Stalin, Joseph

views updated Jun 27 2018

Joseph Stalin

Born December 21, 1879
Gori, Georgia, Russia
Died March 5, 1953 Kuntsevo, Russia, Soviet Union

Premier of the Soviet Union

J oseph Stalin was the brutal and absolute leader of the communist Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. By the late 1930s, Stalin staunchly opposed the growth across Europe of the Nazi Party of Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). When cutting deals with Hitler failed to halt the Nazi army, Stalin allied with the United States, Great Britain, and France during World War II (1939–45).

At the end of the war, Stalin immediately imposed communist rule over the countries of Eastern Europe, giving government positions to men who adhered to the strict Communist Party line and answered directly to him. Yet soon the Soviets became locked in the Cold War (1945–91). The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of military conflict. Stalin was the dominant figure in the Soviet Union for twenty-four years, a larger-than-life personality, a hero to many, and yet a ruthless and feared ruler.

Early years

Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia, in the Tiflis province of southwestern Russia, to an alcoholic shoemaker and a devoutly religious peasant woman of the Orthodox church. As a young adult, Iosif changed his name to Stalin, which meant "man of steel." Stalin owed his education to his mother, who planned for him to become a priest. His father died when he was about ten years old, but his industrious mother saw that he attended Orthodox elementary school in Gori. Although small in stature, Stalin excelled in school and was generally the brightest student in his classes.

In 1894, he entered the Tbilisi Orthodox Seminary in the Georgian city of Tbilisi. There he was introduced to a wide range of literature and exposed to new philosophical and social ideas. He studied the teachings of English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1892); the revolutionary social ideology of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), considered the "father" of communism; and Russian Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924).

Marxism had just reached Georgia and its ideas captivated young Stalin, who had come from the poorest of peasant backgrounds. The communist movement opposed the longtime rule of the Russian tsarist, or royal, government, whose members lived lavishly while all other Russians lived in poverty. Communism represented a new ideal, one where government consisted of a single party, the Communist Party, which controlled all aspects of people's lives. In economics, communism prohibited private ownership of property and business so all goods produced and wealth accumulated were supposed to be shared equally by all. In contrast, a democratic system of government, such as that of the United States, allowed multiple political parties whose members were elected to various government offices by popular vote of the people. Private property is allowed and encouraged, while prices of goods are determined by competition in the marketplace.

Communist revolutionary

By the late 1890s, Stalin dedicated his life to communist revolutionary ideas and joined the Social Democratic Party in 1898. He was expelled from the seminary in 1899 for revolutionary activities, including spreading communist propaganda to Georgian railroad workers. Between 1900 and 1917, Stalin, by then a communist underground organizer and agitator, was arrested, released, arrested, exiled, and released over twelve times. The early Social Democratic movement split in the early 1900s into the Bolshevik (communist) faction and the Mensheviks (the more democratic minority party). Stalin sided with the Bolsheviks as the party organized in about 1903. Stalin's activities in Georgia actually caught Lenin's attention, but the two had little contact before 1912.

Stalin, as a Bolshevik and a disciple of Lenin, was in conflict with many of the Social Democrats in Georgia who were Mensheviks. He moved to Saint Petersburg in 1912, where he first adopted the name Stalin, and became a member of the Bolshevik Party's Central Committee, its primary leadership committee. For a time, he served as editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik or communist (the terms came to be used interchangeably) newspaper.

Life as an underground revolutionary was not stable and Stalin was in exile in Siberia by early February 1917. He managed to return to Petrograd (later called Leningrad during the Cold War and then Saint Petersburg after the Cold War) in March 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution toppled the tsarist government in October 1917. In the new Soviet government, Stalin relocated to Moscow and served as the people's commissar of Nationality Affairs between 1917 and 1922. He held on to the position during this period of instability and civil war, which ended with the communists firmly in power. As people's commissar, Stalin took the responsibility of holding together the vast ethnic minorities within the Russian Empire.

Stalin gained a reputation as an efficient organizer for the communists fighting during the civil war. He also served

on various defense commissions and as political advisor to fighters and to local communities. For the first time, Stalin condoned brutal killings and torture to advance communist political ideas. It was at this time that Stalin developed a hatred of the Western powers such as the United States, Great Britain, and France, who were helping supply those opposed to communism. Years later, after World War II, this hatred played a part in Stalin's foreign policy during the Cold War.

General secretary

From 1921 onward, Lenin's and Stalin's ideas began to conflict. Lenin did not entirely approve of Stalin's fiercely nationalist approach. Nationalism refers to the strong loyalty of a person or group to its own country. Stalin increasingly expected all factions and parts of the Russian Empire to march in unison with him and his ideals. Lenin was crippled by a stroke in late 1922, and before his death in 1924 he all but called for Stalin's removal, saying Stalin employed crude tactics and would not properly use caution. Lenin's concerns and subsequent warnings, however, came too late.

In 1922, Stalin was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee. At the time, the position was an unheralded administrative post. However, Stalin, with his crafty political instinct, managed in a short time to turn the post into the dominant authority of the Soviet Union. In doing so, he pulled all control into his camp and away from his chief rival, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). Stalin held the general secretary post until his death in 1953. For decades after Stalin's death, it remained the key position of central leadership in the Soviet Union. Stalin used the office to brilliantly outmaneuver various political alliances that might have drained power from him. Outwitting and defaming all rivals, he was firmly in control of the Communist Party and country by 1927.

Collectivization and industrialization

In 1928 and 1929, Stalin tossed out Lenin's economic policies and launched into a government campaign to reform Soviet agriculture and focus industry on building large industrial complexes for heavy construction. In agriculture, Stalin destroyed the prosperous peasant farmers and ordered rapid collectivization of all agriculture. Private ownership of land was banned, and farmers were collected, or grouped together, to work the land. Much of what they produced was turned over to the government, with approximately twenty-five million farmers being regrouped on state farms.

Although many farmers resisted and tried to hold on to their land, most resisters were shot or sent to a system of labor camps known as the Gulag. Because of the displacement and disruption of farming, approximately ten million people died from famine. Those sent to the Gulag became the slave labor for Stalin's heavy industry construction programs. By the late 1930s, Soviet agriculture patterns under collectivization were set and would last for most of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union soon became second only to the United States in heavy industrial output. Light industry, however, such as the production of consumer goods, was ignored.

Personality cult and purges of terror

By the early 1930s, Stalin ruled over the Communist Party in such totality that all party members and military elite answered only to him. Reaching into all aspects of Soviet culture, Stalin even fancied himself the ultimate expert and judge of the arts, such as literature, poetry, theater, and music. He controlled the education of Soviet youth and the daily press. Many Soviets followed Stalin in a cult-like fashion. The term "adulation," meaning excessive flattering or admiration, was often used in praise of Stalin.

In 1934, Stalin decided to rid any lingering opposition to his rule by the use of terror, torture, and execution. Stalin began a ferocious campaign that by 1939 successfully eliminated almost all individuals of the old Bolshevik party, and upwards of 70 percent of leaders in the Communist Party and military. Many of the best-known persons in the country unexplainably disappeared.

Stalin also ordered showy trials of many leaders to make a public example of them and encourage them to confess to false charges. Stalin's purges struck not only the top party leadership, but the local levels and even the arts community. He introduced the phrase "enemy of the people," which automatically made proof of any guilt unnecessary. Brutal acts were carried out against "enemies," frequently without any grounds, and millions of Soviets were murdered. During this period, however, most Soviets thought of the hostilities as what must happen in a class struggle or during class warfare. Stalin hid his ruthlessness behind the idea that many must die before the common people could rise up.

