One of the most ruthless dictators of modern times was Stalin, the despot who transformed the Soviet Union into a major world power. The victims of his campaigns of political terror included some of his followers. His real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. In 1912 he took the alias of "Stalin," from the Russian word stal, meaning "steel."
Joseph Stalin was born in Gori, a village in Transcaucasian Georgia, on Dec. 21, 1879. His father was Vissarion Dzhugashvili, a poor shoemaker who drank heavily and beat the boy savagely. His mother, a peasant's daughter, took in sewing and washing to help support the family. When Stalin was about 7, he caught smallpox, which left him pockmarked for life.
Stalin entered a church school at the age of 9. When he was 14 his father died, and Stalin was sent to the Orthodox Russian seminary at Tiflis to be educated for the priesthood. He was more interested in Communism, however, than in theology, and the seminary expelled him in 1899 as an agitator.
He remained in Tiflis, working briefly at one job after another. He soon joined the Tiflis branch of the Russian Social Democrat party.
Stalin then became a paid agitator, trying to incite revolt against the czar. He edited illegal pamphlets and helped distribute them secretly. He organized strikes among the factory workers in Tiflis. His ability won the attention of party leaders, and they sent him to form a Communist organization in Batumi, a large port on the Black Sea.
His revolutionist activities brought his first arrest, in 1902. He was exiled to Siberia in 1903 but soon escaped. From 1902 to 1913 Stalin was arrested and exiled six times. He escaped five times and was released once. Like his fellow revolutionaries, he adopted one alias after another in order to evade arrest. He first called himself Koba, after a legendary Georgian hero. Later he changed his name to David, Soso, Chiijikov, Nijeradze, and, finally, Stalin.
Stalin Joins the Bolsheviks
In 1903 the Social Democratic party split into two factions. One faction, headed by Nikolai Lenin, called itself the Bolsheviks. The other faction, opposed to Lenin's creed of violence, was the Mensheviks. Stalin believed in Lenin's policy, and so he joined the Bolsheviks. He became a party leader in his native Transcaucasia. In 1905 he attended a secret Bolshevik meeting in Finland; in 1906, in Stockholm; and the following year, in London.
At these meetings Stalin's iron zeal and organizing ability won Lenin's high regard. Shrewd Lenin worked with Stalin closely. In 1912 Lenin made him a member of the Central Committee. Meanwhile Stalin wrote for the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (Truth), which he is said to have founded. Arrested again, in 1912, he again escaped within a few months. Going to St. Petersburg, Stalin organized a Bolshevik group in the Duma, the parliament of czarist Russia.
In 1913 Stalin was arrested for the sixth time and was exiled to the grim Turukhansk region of Siberia, above the Arctic Circle. For the first time he failed to escape. In March 1917, however, the revolution led by Alexander Kerensky freed all political prisoners, and Stalin returned to St. Petersburg.
There he helped Lenin prepare the final plans for the history-making Bolshevik revolution. Stalin's name seldom appears in records of the revolution, for he remained in the background as an administrator. His work was largely responsible for the success of the bloody October Revolution, in 1917.
During the civil war that followed the revolution Stalin served as political commissar with Bolshevik armies on several fronts. At that time political commissars were entrusted with military duties, and Stalin showed exceptional ability as a strategist and tactician. In 1918 he directed the successful defense of vital Tsaritsyn against the White Army. The city was renamed Stalingrad in his honor in 1925, though the name was later changed to Volgograd as part of an effort in the 1950s and 1960s to downgrade Stalin's importance. In 1921 Stalin led the invasion that won his homeland, Georgia, for the Communists, as the Bolsheviks now called themselves. The next year Stalin became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party. As Lenin's trusted aide, Stalin methodically assumed increasing power.
Some of Stalin's unscrupulous methods worried even Lenin, who wrote, "Stalin is too rough." Stalin, however, was undisturbed by criticism. Grimly he undermined his rival Leon Trotsky, the Soviet Union's war minister and Lenin's former close associate. In 1925, a year after Lenin's death, Stalin forced Trotsky to resign as war minister and in 1927 expelled him from the party. Determined to eliminate the minority Trotskyite influence, Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929 and had him assassinated in Mexico in 1940.
Having dealt with the opposition Stalin was then supreme ruler. In a drive to industrialize and modernize the Soviet Union, he launched the first in a series of five-year plans in 1928. He declared, "We are 50 to 100 years behind advanced countries. We must cover this distance in 10 years."
Stalin ordered the collectivization of farms. When peasants resisted, he ordered the state to seize their land and possessions. Well-to-do farmers, called kulaks, especially resented collectivization. Determined to root out all opposition, Stalin showed no mercy to the rebellious kulaks. In 1932-33 he created a famine in Ukraine and liquidated some 3 million kulaks through death by starvation.
In 1936 Stalin's ruthless methods again drew world attention. To consolidate his place as supreme dictator, he conducted a series of purges. Claiming that a number of Red Army officers and scores of old Bolsheviks were "plotting against the state," Stalin had them executed. Many of them were men who had helped Stalin in his drive to power.
Pact with Germany
In August 1939 Stalin startled the world again when he brought the Soviet Union into a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. One month later Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. The nonaggression pact permitted the Soviets to seize eastern Poland, attack Finland, and absorb the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina without German opposition. Stalin extended Soviet borders into outlying buffer areas.
In May 1941 Stalin made himself premier, replacing Vyacheslav Molotov,. In June the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany. Stalin took command of the army and reorganized industry.
In 1943 at Tehran and early in 1945 at Yalta, he issued inflexible terms to his allies--Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain and President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States. Later in 1945, at Potsdam, he made a pact with President Harry Truman on the reconstruction of defeated Germany. He then defiantly broke the terms of the accord.
After the war's end, Stalin seemed to be determined to make the Soviet Union dominant in Europe and to impose Communism on the world. Through purges and other relentless measures he forced Communist governments on Eastern Europe and sought to gain control of Italy and France. In the United Nations and in Allied councils, his obstructionist policy blocked efforts to establish a lasting peace. His blockade of Berlin in 1948-49 threatened a third global war.
The End of the Stalin Myth
Many of the dates and facts of Stalin's personal life remain uncertain. He was married in 1903, at the age of 24, to Ekaterina Svanidze, a native of Georgia. She died in 1907 of tuberculosis. Their son, Yasha, died in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. In 1919 Stalin married Nadya Alliluyeva, who died under unexplained circumstances in 1932. They had a daughter, Svetlana, and a son, Vassili, a Soviet air force officer. Vassili died in 1962. In 1967 Svetlana, who used her mother's maiden name, defected to the United States. (She returned to the Soviet Union for two years, 1984-86.)
Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Four days after his death, his embalmed body was entombed alongside that of Lenin in Moscow's Red Square.
In February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Soviet Communist party, addressed the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress in secret session. He devoted three hours to the systematic destruction of Joseph Stalin's image as a public hero.
Among other charges, Stalin was now accused of wanton slaughter during the prewar purge trials; of being abnormally suspicious of associates; of causing thousands of unnecessary casualties during World War II by incompetently interfering with Red Army campaigns; and of failing to keep in personal touch with provincial areas. Above all he was denounced for having paraded himself as a savior.
Efforts to destroy the Stalin image were suspended for a time in late 1956 while Stalin's own strong-arm methods were used ruthlessly to suppress the Hungarian revolt. At the 22nd Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1961, the denunciation of Stalin was resumed. Before the session was adjourned, Stalin's body had been removed from Red Square and reburied within the Kremlin walls among the graves of lesser Soviet heroes. His name was removed from public buildings, streets, and factories. Stalingrad itself was renamed Volgograd.
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