Joseph Stalin, (1879-1953), Russian political leader, who was the undisputed leader
of the USSR from 1929 until his death. He helped to convert communism in the
USSR from an egalitarian, revolutionary movement into an authoritarian, bureaucratic
governmental system. He helped to turn Russia into a great industrial nation,
to defeat Hitler in World War II, and, after the war, to establish Communist
regimes throughout eastern Europe. At the same time, however, he institutionalized
terror and was responsible for the death and deprivation of millions of people.
One of the towering figures in world politics in his time,
he still remains one of the least known, primarily because of the traditional
secrecy surrounding Soviet leaders. His personality and rule were--and
still are--highly controversial, opinion ranging from complete, unbridled
adulation expressed in the official Soviet press of his day to widespread
denunciation as a pathological despot by many in the Western world.
Stalin, whose original name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili,
was born on Dec. 21, 1879 (all dates in New Style), in the Caucasian town
of Gori, Georgia. He was the only one of four children to survive infancy.
His father, Vissarion Dzhugashvili, an unsuccessful cobbler, entered a factory
in Tiflis, took to drink, and died in 1890 from wounds received in a brawl.
However, his mother, Yekaterina, kept the family together by taking in washing
and sewing, hiring out for housework, and nursing young Joseph through various
sicknesses including smallpox and septicemia, which left his left arm slightly
crippled for life. An illiterate peasant girl herself, Yekaterina was deeply
religious, puritanical, ambitious, and intent on securing for her son training
for the priesthood, one of the few careers in which the non-Russian Georgian
poor might easily rise to higher station. He was enrolled in the local Orthodox
parochial school in Gori in 1888.
Obviously able, he won a free scholarship in 1894 to the
Orthodox theological seminary in Tiflis. There he succumbed to the radicalism
traditional among the students of the school and in his fourth year joined
Mesame Dasi, a secret group espousing Georgian nationalism and socialism.
Expelled from the seminary in May 1899, when he was about to graduate, he
first tried tutoring and then clerical work at the Tiflis Observatory. But
he abandoned his clerical job in May 1901, when he was about to be arrested.
Although he came to reject his church training, it left a mark on his style,
which tended toward the liturgical and was characterized by dry, categorical
The young Dzhugashvili joined the Social Democratic party
of Georgia in 1901 and plunged full-time into revolutionary work, serving
first in Tiflis and then in Batum, where he helped organize strikes and demonstrations.
Thus began a life of dedicated privation. He lived and wrote under a succession
of pseudonyms, of which his favorites were Koba (the name of a legendary
Georgian folk hero meaning "The Indomitable) and, after 1913,
Stalin ("The Man of Steel). In 1901 his first articles appeared
in the clandestine periodical Brdzola (The Struggle), published
in Baku. He was arrested for the first time in Batum on April 18, 1902, and
exiled to Siberia in 1903, only to escape and reappear in Tiflis in 1904--a pattern that he experienced many times prior
Dzhugashvili--unlike many of his fellow conspirators,
who particularly valued intellectual brilliance and mastery of the written
and spoken word--began to show a special interest in practical problems
and party organization. This predilection led him to join the handful of Georgian
Socialists who backed Bolshevism, as Lenin's conception of a highly disciplined,
centralized conspiratorial Socialist party came to be called, and he helped
propagate Lenin's views in the local clandestine press. He was not yet sufficiently
prominent, however, to attend the founding meeting of the Georgian Bolshevik
organization in 1904 or the third national congress of the Social Democratic
party in April 1905.
In June 1904 he married Yekaterina Svanidze, a simple, devout
peasant girl who was devoted to him. The marriage, evidently a happy one,
was typical of the more conventional unions that Georgian radicals, unlike
their Russian counterparts, usually contracted. His wife died on April 10,
1907, leaving a son, Yakov (Jacob). Thus by 1905, Dzhugashvili led the life
of a typical fledgling provincial revolutionary, hardly the heroic role ascribed
to him later in the official Soviet histories.
The Russian revolution of 1905 speeded his rise to local
prominence and marked his entrance into the fringes of the national movement.
In 1905 he served as party organizer in Tiflis and as coeditor of the Tiflis-based
Caucasian Workers' Newssheet. For the first time his articles were readily
identifiable by their exegetical style and rabid defense of Bolshevism. Dzhugashvili
also helped to organize robberies of government transports in Georgia, providing
the Bolsheviks with badly needed funds. In 1907 he shifted his base to Baku,
where the exploited workers in the oil industry provided the Bolsheviks with
their most extensive support in all of the Caucasus. For the next four years
he alternated between vigorous revolutionary activity and spells in prison
and exile in northern Russia. He entered the national scene serving as delegate
from the Caucasus to the first national conference of Bolsheviks, in Tammerfors,
Finland, in December 1905 (where he first met Lenin) and to the general congresses
of the Russian Social Democratic party in Stockholm (1906) and London (1907).