World War II

Although Stalin's domestic agendas had occupied most of his time in the 1930s, on the foreign front he was a practical politician. He strengthened the Soviet economy and his own lock on power by broadening trade and diplomatic relationships through Europe and even with the United States. While praising U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), Stalin at the same time kept his distance, saying Roosevelt was "captain of the modern bourgeois [middle or upper class] world." Stalin also impressed upon Western nations that the Soviet Union was an enemy of the menacing Nazi German leader Hitler. Stalin tried to make alliances with France and Great Britain against the growing threat of Hitler's Nazi army. Unsuccessful, Stalin decided to try and deal with Hitler himself. In August 1939, to the surprise and shock of Western leaders, Stalin signed a treaty with Hitler that in turn led to the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II.

When the Nazi army later invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was stunned. Quickly regaining his composure, Stalin stayed in Moscow, assumed the chairmanship of the State Committee of Defense, and declared himself the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. Although never visiting front lines, he gathered a highly competent group of generals and was able to understand complex military strategies. By 1942, Stalin directed successful counterattacks at the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.

In 1943, Stalin met with British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965; see entry) and U.S. president Roosevelt in Tehran, Iran. The three became known as the "Big Three." The first postwar planning took place with Stalin largely having his way. Stalin successfully argued that the Soviet army and people were bearing the brunt of the ground fighting. By war's end, millions would have died. He stressed that the Soviet Union must protect itself by ensuring a strong influence in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Albania, and Bulgaria. These countries would then serve as a barrier between the Soviets and Western Europe.

Throughout its history, Russia had periodically been invaded by groups from Western Europe, and Stalin felt he must protect his country from future attacks. Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met again in the Soviet town of Yalta in 1945, and later that year Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany, with U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry), who had replaced Roosevelt upon his death; Churchill; and Clement R. Attlee (1883–1967; see entry), who would replace Churchill. At that time, the "Red" (Soviet) Army occupied all of Eastern Europe and half of Germany. Poland was a major point of contention, but Stalin was able to satisfy Western leaders by promising to quickly hold open elections in Poland. In actuality, those elections would never be held.

Also during the Yalta meeting, Roosevelt and Stalin negotiated that the Soviets would enter the Pacific front in the war against Japan for Roosevelt, allowing the Soviets to occupy northern Korea and the islands north of Japan. These agreements assured Stalin a "sphere of influence," or leadership, over vast regions, including Eastern Europe and Asia. When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, the war with Japan ended before the Soviets became highly involved. The United States was, at the time, the only nation possessing atomic weapons.

Cold War begins

At the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two superpowers of the world. Stalin established communist leaders at the head of governments of Eastern Europe. Wary of future East-West relations, Stalin realized the United States must not be allowed to maintain an atomic weapon monopoly. In mid-1945, Stalin placed Lavrenty Beria (1899–1953; see box) in charge of organizing the Soviet atomic bomb project. The arms race soon became the primary way America and the Soviets kept score as to who was winning the Cold War.

Stalin worked to control gains made by the Soviets. Western leaders soon realized that any negotiations with Stalin had to be resolved under his terms or not at all. At first, knowing the tremendous sacrifices the Soviet people had made during the war, sentiment among Western leaders was, in general, to back off from demands conflicting with those of Stalin. What to do with postwar Germany was the first challenge; it had been divided into four occupied sectors—Soviet, American, British, and French. Stalin was intent on dismantling German industrial equipment and carting it off to the Soviet Union to be reassembled. He was determined to so weaken Germany that it could never be a threat to the Soviet Union again. Conversely, the three Western powers began to view a rebuilt, revitalized, and reunified Germany as a block to the spread of communism to the West. Eventually, these basic differences resulted in a permanently divided Germany—the closed Soviet-supported German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and the open democratic U.S.- and British-supported Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany.

Stalin not only strengthened his hold on Eastern European countries but also supported communist uprisings in Greece, Turkey, and Iran. At Britain's urging, the United States intervened to stop communist takeovers in those countries. The Cold War rivalry was becoming increasingly defined. Stalin was convinced communism would eventually spread to a worldwide movement and overcome the democratic, capitalist countries of the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 for mutual protection of Western countries, and Stalin formed Cominform to direct communist activities around the world.

In September 1949, the Soviets successfully detonated an atomic bomb, eliminating the U.S. monopoly on atomic weapons. About the same time, Chinese communists successfully took power in China. Then in 1950, the Korean War (1950–53) started between the communist North Korea and the democratic U.S.-supported South Korea. At this point, Stalin and the spread of communism were greatly feared in the United States and Western Europe, still trying to recover from World War II. Yet unknown to Western leaders, by the early 1950s, Stalin would slip into a paranoia so severe his mind would become completely occupied by internal matters.

Great terror continued

In Eastern European countries after World War II, tensions were high at the local levels between Stalin's communists, the local communists, and anticommunists. One of the countries, Yugoslavia, under leader Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980; see entry) was able to maintain some independence apart from Stalin's influence. Partly due to Tito's rebellion, Stalin began an intense Sovietization of Eastern Europe in 1948. The central Communist Party in Moscow had men in place in Eastern Europe, who ruled the countries with absolute iron control. Repression of any independent thought and total conformity to party line were demanded. Any dissent was punished brutally. The countries were forced, between 1948 and 1953, to adhere to Stalin's Soviet plan of agricultural collectivization and to turn all manufacturing into heavy industry. Stalin demanded that his instructions be carried out without question throughout Eastern Europe.

To be sure both local Communist Party officials and the general public adhered to his rule, Stalin used his "show trials." False accusations were made against various leaders. Under torture, they would usually confess and then be executed. Two of the most famous show trials involved Foreign Minister Laszlo Rajk (1909–1949) in Hungary and Rudolf Slansky (1901–1952), general secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Eventually, one in four Czech party members disappeared during Stalin's reign of terror.

Inside the Soviet Union, Stalin obsessed over total party loyalty. He saw an enemy or conspiracy around every corner. Just as in the 1930s when he called on the Soviets to uncover "enemies of the people," Stalin now ordered the addition of more and more labor camps for the Gulag system. One of the most concentrated, brutal purges occurred against the citizens of Leningrad in 1949. Upwards of one thousand party leaders from Leningrad were executed. Stalin's top "henchman" or ally was chief of the KGB (the secret police) Lavrenty Beria, who was also in charge of the Soviet atomic bomb project.

Paranoid end

According to Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, her father increasingly and steadily lost touch with reality the last three years of his life. He completely isolated himself at the Kremlin in Moscow or at his nearby country home in Kuntsevo. Stalin was suspicious of everyone, and at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952, he so feared everyone in the room that he sat alone at the end of a long table. At this time, he was also conjuring up an anti-Semitic (Jewish) campaign.

Those around Stalin continued to be terrorized by him and KGB chief Beria. Stalin constantly made up stories that his closest staff and even his family were in conspiracies against him. In his last months in early 1953, he was preparing to possibly purge the people, including the doctors, of whom he was suspicious. Stalin suffered a stroke sometime during the night of February 28, 1953. He was not discovered until late the next afternoon, for his staff had feared entering his room without his permission. Stalin died on March 5, 1953.

Stalin left behind a Soviet Union ruled by a huge government bureaucracy of ministries, party-ruled legislative bodies, and secret police. For many common Soviet citizens, Stalin had been the extremely popular "father" of the Soviet Union. Thousands paid their respects in Moscow, and his body was put on display in the Lenin Mausoleum. His ultimate successor, however, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry), was bold enough to reveal the "crimes of Stalin" in a secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in October 1956. Partly as a result of this speech, Stalin's body was removed from the mausoleum and buried at the Kremlin Wall.

