Joseph Stalin

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Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the head of Russia's Communist ("Bolshevik") party and dictator of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death. He used brute force to industrialize the Soviet Union in the 1930s, killing millions of peasants in the process and sending hundreds of thousands of political doubters to the Siberian "Gulag" (a network of prison camps with high death rates). In the late 1930s he purged nearly all the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, allowing a new generation to rise, at the cost of weakening the nation. After forming a coalition with Hitler's Germany in 1939, he was stunned when Hitler invaded in June 1941 and nearly conquered the Soviet Union. Stalin rallied his forces, formed alliances with the United States and Britain, and rolled back the Germans, capturing Berlin in May 1945. He moved to put all of Eastern Europe under Communist control, angering his wartime allies and opening the Cold War. The Allied response was a policy of containment that used superior economic power and a military alliance, tipped with nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, to stop further Soviet expansion. Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes against the Russian people in 1956, forever ruining Stalin's reputation for idealistic devotion to socialism and the working class. His reputation as a fierce defender of Russia and victor over Hitler remains solid.

Early Career to 1918

Stalin was not a Russian but came from the old nation of Georgia on the periphery of the Russian Empire. He was born Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili on Dec. 6 (Old Style; Dec. 18, New Style), 1878, at the city of Gori, Georgia, population 20,000 and two hours by train from the provincial capital of Tiflis (Tbilisi in Georgian). His father, a poor uneducated shoemaker was an alcoholic who beat the boy repeatedly; he left town in the early 1890s. Stalin was now in the control of his doting mother Ekaterina, a poor washerwoman who pushed the boy toward the priesthood. Young Stalin was given to identifying with hero-figures such as the fictional mountain bandit and rebel Koba, whose name he chose as a nickname. Poverty gave him ambition while his Georgian environment stressed brutality and vengeance. Stalin studied, with distinction, at a church school in Gori and at the Russian Orthodox Seminary of Tbilisi, which provided a high-quality classical education. Stalin proved an outstanding scholar and budding poet and he joined the city's cultural elite. Stalin lost his faith and decided not to be a priest, so he dropped out of the seminary in 1899 just before taking his final exams.[1]

Stalin became a full time agitator in 1901, promoting revolutionary activity throughout the Caucasus region, including Tiflis, Baku and Batumi. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898 and, after it split in 1903, sided with the Bolshevik rather than the Menshevik faction. "Stalin" and "Koba" were his party names. He went underground in 1901.

As a professional revolutionary, Stalin organized workers' strikes and demonstrations, published underground newspapers, and raised funds by armed robberies. Arrested in 1902 he was exiled to Siberia, but escaped in 1904. He was a loner, an intellectual, and cantankerous; no one identified his leadership qualities at this stage. He met Vladimir Lenin for the first time in 1905, at the First Conference of the RSDLP, in Finland. Later he took part in the Fourth and Fifth congresses of the RSDLP, at Stockholm and London, respectively. At the Sixth (Prague) Conference of the RSDLP (Bolshevik) Stalin joined the party's central committee and became a member of the committee's Russian Bureau. He began to use the name Stalin, meaning "man of steel." In 1912, Stalin (with the aid of Nikolai I. Bukharin), wrote a major essay, "Marxism and the National Question." Henceforth he was a leading party expert on national and ethnic issues in the multinational Russian Empire. He was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where he spent four years, until the beginning of the February Revolution in 1917.

The victory of the February Revolution and the fall of the Czars allowed the exiled Bolsheviks to return to Petrograd and Moscow, including Stalin and Lenin. The Bolsheviks rapidly restored their centralized party organization, the membership of which grew tenfold in only six months, reaching 250,000 by late 1917. Lenin called for the transfer of all power in the country to the soviets of workers', soldiers', and peasants' deputies and advocated transforming the "bourgeois-democratic" February Revolution into a proletarian socialist revolution. The Bolsheviks skillfully exploited the discontent of the populace with the failures of Russia in the world war, and the weaknesses of the other left parties. In 1917 Stalin joined the party's central committee and took editorial control of the party newspaper, Pravda. The Bolsheviks successfully overthrew the government on October 25-26 (November 7-8) in Petrograd. Power in the capital, and later in most of Russia, passed into the hands of the local soviets, which the Bolsheviks largely controlled. In 1918 Lenin formed a Soviet government with Stalin as people's commissar for nationalities affairs (1917-23). The RSDRP was renamed the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks); Stalin was elected to its ruling Politburo.[2]

