or members from an organization.
sabotage: deliberate destructive acts designed to undermine a person, organization, or army.
serf: member of a servant class who works the soil.
subversive: tending toward the destruction or overthrow of an institution or government from within.
Western nations: the noncommunist nations of Europe and America.
The Soviet statesman Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) was the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union and the leader of world communism for almost 30 years.
Under Joseph Stalin the Soviet Union greatly enlarged its territory, won a war of unprecedented destructiveness, and transformed itself from a relatively backward country into the second most important industrial nation in the world. For these achievements the Soviet people and the international Communist movement paid a price that many of Stalin's critics consider excessive. The price included the loss of millions of lives; massive material and spiritual deprivation; political repression; an untold waste of resources; and the erection of an inflexible authoritarian system of rule thought by some historians to be one of the most offensive in recent history and one that many Communists consider a hindrance to further progress in the Soviet Union itself.
Stalin was born losif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on Dec. 21, 1879, in Gori, Georgia. He was the only surviving son of Vissarion Dzhugashvili, a cobbler who first practiced his craft in a village shop but later in a shoe factory in the city. Stalin's father died in 1891. His mother, Ekaterina, a pious and illiterate peasant woman, sent her teen-age son to the theological seminary in Tpilisi (Tiflis), where Stalin prepared for the ministry. Shortly before his graduation, however, he was expelled in 1899 for spreading subversive views.
Stalin then joined the underground revolutionary Marxist movement in Tpilisi. In 1901 he was elected a member of the Tpilisi committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers party. The following year he was arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently banished to Siberia. Stalin escaped from Siberia in 1904 and rejoined the Marxist underground in Tpilisi. When the Russian Marxist movement split into two factions, Stalin identified himself with the Bolsheviks.
During the time of the 1904-1905 revolution, Stalin made a name as the organizer of daring bank robberies and raids on money transports, an activity that V. I. Lenin considered important in view of the party's need for funds, although many other Marxists considered this type of highway robbery unworthy of a revolutionary socialist.
Stalin participated in congresses of the Russian Social Democratic Workers party at Tampere, London, and Stockholm in 1905 and 1906, meeting Lenin for the first time at these congresses. In 1912 Stalin spent some time with Lenin and his wife in Crakow and then went to Vienna to study the Marxist literature concerning the nationality problem. This study trip resulted in a book, Marxism and the National Question. In the same year Lenin co-opted Stalin into the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party.
Stalin's trips abroad during these years were short episodes in his life. He spent the major portion of the years from 1905 to 1912 in organizational work for the movement, mainly in the city of Baku. The secret police arrested him several times, and several times he escaped. Eventually, after his return from Vienna, the police caught him again, and he was exiled to the faraway village of Turukhansk beyond the Arctic Circle. He remained here until the fall of czarism. He adopted the name Stalin ("man of steel") about 1913.
First Years of Soviet Rule
After the fall of czarism, Stalin made his way at once to Petrograd, where until the arrival of Lenin from Switzerland he was the senior Bolshevik and the editor of Pravda, the party organ. After Lenin's return, Stalin remained in the high councils of the party, but he played a relatively inconspicuous role in the preparations for the October Revolution, which placed the Bolsheviks in power. In the first Cabinet of the Soviet government, he held the post of people's commissar for nationalities.
During the years of the civil war (1918-1921), Stalin distinguished himself primarily as military commissar during the battle of Tsaritsyn (Stalingrad), in the Polish campaign, and on several other fronts. In 1919 he received another important government assignment by being appointed commissar of the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate. Within the party, he rose to the highest ranks, becoming a member of both the Political Bureau and the Organizational Bureau. When the party Secretariat was organized, he became one of its leading members and was appointed its secretary general in 1922. Lenin obviously valued Stalin for his organizational talents, for his ability to knock heads together and to cut through bureaucratic red tape. He appreciated Stalin's capabilities as a machine politician, as a troubleshooter, and as a hatchet man.
The strength of Stalin's position in the government and in the party was anchored probably by his secretary generalship, which gave him control over party personnel administration—over admissions, training, assignments, promotions, and disciplinary matters. Thus, although he was relatively unknown to outsiders and even within the party, Stalin doubtless ranked as the most powerful man in Soviet Russia after Lenin.