For More Information


Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton. The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking, 1991.

Isaacs, Jeremy, and Taylor Downing. Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.

Lewis, Jonathan, and Phillip Whitehead. Stalin: A Time for Judgement. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Ulam, Adam B. Stalin: The Man and His Era. New York: Viking Press, 1973.

Lavrenty Beria

Born in southern Russia in Georgia on March 29, 1899, Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria would become head of the KGB, the dreaded Soviet secret police, and the organizational chief of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, often referred to Beria as "my father's evil genius."

Young Beria, much as Stalin had been, was caught up in the communist movement sweeping over Russia and joined the Communist Party in 1917, the same year the revolutionary Bolsheviks triumphed over Russia's tsarist government. Committed to the cause and not averse to brutal tactics, Beria quickly rose by 1921 to the leadership of Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. Between 1921 and 1931, he "eliminated" anyone who deviated from communist ideals or orders. Stalin appointed Beria head of the Soviet People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). NKVD was another early name for the KGB. Beria specialized in terror, torture, executions, and for the lucky ones, facilitating banishment to the Gulag, the harsh Soviet prison system. Beria destroyed tens of thousands of lives.

Beria was also put in charge of efforts to build a Soviet bomb, with Igor

Kurchatov (1903–1960; see entry) as the organization's top scientist. Beria constantly bellowed to Kurchatov, "You will be camp dust," if the scientist was unsuccessful in developing the bomb. Upon Stalin's death in March 1953, Beria was one of a handful of leaders assuming they might take over from Stalin. Yet others, including Nikita Khrushchev, saw to it that Beria was falsely accused of being an agent for the West and was shot in late 1953. The announcement of his death was made in December 1953.

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 11 2018

Joseph Stalin

Born December 21, 1879
Gori, Georgia, Russia
Died March 5, 1953
Moscow, Russia
Dictator of the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953

Joseph Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union after the death of Vladimir Lenin, who had led the revolution that removed the Russian czar (an all-powerful, hereditary ruler like a king) from power and put the Communist Party in charge of the country in 1917. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union became one of the world's major powers, but his was a reign of terror as millions of people who displeased Stalin in various ways were executed or sent to labor camps called "gulags." During World War II, Stalin rallied the Russian people to defeat the Germans and they did so, but at a terrible cost—about twenty-five million Russians lost their lives in the war.

A boy called "Soso"

Stalin was born Iosef (Joseph) Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, in the country of Georgia, which was then part of Russia's empire in western Asia. He was the only one of four children in his family who did not die as a baby. Stalin's father, Vissarion, was a shoemaker and an alcoholic who died from wounds he received in a fight. His mother, Yekaterina, took in washing and sewing and hired out as a housekeeper to support her son, whom she nursed through several serious childhood illnesses, including smallpox.

Called "Soso" as a boy, Stalin spoke only the Georgian language until he was eight. At that age he started school, where he learned Russian (the common language of the Russian empire) and studied religion, geography, and other subjects. Although she could not read or write herself, Stalin's very religious mother had grand ambitions for her son; in particular, she wanted him to become a priest, and perhaps eventually a bishop.

Learning about Marxism

In 1894 Stalin won a scholarship to the theological seminary in Tbilisi (the largest city in Georgia). He earned good grades the first year, but during the second year he rebelled against the school's strict rules. He smuggled banned books into the school, and once refused to bow to a school official. It was during these years that Stalin learned about Marxism (the theory of Karl Marx that calls for the working class to revolt and create a classless society). Stalin began reading works by Marxist writers, especially Vladimir Lenin, who would later lead Russia's revolution.

In 1899 Stalin was expelled from the seminary (even after her son became the leader of the Soviet Union, his mother considered him a failure for not entering the priesthood). He continued to dream of revolution, and began calling himself "Koba" (which means "The Indomitable") after a hero from Georgian folk tales.

Stalin got a job as a bookkeeper at the Tbilisi observatory, and there he met members of a group called the Social Democrats, who used the observatory as a meeting place. These people were communists (believers in a political system in which all citizens own property as a group rather than individually), which was illegal in Russia at the time. Stalin joined the group, and when his employers discovered this he lost his job.

A full-time revolutionary

Unemployed, Stalin became an active member of the Social Democratic Party's militant wing and devoted all of his time to revolutionary activities, which mostly involved trying to convince industrial workers to support the group. In 1894 he married a peasant girl, Yekaterina Svanidze, but after only three happy years—and the birth of a son, Jacob—she died. Arrested in 1902 for his revolutionary activities, Stalin was sent to Siberia (a huge, desolate part of northern Russia where people were often sent as punishment for crimes) but escaped two years later and returned to Georgia.

In 1905 Stalin attended a political meeting in Finland, and there he met Vladimir Lenin for the first time. The Social Democratic Party had split into two parts: the Mensheviks, who believed in gradual change and compromise; and the extremist Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, who called for immediate revolution. Lenin could see that Stalin was a loyal party member who was good at organizing and at solving practical problems, and he put Stalin to work raising money for the Bolsheviks by robbing banks and government money transports—Lenin did so quietly, however, since this was an activity of which some Bolsheviks might not have approved.

After performing such tasks for some time Stalin was in danger of arrest, so he was expelled from his local party, and he disappeared. He soon resurfaced in Baku, Azerbaijan (located near the Caspian Sea), where he tried to convince the area's oil workers to join the Bolsheviks. Constantly in and out of trouble with the police, Stalin spent several periods of exile in Siberia.

Trusted by Lenin

In 1912 Lenin cut his ties with the Social Democrats and formed his own party. Knowing how invaluable Stalin's ruthlessness and intelligence were, Lenin nominated him to his party's central committee. But Stalin was soon arrested again, and this time he stayed in Siberia for a longer period. He did not return, in fact, until March 1917, when the Russian revolution toppled the czar's (all-powerful ruler) regime. By this time he was calling himself Stalin, which comes from the Russian word "stal" which means steel.

At this period, Russia was made up of a collection of individual republics that would, in 1924, together become the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, however, the country was ruled by a provisional (temporary) government made up of several different political parties that had worked together to overthrow the czar. In April, Lenin returned to Russia from Switzerland, where he had been living in exile, and announced his dissatisfaction with the new government. After issuing a demand for peace, bread (meaning adequate food), and land for the Russian people, Lenin and his followers organized a revolutionary committee and began urging urban workers, rural people, and members of the military to back them.

Over the next few months, the members of the revolutionary committee—who were now calling themselves Communists as well as Bolsheviks—gradually gained influence, so that by October they were able to stage a bloodless takeover of the provisional government. The Communist Party now ruled Russia, with Lenin as its top leader.

Lenin now named Stalin Commissar of Nationalities, putting him in charge of placing Communists among all the many ethnic groups in Russia so that the party's power would increase. Meanwhile, Stalin also attracted his own supporters among the most powerful Communist leaders. During these years Stalin was proving himself to be a strong leader who could make tough decisions and stick with them; he was not considered an intellectual leader, but was determined to get what he wanted.

Between 1918 and 1921, the Communists and their "Red Army" fought a civil war with those who still resisted their dominance: called the "Whites," these opponents included some who fought for a return to a czarist regime and some who wanted a more democratic government. Stalin served as a military commander during this conflict. In 1919, when Lenin set up agencies to perform various government tasks, Stalin was made Commissar of the Workers and Peasants Inspectorate. He became a member of the party secretariat or "Politboro." Stalin also took a second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, the sixteen-year-old daughter of an old friend. The couple had two children, Vasili and Svetlana, born in 1919 and 1925. In 1932, Nadezhda would kill herself, leaving a note that expressed disapproval of Stalin as a man and leader.

