Dictator of the Soviet Union in the mid twentieth century who rose to power through a mix of political manoeuvering and bureaucratic expertise before pushing Russia through forced industrialisation and purges which killed millions. He also led Russia victoriously in WW2 and was a key figure in the origins of the Cold War.
Name, Dates and Family
Iosif Dzhugashvili, December 6 / 18 1878 (Julian / Gregorian) – March 5 1953
Assumed Names: Koba, Stalin (‘Man of Steel’)
Mother: Yekaterina Dzhugashvili
Father: Vissarion Dzhugashvili
Children: Yakov, Vasili, Svetlana, Konstantin Kuzahov
Stalin was born as Iosif Dzhugashvili on December 6th 1878 to a poor family in Gori, a small town in Georgia, one of the most recently acquired provinces in the Russian empire. He went to a church school in 1808, graduating with top marks in 1894, when he went to a seminary school to train as a priest, as per his mother’s wishes. There he showed an aptitude for the work but was exposed to the revolutionary ideas sweeping Russia. He read Marx, became an atheist and joined secret revolutionary groups. In 1899 he left the school, possibly expelled for revolutionary activity, possibly for illness.
Stalin as Party Member:
Now aged 21, Stalin became a professional revolutionary working for the Russian Social Democratic Party. His simple, effective style derived from seminary school proved effective in teaching illiterate workers Marxist-Leninist ideas. In 1902 he was arrested for the first time and later exiled, beginning a cycle of arrest, exile, escape, revolutionary activity and arrest again which would continue to the revolution in 1917. Stalin also proved adept at raising funds through robbery, as well as smuggling guns and explosives through the Russian border. When the RSDP split, Stalin sided with Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
From Local to National Prominence:
By now Stalin had developed a reputation for dynamic ability and fierce loyalty which was recognised higher in the party. When Lenin decided to reshape the Bolsheviks in 1912 he made sure Stalin, who was in exile, was elected to the ruling Central Committee. Lenin asked Stalin to escape again to help, which Stalin did. In 1913 he adopted the name ‘Stalin’, ‘man of steel’, and became editor of party newspaper Pravda, further underlining his reputation with his first ventures into written party theory (which supported Lenin). He was later arrested and exiled to the Artic Circle.
The Revolutions of 1917:
Stalin was in exile for the first revolution of 1917, but he was among the first of the exiled Bolsheviks to reach the nation's capital in the aftermath, taking back control of Pravda. While later accounts claiming that Stalin was second only to Lenin during the October Revolution are untrue, Stalin wasn’t unimportant either, he just wasn’t high profile. Stalin rejoined the Central Committee and had a place on the four strong Bureau which controlled the Central Committee, also publishing over sixty articles in Pravda between March and October supporting Bolshevik claims. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks seized control.
The Bolsheviks in Power: Stalin’s Rise:
A shortage of qualified Bolsheviks to hold positions of power meant it became common for people to hold several. Stalin, adept at bureaucracy, acquired numerous positions as the years passed, eventually being appointed as the new General Secretary, who was to co-ordinate the central government, in 1922. The interlinking set of jobs and committees he was in charge of provided Stalin with massive power in the Soviet administration at a time when his rivals were more afraid of military men seizing control. Stalin was able to manipulate events by appointing those loyal to him and bringing the party into line behind him.
Stalin as Lenin’s Heir:
Lenin’s death in 1924 left a power vacuum, not helped by a document Lenin left criticising all the possible candidates (it even called for Stalin to be removed from power). Despite this, Stalin positioned himself as Lenin’s heir during a funeral oration and from 1924 – 28 slowly manoeuvred himself into a position of dominant control, first isolating the left and then the right of party government, portraying them as threatening party unity and having them voted out of power; Trotsky, arguably his greatest rival, was exiled from Russia. By the late 1920s Stalin was leader of the USSR.
Stalin as Dictator:
Stalin, having espoused the policy of ‘Socialism in one Country’, began The Great Turn, an attempt to drag Russia quickly into the industrialized world. He used Five Year Plans to improve industry and Collectivization to change agriculture and break the power of the peasants, causing a famine which killed millions while he sold grain abroad. Increasingly paranoid, he ordered great purges of the Russian people, killing millions and sending more to gulags, whilst fostering a cult of personality centred on him as a godlike figure. Conservative estimates of Stalin’s death toll range from 10 – 20 million people.
World War, Cold War and Stalin’s Death:
Stalin was late to recognise the danger of Nazi Germany, but pragmatic (or desperate) enough to ally with Hitler when other nations rebuffed his offers of an anti-Nazi alliance. He then inexplicably failed to recognise that an invasion was forthcoming in 1941, but after initial failings was able to listen to commanders sufficiently to defeat Germany and expand Russian control over Eastern Europe. However, his desire to install communist puppet governments in ‘liberated’ lands and fears of the capitalist West led to the Cold War. On March 5 1953, about to start a new purge of the nation, he died.
Stalin married twice and had four children. His first bride was Yekaterine Svanidze who Stalin married in June 1904. She bore him a son, Yakov, in 1907, but died later that same year; Yakov was given to a relative and didn’t see his father again until the early 1920s. We know Stalin took a lover during one of his exiles in the early 1910s, Maria Kuzakova, and fathered a son called Konstantin Kuzahov. Stalin married again in 1918 to Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who Stalin is alleged to have saved from drowning when she was two. She bore him two children, Vasili in 1921 and Svetlana in 1926, but killed herself in 1932. Stalin had little in the way of family life after this, being immersed in government.
Cult of Personality
While Stalin shunned the ostentation of other dictators, he instilled a messianic cult of personality in Russia, a huge propaganda campaign which penetrated all aspects of life – every home would have a bust or picture of him – presenting him as the great man guiding Russia infallibly, a leader who was almost a god. Every book or newspaper would contain some reference to Stalin’s greatness and children were taught how remarkable he was. While the cult fed a need in Stalin for adoration, it also gave the Russian people a positive to cling onto amongst the terror of their lives.
Short, stocky and with a face marked by small pox, Stalin was by all accounts a paranoid and misanthropic individual, capable of both charm and complete callousness. He saw himself as a major player in history and considered the individual insignificant compared to the success of the whole, leading in part to policies which condemned millions. He grew into a control freak and a megalomaniac, building Russia around himself and maintaining a climate of fear. He had little private life, working many hours of the day and often into the night, but liked to hold gatherings of subordinates where he would encourage them to drink, but keep himself under control to observe their loose tongues, and alternate between being charming and using barbed putdowns designed to embarrass and belittle his guests. He discouraged any gatherings he was not involved with and didn’t like high ranking individuals to even be friendly with each other. He loved ballet and films. He was, however, an expert politician – or at least an expert of fooling others into underestimating him. Cruel, perhaps insane, he demonstrated an endless capacity for torture and death.