During Lenin's last illness and after his death in 1924, Stalin served as a member of the three-man committee that conducted the affairs of the party and the country. The other members of this "troika" arrangement were Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. The best-known activity of this committee during the years 1923-1925 was its successful attempt to discredit Leon Trotsky and to make it impossible for him to assume party leadership after Lenin's death. After the committee succeeded in this task, Stalin turned against his two associates, who after some hesitation made common cause with Trotsky. The conflict between these two groups can be viewed either as a power struggle or as a clash of personalities, but it also concerned political issues—a dispute between the left wing and the right wing of bolshevism. The former feared a conservative perversion of the revolution, and the latter were confident that socialism could be reached even in an isolated and relatively backward country. In this dispute Stalin represented, for the time being, the right wing of the party. He and his theoretical spokesman, Nikolai Bukharin, warned against revolutionary adventurism and argued in favor of continuing the more cautious and patient policies that Lenin had inaugurated with the NEP (New Economic Policy).
In 1927 Stalin succeeded in defeating the entire left opposition and in eliminating its leaders from the party. He then adopted much of its domestic program by initiating a 5-year plan of industrial development and by executing it with a degree of recklessness and haste that antagonized many of his former supporters, who then formed a right opposition. This opposition, too, was defeated quickly, and by the early 1930s Stalin had gained dictatorial control over the party, the state, and the entire Communist International.
Although always depicted as a towering figure, Stalin, in fact, was of short stature. He possessed the typical features of Transcaucasians: black hair, black eyes, a short skull, and a large nose. His personality was highly controversial, and it remains shrouded in mystery. Stalin was crude and cruel and, in some important ways, a primitive man. His cunning, distrust, and vindictiveness seem to have reached paranoid proportions. In political life he tended to be cautious and slow-moving. His style of speaking and writing was also ponderous and graceless. Some of his speeches and occasional writings read like a catechism. He was at times, however, a clever orator and a formidable antagonist in debate. Stalin seems to have possessed boundless energy and a phenomenal capacity for absorbing detailed knowledge.
About Stalin's private life, little is known beyond the fact that he seems always to have been a lonely man. His first wife, a Georgian girl named Ekaterina Svanidze, died of tuberculosis. His second wife, Nadezhda Alleluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, presumably in despair over Stalin's dictatorial rule of the party. The only child from his first marriage, Jacob, fell into German hands during World War II and was killed. The two children from his second marriage outlived their father, but they were not always on good terms with him. The son, Vasili, an officer in the Soviet air force, drank himself to death in 1962. The daughter, Svetlana, fled to the United States in the 1960s.
In successive 5-year plans, the Soviet Union under Stalin industrialized and urbanized with great speed. Although the military needs of the country drained away precious resources and World War II brought total destruction to some of the richest areas of the Soviet Union and death to many millions of citizens, the nation by the end of Stalin's life had become the second most important industrial country in the world.
The price the Soviet Union paid for this great achievement remains staggering. It included the destruction of all remnants of free enterprise in both town and country and the physical destruction of hundreds of thousands of Russian peasants. The transformation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s into collectives tremendously damaged the country's food production. Living standards were drastically lowered at first, and more than a million people died of starvation. Meanwhile, Stalin jailed and executed vast numbers of party members, especially the old revolutionaries and the leading figures in all areas of endeavor.
In the process of securing his rule and of mobilizing the country for the industrialization effort, Stalin erected a new kind of political system characterized by unprecedented severity in police control, bureaucratic centralization, and personal dictatorship. Historians consider his regime one of history's most notorious examples of totalitarianism.
Stalin also changed the ideology of communism and of the Soviet Union in a subtle but drastic fashion. While retaining the rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism, and indeed transforming it into an inflexible dogma, Stalin also changed it from a revolutionary system of ideas into a conservative and authoritarian theory of state, preaching obedience and discipline as well as veneration of the Russian past. In world affairs the Stalinist system became isolationist. While paying lip service to the revolutionary goals of Karl Marx and Lenin, Stalin sought to promote good relations with the capitalist countries and urged Communist parties to ally themselves with moderate and middle-of-the-road parties in a popular front against the radical right.
From the middle of the 1930s onward, Stalin personally managed the vast political and economic system he had established. Formally, he took charge of it only in May 1941, when he assumed the office of chairman of the Council of Ministers. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin also assumed formal command over the entire military establishment.
Stalin's conduct of Russian military strategy in the war remains as controversial as most of his activities. Some evidence indicates that he committed serious blunders, but other evidence allows him credit for brilliant achievements. The fact remains that under Stalin the Soviet Union won the war, emerged as one of the major powers in the world, and managed to bargain for a distribution of the spoils of war that enlarged its area of domination significantly, partly by annexation and partly by the transformation of all the lands east of the Oder and Neisse rivers into client states.