In December 1911, Stalin was exiled to Vologda. In January
1912, Lenin and his closest followers, having decided to break with the Mensheviks
in the party, met in Prague and elected a new ruling body or central committee.
Although Dzhugashvili was not elected, Lenin personally co-opted him into
that body and also appointed him one of the leaders for underground work in
Russia. In March 1912, Dzhugashvili, having escaped from exile, arrived in
St. Petersburg and helped set up Pravda, the new newspaper of the
Bolsheviks, which first appeared on May 5, 1912. He attended party meetings
in Cracow in late 1912 and then joined Lenin in Vienna during January and
February 1913 in order to write, under the latter's supervision, an important
study, Marxism and the National Problem, embodying the Bolsheviks'
stand on the minority races. On March 7, 1913, after his return to St. Petersburg,
he was arrested and deported to Siberia.
Thus Stalin (the name by which he was to be known henceforth)
had reached the inner circle of leaders of the Bolshevik wing of the party,
not by virtue of intellectual brilliance or personal gifts, but because Lenin
wanted an organizer and a self-reliant, fanatical man of action. He was relatively
unknown outside of Lenin's wing of the party and played no important role
in Georgia. Unlike the other leading old Bolsheviks, Stalin had spent little
time abroad and preferred to take even his long exile (1913-1917) in
Siberia. Unlike his fellow exiles, he sought seclusion there, spending his
time hunting and fishing.
Stalin in 1917
The Czar's abdication on March 15, 1917, led to even greater
social and political chaos in Russia. In this setting Stalin, overshadowed
by Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and many lesser Bolsheviks who were great orators
and creative revolutionaries, moved cautiously and concentrated on party tasks.
After returning from exile to Petrograd on March 25, 1917, he joined the editorial
board of Pravda, which was then headed by Lev Kamenev. As a senior
party member, he chaired on April 11 a national conference of Bolshevik delegates
at which he, being still uncertain which direction the revolution would take,
urged cautious cooperation with the existing temporary successor government.
For the first time, he was elected one of nine members to the party's central
committee, gaining the third-largest vote.
However, after Lenin's return to Russia in April, Stalin
accepted the former's view of the necessity for the overthrow of the temporary
Russian government, withdrawal from the war, and social revolution. Stalin
played a modest role in the unfolding revolutionary drama, however. In addition
to intensive party work, he continued as an editor of Pravda, helped
organize Lenin's temporary exile after the abortive July uprising, and, in
the absence of the more prominent leaders, chaired the sixth Bolshevik party
congress. He backed Lenin fully in the great party debates in September and
October, urging Bolshevik seizure of power.
But he had little to do with preparing and prosecuting the insurrection itself.
The central role fell to Trotsky as head of the military committee of the
Stalin During the Early Years of the Soviet Regime
In the new Soviet regime, established on Nov. 7, 1917, Stalin
received the relatively minor cabinet post of commissar (minister) for nationalities,
which he held for the next five years. In this capacity he issued decrees,
handled the affairs of Russia's minority nationalities, and helped draw up
the first Soviet constitutions of 1918 and 1924. Like most of the other leaders,
he served in a variety of positions after the outbreak of the civil war in
June 1918, such as acting inspector general of the Red Army and as a political
commissar. With Grigori Ordzhonikidze, a fellow Georgian, he initiated, in
February 1921, the brutal reconquest of independent Georgia. These duties
imbued him with a lifelong absorption in military affairs, but they also led
to an intense rivalry with the brilliant commissar for war, Trotsky.
On March 24, 1919, Stalin married his second wife, Nadezhda
Alliluyeva, the 16-year-old daughter of an old Georgian revolutionary friend,
Sergo Alliluyev. She bore him two children: Vasili (1919) and Svetlana (1925).
Stalin's real influence during these years derived from
his being one of a small number of central committee members who never deviated
from Lenin's policies or lost the latter's confidence. He joined Lenin, Kamenev,
Trotsky, and Krestinsky in March 1919 on the newly formed inner directorate
of the party, the Politburo. While the others concentrated on the making of
policy, Stalin increasingly dealt with party affairs and occupied ever more
important party posts. Thus he headed, in 1919, the Workers' and Peasants'
Inspectorate, which had power to investigate every official in the country;
in 1921, the Organizational Bureau (Orgburo), which appointed and dismissed
party members; and, from 1922, the whole party administration itself, in the
newly created post of secretary general. Consequently he was in a powerful
position in the intricate struggle for preeminence that ensued after Lenin's
death in 1924. Cooperating with Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of the chief members
of the Politburo, Stalin managed, by 1925, to oust Trotsky, who had been generally
regarded as Lenin's successor, and then, by 1926, Kamenev and Zinoviev themselves.