Building his own power

Lenin made it clear that he continued to value Stalin when, in 1922, he made him the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This was an important position, because Stalin had the power to give key party jobs to people who were loyal to him. In that way, he was able to staff the party's higher levels with many of his supporters.

In May 1922 Lenin had a stroke and his health grew worse and worse. At the same time, he began to express fear about the amount of power that Stalin and others had built for themselves. But Lenin was losing influence in the party, as some members accused him of forgetting some of the ideals around which the Communist Party had been founded.

After Lenin's death in January 1924, the country was at first led jointly by five men: Stalin, Leon Trotsky (the head of the Red Army), Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev (Moscow and Leningrad party chiefs), and Nikolai Bukharin (the party's theorist). Each of these men would have liked to be Russia's top ruler, but it was Stalin who emerged on top. He did so by carefully building an image of himself as humble, calm, efficient, and fatherly and by pitting his opponents against each other.

A plan to advance the Soviet Union

First Stalin plotted with Kamenev and Zinoviev to remove Trotsky from power (he went into exile in Mexico, where he was eventually killed by Stalin's agents). Then Stalin and Bukharin worked together to get rid of Kamenev and Zinoviev. Finally Stalin turned against Bukharin. In less than ten years, Stalin was the only one of these original five leaders left alive, thanks to his own ruthless pursuit of power.

Stalin now had complete control of the Soviet Union, which he ran with the help of a strong, brutal police force. His main objective was to develop his country's industry and agriculture, and in 1928 he proposed the "Five-Year Plan" (which was followed by other five-year plans) to quickly reach the goals he had set. "We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries," Stalin told his people. "We must cover this distance in ten years. Either we do this or they will crush us."

Across the Soviet Union, construction began on factories, dams, and other major projects, and within five years the country was producing steel, machine tools, tractors, and other industrial products. Meanwhile, farmers were forced to give up their small family farms and move onto state-owned, collective farms; Stalin did not believe that the government could effectively control smaller farms.

Change brings suffering to the Russian people

These changes were hard on the Russian people. Factory workers made only enough money for basic necessities, and food and goods were sometimes hard to find. People had to get special permission to change jobs, and special passports to travel. Some farmers did not want to give up their farms, and they were labeled "kulaks" (tightwads) and killed or sent to the "gulags"—the network of labor camps set up for those accused of crimes against the state. Other farmers starved when the government punished them by taking their grain. People were afraid to express themselves freely (especially if they disagreed with the government), because they knew the penalty would be swift and harsh.

By the late 1930s, most of Soviet agriculture had been collectivized, but some of the rules were changed so that people were allowed to keep their own houses and tools and grow private gardens for their own use.

A time of terror

Meanwhile, Stalin was creating a public image of himself as a great hero. Cities, towns, villages, and even the tallest mountain in Russia were named after him, and he was mentioned in the national anthem. Yet he was more and more fearful of enemies and suspicious of everyone around him. In the mid-1930s he began a series of purges (a practice of getting rid of people by killing them or sending them to prison). It is estimated that from seventeen to twenty-five million people were sent to the gulags during Stalin's reign; about a million were executed, while about seven million died in the gulags.

One purge that Stalin would later have a reason to regret was that of the Soviet armed forces, when most of the country's marshals, generals, and admirals were killed. These officers would be sorely missed in only a few years, when Russia entered World War II.

Surprised by German invasion

During the 1930s, Adolf Hitler had cemented his place as dictator (a ruler with absolute power) of Germany and was leading his army in conquests of various nearby countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Soviet Union was also interested in expanding its territories. In August 1939 Stalin signed an agreement with Hitler in which Russia and Germany divided the countries of Eastern Europe between them and promised not to attack each other. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were forced to join the Soviet Union and, after a short war of resistance, so was Finland.

Although he had been warned by some of his advisors that Hitler would not honor his agreement with the Soviet Union, Stalin was shocked when, in June 1941, the German army invaded Russia. For about two weeks he seemed stunned and unable to do anything; he said, "Everything which Lenin created we have lost forever!" But then Stalin recovered, taking personal command of the Soviet armed forces.

On July 3, 1941, he addressed the Soviet people in a radio broadcast (the first time most of them had heard their leader's voice) and called on them to resist the enemy with all their might. The Soviet Union had entered World War II on the side of the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and other countries fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan.)

Fighting back and winning

The Germans quickly moved through the country until they reached the outskirts of two of its biggest cities, Moscow and Leningrad. They had confiscated about half of Russia's industry and agriculture, and about 40 percent of the population was under German control. In response, Stalin shifted many Soviet industries to the eastern part of the country where they would be safer from the Germans, arranged to borrow supplies and equipment from the other Allied countries, and built morale by stirring up the religious and patriotic feelings of the Soviet citizens. He even relaxed some of the restrictions he had imposed, letting people practice their traditional religion more openly and allowing more artistic expression.

Stalin believed in a "scorched earth" policy (which meant that it was better to destroy crops and property than to let the Germans take them) and refused to surrender any ground. With the Germans dug in for the winter around Moscow, Stalin ignored the brutally cold weather and called for a counterattack. The Red Army did gain some ground, but at a great cost in casualties (people dead or wounded).

More evidence of Stalin's extremism—and, some would say, his deep cruelty—was offered when, in July of 1942, he issued a rule that any Soviet soldier taken prisoner would be considered a traitor to Russia. In fact, Stalin's own son Vasili was captured by the Germans; Stalin responded by disowning him, later refusing an offer by the Germans to exchange Vasili for a captured German officer.

Stalin used the threat of severe punishment to intimidate not only ordinary citizens and foot soldiers but also higher officers and government officials. Nevertheless, most agreed that he ran the war effort well, planning strategies that worked, promoting good commanders, and representing his country at several important war conferences attended by the leaders of the Allied countries.

Victory brings admiration

In January 1943, the Red Army won another long, bloody, and important battle, this time to regain the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd). That summer, they beat the Germans at Kursk, and from then on the Germans were constantly in retreat, pursued by Russian troops back toward the German border.

These victories boosted Stalin's image both at home and abroad. Allied troops referred to him as "Uncle Joe" and considered him a passionate enemy of Nazism, even though he had made agreements with the Nazis just before the war. In only a few years, the rest of the world would realize that Stalin was, in fact, an isolationist (someone who does not believe in becoming involved in other nation's affairs) with a deep distrust of the non-Communist countries.

Russia is rewarded with new territory

In April 1945 Russian troops were the first to enter the German capital, Berlin, where Hitler was hiding in an underground bunker. He killed himself on April 30, and the Germans quickly surrendered to the Allies. As the war drew to a close, Stalin used his newfound popularity—and the undeniable contribution the Russian people had made to the Allied victory—to gain rewards for Russia. In the end, the Soviet Union had control over most of Eastern Europe.

The same old brutality and paranoia

Despite hopes that the war's end would change the way Stalin governed, he soon went back to the same harsh measures. This marked the beginning of the "Cold War" between the Soviet Union and western countries (especially the United States), a conflict fought not with guns and bombs but with words, suspicion, and threats of aggression and which lasted until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Stalin's paranoia continued, and he seemed to trust no one, not even his closest friends and family members. He had just started a new series of purges when, in March of 1953, he suffered a stroke and died of internal bleeding. Over the next few decades, the Soviet Union would face a long, slow recovery from the brutal, damaging years of Stalin's reign.