Judgments of Stalin
Stalin died of a cerebrovascular accident on March 5, 1953. His body was entombed next to Lenin's in the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow. After his death Stalin became a controversial figure in the Communist world, where appreciation for his great achievements was offset to a varying degree by harsh criticism of his methods. At the Twentieth All-Union Party Congress in 1956, Premier Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders attacked the cult of Stalin, accusing him of tyranny, terror, falsification of history, and self-glorification.
Two excellent biographies of Stalin are Boris Souvarine, Stalin: A Critical Study of Bolshevism (trans. 1939), and Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography (1949; 2d ed. 1967). A good brief survey of his life is Robert D. Warth, Joseph Stalin (1969). Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin are the subjects of Bertram D. Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution (1948). Stalin figures prominently in Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers (trans. 1971); however, the authenticity of the memoirs is not completely established.
Many of the countless books dealing with Soviet affairs between 1923 and 1953 necessarily must deal with Stalin extensively, particularly such standard works as Edward H. Carr's massive multivolume study, A History of Soviet Russia (9 vols., 1951-1969); Merle Fainsod, How Russia Is Ruled (1953; rev. ed. 1963); Frederick L. Schuman, Russia since 1917 (1957); and Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1959). Of the numerous works by former Communist leaders who dealt with Stalin and later denounced him, several are noteworthy: Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence, edited and translated by Charles Malamuth (1941; new ed. 1967); Ruth Fischer, Stalin and the German Communist Party (1948); Alexander Orlov, The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes (1953); and Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party: A Study in the Technology of Power (1959). Various assessments of Stalin and his conduct of Soviet affairs are given in T.H. Rigby, ed., Stalin (1966). Stalin figures prominently in the best account of the purges of the 1930s, Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (1968).
Studies of the Soviet army and its officer corps under Stalin include John Erickson, The Soviet High Command (1962); Alexander Werth, Russia at War (1964); and Seweryn Bialer, ed., Stalin and His Generals: Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II (1969). □
The Soviet statesman Joseph Stalin was the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union. He led his country alongside America and England through World War II (1939–45) in their fight against Germany, Italy and Japan. As ruler of Russia, Stalin was the leader of world communism for almost thirty years.
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in Gori, Georgia. He was the only surviving son of Vissarion Dzhugashvili, a cobbler who first practiced his craft in a village shop but later in a shoe factory in the city. Stalin's father died in 1891. Stalin's mother, Ekaterina, a religious and illiterate (unable to read or write) peasant woman, sent her teenage son to the theological seminary in Tpilisi (Tiflis), Georgia, where Stalin prepared for the ministry. Shortly before his graduation, however, he was expelled in 1899 for spreading subversive views (ideas that went against those of the government).
Stalin then joined the underground revolutionary Marxist movement in Tpilisi, a movement devoted to the views of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Frederich Engels (1821–1896), who believed in the political system of socialism that gave power to the working class and would ultimately lead to communism, where goods and services would be distributed by the government. In 1901 he was elected a member of the Tpilisi committee of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. The following year he was arrested, imprisoned, and later exiled (forced to move) to Siberia, a cold and remote region of Russia. Stalin escaped from Siberia in 1904 and rejoined the Marxist underground in Tpilisi. When the Russian Marxist movement split into two factions (rival groups), Stalin identified himself with the Bolsheviks.
During the time of the 1904–1905 revolution, Stalin made a name for himself as the organizer of daring bank robberies and raids on money transports, an activity that Marxist leader V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) considered important due to the party's need for funds. Many other Marxists considered this type of highway robbery unworthy of a revolutionary socialist.
Stalin participated in congresses (governing parties) of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party at Tampere, London, and Stockholm, Sweden, in 1905 and 1906, meeting Lenin for the first time at these congresses. In 1912 Lenin recruited Stalin into the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party. Stalin spent the major portion of the years from 1905 to 1912 in organizational work for the movement, mainly in the city of Baku, Russia. The secret police arrested him several times, and several times he escaped. Eventually, after his return from Vienna, Austria, the police caught him again, and he was exiled to the faraway village of Turukhansk beyond the Arctic Circle. He remained there until the fall of czarism, the Russian rule of a sole leader or king. He adopted the name Stalin ("man of steel") around 1913.
First Years of Soviet rule
After the fall of czarism, Stalin made his way at once to Petrograd, Russia, where until the arrival of Lenin from Switzerland he was the senior Bolshevik and the editor of Pravda, the party newspaper. After Lenin's return, Stalin remained in the high councils of the party, but had only a small role in the preparations for the October Revolution, which placed the Bolsheviks in power. In the first position of the communist Soviet government, he held the post of people's commissar for nationalities (in charge of party loyalty).