1918-1924: Lenin years

The counter-revolutionary or "White" forces, were poorly coordinated and the Communists defeated them. Stalin's rival Leon Trotsky, the war minister, was in charge but Stalin was active on various military fronts and became familiar with military issues that he used in World War II. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922, with Stalin deciding how to put ethnic groups into their own "republics" He used military force to crush the independent state of Georgia (his birthplace). In 1922, without fanfare, Stalin became general secretary of the party's Central Committee, giving him control of the party's nationwide apparatus, and the chance to handpick people for major roles in the party and government. In 1922-23 Lenin quarreled with Stalin on the nationalities issue and tried to remove Stalin from the key post of General Secretary. But Lenin was incapacitated by a stroke and died in 1924, as Stalin formed a complex coalition to take power. [3]

1925-1939: The Second Revolution

Stalin proved highly efficient in removing his actual and potential enemies, making himself the undisputed dictator. His methods included insistence on the absolute supremacy of the Communist Party (which he controlled); collectivization of the peasantry, removing their private ownership as a potential base of opposition; installing dedicated Communists from big city factories to run the collective farms, guaranteeing support for Moscow's policies; killing the Kulaks and seizing their lands, thus removing a class enemy; forced industrialization; forcing peasants to move to cities for work because by moving the foodstocks from the farms to the cities; ruthlessly using the secret police (OGPU and the NKVD) to instill terror, and refining techniques of surveillance developed originally by the Czarist Okhrana); sending hundreds of thousands of political opponents or doubters to the "Gulag," a vast network of penal colonies where survival rates were low; executing tens of thousands of Old Bolsheviks in the Purges, thereby replacing the historic party revolutionaries with a younger generation of apparatchiks (bureaucrats); by a policy of "Communism in one country,: thus placing the interests of the USSR ahead of international revolution; by keeping close control of most of the Communist parties in the world.[4]

Working with a group of moderates Stalin isolated Trotsky and his allies Kamenev and Zinoviev, forcing them into exile; in 1940 Stalin had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.[5]

The Great Terror

The "Great Terror" operated from Dec. 1936 to Nov. 1938, as Stalin systematically destroyed the older generation of pre-1918 leaders, usually on the (false) grounds they were enemy spies. The purge operated like a conveyor belt, with Stalin signing warrants for thousands of arrests, followed by imprisonment, torture, confession to imaginary crimes, a show trial and -- finally -- execution. In the Army, a majority of generals were executed. Hundreds of thousands of other "enemies" were sent to the Gulag, where terrible conditions in Siberia led quickly to death.[6]

Stalin as 'leader of the people'.

With complete control of the media Stalin's images, ideas and orders reached every part of Russia. As the 1930's progressed he replaced Lenin as the figurehead of the party, although Stalin was quick to utilize Lenin's reputation and legacy for his own political gain. He was depicted as a sort of Superman who would lead his people to 'the promised land of socialism'. The climax to this control was the great purges of the mid and late 1930's. The murder of Sergei Kirov in December 1935 set the wheels in motion. A potential heir to Stalin, Kirov was Leningrad's party secretary. Around seven million arrests and three million deaths occurred between 1935-1938.

At the end of 1935/1938 Kamenev and Zinoviev were charged with plotting to murder Stalin and were sentenced to a period of forced labour. Stalin then set up a security commission to 'liquidate the enemies of the people'. In the three great show trials (August 1936, January 1937 and June 1937) notable party members like Kamenev, Zinoviev, Yagoda (Head of the secret police) and Marshal Tukhachevsky (Chief of the Red Army) were sentenced to death. Most old Bolsheviks, all of Lenins Politburo (except for Stalin and Trotsky) and much of the Communist Parties hierarchy were either arrested or killed.

Almost all indicted confessed to crimes such as conspiring with other countries to overthrow the soviet State, to kill Stalin and wreak economic sabotage. Torture, threats to families and the fact that confession was a common legal practise in Stalin's Russia are some of the reasons often suggested for the admission of guilt.

Russia's various religions also suffered under Stalin. The Russian Orthodox Church had long been disestablished and its properties seized. A raft of legislation in the 1920s reduced the influence of the churches. During the purges all religious groups were intimidated, and many crumbled.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

The "dictatorship of the proletariat" was introduced by Marx and Engels, but was put into operation by Lenin and Stalin to justify their totalitarian rule. They controlled the Communist party in in the name of the proletariat (which had no voice.) Marx and Engels believed in the need for such a dictatorship during the transition to communism following the takeover by the proletariat. They envisaged some undefined form of absolute sovereignty of the people in a radical democratic state based on universal and equal suffrage. Supposedly the dictatorship would allow the proletariat to abolish bureaucracy and private ownership of the means of production, using force and repressive or dictatorial methods to overcome the inevitable resistance by the bourgeoisie. Lenin kept the idea of destroying the bourgeoisie but changed the concept in terms of a dictatorship exercised not by a democratically chosen majority but by a vanguard minority revolutionary party. Lenin eventually accepted the need for a state bureaucracy, and his more extreme opposition to the bourgeoisie led him to demand their exclusion to the benefit of the urban working class. Stalin's position fell, curiously, between those of Marx and Lenin; with his destruction of the Russian bourgeoisie in the mid-1930s, he recognized the superfluity of Lenin's approach and reintroduced the principle of universal and equal suffrage, declaring that the state could no longer rank as a proletarian dictatorship. He eventually even suggested that transition to socialism was also achievable in a theoretically West European-style classical parliamentary system with separation of powers, and thus without a proletarian dictatorship, believing that the Communist Party would be able to impose its will on parliamentary majorities.[7]