Where to Learn More


Caulkins, Janet. Joseph Stalin. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Viking Penguin,1991.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Joseph Stalin. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Kallen, Stuart A. The Stalin Era: 1925-1953. Edina, MN: Abdo & Daughters, 1992.

Marrin, Albert. Stalin. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1988.

Whitelaw, Nancy. Joseph Stalin: From Peasant to Premier. New York: Dillon Press, 1992.

Web sites

Simmonds, George W. "Joseph Stalin." [Online] Available (February 24, 1999).

Joseph Stalin led his country to repel a German invasion and join Allied forces during World War II.

A Great Russian General

The general in charge of the Soviet Union's important victories against the Germans at Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Kursk was Goergi Zhukov, who is considered one of World War II's greatest generals.

Zhukov was born into a poor family in 1896 in Strelkovka, a small village located about 60 miles from Moscow. As a young boy he worked as a furrier's apprentice, but in 1915 he joined the Russian army. During the revolution and civil war that established Russia as a Communist country, Zhukov joined the new Red Army, serving as a squadron commander until 1920. During the 1920s he attended schools for military commanders while rising through the ranks.

Over the course of the 1930s, Zhukov somehow managed to avoid being killed in Stalin's purge of the Soviet military leadership. He made his mark in 1939 when he went to Upper Mongolia (now part of China) where the Japanese were conducting an undeclared war along their border with that region. He commanded the Soviet First Army Group in its victory against the Japanese Sixth Army at the Khalkhin-Gol River, and was promoted to the rank of general in May 1940.

In February 1941 Zhukov was made chief of the Soviet General Staff and deputy commissioner for defense. After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Zhukov began to show the leadership qualities that would make him one of the best of all World War II generals. He led the defense of Leningrad in the summer and fall of 1941, then returned to Moscow in December to defend the city against German attack. Successful in that effort, he went on to coordinate the Soviet victories at Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943 and Kursk in July and August 1943. In August 1942 Zhukov was made deputy supremecommander in chief of the Red Army and Navy, which meant that he was second in command only to Stalin in terms of military authority.

With the end of the war in Europe in sight, Zhukov led his troops across Eastern Europe toward Germany, and in May 1945 they captured Berlin. Zhukov was at the head of the delegation that accepted Germany's unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. Immediately after the war, Zhukov was in charge of the Soviet occupation of Germany, but he was removed from that job a year later by leader Joseph Stalin, who resented Zhukov's great popularity. Zhukov had won three Gold Medals as a "Hero of the Soviet Union" during the war and was probably the Soviet people's second-most respected figure after Stalin.

Stalin now pushed Zhukov off into positions commanding the Odessa and Ural military districts, far from the center of Soviet political life. But when Stalin died in 1953 Zhukov became deputy defense minister, and he was defense minister from 1955 to 1957. His close relationship with Communist Party leader Nikita Khruschev resulted in Zhukov's being made a member of the party's Central Committee. Only a few months later, however, Khruschev too began to fear Zhukov's popularity, and he was removed from public office.

Zhukov retired to his country home and began working on his memoirs, which were initially published only in censored form because Soviet leaders did not want his important role in the war to be publicized. The full version of Zhukov's memoirs appeared in 1989, 15 years after his death, and in 1995 a statue was built to honor his memory.

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 29 2018

Joseph Stalin

Born: December 21, 1879
Gori, Georgia
Died: March 5, 1953
Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Russian ruler

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 (193945) in their fight against Germany, Italy and Japan. As ruler of Russia, Stalin was the leader of world communism for almost thirty years.

Early 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 (18181883) and Frederich Engels (18211896), 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 19041905 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 (18701924) 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 administrationover 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 (18881938), 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.

Stalin's personality

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 (193945; a war fought between the AxisGermany, Italy, and Japanand the Alliesled 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.

Stalin's achievements

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.

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 18 2018

Stalin, Joseph

[DECEMBER 21, 1879–MARCH 5, 1953]

Russian revolutionary and politician; successor to Lenin as ruler of the Soviet Union and head of the Communist Party (1929 to 1953)

One of the bloodiest despots in modern history, Joseph Stalin helped transform the Soviet Union into a military and industrial superpower, but at a staggering cost in human lives and suffering. In the words of scholar Stephen Cohen, Stalin's rule was a "holocaust by terror" that "victimized tens of millions of people for twenty-five years."

Stalin was born Iosif Vissioronovich Djugashvili on December 21, 1879, in the Georgian village of Gori. The son of a poor shoemaker, Iosif became a professional revolutionary and at age thirty-four adopted the political name of Stalin, meaning "man of steel." A member of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, Stalin played a minor role in the 1917 October Revolution and entered the new Soviet government as Commissar of Nationalities. In 1922 he became General Secretary of the Communist Party, a position he subsequently transformed into the major base of power in the Soviet state. A gifted politician, Stalin outmaneuvered his rivals to become the sole leader of the party and the state by 1929.

Human life had little value for Stalin, who viewed people largely as instruments for serving the needs of the state. In the late 1920s, Stalin launched a massive drive to transform Soviet industry and agriculture. To support industrialization, he ordered the collectivization of agriculture and the creation of large-scale communal farms. But collectivization soon turned into a bloody civil war that raged across the countryside, resulting in the death and deportation of five to eight million people. Those who resisted faced either execution or exile to "special settlements" in remote northern regions, where up to a third of them died from the harsh conditions. Collectivization proved even more deadly during the famine years of 1932 and 1933 when an estimated five to eight million peasants died in Ukraine and Central Asia. Some scholars view this famine as a deliberate act of genocide, whereas others blame it on bureaucratic incompetence and poor planning.

Repression was central to Stalin's leadership from the beginning. Throughout the period from 1929 to 1953 the regime employed tactics of terror, arresting people on false charges of conspiracy and espionage, then either executing them or sentencing them to labor camps, where they toiled in harsh, debilitating conditions. Chronic absenteeism at work or picking up grain husks from a harvested field could bring a ten-year sentence. According to one scholar, over twenty-eight million Soviet citizens passed through the forced labor camps and colonies between 1929 and 1953. Located all across the Soviet Union, in every time zone, the camps were filthy, brutal, and dehumanizing. Death rates were high, averaging about 6 percent per year. One archival source states that over two million inmates died in the camps between 1929 and 1953, but this does not include all categories of prisoners.

The height of the Stalinist repression, known as the Great Terror, lasted from 1936 to 1939. The majority of victims during this period were from the Communist Party, the economic ministries, the military, the Communist International, and minority nationalities. No precise figures exist. Official KGB figures for 1937–1938 claim that just under 700,000 were executed and that at the beginning of the 1940s there were about 3.6 million in labor camps and prisons. Stephen Wheatcroft and R. W. Davies have calculated that the total number of excess deaths from 1927 to 1938 may have amounted to some ten million persons, 8.5 million killed between 1927 and 1936 and about 1 to 1.5 million between 1937 and 1938.

Historians disagree over the motives behind the terror. Some focus on Stalin's paranoia and thirst for power, while others cite fears of an internal "fifth column" in the face of pending war and the Nazi threat. Still others argue that the process moved in part from below, due to party in-fighting, the desire to settle personal scores, and anti-elitist sentiments among the rank and file. Stalin's role as author of the terror, however, is clear: He formulated the majority of the directives and personally commanded and supervised arrests, show trials, and executions.