The civil war from 1918 to 1921 had had a traumatic effect
on the new regime. It had led to comprehensive nationalization of the economy
and, politically, to the establishment of virtual one-party rule, harsh repression
of opponents of the regime, abolition of freedom of expression and association,
and the growth of centralized party bureaucracy that dominated the formal
organs of government--in short, to the entrenchment of policies and methods
of rule contrasting starkly with the revolutionaries' own early aims and traditional
egalitarian, Socialist principles. In 1921, Lenin and the party leadership
suppressed criticism within the party against bureaucratization and party
centralism, and ruthlessly crushed open revolt by the peasants, workers, and
sailors, coupling these harsh measures in politics with a sweeping retreat
on the economic and social front. The USSR's heroic revolutionary age was
over, and from 1921 to 1928 the regime plunged into the more mundane task
of running the country from day to day.
Stalin rose to power because he embodied, perhaps more than
any of his old colleagues, this new spirit. His colleagues, most notably the
brilliant, individualistic Trotsky, who had thrived during the days of storm
and stress, were unfitted for the office politics, the patient calculation,
and the compromise required to operate a growing bureaucratic regime. Stalin,
though unimpressive physically and a man of restless, emotional, vain, cynical,
and often vindictive temperament, had internalized so profoundly the role
of administrator that he projected everywhere in public (in imitation of Lenin)
a humble air, simple dress, personal asceticism, calmness, efficiency, and
fatherliness--qualities that appealed to his colleagues, to the public,
and, perhaps most important of all, to the new generation of party functionaries
of humble origin flooding the party in the 1920's.
Stalin was also careful to back the most popular solutions
to the many problems hotly debated in the 1920's, including Lenin's principles
of one-party government and internal party unity, the restoration of normal
diplomatic relations, and moderate policies for the development of Soviet
industry and agriculture. His theory of "socialism in one country,
which asserted the possibility of building a complete Communist system in
one country, contradicted traditional Marxist internationalism. But it was
reassuring to many people who longed for some stability after the years of
upheaval. He always appeared as one who implemented the will of the majority.
His colleagues did not fear the power of the party machine over which Stalin
presided, but rather the attempt on anyone's part to assert the kind of personal
authority Lenin had exercised. Stalin exploited this miscalculation superbly,
playing carefully on the mutual rivalries and suspicions of his colleagues
and helping them to oust one another, while quietly staffing local and central
party organs with his own followers. Power was substantially his by 1928.
Stalin as Leader
After a year of drift, and not unmindful of the party's
desire for change, Stalin and his men at the end of 1928 struck out precipitately on a set of policies designed to turn
backward Russia into a modern state. With his predilection for vigorous and
ruthless action and on the basis of what is today recognized as an inaccurate
appraisal of the Soviet economy, Stalin launched forced industrialization
and collectivization. The momentous series of economic and social measures
included the establishment of crude and unrealistic five-year national economic
plans, the deportation and execution of hundreds of thousands of the better-off
peasants (kulaks) and the forced entrance of the rest into state-controlled "
collective farms, nationalization of all industry and commerce, the regulation
and manipulation of all financial instruments for capital accumulation by
the government regardless of the people's impoverishment, and the centralization
of all social activity. Top leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov,
and Mikhail Tomsky, who urged restraint and more realistic procedures, were
swept out of office. Despite the death of millions from famine and goods shortages
that these measures caused, Stalin pursued the program relentlessly, meeting
resistance and criticism with mass deportations, executions, and show trials
of alleged saboteurs.
The enormous tensions engendered by this extraordinary drive,
coupled with a growing desire for normalization, produced considerable dissatisfaction
that may have led to a secret movement within the party to replace Stalin
with Sergei Kirov, a secretary of the central committee and party leader in
Leningrad. The murder of Kirov, in December 1934, began a period of purging
and terror that lasted until 1939 and was marked by the execution of virtually
the entire political and military elite and the incarceration in forced labor
camps of millions of Soviet citizens. In this way Stalin, with the help of
the secret police, established his personal dictatorship over the party and
The establishment of totalitarian political control was
coupled with retrenchment in the social and economic realm, in which Stalin
instituted better methods of industrial management, a system of incentives
and differential wages and prices, the reestablishment of traditional procedures
in the armed forces, more moderate general guidelines in the arts and sciences,
and a revival of the family as the basic social unit. In the face of the growing
threats from Nazi Germany and Japan, Stalin reverted increasingly to traditional
forms of foreign policy, seeking diplomatic alliances with the European powers.
Finally, in August 1939, he concluded a bilateral nonaggression treaty with
The events of these years profoundly affected Stalin personally.