Within the party, he rose to the highest ranks, becoming a member of both the Political Bureau and the Organizational Bureau. When the party Secretariat was organized, he became one of its leading members and was appointed its secretary general in 1922, where Lenin appreciated Stalin's ability as a politician and as a troubleshooter. The strength of Stalin's position in the government and in the party was probably anchored by his secretary generalship, which gave him control over party personnel administration—over admissions, training, assignments, promotions, and disciplinary matters. This position also ranked him as the most powerful man in Soviet Russia after Lenin.
Rise to power
During Lenin's last illness and after his death in 1924, Stalin served as a member of the three-man committee that ran the affairs of the party and the country. Stalin represented, for the time, the right wing (conservative) of the party that wanted to stay true to the ideas of the revolution. He and his spokesman, Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938), warned against revolutionaries and argued in favor of continuing the more cautious and patient policies that Lenin had installed with the New Economic Policy (NEP).
In 1927 Stalin succeeded in defeating the entire opposition and in eliminating its leaders from the party. He then adopted much of its domestic program by starting a five-year plan of industrial development and by executing it with a degree of recklessness that angered many of his former supporters, who then formed an opposition to him. This opposition, too, was defeated quickly, and by the early 1930s Stalin had gained dictatorial (total) control over the party, the state, and the entire Communist International.
Although always depicted as a towering figure, Stalin, in fact, was fairly short. His personality was highly controversial, and it remains a mystery. Stalin was crude and cruel and, in some important ways, a primitive man. In political life he tended to be cautious and slow-moving, and his writing style was much the same. Stalin was at times, however, a clever speaker and a fierce debater. He seems to have possessed boundless energy and an amazing ability to absorb detailed knowledge.
About Stalin's private life, little is known beyond the fact that he seems always to have been a lonely man. His first wife, a Georgian girl named Ekaterina Svanidze, died of tuberculosis, a terrible disease that attacks the lungs and bones. His second wife, Nadezhda Alleluyeva, killed herself in 1932, apparently over Stalin's dictatorial rule of the party. The only child from his first marriage, Jacob, fell into German hands during World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis—Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies—led by Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and, later, the United States) and was killed. The two children from his second marriage outlived their father, but they were not always on good terms with him. The son, Vasili, an officer in the Soviet air force, drank himself to death in 1962. The daughter, Svetlana, fled to the United States in the 1960s.
In back-to-back five-year plans, the Soviet Union under Stalin began to modernize (to accept modern ideas and styles) with great speed. Although the military needs of the country drained away precious resources, and World War II brought total destruction to several cities and death to many millions of citizens, the nation by the end of Stalin's life had become an important industrial country in the world, second only to the United States.
The price the Soviet Union paid for this great achievement remains staggering. It included the destruction of all free enterprise (business organizations) in both town and country. The transformation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s into collectives (groups of managed farms) tremendously damaged the country's food production. Living standards were drastically lowered at first, and more than a million people died of starvation. Meanwhile, Stalin jailed and executed vast numbers of party members, especially the old revolutionaries and the leading figures in many other areas. Stalin created a new kind of political system characterized by severe police control, strengthening of the government, and personal dictatorship. Historians consider his government one of history's worst examples of totalitarianism, or having complete political control with no opposition. In world affairs the Stalinist system became isolationist, meaning the country moved away from building relations with foreign nations.
From the middle of the 1930s onward, Stalin personally managed the vast political and economic system he had established. Formally, he took charge of it in May 1941, when he assumed the office of chairman of the Council of Ministers. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin also assumed formal command of the entire military establishment.
Stalin's conduct of Russian military strategy in the war remains as controversial as most of his activities. Some evidence indicates that he committed serious mistakes, but other evidence gives him credit for brilliant achievements. The fact remains that under Stalin the Soviet Union won the war, emerged as one of the major powers in the world, and managed to bargain for a distribution of the spoils of war (seized land resulting from Soviet victory) that enlarged its area of domination significantly.
Stalin died of a brain hemorrhage (an abnormal bleeding of the brain) on March 5, 1953. His body was placed in a tomb next to Lenin's in Red Square in Moscow. After his death Stalin became a controversial figure in the communist world, where appreciation for his great achievements was offset by harsh criticism of his methods.
For More Information
Downing, David. Joseph Stalin. Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2002.
Otfinoski, Steven. Joseph Stalin: Russia's Last Czar. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
Radzinskii, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Ulam, Adam B. Stalin: The Man and His Era. Expanded ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.