During World War II, the Stalinist regime carried out ethnic cleansing, though the exact motives remain unclear. It deported 400,000 Volga Germans to Central Asia and Siberia out of fear that they would support the invading enemy. Between 1943 and 1944, Stalin ordered the deportation of about a million Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Kalmiks, and Turks from their homelands to Central Asia, alleging that they had collaborated with the Germans. Transported in sealed boxcars, with no fresh air, proper food, sanitation, or medical care, as many as 40 percent died along the way from hunger, cold, and disease. Those who resisted the deportation were shot. Prior to the war, in 1940, Stalin had ordered the execution of 21,857 Poles. Of these, over 4,000 were officers who were shot and buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest (Smolensk region). This crime was denied by the Soviet regime for fifty years.

After the war, smaller-scale repressions continued to fill the camps. The number of prisoners rose from 1,460,676 in 1945 to 2,468,524 in 1953. The postwar period was marked by fierce attacks on creative artists, deportations of Balt, Moldavian, and Ukrainian populations, and a virulent anti-Semitic campaign that culminated in the arrests in 1953 of nine Kremlin doctors on charges of murder and treason. In addition, there were over four million foreign POWs in the camp system, many of whom either died in captivity or had to wait up to ten years for repatriation.

Tragically, even Stalin's death in 1953 came at a price. On the day of his funeral, tens of thousands of people crowded in the streets to view the body, and many were crushed to death in the ensuing panic. Despite the magnitude of his crimes, Stalin's legacy remains complex. Some see him as the worst monster who ever ruled, a modern Genghis Khan who devoured his own children. Yet others consider him a resolute and even heroic leader who did what was necessary in order to modernize Russia and defeat its enemies. Some who lived through the Stalin years later remembered them as a time of vibrant idealism and energy. But no evaluation of Stalin's leadership can ignore the horrific price paid in human lives, and the incalculable physical, moral, and psychological destruction he left behind.

SEE ALSO Gulag; Katyn; Lenin, Vladimir; Ukraine (Famine); Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Applebaum, Anne (2003). Gulag. A History. New York: Doubleday.

Cohen, Stephen F. (1999). "Bolshevism and Stalinism." In Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Transaction Publishers.

Davies, R. W., Mark Harrison, and Stephen Wheatcroft, eds. (1994). The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Naimark, Norman M. (2001). Fires of Hatred. Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Read, Christopher, ed. (2003). The Stalin Years. A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Elaine MacKinnon

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 14 2018


Throughout the 1930s Joseph Stalin (December 21, 1879–March 5, 1953) was the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the world Communist movement. Born Joseph Djugashvili, son of a Georgian cobbler, he studied at the Tiflis Orthodox Theological Seminary in his youth but was expelled in 1899. He was soon active in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, and by 1903 was drawn to its more militant and centralized faction, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In the revolutionary underground, he assumed the name Stalin (man of steel) and rose in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party due to organizational and administrative skills.

With the working-class overthrow of the Russian monarchy in 1917, followed by a socialist revolution led by Lenin's Bolsheviks, Stalin assumed the important role of commissar of nationalities in the Bolshevik organization (renamed the Communist Party in 1918) and in the new Soviet Republic. In 1919 he became part of the Politburo, the central leadership of the Communist Party. Between 1919 and 1922 Stalin accumulated additional positions of authority, culminating in the newly created position of Communist Party general secretary, in which capacity he was nominally subordinate to the Politburo, but in fact increasingly able to "guide" its decisions. Stalin's power was greatly enhanced because during the brutalizing Russian Civil War of 1918 to 1921 "emergency measures" were established that gave the Communist Party a dictatorship over the country's political life.

During his fatal illness in 1922 and 1923, Lenin waged a struggle from his sickbed against Stalin's authoritarian policies and excessive power, enlisting the support of the brilliant revolutionary Leon Trotsky. But other key Communist leaders, including Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, initially distrusted Trotsky and preferred the seemingly more easygoing Stalin. After Lenin's death, they discovered that Stalin's control of the bureaucratic apparatus of the party and the government allowed him to reject their perspectives. They joined with Trotsky to struggle against bureaucratic corruption and maintain a revolutionary-internationalist orientation for the Communist International, but they were no match for the powerful apparatus under Stalin's control, and Trotsky was even expelled from the country. Other veteran Bolshevik leaders aligned themselves with Stalin to defeat this opposition, the most prominent being Nikolai Bukharin, who was soon swept aside for opposing some of Stalin's most brutal policies.

From 1928 to 1930, Stalin's "revolution from above" through the forced collectivization of land and rapid industrialization employed extreme repression and violence against masses of peasants and workers who resisted the exploitative effects of his new policies. Many were killed, with many more arrested and sent to forced-labor camps. Much of the USSR's agriculture was wrecked, resulting in famine that cost the lives of perhaps five million people. While the Communist apparatus under Stalin tightened its control over the intellectual and cultural life of the country, many seasoned Communist Party members nonetheless began to question Stalin's policies. In several sensational "purge trials" from 1936 through 1939, the Stalin regime claimed that a traitorous conspiracy against the USSR had been hatched by Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and a majority of those who had led the 1917 revolution. Tens of thousands of Communists were arrested and shot, and many more were sent to forced-labor camps. Millions of lives were destroyed.

At the same time, an immense propaganda campaign orchestrated a personality cult glorifying Stalin and proclaimed that socialism was now being established in the USSR. The mobilization of millions of people animated by the idealistic goals of socialism contributed to impressive economic development. Employment, the necessities of life, and an increasing number of social improvements were guaranteed to ever-broader sectors of the population. Much of the increase in industrial output was made at the expense of quality (half of all tractors produced in the USSR during the 1930s are said to have been defective), and government figures indicating that overall industrial production increased by about 400 percent between 1928 and 1941 are undoubtedly inflated. The fact remains, however, that the USSR became a major industrial power in that period.

Stalin's grand claim about creating "socialism in a single country" had a powerful appeal beyond the USSR. Especially with the onset of the Great Depression, idealistic workers and intellectuals throughout the world looked to the Communist revolutionary process in the USSR as an alternative to capitalism and a bulwark against the rising tide of fascism. In the early 1930s, Communist parties in many countries were denouncing other socialist parties as "social-fascists," but the failure of German Communists to unite with German Social-Democrats to stop the rise of Adolf Hitler led not to a workers' revolution but to the Nazi regime.

By 1934 the USSR was calling on the League of Nations for a "collective security" alliance of Western capitalist democracies with the USSR against the militaristic expansionism of Germany, Italy, and Japan. In 1935 the Communist International declared that all Communists should work to create a "Popular Front" of Communist and Socialist parties with liberal pro-capitalist parties to establish governments that would maintain both capitalism and political democracy, implement social reforms, and follow a foreign policy friendly to the USSR. After most of the Popular Front efforts collapsed, and major Western capitalist powers proved unwilling to make common cause with the USSR against Hitler, Stalin shifted toward an accommodation with Hitler. The consequent German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 enabled Hitler to launch World War II.

Stalin's regime and the Communist International proclaimed neutrality in this "imperialist conflict," but the German assault on the USSR in June 1941 belatedly helped to create the sort of "collective security" alliance that Stalin had advocated in the latter half of the 1930s. At the conclusion of World War II, however, tensions emerged between the USSR and its war-time capitalist allies, leading to the Cold War confrontation that would last for more than four decades. While millions sincerely mourned Stalin's death in 1953, within three years his successors denounced him for some of his worst crimes, and his system proved incapable of surviving the twentieth century.



Carr, E. H. Twilight of the Comintern, 1930–1935. 1982.

Deutscher, Isaac. Stalin: A Political Biography, 2nd edition. 1967.

Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, rev. edition, edited and translated by George Shriver, 1989.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929: A Study in History and Personality. 1973.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution From Above, 1928–1941. 1992.