Although habitually choleric and withdrawn, he had lived in the 1920's an
outwardly normal life, surrounded not only by many relatives, who spoke their
minds freely in the family circle, but also by good personal friends among
the Soviet leadership. In the early 1930's, however, his life began to change,
especially after the suicide, on Nov. 8, 1932, of his second wife, Nadezhda
Alliluyeva, who left a letter indicting him both personally and politically.
From the beginning of the purges in 1935 until his death in March 1953, he
was extremely suspicious, ready to see others--even those with whom he
had been united by many years of personal and political comradeship--not
only as personal enemies but as enemies of the state. He was unable to resume
his trust in anyone from whom he had once withdrawn it, and he was unshakably
convinced that the system of political terror must be allowed to work even
if it touched those around him. He spared neither his own relatives (the Svanidzes
and Alliluyevs, most of whom came to a tragic end), nor former political comrades,
nor even the families of his closest political associates. Polina Molotova,
the wife of his foreign minister and closest colleague, was sentenced in 1948
to 10 years in prison.
A complex man, he centered his life wholly in his office,
where he indulged the whole range of his feelings, including--when he
wanted--a not inconsiderable charm. He also permitted public glorification
of himself on a scale hardly matched in any country in the 20th century. But
in his personal life he withdrew almost completely, living until his death
either in his Kremlin apartment, which his daughter Svetlana shared in the
1930's, or in his new country house at Kuntsovo, constantly surrounded by
NKVD officers and bodyguards who ran the household. He kept away, almost pathologically,
from the public, and he was frequently the object of the intrigues of some
of the more unscrupulous of the leaders, such as Lavrenti Beria, head of the
secret police, who used this terrifying instrument for his own ends.
Stalin in World War II
When the German armies attacked the USSR in June 1941, Stalin, after suffering a brief nervous collapse, personally
took command of the Soviet armed forces. With the help of a small defense
committee (war cabinet), he made all major military, political, and diplomatic
decisions throughout the war. He pursued victory with increasing skill, determination,
and courage, by staying on in the Kremlin when Hitler's armies stood at the
gates of Moscow, ordering a fantastic shifting of industrial plants from European
Russia to the east, arranging for lend-lease from the Western powers, selecting
more and more first-rate military commanders, and developing increasingly
effective military strategy, including the remarkable counteroffensives at
Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk. He undergirded the strength and morale of his
people by fostering their traditional religious and patriotic sentiments,
and conducting adroitly the complicated diplomacy from the Teheran conference
to Potsdam. Of course, victory could not have been achieved without the patriotism
and fortitude of the Russian people, the quality and skill of the Soviet military
professionals, the efforts of the USSR's allies, and the enormous political
and military miscalculations of Hitler.
Stalin's Last Years
In 1945, at the end of the war, there was a general expectation
that in the USSR, which had shown itself to be one of the world's truly great
powers, the despotic system of rule and institutional rigidities would disappear
or at the least be tempered. Instead, Stalin and his men restored almost completely
the pre-war system, molded the occupied countries of eastern Europe in the
Stalinist image and placed them under Moscow's control, and entirely isolated
the whole bloc of Communist nations from the West. The Soviet leaders evidently
were convinced that the USSR, which had only a large land army, a devastated
economy, a decimated country, and unreliable populations in the newly acquired
territories, was extremely vulnerable, especially given the towering industrial
and military superiority of the United States.
By 1950, however, the Soviet Union had recovered, and Stalin,
in the last few years of his life, seems to have mediated between those in
the leadership who urged significant domestic reform and greater flexibility
in foreign affairs and those who feared a departure from the rigid traditional
domestic and foreign policies. Once more, in 1952, Stalin began preparing
a purge of the old leadership, perhaps to restore his own initiative in making
policy. He appears to have met with stout resistance, and before the purge
got under way, he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, on March 5, 1953, in
Within a few weeks, the Soviet leaders began a campaign
to whittle down Stalin's reputation, which culminated in a devastating attack
by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th party congress in February 1956. By that
time virtually every country in the Communist bloc was in turmoil, and rebellions
broke out in Poland and Hungary, largely because of the uncertainty whether
destalinization meant the abrogation of key aspects of the Stalin regime or
merely reforms designed to dress the familiar features of Stalinism in more
attractive garb. It now seems clear that his heirs meant to leave intact many
of the basic elements of the system. Stalin's method of personal rule was
replaced by group rule and more orderly processes of government, the terror
apparatus was largely dismantled, the economy was notably modernized, and
foreign policy was conducted with much greater diplomatic initiative and flexibility.
But the Soviet leadership continued to cling tenaciously to the authoritarian
system of party supremacy that shapes every aspect of life in the Soviet Union
and to Soviet dominance over the Communist countries on its western borders.
George W. Simmonds
University of Detroit
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