1939-1945: World War II

1945-1953: Cold War

The devastation of the war necessitated a massive recovery program involving the rebuilding of industrial plant, housing and transportation, as well as the demobilization and migration of millions of soldiers and civilians. In the midst of this turmoil during the the winter of 1946–1947 the Soviet Union experienced the worst natural famine in the 20th century.[8] There was no serious opposition to Stalin, as the secret police continued to send possible suspects to the "Gulag."

Relations with the US and Britain went from friendly to hostile; they denounced Stalin's political controls over eastern Europe and his blockade of Berlin. By 1947, the Cold War had begun. Stalin himself believed that capitalism was a hollow shell and would crumble under increased non-military pressure exerted through proxies in countries like Italy. He greatly underestimated the economic strength of the West, and instead of triumph saw the West build up alliances designed to permanently stop or "contain" Soviet expansion. In early 1950 Stalin gave the go-ahead for North Korea's invasion of South Korea, expecting a short war. He was stunned when the Americans entered and defeated the North Koreans, putting them almost on the Soviet border. Stalin supported China's entry into the Korean war, which drove the Americans back to the prewar boundaries, but which escalated tensions. The US decided to mobilize its economy for a long contest with the Soviets, built the hydrogen bomb, and strengthened the NATO alliance that covered western Europe.[9]

According to Gorlizki and Khlevniuk (2004), Stalin's consistent and overriding goal after 1945 was to consolidate the nation's superpower status and, in the face of his growing physical decrepitude, to maintain his own hold on total power. Stalin created a leadership system that reflected historic czarist styles of paternalism and repression, yet was also quite modern. At the top personal loyalty to Stalin counted for everything. However, Stalin also created powerful committees, elevated younger specialists, and began major institutional innovations. In the teeth of persecution, Stalin's deputies cultivated informal norms and mutual understandings which provided the foundations for collective rule after his death.


Stalin's enemies, especially Trotsky, insisted Stalin was an uneducated, cunning peasant, good only at administrative chores and bloodthirsty vengeance. Recent scholars have painted a more complex picture of a shrewd, highly intelligent and hard-working man with a vision, and good at bloodthirsty vengeance. For van Ree (2002), Stalinism mixes together key elements of Marxism, especially a planned economy, a super-powerful state, and the elimination of private property and the bourgeoisie, plus Russian patriotism. Most of Stalin's key ideas, from the theoretical philosophy of historical materialism to the practical economics of socialism, and from the rhetoric of class struggle to the uses of nationalism and the building of socialism in one country, were adaptations from the leading Marxist thinkers of the day. This is evident from the marginal jottings that Stalin made in his books, especially Lenin's writings but also including Marx, Engels, and Plekhanov. Van Ree argues that Stalin committed above all to building a totalitarian society (with only himself at the top). Stalin was committed to the Bolshevik ideology of violent class war. In the Great Terror, for example, Stalin truly believed he was destroying the real enemies of socialism by purging so many supposed enemies. As a "true believer" Stalin was willing to pay any price to further "progress" as he saw it, including the expansion of the Communist system to eastern Europe after 1945. Stalin always had a commitment to world revolution, but had to subordinate this goal to "realist" factors, such as the power of first Germany and then the U.S. He insisted the Soviet Union was not to be put at risk in order to export revolution, but under the right circumstances he was happy to oversee the building of socialism Soviet-style in other countries.[10]

Memory and legacy


  1. Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (2004), ch 2-4
  2. Robert C. Tucker, Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929 (1973), ch. 5
  3. Tucker (1973) ch. 6-7
  4. Service (2004); Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1929-1941 (1990)
  5. Tucker (1990)
  6. The exact number of victims is unknown by a factor of 10, from several million upwards to 20 million. Service says 1.5 million were arrested and 200,000 were eventually released. Service ch 31 esp p.356. The lowest estimates by Getty give more than 300,000 executions in each of the years 1937 and 1938. J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, eds., Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (1993)
  7. Erik van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin: A Study in Twentieth-Century Revolutionary Patriotism. (2002); David Priestland, "Soviet Democracy, 1917-91." European History Quarterly 2002 32(1): 111-130. Issn: 0265-6914 Fulltext: [SAGE]]
  8. Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk, Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945-1953 (2004) pp 3ff
  9. John Gaddis, A New History of the Cold War (2006)
  10. Eric van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin. A Study in Twentieth-century Revolutionary Patriotism (2002) pp. 5-6, 117-25, 208-254