Paul Le Blanc

Stalin, Josef

views updated May 18 2018

Stalin, Josef (1879–1953), Communist leader of the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, including World War II and the formative years of the Cold War.Stalin, the pseudonym adopted by a young underground revolutionary and former Orthodox seminary student in Czarist Russia, means “man of steel.” This quality indeed marked the career of Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, who was born in obscurity in Russian Georgia in December 1879 and died a feared autocrat and world leader in March 1953.

Stalin rose within Lenin's Bolshevik faction of the Rus sian Communist Party from 1898 through the Russian Revolution in 1917 and beyond. Following Lenin's death, he outmaneuvered Trotsky and other rivals and by 1929 became the sole leader of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A shrewd and ruthless political infighter, he built a tyrannical but powerful totalitarian state. Millions were “liquidated” in massive “purges.” In inter national affairs, although Stalin's outlook was shaped by belief in a historically destined global victory for communism, he was also a realist and pragmatist.

When World War II came to the USSR in 1941, despite Stalin's political machinations to avoid German invasion (including the Nazi‐Soviet Pact of August 1939), the Soviet Union was ill‐prepared. Stalin, who had become prime minister as well as chief of the ruling party, also became commander in chief of the armed forces. For many Russians, he symbolized successful determination to win the war. The Soviet Union entered a grand alliance with Great Britain and the United States against the Axis powers (although against Japan only in the final weeks of the war). Stalin concentrated on winning the war, but not at the expense of constant calculation of how to enhance the international role and power of the Soviet Union in the postwar world. He dealt shrewdly with Western leaders, including Winston S. Churchill of Great Britain and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference and Harry S. Truman at Potsdam. Despite victory and the founding of the United Nations, the very success of the wartime coalition ended the common interest that had brought the USSR and the Western democracies together. The end of World War II thus quickly led to the emergence of a new so‐called Cold War, dividing the former Allies.

Stalin's ideological predispositions, reinforced by personal suspiciousness, if not paranoia, led him to pursue an aggressive postwar course in foreign relations that constituted a central element in the unleashing of the Cold War. His reliance on a personal dictatorship within his own Communist Party, and a totalitarian state structure within the Soviet Union, required severe limitations on contact with the outside world. It also contributed to a conduct of relations with other states that soon resulted in the sharp drawing of lines between the bloc he controlled and the outside world.

Stalin sought to expand Communist rule, Soviet influence, and his own control in those places and under circumstances where it was possible. Unlike Adolf Hitler, however, he was not driven to advance where it was inexpedient, much less to court or initiate war. This was true of even the most apparent exception—the Korean War. Archival documents released in the 1990s showed that the principal impetus for a North Korean military attack on South Korea came from Kim Il Sung, although Stalin (and Chinese leader Mao Zedong) were led to approve and provide support for the attack and thus bear responsibility. Initially, however, Stalin refused to approve Kim's plans, and did so only when he mistakenly concluded that the United States would not intervene. The Korean attack was neither Stalin's test of Western resolve nor precursor to a possible Soviet attack in Western Europe, as was widely feared at the time.

In his last years, Stalin's paranoia grew, and he was about to launch a new purge of his henchmen when he suffered a stroke and died. Ironically, he had imagined or invented a plot by Kremlin doctors against Soviet leaders and removed long‐trusted doctors, aides, and guards; some of his threatened surviving entourage may then have hastened his death by denying medical assistance. In any event, succeeding leaders soon stopped virtually any mention of his name, a striking contrast to the ubiquitous glorification of Stalin that had emerged after the war. By 1956, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, not only condemned “the cult of the individual” that had been built up by Stalin, but in a secret speech denounced his crimes against the people and the party. The lot of the people, while still subordinated to the interests of the state, improved. Stalin's successors also moved to reduce frictions with the rest of the world.

Thus, after Stalin's death, a general lessening of tension ensued. The Cold War, however, continued with varying intensity for another thirty‐six years, until a Soviet leader— Mikhail Gorbachev—came to power prepared to discard the “Stalinist” world view and so end the division of Europe and the world.
[See also Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Changing Interpretations.]


Adam B. Ulam , Stalin: The Man and His Era, 1973.
Robert C. Tucker , Stalin in Power, 1990.
Dmitri Volkogonov , Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, 1991.

Raymond L. Garthoff

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Stalin, Joseph 18781953


Joseph Stalin (Ioseb Jughashvili) was born in the Georgian town of Gori on December 6, 1878. The son of a shoemaker, he rose through the Russian revolutionary movement to become the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union. He adopted the name Stalin from the Russian word stal (steel) and advanced through the Bolshevik ranks after the movements leader, Vladimir Lenin, commissioned him to write a pamphlet titled Marxism and the National Question (1913). When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, Stalin was named Peoples Commissar of Nationalities. His rivalry with the head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, contributed to the growing fractures within the party. Just before a stroke incapacitated him in March 1923, Lenin fought with Stalin over the formation of the new Soviet Union, and he advised his comrades to remove Stalin from his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party. The other leaders did not heed Lenins warning, however, and most of them paid with their lives a decade and a half later.

Stalin accumulated enormous power within the party through his skillful political manipulation and his willingness to resort to ruthlessness. By the early 1930s he had defeated all of his rivals for power. During the Stalin Revolution of 1928 to 1932, the state forced millions of peasants onto collective farms, exiled or killed the most productive peasants (the so-called kulaks ), and rapidly industrialized the economy. The height of Stalinist terror was reached in the Great Purges of 1937 and 1938, when approximately 700,000 people were executed and millions more were exiled, imprisoned, or died in labor camps.

Despite Stalins industrialization and militarization programs, the Soviet Union was not prepared for the German invasion of June 1941. Ultimately, the war was won by the tenacity and enormous sacrifice of the Soviet people, but Stalin provided inspiration for many, as well as the fear that one step backward would end in death. The Soviets lost some twenty-seven million people, but in the end the triumph over fascism provided the Communists with a new source of legitimation, and Stalin emerged with a new, uncontested authority.

Stalins postwar policies were repressive at home and expansive abroad. While he sporadically used repression against individuals and groups and deported ethnic minorities from newly annexed territories, he did not engage in mass killing on the scale of 1937. In dealing with his former allies during the cold war, Stalin attempted to maintain the Grand Alliance with the Western Great Powers while maintaining a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, where he could impose friendly governments. Western leaders refused to acquiesce in the expansion of Soviet influence, and the cooperation of the war years disintegrated into two hostile camps, each armed with atomic weapons.

In his last years, Stalin was enfeebled by strokes, and he deteriorated physically and mentally. His growing isolation, arbitrariness, and inactivity affected the entire country. The ruling elite engaged in plots and intrigues, while Stalin threatened his closest associates. He died of a massive stroke on March 5, 1953.

SEE ALSO Bolshevism; Cold War; Communism; Iron Curtain; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Russian Revolution; Trotsky, Leon


Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed. Stalinism, New Directions. 2000. London: Routledge.

Gorlizki, Yoram, and Oleg Khlevniuk. 2004. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 19451953. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holloway, David. 1994. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 19391956. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lewin, Moshe. 1985. The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia. New York: Pantheon.

Service, Robert. 2005. Stalin, A Biography. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tucker, Robert C. 1973. Stalin as Revolutionary, 18791929: A Study in History and Personality. New York: W. W. Norton.

Ronald Grigor Suny

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 23 2018


Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union and the Communist party from 1929 to 1953. He used ruthless methods to consolidate his power and ruled the Soviet Union by terror. His actions shaped the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to the cold war after world war ii.

Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on December 21, 1879, in Gori, now in the Republic of Georgia. He adopted the name Stalin, meaning "man of steel," in 1910. The son of peasants, his academic prowess led to a scholarship at a theological seminary. While studying for the priesthood, he began reading the works of karl marx. He soon left the seminary and joined the Social-Democratic party in 1899. His revolutionary activities led to his arrest and exile to Siberia seven times between 1902 and 1913. He escaped six times.

He aligned himself with the Bolshevik faction of the party, which was under the leadership of vladimir ilyich lenin. Lenin named Stalin to the Bolshevik's Central Committee in 1912 and in 1913 named him editor of the party newspaper, Pravda. He spent from 1913 until early 1917 in Siberian exile, returning to St. Petersburg to aid the Bolsheviks in overthrowing first the monarchy and then the provisional government. The November 1917 Bolshevik revolution put Lenin in charge. Stalin became a top aide to Lenin and helped the regime in winning a civil war against those who opposed the Bolsheviks.

In the early 1920s, Stalin began plotting to gain power. Before Lenin died in 1924, he expressed misgivings about Stalin's use of power. Nevertheless, Stalin joined in a three-man leadership group, called a troika, to govern the Soviet Union after Lenin's death. He quickly pushed aside all his rivals, including Leon Trot-sky, and became the supreme ruler by 1929.

During the 1930s Stalin collectivized all private farms in the Soviet Union and in the process sent a million farmers into exile. He embarked on a process of "russification," which put minority nationalities under strict control of the national government. In 1939, in concert with the Nazi government of adolf hitler, Stalin invaded eastern Poland. In 1940 he conquered the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Stalin also encouraged the growth of communism throughout the world. The Communist party of the United States grew rapidly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in the process raising questions whether the party was a mere tool of Stalin and the international Communist movement. As a result of concerns about Communist subversion, Congress enacted the smith act (54 Stat. 670) in 1940. The legislation required aliens to register and be fingerprinted by the federal government. More importantly, the act made it illegal not only to conspire to overthrow the government but to advocate or conspire to advocate its overthrow. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951).

Stalin's 1939 nonaggression pact with Hitler proved futile: Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Stalin then aligned the Soviet Union with the United States and Great Britain in World War II. When the war in Europe ended in 1945, the Soviet Army occupied Eastern Europe and a large part of Germany. Stalin ignored agreements between the Allies and proceeded to impose Communist rule on these occupied countries.

The United States and Great Britain perceived Stalin's actions as attempts to force Communism on the world. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was captioned by the United States as the Red Menace, seeking to subvert democracy and capitalism. Stalin pushed the United States to the brink of a third world war when he ordered the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and 1949.

Fears about Communism were further stirred by the arrest of julius and ethel rosenberg in 1950 for providing the Soviet Union with secrets about the atomic bomb. To many people, the Rosenbergs were tools of Stalin and the Communist conspiracy. Other people, however, saw them as victims of political hysteria. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953, yet several generations of historians have argued over their guilt or innocence.

Stalin's hard-line policies were met in kind by the West. In 1949 the United States created the north atlantic treaty organization, which committed U.S. forces to the defense of Europe. The outbreak of the korean war in 1950, which was started by Communists in North Korea, led to the deployment of U.S. troops to stave off Communist aggression. Stalin's determination to expand Soviet power and influence created the climate for the Cold War. The United States practiced a policy of

containment, with the goal of preventing the spread of Communism.

In his later years, Stalin literally rewrote the Soviet history books, turning himself into a heroic, godlike figure. Those who opposed him were exiled to Siberian labor camps or executed. Always suspicious of those around him, in 1953 he prepared to purge more party leaders. His plans were cut short, however, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died on March 5, 1953, in Moscow.

Stalin's methods were replicated by later Soviet leaders. The demise of European Communist regimes in the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s signaled an end to Stalinism.

further readings

Gorlizki, Yoram, and Oleg Khlevniuk. 2003. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lee, Stephen J. 1999. Stalin and the Soviet Union. New York: Routledge.

Mawdsley, Evan. 2003. The Stalin Years: The Soviet Union 1929–1953. Manchester, N.Y.: Manchester Univ. Press.


Communism; Red Scare.

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 18 2018

Stalin, Joseph

head of state of the soviet union1879–1953

Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was born December 21, 1879, to a peasant family in Georgia. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1901 and adopted the name Stalin, meaning "man of steel." Stalin undertook a variety of Party tasks, including editing the Party's newspaper, Pravda. In 1913 he wrote the treatise Marxism and the National Question which became the basis of Bolshevik nationalities policy. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), leader of the Soviet government, rewarded Stalin by appointing him Commissar of Nationalities in 1917. Stalin became General Secretary in 1922 and used that platform to seize control upon Lenin's death in 1924.

Under the slogan "socialism in one country," Stalin sought to completely transform society by dragging a backward empire into Europe as a modern,

secular, and socialist state. All of society was to serve the needs of the state. Stalin ordered massive industrialization campaigns and brutally collectivized agriculture. He launched the first five-year plan in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and executed economic "saboteurs."

Stalin established a cult of personality that made him the source of Soviet achievements. To deflect blame for numerous failed policies, Stalin needed scapegoats. He accused Leo Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, and other Party leaders of attempting to subvert Soviet society and orchestrated mock show trials that sent his perceived rivals to the firing squad. Stalin reigned with terror and gradually created a new political elite totally subservient to him. Spies, informers, and a new class of "political criminals" now populated Soviet society, while tight controls on information kept alternative ideas and full disclosure of the terror from the public.

As Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) rose to power in Central Europe, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazi leader in 1939. Hitler ignored the pact and invaded the USSR in June 1941. Stalin used Russian nationalism to rally the country for the subsequent war effort. He also met with Britain's prime minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), and U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) and Harry S Truman (1884–1972) in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam to coordinate Allied strategy.

By the end of World War II (1945), Soviet troops occupied key territories in Eastern Europe. Stalin installed communist regimes throughout the region and prevented leaders of such satellite states from adapting communism to fit their local needs and characteristics. This insistence on uniformity led to clashes with Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980). The Stalin-Tito split was a watershed in Soviet–East European relations and formed the basis of several future policies. Stalin's portrayal of socialism as an alternative to capitalism caused a rift with the USSR's American and British allies, triggering the Cold War.

In the early 1950s, Stalin's paranoia resurfaced. He accused his doctors of trying to poison him and was prepared to launch a new round of terror. His death on March 5, 1953, thrust the USSR into deep mourning. Three years later, Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev (1874–1971), stunned the world by revealing the excesses of Stalin's reign. Khrushchev launched a campaign of "destalinization" to remove repression and fear from communist societies.

See also: Russia.


Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power. New York: Norton, 1990.

Ulman, Adam B. Stalin: The Man and His Era. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove, 1994.

Ann E. Robertson

Stalin, Joseph

views updated May 23 2018

Stalin, Joseph (1879–1953) ( Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili) Leader of the Soviet Union (1924–53). He supported Lenin and the Bolsheviks from 1903, adopting the name Stalin (‘man of steel’) while editing Pravda, the party newspaper. Exiled to Siberia (1913–17), Stalin returned to join the Russian Revolution (1917), and became secretary of the central committee of the party in 1922. On Lenin's death in 1924, he achieved supreme power through his control of the party organization. Stalin outmanoeuvred rivals such as Trotsky and Bukharin and drove them from power. From 1929, he was virtually dictator. Stalin enforced collectivization of agriculture and intensive industrialization, suppressing all opposition, and, in the 1930s, he exterminated all possible opponents in a series of purges of political and military leaders. During World War 2, Stalin controlled the armed forces and negotiated skilfully with the Allied leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt After the war he reimposed severe repression and forced puppet communist governments on the states of Eastern Europe.

About this article

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic